I am struggling to come up with something of substance to say about The Aftermath, an adequate drama with decent performances, handsome production design, and a boring love triangle. It’s set in the aftermath of World War Two Germany in the Allied-occupied stretch. Jason Clarke plays a British officer stationed in another man’s home, a wealthy German local (Alexander Skarsgard) who lost his wife in the war. Clarke’s wife (Keira Knightley) is anxious to go home, still processing her grief from losing her child during the war and her relationship with her distant husband seems irreparable. It’s only a matter of time before Knightley and Skarsgard find comfort in one another, and they do, almost absurdly quickly. The more interesting story is Clarke trying to keep a fragile peace in the ruins of bombed-out Germany while Nazi sympathetic elements conspire to form an insurgency against the remaining officers. Now that’s a movie I would watch. That’s a way more intriguing storyline, and one I’m sure chapter after chapter was filled with sprawling, conspiratorial detail in the novel by Rhidian Brook. Alas, we’re stuck with a pretty drab love affair between two pretty people. I didn’t feel any passion between them; it felt like they were acting by-the-numbers, and ultimately maybe that was what the director had in mind all along. I found my mind drifting away for long interludes, thinking about other movies, thinking about watching other historical dramas. The acting is pretty good all around. Knightley has a standout scene where she breaks down and reveals the full extent of her maternal grief and what it has done to her marriage. The Aftermath will be readily forgotten in its own aftermath, and I don’t think too many viewers will mourn.
Nate’s Grade: C
Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler were three ordinary servicemen taking a train ride into Paris when they found themselves in the middle of an armed terrorist attack. The three men rushes into danger, disarmed and subdued the attacker, and treated the injured on the scene. The 15:17 to Paris is a big screen movie directed by Clint Eastwood (American Sniper) that tells their life stories played by the men themselves. It got some of the worst reviews of Eastwood’s storied career (mine won’t be better). There are two gigantic miscalculations when it comes to 15:17 to Paris: 1) having the real-life subjects play the adult versions of themselves, and 2) that there was enough material here to fill out an engaging, enlightening, fulfilling film experience.
I assumed telling this real-life story as a movie was going to be a challenge to produce enough meaningful material to eek out a feature-length running time, and within the first five minutes I knew that I was doomed. We’re sitting down to two single moms discussing their boys with their classroom teacher, and that teacher literally says, “If you don’t medicate them now they’ll just self-medicate later. Statistically, boys of single moms are more likely to have problems.” My response: “What the hell, lady?!” This character was obviously engineered, from her very foundation, to be a walking, talking point of exposition and disagreement. No real teacher would ever utter these words so callously. It was this rude awakening that made me realize what a terribly written slog I was in for. At no point were these supporting characters going to come across as authentic human beings. Instead, it’s a world populated by robots with bad social skills or unshakable faith played by familiar actors (Judy Greer, Jenna Fischer, Thomas Lennon, Tony Hale, Jaleel White of all people). Also, what little kid has a Full Metal Jacket poster in his bedroom? Did he not understand what that movie was about?
These men can rightly serve as an inspiration, rising to the occasion in a true test of courage. No one will challenge the heroism. But what else is there to this story? The attack is presented as the framing device and as it plays out we segue into lengthy flashbacks about their lives leading up to this pivotal point in time. It’s just that these three men lived fairly uneventful, normal lives until finding themselves in a unique situation. We don’t seem to trace any significant, formative moments. Spending time with them as kids, then teens, and finally as adults doesn’t so much provide greater understanding of them as people as it does pad out the running time. We watch them get in trouble twice at school for not having a hall pass. We watch them watch football. We watch them endure training montages. We watch the trio tour the sights of Italy and eat gelato. We watch an Army team retrieve a backpack. We watch Spencer get demoted for not stitching properly. Seriously, this is given time. It’s not even until a full hour-plus into the movie before they confront the attack on the train.
Chronicling the lives of normal, real-life people under extraordinary circumstances is not by itself a fatal flaw, as evidenced by the masterful and mournful United 93. The power of empathy allows us to leap into a multitude of perspectives. However, with United 93 there was an ongoing story that could unfold because of the scope of events. There were developments, deadly complications, and the slow realization of what was happening, what was going to happen, and what needed to be done. With 15:17 to Paris, the attack is uncomplicated and over relatively quickly. There’s a reason Eastwood saves the train attack for the end because it cannot function as a sufficient movie plot on its own. Eastwood had a similar predicament with his previous film chronicling the heroism of the pilot who landed a plane on the Hudson River. The plane crash was thrilling and Tom Hanks added some layers to the portrayal of a man uncomfortable with the spotlight. 15:17 to Paris doesn’t even have that much. It’s a tedious trek to an all-too swift climax.
The other large miscalculation was having the real-life actors portray themselves. These guys just are not actors. I suppose Eastwood felt the real-life figures would best understand the emotions of each scene, in particular the attack, but another approach would be simply teaching actors. The forced verisimilitude feels like a marketing gimmick meant to appeal to a select audience. Making things more difficult is that these guys just aren’t that interesting as subjects. Sure there are broad strokes of characterization applied here and there but it’s with very minimal effort (see above for some of the just-had-to-include plot moments). This is another reason actors would have been preferable, because these guys’ lives don’t have to be interesting for my benefit. Their lives were not destined to one day entertain me on the big screen. They can simply be normal people. On the other hand, watching normal people do normal, boring things without a more enriching sense of introspection, personalities, or depth is like being trapped watching someone else’s home movies on a loop. Spencer Stone performs the best of his buds but none of them should expect a second career as an in-demand thespian.
I feel bad saying this but I really just didn’t care, and that’s because the movie gave me no reason to do so here. Yes, these three men are heroes and their sense of normality might lend itself toward a larger theme about the everyday capabilities of heroism, but there isn’t enough here to make me care beyond the train attack. The screenwriting does not present them as multi-dimensional characters and perhaps that’s because of the guys’ limitations as actors, exacerbating a spiral that only makes 15:17 to Paris less involving as it chases after the idol of authenticity. Eastwood is known for being an economical filmmaker but it feels like he should have been even more judicious here. The adherence to strictly the facts strips the film of some of its larger emotional power. There’s far too much filler and not enough substance to balance out 90-plus minutes. You’ll grow restless. If there’s a lesson to be learned from The 15:17 to Paris, let it be that every story needs a reason to exist and, when in doubt, trust actors to deliver that story.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Michael Bay is the kind of filmmaker that naturally attracts negative attention and derision, so when he fast-tracked a movie about the Benghazi embassy attacks, and in a presidential election year too, there were plenty that cried foul. Bay’s not exactly known as the subtlest filmmaker, and many feared a Benghazi movie under his guidance would only reaffirm the worst. 13 Hours: the Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (a subtitle that never appears in the movie, by the way) is a surprisingly serious and generally apolitical action movie that reaffirms the strengths and weaknesses of Bay as a filmmaker.
On September 11, 2012, an armed mob stormed an American outpost in Benghazi, an attack that left four Americans dead. After Libya had toppled its decades-long autocrat, a power vacuum emerged and militants filled its place. An unclassified CIA annex in Benghazi was established to track the possible sale of munitions from the old regime. The CIA chief, Bob (David Constabile), has been forced to hire a security team of former Army Rangers and Navy Seals to protect his agents. Jack Silva (John Krasinski) is a family man reuniting with his old pal Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale), the head of the hired security team. The other guys (Pablo Schreiber, David Denman, Dominic Fumusa, Max Martini) welcome Jack, explaining the rising tensions in Benghazi and how they’re generally frustrated by the CIA know-it-all attitudes. They’re wary of the State department outpost for Ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher), wary of the security detail watching him, and wary of the Libyan local forces providing assistance. Flash forward to the night of the attack and Rone and his team are stymied in their early attempts to rescue the ambassador. Afterwards, the focal point of the fight shifts to that very CIA annex and one hellish night of intense combat.
This is Bay’s return to the realm of more “serious filmmaking,” a world he hasn’t considered since 2001’s lackluster Pearl Harbor, and while the standard Bay elements of boom are present and accounted for, the drama doesn’t stack up to the action. First, the good news is that the action in 13 Hours is often thrilling, beautifully staged and photographed by Dion Beebe (Collateral), and unlike Bay’s Transformers films, easy enough to follow along. It’s a chaotic incident where plans and communication are broken down, but Bay is able to keep the geography and the immediate and secondary goals of each action sequence clear. While the storming of the embassy isn’t quite as nerve-racking as Argo, it’s still plenty thrilling and communicates the fog of war and dawning horror of those trapped on the inside. The centerpiece is the attack on the CIA annex, which both sides anticipate and prepare for. It establishes the geography of the field of combat, the different access points, and the most likely ambushes. From there, it’s our outnumbered professionals versus a horde of armed Libyans, a standoff reminiscent in classic Hollywood action cinema. Over the course of those titular 13 hours, our security force faces wave after wave of attacks, each once becoming more sophisticated and bringing heavier firepower. Bay’s camera captures the explosions and gunfire in his usual balletic decadence. Say what you will about the man and his jingoistic tendencies, but he’s an ace visual stylist who bathes a sheen of popcorn entertainment to visceral struggle. When the action is heated, that’s when 13 Hours packs its most powerful punch.
Unfortunately, there are lulls in between the fighting, and it’s during these moments that we realize how poorly written our characters are. With the battle looming ahead, the mitigated character development emphasizes easy clichés we’ve come to expect, like the family man who needs to realize his family should come first, etc. These six guys are little more than stock characters on the screen, differentiated more by appearance and the occasional reading material than any significant personality differences. The dialogue is also rather clunky, falling too often upon tough guy speak to make up the difference. The way I was able to separate them in my head was through the actors’ previous roles (“There’s Pornstash, there’s Roy from The Office, there’s the guy from The Pacific who was the bad guy in Iron Man 3, and boy did Jim from The Office get buff”). Krasinski (Aloha) is the audience’s entry point into this world and given the most attention, so he’s ostensibly our main protagonist. He’s a strong presence to anchor the film despite the character’s shortcomings. I enjoyed watching Krasinski in such a different sort or role and started thinking about he and his wife, Emily Blunt, must have traded workout regiment advice. “Jim from The Office” with a six-pack is a surprising sight.
There’s a strange defining conflict for the first hour of the movie, namely Bay and Hogan narrowing personal clashes down to a slobs vs. snobs mentality of war. Bay has a history of fetishizing machismo and military hardware, so it should be no surprise that his movie lionizes the beefy, strapping military men serving as security. They’re placed against the eggheads of the CIA, who take every moment to remind our burly, bearded security guys that they were educated at Ivy League schools and know so much more about the Middle East. They often sound haughty when they’re scolding the security force for interfering even when it’s clear they’re saving their lives. The perspective aligns with the idea that the military-experienced, no-nonsense men of action are being ignored and looked down upon by the CIA ninnies who look at them as unnecessary babysitters. Naturally, with the hindsight of history, we know the concerns of Rone and his guys will be vindicated and the CIA snobs will be grateful they had these blue-collar American heroes. The entire role of Bob is to condescend and ignore our guys and their warnings. Bob even says early in his introduction that he’s on the brink of retirement and they won’t ruin it for him. Until the attack on September 11, we’re stuck with this reductive class warfare clash.
Another interesting aspect is that the movie makes use of its audience’s relative ignorance when it comes to the specific people involved in the Benghazi firefight. I doubt that many people know the names of the four victims excluding Ambassador Stevens. Because of that uncertainty we don’t know which of our six security characters will live, and the screenplay seems to know this, which is why it takes time to present each of the six with some sort of looming tragic back-story. We have multiple characters sending loving messages to their young children, learning they’re wife is pregnant, and making all sorts of “final” decisions, the kind that set up these characters in most movies for an early demise (if you write your girl during war or talk about your post-retirement plans, you’re guaranteed to die). I was slightly amused that the movie established each character to have a moment where it potentially sets up this tragic outcome.
One of my big questions walking into Bay’s Benghazi movie was exactly whose version of events was the story going to follow. After eight congressional investigations, and a prominent Republican slipping by admitting one of the guiding purposes is to tarnish Hilary Clinton as a presidential candidate, I was worried that the movie was going to be a hacky, manipulative promotion of propaganda. There’s a reason that eight congressional investigations, including one that has lasted longer than Watergate, don’t seem to satisfy those calling for blood: they keep coming to the same inconvenient conclusions, namely that there was no stand down order, no conspiracy, no cover-up. There’s been a flurry of rightwing fury brewed over stoking unfounded rumors of conspiracy with Benghazi; it’s a fundraising industry unto itself for politicians. Therefore, I was initially worried that the movie was going to reinforce a version of events that eight (and counting?) congressional committees have refuted. I was relieved then that Bay’s movie keeps its focus pretty much squared on the heroism of the security team. In a way it reminded me of Black Hawk Down as it strived to recreate a series of harrowing life-and-death events with its focus more on the brotherhood and bravery of the ones in harm’s way rather than the broader political context. There is the infamous “stand down” order; however, it’s played almost incidentally, as Bob is trying to process all the chaos unfolding and the best recourse. As presented, it doesn’t sound like “stand down and let them die,” and more, “wait and let me think for a minute.” The fight to get air support from Italy doesn’t mention the fact that those Italian fighter jets sitting on the runway were not combat ready and were for flight training. There’s only one other passing dialogue exchange that touches the political, when the guys recount that the news is telling them it was a protest, which they scoff at and then let it go. That’s it. I imagine the audience that would be most excited for a Benghazi movie will be deflated. For everyone else, the sidestepping of politics lets the movie stand on its own better.
An article from Vox.com raises the issue of whether any movie about Benghazi can possibly be apolitical. It appears like the topic of Benghazi has been so cravenly politicized that any rendition of the events of that fateful day will reinforce or contradict some narrative, be it the security contractors, the CIA, the politicians on both sides of the aisle. And the absence of what others declare with certainty will only make those same people cry “cover-up.” It’s a shame that this topic is so radioactive that an objective approach celebrating the courage of those involved, mourning the loss of life, and asking for better from those in power seems impossible given the current divisive political environment. Did it have to come to this? Bay’s Benghazi is easily his most restrained movie in his bombastic career, paying reverence to the people who paid the ultimate sacrifice. The action is well staged and often visually striking, but Bay wants this movie to be more than a series of escalating action sequences. You feel he wants this to be his version of a Zero Dark Thirty-style thriller. Except it’s not. You watch the movie and sense there’s a more intelligent, nuanced, and ambiguous movie here that can make cogent points about foreign policy and the state of the Middle East. This is an action movie where the good guys shoot the relatively faceless bad guys. 13 Hours is an acceptable action movie but that’s all it ever asserts to be. Is that enough after all?
Nate’s Grade: B-
The word “sicario” is Spanish for hitman, we’re told in a helpful opening text. It’s a term that has greater meaning in the landscape of the war on drugs, a war that has ravaged Mexico and its citizens. Sicario, the film, is grim and gripping and director Denis Villeneuve doesn’t hold back from the brutality of its reality. Sicario is a flat-out tremendous film. It’s the most intense film I’ve sat through since 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty, so much so that for long stretches of the 121-minute film I was literally tearing my hair out with delicious anxiety.
Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) is a Phoenix FBI Agent called in by her superiors with a very special offer. Matt (Josh Brolin), a government agent whose affiliation is classified, has a task force that he would like Kate to join. She’ll be taking it to the drug cartels by destabilizing their chain of power. Kate accepts the job. Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) is a foreign agent in alliance with Matt, and he seems to be deeply knowledgeable of the cartel and their practices. As the chaos swirls and the team gets closer to the cartel bosses, Kate has to reckon with what she is part of.
Let Sicario be a blueprint for how to brilliantly develop suspense sequences in mainstream cinema. I’ve written about it before but the key to suspense and horror is simply characters we care about and the worry of what will happen next. Sicario places our characters in the middle of an ongoing battle and serves them up as the change agent, the proverbial stick rattling the hornet’s nest of deadly cartels. There’s a wonderful sequence when Kate joins up with the team for her first mission. She’s been told she’ll be based in El Paso but in reality she and a team of Army Rangers are venturing across the Mexican border into Juarez. They’re picking up a high-level cartel informant and transporting him back to American soil. The ride into the country sets the stage as the caravan of black SUVs tears through the streets of Jaurez, bracketed by Mexican state police vehicles. We’ve previously been told at what points a likely trap might be staged, and so we wait, taking in the terrain, the distance, the exits, the personnel. We’re already sizing up the Mexican state police cars; is that one on the take? It’s at the end that the scene coalesces into an even stronger whole, as we literally have a climax in traffic. The border entrance is backed up, and so Kate and our team wait, all the while identifying some suspicious armed men in traffic lanes parallel to their vehicles. They’re told they cannot fire until deadly force is used, and so they wait and we wait. It’s a top-notch sequence where you’re nervously waiting for the boil, waiting for the explosion.
Writer Taylor Sheridan (best known as Deputy Chief Hale on Sons of Anarchy) has taken what could have been an empty Michael Bay-styled drug war thriller and given it a soul. Sheridan’s structure is ingeniously tied into his larger message about the moral futility of the escalating war on drugs. As Kate becomes more immersed into the costs of her new role, of the mounting ethical compromises and legal loopholes, she becomes a background player and Alejandro takes center stage. Rather than simply harden up and sacrifice her ideals for the sake of her mission, Kate holds true to her principles, even if she might be the only one continuing to stick to the rules and a need for oversight. It makes her a far more interesting character and it all comes to a terrific climactic scene that hinges upon two characters at a forceful crossroads, each with diametrically opposed viewpoints. For all the action, Sheridan has found a great way for his story to have a character-based climax that hits harder than simply killing the Worst Bad Guy. As we learn more about the reasons Kate was selected, her literal marginalization in the story makes thematic sense, especially as she’s unwilling to become a “wolf” in a “country of wolves.” Alejandro is that wolf, and in the last act he becomes the film’s focus as the pieces of their destabilization plan fall into place. There’s a scene with Alejandro that is so cold-blooded yet badass that it made my audience gasp. As the bodies drop and blood is shed, Sicario doesn’t lose sight of its characters even to the very end.
Sheridan’s script tackles its subject with a propensity for acknowledging the messy reality. There are no easy solutions and perhaps the best solution is really one that is at odds with conventional legality. The United States is losing the war on drugs, and innocents are suffering in droves. Matt’s cavalier attitude is in response to the overwhelming evidence that the war on drugs has done little except to enshrine certain violent elements into power. He’s trying to clear a path for Alejandro, but for what aim afterward is ethically questionable. When you’ve got nothing but bad solutions, perhaps the best option is still one that’s a step too far. Sicario tackles the harsh realities of the war on drugs without ever dragging out a soapbox. The messages and debates are suffused in every frame, every taut sequence, even pained expression. It’s a message movie where the morality and the escalating action go hand-in-hand.
With Prisoners and now Sicario, Villeneuve has proven to be one of our finest directors when it comes to making adult movies that get your palms sweaty. The execution of these suspense sequences left me breathless. Villeneuve uses long takes of aerial photography hovering over the topography of Mexico and the American southwest. It has the effect of feeling like you’re surveying an alien planet. Added with the ominous score by Johann Johannsson (The Theory of Everything), the tension can feel overwhelming at times. The menacing and percussion-heavy score makes it feel like an army is approaching. The movie also looks absolutely beautiful thanks to the cinematography from Roger Deakens. There are several lovely shots lit with the dying rays of sunlight, which I would admire further if my heart weren’t in my throat while watching. Villeneuve also knows when to pump the brakes, letting his film breathe, and letting his actors take center stage. There are several moments of restraint that allow the actors to flourish. From top to bottom, Sicario is a technical marvel that impresses as it continues to horrify.
Blunt as a badass is nothing new after her killer turn in last year’s vastly underrated Edge of Tomorrow, but there’s way more to her than being a superhero with a gun. She’s the moral conscience of the movie and you may discover, as she does, how irrelevant such a stance may be in this underground world. She’s trying to make sense of it all, trying to go along with what she thinks is right, or at least making a difference, and swallowing her frustrations. She saves the best for last in a finale scene that pushes her character to the breaking point of her ethics, and Blunt floors you. While Blunt is our entry point into this world, and Brolin is amusing as a cavalier rogue agent, this is very much Del Toro’s movie. Alejandro could easily be the slick movie-cool hitman, a soulless killing-machine, but he’s a haunted man who knows he’s damned and goes about his business with steely resolve. Benicio Del Toro can often be confused with doing little acting because he so naturally underplays his characters, but keep watch and you’ll see a man who inherently knows his character. There are subtle shifts and small reveals that open up Alejandro, who is so hardened that this will be all you get.
There have been some complaints citing the film’s lack of perspective from the Mexican side of the border, which is fair but also overlooking Sicario’s complexity. With its fear of cartel war violence spilling over into American neighborhoods, it’s not hard to see this film becoming supposed evidence in a xenophobic political campaign. Surely Donald Trump will be talking about Sicario. There is a small degree of representation with a minor character involved in the drug trade. The movie flashes back to him and his family a few times, setting us up to expect he’ll return at a pivotal moment later. He’s a completely unremarkable character and the brief scenes we spend with him made me anxious to get back to Kate and the main story. I didn’t care, and then he did reappear and I was quite surprised to find myself actively caring for this minor character’s well being. In a scenario where it seems like there’s a lack of vulnerability, this character provides it. He’s not a bad person per se as just another cog in a corrupt machine trying to provide for his loved ones. It’s a window into the larger ramifications of Kate and Matt’s actions. The very last bittersweet image doesn’t feel like victory, more like a warning of impending consequences that will befall innocents, and they aren’t Americans.
It’s rare to get a Hollywood thriller that excels at what it does and exceeds lofty expectations, but Sicario is that movie. Here is a thriller that excites, unnerves, provokes thought as well as terrible anxiety that you sweat in buckets over. The general feeling while watching Sicario is one of disquieting dread. The challenging and disturbing reality of the war on drugs blends with the brilliantly executed suspense sequences. The characters don’t get lost midst the clatter of violence, the direction enhances the actors and allows them to better inhabit their engaging characters, and the overall orchestration of all the many moving parts is so polished, so in tune, so electric that Sicario often does more than just entertain, it forces you to react. Leaving my theater was akin to coming down off an adrenaline high and I wanted to tell everyone I knew to see this movie. That’s the power of great cinema and Villeneuve has created a compelling feature that deserves to be soaked up and studied. This is exhilarating moviemaking, folks.
Nate’s Grade: A
What do you do when the title of a movie is a spoiler? That’s the question with director Peter Berg’s reverential military action film, Lone Survivor. It’s the true story of a team of Navy Seals who had their mission compromised by a pair of unlucky Afghan goat herders. After deciding to set them free, rather than snuff them out, the Seals retreat to an extraction point, with a hundred Taliban fighters hot on their heels. When the action is firing, Berg is right at home, placing the audience in the middle of a visceral firefight that’s bloody and hardcore and pulse pounding. The rocky terrain of the country is just as deadly as the Taliban, as the Seals bounce around like ragdolls. The performances are all grizzled and finely attuned to keeping the terror of the moment at bay. Ben Foster (The Messenger) is the standout, which is a statement that’s been said with most Foster performances. At the end, I’m left wondering what is the film’s greater message. It’s retelling a military episode few people know about, illuminating the courage and bond between soldiers under fire. But in the end, all of these lives were lost because of one moral though arguably bad decision. Couldn’t they have just tied up the goatherds and gotten a better head’s start? Will the movie convince an audience that those innocent Afghan goatherds should have just been collateral damage? Does the movie critique the futility of America’s ongoing presence in Afghanistan? The futility of war itself? I doubt it, especially with Berg’s fervent appreciation of the armed forces putting their lives on the line (the opening credits themselves glorify the toughness of the Seals while also setting up an explanation why they could survive so many gunshots, injuries, etc.). Lone Survivor isn’t the heedless jingoistic propaganda piece that others critics have feared, but in the end it’s simply a sober and respectful tribute to the fallen, and that’s it. For many, this will be enough. For me, I was thrilled by the heroics but looking for more.
Nate’s Grade: B
Originally intended to be released in the summer of 2012, G.I. Joe: Retaliation was pulled back because, presumably, they wanted to convert it to 3D, but many suspected it was to add more time for star Channing Tatum after his box-office domination that year. Well, wrong on both accounts, because maybe it was merely kicked back because, get this, it’s not terribly good. I had the lowest possible expectations for the 2009 G.I. Joe movie but came away having a fun time; it was the right kind of enjoyably stupid. Well now it’s just stupid. Cobra has kidnapped the president, inserted a doppelganger, and now wants to rule the world that to an evil satellite that drops giant metal rods into space as weapons. Why are these rods not part of the Earth’s orbit after release? There are all sorts of gadgets here that make no sense but somebody thought might sell some toys. The central storyline is almost a knockoff of Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, a small group of Joes having to clear their names. Then because that isn’t enough material to work with, there’s a mini-movie about ninja warriors avenging their fallen master in the mountains, and of all people, the RZA is supplying lengthy exposition. The action sequences are absurd without having enough style to excuse the absurdity. Everyone is a superhuman but also incompetent when the plot demands it (ninjas can shoot flying knives but not a big person jumping off a wall?). Adding The Rock is always a bonus in my book; the man is charisma personified. But the storyline of Retaliation is so sloppy, the villains so lame, and the movie lacks the high-spirited imagination to keep the stupid at bay. I was never a G.I. Joe kid so maybe those with nostalgia will be more charitable than I am, but G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a poorly executed next step for a once-budding franchise.
Nate’s Grade: C
Kirby Dick is a documentary filmmaker known for picking fights with powerful institutions that operate in secrecy. In the Oscar-nominated Twist of Faith, he scrutinized the abuses of the Catholic Church covering up for sexual predators. In 2006’s This Film is Not Yet Rated, he hunted down the then-unknown members of the MPAA ratings board and delivered an overwhelming critique of their ratings hypocrisies. With The Invisible War, Dick has taken on a subject that’s even more powerful. The Invisible War, which won some awards at the Sundance film festival, examines the rampant numbers of sexual assaults and rape within the military. Through extensive, emotionally draining interviews and enraging statistics, Dick shows that most of the victims, when courageous enough to report their abuse, are met with skepticism, contempt, and injustice. One interview subject says that being raped isn’t what makes her angry the most: “It’s the commanders that were complicit in covering up everything that happened.” This is a shocking, sobering, and eye-opening documentary that deserves to be seen by every American. You owe it to the brave men and women who serve this country, to see this movie. The ugly truth needs to come out and be finally dealt with.
The upsetting statistics of sexual abuse within the military come from the Department of Defense, not an advocacy group, but our own government. Here are some of the most devastating stats:
-20 percent of all women in the military have been sexually assaulted and/or raped while serving.
-Women are twice as likely to be raped in the military rather than outside it.
-Military sexual assault/rape victims have a higher rate of PTSD than soldiers who have fought in combat.
This is a profoundly revolting, morally repugnant, and infuriating story presented with damning testimonials clear-eyed logic. When I left the theater, I was radiating unquenchable fury. You could have harnessed my rage as an alternative resource. A lot of people blithely say they support the troops but we as a nation are letting these brave men and women down. The system is letting these people down, protecting rapists, training them to be better rapists, and then setting them loose upon the civilian population to continue their heinous crimes (it’s estimated the average sexual predator commits 300 acts in his or her lifetime). Listening to these heartbreaking stories can be grueling, but it is vital to listen. The women speak with such candor and bravery, befitting those ready to lay down their lives out of service for this country. But lest you believe this is merely a “women’s issue,” the film has a few interviews with male victims as well. With men outnumbering women six to one in the military, men are the majority of the victims of sexual abuse, a fact I doubt many would have known. As the experts attest, for an organization that rewards machismo, the shame for men can be compounded by the rampant homophobia within the American military culture.
It’s sadly understandable that so many of the interview subjects contemplated or attempted suicide. “Suicide or AWOL, those are your only two real options,” a military investigator laments. According to TIME’s investigative report, one Iraq and/or Afghanistan veteran commits suicide every day in America. Now remember that stat above concerning PTSD, and think about what the suicide rate must be like for victims of sexual abuse. One military man, husband to a rape victim, breaks down in sobs recounting his phone call for help while he tried to stop his wife from taking her own life. Watching proud, grown men break down into tears when they try and make sense of their institution harming their wives or daughters, it’s heartbreaking all its own. These veterans would not advise any woman to consider a career in the military, not when this is the sorry state of justice.
These victims were often handled with apathetic, callous, or downright hostile behavior, often being blamed for being attacked. These victims risked their careers to report their abuses, expecting some semblance of justice, and many times they were simply ignored or punished for “making waves.” One interview subject talks about how her commanding officer related that he had heard about three rape accusations that week and incredulously asked if the women were all in cahoots. One woman was raped and then charged with adultery; she wasn’t married but her rapist was, though he was never brought up on charges. Dick’s documentary lays a clear argument that giving the commanding officers, people often without any legal training whatsoever, the power to prosecute cases leads to plenty of ignored abuses. In 2010, the military reported 3,158 reports of sexual abuse (remember that 80 percent of cases generally go unreported), but only one-sixth of those cases lead to a court martial and only 175 of the assailants served jail time. And when they do serve jail time, it’s often knocked down to mere weeks. That way, the convicted serviceman doesn’t get charged with a felony. This also means when they leave the military, the convicted sexual offender does not have to register with a national sex offender database. When investigations do arise, they are routinely stonewalled.
What emerges from this inflammatory documentary is that the command’s response wasn’t to protect the victims but to protect the accused, time and again. These commanders are supposed to be objective and impartial arbitrators, but this is hardly the case. It’s all about saving face, and a commander looks bad when he has a rapist in his unit, so rather than expel and punish the rapist, the military often drops the case and punishes the victim. Sometimes the commanding officer the victims are supposed to report the abuse to was in fact the perpetrator. In those instances, the victims have no possible path to justice. Major General Mary Kay Kellogg, Director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (DOSAPRO), said victims could appeal to the Defense Department’s Attorney General, hence going over their commander’s head. Except that of the almost 3,000 cases sent to the DOD AG, not a single case was ever prosecuted. Kellogg also absurdly suggests that victims petition their Congressman. Just imagine a civilian being raped and told, “Better ask your Congressman if you want justice.”
The response to the systemic abuses has been ineffectual. The military response was to raise awareness, not sift out rapists from the ranks and protect their own soldiers from sexual predators. The ad campaign to raise awareness is jaw-dropping, with slogans like, “Wait til she’s sober,” and a horrendously ear-splitting rap song about sexual assault prevention. It’s so bad you can almost feel the seething resentment of the military. There’s also an informative video with a dramatization of a woman, fleeing helplessly after a man tries to touch her (the fact that this dramatization makes the woman look silly is intentional, me thinks). This woman runs into another serviceman who admonishes her, “Where’s your buddy?” The implication is that women should know that they can be raped at any time unless accompanied by a buddy. Does this not imply that every man in the military is capable of rape at the drop of a hat? And what if that buddy ends up being your rapist? The military builds a greater sense of camaraderie, and the men and women in uniform feel like a family. As one interview subject notes, when one soldier rapes another, it is akin to a crime of incest, a betrayal of that family. One victim was told she brought on the sexual harassment because of what she was wearing… which just happened to be her military uniform.
Dick’s film is obviously advocating a very specific side, but who cares about the idea of presenting balance given the subject? The Department of Defense spokespersons and their rote, officious responses are edited for some major points of baffled, incredulous laughter, as we contrast their company line with the testimonials of the men and women they failed to protect. Again, I return to the notion that not every story has two sides. What exactly is the other side in this epidemic of abuses? What possibly could the merits of the other side be, the status quo? This is not just some anti-military screed. In fact, many of the participants speak so highly of the ideals of the military, the duty to serve, and their genuine feelings of belonging to these hallowed institutions. This makes their disillusionment all the more distressing. Almost every interview subject has a military background, some discharged and some retired, and the movie presents its claims with clear, level evidence. The testimonials are so damming, the abuses so clearly documented, the obfuscation from justice so repeatedly maintained, that I cannot even fathom a second side to this story. When it comes to sexual assault, there is only one side to this issue.
Dick also doesn’t overplay the obvious emotional appeals in the film. There is plenty, but he doesn’t sensationalize the drama or amplify the emotions in a self-serving manner. Instead, the film looks to clearly examine a systematic problem. Rather than deal only with potent outrage, Dick’s film is also a call to action with some strong ideas on how to better protect the victims of sexual abuses. Set up an independent system of justice outside of the commanders’ control, and work on preventing rapists from joining the military rather than cutting down the possibilities of how women can be raped. How about we punish the guilty party?
Last year, a group of veterans who had been sexually abused, initiated a class-action lawsuit against the military. This suit was dismissed by the court because, in their words, rape was an “occupational hazard of military service.” Reread that sentence again. Let it sink in. Now ask yourself is that at all acceptable given the values we profess for our country? The culture within the military is simply that rape and sexual abuses are just not that big of a deal (a Congresswoman admits that the Defense AG told her they have “other, higher priorities” to worry about), and so it all continues. The implication is that for the military to function, you’re going to have to excuse some excess, that excess being an estimated 30,000 sexual assaults a year. I’d like the military brass to explain to me what number would be unacceptable. How prevalent do these abuses need to be before proper action is taken, and not some facile PR, face-saving empty gesture, but something real? To me, one rape is one too many.
Dick’s excoriating advocacy documentary is powerful, furious, but sensitive to the victims and their horrifying ordeals. It declares that we can and should do better. In April, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta watched The Invisible War and two days later made some changes. He took the decision to prosecute away from the commanders. It’s a start, but there’s a long way to go to fixing the military’s patronizing view of women. The movie opens with a series of advertisements targeted at women through the years, and the treatment is astoundingly patronizing and the film’s only spot of bleak humor. At one point, one of the victims asks if she and her fellow victims hypothetically deserve purple hearts for being wounded in battle too. “We’re never going to get anything,” another replies. These victims deserve recognition and justice, which has long been denied them. You won’t see a more challenging, infuriating, and compelling documentary of this year. It’s hard to watch at many points, and I cried at five separate occasions, but this is a movie that needs to be watched. I invite all readers to visit the Not Invisible site and consider joining the advocacy of this noble cause. You say you support the troops? Prove it.
Nate’s Grade: A
Hollywood often gets ridiculed for its tenuous connection to reality. I doubt any real U.S. Navy Seals look at 1990’s Navy Seals as a paragon of military validity. The makers of Act of Valor thought they could do one better than Hollywood. They hired real-life active-duty U.S. Navy Seals as their stars and made a movie based upon Seal combat experiences. Act of Valor was billed as the real deal. I just wish the filmmakers had spent less time on trivial yet realistic details and more time on plot, characters, and enticing action.
Who cares that the movie stars actual Navy Seals? Apparently enough people did judging by its healthy box-office returns in the spring, but really, why should a movie be any better because it has real Navy Seals pretending to be actors rather than actors pretending to be Navy Seals? Is this movie brought to a greater level of excellence because the characters know intuitively how to hold a gun properly? Was the slight difference in posture the difference maker? I suppose there is some curiosity seeing real Navy Seals go through all their training, but you know who else could be trained? Actors! Which these fellas are not. The line delivery is so flat, like the Seals were just happy to spit out all their dialogue and move along. There’s little emotion to just about any line that isn’t communicated via a bark. I can’t fault these servicemen because they never signed up to be actors; they have bigger things on their minds. Is there anything in this movie that could not have been done with actors? I doubt it. I understand the gimmick but I just can’t comprehend the appeal. Can an actor not be taught how to hold a gun, how to clear a room, how to squeeze the shoulder of his colleague to communicate move forward? I salute the Seals for trying (as well as defending our country, naturally) but I’m reminded of the old adage: it’s easier to teach an actor how to sing than a singer how to act.
The movie seems more preoccupied with trivial details of authenticity than more important endeavors like story or character development. Here’s the most trivial detail of them all: live ammunition was used during the action sequences. WHY?! Do the guns not work with blanks? Why in the world would you dramatically escalate the danger on set and risk every shoot with live ammunition, actual gunplay? Action sequences are already a risk, so why would you exponentially increase the danger for … a slight uptick in realism? Again, it all feels like a movie in service of a gimmick. The plot is a rather cliché-filled jaunt across the world taking down terrorists, rescuing hostages, and mostly just knocking down doors, sweeping rooms, and shooting people in the head. Sure there’s a bad guy, a Chechen Islamic terrorist (double bonus: Russian and Arab!) and some other bad foreign guys with beards, but none of it ever seems to matter. I also question why a Chechen extremist would plot to attack the U.S., especially since we don’t exactly have the warmest international relationship with Russia. Surely a Chechen attack would strengthen that relationship, and the two countries might work in tandem targeting Chechnya. I’m saying this villainous plan is dumb. The good guys aren’t any deeper. Beyond their bravery, skill in combat, and impending fatherhood, we don’t know anything about these guys. A series of voiceovers try and list the various characters, but once the action starts good luck remembering any of them. In fact, good luck even keeping the two leads apart. I kept mixing them up myself.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, the action is a fairly big let down as well. Directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh must have studied under Tony Scott or Michael Bay, because every shot has the sleek beauty to it, the dawning sunsets, the cool gun mettle colors, the rah-rah jingoist spirit. Seriously, most of the action is just people shooting one another. That may sound like a no-brainer to anyone who bought a ticket, but the action needs to be properly thought out as well as the plot. The first mission, rescuing the tortured CIA Agent, is the best sequence because it has different points of action, organic consequences, and makes good use of geography. I’m going to hammer this point time and again until people take notice: geography is essential to well-developed action. You need to make use of your surroundings in interesting ways, otherwise what was the point of even setting the action there? The later action sequences fail to make use of any of these integral ingredients, so it becomes a rote series of people entering rooms, shooting other people, and moving to more rooms. Rather, rinse, repeat. The action has a muscular feel but it gets redundant rather quickly. That’s when your mind starts to notice how transparently the movie is working as a recruitment film for the U.S. Navy. There are sequences in this film that have no bearing on the plot (submarine visit?) other than to showcase the cool things that you, too, can do when enlisted in the Navy. There are plenty of sustained POV shots that give the illusion of a video game, war as a game. This is also why the complexities of war and geo-politics are sanded down to a series of clear-cut missions. I feel like the real servicemen deserve a more complex movie that treats their heroics as something more than clearing a video game level.
When you get down to it, the audience that made Act of Valor a hit this past spring reminds me a lot of the audience that went to see the nearly four-hour Civil War movie, Gods and Generals. These are audiences obsessed with the details of realism. They’ll pore over the details of costumes and tactics. Whether the movie is actually any good or not, the characters engaging, the plot entertaining, is all immaterial. It’s the details they came to see. Hence the real-life Navy Seals, the missions inspired by real Seals, and the live ammunition on set. That’s what makes a movie to them. For me, I need more than realistic details; I need people and a story, and if it’s an action movie, then there better be well-developed action. It’s not like Act of Valor is a documentary people. It’s all pretend. I’ll be interested in how audiences respond to director Kathryn Bigelow’s movie about the hunt and execution of Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty. That movie uses actors and has an Oscar-winning director and screenwriter. Let’s see if anyone can tell the difference.
Nate’s Grade: C-
On the surface, the classic board game Battleship would seem like a rather peculiar property to develop into a feature film. Unless someone was going the crafty Das Boot route, why would anybody even want to adapt the board game? And for that matter, why would anyone want to adapt the game and add killer aliens from outer space? Well actor-turned-director Peter Berg looked at the classic board game with the little pegs and the declarations of battleships sunk and said, “There’s a big summer movie in there.” With a hefty budget of $200 million, which is becoming alarmingly the norm for summer tent pole releases, Berg’s efforts have given birth to Battleship: The Movie. If it becomes a hit maybe it will start a trend. Who wouldn’t want to see Hungry, Hungry Hippos as a monster movie, or Connect Four as a searing domestic drama about alcoholism?
Off the Hawaiian Islands, the Navy is conducting an annual series of international war games in the Pacific. Oh but little did they expect to have to combat intergalactic foes. Alien spaceships crash land to Earth, emerging from the Pacific and creating a force field barrier. Along for the high seas action are the stoic Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgard), his screw-up little brother Alex (Taylor Kitsch), a Japanese captain (Tadanobu Asano), and a mess of other Navy personnel, including pop star Rihanna. On the other side of that force field is Alex’s girlfriend, Samantha (Brooklyn Decker), a naval physical therapist who finds herself in the middle of the aliens communications plans. The handful of Navy ships, some American and some Japanese, must figure out a way to topple the aliens before they get their communications up and running to broadcast that Earth is ripe for the taking.
For some, Battleship will be the symbol of everything wrong with big-budget Hollywood filmmaking, a perceived slapdash effort meant to appeal to as many mass markets as possible, combining clichés and empty action sequences into a cacophony of noise deigned entertainment. And for most of those charges, I cannot defend Battleship. It has its fair share of clichés, gaps in logic, and some especially corny moments (WWII geezers save the day!). And yet, I found myself becoming entranced by Berg’s siren song, laughing at the comic relief, enjoying the stock characters enough to root for their triumphs, and having a total gas with the action sequences. I was shocked at how much fun I was having with Battleship. Perhaps that means that from a mechanical standpoint it knows all the pinpoints of the summer blockbuster model and knows how to craft a satisfying crowd-pleaser of an action movie. Or perhaps it just means I have lost my mind. Or maybe this is Berg’s expertly crafted satire of the Michael Bay School of filmmaking, brilliantly capturing the beautiful bombast and cheery jingoism of Bay’s career, especially when those salty WWII vets get to strut in slow motion. A movie based upon the board game Battleship is clearly not meant to be taken seriously, and Berg’s nautical adventure wants nothing more than to entertain the masses. Whatever the case may be, Battleship, weirdly enough works, and for some significant stretches, it works really well in the mold of summer spectacle.
I’m relieved that Berg has left behind his rigid docu-drama cinema verite approach he’s patterned after working on 2004’s Friday Night Lights. Berg’s verite style felt completely mismatched with 2008’s Hancock, an inexplicable global hit. With Battleship, Berg’s cameras settle down and give you plenty of action to soak up. Berg’s first foray into action, 2003’s The Rundown, was like the announcement of a great new talent and the herald of The Rock’s ascent in action. I’ve been waiting for Berg to return to that style he displayed with The Rundown, a slick, highly stylized flair, brimming with robust energy that popped at all the right moments. Thankfully, with his biggest budget yet, it’s like the return of the old Berg. Perhaps it’s just a reaction against the overindulgence of the “shaky cam” action style popularized by the Paul Greengrass Bourne films, but it’s nice to be able to actually follow what is happening. Berg’s cameras find different and exciting ways to frame the action. I enjoyed the speedy zoom outs to illustrate the size of the field of battle. The visuals really do feel like Berg is parlaying Bay’s shooting style, the tawny glow of people’s skin, especially women, a.k.a. sex objects, the fetishized ogling of giant toys/military hardware, the soaring camera. But unlike most of Bay’s pedigree, it’s spectacle on a mass scale without turning into a glorified video game.
The action in Battleship is huge but never dull. The scale of the demolition does not get out of hand because the movie works in shifts, focusing on pockets of action before ramping up to something even bigger and better. The alien tech, particularly the spheroids that munch through metal like the Langoliers (please, somebody tell me they remember that Stephen King TV movie), is impressively powerful without feeling completely over matched. Being totally obliterated in the movies has its own thrill, but seeing a slug fest between man and alien is more compelling. Watching the Navy go blow-for-blow and eventually triumph through ingenuity in the face of adverse odds makes for some pretty satisfying action. The Navy is learning through trial and, much, error about how to combat these alien antagonists. I enjoyed the tactile nature of the battles. I must say I found the film to be weirdly informative about the attack features of naval war vessels. I don’t know if its genius or absurd that the movie finds a way to organically squeeze in the actual Battleship game play (the alien bombs also look like pegs from the board game). The aliens are something of a mystery and kept that way. When we do see them minus their Halo helmets, you wish they kept those helmets on. They have some unexplained moral code, as we cut to alien POVs that scan for threats, choosing to spare innocent lives in other circumstances. When the alien spacecraft fist appear, they take up position in a row and wait for their Earthly challengers to strike. It reminded me of the fighting sequences in turn-based RPG video games. These aliens are more sporting than your typical interstellar advanced civilization just interested in conquest. These aliens are into turn-based RPGs. These aliens are nerds.
With all that surprising praise now established, Battleship the movie is still chock full of ridiculous moments and a rather leaky plot. The subplot involving a double-amputee veteran getting back his groove via alien invasion never feels well grafted to the major storyline. It feels like it was crowbarred in after the producers or Berg saw real-life double-amputee Gregory D. Gadson and declared, “This man needs to be in a movie.” He’s likeable enough but over the course of 130 minutes you realize likeable isn’t the same as being a skilled actor. This entire subplot involving Gadson, Samantha, and a computer techie (the amusing Hamish Linklater) strains credulity even for a dumb action movie. The fact that three easily over matched people can take out a load of well-armed aliens with little more than a Jeep and a briefcase mitigates the life-and-death stakes at sea. If these alien bad guys can lose so stupidly, then what’s the hold up? Also, the movie inserts a lot of bizarre tension between Japan and the U.S., like it’s trying to iron out the last unresolved conflict from the Second World War. The term “inelegant” cannot come close to describing the nativsm conflict and its dopey resolution. And then there’s the fact that the movie is long giant recruitment ad for the U.S. Navy. I suppose after the Marines had their own alien-fighting flick/recruitment ad last year (Battle: Los Angeles), the other branches of the armed services felt left out. I pray no one ever enlists over something this silly. No major life decisions should be made over the big screen adaptation of Battleship, people.
There’s a paucity of solid characters here. We get the bad boy younger brother who will discover his mettle and leadership by the end (by the by: having characters keep talking about how much “potential” somebody has is the annoying non-fantasy equivalent of talking about a prophecy being fulfilled). Kitsch comes off better than he did in Disney’s costly flop John Carter, but he seems too stiff and sullen for a leading man. If Battleship sinks, expect his leading man status to get dry-docked (okay, I’ll lay off the puns). Decker (Just Go with It) is still working out the kinks of transitioning from model to actress. Her romance with Kitsch is about as contrived as these things get in big action movies, a pathetic bone thrown to a deflated female audience who would rather see Decker in What to Expect When You’re Expecting. The additional seamen, including Rihanna’s acting debut (insert your “S.O.S.” joke here), are given one-note to play for over two hours. And as far as Ms. Umbrella-ella-ella is concerned, it’s certainly not the worst acting debut by a pop star (see: Crossroads, or better yet, don’t). Most disappointing is Neeson (Taken) who spends the far, far majority of the movie on the wrong side of the force field. I want this guy kicking ass and not barking impotently into a phone.
I don’t know if I can look myself in the mirror and declare, with solemn dignity, that Battleship is a good movie by the normal standards of objective excellence. Screw it, I had far too much fun with this film to stand back and pretend the movie’s flaws are too overpowering. Berg has slapped together what may be the most formulaic, pinpointed Big Summer Movie I’ve witnessed in some time, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t win me over. They may be pushing buttons but Berg and company pushes them so well. Plus, I’m still uncertain whether or not the entire bloated affair is really the most expensive, subversive swipe at Michael Bay ever attempted. This is probably just wishful thinking from a critic looking to justify liking this movie. It’s got plenty of action, though doled out into bite-sized portions before the ACDC “Thunderstruck” montage ramps up the finale. Every now and then, you need a movie that gives you the right kind of stupid, and Battleship is the right kind of stupid for the summer movie season.
Nate’s Grade: B-
You’d think a big name like George Lucas would not have a problem getting a movie made. Lucas has been trying to get a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen made since the 1980s, but he says no studio would bite, concerned that American audiences would not be interested in a movie with an all-black cast. So Lucas just paid for the movie himself, forking over $50 million of his own money a.k.a. July’s paycheck from Star Wars toys, a.k.a. what Lucas just had in his pockets at the time. Even though only credited as an executive producer, it’s hard not to feel the Lucas imprint all over Red Tails. The emphasis is on the high-flying aerial combat, ladled heavily with CGI special effects work, rather than on a credible story and characters that we care about. Simply out, the Tuskegee Airmen deserve a better movie than this.
In 1944, the Tuskegee Airmen have been kept on the ground for most of the war. However, the bomber pilots need more protection. It seems that white pilots meant to provide protection of the bombers will easily get distracted, chasing after German fighter planes for a taste of glory. Colonel Bullard (Terrence Howard) and Major Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.) have been notified that their unit of black pilots will finally get their shot. Marty “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker) leads the squad, followed by Joe “Lightening” Little (David Oyelowo) and Ray “Junior” Gannon (Tristan Wilds). They are to escort the bombers and stick to the bombers; the mission is paramount. The unit paints the tails of their planes a bright crimson to stand out from the pack. The Tuskegee Airmen keep to their creed, ensuring the bombers carry out their missions, and proving themselves every bit as courageous as capable as white servicemen.
It’s like somebody transplanted a 1950s war film to present day but left every single hoary cliché imaginable. Just because African-American actors get to play the clichés doesn’t mean we’ve made progress. The Tuskegee Airmen are a historical account with enough real-life intrigue; Lucas and company didn’t need to create a fictional tale to illustrate their heroic deeds. The characters are all resoundingly one-note; the troubled leader with a drinking problem, the hotshot who doesn’t follow orders, the wisecracking pilot with a firm religious belief in “black Jesus,” the young guy trying to prove himself, and the guy who gets married and just wants to get back to his girl (guess what happens to him?). Let’s stop and analyze that plot point. Lightening first discovers his Italian beauty (NCIS: LA’s Daniela Ruah) waving while he’s zooming by in an airplane. Naturally he can find her home. After a series of strolls, Lightening asks her to be his wife, and eventually she accepts after some deliberation. Neither of them seems to find this interracial marriage concept a big deal, but in the 1940s, when the Army was still segregated and miscegenation was still illegal in certain states until 1967, you better believe it would be a big deal. Italy was no prejudice-free haven of tolerance, especially under Mussolini’s rule. And by the way, the portrayal of Italy in this movie looks like the war hasn’t even touched the land, physically and mentally. All those happy Italians just walking around smiling. And then there’s the white officers club where one of the black pilots visits and punches a guy after he calls him the N-word. In reality, this guy would have been beaten to an inch of his life. It’s even more bizarre then that, just after a month of flying missions, this say officer’s club greets the black pilots with open arms, fighting to by the guys rounds of drinks. Red Tails, at times, seems to exist in a different universe.
This has got to be the most boring part of a story you could tell about the Tuskegee Airmen. We watch the pilots escort the bombers and stick with the mission. While an interesting historical footnote, that’s about it. The story before the missions and after the missions is infinitely more interesting. I’d much rather see these brave heroes have to go back to a bitterly racist country, be declared honored men of valor by the government and then told they don’t deserve equal rights in the same breath. There’s so much more inherent drama in the conflict of going home to a segregationist country. Likewise, the Army was only integrated late into the war, meaning that African-American soldiers could not enter combat until 1944. Surely the journey these men took to enter the armed services is more compelling, and their experiences must have been even harder, battling the prejudices of their fellow brothers in arms. The early scenes in the film where Col. Bullard is fighting for respect and to get his men an actual mission, butting heads with brass who feel African-American soldiers are inferior, is far more gripping than anything that goes on in the air. The actual war part of this story is the least interesting part. If Lucas and company were so hell-bent on framing their story this way, they should have taken a cue from 1990’s Memphis Belle and stuck to a single mission being the majority of the plot. That would have kept the realism of the situation, ratcheted up suspense, and been a more natural way to get to know our characters.
While only thoroughly mediocre, Red Tails can have some pretty awful moments. The white bomber pilots provide, for lack of a better phrase, color commentary on the plot. Their dialogue is so on-the-nose and transparent, meant to lead an audience into some stilted realization that African-Americans are, gosh, not that different. The dialogue starts off with stuff like, “What? A colored man?! We’re done for,” then goes to, “Hey, these boys might actually be okay. I hope them Red Tails fly with us next time,” and then the movie might as well end on, “Wow, my altogether uninformed prejudices have been completely upended. I’m sorry I ever relied on such outdated notions of race that were completely ignorant. My paradigm has shifted and I’m going to look at people not as black or white anymore, but as people.” It’s so annoying and artificial. The dialogue is mostly cornball but the line that takes the cornball cake is after Lightening attacks a German munitions train, he shouts, “How you like that, Mr. Hitler?!” Really? “Mr. Hitler?” You’d think two African-American screenwriters (John Ridley and Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder) would have eschewed any phrases that could be racially loaded. Speaking of Germans, the movie has one German ace that keep reappearing again and again. Just so we understand that all those cockpit shots of ONE GERMAN are the same guy, the movie gives him a hideous scar along the side of his face. Being a scary scarred German fighter isn’t enough to convince us this man is a villain, so the movie also has him spout some pretty ludicrous racist dialogue, even for someone who may have believed wholeheartedly in the principles of an Aryan race. “Die you foolish, African,” he shouts at one point. Maybe he’s still steamed over that whole Jesse Owens thing.
But the dumbest moment in a movie that will tax a minimal amount of brain cells is what happens to Junior after his plane goes down. He’s caught behind enemy lines and is thrown into a prisoner of war camp. But what luck, because it just so happens that these prisoners are planning an escape that very night (“At least they won’t see you at night,” one of the guys tells Junior). They’ve dug a tunnel beneath their barracks and Junior agrees to go first to be the lookout. He climbs out of the exit hole right in front of a forest clearing. When the next one in line pops out, however, a German guard has spotted them and turned his weapon on the American. Junior hops from behind a tree, waves his arms wildly to distract, and then runs off into the woods. Inexplicably, this is where the storyline concludes. You’re telling me that a German soldier with a gun isn’t going to give chase into the woods? These guys have the upper hand, plenty of armed men and dogs to track escaped prisoners. The rest of the American prisoners make it out to alive miraculously and one of the guys gives Junior’s dog tags to his unit. How did these prisoners, all escaping after the jig was up, get past everyone? And yet Junior does indeed live too and shows up just in time, in literally the last thirty seconds of the movie, to cut short everyone feeling sad about fallen soldiers. It’s like an angel just dropped him out of the sky. Junior’s escape and perilous journey back to American forces seems like a pretty good story worth telling. It has to be fraught with danger and thrills, but to just hastily end his storyline and magically zap him back to base isn’t just criminally lazy, it’s insulting.
The saving grace of Red Tails is its coterie of talented actors, doing the best they can with the wobbly material. This is a movie designed for the most mainstream of audiences, not for anybody who knows a whiff of history. The characters are one-note, the story is driven by every cliché imaginable, and the reality of the time period feels oddly glossed over at too many points, settling for safe rah-rah movie heroics. The aerial combat sequences can be exciting but they come across as weightless, with all the emotional investment of watching a video game. Credit Lucas giving this movie a decent-sized budget to pull off the special effects and involved combat sequences, but that money would have been better spent on a good script, not one just dusted off from the World War II era and the race of the characters altered. I find this kind of pandering mush to be insulting, especially the fact that the audience is supposed to feel grateful that black soldiers are finally getting the spotlight no matter the quality of film. The choice of “pandering mush” or nothing is a false choice. If giving black characters the chance to run through all the tired, hoary war clichés that went out of style decades ago is progress, then I shed a tear for this country.
Nate’s Grade: C