Their Finest (not to be confused with Their Finest Hours, even though this is based on a book called Their Finest Hour and a Half) is a disarmingly sweet and poignant true story that resonates with empowerment and the power of creativity. Set at the start of WWII, the British film industry is trying to make ends meet as well as provide morale boosts to the public. Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton, her best performance yet) goes in for a copywriting job and walks out a hired screenwriter, pegged to write the “women’s parts.” Thanks to the depleted workforce, Catrin has an opportunity she never would have otherwise and she blossoms under the crucible of creative collaboration. This was one aspect of the movie that I was very taken with, as a writer and screenwriter myself, the natural progression of creativity, solving a problem, finding a solution, and the elation that follows. The complications keep coming, first from the British film office who need the movie to be inspirational, then from the divergences from the true story of a pair of French girls who stole their uncle’s boat to rescue soldiers at Dunkirk, then from working with American producers who insist on an American hero who can’t act, and then from natural calamities of scheduling, casting, and oh yeah, the bombing and blitzes that could obliterate everyone. The movie is alive with conflict and feeling and the sweet story of a woman finding her sense of empowerment in the arts. The movie-within-the-movie is filmed to period appropriate techniques, and Bill Nighy is effortlessly amusing as an aging actor still fighting for some scrap of respect in an industry ready to forget him. The insights into the different stages of film production were fun and illuminating. I appreciated that the war isn’t just something in the background but a constant. It upsets the order, takes lives, and is a striking reminder why these people are doing what they’re doing. The film also rhapsodizes the power of the arts, and in particular cinema, in a way that feels reverent without being overly sentimental or self-congratulatory. A great collection of characters is assembled as a ramshackle sort of family with a mission, and the movie drives right into one payoff after another, lifting your spirits and warming your heart. There is a sudden plot turn that will likely disappoint many in the audience eager for a simple happy ending, but I almost view it as industry satire on the difference between American and European cinema tastes. Their Finest is a small gem with sympathetic characters trying their finest and achieving something great. It’s a rich story that deserves its moment in the spotlight and I’d advise seeking it out if possible.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) are the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo. Their lives are thrown into turmoil when Germany invades and occupies Poland. Their animals are slaughtered or moved to the Berlin Zoo, under the care of Nazi party member and amateur geneticist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl). Feeling impotent to the horrors around them, Antonina and Jan risk everything to hide Jews in their zoo and eventually smuggle them out to safe houses.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is one of those slice-of-life stories about good people risking much to save lives during the Holocaust that come from obscurity to remind you that there are still fresh, invigorating stories from a topic that can feel tapped out after 70 years. However, it’s also an indication that you need the right handling to do it justice. The Holocaust is by nature such a horrific subject matter that it’s hard to do it justice with a PG-13 or below rating, but it can be done with the right amount of artistic restraint as long as the overall story doesn’t feel hobbled with limitations. Reluctantly, The Zookeeper’s Wife feels a bit too sanitized for the story it’s telling. When it comes to cruelty and human atrocity, you don’t need to shove the audience’s face in the mess to fully comprehend its distaste, but overly avoiding the reality can also be a detriment. The Zookeeper’s Wife, as a PG-13 movie, does not feel like the ideal way to tell this real-life story. It feels too restrained and some of those artistic compromises make for a movie that feels lacking and distracting at points. Fair warning: there are plenty of animal deaths in this movie, though they are all dealt with off-screen with implied violence. The edits to work around this can be jarring and would take me out of the picture. This is only one example of an element that, in order to maintain its dignified PG-13 rating, unfortunately undercuts the realism and power of its story.
For a Holocaust story set in Poland, the stakes feel abnormally low. The zoo is a sanctuary compared to the Jewish ghettos. The danger of hiding over 300 Jewish people over the course of the entire war feels absent, which is strange considering it should be felt in just about every moment. There are a handful of scenes where we worry whether they will be caught but they’re defused so quickly and easily. After Antonina is caught talking to a very Jewish-looking “doctor” in her bedroom by the housekeeper, they just fire the housekeeper who leaves quietly and never comes back again. It’s a moment of tension that can be felt and it all goes away in a rush. This scene also stands out because the narrow escapes and close calls are surprisingly few and far between. Even when Antonina’s son commits stupid mistake after stupid mistake, including impulsively insulting a Nazi officer to his back, there’s little fear of some sort of retribution. The movie can also lack subtlety, like watching Heck say three times he’s a man of his word and will be trustworthy. We all know he’s going to fall short. There’s also a moment where Jan is literally loading children, who each raise their arms in anticipation, onto a train car. It’s like getting punched in the stomach with every child. Much of the time spent on the zoo is with the quiet moments trying to make the Jewish survivors feel like human beings again (the animals-in-cages metaphor is there). The details of the smuggling and hiding are interesting but cannot carry a movie without more.
The biggest reason to see this movie is the promise of another leading Chastain (Miss Sloane) performance. Ever since rocketing to prominence in 2011, Chastain has proven to be one of the most reliably excellent actors in the industry regardless of the quality of the film. She’s been dubbed a Streep in the making and Zookeeper’s Wife allows her to level up to her “Sophie’s Choice acting challenge stage” and try on that famous Slavic accent that turns all “ing” endings into “ink.” Chastain is terrific as a person trying to navigate their way through the unimaginable, calling upon reserves of courage when needed, and she’s at her best during the moments with Herr Heck. She has to play the dishonorable part of the possible lover, and Heck definitely has his heart set on Antonina. The scenes with the two of them draw out the most tension and afford Chastain a variety of emotions to play as she cycles through her masks. In some ways I wish the more of the movie was focused on this personal conflict and developed it even further.
There was a small practically incidental moment that got me thinking. As stated above, the film has a PG-13 rating and one of the reasons is for brief nudity from Chastain. Now the actress has gone nude before in other movies so that’s not much of a shocker, but it’s the context and execution that got me thinking. Antonina and Jan are lying together in bed after sex and Chastain does the usually Hollywood habit of the bed sheet being at her shoulders while it resides at the man’s waist (those typical L-shaped bed sheets). No big deal. Then, during their discussion over what to do, Antonina rolls over and exposes her breast for a second before she covers herself up again. The reason this stood out to me, beyond the prurient, is because it felt like a mistake. It seems obvious that Chastain was not intended to be seen naked in this intimate post-coital conversation but it was used in the final cut anyway, which made me wonder. Was the take so good, or so much better than the others, that director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, McFarland, USA) and Chastain said “the hell with it” and kept the briefly exposed breast? Did they enjoy the happily accidental casual nature to the nudity, creating a stronger sense of realism between the married couple? Or in the end was it just another selling point to help put butts in seats? I’m thinking best take is the answer. You decide.
I am convinced one of the main reasons that Chastain wanted to do this movie, and I can’t really blame her, is because she would get to hold a bunch of adorable animals. Given the subject matter, I was prepared for a menagerie of cute little creatures, but I started noticing just how many of them Chastain is seen holding. She holds a rabbit for a monologue. She holds a lion cub. She holds a baby pig. She holds a monkey. She even kind of holds a rubbery baby elephant doll (talk about Save the Cat moment, this movie takes it even more literally). There may very well be animals I simply have forgotten she held. I would not be surprised if in her contract there was a rider that insisted that Ms. Chastain hold at least one small, adorable animal every third day of filming on set.
Stately and sincere, The Zookeeper’s Wife is an inherently interesting true story that should have more than enough elements to bring to life a compelling film experience. It’s an acceptable movie that’s well made but I can’t help but feel that there’s a better version of this story out there. It feels a tad too safe, a tad too sanitized, a tad too absent a sense of stakes, like it’s on awards-caliber autopilot. Chastain is good but her Polish accent becomes a near metaphor for the larger film: it’s polished and proper but you can’t help but feel like something is lacking and going through the motions of what is expected. This is a worthy story and I’m sure there are great moments of drama, but The Zookeeper’s Wife feels a bit too clipped and misshapen to do its story real justice.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga) are a young couple deeply in love in the late 1950s. The only problem: he is white and she is black. The laws in their native Virginia forbid marriages to different races. The Lovings traveled to Washington D.C. to be married and then had to live as fugitives before ultimately getting caught and exiled under threat of jail time. Eventually an ambitious ACLU lawyer (Nick Kroll, broadening his range) challenges the legality of the miscegenation law, which will lead to the landmark 1967 Supreme Court ruling striking down laws barring interracial marriage.
The ordinariness of the Lovings betrays the kind of movie moments we expect from great historical turning points, namely moral grandstanding and stentorian speechifying. We’re so used to accentuated versions of history because, deep down, that’s what our storytelling impulses crave because the real thing is often less streamlined and usually more boring. We want Daniel Day-Lewis as President Lincoln admonishing his fellows with the power of his oratory. We don’t necessarily want to watch President Lincoln rewrite his speeches for grammatical mistakes. With all that being said, I appreciated the approach that writer/director Jeff Nichols took with Loving because the very point at the heart of the movie is just how powerfully ordinary Mildred and Richard Loving are. Their love is meant to be ordinary, their relationship relatable. They’re meant to be just like you or I. This thematically taps into the message of the movie about the fundamental human rights of American citizens to love who they love regardless of what others may think. There is nothing dangerous or subversive about their marriage. There is nothing radical. The rationale for why the state would care so much about a marriage can be flabbergasting, including one judge’s written opinion that God created separate races and placed them at separate points on the globe thereby never intending for them to mix. This was considered acceptable legal justification for discrimination in the 1960s and it’s absurd. The other argument against interracial marriage is that biracial children are a harm to larger society… somehow. It’s easy to look back to the past and shake our heads with a fury of moral indignation and say “How could they do that?” but some of these exact same legal arguments have been used in the twenty-first century to justify denying gay citizens the same equality. In that sense, Loving shows us how far we’ve come but also how far we have to go to make sure that human beings are simply considered human.
If that wasn’t enough the movie also makes a powerfully compelling case about how the state’s miscegenation laws were an offense to human decency. The Lovings are given the legal ultimatum to separate or be exiled from the state, their families, and the home they were making for their family. They have been banished for loving the “wrong” person. Mildred and Richard try living out of the state in a D.C. suburb but it’s not the same; Mildred misses the quiet and relative safety of the country as well as the warmth of her immediate family. They decide to sneak back into Virginia and lay low, and you get a genuine sense of the day-to-day anxiety of having to constantly look over your shoulder and fly under the radar lest someone throw you in prison for loving another race. The degradation and dehumanizing effect of the miscegenation laws is on full display with how Mildred and Richard must act like criminals afraid of their country of laws. They may be used to the glares and hateful comments from intolerant onlookers but it’s another thing when the power of the state is employed to enforce that same hate. The wear and tear of their love perplexes some of the Loving friends and family. Mildred’s brother and sister each take turns blaming Richard for knowingly bringing this heap of trouble upon their beloved sister and for taking her from them. Her brother confesses he doesn’t know why he doesn’t just divorce her and stay together, satisfying the definition of the law. It’s a pertinent question that asks what is the value of marriage? He could readily be with Mildred and save themselves the persecution, but why should they have to settle for something less with their love? Why should they have to be second-class citizens?
This is very much a duet of a movie and Negga and Edgerton deliver admirable, understated work that cuts deeply. I was most impressed with Edgerton (The Gift) who has the more private and insular character. He’s not seeking the spotlight and doesn’t want to be a civil rights crusader. Richard Loving isn’t exactly a man prone to those speeches we crave and he’s certainly not a man to blurt out his feelings. Edgerton has to play within a tiny frame of emotional reference and he makes it work. When he does start to break down, his stoic defenses melting under the pressure and soul-killing compromises, the moments carry even greater emotional weight. Negga is the more emotive of the two but even much of her performance lies in her large, expressive eyes, taking in the collective injustices and triumphs. Using approximately the same Southern accent from her plucky performance on AMC’s Preacher, she radiates warmth and goodness and a sense of indomitable perseverance. It’s a performance that speaks in small gestures and small moments. Much of the film is Negga and Edgerton working together and each lifts the other up, providing the right space needed. There’s a physical intimacy that says much as each member of the relationship seeks out the other’s touch, grip, presence for comfort. It’s a delicate and understated duet of performances that bring the Lovings to faithful life.
Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) is the kind of filmmaker that astonishes me with every new movie. He reinvents himself with every picture and he takes genres and redefines them, shaping them to his needs, while never losing sight of tone and characters and narrative payoffs. He’s already delivered one of the best movies of the year with Midnight Special and now he impresses yet again, this time turning toward awards-friendly Important Stories of History. Nichols’ sense of place is implacable. He’s also superb at developing characters and giving them the time to properly breathe. He keeps the spirit of the story linked to his subjects, Richard and Mildred Loving, and makes sure we understand their plight and the larger issue at hand. This isn’t a film that’s going to hit you over the head with its message; in fact you could make a claim that perhaps the movie is too insular. As presented, the Lovings are relatable but we’re only given a fraction of insight into who they are as people and what makes them tick. There’s much subtext here to unpack. It does feel like we’re fighting through the defenses of Mildred and Richard to better know them. This specific approach allows the movie to keep in spirit with the ordinariness of the Lovings and their unknowing place in the history of civil rights, but it also caps the potential emotional impact. We’re invested in them as people but not as completely as characters. It’s a minor criticism perhaps but it’s really the only one I have for Nichols’ movie.
Given our recent turbulent political environment, Loving is an even more significant film. Jeff Nichols has crafted a poignant and affecting movie that passes over easy histrionics for a better representation of history and its characters. These people didn’t want to change the world; they just wanted to live out their lives. Mildred and Richard Loving are regular people living regular lives and that’s the ultimate message of the movie and their love. Having won their Supreme Court battle, the couple returns home to their original plot of land Richard bought in Virginia with the purpose of building his wife a house. Somber text appears in the sky to inform us that Richard would die in a car accident a mere six years later. It left me with a pall thinking about what a short span of time this man had to cherish the woman he loved without recriminations before it all came to a tragic end. It doesn’t seem fair, and I hope that’s a message other audiences take with them. When demagogues try and use religion in place of civil law to justify state-sponsored discrimination, saying the love others share is inferior and somehow a danger to their own lives, that’s when people need to remember the Lovings. This life is too short to harangue others about whom they choose to give their love to. Here is a beautiful, gentle, and restrained film that reminds us that the power of love is in its superhuman perseverance.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Peter Berg is becoming the go-to director for inspirational true-life thrillers following the heroic exploits of everyday Americans thrust into danger. It began with Lone Survivor, it will continue this year with the Boston bombing drama Patriot’s Day, and in between there is Deepwater Horizon about the oil rig drillers and the culminating explosion that lead to the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. It’s a sober and reverent movie, with Berg and his screenwriters taking great care to educate the audience on the science of drilling, the technology, the geography of the floating rig, and just exactly why things went as badly as they did that fateful night. The windup lasts about half the movie but that’s because when the explosion hits there isn’t much plot left (the movie is barely 100 minutes). Deepwater Horizon becomes a full-tilt disaster movie by that point with Mark Wahlberg stalking hallways and looking for injured survivors. The tension prior to the blown pipeline can get genuinely powerful, and the action that follows is suitably rousing as the rig resembles a snapshot of hell. Flames and heat consume the rig and escape seems nigh impossible. The sound design is sensational. The characters are mostly stock roles, with Wahlberg as our blue-collar everyman, Kurt Russell as the irritable boss fighting for his workers, and John Malkovich as the villainous penny-pinching BP representative. Malkovich’s campy performance almost needs to be seen to be believed. It’s like he’s visiting from another planet, the garbled Cajun representative. The lack of politics and curiously narrow focus (nothing about Halliburton, nothing about BP consequences, no environmental effects) does hamper any greater impact the film could have had. It’s a respectful slice-of-life drama that humanizes some of the lives lost that day but only by keeping to formula and stock action character development. It’s like a Towering Inferno-style Hollywood disaster movie, except one that treats its subject with stiff-lipped seriousness. In this new docu-action sub-genre, Berg and Wahlberg are kings.
Nate’s Grade: B
There’s quite a difference when director Oliver Stone actually gives a damn with a movie, and you can tell with Snowden that he is passionate about making a compelling and accessible movie for American audiences to understand why they should be angry. He wants to lead the righteous civil liberties mob against the right perpetrators while providing an appreciative moral context to the actions of Edward Snowden, America’s most famous fugitive. That sense of purpose and drive animates Stone in a way that his recent films have not, and even though it’s far less gonzo and experimental as Stone’s quintessential catalogue, the storytelling skill is still consistently engaging and the resulting 134 minutes inform as well as entertain.
Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wanted to serve his country and his expertise in computers landed him in various jobs working for U.S. agencies. He discovered the abuse of surveillance over everyday citizens rubber-stamped by a FISA court meant to provide oversight. Callous private contractors would surf through thousands of collected data points, and if pressed, could justify through terrorism connections, as it seems anyone in the world is perhaps three connections away from a person of interest (consider is the really unfortunate version of the Kevin Bacon game). Snowden risks everything to reach out to a team of journalists (Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson) to tell his story and make sure the larger public will know these abuses of power.
The best compliment I can give Stone as a screenwriter and director of Snowden is that he took a thoroughly challenging scenario with few cut-and-dry answers and made an accessible movie experience that effectively conveys moral outrage and dismay. It feels like Stone the educator is leading you by the hand, taking time out to explain some of the more delicate intricacies of the murky stuff that goes on behind closed doors. I won’t exactly declare it to be an intelligent examination on the moral implications of the material, but it’s certainly a movie that lands its goal of clarity. It produces a sense of clarity for the subject and a sense of clarity for why Snowden made the decisions he did. Gordon-Levitt delivers a steadily engrossing performance, even if it takes several minutes to adjust to his distracting speaking voice. Maybe my ears are just broken but it doesn’t sound like Snowden. Fortunately, my ears did adjust accordingly. Gordon-Levitt and Stone effectively kept my attention throughout the film. I was surprised how much I found myself enjoying long stretches of this movie, even if my own stance on Snowden is less clearly defined. He talks a good talk but the reality is messy.
Given Stone’s conspiratorial history, the plot definitely comes with a distinctive point of view over whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor. I don’t think inherent bias in a movie or the angle taken in storytelling is inherently misguided and that all stories should be as objective as possible. Sometimes the circumstances don’t permit objectivity. Stone’s film is clearly biased but it doesn’t fall into a hagiographical hero worship of its titular figure. This is a complicated subject and deserves a proper analysis to place the real-life people in the meaningful morally ambiguous context. Snowden ultimately makes the decision to become the world’s most famous whistle-blower for what he felt were systematic abuses of government surveillance, but before that climactic decision he comes across less than a spotless martyr. His character arc is a fairly recognizable awakening of alarm and horror at the great abuses of power in the name of security. He does start off as a lifelong Republican with family members who have served in the military and different governmental bodies. He’s devastated to be medically discharged from the Army and hungry to serve his country. He’s a patriot who becomes disillusioned with the system, but he’s also rather self-involved and excuses ego with civic duty. I didn’t know how gifted Snowden was in his field, and the movie has some amusement with the wunderkind training sequences where Snowden delivers shock and awe to his stunned superiors. However, the second act becomes more than a bit protracted because Snowden keeps quitting but eventually going back to government surveillance, whether CIA or private subcontracting. This is because of the pay, sure, but it’s mainly because nobody can do what he can do. He feels important. He feels needed. He convinces himself he’s making a difference in the War on Terror, but eventually the reality of the widening peripheral of the war zone is too much to ignore for him.
This is further epitomized through the romantic subplot with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), a liberal firebrand, photographer, and exotic exercise instructor. Woodley (The Fault in Our Stars) does her best infusing a warm personality into what is too often the underappreciated yet overly agreeable girlfriend role. It’s a storyline meant to further humanize Snowden as well as personalize the encroaching invasions of privacy and subsequent paranoia. After he discovers that the government can activate laptops and watch oblivious citizens through webcams, Snowden can’t help but stare down his open laptop during an almost laughably forced sex scene. My reaction as Lindsay climbed aboard Snowden was exactly this: “Oh, I guess this is happening now.” She would have a greater impact if the movie did more with her character, as she is the long-suffering girlfriend who keeps accommodating his life choices. They move three times across the country for his jobs and Snowden is always unable to fully explain why he feels the pull to these tech occupations, which further frustrates a woman who just wants trust and stability. There is one interesting conversation that Lindsay offers, typifying the blasé response to spying with a “well I have nothing to hide, so who cares” rationale. Snowden is quick to admonish this line of thinking, an opinion that many still share. The other regrettable reality is that the romance is inevitably going to be the least interesting facet of this story. By going behind the curtain of American secret surveillance, we’re indulging in our collective curiosity at how exactly all these moving parts operate. To then go home and watch a couple squabble is a consistent letdown of drama.
There are a few other artistic miscues that weigh down Snowden, mostly Stone’s penchant for heavy-handed symbolism. The same instincts that allow Stone to carefully thread a knotty story are the same impulses that tell him that subtlety is for cowards. There doesn’t need to be a frame story here. I understand that select media outlets trying to break this story naturally allows for a question-and-answer framing system of flashbacks. However, very little is added besides a skeletal structure. The media members act as reactionary acolytes. It was all captured much more credibly in the Oscar-winning documentary, Citizenfour. There’s no earthly reason for Nicolas Cage to be in this movie except for drawing financing. He plays an old CIA code-breaker and admirer of outdated technology, but really he’s there to serve as an institutional nod to Snowden. At the conclusion, when Snowden’s identity and message becomes public, there’s a scene where Cage’s character literally toasts his pupil’s actions. I would say it’s a bit much but the character is a bit much for an actor that hasn’t generally been known for restraint. When Snowden is leaving the CIA offices in Hawaii for the last time, he steps out into the light (get it? get it?) and the scene is practically rendered in slow motion as the enveloping white light fills the screen and bathes Snowden (get it? get it?). He smiles bigger than we’ve ever seen. Lastly, Stone can’t just help himself during the very end and has Gordon-Levitt replaced with the actual Edward Snowden to deliver the closure of an interview. I don’t think we needed a reminder that Snowden is an actual living person.
Snowden the man, and Snowden the movie, wanted to shake up an ignorant and apathetic American public about the dangers of unchecked power in a surveillance state, but was the mission a qualified success? Years later and Snowden living in exile in Russia, the charitable answer would be inconclusive, though the pessimist in goes further. It very well seems that the majority of the American public simply doesn’t care (out of sight out of mind). The trial over whether Snowden is a patriot or a traitor seems a little moot perhaps when the larger public shrugs at the revelations of security overreach. Does a movie about a Great Man have as much resonant cultural cache if that defining act of greatness produces a shrug? I’m by no means saying we should apply a polling system to accurately measure a person’s value and accomplishments to the larger cultural and political landscape. Snowden wanted to wake the public up but we hit the snooze button. In the meantime, the movie about his exploits is fairly entertaining, so at least he has that.
Nate’s Grade: B
I think I had the same initial thought that most did when they saw the news that there was going to be a movie about the Miracle on the Hudson airline pilot: where exactly is the feature-length story? The flight itself lasted only about 200 seconds before landing on the river, and the sequence is thrillingly recreated and held off until halfway through the movie. The hero in the cockpit, Sully (Tom Hanks), is consumed with ensuring each and every last passenger is accounted for. When he gets the news that all survived, he can finally allow himself to breathe, to take in the full magnitude of the events, and it feels like a cleansing moment of deep emotional catharsis for him and the audience. But what’s the movie here? Apparently the NTSB and the airline insurance companies are disputing whether Sully could have safely landed the plane back at an airport instead. It’s exactly the kind of flimsy, manufactured conflict that sets itself up for moral grandstanding and a courtroom confrontation where our heroes will be vindicated, and we get all that. Sully’s unexpected spotlight wears on him as he feels like an ordinary citizen not worthy of the term “hero.” No other plane has successfully landed in water without a loss of life, so I’m sorry pal, but you’re a hero, even if you think you were just doing your job. Hanks is suitably low-key and humble and strong and emotionally resonant, though he was better on just about every front with Captain Phillips. The direction from Clint Eastwood is respectful without going into hagiography. The overall message is one of uplift, widening the focus from Sully to other heroes in New York City that day that came together to help others. It’s a moving message without having to resort to melodrama. At a mere 96 minutes, Sully gets you in and out and provides a solidly entertaining glimpse at the people who rose to the challenge when needed most. It’s a well-made movie that goes as far as it can without trying your patience.
Nate’s Grade: B+
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-
In 1822, the men aboard the Essex, a whaling ship sailing from Nantucket, Massachusetts, encountered a beast unlike any they have ever seen. Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and his first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemworth), were at odds throughout the voyage, that is until they encountered a 100-foot long white whale. The creature destroyed the Essex, forcing the crew to drift at sea and hope to find land, but the whale follows them as well. Tom Nickerson (Tom Holland as a young man, Brendan Gleeson as the older version) recounts this traumatic survival tale to author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw), who is desperate to write this true story.
There’s an old-school throwback vibe to In the Heart of the Sea with its high seas adventure, but there’s just not enough attention to adventure, character, or even plot for this movie to really set sail properly. The first act feels so sluggishly long. It’s trying to set up life on a whaling vessel in the early 19th century but I didn’t feel like we got a coherent sense of life aboard the seas or how the various components worked. I didn’t know that whalers row out from the main ship, so there’s that. The opening act sets up the dull conflict between Chase and Pollard, which can be summarized as blunt upstart vs. unchecked privilege. The conflict doesn’t evolve from this dichotomy. Both men are boring in their unyielding simplicity. Hemsworth (Avengers: Age of Ultron) made a stronger impression in Rush, but a humorless movie role is not in his best interests as an actor. When the action does arrive, it can be genuinely thrilling. Director Ron Howard does a slick job of conveying the danger and destruction of the whale attack. Sadly, it’s over too soon and then the remainder of the movie is 45 minutes of a survival drama adrift in the ocean reminiscent of last year’s Unbroken. This period of isolation forces the characters to make some hard choices, yet we don’t feel the impact of those choices because the narrative, too, feels adrift. Implausibly, the giant whale has followed them for thousands of miles. Are whales really this vindictive? The documentary Blackfish makes me wonder but it still feels unbelievable. What was the whale waiting for? For the men’s spirits to be completely broken before it might attack again? We’re told this whale is a “demon” but who exactly are the bad guys in this story?
I believe another stopping point for this story is that the culture has moved beyond the acceptance of whaling as an honorable profession, to the point that I, and I assume others, was on Team Whale after witnessing a bloody hunt. It’s pretty gross, especially when they’re harvesting the whale body for the precious oil. Perhaps modern audiences, so far removed from hunting as an essential component of life have become more squeamish, or perhaps modern audiences just recognize something as barbaric when they see it. As a result, it’s hard to root for these guys. When the giant whale attacked it felt like retribution. My sympathies were more for the large mammal than the bipeds on ship. At the end of the film (some spoilers), the white-haired moneyed men of Big Whale Oil are worried what the truth will do to their industry. They want the surviving crewmen of the Essex to deny the existence of this gargantuan whale. This makes little sense to me other than awkwardly forcing a Big Business cover-up for relevancy. First off, whaling seems like a pretty unsafe working environment to begin with, especially considering voyages could last up to three years. Would the reality of one big bad whale destroy an industry? I doubt it since there is such money to be had. If anything it might rejuvenate the timber industry to reinforce the ships to make them more durable against larger whale attacks.
At first I thought a framing device was entirely superfluous; why do we need to watch Melville elicit this tale rather than simply just watching the tale itself? It seemed like a distraction, but as the movie progressed I understood that this framing device was its own sub-story and had its own complexity, namely the older Tom coming clean to the decisions that still haunt his soul. It’s an unburdening for both gentlemen, as Melville admits his deep fear that he is a mediocre writer (he’s no Nathaniel Hawthorne) and that he will be unable to tell this story as well as it truly deserves.
As these two men are allowing themselves to become more vulnerable and sharing their demons and doubts and worst fears, I started to realize that this framing device was weirdly more compelling than all the whale action. That’s because older Tom and Melville are the best drawn characters in the movie, which seems like a screenwriting mistake of sizable proportions. Obviously the nautical survival stuff should be the most compelling, and yet I as more taken with two men sitting by an oil lamp discussing their lives. Older Tom is infinitely more interesting than younger Tom; part of this is because young Tom hasn’t experienced the full effect of the events that shape older Tom, but most of this is from the very clear fact that young Tom is kind of a mute witness in this movie. He rarely speaks and is just kind of there, taking up space. There’s one personal harrowing moment when he’s thrust inside a hollowed out whale carcass to extract more blubber, but that’s the only personal perspective offered through young Tom. A question concerning the framing device: how is older Tom retelling events he had no participation or witness to? Another issue is that the characters on board the Essex are bereft of anything that would allow us to feel for them beyond simple human survival. Chase and Pollard are given one note to play and their eventual understanding and cooperation is fine but it feels like fleeting details in a story, lost to memory or disinterest.
From a purely technical aspect, this is one of the better Howard films. The cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) is rich and often breath taking, with plenty of stunning aerial and underwater images. The whale attack sequence is harrowing and thrilling. Howard finds ways to imply the harsher aspects of this life without going overboard, maintaining that PG-13 rating. While the look of the film has an enhanced color palate thanks to the extra boost of CGI filters, I still appreciated the vibrancy of the on screen images. As I said with the similarly boosted Mad Max: Fury Road, I’d rather have vibrant and bright colors than a drab and washed-out color palate. Even as the movie drifts and the characters fail to grab you, at least the visuals are pretty. While sitting through the second half, I started to rethink my own prejudices concerning Howard as a filmmaker, a man who lacks a distinctive style but has a definite feel for how to tell a story. I’m not going to excuse him for The Grinch and other misfires, or his tendency to settle for maudlin in place of subtlety, but the man is a born filmmaker.
In the Heart of the Sea is an old school movie that feels too sluggish, too underdeveloped, and too free of characters for the audience to invest in. When the framing device scores the biggest emotional pull, you better start rethinking your rip-roaring high-seas adventure. Master and Commander this is not. As the inspiration for Moby Dick, I wish I had just watched a remake of Melville’s actual novel (now with extra chapters about rope!). If you ever wanted a movie that ends on a blurb by Nathaniel Hawthorne as a payoff for Melville’s artistic neurosis, then your wait is over. In the Heart of the Sea feels like a whale of a tale that is hard to believe, which ends up inspiring a far greater story, which made me yearn for just watching that superior tale. Sometimes the “truth” behind famous stories is less interesting.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The problem with a rescue story is how to keep the audience engaged when the end seems obvious. A movie about the rescued miners in Chile seems like a no-brainer when it comes to cinematic storytelling. Survival stories are naturally rife with conflict and human triumph. But when everybody knows the ending how do you make it count? The 33, a would-be feel-good movie that aims to tug at your heartstrings, is not the answer.
In August of 2010, 33 men went over a thousand feet down into a gold mine in Chile. The mountain caved in on top of itself, trapping the men in a small refuge. They had enough food and water to last only so many days, let alone enough to subsist 33 people. Mario (Antonio Banderas) must keep his fellow miners from breaking into violence, while Lawrence (Rodrigo Santoro) must scramble the forces of the government to retrieve the miners with the pressure of the entire world watching. The men spent over 65 harrowing days trapped underground before finally reuniting with their loved ones.
The 33 misses widely, relying on easy sentiment and generalities rather than exploring its entombed characters on more than a fundamental level. Just because certain plot turns are expected from a keen audience, whether the Titanic is going down or, say, in another survival story that James Franco is going to cut his arm off, it doesn’t mean that the proceeding time is merely setup for the predictable. Even plot turns that are predictable can be wholly satisfying if the storytelling earns the payoff. Therefore, while the world knows that the 33 miners will eventually be rescued relatively unscathed, that doesn’t mean that the movie is off the hook until that moment. It needs to make the scene count, and the best way to do so is to get us emotionally invested in these men as they struggle with their fears. That is the film’s biggest failing. It was expected that 33 characters would be a tad unwieldy as far as divvying up screen time, so we concentrate on about five or six actual “characters,” while the rest of the trapped miners are glorified extras (they’re even listed in the end credits as Miner #8, Miner #9, etc. rather than by their names). The characters fall into rather one-note territories, from the Guy Who Feels He’s Let Down His Miners, the Guy Who Feels Burdened as the Leader, the Comical Relief Guy, the Old Guy Close to Retirement, The Young Guy with a Baby on the Way, the Recovering Addict with Trust Issues, and the New Guy (a.k.a. The Bolivian). Even though the cave-in occurs about 15 minutes into the movie, we don’t really get to know any of these highlighted characters on a deeper level than the basic descriptions they’re categorized with. It’s as if The 33 expects us to be engaged in the survival struggle without people worth watching.
The script divides its focus among a few camps, which further makes the miners feel less developed. Garnering substantial screen time are the minister of mining and his team of engineers and Maria Segovia (Juliette Binoche), an empanada-vendor who becomes the face of the anguished family members. These factions vie for screen time but they never truly present much more than what is on the surface. It’s a lot of pacing and brow-wiping. I’m puzzled at how little the movie makes use of the miners’ family members. This seems like a story made for flashbacks to help tinge the struggle with heavier dramatic weight and irony. The problem with The 33 is that the rescue story isn’t as interesting from a conflict standpoint because it’s more a matter of a race against time than a matter of logistics. Digging through the bed of rock is arduous but it’s nothing terribly unexpected from a technology standpoint. It doesn’t help that The Martian is a recent hit film and a superior movie survival story, at least in its telling. The focus was tighter and Matt Damon’s character was beset with conflict after conflict. He was an active participant to lead to his survival. In contrast, the miners are left to hold onto their sanity and hopes while they wait for extrication. That struggle can be illuminating on the psyche and how people can pull together in times of extreme distress, but that’s not this movie. Sure, they pull together but it’s mostly the occasional inspirational speech from Mario and the reliance on the emotional push of James Horner’s score (his last in life). The movie relies on easy sentiment to fill the many gaps of its characterization.
There is one standout moment in the movie that gives you enough false hope about where The 33 could have gone with its storytelling. As the men pass around their daily ration, a squirt of water with some tuna inside it, the men fantasize a feast of their favorite foods delivered lovingly by their family members. It’s an exquisite visual detour that succinctly communicates the desires of the men and their mental defenses. It’s powered by a lilting musical score that makes it feel like a divine moment of relief for these weary men, and it’s visually playful without going over the top or losing the emotional truth. Then, just as succinctly, it transitions back to the dreary reality with as much skill as it began. It’s a terrific moment in an otherwise safe and sappy movie, and the artistry hints at the more visually poetic and psychologically probing movie that could have been. Going back to 127 Hours, Franco was literally stuck between a rock and a hard place but director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) opened it up as a movie. The 33 is just too inert.
It may be slight but I can’t help but feel that the movie should have been told in Spanish rather than English. Now I know that English is going to greatly improve the movie’s mass appeal at the American box-office (though that didn’t seem to make a dent), but it harms the movie’s authenticity. On the contrary, I could forgive the white-washing of transforming the Spanish family into a white clan of Brits in the 2004 tsunami drama The Impossible but that was because their struggle was powerfully and universally felt and unrelated to ethnicity, which also assists in the argument of why change their ethnicity, but I digress. With The 33, the struggle is so specific to a nation and its people that there is some degree of authenticity lost in the actors speaking English in a multitude of accents meant to approximate Chilean. It’s also a bit strange to watch actors of varied backgrounds playing Chileans including a Frenchwoman (Binoche), an Irishman (Gabriel Byrne), and the warden from The Shawshank Redemption as the president of Chile. These are small things but when packaged together, and with the movie’s reliance on easy sentimentality, it’s hard not to feel like The 33 is a middling TV movie writ large.
The 33 is an acceptable story with a bevy of fine actors who give fine performances while we wait for the swell of the music to hit all the emotional highs. It’s effective at points and its heart seems to be in the right place, even giving each real-life member of the titular 33 a coda appearance before the credits (we’re told their lawsuit against the mining company apparently netted them zero money). The problem with The 33 is that it doesn’t make the men feel much more than a group of numbers, figures to eventually and predictably be saved, without giving us enough insight into their humanity. It feels like a disservice to their story and the compromises hobble its artistic latitude. It feels far too impersonal and rote, which are crippling attributes for a feel-good true story. It’s not fair but I fondly recall McFarland U.S.A. as a formulaic feel-good movie that nails its big moments while dropping its audience into a community of characters that feel fleshed out and given depth and relatability. If you want to know more about the Chilean miners, skip this movie and read the book. If you want a feel-good movie that genuinely makes you feel good, then skip The 33 and watch McFarland U.S.A instead.
Nate’s Grade: C+
There’s a reason that race is regarded as the “third rail” when it comes to American politics. A half-century after the marches and protests, chief among them the influence of Martin Luther King Jr., the world feels just as fractious as ever when it comes to race relations. The inauguration of America’s first black president was seen as a significant touchstone, but optimism has faded and recent headline-grabbing criminal cases, and the absence of indictments, have prompted thousands to voice their protest from assembly to street corner. Race relations are one of the thorniest issues today and will be for some time. Two recent films take two very different approaches to discussing race relations, and they’re clearly made for two very different audiences. Selma is an invigorating, moving, and exceptional film showcasing bravery and dignity. Where Selma is complex, Black or White is a simplified and misguided sitcom writ large.
In 1965, Alabama was the epicenter for the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) has his sights set on organizing a march from Selma to the sate capital in Montgomery. His wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), is worried about the safety of their children, as death threats are sadly common for MLK. He needs to turn the tide of public perception to light a fire under President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to get him to prioritize legislation that would protect every citizen’s right to vote.
Without question, Selma is one of the finest films of 2014. It is powerful, resonant, nuanced, political, immediate, and generally excellent on all fronts. It’s a rarity in Hollywood, namely a movie about the Civil Rights movement without a prominent white savior. This is a film about the ordinary and famous black faces on the ground fighting in the trenches for their freedoms. There are compassionate white people who heed the call, don’t get me wrong, but this is a movie told from the black perspective. I suspect the portrayal of President Johnson had something to do with Selma’s poor showing with the Oscars, though I can’t fully comprehend why. Yes, Johnson is portrayed as a man who has to be won over, but he’s on MLK’s side from the beginning. He is not opposed to legislation to protect voting rights; he’s just hesitant about the timing. Johnson says, “You got one issue, I got 100,” and the pragmatic reality of pushing forward legislation through a divided Congress was real. Johnson was not opposed to MLK’s wishes; he just wanted him to wait until the political process would be easier. In fact, in my eyes, Johnson comes across as compassionate, politically savvy, and he clearly makes his stakes on which side of history he’s going to be associated when he has a sit-down with the obstinate Alabama governor, George Wallace (Tim Roth). Like the rest of the varied characters in Selma, it’s a nuanced portrayal of a man in the moment.
The march in Selma is a moment that seems like an afterthought in the narrative of the Civil Rights movement, dwarfed by the Montgomery bus boycott and the March on Washington. The movie does a great job of re-examining why this moment in history is as significant, an eye-opening moment for the nation to the brutal reality of oppression. The opposition is entrenched, thanks to a stagnant system that wants to hold onto its “way of life.” It just so happens that way of life meant very different things for black people. The movie is politically sharp, with dissenting perspectives arguing over the next course of action in Selma and the national stage. Selma is another in the current crop of biopics eschewing the standard cradle-to-grave approach to highlight a significant moment that highlights exactly who their central figure is (Lincoln, Invictus). With Selma, we get a battleground that allows us to explore in both micro and macro MLK, the man. The courage of ordinary citizens in the face of violent beatdowns and police bullying is effortlessly moving and often heartbreaking. There is a moment when an elderly man, reflecting upon a recent family tragedy, cannot find words to express his grief, and my heart just ached right then and there. I teared up at several points, I don’t mind saying.
There isn’t a moment where I didn’t feel that director Anna DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere) was taking the easy road or pulling her punches. The screenplay respects the intelligence of the audience to sift through the politics and the arguments, to recognize when MLK is igniting a spark, and just how complicated and fragile the Selma situation was back then. Here’s a movie ostensibly about MLK but spends much of its time on the lesser known individuals like James Bevel and Congressman John Lewis, who walked alongside the man, taking time to flesh them out as people rather than plot points. MLK’s wife is also given an important part to play and she’s much more than just being the Wife of Great Man. DuVernay’s direction is impeccable; you feel like she has command over every frame. The sun-dappled cinematography by Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year) makes great use of shadows, often bathing its subjects in low-light settings. The score is rousing without being overpowering, just like every other technical aspect. This is a prime example of Hollywood filmmaking with vision and drive.
With respect to the Academy, it’s hard for me to imagine there being five better performances than the one Oyelowo (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) delivers as the indomitable Martin Luther King Jr. It is rare to see an actor inhabit his or her character so completely, and Oyelowo just sinks into the skin of this man. You never feel like you’re watching an actor but the living embodiment of history made flesh. This is a complex performance that shows refreshing degrees of humanity for a figure sanctified. He was a man first and foremost, and one prone to doubts and weaknesses as well. An excellent scene with top-notch tension and peak emotion involves MLK and Coretta listening to a supposed tape of Martin’s infidelity. In the ensuing tense conversation, both parties acknowledge the reality of his affairs. It’s a scene that’s underplayed, letting the audience know she knows, and he knows she knows, but not having to rely upon large histrionics and confrontations. It’s the behind-the-scenes moments with King that brought him to life for me, watching him coordinate and plan where to go with the movement. Oyelowo perfectly captures his fiery inspirational side, knocking out every single speech with ease. It’s a performance of great nuance and grace, where you see the fear in the man’s eyes as he steps forward, hoping he’s making the best decision possible for those in desperation.
There isn’t one bad performance in the entire film, and this is a deep supporting cast including Wendell Pierce (HBO’s The Wire), Tessa Thompson (Dear White People), Common, Giovanni Ribisi, Dylan Baker, Lorraine Toussaint (Netflix’s Orange is the New Black), Stephen Root, Cuba Gooding Jr, Jeremy Strong, and Oprah Winfrey.
It’s been weeks now since I watched Selma but there are still many moments that I can recall that still have a tremendous power on me even in mere recollection. The opening sequence of the Birmingham bombing, a moment of horror frozen in chaos and debris, is a gut punch of a way to begin a movie about human beings fighting for equality. The sheer brutality of the response from the Selma police force and associates is horrifying, and a true pivot point for the movement in the eyes of the public. More so than anything else, Selma brilliantly and beautifully recreates the suffocating reality of injustice that was so prevalent for many African-American citizens, especially in the South. This is an era where people are being lynched with impunity just for being “uppity.” There was a supreme danger in simply standing up for equal rights, and many suffered as a result. The movie recreates this mood, this permeating feeling of dread and outrage and sorrow, so expertly and so artfully. From an early scene with a middle-aged black woman jumping through hoop after arbitrary hoop just to register to vote, you quickly realize that this vehemently hostile environment was never going to settle things on their “own time,” as apologists are prone to citing in lieu of federal intervention. Selma makes it abundantly clear why MLK felt the movement just could not wait, as Johnson requested. People are senselessly dying and being beaten all for the right to fairly vote. You feel the same sense of urgency with every scene, whether it’s cold-blooded murder, noxious intimidation, or reciprocation that goes above and beyond any sense of responsibility, you understand exactly the terror it was to be black in the South during this time period.
Another potent point of acclaim for Selma is how relevant it is to our own world today. While 12 Years a Slave was an often stirring and very professionally made biopic that exposed the ugly reality of slavery, it was not a film that screamed “immediacy.” Slavery ended in this country over 150 years ago, and while we’re still dealing with the repercussions of treating other human beings as property, it’s an easy film to dismiss in a backhanded, “Well, that was so long ago, and we’ve come so far” manner. The actions of Selma and MLK are still being felt to this day. We live in a world where many feel the justice system has its own separate-but-equal division, and the recent controversial grand jury decisions in the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner cannot be ignored. The reality for many black men in this country is statistically far more dangerous than others, fueled by a culture of entrenched racial bias that assumes the worst at first. The transit officer who executed Oscar Grant (detailed in the harrowing 2013 film Fruitvale Station) served eleven months in prison for a crime that had scads of witnesses. Garner’s death is captured on video, and yet even the Staten Island coroner’s report of “homicide” wasn’t enough to convince a grand jury that there was sufficient cause to at least go to trial. It’s been noted that prosecutors could get a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.” According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, of the 30,000 cases that were not prosecuted in this country, only 11 were because a grand jury did not return an indictment (.0004%). However, grand juries rarely indict when a police officer is accused (In Dallas between 2008 and 2012, there were 81 grand jury investigations of officer shootings and only one actual indictment). It’s hard not to feel like these things don’t add up.
Then there’s the all-important struggle of voting, central to Selma and the plight of African-Americans in the South. You would think with Johnson’s passage of the Voting Rights Act that we wouldn’t be litigating the same issues of the past, but the Supreme Court determined that this country is far different then it was in the 1960s and there was no need for the Voting Rights Act today. Within hours of striking it down, scads of new legislation appeared in the (primarily Southern) states that had been limited beforehand because of their past history of discrimination. The right to vote is just as relevant as it was during MLK’s time and there are forces trying to stifle that right, to throw up new obstacles, new hoops, new challenges, all in the name of “polling security,” never mind that the cases of in-person voter fraud are so rare as to be one in every 15 million voters. It’s a solution without a cause, and it’s why many see it as a disingenuous political ploy. It’s the twentieth-century, and yet the struggle for equality frustratingly repeats too many of the same battles. It’s this historical and contemporary context that gives Selma its extra surge of relevancy, reminding how far we still have to go, reminding the world that MLK’s work is by no means complete and that it is up to the rest of the populace to fight for the kind of country that he spoke of in his “I Have a Dream” speech.
It is this complex, complicated, and dire reality that hobbles another movie that tackles modern-day race relations, Mike Binder’s imprudent Black or White. The plot of the film, inspired by a true story reportedly, centers on Kevin Costner as Elliot Anderson, a rich lawyer who has custody over his biracial granddaughter Eloise (the angelically adorable Jillian Estell). Now that Elliot has lost his wife, Eloise’s other grandmother, Rowena Jeffers (Octavia Spencer), wants joint custody so Eloise can spend time around “her own people.” The two of them push and pull and lock horns over what’s best for their grandchild, which gets more complicated when her biological father (Andre Holland, who is actually in Selma as well) comes back into the picture.
Right away you can tell very early on that there will not be anything approaching subtlety in the world of Black or White, its own title serving as the first clue. The characters are sketched broad and the premise feels like a weird mishmash of Archie Bunker appearing in a court drama. It’s a preachy movie that doesn’t have a deft hand when it comes to crafting a message that rises above easy observations disguised as something deeper. Eloise’s father, Reggie, is so poorly underwritten that he feels like he stepped off the set of some after school special. He’s addicted to crack, a lifelong screw-up, and a general disappointment that has never been present for his daughter’s life. He even smokes crack out in the open on the front porch across the street from where his mother lives. At one point, Anthony Mackie’s character berates Reggie for being a walking stereotype. Just because Binder calls attention to it doesn’t excuse it. But he’s not alone, because Spencer’s sassy black matriarch character and Costner’s gruff and frequently soused character are right there with him. The frequent arguments feel like they should be punctuated by studio audience hoots and applause, that is, if you could hear them over Terrence Blanchard’s relentlessly overpowering musical score instructing the audience exactly how to feel with every clunky moment.
In a way, the overbearing musical score gets at the major problem of Black or White, which is that a complicated case is being told from the safest point of view. Elliot is more akin to Clint Eastwood’s character from Gran Torino then, say, Archie Bunker. He’s irritable and prejudiced and old-fashioned and wary but balks if you call him a bigot. I mean he’s polite to his Hispanic housekeeper. The more you examine the character the more you realize this is a movie designed to coddle an older generation (my tiny theater was packed with patrons over 60). The movie doesn’t challenge anybody and actually rewards Costner’s character and his outdated viewpoints. The opening conflict over his refusal to share custody with Rowena makes no sense. She’s an excellent grandmother, caring, nurturing, a fine role model as well for her perseverance and starting several small businesses out of her home. Not only that but Rowena is surrounded by a large family of relatives that adore Eloise. It’s contrived that these two could not agree on shared custody when they both have much to offer the girl. The only way any of this works is if Reggie is somehow responsible for the death of Eloise’s mom. Perhaps he introduced her to crack and she overdosed. Unfortunately, it’s never explained in the slightest, and so Elliot’s hostility for the entire Jeffers clan seems petulant, especially with the happiness of his granddaughter in the balance. Without better context, his rampant anger seems to be guilt-by-association overkill. To his credit, Rowena has a major and annoying blind spot when it comes to Reggie’s stability as a parent. In fact he’s so obviously still on drugs that her ongoing refusal to accept reality harms her character irreparably.
In the end, Black or White isn’t so much a film that about race relations as it is about privilege. Costner’s would-be bigot doesn’t have a problem with black people, just as long as those black people abide by his rules of conduct and expectation. It’s the same kind of qualification he’s never had to consider for himself, and one the intended audience will likewise miss. He comes from a wealthy position and Rowena and her family are likely lower middle class at best. He has a world of class privilege at his disposal that the loving Jeffers family does not, and because of that he feels they are less suited to raising little Eloise. Perhaps he’s worried about Reggie re-entering her life, but what animates Elliot Anderson is spite. He’s consumed with the overriding assumption that he must be right in all things. While the film draws many heavy-handed parallels between Reggie’s drug abuse and Elliot’s alcoholism, it clearly presents the both of them on completely different planes of judgment. One of them is ultimately redeemable and the other less so. Elliot’s perspective is essentially he can provide more and therefore more has to be better, but his definition of more is a private school, a housekeeper, a tutor who is treated as a caricature of initiative. Rowena provides a large and loving support system, but apparently they are less valued in the eyes of Elliot. And if you needed any more of a clue that Elliot and his sense of privilege are the unbeknownst star of the movie, he gets to deliver the big speech at the end that Says Something Meaningful. It feels a bit odd that the one character that uses the N-word in the film (albeit there is context) is the one telling lower-class black families how to live.
I don’t doubt the sincerity of writer/director Mike Binder (The Upside of Anger); I don’t think he purposely made a film to make older, primarily white Americans feel better about thinking what they do about these troublesome times. It’s not a nefarious movie but it is misguided and will provide cover for a certain selection of audience members who wonder why nobody is asking the old white guys their opinions on modern race relations. Even overlooking this charge, Black or White is just overblown melodrama that has to constantly explain everything to you at all times and guide you through every strained point. Selma and Black or White are both aiming at hearts and minds, looking to add to the conversation on contemporary race relations, but only one of them works as both an eye-opening message of empathy and as an exceptionally made film itself.
Black or White: C