Blog Archives

Dunkirk (2017)

Christopher Nolan is one of the rare filmmakers in the world that can do anything he wants. He’s reached a level of critical and commercial success that he has earned the leeway to tell the stories he wants with a blank check. Apparently he’s been eager to tell the big screen story of Dunkirk, the mass evacuation of 400,000 Allied troops on a French beach in World War II, and it would be the first film of his career to not have a crime or science fiction slant. If this is what he has to turn into in order for mainstream Oscar attention then please go back to making your sci-fi puzzle boxes, Mr. Nolan, and let someone else make the underwhelming WWII epics. Don’t believe the effusive praise from critics saying this is Nolan’s masterpiece or the finest of his career. Dunkirk is Nolan’s least engaging film and maybe even the least ambitious of his otherwise storied Hollywood career.

Dunkirk is less of a cohesive movie and more a series of moments, never eclipsing the next or coalescing into a larger, more meaningful, more satisfying whole. We keep cutting from primarily three perspectives (air, sea, land) but it fails to feel more than a check-in before moving onto the next vantage point. It’s a shame because the opening ten minutes launch you immediately into this world of danger and Nolan sets up the different perspectives with effective visual clarity. I thought it was a great moment having the soldiers collect the fluttering propaganda fliers meant to remind them about how the enemy surround them. The initial burst of violence is visceral and unnerving. The burial of a soldier in the sand is a somber moment. Things were getting good, and then I kept waiting for the movie to escalate, to hit a new gear, and it never came. Instead it repeated the same plotting that just forced the bland characters from one curtailed escape to another. Screenwriting is about setups and payoffs, and that is strangely absent throughout Dunkirk. Bad things just kind of happen, and then they happen again, and then you tune out. That’s even before Nolan throws in needless non-linear elements that I was ignorant about. Dunkirk is Nolan’s first film under two hours since 2002’s Insomnia, and yet it could still stand to lose even more. After a while, your mind drifts when all you’re watching is poorly written characters, many of whom you can’t identify, jump from one crummy situation to another without a stronger storytelling drive. If you want a more personally involving retelling of the heroes of Dunkirk, just watch the film-within-a-film of the underrated 2017 gem, Their Finest.

The miracle of the Dunkirk evacuation is really lost in this film. Without a more involving story, it’s hard to get a sense about the personal sacrifices and risks of the evacuation. The scope feels mishandled. We’re told that 400,000 men were rescued but I did not get any sense of that scale. We’re stuck to a small corner of a beach, or a small section of the sky and sea, for the far majority of the film, which again traps the film at a lower register. We don’t adequately sense the monumental scale of what is at stake. The embodiment of the threat is condensed down to a single German fighter plane that Tom Hardy has to chase for half the movie. It’s like this guy is the freaking Red Baron. Another aspect that exacerbates this issue is Nolan’s haphazard command of screen geography. When the camera is inside the various ships, your sense of space is uncertain. When things go bad, it just all feels like a mess, with no clear indication of where the characters are, their proximity to others, or even the interior design of the ships. Without a coherent sense of geography, the action and suspense is going to be inherently limited. Nolan locks into a claustrophobic sensation at the expense of audience clarity, and without better-developed action and interesting characters, it’s a decision of diminishing returns.

The characters are so indistinct that most of them in the end credits didn’t even merit names (Irate Soldier, Shivering Soldier, and Furious Soldier are among the lot). This is one of the biggest mistakes of Nolan’s movie. By not providing characters that an audience can engage with he’s handicapped how much an audience can care. We don’t learn about any of the main characters we follow, with the slight exception of Mark Rylance’s even-keeled seafaring father. I challenge audience members to even remember a who’s who of the young men because I don’t think I’d be able to identify them in a lineup. I was still trying to recall which of them may have died. I haven’t had this much trouble keeping people straight in a war film since Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. With Dunkirk, there are faces we follow really more than characters. The most recognizable is Tom Hardy and that’s because he’s Tom Hardy and not because of anything related to his character. Kenneth Branagh’s character just seems to be here to stare off into the distance with awe and say something about “seeing home.” It’s as if Nolan had no interest in telling a war story from a human perspective, which is a vastly strange approach considering the large-scale human cost.

Nolan is a smart filmmaker. He has to know these characters are thinly sketched ciphers at best, so the question becomes why is Nolan choosing to make Dunkirk this way. If I had to hazard a guess I think Nolan was trying to accomplish a visceral, immersive war experience to echo the hopelessness and confusion of those men in jeopardy. They’re meant to be faceless everymen. This would explain why it feels more like a series of moments, of jumping from one failed escape to another and one fraught encounter to another. Nolan does a fine job of introducing conflict (in a wartime setting this also shouldn’t be too hard) but without more distinction he runs the serious risk of everything feeling like more of the same. At the end, thousands of soldiers are ferried back to England and congratulated. One of them is incredulous, not feeling like retreating is worth the fuss. “We just survived,” he says. “Well that’s good enough,” the other says. It’s like Nolan intended to place the audience into a crucible where just getting out was enough to satisfy demands. I don’t think it is.

From a technical standpoint, Dunkirk is often breathtaking, no more so than in its mesmerizing sound design. Nolan uses brilliant sound tacticians to heighten your senses and build a sense of dread. An oncoming fighter plane tearing through the sky can raise the hair on the back of your neck. The sound does the heavy lifting when it comes to creating tension. The score by Hans Zimmer is very effective in that regard as well. Its central musical element sounds literally like a ticking clock, which instantly heightens any scene. Granted adding a ticking clock sound against anything would make it more fraught (you’ll never fill out boring paperwork the same way again). Visually, the aerial photography is gorgeous with the IMAX cameras able to take in such startling depths. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar) has some beautiful visual compositions, especially as different boats capsize and the water rushes in at odd angles. This is a film that has commendable technical achievements. It’s Nolan who lets down his team.

War movies often run the risk of being overly reliant upon broad themes of heroism, nationalism, patriotism, sacrifice, and such, which can be in replacement of a strong narrative and well developed, interesting characters. War is a film genre like any other, and there are inherent genre shortcuts that can be abused. However, it’s like any other genre in that, regardless of the setting or situation, you are expected to tell an interesting story with characters the audience cares about. Nolan sacrifices all for the immersion in his war experience machine, providing listless, interchangeable characters and a story that amounts to a collection of harrowing moments but not a movie. My pal Joe Marino chided the movie as akin to visiting a planetarium, sitting back, and taking in the wonderful visual spectacle but walking away unmoved. It’s like Nolan has created the Dunkirk Experience: The Ride instead of an actual worthwhile story.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Wonder Woman (2017)

I owe Gal Gadot an overdue apology. When the news first broke that the Israeli model-turned-actor had won the role of Wonder Woman, I was quite dismissive. My heart had been set on Gadot’s Fast and Furious 6 costar, Gina Carano, a former MMA fighter who displayed a natural screen presence. I apologize for not thinking the relatively slim Gadot had what it takes to fill out Diana Prince’s wonder boots. I just couldn’t see it, and that’s an error of imagination on my part. When Gadot made her debut in 2016’s otherwise abominable Batman vs. Superman, she was one of the few high points, granted she was only there for like fifteen minutes. My concerns were abated but could she hold her own film? After 140 minutes of consideration, I can declare that Gadot is a star and a terrific Wonder Woman. The rest of the film is pretty good though not up to her wonder level.

Diana (Gadot) is an Amazonian princess living on a mysterious hidden island ruled by ageless female warriors like Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and Antiope (Robin Wright). One fateful day a downed airplane crashes close to their shore. Diana rescues the pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), and is fascinated to learn he is a man. The Amazonians are distrustful of a man in their land. He warns them about the “war to end all wars” going on that threatens the greater world. The Germans are developing a powerful chemical weapon thanks to the treacherous Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya) and Luddendorff (Danny Huston). Diana decides she cannot stay idle. She leaves her home and travels with Steve to London and eventually the the European Front. Diana is certain the one responsible for the global conflict is none other than the god of war Ares, who will stop at nothing to annihilate mankind.

Wonder Woman is an entertaining, empowering, and engaging Golden Age superhero throwback that manages to be the best the DCU has had to offer. This is the movie many fans have been waiting for. Wonder Woman’s structure and tone feels like what would happen if you crammed together Marvel’s Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. It’s got the ancient mythological society that is separate from mankind. It’s got the fish-out-of-water comedy of a god traveling to the world of man and trying to make sense of our clothing, customs, and backwards gender norms. It’s also set during a world war far in the past and resonates with handsome period-appropriate production values. The comedy aspects are surprisingly restrained; the fish-out-of-water jokes are mostly deployed during Diana’s first encounter with Steve’s secretary, Etta (Lucy Davis). The humor goes a long way to help coalesce the varied tones, tying the campier elements with the more serious war backdrop. It’s a movie that recognizes, at long last, that the DCU can actually be fun. The lighter tone works as well to establish the charming dynamic between Diana and Steve. There’s a screwball comedy feel that gracefully comes in and out, allowing Pine (Star Trek Beyond) to be simultaneously amazed and flat-footed at his ever-increasing crush’s agency. They make a winning pair and there are several moments that are funny, touching, and lovely between them that made me smile.

Gadot (Keeping Up with the Joneses) is a wonderful lead and delivers a star-making turn. She draws you in immediately. Gadot succeeds as a cultural icon come to colorful life. She succeeds as a comic actress bemused and wary at the era’s gender politics. She succeeds as a dramatic actress able to convey the emotions of doubt and torment. But most significantly she succeeds as a person overcome with the sheer thrill of self-discovery. There’s a moment where Diana takes a flying leap to grab a stone tower’s ledge. She grabs it but the ledge breaks and she starts sliding down the face of the tower. She stops her downward plummet by punching her own handhold. She then punches another. Gadot’s face lights up, taking in the sheer scope of her personal possibility. She launches herself up the face of the tower, more determined and blissful than before. Gadot’s greatest strength is her capacity of expressing Diana’s growing sense of self. Her ongoing declaration of agency is given a welcomed and fitting action-movie cool treatment.

Director Patty Jenkins (Monster) acquits herself impressively in the world of big-budget action. The first action sequence involves ancient Greek femme warriors against German soldiers, and it’s awesome. Watching the galloping horses and gilded warriors confidently mow down the enemy soldiers is a primal joy. Jenkins pleasingly frames her action sequences and uses judicial cuts, keeping an audience oriented through the duration. It’s action you can comprehend and relish. Jenkins has a great command of her visual space and how to sell the bigger moments. We don’t see Diana in her full Wonder Woman regalia until an hour in but when it comes it feels like a big screen moment decades in the making. Diana gets her deserved heroic entrance. Jenkins color palate follows the gun mettle grays of Zach Snyder’s pre-established diluted color scheme, but the less oppressive tone makes it feel less dreary. Something of interest is also how little her camera sexualizes Gadot, who is by all accounts a stunning human being. Given Wonder Woman’s costume, her creator’s kinky origins, and the generally prevalent practice of the male gaze, I would have assumed there would be certain moments to highlight Gadot’s physical assets. The movie does so but it highlights her strength and fortitude rather than her curves. Her femininity isn’t tied into how her body looks to appeal to men. It’s about what her body can do and often to the immediate threat of men. She does get a couple killer evening gowns to wear but her sword is tucked away behind her shoulder blades, a powerful reminder that she’s no man’s sexual object.

With all that said, the praise is a bit over pronounced for Wonder Woman, because while it is clearly head and shoulders above the other DCU films, it’s still only an overall good film and not a great one. I understand that many will celebrate a big-budget action showcase for an idol of female empowerment, but I don’t want to ignore problems either. The biggest issue for Wonder Woman is just how simplistic its characters and themes are. Diana is an interesting character but she’s not that deep. She’s following a common hero’s journey and learning about the possibilities of man, good and bad. She’s trying to understand the inherent contradictions of life, civilization, and war. There isn’t any major test she has to overcome besides a broad accepting of one’s destiny. Steve falls into the love interest/damsel role primarily reserved for women in these sorts of things. His scenes with Diana are some of the best in the movie but he’s still underwritten too. The themes of responsibility and inaction are fairly broad and kept that way. There isn’t much room for nuance. Example: Steve brings Diana into the trenches on the Front and says their destination is on the other side of No Man’s Land, the stalemate between enemy trenches. He then says “no man” two more times, as if the audience doesn’t quite get it and needs it underlined (get it: Diana is “no man”). There’s also the idea that Ares is responsible for men warring with one another to make a point about man’s nature. Minor spoilers here but, shocker, Aries is eventually vanquished and the German soldiers all act like a magic spell has been broken. They’re much more chummy and not as interested in fighting. Doesn’t this then assume that the next war, the one with the Holocaust, was all mankind’s responsibility? Aren’t we proving Ares’ point about our very volatile nature?

The supporting characters are pretty stock even by stock standards. There’s the charming Arabic soldier (Said Taghnaoui) who dreamed of being an actor, the Scottish sharpshooter (Ewen Bremner) who is unable to shoot any more, and the expat Native American (Eugene Brave Rock) looking to make a profit from war. None of these characters are given a moment to shine nor do they impact the plot in any way. Each one is given a minor characterization note but they don’t come back to them. They are robbed of payoffs. Why give the sharpshooter a PTSD-like trauma if he doesn’t rise to the occasion or explore that trauma? You literally don’t see him shoot anyone from a distance, meaning that his specialty he brings to the group is null and void. The Arab wannabe actor doesn’t get a chance to use his skill set either. Why introduce these characters and provide an angle for them if they’re ultimately just going to be an interchangeable support squad? I know they’re meant to be supporting characters but it goes to the lack of development, and less developed characters that are kept more as background figures offer a less realized world with less payoffs and a somewhat lowered ceiling of potential entertainment.

The third act is also where Wonder Woman becomes another in the tiresome line of CGI overkill. Beforehand Jenkins had done well enough to play into the already established visual stylings of the Snyderverse but the movie is eventually swallowed whole, becoming indistinguishable from the noisy, calamitous, and altogether boring climax of Batman vs. Superman. It’s another CGI monster fight with lots of explosions, flying debris, and the Snyder staple of slow-motion-to-fast speed ramps. The final battle between Diana and Ares doesn’t really alter its dynamics. They take turns punching, throwing things, and taunting one another. There’s no real variation to the fighting. This is supposed to be the ultimate showdown, a battle of the gods, and it feels so detached. Part of this is also because the film keeps the identity of Ares cloaked, which keeps the ultimate bad guy as more a philosophical presence for too long. I think the film also errs by having the actual actor onscreen for the fighting. It would have been best for Ares to have just been a CGI monster rather than what we ultimately get. I’m also unclear exactly what Wonder Woman’s powers are because all of a sudden she just seems to do stuff. This all leads to a final standoff that goes on far too long and feels anticlimactic.

There is also a moment with a mustache that needs highlighting for its sheer hilarity (oblique spoilers). There is a flashback to a thousands-year-old story, and a certain character retains a large, bushy mustache, and it took all my power not to bust out laughing at the absurdity of the image. This could have been preventable. They could have hired any younger actor. The audience would still have known who the onscreen figure was since they were narrating their own tale. They could have also just shaved the stach. Is it possible that the villain’s powers are completely linked to this item of facial hair? Is this a modern-day Samson, a cruel joke practiced by Zeus, who never could have foreseen an age where anachronistic facial hair would be celebrated with undue irony (hipsters will be the death of us all)?

Wonder Woman is going to make a lot of people happy, especially those who have been yearning for a worthy showcase not just for the character but for a strong heroine who doesn’t need romantic entanglements or a man’s approval. Celebrate the big screen outing befitting the biggest female superhero in comics’ canon. Gadot is a genuine star and has a charming and capable sidekick with Pine. The action is enjoyable, the humor keeps things light enough to blend the different tones, and the stylistic choices from Jenkins keep the movie fun for all ages and genders. It’s a celebration of a woman’s might and not necessarily how she looks in her star-spangled mini-skirt. It’s a relative bright spot for the otherwise dreadful, dark, and dreadfully serious DCU, though I still cannot muster any hope for Wonder Woman’s next appearance, Snyder’s Justice League. With all of its virtues and entertainment, Wonder Woman still suffers from some poor development decisions and a lousy final act that hold it back from true greatness. It’s a good movie, but walking away, I couldn’t help feeling that even the best DCU movie (thus far) was about lower middle-of-the-pack compared to the mighty Marvel Cinematic Universe. Wonder Woman is a considerable step forward in the right direction but there’s still many more left to go.

Nate’s Grade: B

Their Finest (2017)

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+

The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)

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-

Rogue One (2016)

rogueone_onesheetaIn the opening text crawl for Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, it says, “During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star.” Disney, in its infinite wisdom to cash in on every potential resource of its lucrative cash cow, has decided to devote a whole movie to that one sentence in that initial crawl. I can’t wait for each sentence to get its movie. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (in case you’d forget) is the first film outside of any of the trilogies and much is at stake. Not just for the rebels but for Disney shareholders. If a wild success, expect future tales coming from every undiscovered corner of the Star Wars universe. And if Rogue One is any indication, that’s exactly the kind of artistic freedom needed to blossom.

Not actually in the finished film.

Not actually in the finished film.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) has plenty to rebel against. Her father (Mads Mikkelsen) was forced against his will by Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to work on a fiendish death machine for the Empire. Jyn’s father is responsible for designing the Death Star. Jyn is broken out of imperial prison by Cassian (Diego Luna) for the Rebellion. They want her to track down her father, find out whatever she can about this new fangled Death Star, and if possible, retrieve the plans on how it might be stopped. Her mission will take her to the ends of the galaxy to reunite with her father and to provide hope to the Rebellion.

Finally after many films we finally get a war movie in a franchise called Star Wars, and it’s pretty much what I wanted: a Star Wars Dirty Dozen mission. It’s thrilling to go back to the height of the resistance against the Evil Empire and see things from a ground perspective with a skeleton crew working behind the scenes. We may know the future events of those Death Star plans but we don’t know what will befall all of these new characters. Who will make it out alive? The open-and-shut nature of this side story in the Star Wars universe brings a bit more satisfaction by telling a complete story. This film will not have to wait for two eventual sequels years down the road in order for an audience to form a comprehensive opinion. I welcome more side stories like Rogue One that expand upon the fringes of the established universe and timelines, that establish colorful new characters and tell their own stories and come to their own endings, and hopefully don’t feature any more Death Stars (more on this below). It seems like it was ages ago that major studio tentpoles just attempted to tell a single, focused story rather than set up an extended universe of other titles to nudge along their respective paths. Director Gareth Edwards (2014’s Godzilla) is less slavishly loyal to the mythos of the series than J.J. Abrams. His movie doesn’t feel like flattering imitation but its own artistic entry. The cinematography is often beautiful and the natural landscapes and sets provide so much tangible authenticity to this world. Edwards has a terrific big-screen feel for his shot compositions and achieving different moods with lighting. He knows how to make the big moments feel bigger without sacrificing the requisite popcorn thrills we desire.

star-wars-rogue-one-teaserRogue One has to walk a fine line between fan service and its own needs. While it’s fun to see Darth Vader on screen again voiced by the irreplaceable James Earl Jones, it’s also a bit extraneous other than some admittedly cool fan service. We don’t need to see Vader clear out a hallway of Rebel soldiers but then again why not? It’s the same when it comes to the inclusion of cameos from the original trilogy. Some are minor and some are major, achieved through the uncanny valley of CGI reconstruction. Gene Kelly may have danced with a vacuum cleaner and Sir Lawrence Oliver and Marlon Brando both appeared as big floating heads after their deaths, but this feels like the next step beyond the grave. There’s a somewhat ghastly feel for watching a dead actor reanimated, so your sense of overall wonder may vary. The cameos are better integrated than the Ghosbusters ones.

There’s a great cinematic pleasure in putting together a team of rogues and rebels. The characters on board this mission have interesting aspects to them. Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) is a blind warrior and aspiring Jedi. He feels like he stepped out of a great samurai movie. He uses his connection with the Force to make up for his lack of visual awareness, and Chirrut demonstrates these abilities in several memorably fun instances. There’s a world of back-story with Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a dotty wheezing warrior who is more machine than man at this point. Whitaker gives an unusual performance that reminded me of a kindlier version of Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. The reprogrammed robot K-250 (vocal and motion-capture performance by Alan Tudyk) is a reliable source of catty comic relief and I looked forward to what he was going to say next. The first 40-minutes is mostly the formation of this group, and it’s after that where the movie starts to get hazy. We know how it’s all got to end but the ensuing action in Act Two feels a bit lost. This may have to due with the reportedly extensive reshoots that were done last summer to spice up the movie (much of the earliest teaser footage isn’t in the finished film). I’d be fascinated to discover what the original story was from Chris Weitz (Cinderella) and just what rewrites Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) performed so late into its life. For much of the second act, the characters feel a bit too subdued for the life-or-death stakes involved, and that translates over to the audience. We travel to different locations throughout the first two acts but I can’t tell you much about them other than some intriguing mountainous architecture. The plot is a bit too undercooked and still obtuse for far too long, requiring our team to bounce around locations to acquire this person or that piece of information. Rarely do the characters get chances to open up.

getIt all comes together in the final act for a 30-minute assault that makes everything matter. It’s a thrilling conclusion and the movie finds a way to keep escalating the stakes, bringing in powerful reinforcements that force our Rogue One crew to alter their plans and placement, while still clearly communicating the needs of each group and the geography as a whole of the multiple points on the battlefield. It’s what you want a climactic battle to be and feel like where each player matters. It’s also a welcome addition to the Star Wars cannon, as we’ve never seen a beach assault before. It feels like a new level that was unlocked in some video game, and that’s no detriment. The ending battle has different checkpoints and mini-goals, which allows for the audience to be involved from the get-go and for the film to jump around locations while still maintaining an effective level of suspense. Many of these characters make something of a last stand, and you feel the extent of their sacrifice. I read in another review that the reason Jyn and her rogues win is because they accept that they are replaceable, and Orson Krennic fails because he made the mistake of believing himself irreplaceable. I think that’s a nice summation about the nobility of sacrifice. I won’t get into specific spoilers but I was very pleased with the ending of the film even though it’s not exactly the happiest. It feels like a fitting ending for the darker, grittier Star Wars tale and it provides earned emotional resonance for the setup of A New Hope, which this movie literally rolls right into.

With as many fun and potentially interesting characters aboard for this suicide mission, it’s somewhat surprising that they are also the film’s weak point. Beyond simple plot machinations like Character A gets Character B here, I can’t tell you much more about these rogue yet noble folks other than their superficial differences. Take for instance the Empire turncoat, pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) What personality does he have? What defines him? What is his arc? What about Cassian? He’s supposed to secretly assassinate Jyn’s father if given the chance, but do we see any struggle over this choice? Does it shape him? Does his outlook define his choice? Can you describe his personality at all whatsoever? What about the villain, Krennic? Can you tell me anything about him beyond his arrogance? What about Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), who carries a big gun and is close friends with our blind wannabe Jedi. Can you tell me anything about this guy beyond that? Even our fearless leader, Jyn Eros, feels lacking in significant development. She wants to find her father, get vengeance, but then changes her mind about sacrificing for the greater cause of hope. Many of the character relationships jump ahead without the needed moments to explain the growth and change. The original trilogy was defined by engaging characters. When you have a ragtag crew of six of seven rogues, you better make sure each brings something important to the movie from a narrative perspective, and not just from a pieces-on-the-board positioning for action. Look at Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy for tips. If this was going to be a powerful and emotionally involving war movie, the characters needed to be felt deeper. All too often they get lost amidst the Star Wars debris and then they become debris themselves. Ironically enough, Rogue One has the reverse problems of The Force Awakens, a movie that benefited from engaging characters but sapped from an overly familiar and cautious story. It’s telling when my favorite character, by far, is a sassy comic relief robot.

maxresdefaultLet’s talk about the Death Star in the room, namely the fact that over the course of eight Star Wars movies there have been Death Stars, or the construction thereof, in five of them (63% rate of Death Star sighting). We need a break. You can cal it a Star Killer Base whatever in Force Awakens but it’s still a Death Star in everything but name. I can’t even put a number to the amount of money it cost the Empire/First Order to build these things, plus the review process to try and correct design flaws that never seem to get corrected. At this point it feels like this model just isn’t cost-efficient for its killing needs. What about a more mobile set of multiple mini-Death Stars? I hope that the filmmakers for the new trilogy (Rian Johnson, Colin Trevorrow) refrain from putting another similar planet-killing space station-type weapon into their movies as we’ve had enough. However, the use of the Death Star in Rogue One was perfectly acceptable because it already fit into the timeline of the first film. I also greatly appreciated the clever retcon as to why the Death Star had its fatal flaw. It took a bothersome plot cheat from 1977 and found a gratifying and credible excuse. Now when Luke blows up that sucker it’ll have even more resonance.

Rogue One is a Star Wars adventure that feels like its own thing, and that’s the biggest part of its success. By being a standalone story relatively unencumbered by the canonical needs of hypothetical sequels, the movie opens up smaller stories worth exploring and characters deserving a spotlight. This is an exciting and entertaining war movie, and the kind of film I want to see more of in this multi-cultural universe. It’s not a faultless production as the lackluster character development definitely hampers some audience investment. I wish more could have been done with them before they started being permanently taken off the board. While Rogue One is looking to the past of Star Wars it still makes its own independence known. I hope this is the start of a continuation into exploring more of that galaxy far far away without the required additions of every Skywalker and Solo in existence. It’s a far bigger universe and it needs its close-up.

Nate’s Grade: B

Allied (2016)

alliedposterForgive me the indulgence but please hear me out on this peculiar observation. In 2005, Brad Pitt stars in a movie where his onscreen wife may be a spy and he may need to kill her, and his marriage to Jennifer Aniston ended shortly thereafter. Flash forward over ten years and Pitt is starring in another movie where his onscreen wife may be a spy and he may need to kill her, and his marriage to Angelina Jolie is now coming to a reported end. Obviously there are extenuating circumstances in something so personal as relationships, but if I was Pitt’s agent, I think I might advise against all future projects that even come too close to this cursed storyline. Allied wasn’t worth it, pal.

In 1942, Max (Pitt) and Marianne (Marion Cotillard) are husband and wife and also spies for the British government. They’re enjoying life back home with their infant daughter Anna when Max gets some startling news. His superior officers are investigating whether Marianne is secretly a German spy. He is to learn for himself what is real and if she is indeed a spy Max is ordered to kill her or he himself will be executed for treason.

allied2Allied already starts dangerously when the majority of its opening act is set during WWII Casablanca, setting up an unwinnable comparison. We’re meant to watch these two secret agents go about their clandestine operation and fall in love. One of those things happens. Oh sure, for the purposes of the plot, Max and Marianne fall in love, but no member of the audience is going to believe what they see. Pitt and Cotillard have anemic chemistry together and their characters are too stilted to draw us in (rumors of an onset romance between the stars seem unfounded by the results on screen). They achieve their first act mission, get their kill, but they don’t really encounter complications. It all proceeds just a little too easily and we fail to get a sense of their capabilities as spies. They practice the cover of husband and wife but only in superficial appearances that come across more like Marianne chiding Max (“A real husband would offer his wife a cigarette first”). I recognize that these people are spies and thrown into danger but we need to invest in them as characters if the rest of the movie is supposed to matter, let alone their relationship together. There are no supporting characters of importance. Lizzy Caplan (Masters of Sex) pops up as Max’s lesbian sister and you’d swear she’d have some significance, but nope. When Max is investigating Marianne, it never feels like the pieces are coming together. Rather it feels like we’re just getting new pieces, some lucky and some less so. The plotting feels too disjointed and arbitrary. Screenwriter Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Peaky Blinders) is one of the best working in the industry, especially when it comes to crime thrillers and naturally drawing out tension. I expected more from him with Allied, but then that will be a trend with several aspects of this mediocre movie.

Here’s the problem with this premise: it’s too limiting. Either Marianne is a spy or she isn’t, and if she isn’t that makes for boring drama. You’re stuck so more and more obstacles have to be put in place to merely delay the inevitable reveal because that’s all the movie had. A solution could have been an Act Two break that revealed Pitt’s character to be the real spy, allowing the audience to reflect back on his action with a new lens of understanding. The crux of Act Three would then be Max’s moral dilemma of whether he turns himself or whether he frames his wife and in doing so erases evidence against himself. It would be a far more challenging and ethically murky scenario than a rather rote finale where the characters follow their predestined paths. I also think summary execution of a spy is a waste considering the value of covert information or even posing as a triple agent. I think the entire story should be told from a different perspective (okay, now spoilers). Little Anna is far too young to know what happened to her mother and I imagine there will need to be a cover story even for the official cover story. My pitch would be tell this story in the mid 1960s when Anna is now in her early twenties and discovering the larger world. She starts to come across testimony or nagging pieces of evidence that contradict her father’s story of what happened to Marianne, and her death now seems very mysterious. As she uncovers the old evidence she learns that her own parents were spies, a truth that had been kept from her, and all the evidence points to dad being the killer. The Act Three confrontation between harried father and daughter would then reveal the actual truth and that Marianne took her own life out of guilt and a desire to spare her husband punishment from his remorseless superiors. The lie was meant to comfort but now it discombobulates a family and a woman’s understanding of her parents and her relationship to them (end spoilers). Doesn’t that sound like a better version of Allied, dear reader? I certainly think so.

Director Robert Zemeckis (Flight, The Walk) is such a skilled craftsmen but this movie just gets away from him. You sense his urge to insert effects sequences into what should be an ordinary period thriller, and so we get distracting sequences that either rip you from the reality of the movie or might make you titter unintentionally. Max and Marianne’s coupling scene involves having sex in the front seat of their stranded car in the middle of a sandstorm. It would have been far more effective and possibly erotic if the camera had merely stayed in that confined space and let the building passion bubble over, all while the light becomes more and more faint from the sand storm, adding all sorts of sensual lighting opportunities with obfuscation and shadows. Instead, Zemeckis has a rotating camera shot that goes on for about a minute steady without cuts and zooms in and out of the car, inside and outside the dusty sand storm. It stops any sensuality from building. Another example if that Anna is born during the Blitz, and yet again instead of being in a small space and leaving more up to the imagination, Zemeckis and his special effects team have to recreate the air assault which increases the melodrama in a bad direction. Zemeckis has never really done a straight thriller and I can feel his flagging interest as he searches for special effects sequences to hold onto as some sort of anchor. I don’t think his skillset was the right balance for this story and the execution it needed to prosper.

allied-pitt-cotillardIt really doesn’t feel like Pitt (The Big Short) wants to be in this movie at all. Rarely have I seen this lethargic a performance from usually one of the most reliable actors in Hollywood. Part of it is the withdrawn and conspicuous nature of his spy character but it’s more than that. I don’t know if he feels like he understands his character or is that committed to the script, and so it feels like he’s just coasting and waiting for the end. It reminded me of the disastrous Oscar hosting duties from a sleepy James Franco and an overcompensating Anne Hathaway. Cotilard’s character is the gregarious and charming one, and so it feels like she has to do all the heavy lifting to compensate for the dearth of Pitt’s performance. Cotillard can be a brilliant actress with powerful instincts down to her very marrow, as last evidenced in 2014’s devastating and humane drama of personal desperation and dignity, Two Days, One Night. She has to play the more active role, first as the charmer and then as the mystery. She works much better as the charmer. I don’t think either actor knew fully who their characters were and stumbled forward.

Allied is a strange movie where the director, the star, and the screenwriter each didn’t seem to know what movie they wanted to make. Each major participant, short of a game Cotillard, doesn’t even seem like they want to be here, as if this was a school assignment that they’re doing the minimal amount of work to fulfill a requirement. Allied just feels like one of those big studio misfires where nobody was on the same page. The story lacks characters to connect with and complications that feel connected to them and their circumstances. The plot follows the path of least resistance and arrives at its predetermined destination right on time, to the monotony of its audience. Pitt’s somnambulist acting makes the movie and his lead character harder to enjoy. There’s a definite lack of intrigue with this premise and its ultimate execution. I expect better from Zemeckis, Pitt, and Knight, and I’m sure they’ll deliver with their next projects. In the meantime, skip Allied since it certainly feels like the cast and crew weren’t in alliance.

Nate’s Grade: C

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

hacksaw0001-1Mel Gibson needs to direct more movies. End of statement. It’s been a decade since Gibson last helmed a movie, 2006’s visceral art film for jocks, Apocalypto, and he’s been in “movie jail” ever since a string of controversial drunken statements. His new movie is a completely earnest, classical example of storytelling that you just as easily could see faces of old appear (say John Wayne in place of curmudgeonly Vince Vaughn), and Hacksaw Ridge is a stirring war movie and a stirring character study. Andrew Garfield plays Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who wanted to go to war but refused to touch a gun. The first half of the movie is the U.S. Army trying to make sense of this inherent conflict, looking for ways to intimidate him, make him compromise, or kick him out of service. Yet, he endures, and it’s in the second half that Doss single-handedly saves 75 wounded men as a medic left alone on a deserted battlefield in the Pacific. Garfield (Amazing Spider-Man) is a solid lead performance, though his cornpone West Virginia accent irritated me… until the real Desmond Doss is showcased in archival footage and he sounds exactly alike. The supporting characters are rich and have more depth than I was expecting, including Hugo Weaving as Doss’ father, a drunken shell from his WWI survivor’s guilt. There’s much more complexity to what otherwise could be a hateful drunk and one-note character foil. The one miss I felt was the courtship between Doss and his future wife (Teresa Palmer). It felt like an outdated perspective where a man’s insistence overrode a woman’s agency and he was rewarded for it. Admittedly, that’s a modern perspective applied to a generational relationship from long ago. The movie is naturally graphic but the bloody violence is stylized in a way that communicates the ugliness and chaos of war. The action develops and is grisly and engaging without losing sense of the characters and without falling into redundancy. When Doss is rescuing survivors in the final act, the movie finds new challenges that he has to overcome to keep things interesting and raise the stakes. Gibson’s images can be frightfully beautiful; his command of visual storytelling and its evocative power is too good for only one movie a decade. It may be impossible to make an anti-war movie without in some way glamorizing war, so even though Hacksaw Ridge celebrates the heroism of one man’s anti-violence values it finds a mainstream sense of entertainment in the carnage. It’s like a tentpole Oscar movie and I hope I don’t have to wait until 2026 for the next Gibson-directed vehicle.

Nate’s Grade: B+

War Dogs (2016)

wrdgs_tsr_1sht_vert_2764x4096_dom_masterAs I watched War Dogs, the darkly comic true-life story of war graft, gunrunning, and bro-tastic bravado, I kept wishing to copy and paste other characters into what was an interesting plot. A pair of neophytes was awarded military arms contracts from the Pentagon during the Iraq War, and their schemes to skirt U.S. laws to import guns across borders, illegal and faulty munitions, and uneasily work as a go-between with a client (Bradley Cooper) on the U.S. terrorism watch list are filled with perplexing yet juicy details. The biggest problem is that the two main characters, played by Miles Teller and Jonah Hill, are so powerfully archetypal to the point of unrelenting blandness. We have the naïve everyman pulled into a life of big bucks, big risk, and big power only to have it all come crashing down. Hill’s character is the loud, uncouth part we’ve come to expect from the Oscar-nominated actor, and I defy anyone to tell me anything about Teller’s character other than occupation and his relationship to other people. These parts are so thinly drawn that I didn’t care about them once they finally got into deep trouble. I believe that director/co-writer Todd Phillips, he of The Hangover series, has the right qualifications to make a flinty neo-noir thriller, but War Dogs is more his half-hearted version of a glib Scorsese movie, or a David O. Russell version of a Scorsese movie. The voice over narration is dull and doesn’t help illuminate Teller’s character at all, and the other stylistic flourishes, from pointless inter-titles to a non-linear plot, add up to very little. Half of the movie’s scant jokes are the ongoing sound of Hill’s off-putting wheeze of a laugh. I’m not kidding, after an hour the movie still treats his laugh like it’s a potent punchline. There is entertainment value to be gleaned from War Dogs chiefly from its larger-then-life story and the intriguing, shadowy world of war profiteers. It’s a movie that made me wish I had read the magazine article it’s based upon instead, which would have also been shorter.

Nate’s Grade: C

Free State of Jones (2016)

Free_State_of_Jones_poster-1Well meaning and somberly recreated, Free State of Jones is a historical drama that wants to illuminate the story of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) who deserted from the Confederate army and seceded from the very people who seceded from the United States. Knight and the people of Jones county Mississippi declared themselves independent and awaited the consequences. At first the Confederate army is annoyed, but as armed skirmishes increase and Knight’s team swells with poor farmers and runaway slaves, garnering Robin Hood-esque folk hero status, you’re expecting an escalating level of force that will doom Newton. We’ve seen this kind of historical drama before where men (usually men) of courage and politics ahead of their time are stamped out by the forces of oppression and we then celebrate their noble sacrifice. I kept waiting for Jones to go this route, and then (slight historical spoilers) the Civil War ends and instead the last half hour is an episodic history tour that includes the rise of the KKK, registering freed black men for voting, and early voter suppression acts. There is also a storyline strewn throughout that takes place in a 1940s Mississippi courtroom. At first you’re left scratching your head about the flash forwards, and then the connections come to bear. We’re watching Knight’s (great?) grandson and his legal troubles because the courts don’t know whether he’s the byproduct of Newton’s first wife (Kerri Russell), who left him, or his common law second wife (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a former slave. It’s a storyline that just doesn’t really gel with the movie as a whole and really only serves to remind you that 100 years later Mississippi was still a pretty terrible place to live. Free State of Jones’ failure is that it doesn’t make this slice of history emotionally engaging. We don’t get a strong sense of whom Newton is as a person except for his 99% rabble rousing. His relationship with Mbatha-Raw’s character is the most engaging part of the film given its inherent conflict, and I’ll credit writer/director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) with how restrained he is about dealing with her sexual abuse from slavery. The relationship is treated very tenderly and Mbatha-Raw aces her scenes. Also warning to dog lovers: there are several sequences of violence against man’s best friend that will be hard to watch. Free State of Jones works better as a history lesson rather than as a fully formed movie.

Nate’s Grade: C+

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016)

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.

michael-bay-s-13-hours-the-secret-soldiers-of-benghaziThis 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-

%d bloggers like this: