Argo seems to be unsure of what it is: it begins as a Paul Greengrass-inflected piece of political filmmaking, with newsreel footage interspersed with stage material, in a way that would be impressive if the movie had done a better job of setting the stage. There’s a cheap-looking, animated storyboard opening with voiceover narration explaining the political climate in Iran when the movie takes place. I suppose it mirrors the fake storyboards shown later on, but this feels rushed and does not do a good job of igniting the narrative,. We’re struggling for the first 15 minutes or so of the movie, and life is finally injected into the movie when John Goodman and Alan Arkin show up as movie professionals that help Ben Affleck make his fake movie cover story. Then the movie goes into satiric territory, and it’s surprisingly good and entertaining, but that ends soon, and gives way to a way more generic political thriller. Affleck should be commended, though, for keeping most of the movie understated and not exploiting situations for obvious, cheap thrills. This is a sort of backhanded criticism, however. The movie could’ve been so much worse, but that does not mean it’s good: it only means that there is some visible restraint at work here. In the final 15 minutes, Affleck succumbs to the pressure of having to have an emotional payoff, and he delivers a sequence that is well-put together, but that does not earn any points for trying to keep the movie grounded in any kind of realism. It is based on a true story, but the movie strains our suspension of disbelief in exchange for some, admittedly, needed thrills. That does not mean car chases or shootouts. The emotional high points of this movie could easily have been minor, second-act in a movie with a bigger scale. And this is what makes it satisfying. B
This documentary is an exquisite montage of footage from NASA missions to the moon shot by the astronauts themselves. Often we hear their commentary, but there are no talking heads, there is no disruption from the authentic visual experience. Added the sublime music of Brian Eno, composed especially for the film (and ended up on the album Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks), one gets the feeling of watching fiction rather than a documentary. This is often the sign of a powerful narrative. The footage is edited from a number of missions, although the “story” is supposed to follow Apollo 11 and the first landing on the moon, so there is a multiplicity of film stock and image quality. It’s a clever and practical choice, every mission being metonymically Apollo 11, and this plays beautifully with the idea that this epic voyage is somehow in the realm of fiction, of the imagined — 2001: A Space Odyssey and dreams are alluded to — and of our memories.
Ron Howard’s films are usually simplistic and condescending, but they generally deal with trivial subject matter (A Beautiful Mind, Edtv, How the Grinch Stole Christmas). Frost/Nixon, on the other hand, is his attempt to be for the first time, serious, and whereas it is by far the most entertaining of his films to date, it is also the most unnerving. Based on play by Peter Morgan (The Queen), the film has the slightly preposterous premise that Richard Nixon, after his resignation from the presidency of the United States following Watergate, was a deeply troubled man who needed an outlet, precisely to communicate an apology to the American public, and that by doing so on the Frost interviews, he got rid of his demons.
As Elizabeth Drew made perfectly clear in her column at the Huffington Post (“A Dishonorable Distortion of History“), Morgan’s and Howard’s version of the facts is ludicrous, a filmic construct bearing no more relation to reality than Howard’s previous movie (The Da Vinci Code). While it’s not necessary that a historical movie dealing with historical figures has to be factual (take Oliver Stone’s fascinating JFK and Nixon, for instance), Frost/Nixon is dangerous because it romanticizes Nixon too much. Frank Langella’s portrayal of Nixon is delightful, making him a towering figure who’s at the same time brilliant, fallible, funny and heroic: not at all what one would expect from Richard Nixon. By the same token, the conscientious David Frost is bashed to the point of ridicule, played as a brainless womanizer who hopes the Nixon interviews will bring him a lot of dough.
For a 2008 audience, Langella’s Nixon evokes the illusion that America’s 37th president was a far more interesting and competent man than its current president, George W. Bush. It probably was, but you come out of the movie thinking not of Nixon’s atrocities and mistakes – alluded to only indirectly – but fascinated by Langella, and we confuse the performance for the man himself. I’ve read more than one review, by people who lived in the Nixon administration, dazzled by how this man was just a misunderstood genius. He wasn’t, and the Frost/Nixon interviews did nothing to redeem him (personally, who knows?) in the American public’s eye: it was a ploy engineered by Nixon and his assessors, and he was the one who profited the most from it, facts that the film omits.
Judith Warner, writing on The New York Times, theorizes on why the “sixties before it became the sixties” came to be the preferred ethos of our decade in film and TV.
… as an unrebellious, cautious, anxious generation, many of us are living lives not all that different from those of the parents of the early 1960s, yet without the seeming ease, privileges and benefits. Husbands have been stripped of the power perks of their gender, wives of the anticipation that they’ll be taken care of for life.
Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men‘s been getting all the attention, deservedly, and now Revolutionary Road, based on a 1961 Richard Yates novel that writers and critics hold as the definitive statement of that particular class and era. Sam Mendes’ version has been apparently championed by his wife and star of the film, Kate Winslet, in a probable attempt to finally get that Oscar, since the role is pratically tailored to her abilities. In 2006 she starred in Todd Field’s Little Children, which not only touched on similar themes, but the novel it was based on, by Tom Perrotta, follows Yates’ blueprint almost to the letter. It’s true that nothing in Little Children could have prepared for the devastatingly brutality of Revolutionary Road, which is the closest American cinema can get to the starkness of Bergman – think Scenes from a Marriage.
While Justin Haythe’s script is a competent and swift compression of the novel, Mendes’ rendition is too icy, bereft of the life Yates imparted to these characters. One of the greatest strengths of the book, one recognized by DiCaprio and Winslet is that every character seems to lead separate lives, and Yates uses these perspective shifts to great effect in the novel. There is no structural parallel to this in the film, and we have to rest on the ability of the actors to portray this. While Winslet does give a greatly nuanced performance, it seems too self-conscious and too studied, she seems to be aware of every little contortion of her face and its meaning all the time. It came to me that maybe it was intentional, since her character, April, is supposed to be a frustrated actress, but given April’s disastrous performance in the play that opens the movie, it seems rather unlikely (April’s only great performance will come in the breakfast scene, but the way Winslet does it, Frank couldn’t have bought it). A few key line readings are just too calculated, such as “Oh, you’ll what? You’ll leave me. What’s that supposed to be, a threat or a promise?”. In this light, DiCaprio comes off as the better actor, allowing himself to be closer to the character of Frank – he lacks the self-awareness that Winslet brings to the part.
The ending is also rather disappointing because of this flattening of perspective. Mendes decided to show a key event Yates alluded to indirectly. The result of this in the novel is that it was done through the eyes of Frank, and it resonates strongly on his feelings of guilt and impotence. In Mendes’ version, Frank is left out of the equation, and what we get is a undramatic tableau of extended self-pity on the part of April. Frankly, it doesn’t work. Something must be said also of Michael Shannon’s role – in the book he seems to be the most sane character, an outsider who speaks his mind and defuses the values and insecurity of Frank and April’s world, and Shannon does it brilliantly, as Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, on very thin ice, verging on caricature.
What is most dispiriting about the new version of Brideshead Revisited is how it resembles more a banal summary of the original 1981 miniseries than a new take on Waugh’s novel. There are of course discrepancies between the two versions, but certainly Julian Jarrold (Becoming Jane) and his screenwriters could have found a new way to approach the story. Obviously the temporal compression of the movie goes against one of its main themes, the passage of time: events occur far too quickly, the characters are not given time to process them. Jarrold’s film is more of a curio, a postcard version with beautiful images, with all the superficiality such a description can bear.
Ben Whishaw as Sebastian Flyte is a caricature, Michael Gambon and Emma Thompson as his parents, are wasted. Haley Atwell (The Duchess) as Julia is the best thing in the movie, as pointed out by A. O. Scott. The story’s climax, Lord Marchmain’s last rites (in the series, played by Laurence Olivier) harkens back to GK Chesterton (and the Father Brown short stories the Flytes copiously read):
I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.
Lord Marchmain, who had renounced God, reedems himself in these final moments, affirming the power of religion among the Flytes, and explains, in a devastating way, why Charles and Julia cannot be together. In Jarrold’s film, the religion barrier seems more like a whim carried over from Lady Marchmain. Charles’ overwhelming guilt towards Sebastian culminates in the final scene in the chapel – which doesn’t even make sense in the movie.
Vanishing Point asks questions: who is Kowalski, why is he running from the police, why does he need to get to San Francisco before? The movie tries to flesh out Kowalski through a series of cheesy flashbacks but these don’t answer anything, they just act as breathing spaces for its relentless linearity and finality. It is one long car chase, done at the time in American cinema where the role of the car was being reexamined. The French Connection celebrates its cinetic power; American Graffiti‘s cars are extensions of their characters, a mobile space of social interaction; Spielberg’s Duel comes close to Vanishing Point in conflating the car chase as plot, and the car as a character. It is no wonder Tarantino chose to quote so obviously from Vanishing Point, the sight of the white Dodge Challenger racing across the roads and deserts of the Western United States achieve a kind of magical power.
There’s no sense in ascribing motives or psychology to Kowalski, he is not even a character in the usual sense, the car is. Super Soul, the blind DJ who listens in the police radio elevates Kowalski as a mythical figure, a hero for early 70’s counterculture. This is no Easy Rider, though. It’s not a road movie, it’s a car movie, as stupid as that sounds. It’s not about who and what Kowalski finds along the way or what led him to do it. As much as there seems to be some half-hearted attempts to give conventional meaning to the movie, it’s essentially meaningless. There’s no meaning beyond what see on the screen, and that is the Dodge Challenger – not Kowalski – speeding until there’s nowhere else to go. And this is probably why he is elected as the counterculture hero: there’s only the act of subversion, without reason and purpose.
It’s irrelevant to ask why should we need another Indiana Jones, even taking into account Harrison Ford’s age, the absence of Sean Connery and the possibilty of George Lucas ruining another of his franchises (given the great job he did with Star Wars). We know that Spielberg and Lucas were careful (planning and producing this movie for years now) enough to be aware of these and a number of other problems, so maybe it’s better to ask another kind of questions. There were always a million reasons not to make a fourth Indy movie, but now that it’s here, the matter is not whether it’s good as the previous instalments (of course it isn’t), but how does it change how we see Indiana Jones, and what is his role in cinema and our culture in 2008. We don’t have an answer, but we try.
Bloggers have recently pointed out that the key for interpreting any Indiana Jones movie is in its opening sequence. For instance, Temple of Doom emphasized the eccentric and stylized nature of these movies, with the deliciously exaggerated dance sequence of “Anything Goes”. Crystal Skull harkens back to American Graffiti, of all things, the Paramount logo dissolving to a gopher mound to show a 1950s convertible with youngsters to the sound of “Hound Dog” crossing paths with a military convoy in the desert. This hints at the twofold nature of the 1950s ethos, full of innocence and paranoia, since the officers are in fact KGB agents penetrating into a US Army restricted area. This will come into play in the following scene, as Indy inadvertently enters a nuclear test site, walking into a simulacrum of suburban post-war America, a town peopled with mannequins. A bomb is about to go off (CGI is finally put to good use) – the image of a diminutive Indy against a huge mushroom cloud is indelible and should have a high place in the Indy iconography. He escapes, sure, but now it looks as if the powers of destruction of the Ark of the Covenant so feared in Raiders are merely child’s play – is Indy a hero made for these times? Is he even on the right side?
The attempt to locate and situate Indy in the 1950s is welcome, and it deals with some of the more superficial anxieties of the decade: communism, McCarthyism, aliens. The simulacrum of post-war America becomes even more significant as the villain, Cate Blanchett’s Soviet agent Irina Spalko, voices her evil plans, to turn “you”, the Americans, free living people, into “us”, communists, and without even realizing it (that’s what the crystal skull is for). What she wants is an era of psychic warfare, a battle to dominate the minds – something which was already taking place. The issue at stake is to shake and destroy the hegemony, that idea of America that Indy defended bravely in Raiders and Last Crusade. Who can forget Henry Jones’ deliciously campy line, “If the Nazis put their hands on the Grail, the armies of darkness will march upon the face of the Earth!”? Now America enacts the destruction of its own society with the nuclear testings. That scene is crucial because it represent a more mature world-view than elsewhere in the Indiana Jones series – it’s disturbing because somehow it doesn’t fit.
The rest of the film is far more conventional – not unenjoyable, but not as challenging – and Indy is off looking for treasures and fighting off the bad guys. In the end, as Spalko is destroyed by her own thirst of knowledge – held by no one other than aliens, here in the figure of ancient patriarchs – Spielberg reiterates one of his strongest themes. It’s in all Indiana Jones movies, but more directly in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (not coincidentally the one screenplay of Spielberg’s career he penned himself), as Roy decides to enter the spaceship in the end. We never get to know what there is for the aliens to teach us – Close Encounters was about the obsession and the curiosity, but Roy is the good guy; in Indiana Jones those who seek too much end up destroying themselves. The ark is locked away and forgotten, and the Grail is long gone after Henry says to Indy just to “let go”. Likewise, as order is restored (the crystal skull is returned to where it belongs), the knowledge is taken away and erased. It’s significant that the aliens are the the true patriarchs of the human race, they hold the seed of the knowledge – so Indy assumes. Unlike the ark and the Grail, the skull is not a Judeo-Christian artifact, but it’s certainly no less mythical or even religious. Indy survives becauses he really “believes”, he says, and that’s why he’s humble enough not to challenge (the) God(s).
It’s strange that Spielberg treats something so transgressive, like in Close Encounters, when Roy neglects and almost destroys his family because of his obsession, with so much deference. Roy renounces it to accept another set of values and another “family”, in a way. (I know he said that if he made the movie now he wouldn’t have Roy go up in the spaceship, but that is against the whole point of the film) In Crystal Skull, there is again a deference to the power of the deities, and to the knowledge man is not meant to have, a decidedly conservative and conventional point of view – predominant in all Indiana Jones films. Indy, being persecuted by the FBI for allegedly helping KGB agents, is off to Europe when Mutt tracks him down and leads him to the adventure, and eventually Indy is able to restore order to his life by accepting, more than ever – a role as a father and husband. The end of Last Crusade provided perfect closure to the series – Indy’s family then being Henry, Marcus and Sallah. Now he is part of a more traditional, bonafide nuclear family – he’s getting old and so is Spielberg.