Archive for the ‘war’ category

1917

December 29, 2019

1917 Watching the immersive World War I movie 1917 makes for a divided experience: it’s a fine and compelling story, and the level of craft is unquestionable, but the mode of storytelling may hold us at a distance rather than immersing us. We’re in Northern France, and a British general (hey look kids, it’s Colin Firth!) assigns two corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), to go deliver a message to keep a couple of battalions from walking into a German trap. In other words, in the middle of all this muck and death and gore, these two guys are sent off on a pacifist mission — with the added urgency that one of the soldiers who must be called back from the fight is Blake’s brother.

All well and good. But director Sam Mendes (American Beauty and the last two Bond films) has chosen to construct 1917 as seemingly one unbroken shot (with a lot of digital trickery and one blackout). Sometimes this works to plunge us, as well as our two protagonists, into the inferno — we become an invisible third soldier, tagging along. Sometimes we even forget about the technique when the camerawork isn’t so insistently clever and we’re not wondering how many times certain lengthy takes had to be filmed if someone sneezed or blew a line. But some of it feels overextended; the suspense drains away and we’re left to admire the filmmakers (including master cinematographer Roger Deakins and editor Lee Smith) as they strain mightily to accomplish … what? The artifice of the unending take doesn’t connect to anything thematically, and it’s draining.

Chapman and especially MacKay convey grinding exhaustion, which, because of the filmmaking that wrenches us into lockstep with them, we share. They’re not given much space or time to develop personalities, either attractive or repulsive. (If Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns had chosen to make one of both of them annoying idiots nonetheless entrusted with a great mission, it might’ve been suicidal for the movie, but possibly interesting for a while.) The men are blanks by design: we’re meant to project ourselves onto them. And though Mendes is probably too modern a director to make the heroes stoic and brave, he also doesn’t make them ugly or cowardly. They’re meant, after all, as a tribute to Mendes’ own grandfather, upon whose WWI experience (at least as he told it) 1917 is based. Generally, though, most of the war movies that might occur to you as great films weren’t made to honor a specific veteran in the filmmaker’s family. They were made to illuminate war, not the warrior.

Certain scenes, though lovely in passing or elaborately ghastly, seem to place themselves in competition with Dunkirk or Paths of Glory or Alejandro González Iñárritu’s last two movies. Despite the technique (which Hitchcock’s Rope inaugurated at feature length over 70 years ago), 1917 feels like a regression compared with Sam Mendes’ previous war movie, or warrior-without-combat movie, 2005’s Jarhead. That movie touched on a subject generally ignored by war pictures: the boredom of war, the stultifying existential dilemma of being trained to kill and then being thwarted from doing it. And yet, in the moment, our rarin’-to-go jarhead hero is caught between disappointment that he doesn’t get to kill and relief that he doesn’t have to kill. There’s a lot more to unpack and chew on in a sarcastic, very Gen-X half-satire like Jarhead than there ever is in 1917.

A film, or any work, can be extraordinarily well-wrought and still feel a bit pointless. An abundance of fiddly labor, little flicks of the wrist, all meant to leave us impressed by the challenge of the very doing of the work. Would 1917 work as well if edited conventionally? Well, its technique does give it a hurtling-along quality, a beat-the-clock pulse. And at certain points, we seem to be watching one of the corporals bob along down some rapids for minutes on end, and we feel we’re getting sidetracked from the mission, just as the corporal is. Our impatience becomes incorporated into the suspense. Other times, though, we just feel impatient, and we have to gobble the fleeting hits of poetry or beauty as we run along with the corporals. 1917 uses its technique, finally, not to pull us into complicity with its characters but to deny us pleasure. It’s self-important and ungenerous.

They Shall Not Grow Old

May 19, 2019

theyshall Near the end of the immersive World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, director/assembler Peter Jackson gives us perhaps the most breathtaking sound in the whole film: silence. Before that, we have heard the staccato of rifle fire, the grunts and creaks of tank treads, the death-dealing bass of artillery shells. But here, Jackson lets us hear something close to what Kurt Vonnegut described as the voice of God. “When I was a boy,” Vonnegut wrote in Breakfast of Champions, “all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.”

We don’t have them any more, of course — veterans of the War to End All Wars are long dead now, and those of WWII and Korea aren’t far behind. What Jackson has done, aided by firsthand accounts on the soundtrack from men who fought in the trenches, is to capture and modernize a period when Satan walked the earth, when weapons of mass destruction — machine guns, mustard gas, flame throwers, shrapnel — came into wide use. World War I was a bloody, filthy, diseased, maggot-ridden experience, repulsive in almost every way, and Jackson does his best to make it vivid for current audiences, using technology to slow and smooth the stuttery, farcical Keystone Kops effect you always get from early-20th-century newsreels, so that the filmed record of these muddy, exhausted men takes its place alongside footage of later wars.

They Shall Not Grow Old is probably the finest thing Peter Jackson has had his hand in since Heavenly Creatures. In both, he kicks off with deceptive old-timey footage; here, it goes on for about 25 minutes, at which point we arrive at the front and the film opens out to widescreen and blossoms into (subdued) color. After the war has ended, Jackson constricts the image back to squarish black-and-white. In a way, the film is something of a cheeky riposte to Christopher Nolan’s you-are-there WWII epic Dunkirk; Jackson could be saying “Good job, mate, but you had the luxury of stars and re-enactment, didn’t you?” As the (disembodied) voices continue on the soundtrack, our imaginations fill in a lot, and, as with many WWI accounts, we may wonder how anyone could have survived. A plague seems to have descended among men; Satan walks and God, until 11/11/18, is conspicuous in His absence.

We see many bodies reduced to ghostless meat, pale and torn apart, consigned to the mud and becoming part of the muck that drowned other soldiers who unluckily fell into it. Hell on Earth! Some of the voices are chipper or matter-of-fact — that incomparable British get-on-with-it attitude — others haunted or choked with trauma. Jackson takes his cue from the veterans’ accounts, indulging in neither rabble-rousing nor the modern privilege of hindsight. These were men who were born around the turn of the 20th century, and were not our idea of enlightened. (Jackson plays a popular bawdy song of the period, “Mademoiselle from Armentières,” under the end credits.) Still, though, there is room for compassion and even kinship between the English and the Germans. They have been trained to slaughter each other without hesitation, but near the finish, when it looks as though more killing would be beside the point, the adversaries sit and talk and eat together.            

Until then, though, the mood is dread-ridden — when it doesn’t give way to nervous giggles. They Shall Not Grow Old is as much about how men function under fire as about the fire itself. Many weren’t even men yet; many died still boys. WWI birthed the concept of “shell shock,” which became “combat stress reaction,” which became “post-traumatic stress disorder.” The constant of war — the thousand-yard stare coveted by an unwise combat photographer in Full Metal Jacket — is everywhere present in this film. In that first half hour or so, voice after voice tells us he joined because it was the thing to do, you stood up and fought for your country, et cetera. They had no idea of the infernal meat grinder they were signing up for, which would pulverize them into machinery or into parts.

Journey’s End

March 25, 2018

journeys endThe necessarily melancholy Journey’s End, a World War I drama, has been around a while. How long? A 21-year-old Laurence Olivier made his first big splash in the source material, R.C. Sherriff’s well-regarded play, in 1928. The current film version is the fifth such adaptation; the first was James Whale’s debut, in 1930. And yet it doesn’t feel old, perhaps because Sherriff, an army officer in the war, left any cant out of it. No one harrumphs on about the glory of sacrifice — or the insanity of war. It’s just these men, many barely old enough to harvest whiskers, waiting for their turn to step into the bear trap. At the time the tale is told (March 1918, or roughly a century ago), the war is still eight months away from armistice — plenty of time for many thousands more men to die in the mud.

A newcomer to the material might expect Journey’s End to follow Second Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), a wet-eared though not toffee-nosed young officer who asks to be assigned to the company commanded by a pre-war friend, Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin, stepping into Olivier’s big shoes). But the  story, at least as told here, focuses more on Stanhope, human wreckage trying to hold himself together with whiskey, and his friendship with his second-in-command, Lieutenant Osborne (Paul Bettany, looking more than ever like the young Max von Sydow). Raleigh is more of an object here, a thing that introduces drama and brings Stanhope’s tensions to the fore. Stanhope, you see, was involved with Raleigh’s sister, and if Raleigh writes a letter to her mentioning what a mess her brother has become…

This string of the narrative is standard dramaturgy that could, in theory, unfold anywhere (Raleigh is off to medical school, let’s say, and discovers old chum Stanhope, an anxiety-ridden third-year resident popping pills to stay awake). But here it’s linked to the war and the agony of dread it causes all the men — existential dread to the nth degree, the horror of a man watching an unknown other man gurgle and die in the muck, and knowing there’s no reason he himself is alive (for now) and the other is not. A good part of the action happens offstage — or offscreen, rather — betraying the film’s origins on the boards; a major character dies out of our sight, which we don’t expect to happen in a movie. (It does, however, make for a delayed jolt that films don’t usually do, but which is part of a playwright’s bag of tricks.)

Directed by Saul Dibb (Suite Française) mostly with hushed intimacy, Journey’s End lets off a few bangs — most of the combat is reserved for the third act — but is often found picking up the sounds of a straight razor scraping off stubble, or a cigarette torching into life, or an exhausted soldier sipping tea that tastes of onions. Indeed, all the senses are engaged here, the narrative slowed down just enough for us to share in the tactility of the men’s discomfort. The actors scale down their performances accordingly; Claflin has the flashier role, getting drunk and upbraiding everyone around him (most of the men absorb his abuse with a shrug), but is also allowed quieter moments to create pockets of fear and sickness.

It’s all a bit of a lad’s tale — we’re on the movie’s home stretch before we see our first female face (with no voice) — and a white lad’s tale, too. (Someday soon we may see a film about the Harlem Hellfighters, or perhaps a biopic of Dorothy Lawrence.) Period war movies may be the only genre left that can plausibly ignore the modern (and justified) demand for diversity; the least such movies can do is reveal the cracks in the façade of privilege, and Journey’s End does so. A good portion of the film’s pathos lies in the pained smile of Paul Bettany’s Osborne, a schoolmaster in pre-war life, who has seen the apocalypse of the new mechanized way of war. In the face of the mass meat grinder of the war that was supposed to end all wars, a man can try to retain some humanity. That’s about it.

Dunkirk

December 24, 2017

dunkirk-2017To what extent do we not really see a movie — see it, hear it, experience it — if we haven’t seen it on the big screen? The life of a film, after all, goes on long past its youth in the multiplexes; most people will come to it via DVD, or even on cable. Christopher Nolan’s World War II epic Dunkirk (an epic though it only lasts roughly an hour and forty minutes, plus end credits) was initially released in some theaters in the mammoth IMAX format, creating an immersive aspect that mitigated its otherwise somewhat impersonal narrative. Richard Brody opined in the New Yorker that Dunkirk, “if it’s not seen in enveloping and engulfing and body-shaking scale, may be nothing at all.” I, however, have just seen it on the fifteen-inch monitor of my laptop, and heard it through ear buds. If you missed it writ (or projected) large, you haven’t missed much; the movie is as stressful and relentless scaled down, and may even pick up some points for subtle intimacy that may have eluded the film’s deafened, overwhelmed theatrical viewers.

Nolan has approached the story of Dunkirk — from which 300,000 English and French soldiers withdrew and headed to England — as an experiential, almost experimental affair. We get no backstories among the soldiers or fighter pilots or officers, nor does Nolan observe very many well-worn combat-flick tropes. This isn’t like Saving Private Ryan, which yoked several technically superb war sequences to a series of clichéd leftovers from older war pictures. In this context — where the point is to get as many men out of harm’s way as possible so they can survive to defend England’s shores — perhaps the most heroic moment is a small, sad one, when a shell-shocked soldier asks about a young volunteer, “Will he be okay?” The volunteer’s friend knows the truth — the soldier, in his panic, has inadvertently killed the young man — but opts to protect the soldier from his guilt by responding in the affirmative.

That soldier might, after all, go on to fight for England and save lives. What would anyone gain from the fallen man’s mate spitting out “No, he’s dead, you killed him”? There’s a refreshing aura of the adult about Dunkirk. There exists an efficient ender of German hopes, a Spitfire pilot played by Tom Hardy (who, as in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, spends most of his screen time with his lower face obscured by a mask). The pilot escorts several Nazis to hell, but he simply has a job to do, and he does it. About his life, about his plans interrupted by the war, we know precisely nothing. Nobody matters personally because everyone matters collectively. Dunkirk does flip back and forth between various sets of survivors, a small civilian boat requisitioned for the purpose of scooping up any floating soldiers, and the patch of land that must be kept clear for retreat (Kenneth Branagh brings some warmth and weariness to his few minutes as a commander monitoring the evacuation on land). Sky, earth, sea.

Dunkirk comes as close to an act of pure cinema as anything Nolan has made; he dispenses with dialogue and “character moments” in an effort to cut to the bone, to extract the essence of the event, which was survival. “Good work, lads,” says a blind old man greeting the young soldiers. “All we did was survive,” answers one of them. “That’s enough,” says the old man. The lack of Hollywood orientation (here’s a young lad who leaves behind a worried mother and girlfriend) helps us map our own fears and hopes onto the young men. (I think we fleetingly see one woman, a nurse, who points weary soldiers below decks where they can tuck into tea and toast with jam.)

It’s not quite just a virtuoso exercise, though Nolan here proves himself a master of the technical effects he strives for and achieves. (The only real demerit on this front is Hans Zimmer’s typical overbearing, discordant score.) Dunkirk is as uninterested in political context as are any of its hungry, terrified soldiers, whose experience we are obliged to share. The Germans are mostly felt only as the piercing staccato of enemy gunfire; whenever one of their planes goes down, the movie eschews exultation in favor of simple relief at a micro-disaster averted within a larger, growing catastrophe. This could be the war movie, made at a time when its physical extremes could be effectively, even beautifully, simulated, released at a time when we need its narrative of ascendant though exhausted decency.

War for the Planet of the Apes

July 17, 2017

apes-1_1And so the rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy comes to an end. I hope it’s the end, anyway — not that I haven’t immensely enjoyed and admired all three of these films, but this one just puts such a perfect period on the saga, not an ellipsis. The ending also, if you want it to, neatly feeds into the previous Apes pentalogy. Part war flick, part western, part prison escape picture, and all high-powered blockbuster, War for the Planet of the Apes borrows from a lot of sources but shuffles them into its own wounded deck of complex and subtle emotions. It runs on the melancholy power of its co-writer/director, Matt Reeves (who also helmed the previous installment, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). If you forget the metaphorically robust but somewhat campy original Apes movies and let War take you where it’s going, it’s quietly devastating.

Most of the movie, indeed, is quiet, and the grand finale of explosions nevertheless has a layer of sadness underneath it. War picks up a few years after the last one left off. Caesar (voice and digitalized physical performance by Andy Serkis), the leader of the apes against the brute forces of humanity, finds his (figurative) crown growing heavier by the day. A rogue faction of soldiers, led by a bald crackpot known only as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), lays down some hot death and claims the lives of Caesar’s wife and elder son. Caesar permits himself little time to mourn before taking off in pursuit of the Colonel, accompanied by a few die-hard friends/soldiers who insist on going with him.

The film isn’t very “plotty.” The script by Reeves and Mark Bomback leaves room for character moments. It’s much more important that we discern exactly how Caesar fears becoming like his former, bitter right-hand ape Koba, and how he might actually resemble Koba, in terms of unquenchable rage. There’s also room for various characters, good and bad, painted in tones of gray; even the Colonel is given a backstory that explains, though doesn’t justify, his bullet-headed ruthlessness. These new Apes films have never fallen into a facile “apes good, humans bad” formula. Some apes are not good (some of them have defected to the human army, where they’re derisively called “donkeys” and commanded to help out in combat against the apes), and some humans are not bad (there’s a mute little girl who’s both a callback to and a bridge to the first two original Apes films).

War is pure megabudget cinema done right; Michael Seresin’s lush photography and Michael Giacchino’s epic, emotive score make the case for this being the kind of emotionally gratifying summer blockbuster Steven Spielberg no longer makes. Serkis can rest assured he’s added a great, conflicted hero to the pantheon, and there’s a terrific comic-relief performance from Steve Zahn (of course) as an easily frightened ape who calls himself Bad Ape — am I crazy or is Zahn channeling Elisha Cook Jr.? The movie has taken some flak for being predominantly male, which it is, except for its Newt-like orphan girl and the fact that Caesar’s orangutan adviser Maurice is voiced/performed by a woman, Karin Konoval. That seems backward in the summer of Wonder Woman, but one movie can’t address all inequities.

It’s probably enough that the paranoid Colonel wants to build a wall — not to keep out apes but to keep out other humans. Caesar may be Willard to the Colonel’s Kurtz (a line of graffiti just comes right out and name-checks Apocalypse Now) — and at least the Colonel doesn’t scrawl anything as obvious as “Exterminate all the brutes” — but he’s not a numb killer like Willard. He feels himself sliding into that territory, but when the moment of truth comes, he does not kill. “It’s a hard heart that kills,” shouts the drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket (another of this film’s influences), but despite everything that the world has thrown at it, Caesar’s heart has not hardened. War is about mercy and empathy, which makes it a nicely organic anti-war film.

Wonder Woman

June 4, 2017

wonderwoman2Towards the middle of Wonder Woman, when the central heroine Diana of Themyscira (Gal Gadot) is running through the no-man’s-land (ha) of a battlefield and deflecting hundreds of German bullets, either you recognize the subtextual power of this image or you find it a typical bit of superhero-movie action. I’d submit the latter is not the most productive lens through which to view Wonder Woman, here as well as its earlier iterations. This ideal of strong femininity has always been greater than the sum of her parts. I could say that the movie has its flaws particular to its status as a superhero film inside a larger superhero narrative, but it doesn’t matter. Wonder Woman is an indelible symbol of sane female compassion against nihilistic male violence. She didn’t make the cover of the first Ms. magazine for nothin’, and this fourth movie of the DC Extended Universe (after Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Suicide Squad) stands well on its own and will gather deeper relevance than any other superhero flick.

Gal Gadot does what’s needed as Diana; the role is bigger than she is, but she gives Diana’s heroism a nice underlayer of sadness and regret. Diana has lived all her life with the Amazons on what we used to call Paradise Island, hearing about war (and its author, Ares) without knowing it. War soon invades the idyll of the island in the person of American pilot and spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), with German soldiers in hot pursuit. It’s late in World War I, or, as Trevor calls it, “the War … the war to end all wars.” The retrospective irony of that phrase is bitter, as is Diana’s realization that there isn’t just one convenient supervillain to blame for war. Ares whispers in our ears; we take it from there.

Diana carves a swath through the German army, seeking only to defend or to deflect. She isn’t a stone killer, just as she wasn’t in the cheesy but beloved TV series with Lynda Carter, who could knock thugs or Nazis for a loop but preferred to be strong to be kind. Diana is, of course, a warrior, trained as such by her fierce aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) against the wishes of her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). Wright and Nielsen, both 51 and seemingly still peaking physically, show us what power without masculinity looks like. Diana takes a bit from each woman. She will fight, but only when absolutely necessary. For the most part, her strength is hidden behind fake glasses and under a gray uniform, much like that of Superman.

Wonder Woman may be part of the doom-laden, ugly, “dark” and gritty DC film-verse, and by virtue of unfolding during one of the more costly and grotesque wars it certainly has its grim moments. But its director, Patty Jenkins — who helmed 2003’s excellent Aileen Wuornos biopic Monster and hadn’t directed another feature film until now — brings a refreshing clarity to it, a productive mix of gravitas and winking. At certain times, the movie seems very aware of being a cultural lightning rod with a lot of eyes on it. At other times it forges ahead swiftly (Wonder Woman runs two hours and twenty-one minutes but goes by fast), uninterested in anything outside itself and its musings about the nature of war and the nature of mankind.

As has become a tradition with superhero films, there are too many villains, though our time spent with them (including an uber-proto-Nazi played by Danny Huston and a mad mutilated genius named Dr. Poison played by Elena Anaya with a half-mask recalling Jack Huston in Boardwalk Empire) is agreeably pulpy. Pulpiness is sort of baked into the concept; Wonder Woman’s creator William Moulton Marston was working out ideas about femininity — seeing no reason why a strong woman couldn’t also be submissive, he contrived to put Diana in bondage in a bunch of the powerfully idiosyncratic feminist-cum-fetishist comic-book stories of the ‘40s. The movie’s Diana is briefly restrained, but not a lot of Marston’s thoughts inform the film, which is fine; Wonder Woman is bigger than he is, too. Lynda Carter can wear her, or Gal Gadot, but ultimately she belongs to all girls and women, a symbol of gentle power that can’t help but endure. Or persist.

Unbroken

December 21, 2014

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“If you can take it, you can make it,” says the helpful brother of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) early in Unbroken, giving us, though not Louis, an idea of what we’re in for. What does it take — what fortitude, what inner reserves of strength or patience — to make it to the end of Unbroken? The first hour cuts back and forth between Louis’ pre-war life as just the fastest, bestest runner you ever saw, and Louis as a bombardier in World War II, before his plane goes down in the ocean and he and two fellow soldiers survive on a raft for forty-seven days. Then the raft bumps into a Japanese warship. From there, you will spend the next sixty-five minutes with Louis in a POW camp and then a colder POW camp.

These epics (usually singing the praises of the Greatest Generation) that make a virtue of endurance always make the mistake of demanding endurance of the audience as well. There’s an element of shaming in this: If Louis Zamperini could spend years of his life being tortured in a POW camp, you can spend two hours of yours watching him being tortured, you non-Greatest Generation sissies. Based on a bestseller by Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken has attracted a lot of intelligent talent: a run of screenwriters (William Nicholson, then Richard LaGravenese, then Joel and Ethan Coen) and director Angelina Jolie, and it’s hard to say what enticed any of them. The movie is about a man who suffers and perseveres and survives, and it isn’t about anything other than that.

Well, maybe it is: it’s also about homoerotic sadism, a theme that most every prison yarn is good for, even after Jean Genet’s Un Chant D’Amour made it explicit in 1950. Louis draws the eye of Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Miyavi), aka “the Bird,” a POW sergeant who takes out his career frustration on the allied prisoners and especially on tough, attractive Louis. This sadist looks and acts feminine and sometimes seems to be leching after Louis; after a while, nobody else in the camp interests Watanabe — he only has eyes for Louis. This all is drawn crudely, with none of the formal tension of something like Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. I haven’t read the book — did the born-again Louis make as much of Watanabe’s fixation on him as the film does? Jolie, good liberal that she is, presents the dynamic but mutes it. As it is, Watanabe represents nothing but grinning sadism, as Louis stands for nothing but stoic American Christian resilience.

After the CIA torture report has come to light, it’s amusing that an epic about the spiritual value of enduring torture should become the country’s big Christmas Day release. Is Louis meant to be our very own American Christ, suffering for humanity’s sins and then forgiving his tormentors (as we’re told at the end, in some onscreen text that might’ve made for a more interesting film than the one we’ve just sat through)? Jolie straight-up turns Louis into Jesus at one point, when Louis, carrying a heavy plank over his head, casts a cruciform shadow on the soil of the prison camp. Louis hefting the plank is also the central image of the marketing. What’s actually going on here? Those who made this long, grinding tribute to The Passion of the American may find the question hurtful, but I say if you make it, you can take it.