This is a clever, touching story of harried Ministry of Information filmmakers working on a “Dunkirk” morale booster propaganda picture during the Blitz. An ode to the magic of movies and Brit pluck, the script is sly and witty, and the love interests (Gemma Arterton and Sam Claflin) have actual chemistry. But if none of that were true, I’d still recommend the picture unreservedly for Bill Nighy’s hilarious turn as a fussy, conceited, insecure actor who cannot accept that his age has negated his role as the hero. As usual, he’s marvelous. One reviewer aptly called Night “a colossally proportioned scene-stealer”, which is spot on.
John Ford’s western, an extremely loose re-imagining of the Custer massacre, surprises in numerous ways. The film has a heady sense of humor – the hard-boozing Irish of The Quiet Man are present, but not quite so cartoonishly so. It again reveals that John Wayne was quite underrated as a dramatic actor. But it is most unique in its melding of patriotic lore and bitter cynicism, ultimately concluding that the fraudulent propagation of patriotic heroism is at a minimum a necessary evil and perhaps even a critical component of the national ethos. What matters, ultimately, is the myth.
It is also, of course, beautiful in its use of Monument Valley.
A beautifully rendered film that both personalizes the cruelty and haphazard nature of war and presents it in the broader context of national sacrifice and pride. Christopher Nolan depicts the evacuation of Dunkirk from the vantage point of the officers responsible for the endeavor, the foot soldiers desperate to get away, and the military and civilian rescuers who, with the Nazis having inexplicably failed to press their advantage after Blitzkrieg and the collapse of France, race to Dunkirk to save upwards of 400,00 stranded troops. Nolan’s approach is tonally somber, underscored by composer Hans Zimmer’s minimalist, ticking clock soundtrack. Nolan also alters sequence, which has the effect of giving the audience a feeling in line with that of the troops: a constant need to get its bearings.
This one won’t win any acting awards, simply because it is so sparse, but almost everyone is very good (in particular, Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance), and former teen heartthrob One Directioner Harry Styles is perfectly fine.
The lack of dialogue does not denote an action film. It is visually arresting but never comes close to being exploitative or flashy. Thankfully, Dunkirk is not in the style of war film that has become the standard of late – brutal, unremitting and loaded with gore, always looking to surpass the hellish set pieces of Saving Private Ryan (Hacksaw Ridge, The Pacific, Fury). Rather, it is meditative and as such, a great deal more effective.
Of Apocalypse Now, Director and co-writer Frances Ford Coppola famously told a room full of reporters, “”My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.” Putting aside the cockiness and disrespect of such a statement, it is fair to say the film (and it is merely a film) is about a certain concept of Vietnam, one unique at the time it was released. Most Vietnam films fall into three categories. The first uses Vietnam as a mere location for a story about man’s triumph over adversity (see The Hanoi Hilton, Uncommon Valor, Rescue Dawn, Bat *21). The second, in the tradition of The Best Years of Our Lives, hones in on the war at home and the effect of the conflict in a much-changed stateside (Rolling Thunder, Coming Home, Birdy, Jackknife, Gardens of Stone and even the ridiculous Forrest Gump). The third category shows the war in-country and orbits a central thesis; the war was not only a bad war, but it was a pernicious war, one where America lost its soul, to the jungle, militarism, hubris, the military industrial complex, or some combination of same. The Deer Hunter, Born on the Fourth of July, Casualties of War, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon all fit this bill. Most of these films are well made . But none bear any resemblance to Apocalypse Now, a harrowing visual nightmare drawing from all three categories, paralleling a novel (Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) as interpreted by a macho right-winger (John Milius) and Coppola himself.
The film begins with a portrait of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), an intelligence officer and assassin, as he endures a drunken nervous breakdown in a Saigon hotel. Coppola got Sheen wildly drunk for the scene, baiting him with verbal cues to elicit a reaction, and the effect is mesmerizing; Sheen even cut open his hand smashing a mirror, which perhaps should have been a portent for Coppola (later in production, Sheen suffered a heart attack that significantly delayed filming). Here, Willard has already been home to find his world changed, and he is back, hollowed out and estranged from his family, to take a new assignment.
That assignment, to “terminate the command” of a rogue American Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who has created his own army as a god-like figure in Cambodia, propels us forward, as we travel with Willard and his boat crew to a final confrontation. The trip is a grotesque menagerie. A thrilling and sickening helicopter attack on a VC area led by Lt. Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) shows American ingenuity, power and recklessness. I’d never seen a battle re-creation so skilled and visceral until Spielberg’s rendition of the D-Day landing in Saving Private Ryan 30 years later.
Further up the river, Hollywood comes to Vietnam, as the USO brings in playboy bunnies for the entertainment of troops who are this point so on the edge, a near riot ensues. The scene is jaw-droppingly audacious, a brilliant representation of Willard’s observation, “the more they tried to make it just like home, the more they made everybody miss it.” Willard tell us that “[Charlie’s] idea of great R and R was cold rice and a little rat meat. He had only two ways home: death or victory.” Coppola’s juxtaposition?
The crew also searches a suspicious junk, and edgy and exhausted, opens fire on its passengers, almost all of whom die (one woman survives, briefly, but Willard puts her down with his pistol so his mission is not delayed). This is Coppola’s My Lai. Even further is the Du Lung Bridge, a stalemate where GIs either beg to be rescued by the boat or hunker down in a drug-induced haze, in a never-ending firefight with the VC (Willard asks a wired GI “Who’s in charge here?” and gets the response, “Ain’t you?”). Through it all, Willard provides a voiceover, which is half Sam Spade evaluating the situation, half epitaph for everything that went wrong for America in Vietnam.
Unfortunately, Willard’s mission ends. He finds Kurtz, distressingly played by Brando, who has shown up solely for the check. Brando was fat, unprepared, and uncooperative. In a 1979 interview with Rolling Stone, Coppola protected the actor, but only so much: “I shot Marlon in a couple of weeks and then he left; everything else was shot around that footage, and what we had shot with Marlon wasn’t like a scene. It was hours and hours of him talking . . . . Marlon’s first idea – which almost made me vomit – to play Kurtz as a Daniel Berrigan: in black pajamas, in VC clothes. It would be all about the guilt [Kurtz] felt at what we’d done. I said, “Hey, Marlon, I may not know everything about this movie – but one thing I know it’s not about is ‘our guilt’!” Yet Marlon has one of the finest minds around: Thinking is what he does. To sit and talk with him about life and death – he’ll think about that stuff all day long.”
Brando’s deep thoughts notwithstanding, there is no way around it; the last 20 minutes of the film near grind it to a halt, even with the addition of a frenetic Kurtz acolyte played by Dennis Hopper. It is a testament to Coppola’s gifts that he was able to utilize Brando’s ramblings in as coherent a form as he did.
It hardly matters. The film is otherwise a masterpiece and should be watched in conjunction with the documentary of its making, Hearts of Darkness, A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.
(actual ticket to a Washington, D.C. showing of the movie found in my father’s dresser drawer)
The quintessential biopic, Patton (which was co-written by Francis Ford Coppola) gets everything right. Let me count the ways
It is content to present its subject without the context of some anachronistic cause. In Coppola’s hands, Patton is not emblematic of something larger and more ominous or glorious, be it the hubris of American imperialism, the degradation of war, blah blah blah. He is a flesh-and-bones person who grafted himself onto and shaped one of history’s more momentous times.
It is nuanced. Coppola never lets you get comfortable with Patton and by the end of the film, you remain torn as to the sum of his virtues and vices, which is so much more interesting than the hagiographies or hit jobs we see so often today.
It’s largely composed of true events. Patton did say the outrageous things attributed to him (if not in the form presented by the film), and he was every bit the preening ass and decisive, bold general portrayed in the film. The two incidents where Patton slaps soldiers are condensed into one, and Patton is given too much of a role in the plan to invade Sicily, but otherwise, the picture hews closely to history without becoming tedious. Most historical criticisms of the film zero in on what it doesn’t depict (much as with American Sniper), which is a legitimate criticism only if you give credence to the “I would have done it this way” school. When it does take poetic license, it comports with other established facts. Patton did not shoot his pistol at attacking German aircraft, but the attack occurred just as he was berating the Brits for failure to provide air cover, and Patton’s risky bravado in the face of enemy fire was legendary. Patton did not shoot mules blocking a convoy, but he did order them shot and their cart dumped into the river. Patton did not tell a British general that he had been in a battle centuries old, but he was a strong believer in reincarnation. Indeed, he wrote a poem in 1922, “Through A Glass Darkly”, a stanza of which reveals his inclination:
Perhaps I stabbed our Savior
In His sacred helpless side.
Yet I’ve called His name in blessing
When in after times I died.
Patton is also noteworthy because the actor playing the subject gives a commanding performance. George C. Scott reportedly made a determined study of General Patton and by most accounts, captured him (save for Patton’s higher pitched voice). Incredibly, Rod Steiger, Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum and Burt Lancaster all turned down the lead role.
It also looks authentic, in large part, because the producers rented out WWII-era materiel that had been sold to Spain and largely filmed the picture there. Obviously, shortcuts were made (the Spaniards didn’t have a passel full of Tiger tanks), but director Franklin Schaffner (Planet of the Apes) does great work with what he has in terms of equipment and locale.
Finally, what a Jerry Goldsmith score.
The movie won 7 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Original Screenplay and sits at #89 in AFI’s top 100 films.
American Sniper is a spellbinding war film. Clint Eastwood conveys the simplicity of patriotism, the horror of war and its psychological toll when it is concluded, and the ambiguity of heroism, all encapsulated in a riveting re-creation of combat during the second Iraq War. Bradley Cooper is the perfect vessel for Eastwood’s tale. As sniper Chris Kyle, Cooper projects a forthright assuredness that, as he is tested, wears down, not in the expected emotional breakdown or the hackneyed apologia and rejection of values, but physically, in the narrowing of his eyes, the long stare, the suspicion with which he greets even the most unthreatening of domestic events. It’s a haunting, restrained performance, completely at odds with Cooper’s manic turns in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, and beautifully in tune with Eastwood’s anti-war, yet very much a war movie (the combat sequences are expert; in particular, a closing battle that Eastwood makes cogent and gripping even though the combatants are enveloped in a sand storm).
The picture is one of the most successful of the year, predictably eliciting a tired cultural debate as to its politics and its accuracy. The film’s political offense can be found in its marrow. There is no defense of the Iraq War. There is no suggestion that the endeavor was worthy or advisable and the events depicted suggest otherwise. Kyle’s own brother, while shipping out, looks hollow, telling Kyle “fuck this place” and Kyle’s first kills are regrettably a child and his mother. Ty Burr’s conclusion that it is a “tragedy in which American certainty comes to grief against the rocks of the real world, and it views its central figure as a decent man doing indecent things for what he keeps telling himself is a greater good” is perfectly defensible.
But Kyle is a Texan from a churchgoing family. His father teaches him to hunt and to be violent in defense of those who are weaker. Kyle is called to duty by the terrorism of the 90s and beyond, and he builds the rapport of the soldier with his fellow Seals, with all the machismo, camaraderie and xenophobia that entails. He is a patriot, unyielding in his views toward his country and his fellow soldiers. And that is one noxious stew for certain quarters. Hence the sniggering of Seth Rogen, Michael Moore, and Bill Maher, comfortable in their condescension and elevated station. When Howard Dean (who did his Vietnam tour in the snows of Killington) attributed the film’s success to anger and the Tea Party, he conveyed two certainties: he had not seen the film but he had read and heard a lot about it from like minded folk. When dolts aren’t taking potshots at the culture Eastwood presents, others decry its lack of context, nothing more than the idiocy directed at Zero Dark Thirty, which ostensibly failed because it omitted the Surgeon General’s warning, “Torture is bad and no valuable intel ever came from it.”
The other controversy has centered on the picture’s accuracy. In a year when Selma took flak for creation of an LBJ-Hoover conspiracy to get Martin Luther King, it’s fair to expose American Sniper to some rigor. But as Slate‘s Courtney Duckworth points out, while Kyle may have been a fabulist in other areas of his life (Kyle, who embraced celebrity, said he killed two carjackers in Texas, sniped looters during Hurricane Katrina, and punched Jesse Ventura in the face), “more than any other strategy, omission keeps the film true to life.” Generally, what Eastwood filmed was true to Kyle’s memoir, though that truth was often subject to standard massaging and embellishment (a cell phone call to his wife mid combat, creation of one bad guy and expanded dramatization of another). The truth is incredible enough: over 250 kills, and survival of four tours, three gunshot wounds, two helicopter crashes, six IED attacks and numerous surgeries.
Instead of training in on the accuracy of what Eastwood depicts, there seems to be an expectation that Kyle as blowhard should have been plumbed. I’m not sure how that would have worked thematically, and it could really only be justified as a caution about the wartime events he wrote about. I have not read anything that suggests Kyle’s telling of that part of his life is assailable, so it would be like injecting JFK’s serial adultery into a Cuban Missile Crisis flick – enjoyable for those prone to dislike Kennedy but otherwise awkward and misplaced.
A traditional war picture depicting the harrowing experiences of an American tank unit at the close of World War II, this white-knuckle drama alternates between the well-trodden verisimilitude of Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan and the cynical outlook of The Thin Red Line and Flags of Our Fathers. Brad Pitt commands a tank crew that includes Shia LaBeouf (the religious gunner), Jon Bernthal (the profane Southerner), Michael Pena (the sly Mexican) and Logan Lerman (the baby-faced clerk/typist accidentally assigned to the unit). Lerman undergoes a baptism by fire, as Pitt attempts to de-sensitize him on the fly in an effort to make him more effective. This includes light beatings, a few sermons and, eventually, much worse. That pretty much does the trick, and the rest of the film consists of the unit taking on two missions, both of which are visually audacious and nerve-wracking. In particular, the battle between three under-matched Sherman tanks and a Tiger tank is a thing of beauty.
Writer/director David Ayer (End of Watch) occasionally veers into the hackneyed, but the actors elevate the material with a cohesion that seems genuine. They actually feel like a unit cramped together for three years, especially when they engage in everyday banter, such as “best job I ever had.” Ayer also writes a haunting scene where Pitt and Lerman spend a quiet meal with two German women, only to have the rest of the crew bluster in angrily to join them, a reminder of their grotesque existence.
One the downside, Steven Price’s score is bizarre and bombastic, better suited to a Lord of the Rings pic than a grim war film. The final battle scene is also a bit too protracted and incredible, at odds with the grimy realism of what preceded it.
This is a solid picture and one I was surprised was made (the budget was over $60 million but at last count, it had grossed over $80 million domestic and over $200 million total). Apparently, there’s an audience for this kind of story (unless Pitt still has that kind of box office juice).