by QR Film Critic Robert Henderson
History through a glass darkly
Robert Henderson is simultaneously bored and exasperated by a sanitised depiction of Martin Luther King, Jnr.
David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr.
Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon B. Johnson
Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King
Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover
Tim Roth as George Wallace
Director Ava DuVernay
Selma is the latest in an ever-lengthening list of propaganda films in the politically correct interest. It is Alabama1965. Martin Luther King is already internationally famous after his “I have a dream” speech in 1963 and the award of the Nobel Peace prize in 1964. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is meeting with resistance and black voters are finding they still cannot register to vote because of the application of local electoral regulations in ways that are comically restrictive. King goes to the city of Selma with a clutch of supporters from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to protest about this thwarting of the law, but their attempts to help blacks register in the city fail. As a consequence a protest march from Selma to Montgomery, the Alabama state capital, is planned. The first march is stopped brutally, the second aborted by King and the third allowed to happen.
That is the skeleton of the film. There is precious little solid dramatic flesh put on the skeleton. To be brutally frank Selma is boring. It is too wordy, too cluttered with characters, too didactic and unremittingly earnest. These are qualities guaranteed to lose any cinema audience. The problem is particularly acute when, as here, there is a large cast. Disputes and debates between King and his supporters or between King and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) are so extended and detailed that anyone not familiar with the story would not know what to make of it and, in any case, as anyone who has ever been involved with an ideologically driven political group will be only too aware, of little interest to anyone who has not been captured by the ideology. Reflecting life too exactly on film is not always the best way to keep people’s attention. Propaganda films do not have to be boring, although they often are. The black director Spike Lee would surely have made a much less sprawling and vastly more watchable film whilst keeping the ideological message.
There is also a woeful and wilful lack of historical context. This one has at its core a vision of wicked Southern good ol’ boys oppressing blacks. White involvement is restricted to racists with a penchant for violence, a few white sympathisers with the civil rights movement who appear peripherally, adorned with looks of sublimely smug unquestioning utopian naivety not seen on film since the initial sighting of a hippy commune in Easy Rider. Lyndon Johnson is shown as sympathetic to King’s views but not interested enough to risk his political future by wholeheartedly embracing the legislation that King says is necessary. There is no attempt to see things from the viewpoint of the whites who opposed integration, unlike, for example, a film such as In the Heat of the Night in which Rod Steiger’s sheriff attempts to explain why whites in the South are as they are because of their circumstances, citing for example, their widely held and not unreasonable fear that a black population which has been suppressed may turn on whites. Instead Selma just rushes in and points the finger of moral shame at any white who does not uncritically embrace what King advocates with a complete disregard of the fact that every human being, morally and sociologically, has to start from the situation into which they are born.
The concentration of the film on a specific time and place is also problematic, because King’s ideological career was a far more complex thing than the film can show. It also removes the embarrassment which would have hung around a straightforward biopic of King, such as the plagiarism which gained him a doctorate and his marginalisation as a civil rights leader which eventually saw him reduced to going to support sewage workers at the time of his assassination. Mention is made of his gross womanising, but only in the context of a sex tape recorded by the FBI that was sent to King’s wife Cora. The fact that some who were close to him said he had a particular liking for white women – which could be taken as evidence of racism in King if his motive was to revenge himself on whites by abusing their women – goes unmentioned. Indeed, it is rather odd that a man as celebrated as King is in the USA and with a worldwide reputation should never have had a full-blown biopic. Perhaps the answer is that King’s private life was too messy to deal with in a film depicting his entire public life rather than a short period of it devoted to a specific subject.
More importantly the tight focus in Selma means that the fifty odd years since Selma go unexamined. No honest person would deny that the position of blacks in the USA and particularly those in the Old South was demeaning at the beginning of the 1960s, but is what has replaced segregation and Jim Crow laws really that much better for most blacks or, perhaps more pertinently, anywhere near what King hoped would happen? Perhaps the answer to the first question is a tepid yes, at least for blacks who have benefitted from “positive discrimination”, but it has to be an unequivocal no to the latter. Segregation by choice has replaced segregation by law. Illegitimacy and crime amongst blacks have rocketed. A fair case could be made for the individual personal relationship between whites and blacks being worse now that it was fifty years ago.
Tom Wilkinson is very decent LBJ but David Oyelowo does not quite cut it as King. It is not that it is technically a bad performance; it is simply that he does not capture the charisma that King undoubtedly had. His portrayal of King keeps a question nagging away at one: why would any one have followed this rather drab character? The rest of the cast do not really have time to develop their roles, although Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King and Tim Roth as George Wallace have their moments.
The insubstantial quality of the film can be judged by the meagre Oscar recognition and its popularity with the public by the money it has taken. The film was nominated for Best Picture and best song but for nothing else, which is a rather remarkable thing. Nor did it win as best picture. A public fuss was made about Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo being left out of Best Director and Best Actor categories, but only in the context of no black actors and directors being nominated. Considering the public political correctness the American film business emits, it is rather difficult to imagine that the tepid response to Selma by the Oscar granting Academy voters was the result of racism. In fact its nomination as Best Picture despite having no nominations in the directing and acting categories suggests that the opposite happened, Selma was nominated for Best Picture regardless of its mediocrity as a sop to political correctness.
The public also responded in less than passionate fashion. As of 16 April Selma had taken $52,076,908 worldwide, which placed it, 57th in the top grossing films of the previous 365 days. Not bad in purely commercial terms for a film which cost $20 million to make, but distinctly underwhelming for a film lauded to the skies by most critics and many public figures. The truth is that people both in the States and abroad have not been that drawn to it, whether because of the subject or the indifferent quality of the film. One can take the browbeaten horses of the Western world to the politically correct water but they can’t make many of them drink.
The pernicious nature of a film like this is not that it casts whites as the villain, but that it gives blacks an excuse for anything that goes wrong in their lives, the prize of an inexhaustible victimhood.
ROBERT HENDERSON is film critic of QR
In with a bullet
Robert Henderson reviews an American blockbuster
Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle
Sienna Miller as Taya Renae Kyle
Max Charles as Colton Kyle
Luke Grimes as Marc Lee
Kyle Gallner as Goat-Winston
Sam Jaeger as Captain Martens
Jake McDorman as Ryan “Biggles” Job
Sammy Sheik as Mustafa
Mido Hamada as “The Butcher”
Director Clint Eastwood
This is a frustrating film. Eastwood as the director guarantees that it is technically well made. It moves at a good pace, taken individually the action scenes in Iraq are dramatic and the subject (the role of the sniper) is interesting in itself. And yet, and yet…. American Sniper has an emptiness, the sum of its parts being decidedly less than the parts. The film teeters on the edge of being boring.
The bulk of the film is devoted to Kyle’s four tours of Iraq, with much of that screen time devoted to sniping and house-to-house searches. Therein lies the first problem with the film as drama. The action scenes become repetitive because there is not that much difference from watching Kyle shoot one person from the top of a building and seeing him doing the same thing to several people. Similarly, the house to house searching has a sameness about it when the streets look the same and the outcome is always either dead bodies after an exchange of gunfire or the taking of prisoners.
There are attempts to vary the emotional content of the sniping, for example the first people Kyle shoots are a young boy and his mother who are attempting to use a grenade against US soldiers. There are also subplots involving an Iraqi sniper known as Mustapha who is portrayed as having a duel with Kyle (which Kyle wins) and a search to find the al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi which involves tracking al-Zarqawi’s second in command known as the Butcher for his delightful habit of torturing people with an electric drill.
But all this activity generates a curious lack of tension because the events rarely develop into more than snapshots. Nor is there any sense that Kyle or his comrades have any real purpose beyond the immediate end of preventing American troops from being harmed. Ironically, what the film unintentionally does is to provide a depressing essay on exactly how futile not only the Iraq war but any war fought by Western Armies in Third or Second world countries is fated to be.
The sniping scenes are somewhat strange. Often Kyle is shown shooting from the same position on more than one occasion. This is a “no no” for a sniper unless he really cannot avoid it. Understandably snipers are both hated and feared by the other side for the constant threat they offer not only in reality but in their enemy’s mind. Consequently, the enemy will make great efforts to locate and kill snipers and the most likely way of doing that is if a sniper stays in the same position and shoots more than once. Modern sniper rifles come with equipment to dull and distort the direction of sound and suppress the flash of a round being fired but this is not a complete solution to the problem of giving away your position. To remain in the same position and fire other shots after the first round has been fired is just asking to be located and killed. There is also a bizarre episode towards the end of the film when Kyle shoots the sniper Mustapha at well over 1,000 yards range and in doing so alerts Iraqi insurgents to Kyle and his fellow soldiers’ whereabouts who immediately attack the building in which Kyle and his comrades are hiding.
Because the film is trying to cram in so much there is little opportunity for character development even of Kyle who is rushed from one scene to another with breaks every now and then for a return to the States for leave with his wife. Apart from Cooper the only other character with an extensive part is Sienna Miller as Kyle’s wife Taya. She is adequate in the role but it really does not demand much of her beyond agonising over how Kyle “isn’t here” even when he is. The rest of the cast does what it has to do well enough in the very limited and unvaried scenes in which they appear.
There is also a frustrating lack of historical context. Kyle’s motivation is ostensibly a simple unquestioning, God-fearing patriotism built upon the Bush administration’s line that the USA was in Iraq to protect Americans in America. That is reasonable enough for Kyle’s character but there is nothing to balance that mentality, no character to challenge his simple faith.
Finally, there is the problem of Bradley Cooper as Kyle. Cooper strikes me as one of those actors who can only play him self. That is not necessarily a problem as many film stars have shown, but the person must have qualities which make him appealing such as charm, menace, sexual attraction. For me Cooper lacks any exciting or engaging quality. In American Sniper he is seriously miscast for this film requires not only a convincing tough guy but also a character with some emotional hinterland. Cooper is both unconvincing as a hard man and displays as much psychological subtlety as a brick wall. His limitations are particularly exposed in those episodes of the film where Kyle is home on leave. These are designed to variously show Kyle’s detachment from ordinary life and addiction to living in a warzone, but these are cursory and unconvincing. Ryan Gosling in the role would have made the film much more interesting because he has both psychological depth and is a convincing hard man.
The ending of the film is deeply unsatisfactory from a dramatic point of view. Originally the ending was going to be centred on Kyle’s shooting to death by a disturbed ex-marine Eddie Ray Routh who has just been found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. But Kyle’s wife asked them to drop the scene and the director substituted a tepid ending showing Kyle leaving with Routh to travel to the shooting range where the killing took place with a very anxious Sienna Miller looking on as if she had a premonition of what was to happen, something which must surely have been a post hoc addition to the real-life story.
Judged by the box office takings American Sniper has been immensely successful in the USA although criticism of the film’s subject matter has generated violent responses in the mainstream and social media. In particular, there has been ill judged criticism from Michael Moore that snipers are cowards because they kill without putting themselves in danger. This is double-dyed nonsense. To begin with snipers have to be on constant guard against being spotted and shot themselves. In a war such as that in Iraq the risk and fear of being seen and killed is enhanced because it was a war fought in towns and cities where there is no readily recognised enemy who may be anywhere and come in any human form from a young child to trained soldier.
To that rebuttal of the charge of cowardice can be placed a more general exculpation of snipers – that war has never been anything but ugly and unchivalrous. When the crossbow was introduced in mediaeval times it was considered illegitimate by the nobility because the armoured knight was vulnerable to its bolts. The weapon also had a range much greater than that of a conventional bow and thereby meted out death from a serious distance. Later the same sorts of complaint were levelled at firearms. Long before modern breech loading artillery was devised muzzle-loading guns could send their shot miles. By the late 19th century the machine gun had arrived with the capacity to mow down dozens of men quickly. By the middle of the twentieth century bombers were delivering huge payloads from a great height onto civilian populations. Sniping is no more or less cowardly, no more or less brutal than war is generally.
More pertinent perhaps are the criticisms that the Kyle of the film is a sanitised version and that he was far from being the simple God-fearing patriot of the film. Indeed there are strong reasons to infer that he was both a braggart and a fantasist who made up stories such as claiming to have gone down to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and killed many of the “bad guys” who were looting. Yet in the film he is shown as being intensely embarrassed when a veteran of Iraq stops him in a store and praises him effusively for what has done.
Overall the film has a nasty whiff of propaganda, if not intentionally then in effect. If you go to see it bear that in mind and treat it a primer for an understanding of the ordinary American’s mind.
ROBERT HENDERSON is QR’s film critic
A very British hero
Robert Henderson’s take on the Turing biopic
The Imitation Game
Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing
Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke
Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander
Mark Strong as Maj. Gen. Stewart Menzies
Charles Dance as Cdr. Alastair Denniston
Allen Leech as John Cairncross
Matthew Beard as Peter Hilton
Rory Kinnear as Detective Nock
Alex Lawther as Young Turing
Jack Bannon as Christopher Morcom
Director: Morten Tyldum
Like the recent Mr Turner, this is a flawed film, which is worth seeing only because of the performance of the central character, in this case Benedict Cumberbatch in the role of the English mathematician, pioneering computer theorist and code breaker Alan Turing. Moreover, it is worth seeing not because it represented Turing’s personality and life faithfully, but because the character on the screen was an eminently watchable antisocial monster, who generated both humour and pathos because he was unaware of his psychological deformity.
The main action takes place during Turing’s time at the World War 2 Bletchley Park code breaking unit, topped and tailed by flashbacks to his schooldays at Sherborne where he forms an infatuation for a boy called Christopher Morcom who dies in his teens and flash-forwards to his arrest and prosecution for indecency. The schooldays and police scenes add little to the film, indeed could be said to get in the way of Cumberbatch’s portrayal of a man breaking all the social rules not on purpose but simply because he does not understand how the game is played.
There is a good deal of humour in the film, most of it resulting from Turing’s supposed extreme antisocial personality traits. This begins early on, when he meets the head of Bletchley Park Commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance). Turing is his usual socially dysfunctional self. After a few minutes Denniston looks at Turing’s CV and says sardonically, “Ah, you’re a mathematician. Now why doesn’t that surprise me?” Turing replies without a shred of awareness at his literal mindedness, “Because you just read it on that paper?” he ventures pointing at the CV in Dance’s hand. The look on Dance’s face is priceless.
One of the most telling and saddest scenes in the film is where Turing tells a joke. He tells it awkwardly which is doubly poignant, because of his extraordinarily clumsy reaching out for normal human interaction and because the nature of the joke is such that it is easy to see why it would have been accessible to a mind like his, which would generally have great difficulty in understanding jokes because of his lack of psychological awareness. The joke is this. Two men are out in the wild and a bear spots them. One of the two starts putting on his shoes while the other says in amazement what on earth on are you doing that for, you will never outrun the bear? I don’t have to, replies the other; I only have to outrun you. The joke suits the onscreen Turing because it presents him with a binary choice: two men, one bear equals only one person caught and eaten and requires absolutely no psychological insight.
But entertaining as these aspects of the film are there is the problem of veracity. The primary difficulty is the character of Turing. A certain emphasising of character traits is legitimate as a dramatic device, but there is always the danger that the emphasis will become so exaggerated that the essence of a person is lost. I suspect that is what happened here. The film represents him as having a startling directness, which could be hideously rude, literal mindedness, childlike egotism and manic single-mindedness. Whether Turing’s antisocial tendencies were so pronounced is dubious. He was certainly not the easiest person to get along with, for example, his habit of wanting to be hands-on with machinery – he was never happier than when he had a soldering iron or a pair of wire-cutters in his hands – regularly drove engineers mad as he fiddled with what they made or set up. He was also undeniably single-minded when he was working on an intellectual task. Nor did he have a deeply rooted social life, which suggests introspection. There was also his excruciatingly annoying high-pitched laugh, a behavioural trick the film surprisingly fails to utilise. However, none of that adds up to someone with whom it was utterly impossible to work. The Turing of the film would have been desperately difficult to tolerate at the personal level and very disruptive of work such the code-breaking because it requires intense concentration and the exclusion of distractions. The Turing of the film is a past master at creating emotional chaos.
The misrepresentation of reality does not stop there. The film is essentially a biopic and as so often with such films the director and screenplay writer take very large liberties with the truth. A few important examples: there is no evidence that Turing ever had much if anything to do with Stewart Menzies, head of the British Secret Intelligence Service (Mark Strong), but there’s was a relationship of some importance to the film. Turing is also shown working with closely the traitor John Cairncross, discovering Cairncross’ treason and Cairncross gaining Turing’s silence about his treason for some time by blackmailing Turing over his sexuality. There is also no evidence for this. The mathematician Joan Clarke is shown as meeting Turing for the first time when she answers a newspaper advert Turing has placed asking for people who were good at crosswords to attend an assessment interview where they are asked to do the Times crossword in eight minutes. In the film Clarke does it quickest in six minutes. The reality is that Clarke was recruited to Bletchley by her old Cambridge academic supervisor, Gordon Welchman. The casting of the very attractive Keira Knightly as Clarke, who was something of a plain Jane, is also problematic, because it alters the relationship between Clarke and Turing in the viewer’s mind. One of the code-breakers in the film Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard) is shown distraught when a German message is decoded and shows a convoy on which Hilton’s brother is travelling to be the target of coming U-Boat action. Turing argues that the message must not be used to warn the convoy for fear of alerting the Germans to the fact that the code had been broken. In reality, Hilton had no such brother. There is also the general point that perhaps Turing was given too much prominence with contributions by others at Bletchley underplayed or ignored completely, for example, the Post Office engineer Tommy Flowers who designed ‘Colossus’ – the world’s first programmable computer.
Does all of this matter? It depends whether the viewer treats the film as a biopic/historical drama, a fictional thriller or merely as a vehicle to display, whether accurate or not, the character of Turing. As a biopic or historical drama it is difficult to treat it seriously because of the liberties taken with facts. As a thriller it never really takes off, not least because we know the ending and little is made of Cairncross’ treason. As a vehicle for an arresting realisation of a complex, highly unusual and fascinating character it succeeds. It might even be described as a good if bizarre comedy of manners.
The actual work at Bletchley was by its nature difficult for the film to make much of as drama both because the work is esoteric and because a main thrust of the film was to show Turing’s intelligence. Portraying an educated intelligence is one of the most difficult things in acting because simply having a character spout a few academic facts or theories seems trivial to those who understand the subject at which the intelligence is directed and meaningless mumbo-jumbo to the majority who come to the subject cold. (Because of this the Eureka! moments in the film when breakthroughs were made clanked in a decidedly forced manner). The quality of intelligence needs to be shown in the quickness and certainty of a character. Amongst modern British actors Ralph Fiennes and Cumberbatch are probably the best exponents because both have a donnish look and manner about them. Here Cumberbatch’s natural reserve also played to the isolated and distracted nature of the character. The rest of the cast are, as one would expect from an ensemble of British actors, all good insofar as their roles allow. But they are all, even Keira Knightly as Joan Clarke, utterly dwarfed by Cumberbatch. They simply do not have much chance than to be rather one-dimensional, although Charles Dance splenetic Commander Denniston is an amusing turn and Mark Strong is his usual satisfyingly sinister self.
Importantly the film does not spend an inordinate amount of time focused on Turing’s homosexuality. It would have been very easy to make a film which was a piece of politically correct propaganda, full of angst about the treatment Turing received after being charged with gross indecency with a total disregard for the context of the time when this occurred. But to make such a film would have been to greatly diminish Turing as a person, because what was really important about him was not his sexuality but his great intellect and the use he made of it. However, the film did mistakenly try to show Turing as suffering from a loss of intellectual power when Clarke visited him after his conviction for indecency. (Again, there is no evidence for this event). The film implied that the diminished intellect was due to the hormonal treatment Turing had agreed to rather than go to prison. In fact, Turing retained his mental powers right up to his death, publishing an important paper on biological mathematics The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis in 1952.
To read of Turing’s immense and broad ranging intellectual achievement, which covered mathematics, computing, code-breaking and biological-related mathematics is to inevitably think of the loss resulting from his death, but the fact that he was prosecuted despite having like Othello “done the state some service” is reassuring because it shows no one was above the law.
ROBERT HENDERSON is QR’s Film Critic
Edward Snowden – hero of our time?
Robert Henderson asks some awkward questions
Director: Laura Poitras
Running time: 114 minutes
This documentary about state surveillance revolves around Edward Snowden as interviewee and the journalists Glen Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill as interviewers. The interviews were primarily conducted in Hong Kong to where Snowden fled before moving to Russia.
As a man who has been much in the news since June 2013 but little seen and heard, it is naturally intriguing to see what Snowden is made of when interviewed at length with a further enticement to watch being the possibility that he might reveal some dramatic new details of state misbehaviour. Consequently, it might be thought the film would contain plenty to interest and alarm anyone worried about the imbalance between the power of the state and civil liberties. Sad to say there is little to excite the viewer because Snowden comes across as a distinctly colourless personality and there are no startling important new revelations. Worse, there is something essential missing: nowhere is there any serious attempt to test either the veracity of the information Snowden made public or his declared motivation.
Whenever someone whistle blows on a state apparatus those receiving the information are presented with what might be called the “double agent” problem. Is the whistle-blower what he seems? Is he telling the simple truth or is he working to his own or another’s agenda? Snowden could logically be in any one of these hypothetical situations:
- He is telling the truth about the information he provides and his motives.
- He is acting voluntarily as a covert agent of the US state.
- He is acting voluntarily as an agent of a foreign state.
- He is acting voluntarily on behalf of a non-state actor.
- He is acting under duress from any of the actors in 2-4.
Possibilities 2-5 went unexplored. They did not even ask Snowden how he was paying his way since his flight. (Always ask about the money. I once badly threw David Shayler at a public meeting simply by asking how he was funding his life). That left only possibility 1, that Snowden was simply telling the truth. However, the film failed even there. The two interviewers simply asked Snowden questions and accepted his answers at face value.
How plausible is Snowden as the selfless idealist he portrays himself as? In the film he appears to be surprisingly little troubled by his predicament. This could be reasonably interpreted as someone who had his present position worked out in advance of his whistle blowing. All the shuffling about in Hong Kong before going to Moscow could have just been to substantiate his claim that he was acting of his own volition or, less probably, perhaps China had agreed to give him sanctuary and then changed their minds. Not convinced, then ask yourself how likely it is that anyone would have been willing to blow the gaffe on US state secrets without having the assurance that afterwards he would be in a place safe from the US authorities? After all, if Snowden is ever brought to trial in the US it would be more or less certain that he would get a massive prison sentence and, in theory at least, he might be executed for treason.
Then there is Lindsay Mills, the partner Snowden ostensibly left behind without explanation. She has joined him in Moscow. When Snowden speaks in the film of his decision to leave Mills without explanation, he tells the story with an absence of animation that would not have disgraced a marble statue. All very odd unless the story that he left her in the dark was simply a blind to both protect her and provide a veil of confusion as to his whereabouts immediately after the initial release of information.
As for Mills she made a number of entries to a blog she ran after Snowden’s flight to Hong Kong. Here’s an example: “As I type this on my tear-streaked keyboard I’m reflecting on all the faces that have graced my path. The ones I laughed with. The ones I’ve held. The one I’ve grown to love the most. And the ones I never got to bid adieu.” Would someone who is supposedly seriously traumatised produce such a studied attempt at what she doubtless sees as “fine writing”? Anyone care to bet that she was not in on the plot all along?
Snowden also engages onscreen in some very unconvincing bouts of paranoia such as covering his head with a cloth in the manner of an old time photographer to avoid a password he is putting in to his computer being read. He also reacts in an exaggerated way at a fire alarm going off repeatedly, unplugging a phone that keeps ringing on the grounds that the room could be bugged through the phone line. Well, it could be but so what? Provided Snowden only said what he was willing to have included in the film it would not matter if his conversations with the documentary makers were bugged. It all seemed very contrived and could plausibly be interpreted as Snowden self-consciously and ineptly acting out what he imagines to be the way someone in his position would behave.
Apart from the stark failure to press Snowden adequately, the questioning of Greenwald and MacAskill’s was woefully inept. Neither had any idea of how to build a line of questioning or how to play a witness. For example, one of the most difficult disciplines an investigator has to master is to allow the person being questioned to do as much of the talking as possible without being prompted. That necessitates being patient and tolerating long periods of silence when the person being questioned does not reply to a question quickly. Those who have seen the film American Hustle will remember the Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper characters. The Bale character understands the art of taking your time, letting a mark come to you rather than you going to them. Cooper’s character is forever messing up Bale’s plans by rushing in and pressing matters. Obviously in a documentary you cannot allow silence to continue for very long, but even allowing a minute’s silence can be very revealing of a person who is failing to answer. Irritatingly, Greenwald would not let Snowden stew in silence for even a moment.
Greenwald’s other major shortcoming is that he loves the sound of his own voice far too much and has an irritating habit of delivering platitudes in a manner that suggests he is offering ideas of the greatest profundity. MacAskill was palpably nervous and routinely asked innocuous questions and, after they were asked, seemed pathetically relieved that he had put a question, any question.
Apart from the interview with Snowden, there was little of interest to anyone who is seriously concerned about state surveillance because it was all widely known material bar one item. This was a recording of a remarkable court hearing in the USA which AT&T phone customers took action against the state over unwarranted surveillance which showed the US government lawyer arguing in effect that the case court had no jurisdiction over the matter and being soundly slapped down by one of the judges.
Is the film worth seeing? Probably only as a documentation of Snowden’s personality. It reveals nothing new about the extent of the misbehaviour the US state or properly examined why and how Snowden did what he did. Nor would the film be likely to educate someone who was ignorant of the subject, because the details of what the US government had been up to were offered in too piecemeal a fashion for a coherent idea of what had happened to emerge for someone starting from scratch.
ROBERT HENDERSON is QR’s film critic
Safety catch off
Robert Henderson is engrossed by an evocation of “The Troubles”
Jack O’Connell as Gary Hook
Richard Dormer as Eamon
Charlie Murphy as Brigid
David Wilmot as Boyle
Sean Harris as Captain Sandy Browning
Killian Scott as James Quinn
Sam Reid as Lt. Armitage
Barry Keoghan as Sean
Paul Anderson as Sergeant Leslie Lewis
Martin McCann as Paul Haggerty
Corey McKinley as Loyalist child
Directed by Yann Demange
Running time: 100 minutes
This is the best film that I have seen for the past twelve months. Throughout 2014 the cinema goer has been besieged with new releases which variously play fast and loose with history for reasons of political correctness (for example, Belle), are saturated with gratuitous sentimentality (Interstellar), purport to be serious films but have insultingly preposterous plots (Fury) or are exercises in directorial indulgence which result in overlong and flabby films (Mr Turner). Consequently, ‘71 is a welcome respite from so much flawed film-making, including a fair amount of seriously sub-standard work from directors who should know better.
The film is unremittingly good. It is set in the Belfast of 1971 where The Troubles have already taken firm hold with Catholic and Protestant paramilitaries well established and the British army caught in the middle as they try to maintain some semblance of public order. Private Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is a working-class squaddie from Derbyshire who is on his first posting after undergoing basic training.
Shortly after arriving in Ulster Hook’s platoon is sent to support a police action in a nationalist area. They are confronted by a violent mob who isolate Hook and another soldier to whom they administer savage beatings. Then the other soldier is shot in the head from close range and killed. At that point Hook’s inexperienced platoon commander Lt. Armitage (Sam Reid) panics and withdraws his platoon unforgivably leaving Hook behind.
Although badly beaten Hook manages to escape in the general confusion after the shooting and the rest of the film is devoted to his attempts to rejoin his platoon. This involves many subplots, including dirty business on the part of the British army in collusion with Loyalists, factional fighting within the Provos – Haggerty (Martin McCann) and Sean (Barry Keoghan) are plotting against their own chiefs – collusion between renegade Republican terrorists and the British, all of this set against the backdrop of the rock-solid division between Protestant Loyalists and Catholic Republicans.
Hook’s journey to get back to his platoon sees him befriended by a Loyalist boy whose father is high in the ranks of Loyalist paramilitaries. The boy (played by Corey McKinley) is only on screen for around 15 minutes but in that time this gives a performance of astonishing self-assuredness and personality. He takes Hook to a pub where the boy’s father, in collusion with British intelligence operatives led by Captain Sandy Browning (Sean Harris), is arranging to plant a bomb in the Republican Divis Flats. Hook recognises the British intelligence men and sees the bomb before he is hustled away and told to wait in the bar for someone to collect him who will take him back to barracks. But Hook wanders just outside the pub and almost immediately the bomb intended for the Divis Flats explodes accidentally in the bar (incidentally killing the boy) and creates chaos which persuades Hook to go on the run again.
Hook now has two enemies: Republicans who want to kill him and the undercover British intelligence officers who want to do the same after he has seen them with the bomb and the would-be bombers.
Further injured by the bomb, Hook is then found by a couple of Catholics, a father and daughter (Richard Dormer as Eamon and Charlie Murphy as Brigid). The father has been an army medic and patches Hook up even though they know he is a British soldier. But the Republicans are still searching for him Hook and track him to the flat where he is lying up. Hook overhears one of the Republicans chasing him talking at the front door and slips out the back. This leaves Eamon and Brigit in danger from the Provos as suspected collaborators.
From there Hook is on the run until he is captured by the Republicans pursuing him. He survives because a teenaged would-be Republican hard man is asked to shoot him in cold blood but cannot do it. This delays matters just long enough for Browning and his irregulars to arrive where they engage in a very convincing and victorious gun fight with the Republicans. Browning and his men inadvertently rescue Hook whom they wish to kill to make sure he can say nothing about the criminal collusion he has witnessed between Loyalists and British intelligence, but they have to drop the idea when an attempt to strangle Hook is stopped because too many eyes of those who are not part of Browning’s crew are witnessing it.
Back in barracks Hook tries to tell his commanding officer about the bomb plot between Browning and Loyalists, but his CO refuses to listen and effectively orders him to remain silent. The film ends with Hook a disenchanted man in a morally fragile world.
Because of the episodic nature of the film only O’Connell has any chance to give a dominant performance. In fact this is not a role which allows such a performance because Hook is someone to whom things happen. But O’Connell does just what is required being neither in control nor a quivering nervous wreck. He is simply an ordinary inexperienced working-class squaddie doing his very best in difficult circumstances. Doggedness is the word for his character. The other actors are all convincing insofar as the brevity of their roles allowed, with Richard Dormer as Eamon the medic being particularly impressive with his mixture of toughness and compassion. The many and varied Northern Irish accents with their blunt and unapologetic masculinity amplify the potent combination of fear, threat, claustrophobic suspicion and anarchy which envelops the film.
The look of the film is impressive. It was filmed in Blackburn not Belfast, but the unpretentious terraced street, as stark as the action which takes place around and in them, are just right for the story. They are littered variously with ruined vehicles, damaged shops, smoke, mobs and the flickering figures of people from all quarters either up to up good or simply being swept along by the drama of an extraordinary ordinary life. The crowd scenes of Catholics called out at the drop of a hat by the Provos are particularly impressive, while the setting of much of the film in the night-time with fires burning and smoke swirling often gives it a demonic air.
Every scene has a point and the action moves at a cracking pace. This is helped by the fact that the film runs for a spare 100 minutes, so there is no temptation for the director to be self-indulgent and throw in everything including the kitchen sink simply because he has shot it.
This is a world in which no loyalties are certain and calamity waits to swallow anyone up. It is life with the safety catch off.
ROBERT HENDERSON is QR’s film critic
On the Cusp of Modernity
Robert Henderson enjoys Timothy Spall as Turner
Timothy Spall as Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851)
Dorothy Atkinson as Hannah Danby
Paul Jesson as William Turner
Marion Bailey as Sophia Booth
Ruth Sheen as Sarah Danby
Sandy Foster as Evalina Dupois –
Martin Savage as Benjamin Haydon
Director Mike Leigh
This is a curate’s egg of a film. At its centre lies a commanding performance by Timothy Spall as Turner in the last quarter century of his life. The film is worth watching for that reason alone, for Spall is one of those rare actors who cannot deliver a poor performance; he does not have it in him. Here he has a marvellously varied collection of snorts and grunts to express his feelings to add to his ever-present virtue as an actor of seeming to be someone fully engaged with the rest of humanity. (Even Spall’s portrayal of Britain’s longest serving hangman Albert Pierrepoint managed to make him curiously sympathetic.)
There are also first rate supporting performances by Dorothy Atkinson as Turner’s housekeeper Hannah Danby, who is in love with and sexually exploited by Turner, and Marion Bailey as a boarding house keeper Turner meets on his regular trips to Margate and eventually takes to London where he surreptitiously sets up home with her.
With the exception of Paul Jesson as Turner’s father (an unremarkable performance) and Martin Savage as a fellow artist Benjamin Haydon who was incessantly whining about how his career was being sabotaged by the professional jealousy of other artists whilst he attempted to borrow money (something which added nothing of importance to the story of Turner’s life) , the rest of the cast have so little screen time that they do not have a chance to develop their parts beyond the perfunctory .
But…but…. there are serious weaknesses. First, it tries to cover far too much ground with seemingly every incident publicly known about Turner in his later life requiring a nod of acknowledgement by the film. It smacks of the completest mania of the collector. The result is that characters (over 80 actors are credited in the official cast list) come and go without any proper explanation of who they are and what their significance is for Turner. For example, his two illegitimate daughters and their mother appear briefly at the beginning and near the end without proper explanation of exactly who they are or why Turner is so very cold towards them.
The second weakness is the implied assumption by the film that its audience would have a good grasp of British artistic history during the period. The portrayal of artistic relations between Royal Academicians and Turner will be bewildering for most people who see the film and simply clutter up the narrative.
Take Turner’s relationship with John Constable. Constable did not publicly slate Turner but he was jealous of him and like many others privately dismissed his work as just insubstantial fireworks playing with the depiction of light. In 1832 at the Royal Academy’s annual show Constable and Turner had paintings hung side by side. Constable’s painting was The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, a large colourful canvas that had been a Herculean fifteen years in the composition. Turner’s painting entitled Helvoetsluys was a rather subdued affair of Dutch ships.
Constable was putting the finishing touches to his painting using vermillion to paint the flags on barges in in his painting. Turner came into the room and placed a daub of scarlet paint in the grey sea of his painting. He then left to return the next day (when the paint was still wet) and shaped the scarlet daub on his painting into a buoy. Constable took this as taking a rise out of his rather colourful and long time in the making The Opening of Waterloo Bridge and loudly complained that Turner ‘ has been here and fired a gun.’ In the film this episode takes place rapidly with no explanation of why Constable should have been so annoyed.
To the poorly developed professional relationships can be added the references to Turner’s work both individually and generally. For those with some familiarity with his work, or at least his most famous paintings, a scene, beautifully realised, with Turner in a boat watching a steam tug towing a warship which had seen duty at Trafalgar would have immediately evoked Turner’s painting The Fighting Temeraire. But to someone who had little or no knowledge of Turner the scene would have seemed random and of little importance. The same incomprehension would have been felt by those ignorant of Turner when he watches a train rush by on the new-fangled railways and the idea of his Rain, Steam and Speed is born.
Then there was for me the most exquisitely enjoyable moment in the film. This was the look of profound contempt which crossed Spall’s face (accompanied by a particularly meaningful snort) when he sees some pre-Raphaelite paintings. But to appreciate the moment the viewer had to understand that the contempt was result of Turner and the pre-Raphaelites being artistic polar opposites: Turner was concerned with overall effect and the play of light in particular: the pre-Raphaelite’s were fixated with representing the world in almost photographic detail. Spall’s magnificent contempt is born of the man who sees further and farther than others and sardonically views the work of lesser beings who are trapped in their immediate surroundings.
Irritating as all that unnecessary event counting was, there were plenty of moments of humour which anyone could understand, many simply deriving from the interplay with Spall’s personality with others, but with a few set pieces in which other characters provided the humour such as a wickedly savage depiction of a young John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire) performing with sublimely unselfconscious pretension. Even if someone did not have a clue about who Ruskin was they could still find the portrayal very amusing.
A running theme throughout the film is an England on the brink of modernity. At the start of the film Turner makes his regular trips from London to Margate on the Kent coast by ship because that is the fastest means of making a trip of perhaps sixty miles. By the end of the film he is catching a train.
A lady scientist visits him and shows him how a metal pin can be magnetised by fragmenting light by passing it through a prism to produce the colours of the rainbow some of which magnetise negatively and some positively.
Late in the film we see Turner having his photograph taken using an early photographic system called a Daguerreotype. Turner quizzes the photographer about how things are done in this new means of representing things whilst inwardly fretting that photography will be the nemesis of the artist. He sighs with relief when the photographer tells him that colour photographs are nowhere on the horizon.
This film could have been much tauter than it is if the director had made it less cluttered with characters and specific events. But when all is said and done Spall’s performance rescues it from a disjointed banality. Go and see it to watch a master actor in action in a role, which fits him like a glove.
ROBERT HENDERSON is QR’s film critic
Robert Henderson has a tiger in his tank
Brad Pitt as US Army Staff Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier
Shia LaBeouf as Technician Fifth Grade Boyd “Bible” Swan
Logan Lerman as Private Norman “Machine” Ellison
Michael Peña as Corporal Trini “Gordo” Garcia
Jon Bernthal as Private First Class Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis
Jason Isaacs as Capt. “Old Man” Waggoner
Director: David Ayer
“I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell”, General William Tecumseh Sherman.
A director making a film about war should reflect Sherman’s simple truth that it is hell. Anything short of that is no more than cruel propaganda. Fury does fall short in the end, although it contains much that rings true.
It is Germany in April 1945. Staff Sergeant Don Wardaddy Collier (Brad Pitt) is captain of a Sherman tank nicknamed Fury. Collier and his crew of four of Swann, Garcia, Travis and Elllison (respectively played by LaBeouf, Peña, Berthnal and Lerman) are taking part in the snuffing out of the last desperate throw of Nazi Germany. All but Ellison have been with Collier fighting their way from North Africa to Germany.
Whatever pity there may have been in them has been leeched away by the brutality they have seen and the primal desire to stay alive, the latter fact made unusually pressing because Sherman tanks were no match for the German Tiger tanks and had a nasty reputation for going up in flames with little provocation. (The Allied troops satirically named them Ronsons after a popular lighter of the time which sold itself under the slogan “Lights up first time, every time”).
For an hour the film is just what a war film should be: full of the harsh dark humour of soldiers who live with fear as their constant companion, cruelly violent, horribly destructive of men and a sentimentality free zone.
Collier displays a Patton-like harshness to the new recruit Norman Ellison. He is a very young soldier who is replacing Fury’s newly killed assistant driver. He has zero experience of tanks, his previous role in the army being that of a clerk/typist. Why is he assigned to a tank? Because casualties make him Hobson’s choice.
Unsurprisingly Ellison’s is unfitted for the work not merely through inexperience but psychologically. His first task is to clean up the mess in the tank left by the dead man’s wounds. He vomits as he scrapes some flesh off his place in the tank. In his first taste of real warfare he fails to fire on Germans which results in another tank being destroyed. The commander of the tank falls out of the tank in a ball of flame and shoots himself in the head with his pistol to stop the agony.
Collier slaps Ellison around and tells him he has to learn to kill Germans or he is worse than useless. He forces Ellison to shoot a defenceless SS officer who has been captured, which Ellison does with the greatest reluctance and only with Collier holding Ellison’s finger over the trigger and forcing him to fire the gun. After a few more engagements Ellison gets the message: kill or be killed and even admits that he enjoys slaughtering Germans and becomes an accepted part of the tank crew, although he never quite seems to be at home in the tank as the other four crew members are unselfconsciously at home.
So far so good, but around the hour mark sentimentality crashes into the action. Collier and Ellison enter a German home and find a woman in her thirties and her niece. At first their meeting is all tension. Then Ellison sits down at a piano and starts playing music from some German sheet music. Unasked the niece comes across and sings the song which belongs to the music. Before you can say knife the niece and Ellison disappear into a bedroom from which they emerge later as instant sweethearts, having, it is implied, had sex. This implausible nonsense is thankfully cut short by further fighting in the town which results in the niece being killed. But the sentimental marker has been put down and stays with the film.
The final half hour or so is the plot of the Alamo adapted for World War 2. Fury hits a mine, sheds one of its tracks and is immobilised. Unable to move with the tank, the crew find themselves in the path of a group of SS soldiers several hundred in number. They are seen coming from a fair way off so tank crew have plenty of time to decide what to do. The sensible thing would be to retreat on foot. Collier orders his crew to get going whilst making it clear that he is staying to attack the column using the immobilised Sherman tank’s guns. In true Boy’s Own fashion the other four men agree to stay.
The tank then takes on the role of the fort in the Alamo. The SS soldiers arrive and the tank crew are able to spring a surprise attack. So far so realistic. We are then treated to some of the most preposterous battle scenes ever filmed. SS men keep popping up obligingly to be machined gunned, shot with small arms or obliterated by the tank’s cannon. For most of this action Collier is standing exposed on the top of the tank using its heavy machine gun. But this being Hollywood he does not get hit until all but the one of his tank crew (Ellison) have been killed. Then, incongruously, in view of his long exposure to the enemy without a sniper taking a pot shot at him, he is shot twice by guess who, a sniper.
With Collier wounded and now inside the tank, Ellison slips through an escape hatch in the bottom of the tank and hides underneath it. Collier is finally killed in the time honoured way infantry deal with tanks, namely, by climbing onto them, opening the command hatch, tossing a grenade in, closing the hatch and jumping off the tank before the grenade explodes. Ellison hides under the tank until the SS column has moved on, although not before a very young SS soldier sees him there but does not raise the alarm. Ellison is found in the morning by American troops and his survival is complete.
If the film ends disappointingly by relapsing into Hollywood vacuity, there is sufficient in it to make it watchable. The main actors all give strong performances. Pitt is convincing as a tough as teak tank commander; the LaBeouf character is one of those quietly competent people any group in a tight corner is glad to have with them, Peña is louder but just as reliable while Berthnal has something of the savage about him but nonetheless he is someone would be glad to have by your side when there is danger about. Lerman is the least likeable main character, not least because even when he has got over his reluctance to kill, he always appears to be on the edge of losing his nerve and in the context of the lives the tank crew are living his fear in some curious way seems to be a kind of disloyalty to the rest of the group.
The battle scenes are convincingly done apart from the final “Alamo” stand. The most intriguing sequence is of the Sherman Tank and a German Tiger tank performing a two dimensional dog fight, with the more manoeuvrable but inadequately armoured Sherman desperately trying to get behind the less agile but much superior in armour and gun-power Tiger to attack the Tiger’s one weak spot, the rear of the tank. Shades of the old fighter pilot’s tactic of getting above and behind an enemy before attacking.
You will not be bored by this film, but a much superior tank centred story is the Israeli film Lebanon (2009). This is set in the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2002. The entire action is filmed from within the tank with any outside action being shot through the bombsight. The film gives you much more of the claustrophobic reality of being part of a tank crew. All the good things about Fury are there without the distraction of implausible battle scenes and unwonted sentimentality.
ROBERT HENDERSON is QR’s film critic