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Jay Ruud’s Movie Reviews

My lovely wife and I go to movies. Lots and lots of movies. And I have opinions about movies. Lots and lots of opinions. Here, I share them with you. Lucky!


The Top Ten Films of 2016

Ruud’s Rankings: The Top Ten Films of 2016

With the Oscars just around the corner, it’s time for the annual and obligatory “top ten” list. First, of course, let me state my caveat: I did not see all of the movies that came out in 2016. I deliberately skipped some that were pretty clearly sub-par. I missed a number of foreign films and a good number of smaller independent films that never came to Central Arkansas, or that stayed very briefly. But I’m pretty sure I saw more movies that at least 99 per cent of you, so I figure I’ve at least got that going for me.

If you read my reviews with any regularity, you know that my criteria tend to be more literary and less technical than a lot of film critics, simply because of my background. But I value a well- structured plot, interesting and well-developed characters, well-written dialogue, great acting, and interesting ideas more highly than cinematography, editing, and visual or sound effects, though I’m certainly not indifferent to such things. With that in mind, here is my offering of the ten movies that, in my opinion, were the cream of the crop for the past year:

  1. Fences (Denzel Washington)

This film adaptation of August Wilson’s award-winning drama about a former Negro-league baseball player and his family in Pittsburg starred Denzel Washington, who is magnificent in his role as Troy Maxson, and Viola Davis as his wife Rose, who is worthy of a Best Actress Oscar nomination, but for some reason she was nominated in the “supporting” category, when she had more screen time than people considered “lead” actresses. The nomination is a disservice to her and to everyone else in her category. Some found this film slow moving. But to quote my review, “This is a film made from a play, and Washington as director has done very little to translate that medium into the more visual and kinetic medium of film. The physical symbol of the fence, for instance, that on stage serves as a constant reminder of the many barriers (some self-erected) in Troy’s life, has little of that effect here. Troy’s brother Gabriel (played by Mykelti Williamson) is essentially a symbolic character on stage, but here seems simply not to fit in very well. And, of course, the film is very, very talky, with little action that is not verbal and emotional. While Wilson’s language is poetic and often sonorous, there is a lot of it for contemporary movies tastes, and Troy’s constant harangues dotted with baseball metaphors seem a bit heavy-handed in the more intimate medium of the wide screen. But this is a movie you ought to see, for its brilliant acting, its complex and timely themes, and its moving language.”

  1. Denial (Mick Jackson)

The film recounts the true story of acclaimed writer and historian Deborah E. Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), who is sued for libel by Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall) and as a consequence must prove in court that the Holocaust actually did occur. A timely film dealing with “alternative facts,” the film is complex and distressing, but, to quote my review, it “works because of outstanding performances. Weisz is sympathetic as the tough defendant straining at the leash her attorneys have her on. [Andrew] Scott is witty, brilliant, and a bit self-satisfied and smug as the lawyer who got Princess Diana her divorce. [Tom] Wilkinson is logical and dispassionate, frustrating Lipstadt by his unemotional visit with her to Auschwitz, during which she is there to pray and mourn, and he is there to make a forensic examination; but he has his “gotcha” moments in the courtroom, and has a chance there to bristle in anger at the monstrous egoism of some of Irving’s responses. But the outstanding performance of the film is Spall’s. He manages to bring to life a loathsome character who sincerely believes himself to be completely normal and expects to be admired for his contributions to the study of history. So assured is he of the rightness of his work that he refuses to accept the outcome of his trial. The judge was prejudiced against him from the start. It was rigged.” Sound familiar?

  1. Silence (Martin Scorsese)

Scorsese’s modern-day saint’s life deserves to have garnered more attention than it did this year. A beautifully filmed story of two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver), in 17th-century Japan, who go to find a lost brother and in the process wind up challenged to become martyrs to the faith, this is a thoughtful film with no easy answers. In my review I wrote that “Garfield is suitably tormented as Rodrigues. [Issei] Ogata as the Inquisitor is creepily cruel but rational at the same time, and [Tadanobu] Asano is surprisingly likeable as the interpreter. As Kichijiro, [Yosuke] Kubozuka may be the most memorable actor in the film. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is the one Academy Award nomination Scorsese’s film received, and it is well deserved, showing us the torments of faith amidst beautiful mist-covered mountains. As for the score—well, there isn’t one. By the time you get about halfway through the film, you realize there has been no music, and as the ending credits roll, they roll, very appropriately, in silence.”

  1. La-La Land (Damien Chazelle)

Chazelle wrote and directed this romantic musical romp that references and parodies old Hollywood through the charming charisma of stars Ryan Gosling as a jazz pianist and Emma Stone as an aspiring actress. The film was a breath of fresh air and radically different from any other movie of the year, for which reason audiences loved it and it seems to have the inside track for a Best Picture Oscar. But I respectfully suggest that, while it’s a good movie, it falls short of being a great one. In my review I said “And what about that plot? Two romantic idealists work through the whips and scorns of reality that tries to knock them down or force them to compromise, but somehow they win through in the end and achieve their goals? That kind of fairy-tale outcome is not unlike the endings of countless Hollywood fantasies of the past—Singing in the Rain included. But in this film, there is a nagging voice that stays in the back of our minds, that comes from John Legend’s character, who asserts to Sebastian ‘You’re so obsessed with Kenny Clarke and Thelonious Monk—these guys were revolutionaries. How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You’re holding onto the past, but jazz is about the future.’ One wonders if that is in fact the voice of Chazelle himself, warning us that the nostalgia of this film is pretty, but that film needs to be about the future? That theme may be what echoes in the film’s conclusion, in which it becomes clear to the audience that there are limits to the fulfillment of wishes, and that any dream that comes true leaves casualties in its wake.”

  1. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)

In three snapshots from three different periods in the life of a young gay African American boy, youth, and man growing up in a rough Miami neighborhood, Jenkins creates a thoughtful, penetrating and truthful psychological drama that is about character and relationships, not plot. I had this to say about the film in my review: “That slow pace is, I suppose, the necessary tradeoff for a sensitive film dealing with the inner man. So if you’re all about action, you probably want to skip this movie. If not, you will find the film rewarding. Whether it will win the Best Picture Oscar is questionable. La La Land, which seems to be the early favorite, is attractive because of its uplifting mood, in sharp contrast with most of the other nominated films, particularly this one. On the other hand, there may be enough sentiment in Hollywood aimed at correcting the ‘whitewashed’ Oscars of last year, that many voters may vote for Moonlight because of its African-American filmmakers and cast. But that would be a political rather than an aesthetic statement. If Moonlight wins it should be because of its high quality filmmaking, which is undeniable. I think it is ultimately a better and more important film than La La Land. I have my own opinions about the year’s best film … [see below!] but Moonlight is certainly a contender.”

  1. Jackie (Pablo Larrain)

I was impressed by this film about Jackie Kennedy in the days following JFK’s assassination because of its insightful portrayal of the creation of myth, and Natalie Portman’s Oscar-worthy performance, filmed largely in close-up. As I wrote in my review, “Portman is nothing short of spectacular in the role, which keeps her in front of the camera for virtually every shot of the film, and she will be hard to beat come Oscar time. Peter Sarsgaard manages to give us a nuanced and believable Robert Kennedy without trying to do an impression of JFK’s fellow martyr by mimicking his voice or mannerisms. Greta Gerwig is sympathetic as Nancy Tuckerman, the first lady’s friend and aide, and Max Casella is appropriately slimy as the new president’s assistant, bent on putting forward LBJ’s interests whatever the Kennedys want to do. Mica Levi’s dark score accentuates the film’s sorrowful tone. Chilean director Larrain (whose film about his country’s greatest poet Neruda will be released very soon) is masterful in his first English-language film, and [Noah] Oppenheim’s script blends history and imagination brilliantly. I admit that I did not originally intend to rate this film so highly, but since I find I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I saw it nearly a week ago, I feel compelled to give it four Shakespeares. Go and see what you think yourself.”

  1. Kubo and the Two Strings (Travis Knight)

This visually stunning film depicts a young boy on a quest to recover the armor of his late warrior father, which will allow him in to defeat a vengeful spirit, is the best animated film in years. And while the power of Disney may convince Academy voters to give Moana the Oscar for best animated film of 2016, it isn’t. This film, which presents itself as a kind of Japanese folk tale, was criticized for not using Japanese actors in the major roles, which is a legitimate concern, but as I said in my review, “I do recommend not letting it spoil the film for you as a viewer, however. [Charlize] Theron, [Matthew] McConaughey, and [Ralph] Fiennes bring the wonderful animation of this film to life in remarkably vivid ways. In the end, this movie has a lot to say about the value of stories, about the value of our own stories and our own histories, about the Japanese virtue of respect for ancestors and their stories—a Shinto torii gate appears in the film as Kubo tries to contact his dead father. Memories and family are the source of strength and hope in the movie, and part of the Japanese culture for which the film shows a great deal of respect, even if that is not reflected in the casting. Yes, I’m giving this film four Shakespeares, and I’m giving it the inside track to win the Oscar for best animated film of 2016.”

  1. Love and Friendship (Whit Stillman)

The best movie of the summer, virtually ignored among all the comic book hero and action thrillers, was this independent film version of Jane Austen’s early epistolary novel Lady Susan, starring a remarkable Kate Beckinsale and a wonderful Chloe Sevigny. Stillman’s adapted screenplay won several awards from regional film critics, and Beckinsale won a best actress award, and Tom Bennett an award for supporting actor, from the London Film Critics Circle, but the film was complexly forgotten by Oscar time here. And that’s an injustice. To quote from my own review, “The actors are all flawless in their roles here, but Beckinsale is the one who must, and who does, make the movie. She is simultaneously despicable and alluring, and you are simultaneously appalled and delighted by what she says and does. Lady Susan is conniving, cunning, scheming, sharp and resourceful, and Beckinsale hits every note perfectly. She’s the kind of character that you would hate to know in real life, but who is totally fascinating to watch in a film. This is the most memorable performance of 2016 so far. But the actor who very nearly steals the movie is Tom Bennett as Sir James Martin. Stillman makes much of Austen’s suggestions in her book that Sir James is ‘as silly as ever,’ and describes him in the title cards as ‘a bit of a rattle,’ which apparently is 1790s slang for a complete dolt. Sir James, master of a wealthy estate, is such a twit that he can’t remember how many commandments there are, and has a hilarious scene in which he discovers the joy of eating peas, giggling at the ‘little green balls’ on his plate. Bennett, hitherto known essentially as a British television actor, may have a rewarding future as a comic film actor.” If you missed this film in theaters, try to see it on a small screen somehow. You’ll be glad you did.

  1. Hell or High Water (David MacKenzie)

In a script that focuses on bank robbers reminiscent of the 1930s but that addresses significant contemporary issues at the same time, Chris Pine and Ben Foster star as two brothers following a desperate plan to save their family ranch from the bank that threatens to take it from them, while Gil Birmingham and Oscar-nominated Jeff Bridges play the Texas Rangers bent on stopping the brothers’ crime spree. To quote my review, “Hell or High Water has a powerful script [written by Oscar nominee Taylor Sheridan], impressive cinematography of the great barren landscapes of the southwest, and a hard-hitting exploration of contemporary social problems. But the performances are what really set this movie apart. Foster is believably undisciplined and unpredictable. Birmingham is sympathetically stoic and sometimes exasperated. Pine shows he is more than James T. Kirk but can dazzle in a role full of depth and complexity. And Bridges? He is what we’ve come to expect, hitting every facet of his character with the apparent ease of a true virtuoso that shows why he is one of the greatest actors of his generation.”

  1. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)

That leaves us with this devastating drama featuring three Oscar-nominated actors: Casey Affleck as Lee, a man trying to hang on after his life has been seared by tragedy, Michelle Williams as Randi, his ex-wife struggling to move on with her own life, and Lucas Hedges as Affleck’s nephew Patrick, whose own life has been set off course by his father’s tragic death. In a perfect world, this film would win the “Best Picture” Oscar, while Affleck and Williams would walk away with acting Oscars. I think it is unlikely to work out that way, but it should. In my review, I wrote “In support of Affleck’s brilliant performance, Hedges gives a convincing and complex portrayal of a sixteen-year old, struggling by turns with the death of his father, the possibility of being torn away from his life as he knows it, the possibility of a reconciliation with his alcoholic mother Elise (an impressive Gretchen Mol), and his own adolescent sexual explorations with two different girlfriends. But it is Williams’ performance as Lee’s permanently damaged ex-wife Randi that raises the film to stratospheric heights. Though she has very little screen time, every second she is on is brilliant. The final meeting between her and Affleck near the end of the film is perhaps the most memorable and unforgettable scene in any film this year. And it is heart-rending because of its understated honesty. Much of that, of course is also due to director Lonergan, who also wrote the screenplay. Lonergan, who began life as a playwright (his play The Waverly Gallery was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize), has written in Manchester by the Sea a very play-like script. Some moviegoers will be disappointed by the lack of explosions, comic book characters, and happy endings, and may not know how to react to the fact that people actually talk to each other for more than ten seconds at a time. But if you want quality drama, this is it. And it will devastate you.”

Honorable Mention: Moana, Lion, Hacksaw Ridge, Hidden Figures, Dr Strange


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The Founder

The Founder

John Lee Hancock (2017)

John Lee Hancock’s new film The Founder, the story of McDonald’s Corporation’s CEO Ray Kroc, opened in wide release on January 20, though it had originally been scheduled for an August release, and had been held back with the idea that it might have a better shot at Oscar nominations if released late in the year—though it was shown in New York and Los Angeles only in very limited viewing before the first of the year. And no, it did not garner any nominations.

The film had a troubled birth: Robert D. Siegel’s script was bouncing around in 2014 without any takers. Tom Hanks was originally asked to play the part of Kroc, but declined the offer and was replaced by Michael Keaton. The Coen brothers were apparently interested in directing, but had to withdraw because filming would have conflicted with their making Hail Caesar. Hancock, who had earlier turned down the film, ultimately decided to make it after reading Siegel’s script. And then the release date kept changing. Against all odds, the movie was made, it’s out, and it’s finally come to Central Arkansas—but only at Riverdale, and who knows how long it will be there. So if you’re interested in seeing it, you’d better move quickly.

What may have interested Hancock in the story is its similarity to his earlier film, Saving Mr. Banks (which did star Tom Hanks): In that film Walt Disney cajoles P. L. Travers into selling him the rights to Mary Poppins and turning the book into a huge commercial success, while disregarding the vision and wishes of its creator. In The Founder, Kroc persuades the true founders of McDonald’s—Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald—into allowing him to franchise their restaurant idea and, ultimately to snatch it away from them, creating something they had never wanted and in fact despised. Essentially what Hancock has made in The Founder is a darker, more ethically dubious version of Mr. Banks.

The film opens in 1954, and Kroc, then a 52-year-old travelling salesman making his way around the Chicago and St. Louis area, visiting drive-in after drive-in trying with very limited success to peddle a new kind of blender that can make several milk shakes at once. He practices a sales pitch based on a “chicken and egg” argument: “Increase the supply and the demand will follow,” he tells potential buyers—eerily anticipating the global span of McDonald’s franchises. Nobody listens to him, but he persists, spending his evenings in his hotel room listening to recordings of a Norman Vincent Peale-like self-help guru asserting that persistence is the one thing that leads to success. As he psyches himself into a positive attitude, his long-suffering wife Ethel (Laura Dern) waits at home feeling neglected and ignored.

Kroc is reminiscent at this point of no one more than Willy Loman, protagonist of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a product of the same milieu, having premiered just six years earlier on Broadway. There may be an ironic allusion to this, in fact, early in the film when Kroc visits a movie house to watch Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, with eight Oscars the most critically heralded film of 1954. This apparently gratuitous scene delivers, I would suggest, the key to the entire movie. We are never shown exactly what Kroc reacts to on the screen. Initially, we may think that he is identifying with Marlon Brando, the ex-boxer Terry Malloy who is down on his luck but who “coulda been a contender” instead of a bum. Brando redeems himself in the end of the film, breaking the power of the corrupt waterfront union boss Johnny Friendly. Perhaps we imagine Kroc is envisioning his own rise from obscurity to success by championing a right cause. But think again. Johnny Friendly is played by Lee J. Cobb, the actor who had risen to prominence by playing Willy Loman a few years earlier on Broadway. The unsuccessful salesman of 1948 has become Johnny Friendly, the powerful boss who has risen to the top by ruthless tactics and the crushing of any opposition. If Ray Kroc’s story is a Horatio Alger tale of the American Dream, it is the dream as realized not by Brando but by Cobb.

The turning point of Kroc’s life comes when a small restaurant in San Bernardino, California orders six of his multi-milk shake blenders. His curiosity getting the better of him, he travels to San Bernardino to see just why this little restaurant called “McDonald’s” needs so many milk shake machines. He finds a place unlike any he has ever seen—one where he stands in line rather than parks his car and orders, gets his meal instantaneously, and is given a quality hamburger, fries, and drink for 35 cents. When the McDonald brothers show him how the restaurant works, according to a “speedee” method invented by Dick that applies Henry Ford’s assembly line notion to the production of hamburgers, Kroc is hooked and the “fast food” revolution is born.

The film follows Kroc’s talking the brothers in to letting him franchise McDonald’s and the “speedee” system, his difficulties in getting them to allow him to change anything in the franchises that might increase sales or profits, and his selling of hundreds of franchises. It also depicts his inability to make any real profit. Kroc meets a former Tastee Freeze executive named Harry Sonneborn (played by another Saving Mr. Banks alumnus, B.J. Novak), who shows him how he can make real money with his franchising by owning the land on which the McDonald restaurants sit and leasing it to his franchisees. This is the turning point in Kroc’s fortunes, and in our sympathies for him.

As Kroc amasses his huge fortune, he divorces Ethel, steals the wife of one of his franchisees, steals the McDonald’s name from Dick and Mac, defies the contract he signed, knowing he can tie them up in court costs if they try to enforce it. And he cheats them out of their share of the profits. He adds insults to injuries as he grows the company. This is not a spoiler, it’s common knowledge.

The film poses some serious questions about success and the “American dream”: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” the Evangelist wrote. Kroc has money, success, power, and a new trophy wife in the end, and is being lauded by the governor of California, a certain Ronald Reagan. But as he practices his speech in front of the mirror—as he did his sales pitch in the beginning of the film, we see him as a sham, lying (or perhaps he’s just using “alternative facts”) about having conceived of the McDonald’s process himself, and plagiarizing from his self-help recordings from the beginning. We have a good deal of respect for the McDonald brothers—who created the fast-food concept and who insisted on maintaining high quality. We have no respect for the guy who made all the money and took all the credit, getting to the top over the bodies of his rivals.

Keaton’s charm keeps us fooled into sympathizing with Kroc until well into the film, when we finally realize we’ve been sold a bill of goods. Offerman and Lynch are believable and sympathetic as the decent, innovative and hard-working McDonald brothers—often seen as lacking in vision or business acumen in more whitewashed versions of the Kroc story, but in fact honest businessmen who conducted themselves with integrity in the face of a rival lacking any normal scruples or sense of business ethics.

Some have criticized this film for failing to deal with Kroc’s flaws, but I’m not sure how it could have dealt with them more forcefully without hitting us over the head. Nor is it quite fair to blame it for not dealing with the environmental effects of the fast food industry McDonald’s spearheaded, or the company’s racial policies during the civil rights era during which the film is set. But how much can one film possibly do? This film was a morality tale about the dark side of the American dream. Let that be enough. I’ll give it three Tennysons.


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Martin Scorsese (2017)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

It’s no secret that as a boy, before being seduced by the allure of filmmaking, Martin Scorsese wanted to be a priest. And of course much of his work (most obviously The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun) has explored the lives of people grappling with their faith. So in many ways his new film, Silence, dealing with the struggle of two Jesuit priests among persecuted believers in seventeenth-century Japan, is really a very personal film for him. The fact is, Scorsese has been obsessed with this story for more than twenty years, writing and rewriting his adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel of the same name, hoping to bring it to the screen. And now, after more delays caused by financial problems, Scorsese has made the screenplay that he completed with Jay Cock into a nearly three-hour epic story of faith, abnegation, and a clash of religious cultures.

The film begins in 1636, when two Portuguese Jesuits, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) resolve to travel to Japan in quest of their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has disappeared and who, according to rumors that have reached the Order in Europe, may have abjured his faith and be living among the Japanese as one of them. The background to this is alluded to briefly here and there in the film, but to clarify, Christian missionaries, led by the Jesuit Francis Xavier (now revered as a Catholic saint), had first come to Japan in 1549, successfully converting a significant number of Japanese in the Nagasaki area. There were an estimated 300,000 Christians in Japan by the end of the sixteenth century. But particularly under the Tokugawa shogunate, Christianity came under suspicion for bringing foreign ideas into Japan and subverting the social order, and Christianity in Japan was suppressed and its adherents persecuted. In Nagasaki, twenty-six Christians—mostly Franciscan missionaries—were martyred on crosses on February 5, 1597, and more persecutions followed, including another event in Nagasaki known as the “Great Genna Martyrdom,” in which fifty-five Catholic clergy and laity were tortured and martyred. Christianity was outlawed, Japanese Christians were without any sort of leadership or clergy, though some survived in secret communities. When caught by authorities, they were compelled to step on a small sculpted likeness of Jesus or of the Virgin Mary (called a fumi-e) as a symbol of their repudiation of Christendom. Those who would not repudiate were executed.

This is the world into which Rodrigues and Garupe are led by a Japanese guide named Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka) picked up in a Portuguese port along the way. Kichijiro claims he is not a Christian, but is able to lead Rodrigues and Garupe to one of the few surviving Christian towns in Japan. The Christians do not trust Kichijiro, though, and we learn that, when forced to make the choice between stepping on the fumi-e or death, his entire family refused to repudiate their faith and were executed while Kichijiro abjured and saved his life. Once sheltered among the secret Christian villagers, the priests spend their days hiding, sheltered in caves or isolated, hidden in shacks while the brave Christians sheltering them face torture and death if they are discovered. Garupe has the most difficulty bearing this life in the shadows, and it soon becomes clear that the villagers are starving for the sacraments, which have been unavailable to them since they lost their priests years before. Rodrigues and Garupe must put their primary quest for Father Ferreira on hold while they minister to the needs of this congregation. Among those begging to take confession is Kichijiro himself.

Rodriguez and Garupe are sharply delineated as characters: Garupe seems more rigid, less sympathetic toward the Japanese, more interested in finding Ferreira. Rodrigues seems more naïve, more interested in serving the villagers. When he knows some are going to face the choice of trampling the fumi-e or torture and death, he urges them to step on the image of Christ: God is forgiving, after all. But Garupe insists that the faithful must never abandon the faith: Earthly martyrdom is nothing compared to eternal damnation, which in his mind is the reward of abjuration. When the two priests are forced to separate halfway through the film, we must wonder how strong Rodrigues’ faith will be without the rigid Garupe beside him.

The second half of the film focuses on Rodrigues and on his tribulations after he is captured by the local strongman Inoue (Issei Ogata), known as the Inquisitor. There’s an irony in this title, since back in Europe “Inquisitors” had been persecuting “heretics”—those who denied the orthodox Catholic faith—for centuries. And, indeed, at the very moment these events are presented as taking place in Japan, the Thirty Years War was raging in Europe between Catholics and Protestants, two branches of Christians who were willing to kill each other over the interpretation of their own common faith.

The film at this point takes on the structure of a medieval saint’s life, like those collected in the popular thirteenth-century collection called the Golden Legend, a work which undoubtedly would have been familiar to someone like Father Rodrigues, presenting him with numerous saints whose martyrdom he might emulate. Invariably these saints’ lives focused on the stalwart faith of the saint, who is imprisoned by local pagan authorities, threatened with torture or death if he or she does not abjure Christianity and worship the local god. The climactic scene of the legend was a trial scene (recalling Christ before Pilate) in which the judge or pagan ruler argued with the saint over the relative merits of their conflicting religions. The saint always bested the judge in this argument, God providing him or her with the right things to say to win the argument. At that point the pagan judge would abandon the argument and condemn the saint to horrible torture or death, which the saint suffered before moving on to eternal bliss. The concept of the saint’s imitation of Christ’s own life and passion is clear, and ordinary Christians were supposed to measure themselves against this ideal. Indeed, at one point Rodrigues looking at his reflection in a pool of water, sees Christ’s own face staring back at him.

Rodrigues clearly sees himself in this saintly role when he comes before the Inquisitor and his surprisingly reasonable and moderate interpreter (Tadanobu Asano). But Scorsese’s version of the trial scene is almost, but not quite, a parody of the traditional saint’s life. Rodrigues’ arguments are all clichés and platitudes, the sorts of arguments that would only convince someone who really didn’t need convincing (indeed, someone like the audience of those early saints’ lives, all of whom were Christians wishing to bolster their own faith). They do nothing to convince the Inquisitor or his interpreter, who are far better informed than Rodrigues is: They know his language, though he hasn’t bothered to learn theirs. They know the details of his religion, while he knows virtually nothing about theirs. (Why should he? His is right and he knows it.—“We have brought you the truth!” he insists.) But as the interpreter says with a shrug, “Only a Christian would see Buddha simply as man. You are ignorant, padre.”

What Rodrigues has to face that differs from the typical saint’s life is the fact that the Inquisitor has threatened to kill all the Japanese Christians imprisoned with him if he will not renounce the faith. Getting a priest to abjure, the Inquisitor knows, will do much to destroy the faith of the laity. The only way Rodrigues can save other lives is to abjure himself. He cannot simply choose martyrdom himself and have a clean conscience. Through it all, Rodrigues prays to his God but receives no answers. “I pray, but I am lost,” he says, adding “Am I just praying to silence?”

In the end Scorsese is silent when it comes to giving us any easy answers. We might think Rodrigues as big a fool as the Japanese do. (But if he is, how do we explain the truly charitable acts he performs?) On the other hand, we might see him as heroic in his defense of his faith. (But if he is, how can we feel good about his allowing so many others to die?). The story is complex, and there are no certainties.

But the one character who may be a key to the film is Kichijiro, who ludicrously abandons his faith at least four times in the film, but keeps coming back and asking Rodrigues to hear his confession every time. The one certainty in the film, in fact, is that Kichijiro will return. He is not a saint and has no desire to be a martyr. He is an ordinary human being, who sins again and again and keeps believing that there will be forgiveness. And Rodrigues keeps absolving him. Finally, the film tells us that, like Kichijiro, we can all be forgiven—seventy times seven times, isn’t it?

Garfield is suitably tormented as Rodrigues. Ogata as the Inquisitor is creepily cruel but rational at the same time, and Asano is surprisingly likeable as the interpreter. As Kichijiro, Kubozuka may be the most memorable actor in the film. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is the one Academy Award nomination Scorsese’s film received, and it is well deserved, showing us the torments of faith amidst beautiful mist-covered mountains. As for the score—well, there isn’t one. By the time you get about halfway through the film, you realize there has been no music, and as the ending credits roll, they roll, very appropriately, in silence.

Some people may find this film slow moving and ponderous. I didn’t find it so, and I’m giving it three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare. It’s worth seeing.


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Barry Jenkins (2016)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

One of the 2016’s most acclaimed independent films has at last made it to the cinema in Conway, so you’d better get to see it quick before it’s gone. Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight won the Golden Globe award for the outstanding movie of the year in the drama category, and Mahershala Ali (best-known for T.V.’s House of Cards) recently won the Screen Actors’ Guild award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role. The film is nominated for eight Oscars including best picture, and it may well have the inside track as the movie most likely to give La La Land some competition for that award.

The story of Moonlight was first conceived as a semi-autobiographical play called In the Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, by the distinguished playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney (recently named the chair of playwriting at the Yale School of Drama). Jenkins, who grew up only blocks away from McCraney in Liberty City, the Miami neighborhood in which McCraney sets his story, adapted his screenplay from the shelved play and has made it into a quietly compassionate film concerned with a youth trying to find himself in a hostile world.

The film is structured like a play in three acts: It tells the story of a young man, Chiron, by presenting significant events in his maturing process at three stages of his life. The first act, entitled “Little,” the name be which he is known at that time, introduces us to the child Chiron (played by Alex R. Hibbert), running and hiding from bullies hurling abusive homosexual slurs at him. He is befriended by a neighborhood drug dealer named Juan (Ali), who, unable to get a word out of the boy regarding his home, feeds him and brings him home to his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae of Hidden Figures). Juan ultimately returns Chiron to his mother Paula (Naomi Harris—Moneypenny in the recent Bond films)—an abusive addict buying from his own dealers. But he continues to serve as a father-figure for Chiron, a role dramatized memorably in a tender scene where Juan teaches the young Chiron to swim.

The second act shows Chiron (played here by Ashton Sanders) in high school, still the target of bullies and still searching for his identity. His mother has become more abusive and less in touch with reality, and it is clear that he is essentially the parent in the home. He has a sexual encounter with longtime friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), but the environment of his school and neighborhood make that relationship impossible, and this chapter of Chiron’s life ends in a violent encounter that sends Chiron into the correctional system.

In the final act, entitled “Black,” the grown-up Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), now hard-muscled and looking a lot like his old mentor Juan from his childhood, is running his own drug ring in Atlanta. Out of the blue he receives a call from Kevin (now played by Andre Holland of Selma and 42), and Chiron returns to Miami to reconnect with his old friend and erstwhile tormentor. It is clear that Chiron is still searching, still confused under his veneer of toughness symbolized by the gold grills he wears in his mouth and removes when he sits down with Kevin in the diner where his one-time intimate now works as a cook. In another remarkable scene, the two exchange a few words over a meal Kevin cooks, and they manage to reconnect without ever saying the things that must be simmering within them. This is the whole movie in a nutshell: There are deep emotions that are stirred, but all action and all speech is restrained—buried under the stoic shell that the characters’ environment has imposed upon them.

Such a bald summary may make the film seem like a cliché of growing up in poverty and intolerance, with a crack-addicted mother and a drug dealer with a heart of gold. That is not what it is. Yes, it is about transcending those things, and ultimately coming to terms with a sexuality despised in one’s own culture. But the characters in this film are individuals, made so by the serious acting talents of the entire ensemble cast—particularly Ami as the drug dealer and Harris as the distant and demanding mother (both nominated for Oscars in supporting roles), and Andre Holland as the adult Kevin, who shines in the diner scene as he struggles to reconnect with the friend and lover he betrayed. Thus the film is very much about these individuals and Chiron’s intensely personal struggle. But the situations—the inner turmoil of the lonely, bullied child, the seething struggle of the beleaguered adolescent, the impenetrable façade of the insecure young adult—these are things that everyone can relate to, which allows the audience to emphasize with Chiron, even if they have never been where he is.

But the film is probably not for everyone. In the end not a whole lot happens. And Chiron is equally withdrawn and reticent in each segment of the movie, so that there’s not a lot of snappy dialogue—or, from Chiron’s corner, not much dialogue at all. The action of the film is largely internal, and the focus begins and remains on Chiron’s inner turmoil. So, as much as a movie can, this film depicts the inner workings of its central character without giving that character the voice to articulate that turmoil. And nothing is hurried in the film. The characters dance around Chiron, trying to give him the opportunity to open up, and eventually he may oblige them. But then again he may not. Thus the film moves at, shall we say a leisurely pace—so leisurely that I did catch myself falling asleep at one point. Or I should say my wife caught me, poking me to stop my snoring.

That slow pace is, I suppose, the necessary tradeoff for a sensitive film dealing with the inner man. So if you’re all about action, you probably want to skip this movie. If not, you will find the film rewarding. Whether it will win the Best Picture Oscar is questionable. La La Land, which seems to be the early favorite, is attractive because of its uplifting mood, in sharp contrast with most of the other nominated films, particularly this one. On the other hand, there may be enough sentiment in Hollywood aimed at correcting the “whitewashed” Oscars of last year, that many voters may vote for Moonlight because of its African-American filmmakers and cast. But that would be a political rather than an aesthetic statement. If Moonlight wins it should be because of its high quality filmmaking, which is undeniable. I think it is ultimately a better and more important film than La La Land. I have my own opinions about the year’s best film (to be expressed in an upcoming column!), but Moonlight is certainly a contender. Go see it quickly, before they yank it to put Monster Trucks on another screen.

I’m going to give this one three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare. My nap cost it the four stars.


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Patriots Day

Patriots Day

Peter Berg (2016)

If you have ever been in a big marathon, a half-marathon, or even a 5K, with thousands of other runners, or stood around the crowded finish line cheering on somebody who was running, especially on a sunny spring day when the weather is cooperating, you know the soaring spirits that govern the scene, and the atmosphere of good will that surrounds that place where thousands of people are celebrating the completion of a difficult achievement and experiencing the joy of their physical accomplishments. That atmosphere is recreated in sensual detail in Peter Berg’s new film Patriots Day, to the extent that you as viewer feel as if you are really there at the finish of the Boston Marathon in 2013, and you are as stunned by the explosions as you might have been had you been present that day.

Berg’s film focuses chiefly, though, on the four-day investigation that followed the Boston Marathon bombings that led to the apprehension of the Chechen brothers responsible for the attack, and does so in great detail, moving among the various levels of law enforcement and the dizzying perspective of officers, agents and agencies connected with the investigation. To help us keep up with and integrate all of this detail, Berg creates a role for his favorite collaborator, Mark Wahlberg (star of Berg’s earlier Deepwater Horizon and Lone Survivor), who plays a fictional Boston police detective named Tommy Saunders. For some unexplained act of insubordination, Saunders assigned to don a uniform (a “clown suit” as he calls it) and patrol the finish line of the marathon. Everybody in the department seems to know Tommy, from the police commissioner to the officers walking the beat, and this in part explains how he gets involved at so many points in the investigation. He is Berg’s “chorus” figure in the film, through whom the audience experiences and makes sense of the various strands of the story. He’s also there to mirror the audience’s feelings: since the other cops tend to be all business as they work on tracking down the terrorists, it’s Tommy that we see breaking down, shaken by the carnage, the three killed and 250 injured, ensuring those human faces are not lost to us in the minutia of the investigation.

The film’s other characters are all real people who were involved in the actual investigation. John Goodman, in an uncharacteristically understated performance, plays Boston Police commissioner Ed Davis, who must deal with FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), who will take over the investigation if it is determined to be an act of terrorism—which ultimately, it is. J.K. Simmons plays Watertown Police sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese, who becomes largely responsible for the taking down of Tamerlan Tsarnaev (played by Georgian-born actor Thermo Melikidze), the brother responsible for conceiving and planning the bombing. Michael Beach (of T.V.’s Sons of Anarchy and The Game) plays Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick. The plot proceeds, like the investigation itself, by fits and starts, sometimes in ways that seem random, but always sticking very close to the facts of the case, and always with Wahlberg’s Tommy as a moral and emotional center.

I realize in thinking back on the film with a bit of perspective that what remains of the movie for me is not an overall impression but vivid individual scenes. One of these involves the FBI investigation, to which Tommy is called in after agents, having collected cell phones from the crowd around the finish line and studied the videos taken on all those cell phones, find a suspect when they notice one young man in the crowd who is not startled by and does not look toward the bomb blast. DesLauriers, having mapped out the area of the blast on the concrete floor of the large warehouse he has made his headquarters, asks the streetwise Tommy to work back from the site of the blast to call out to the FBI agents any businesses that are known to have surveillance cameras as he backs up down the “street.” We see the agents immediately tap into those cameras and find the same two suspects as they made there way down the street prior to the explosions. The scene is a bit astounding, suggesting the kind of surveillance of which law enforcement is capable in this post-9/11 world.

Another scene that is masterfully done is the shootout at night in a residential neighborhood in Watertown between the Tsarnaev brothers and members of the Boston and Watertown police forces. As the cornered brothers toss homemade bombs at the police, the officers fire back into the darkness in a chaotic maelstrom of violence–chillingly in an ordinary neighborhood.

And while we’re talking chilling, consider the scene in which Katherine Russell, Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s American wife, is interrogated by a Muslim woman from an undisclosed government agency. Russell (played by Melissa Benoist of T.V.’s Supergirl) is unrepentant and impassive, ironically insisting on the rights granted her by the system her husband is devoted to tearing down. Perhaps even scarier is the interrogator, who makes it clear that terrorists have no rights.

But by far the most memorable scene in this film is the long sequence following the Tsarnaevs’ carjacking of the Chinese app designer Dun Meng (played by Jimmy O. Yang of T.V.’s Silicon Valley). We follow the subdued and terrorized Meng from his kidnapping, through the ATM machine where the brothers empty his account, to the gas station where they stop to stock up for their trip to New York where they plan to bomb Times Square, all the time feeling with Meng the possibility that any second these loose cannons might decide to shoot him if he becomes an inconvenience. Yang’s performance is the most memorable in the movie.

Of course, one of the reasons for that is that his is one of the few characters we get to see beyond the surface. Berg seems to have chosen highly recognizable actors (Bacon, Simmons, Goodman) to play the parts of significant figures in the investigation so that we could easily tell them apart, since they really have no recognizable characters apart from their functions in the plot. Only Wahlberg has a backstory and a personality, but as an Everyman figure his emotions are those of the city of Boston, or the American public in general, as much as they are the individual character’s.

Berg and his co-screenwriters Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer do try to give some depth to Tamerlan and his younger brother Dzhohar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff), who are shown living a fairly normal home life, except of course for the bomb-building. We are made to see that there is a human element there, rather than simply a faceless evil, but their motivations are still obscure. I left thinking that the whole thing was simply done for the sake of achieving notoriety, but I’m not sure why. Maybe that’s the point. The “why” will always be obscure.

In the end, this is a better film than I expected from Berg and Wahlberg, whose previous work, and this film’s title, led me to expect an oversimplified flag-waving flick about our men in blue, America’s heroes. But there is little of that, beyond a fairly sentimental soliloquy from Wahlberg three quarters of the way through. Instead it is a fairly nuanced look at the many aspects of the bombing, at the investigation itself, at the bombers, at individuals like Meng and Russell and Pugliese and the parts they played in the story’s outcome. It will be interesting to see how Berg’s film will compare with David Gordon Green’s forthcoming film Stronger, with Jake Gyllengaal, which takes on the same subject. As for Berg’s film, I’ll give it three Tennyons.  It’s worth seeing on a big screen.


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Pablo Larrain (2016)

Ruud Rating

4 Shakespeares

One of the most acclaimed films of the silent era—indeed, a film often listed among the “top ten” films of all time—is Carl Theodore Dreyer’s 1928 classic The Passion of Joan of Arc. Dreyer’s script was compiled directly from the written transcripts of Joan’s 1431 trial, and he strove to give it an almost documentary realism. It follows Joan’s interrogation before her judges, her “confession” before a false confessor sent to her cell, her abjuration declaring that her visions had, after all, been false, and her subsequent rejection of that abjuration, leading directly to her martyrdom at the stake, and ultimately to her canonization as “Saint Joan,” which had occurred just two years before Dreyer started filming. Most notable in the film is the fact that it is shot to a large extent in close-ups, so that audiences could read every nuanced emotion—faith, horror, fear, sorrow, doubt, courage, victory—in the face of his astonishing star, Renée Jeanne Falconetti in her much-celebrated and only film appearance.

I could not help thinking of Dreyer’s film while watching Pablo Larrain’s new film Jackie with its much-celebrated leading lady, Natalie Portman. Like Dreyer’s film, it is shot to a very large extent in close-up, and as with Falconetti, Portman’s face is constantly under the camera’s scrutiny. I’m sure that one of Larrain’s reasons for this choice was to demonstrate visually the situation of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, the iconic first lady, in the days immediately following the shocking assassination of her husband: her every move at that most personal turning point in her life performed under the microscope of public scrutiny. But the effect of this choice is to allow the audience, as with Falconetti, to read every minute change in emotion—sorrow, terror, anger, frustration, haughtiness, grief, doubt, determination—on Portman’s face. Through her we experience what seems first-hand the assassination, death, and grieving of the president. It’s hard to imagine that a filmmaker like Larrain would be unaware of Dreyer’s powerfully influential film, and it seems quite possible that, consciously or unconsciously, Larrain was channeling Dreyer’s technique.

Certainly Jackie is under great duress, as was Joan. Like Joan, she spends much of the film answering questions and telling her own story, in Jackie’s case to a journalist (Billy Crudup) rather than to an inquisition. As Dreyer’s movie used the actual record of Joan’s trial for its script, Jackie relies heavily on a published Life magazine interview with Mrs. Kennedy done a week after the assassination. Jackie also is shown making a kind of confession to an actual priest (John Hurt), a confession that parallels and contrasts with her answers in her journalist interview. Both Joan and Jackie are forging a myth, Joan unwittingly and Jackie with deliberate calculation, but both are overcome by doubt at one point and seem to back away from their respective mythmaking: Joan, swayed by the prospect of torture and the authority of the Church, abjures the divine origin of her voices; Jackie, swayed by the trepidation of those round her, including Robert Kennedy, that the sort of open-air funeral parade in emulation of Lincoln’s is too dangerous in the violent atmosphere of the country following Lee Harvey Oswald’s own murder, cancels the parade. But Joan recants her abjuration, and Jackie rethinks her cancellation and goes ahead with the solemn procession, and in both cases a myth is created.

Not that Larrain, or screenwriter Noah Oppenheim, means to suggest that Jackie is a martyr or a saint. But as The Passion of Joan of Arc focuses on the Christ-like “passion” of her martyrdom, so that Joan becomes a Christ-figure in the movie; in Jackie the first lady holding the shattered head of her husband in her lap as his limousine speeds to the Dallas hospital, forms a kind of pieta, and Jackie becomes a kind of Virgin Mary figure, whose sorrow itself became mythic.

The film is framed by the interview with a reporter (simply called “the journalist” in the credits) that takes place in the Kennedy family’s Hyannis Port home the week following the assassination. The unidentified journalist is loosely based on Theodore H. White, the Life magazine reporter who in fact interviewed the former first lady on November 29, 1963. The film depicts Jackie very consciously seizing the opportunity to control the narrative of JFK’s legacy, and she has granted the interview with the stipulation that she must approve of everything written in the published article. That the story will be deliberately shaped toward a predetermined end is clear when Crudup mentions her smoking in passing and Jackie, holding her cigarette defiantly, clarifies: “I don’t smoke.” The journalist’s questions range over the first couple’s entire relationship and political life as well as the assassination and the days following, and thus the film follows an associative structure, full of flashbacks that come to Jackie as she speaks, rather than following the typical biopic’s strict chronological order.

We spend a good deal of time reliving the 1962 televised tour of the White House that was the high point of Jackie’s public persona as first lady. We also get behind the scenes after the assassination, see friction with Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, see Robert Kennedy’s protectiveness of Jackie and attempts to direct events with his own agenda, and see Jackie’s practical fears about where she is going to live and what she is going to tell her small children. But we also see her shaping the narrative, suggesting to the journalist what would become the memorable keystone of White’s Life article: JFK, she tells him, loved the musical Camelot, and she felt that the final song in Lerner and Lowe’s 1960 script summed up her feelings about the sudden unexpected loss of the president: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.” White agreed, ended his article with that reference, and the rest is history. Or, more accurately, the rest is myth.

Counterbalancing this very calculated interview, and against the graphically realistic aspects of the film’s depiction of the assassination and its aftermath, including the recreation of iconic scenes captured in images from those tense days—LBJ’s swearing in on Air Force One, Jackie’s blood-spattered pink Channel suit, her black-veiled figure holding the hands of John-John and Caroline or marching between Robert  and Edward Kennedy behind the coffin—Larrain and Oppenheim have taken the bold step of including the completely imagined interview with the priest. Here they engage in a good deal of speculation, wondering what might really have been happening inside Jackie’s head, behind the poised public figure and the calculating interviewee. Here, the public mask down, the fictional Jackie is able to give free rein to her true feelings, from her resentment of JFK’s extramarital affairs to her sorrow over her lost children to her doubts about religion to her thoughts of suicide. The feelings expressed ring psychologically true, and Larrain and Oppenheim ask us to entertain the plausibility of such emotions within the publicly very poised and reserved first lady.

Portman is nothing short of spectacular in the role, which keeps her in front of the camera for virtually every shot of the film, and she will be hard to beat come Oscar time. Peter Sarsgaard manages to give us a nuanced and believable Robert Kennedy without trying to do an impression of JFK’s fellow martyr by mimicking his voice or mannerisms. Greta Gerwig is sympathetic as Nancy Tuckerman, the first lady’s friend and aide, and Max Casella is appropriately slimy as the new president’s assistant, bent on putting forward LBJ’s interests whatever the Kennedys want to do. Mica Levi’s dark score accentuates the film’s sorrowful tone. Chilean director Larrain (whose film about his country’s greatest poet Neruda will be released very soon) is masterful in his first English-language film, and Oppenheim’s script blends history and imagination brilliantly.

I admit that I did not originally intend to rate this film so highly, but since I find I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I saw it nearly a week ago, I feel compelled to give it four Shakespeares. Go and see what you think yourself.


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Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures

Theodore Melfi (2016)

1961 was that moment in history when the federal government was drawn reluctantly into the Civil Rights movement and, under president Kennedy, began to challenge state laws, particularly in the South, that institutionalized racism in direct violation of the provisions of the 14th amendment. There are occasional allusions to this wider movement in Hidden Figures—a brief mention of Martin Luther King, references to violence against freedom riders and the like, and of course pictures of the president in offices throughout the film. That is all background, but it is important background, because NASA, an arm of the federal government, is the setting for this film, and Kennedy, who two years later would declare that “This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened,” is the same president who vowed, after the Soviet Union put the first man in space in May of 1961, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

From this world comes the story of Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson, known mainly from TV’s Person of Interest and Empire), Mary Jackson (R & B singer Janelle Monae, who also appears in this season’s Moonlight), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Butler, Academy Award winner for The Help), three NASA employees working at the Langley Research Center in Virginia, who overcome institutionalized racism (and sexism) both to achieve personal career advancement and to contribute to the American manned space program.

All begin the story working in a pool of human “computers”—about twenty African-American women housed in a basement on the “West Campus,” far from the hub of activity. The main task of these women is doing the math—mainly double checking human calculations to verify their accuracy. Dorothy (Spencer) is the unofficial supervisor of these women, who runs into a roadblock when she asks to be promoted to supervisor in order to get paid for the job she is already doing. She also sees the writing on the wall when NASA begins installing its first room-size mainframe computer. Suspecting that she and the women in her group are about to become obsolete, she “borrows” a book on FORTRAN from a “whites only” library and prepares herself and her colleagues to keep pace with the inevitable loss of their current jobs. Jackson (Monae) is promoted out of the pool to the engineering corps, where, showing surprising aptitude for working on the Mercury capsule design, she is encouraged by her immediate supervisor to get an advanced degree in engineering—a step she cannot take without first completing certain required courses offered in the evenings at a local “whites only” high school, a rule she challenges in a Virginia court before a judge who insists that his state’s laws trump any federal mandates.

But these two stories are really secondary to the chief plot of the film, which focuses on Johnson (Henson). Katherine, whom we are shown in the beginning of the film as a math prodigy at an early age, is promoted to the all-white and virtually all-male “Space Task Group” at Langley, where she uses her gift for analytic geometry to check the calculations and rocket trajectories worked out by the scientists in the room. Led by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), these scientists (as depicted early in the film) are in a heated race to answer the Soviets, who resoundingly announce their advantage in the space race by putting Yuri Gagarin into orbit in April of 1961. Johnson meets resentment and quiet contempt in her position, except from Harrison, who is too focused on the problem of putting a man in orbit to notice the difficulties Johnson is having—in particular, her need to run half a mile to the West Campus to find a “colored bathroom” whenever the need arises.

The story of these women’s struggles, told in the best-selling nonfiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly, was adopted for the screen by director Theodore Melfi (Saint Vincent) and collaborator Allison Schroeder. They have made it into a pretty straightforward feel-good movie about the triumph of hard work and natural ability over unfair barriers that have been set up to keep them down. From the beginning there is little doubt that these women will triumph, and there is little complexity to the story or the characters, particularly the white ones.

The most important exception to this is Costner, who gives one of his more memorable performances as Harrison. In a climactic scene, Harrison berates Johnson for being absent from her desk when he wants her, grousing “What do you do for 40 minutes every day?” In a somewhat out-of-character breakdown, the very shy but frustrated Johnson lets him have it about the “colored” restroom problem, after which he takes a crowbar to the “colored ladies” sign in the West Campus and declares that all bathrooms are now integrated.

Another sympathetic white face is supplied by Olek Krupa as Karl Zielenski, who encourages Jackson—even puts the idea in her head—to get her engineering degree. But Krupa is only in one brief scene. Significantly, another figure who encourages Johnson to contribute to the conversation, and who will not agree to embark on his historic orbital mission without being assured that she has checked the math, is John Glenn himself (played by Glen Powell of Everybody Wants Some).

All of the other whites in the film, though, are essentially unsympathetic, as represented by Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), Vaughan’s supervisor, who doesn’t actively injure Dorothy or her chances for advancement, but passively accepts the racist status quo as “just the way things are” and, in allowing it to continue unchallenged, makes herself part of the problem. In a rare moment of empathy, or at least self-defense, she tells Dorothy that she is just following established procedures, that she is not racist herself, to which Dorothy responds with scathing candor, “Yes, I’m sure you think so.”

Jim Parsons (of TV’s Big Bang Theory) has a somewhat more complex reaction: As Harrison’s head engineer appointed Katherine’s immediate boss, he resents having his work checked by anyone, let alone a woman who to top it off is also black. To him she is a threat and a rival, so that his animosity is more personal than passive or institutional. I expected a road-to-Damascus scene showing a reversal and change of heart, but didn’t get one—we are led to imagine that Parson’s character came out of his own resentments gradually over time.

But the film doesn’t belong to him or to Dunst or even to Costner. It is the three women who own this film. Each of them projects a likeable and sympathetic aura, a distinct personality and a sympathetic plight, which the audience pulls for them to overcome. Their work is excellent: Spenser is always good, alternating here between feisty bluntness and calculating coolness; Monáe has several scene-stealing moments as the most confident and most ambitious of the three; and Henson shines as the most gifted but most introverted of the three, who ultimately finds ways of becoming more assertive as her story develops.

Perhaps one flaw in the movie is that we are seldom exposed to any anger or resentment felt by these characters, or any active evil on the part of their oppressors. It’s just a feel-good story about women overcoming adversity through their own innate talents. It might have been less sugar-coated: the struggle for basic civil rights on the national level might have been allowed to encroach a bit more into the story. Even the upbeat score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, with songs by Pharrell Williams, contributes to the lighthearted atmosphere of the film, with Williams’ song “Runnin’” playing humorously as Katherine makes her daily dash across campus to the “colored” restroom. It all combines to make us feel that victory is inevitable and that obstacles will be brushed away like gossamer. At the same time, events have played out to make this film far more topical than its distributors imagined upon its release. The recent death of John Glenn, last of the Mercury astronauts, and the resumption of distrust and suspicion of the Russians, coupled with timely new concerns about human rights in what is apparently a new “post-civil” society, are reminders that these things must be taken very seriously.

Three Tennysons for this one.


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Ruud Reviews Movie Rating Scale

4 Shakespeares

This is a great film.
You need to see it, or incur my wrath.



This movie is worth seeing.
I’d go if I were you. But then, I go to a lot of movies.


2 Jacqueline Susanns

If you like this kind of movie, you’ll probably be entertained by this one.
I wasn’t all that much.


1 Robert Southey

Skip it.
This one really isn’t worth your money. If you’re compelled to see it anyway, at least be smart enough to wait until you can see it for less money on Netflix or HBO. If you go see it in the theater, I may never speak to you again.