You may very well feel like you need a shower after watching Jake Gyllenhaal as the incredibly sleazy L.A. freelance crime photographer Louis Bloom in Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler. Gyllenhaal, sporting the worst screen haircut since Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, reportedly lost thirty pounds to play the role of the sociopathic Bloom, whose wide staring eyes –which I’m fairly certain never blinked during the entire film—give his face an eerie expression to go with the lean and hungry look implied by his gauntness. Gyllenhaal and Gilroy apparently wanted the character’s look to suggest a coyote—that other well-known scavenger of the Los Angeles area. It’s the latest in a series of edgy roles (in such films as End of Watch and Prisoners) through which Gyllenhaal seems bent on establishing himself as a serious actor and not simply a conventional leading man type.
The film begins with Bloom using wire cutters on a fence, planning to sell the scrap metal, along with some manhole covers and other items he has scavenged, to the owner of scrapyard, whom at the same time he has the audacity to ask for a job. The scene introduces us to Bloom’s very strange affect, one suggesting to the viewer a mild sort of borderline autism. As the film goes on we see him as talkative, constantly repeating maxims he remembers from self-help books, business manuals and Websites that he apparently explores endlessly. He lives alone, has no friends, and we find out nothing about his background—presumably it has been more of the same. But he seems machine-like in his monomaniacal pursuit of success without any regard for—or even any apparent capacity for empathy with—normal human emotion.
Early in the film Bloom pulls over to observe two paramedics pulling an accident victim from a burning car, and meets a “nightcrawler”—a roving freelance photographer who videos accident scenes and crime scenes in order to sell the footage to local news stations. He questions the videographer, played by Bill Paxton, and learns something about the “profession,” enough to pique his interest. When he brings a stolen bike to try to sell at a pawn shop, he bargains with the owner to throw in a video camera and police scanner, and that night is off to begin nightcrawling. His sheer disregard for (or perhaps inability to even understand) normal human boundaries enables him to shoot a grisly accident scene up close and personal, and when he takes it to the city’s lowest rated local news station, the executive producer Nina (played with cynical aplomb by Gilroy’s long-time spouse Rene Russo), desperate for ratings and low on journalistic standards, is excited to accept the footage and pays Bloom $250 for it. Nina encourages him to bring her more. “If it bleeds, it leads” is the motto of the business, and Nina advises Bloom to concentrate on crime or accidents featuring wealthy white victims, preferably with lower class black, or Hispanic perpetrators, since that is the kind of story that will drive up ratings.
Louis complies, and with gusto. We have already seen that neither the law nor conventional standards of decency confine him, so it is no surprise to watch him rearrange crime scenes, move the bodies of accident victims under automobile headlights to improve his shot, or walk into houses cordoned off by police tape. We see him gradually accumulate far more expensive equipment, plus a new red Dodge Challenger to chase after potentially gruesome events overheard on his police scanner. He also hires an “intern” to assist him, Rick (played by Riz Ahmed, looking like a young Andy Garcia). Rick is unemployed and homeless, but willing to work. Hapless and without any real job skills, Rick does as he is told and begins to learn the trade.
Louis, the coyote scavenging for bloodied victims, is hungry for recognition, money, and power. He has found the perfect ally in Nina, who may be even more frightening than Bloom: he is amoral, without a sense of right and wrong but only an animal drive with a mechanical mind. She is just someone like you or me, trying to keep her job, trying to compete with the other stations, trying to use whatever comes to her to get an advantage in a competitive market. And someone, thus, who makes the Blooms of the world possible. When Louis reaches a home in which a triple-murder has taken place in time to actually film the perpetrators escaping, and ventures into the house to film the bodies of the victims even before the police have arrived on the scene, the film takes an almost surreal turn. While it is a stretch of the imagination to conceive of such an event occurring, and the police allowing it to go so far, the film does imagine it, and explores what could happen in what is admittedly a very extreme hypothetical situation.
Rick, the “intern,” powerless and unassertive, is a foil to Bloom and acts as his tentative conscience objecting to some of Bloom’s stunts not even on moral grounds but on the grounds of simple humanity. “You don’t understand anything about people,” he tells Bloom at one point. Bloom answers him later, saying that maybe it isn’t that he doesn’t understand people, maybe he just doesn’t like them. Eventually, to his detriment, Rick begins to come over to Bloom’s viewpoint somewhat, but it make no difference to Bloom, who never listened to him anyway. Nina has her own personified conscience in the person of her producer Frank (played by Kevin Rahm of Mad Men), who consistently tells her when they are crossing a line—which is virtually any time they plan to use something Bloom has brought in. Nina pays even less attention to Frank than Bloom pays to Rick, and eventually Frank may as well not be present at all.
Nightcrawler is one of three major releases on screens this fall that raise serious question about our contemporary media. Gone Girl depicted heightened media hype in which an innocent man is convicted in the media of a crime he did not commit and ultimately plays games using the same media to get the shambles of his life back together. Mockingjay explored how those in power use media outlets to manipulate public opinion without regard for truth. Now Nightcrawler exposes the seemier side of local news markets using sensational tactics to attract viewers. Louis at one point quotes a study that found local news stations spending an average of 22 seconds each broadcast on traditional journalistic areas like politics, economy, and education, and more than five minutes per broadcast on crime, accidents, and the like. If it bleeds, it leads.
So is it enough to trust the media to self-police? More and more, it seems, films and television (e.g., The Newsroom) are raising serious questions about the nature of real journalism in an age of increasingly distorted notions of journalistic integrity exacerbated by television stations feeding the 24-hour news cycle. But in a country that prides itself on its freedom of the press, perhaps it is only the media that can raise the cry when other media are betraying the public trust.
First-time director Gilroy, previously known chiefly for penning screenplays like The Bourne Legacy, acquits himself well in his debut opus. Nightcrawler is fast-paced and suspenseful, with chillingly convincing performances by the very creepy Gyllenhaal and the ethically challenged (as long as we’re within the law!) Russo. A scene in a restaurant in which Gyllenhaal very matter-of-factly explains to Russo why she needs him, what he expects to be paid, and what his demands are in order to keep supplying her with the footage she needs to build her ratings—demands which include her sexual favors—is particularly troubling. That she is old enough to be his mother makes the scene even more disturbing, and takes Bloom into Norman Bates territory if we want to imagine unresolved Oedipal issues in that unknown past we’re forced here to wonder about.
The film is shot almost entirely at night, and cinematographer Robert Elswit has used film to shoot the movie in the daytime, but a digital camera for the night scenes, so that they are produced in the same medium that Bloom and his fellow nightcrawlers would use. This creates a neon-lit noir-like atmosphere that appears garish rather than rich, machine-like rather than human—the perfect background for this unpalatable story.
Some critics have suggested that Gilroy was enamored of his own character, and creates in Bloom a kind of anti-heroic entrepreneur whom he expects to seduce his audience into some sort of grudging admiration. If that is in any sense true, I grieve for the coming generation. I cannot see the film as anything but a cold and grim satire of the worst aspects of local media, and of the complete abandonment of ethics possible in this kind of world. I give the film three strong Tennysons, and a possible Oscar nod for Gyllenhaal.
The Theory of Everything, James Marsh’s new film finally in wide release this weekend, is first and foremost a love story. Yes, of course it’s a biopic of Stephen Hawking, the world’s best-known theoretical physicist. Yes, it’s most memorably the story of Hawking’s battle to maintain his professional and personal life in the face of a degenerative disease that gradually and inexorably takes away every voluntary physical function. But beyond any of this, it is the story of his relationship with his wife Jane Wilde, whose 2007 memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen was adapted by Anthony McCarten for the screenplay.
Largely because of its source material, we see the story to a large extent from Jane’s perspective. Perhaps this is also the natural consequence of the fact that most people would have a great deal of difficulty imagining Stephen’s point of view. But the film takes things from Stephen and Jane’s first meeting in 1963, through a brief courtship in which Stephen, a very awkward but charming young Cambridge Ph.D. student, wins over Jane, whose subject is French and Spanish and who wants to write a dissertation on medieval Iberian poetry. Stephen’s awkwardness, however, turns out to be something other than youthful exuberance or nervousness with the opposite sex. When he falls on the pavement crossing a Cambridge square, he is rushed to the hospital, where he is diagnosed with a “motor neuron disease”—Lou Gehrig’s disease or ALS—and is told quite definitively by the doctor that he has two years to live. He is 21 years old.
It is Jane who rallies Stephen out of his hopeless funk, and it is Jane who marries him, becomes his live-in round the clock caretaker and the mother of his three children, and she who to a large extent makes possible the completion of his Ph.D. dissertation, in which he argues that the origin of the universe came about through a space-time singularity, such as might be found at the center of a black hole. This is the beginning of Stephen’s rise to international prominence, but it also occurs in the midst of his declining ability to take care of himself, and Jane’s progressively more haggard appearance as she struggles to have some kind of life of her own. Ultimately, as might be predicted, Jane’s ability to cope with a fiercely trying situation that, in all honesty, she assumed could only last for two years when she married Stephen, is strained to the breaking point. Thus the movie is a love story of unusually difficult circumstances with the love put into the crucible of real life at its most demanding—a strain under which no true love can last indefinitely.
Eddie Redmayne (Les Misérables, My Week with Marilyn) has the role of a lifetime in playing Hawking. It is the kind of part that virtually guarantees the actor an Oscar nomination—think Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot, Dustin Hoffman in Rainman, or Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. Redmayne is extraordinary in the role. You really cannot take your eyes off him as he sinks gradually into the illness that takes away his mobility, slurs his speech, ultimately paralyzes him and, after a tracheotomy, takes away any speech at all, so that he communicates through a mechanical device on which he can type with the small remaining mobility in a few fingers and which sends out a mechanical voice. With his face distorted and nearly immobile, Redmayne ultimately communicates only through his eyes, yet is still able to express a range of emotions. He even manages to convey Hawking’s ability to retain the sense of humor and self-deprecating irony evident in the youthful student of the film’s early scenes, commenting in his slurred voice from his wheelchair to an eminent scientist who walks out of his presentation of a controversial theory, “Was it something I said, Professor?”
Such roles as Redmayne’s are showy because they stretch the actor’s skills and challenge him physically and emotionally. But in any film featuring a showcase role like this, there must be another actor whose task is the more mundane one of playing the embodiment of the everyday world who must deal with the extreme challenge posed by the central character. That is in many ways a more difficult role, because it involves far more subtle acting. Tom Cruise’s role opposite Hoffman in Rainman is arguably his greatest performance, though it often goes unnoticed. In this film, Felicity Jones (The Amazing Spiderman 2, The Invisible Woman) is nothing short of amazing herself as Jane Wilde. She goes through her own degeneration as the strain of her life drags on inexorably, as her own dreams suffer in the wake of Stephen’s needs and triumphs, as she catches at shreds of happiness only to reject that happiness to return to her duty. I hope that when Oscar time rolls around, her performance is not overshadowed by Redmayne’s, and that she receives the recognition she deserves as well.
This is not to say that the movie is perfect. For one thing, it suffers from the loose structure and scattered plot so common to biopics. What made Spielberg’s Lincoln such an excellent example of the genre was its focus on a single vital incident in Lincoln’s life that epitomized his character and his historical significance. Concentrating on Stephen and Jane’s relationship does give the film some direction, but the decades that the story covers dilute the impact of some of the plot’s developments. Still the film does avoid any suggestion of the simple “happily ever after” ending so often favored by Hollywood. Despite a fairly schmaltzy scene on an American lecture tour near the end of the film in which Stephen tells his listeners that “no matter how bad life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at…where there’s life, there’s hope,” the movie has very little of this sort of Lifetime movie sentimentality and really does focus on the realism of relationships, and what even the strongest marriages can be expected to endure and not endure. At one point Stephen comments to Jane—not without some deliberate irony—that they are just “a normal family.” While this is manifestly not true and merely exacerbates Jane’s anger at the time, there is a sense in which the statement is true: no matter how strong their bond, there are some strains that no “normal” relationship can weather.
One of the things that the film could do better is explore the spiritual and philosophical differences that parallel the emotional strain in the marriage. When Stephen and Jane first meet, she tells him she is “C of E,” which it takes him awhile to realize means Church of England. He tells her he is a “cosmologist” whose faith is in the potential discovery of “one single unifying equation that explains everything in the universe” —the “theory of everything.” But this potential conflict surfaces only twice more in the film: once when Jane, explaining Stephen’s theories to the couple’s new friend and part time caregiver Jonathan (Charlie Cox), her church choir director, demonstrates with no small degree of annoyance (while Stephen displays no small amount of smugness) how his initial theory was not inconsistent with the existence of a creator, but his more recent theory precludes any possibility of divinity. The second time is near the end of the film, when Jane, reading a part of the manuscript of what would become Hawking’s hugely popular book A Brief History of Time, is ecstatic over a reference he makes to “the mind of God.” Perhaps Marsh and McArten thought it best to barely touch on this conflict—perhaps they thought Stephen would be less sympathetic to a popular film audience if his atheism were more heavily stressed. Maybe they also felt the “where there’s life there’s hope” speech would go far in retaining that sympathy. Either way, this seems like a bit of a sellout.
But for the most part March, the Academy Award winning director of the documentaries Man on a Wire and Project Nim, creates a brilliantly acted movie with a beautiful look—the shots of Cambridge and its environs are picturesque, and the recreation of a state-of-the-art 1963 physics laboratory is amusing as well as fascinating. Overall, this movie is well worth watching and boasts two Oscar-worthy performances by the principle characters. It avoids, nearly completely, the temptation to create a cliché sentimental drama about a brave couple who defy the odds and create a successful marriage, underscoring the maxim “where there’s life there’s hope.” Instead, it creates, for the most part, an honest look at a relationship under extreme pressures, and the difficulties, temptations, successes and failures that real people undergo in such circumstances. I hereby grant this film three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare.
The cynicism and manifestly crass commercialism of the new Hollywood trend of splitting the final books of a series into two movies instead of one, in order to double the profits on what they assume will be a blockbuster—a tactic first used to the great detriment of quality and the even greater success of the bottom line in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—is carried on with an even more blatant disregard for narrative integrity in Mockingjay, a novel only a third the length of Deathly Hallows. Of course, the culmination of all this disingenuousness is yet to come with the third part of The Hobbit—a 280-page novel that needed three films to complete, the second of which was padded with a thirty-minute dragon battle that was not in the book and was completely unnecessary for the plot. But I digress. And besides, I should have plenty of time to rant about that film when it’s released. Let me return to Mockingjay, Part One.
As the third book in Suzanne Collins’ Young Adult dystopian fantasy, Mockingjay was the weakest of the three to begin with. Lacking the unifying device of the games themselves to structure its action, it is something of a rambling narrative that is not particularly original (a rebel alliance uniting against the apparently invincible power of an evil empire? Where have I seen that before?) and often leaves the series’ charismatic protagonist, Katnisss Everdeen, outside the main action looking in, or suffering teenage angst about her boyfriends while far more important things are going on. So I guess the Hollywood reasoning was, hey, this is weak material…let’s make two movies out of it!
Still, director Francis Lawrence (Catching Fire, I Am Legend) and a stellar cast—led by Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence in her iconic role as Katnisss Everdeen and including Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee and Julianne Moore as rebel leader President Alma Coin—all make a valiant effort to bring this mutilated creature of a film to life.
The story begins where Catching Fire left off: Katniss and Finnick (Sam Claflin) have been rescued from the brutal competition of the Quarter Qwell, the latest “games,” by the rebels, but have been forced to leave Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) behind. The rebels are based in a huge underground bunker in the supposedly deserted ruins of District 13. With Katniss in the bunker are her mother and sister as well as her “other” boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and refugees from District 12—the grudgingly sober Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and the reluctantly drab and wigless Effie (Elizabeth Banks).Here Coin and Plutarch attempt to persuade Katniss to adapt the persona of “the Mockingjay,” the symbol of the rebellion, and be filmed in a series of propaganda pieces. Katniss, however, is suffering from a kind of PTSD from the games, and some sort of survivor’s guilt after leaving Peeta behind. She ultimately agrees to accept the Mockingjay role if President Coin will promise to rescue Peeta from the Capitol and from the villainous President Snow (Donald Sutherland).
Having seen for herself the smoking, corpse-strewn devastation wrought by President Snow’s bombers on her own District 12, and heard Gale’s pained description of his evacuation of the district’s few survivors, and having visited a hospital in District 8 and seen what her symbolic presence means to the wounded there, Katniss has witnessed enough of Snow’s atrocities to make her first promotional piece, challenging the Capitol to open warfare. In the meantime, though, the Capitol begins using Peeta for its own propaganda purposes, and in interviews with Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) Peeta pleads with the districts to stop the rebellion, and with Katniss to stop letting herself be used by the rebels.
Thus the two story arcs of Mockingjay Part One are intertwined. For Katniss, the story is the quest for Peeta: she wants him extracted from the Capitol and safe with her again. For the rest of Panem, the story is the propaganda war between President Snow with his Capitol advisers and President Coin and Plutarch. As for the first, through much of the movie you are looking forward to a reunion between Katniss and Peeta by the film’s end. If it does occur, will that reunion be what you and Katniss hoped for? In any case that plotline gives the filmmakers a good spot to end part one and leave viewers in a cliffhanger until next year at this time, when part two of Mockingjay is due out. It’s a frustrating, but effective, place to end.
But as for the propaganda war, this is the one aspect of the film that has a claim to originality and that makes what amounts to a social commentary. Indeed it is the first dystopian novel since Orwell’s 1984 to explore the true manipulative power of the media in controlling the population. Released as it has been shortly after an American election characterized by some of the most brutally negative, misleading, disingenuous, and mendacious advertising ever seen in a midterm election, the topic of the manipulation of public opinion in order to convince people to act—and vote—against their own clear self-interests is a serious and vitally important one. It is clear (at least to Katniss, though not at all to Gale) that Peeta is being forced—or brainwashed?—to say things to dissuade citizens from joining the rebel alliance. Katniss is suspicious from the beginning about the motives of president Coin and of Plutarch, who after all had been Snow’s trusted architect of the Quarter Qwell games just one movie ago. Besides, even Peeta warns Katniss to consider the true goals of those she is serving. Of course, he says this in a propaganda appearance so how should she take it? This complex ambiguity of motive and counter motive is fascinating and compelling, though it isn’t much to hang an entire movie on.
Jennifer Lawrence gives a powerful performance, with a range of emotions that go from devastated to furious to terrified to thrilled to appalled (sorry, happiness is not an option in this film). Hoffman is a delight to see again in what—except for Mockingjay, Part Two—may be our last chance to see him. Moore is stiff and official, a mirror image of Sutherland in many ways, and keeps us wondering how good the good guys really are. Hutcherson, though filmed almost completely in shots of a television screen, is memorable in his gradual decline from a subdued but still vigorous Hunger Games survivor to a crushed and deflated shell by the film’s end. Whatever disappoints about this movie, it isn’t the cast.
But it must be said that Effie isn’t all that’s drab in this movie. The outrageously flamboyant style and color of the Capitol and its fashions never brighten this film. Even the scenes with Tucci, so colorfully and spectacularly staged in the first two films, are completely subdued, as is Tucci’s Caesar, now playing the role on camera of the concerned and sympathetic ear that Peeta can whisper his deepest troubles into. The grey military bunker of District 13 spreads its shadow everywhere. District 12 is grey rubble. District 8 turns into grey rubble. Occasional scenes where a bit of action actually occurs are filmed at night, so there is no color here either. The film might have been shot in black and white, and nothing would have been lost. This is not a complaint: certainly the color scheme of the film fits the darkness of its theme and mood. It is a dark, cold film into which, unlike the first two movies in the series, no beam of light ever enters.
I’d really like to tell you to skip this movie altogether and just wait for part two to come out in a year. If enough people did that, studios would stop making us pay twice to see one story. So little actually happens in this one that you will be able to catch up pretty easily, and there is little that is memorable in it, so you’ll just have to watch it at home again anyway to remember what went on before seeing part two. Why not just wait and watch it that way to begin with?
But I know that’s futile. Mockingjay is already the top grossing movie of the year in its first weekend. And there are interesting things in the film: the propaganda war, for one, and the performances for another. Heck, it may be worth buying a ticket just to see Philip Seymour Hoffman again. So I’ll be a bit generous and give the movie two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson. But if you’re disappointed in the movie, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
This week the United States and China signed a landmark agreement to curb carbon emissions in an effort to get global warming under control. Though for years the warnings of scientists have fallen on the deaf ears of politicians, reason has finally broken though. We can only hope it is not too late, and that the anti-intellectualism of popular media news outlets who believe that ignorance deserves “equal time” does not derail the process. If we have waited too long, the scenario that begins Christopher Nolan’s new film Interstellar may prove all too prescient.
Unfortunately, the disaster that precipitated this blighted earth on which the former astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is forced to attempt to scratch out a living for himself and his family—a world we are introduced to through an opening series of interviews with elderly folks who sound as if they are describing the dust bowl of the 1930s—is never mentioned in the movie. Instead, Cooper must defend his daughter Murph (named for “Murphy’s Law”) against officials from her school who complain that she is discrediting the section in her history textbook that claims the Apollo moon landings were faked by the U.S. in order to drive the Soviet Union to collapse in trying to keep up in the “space race.” While the scene likely parodies the kind of rewriting of history demanded by school boards in certain benighted U.S. states, where books that don’t conform to the party line cannot be used in public schools, the implication that citizens of the U.S. blame scientists for the climate debacle is ludicrous: it is the debunkers of science, not the scientists, who have brought climate change upon us. So in this way the film is politically disingenuous.
To be fair, or at least a little bit more fair, the focus of the film is not on the cause of the disaster. It is focused on the desperate solution: Cooper and Murph are able to interpret a cryptic communication from what the girl thinks at first is a Poltergeist in her bedroom, which leads them to the secret underground headquarters of what remains of NASA, still covertly (and insufficiently) funded by the government despite the popular resentment of scientists. Here Cooper meets his former mentor, Professor Brand (played by Michael Caine, Nolan’s Dark Knight Alfred), who explains that years earlier NASA sent three individual astronauts through a wormhole discovered near Saturn into a planetary system in a galaxy millions of light years away, and is about to send a full crew on a larger mission to explore each of the previously earmarked planets in that system to find which is most suitable for human habitation. Finding the right world, Brand asserts, will allow NASA (if Brand himself can figure out the right formula that takes into account the “problem of gravity”) to launch a kind of spaceship ark to carry surviving earthlings to that planet and save them from the earth’s imminent demise (Plan A), or at least deliver a collection of human embryos to be born on the new planet and perpetuate the species (Plan B). Thus the implicit point of the movie is that space exploration is not only a worthwhile but possibly even a necessary investment for our future. The suggestion that the government’s downsizing of the NASA budget when public opinion saw no need for space travel any more once the practical political objective of whipping the Russkies was achieved was a mistake may well be accurate, and Cooper’s assertion that human beings have always been explorers appeals to an undeniable aspect of human nature: “We used to look up at the sky and wonder about our place in the stars. Now we just look down at our place in the dirt,” he argues convincingly at one point. But Nolan takes what seems to me an unsuccessful approach in having what apparently is the entire scientific community left in American working on a hugely expensive and almost certainly futile project of transporting huge populations over trillions of miles, while apparently no one at all is trying to figure out how to make things better on earth and save the planet. “We’re not meant to save the world, we’re meant to leave it,” says Brand at one point. Well, I have to reject his frame. How does he know what we are “meant” to do? And which course seems likelier to achieve some kind of success?
Former astronaut Cooper, who left NASA as a result of some debacle hinted at early in the movie but never clarified, is urged by Brand to pilot the Endurance, a large spinning vessel built to take a crew through the wormhole to the other galaxy. On board will be Brand’s own daughter Amelia (Ann Hathaway), who it turns out has her own agenda, which I can’t say much about without spoiling the plot, and two other scientists, Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley), who, if you’ve watched enough episodes of Star Trek, you must recognize as cannon fodder. And so Cooper must choose: he knows that a trip of this sort, in which at times he must be traveling close to the speed of light, time will pass more slowly for him than for his children, and that by the time he returns (if he returns) he may be the same age as his daughter. Brand must realize that he is not likely to live long enough to see his own daughter’s return. Cooper must make a parallel choice: to save the human race, he must sacrifice his relationship with his family. He makes the only choice he can, for the greater good, and the Endurance sets off for its interstellar journey.
Indeed at one point in the journey, the astronauts are compelled to make a landing on a world circling the edge of a black hole, and the extreme gravitational effects of the back hole (causing what physicists call “gravitational time dilation”) create a situation whereby a single hour on the planet’s surface is equal to seven years’ time on earth—ensuring that if Cooper does return to Murph, it will be far later than he had hoped. The science of the film is complex and some viewers may find it a bit of a slog, but it is legitimate science—respected theoretical physicist Kip Thorne worked with Nolan as consultant and executive producer. But on the human level, the wrenching misery of Cooper’s desire to make it back to Murph is one of the true and powerful aspects of the film.
For there are two poles around which this movie revolves. One of them is the repeated motto “Anything that can happen will happen,” which the film incorrectly identifies as “Murphy’s Law,” after which Cooper’s daughter Murph is named. In fact, of course, Murphy’s Law says that “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”—a much different assertion, since it suggests the near-impossibility of anything turning out as planned. While in some ways that maxim may apply to the voyage of the Endurance, it is not the direction of Nolan’s plot. The film’s motto, “Anything that can happen will happen,” is in fact a truism of quantum physics, and underscores the surprising possibilities made manifest by quantum mechanics—possibilities that boggle the ordinary imagination. Such a maxim makes us believe that, far-fetched as it may be, the voyage of the Endurance is at least possible, and the success of that mission not inconceivable. But no one in the film has yet mtnioned an important qualifier of that maxim as usually expressed by physicists: given an infinite amount of time, anything that can happen will happen. The crew of the Endurance more than aware, however, that they so not have an infinite amount of time. For them time, like fuel, is a limited resource. And that severely limits the likelihood of their success.
The film’s other pole is the sentiment, first expressed by Amelia, that sometimes important decisions can’t be made based solely on logic alone, but we must listen to our heart as well as our head, and there are times when the heart must triumph. Apparently this applies particularly to making a determination, between two possible courses of action, as to which is more likely to save the human race. In her case, she is discussing romantic love, but the same principle must apply to Cooper’s love for Murph. It may seem as if the pole of scientific fact is irreconcilable with the pole of love conquering all, but in fact, if it is true that anything that can happen will happen, then the mysterious force of love may act as a force as powerful as gravity in determining the outcome of a situation, and the two poles may come together like the two ends of a wormhole.
There are laudable things going on in this movie. The science is fascinating and far more challenging than the run-of-the-mill science-fiction flick. The emphasis on the power of human love may seem a bit hokey but is actually welcome in this otherwise grim technological world. And the cinematography and special effects are generally up to the standard an audience has a right to expect with an epic science-fiction extravaganza like Interstellar: alien planetary landscapes are remarkably realistic, especially a tidal wave mistaken for a mountain range at one point. Performances are noteworthy: McConaughey is sympathetic as the reluctant and divided hero. Mackenzie Foy is very believable as the ten-year old Murph, and Jessica Chastain is remarkable playing the grown-up Murph, a chip off the old block who has in some ways replaced Amelia in Professor Brand’s life (not really a spoiler, since it’s easy to see coming). Michael Caine as Brand has sufficient gravity for the part (sorry about that pun), and in a small part as Cooper’s father-in-law, John Lithgow is suitably wise and cranky. In a surprise pivotal role that is nearly a cameo, Matt Damon manages to win our sympathy and our disdain at the same time.
But the talented Casey Affleck seems wasted in the role of Cooper’s embittered son. He’s given little to do. Anne Hathaway seems somewhat miscast, perhaps too vulnerable to be the super-rational, determined trailblazer off to save the world. At the same time her character makes some disastrous emotional decisions, so maybe it’s not Hathaway but the character who’s hard to believe.
I found some other aspects of the film unappealing and occasionally downright annoying. In a few spots, particularly toward the end of this nearly three-hour epic, the visuals were quite unremarkable. In scenes where characters are traveling through a black hole or spending time in another dimension, the cinematography seemed to lack imagination. Hans Zimmer’s musical score is filled with swelling crescendos at several points, sometimes at moments that are not particularly climactic, and sometimes, annoyingly, so loud that I couldn’t hear what the characters were saying. But maybe that’s just my age talking.
Interstellar is also a highly allusive film: Nolan is constantly channeling previous cinematic works, particularly in the sci-fi genre, but likes to reference literature as well. It may be that the surname of chief NASA scientist Brand is an allusion to the title character of Henrik Ibsen’s poetic drama of the same name. Ibsen’s Brand is a fanatical clergyman who sacrifices everything, including his own child, to his uncompromising vision. More conspicuous but less successful are the repeated voice-over repetitions of Dylan Thomas’s classic “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” dropped in at various points in the movie. The trouble with this is, of course, that the poem has nothing to do with what’s going on on the screen. The speaker of Thomas’s poem addresses his father, and urges him not to passively slip into death but to “rage against the dying of the light.” Are we supposed to think of the Endurance mission as humankind’s “raging” against their own demise? In the first place, they are not raging, and in the second place, they’re trying to prevent the extinction of the race, not fighting an impossible battle against individual mortality. The poem is distractingly misapplied.
There are reminders, as well, of earlier films like Steven Spielberg’sClose Encounters of the Third Kind, Robert Zemeckis’s Contact, andM. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. But the strongest allusions are to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. From the wisecracking computer TARS, who turns out to be more helpful and less malevolent that 2001’s HAL (but who looks in fact like one of Kubrick’s monoliths), to the revolving spaceships that in both films set out for Saturn and which both contain hibernating crew members, to the overall thematic concern for the evolution of the human race, this film constantly alludes to Kubrick’s. Even the ending of Interstellar—dealing like Kubrick’s with a return to earth—is reminiscent of 2001, but here is where Interstellar essentially falls short. Though deliberately less confusing than Kubrick’s ending, Nolan’s lacks the beauty, the wonder, and the mythic transcendence of 2001. Instead, for me, it was the most disappointing aspect of the film: I found the last twenty minutes or so to be, well, silly. It may be true that in a quantum universe, anything that can happen will happen, but I’m pretty sure that what happens in the end of this film is not something that can happen. Nothing really makes sense, not because the science is too complicated but because it involves no actual science at all. Rather than referencing 2001, the movie’s denouement draws, instead, on Disney’s far-fetched and unmemorably ludicrous The Black Hole.
Ultimately, though the film features some fine performances and occasionally remarkable cinematography, I was finally put off by too many aspects of the film to have any desire to see it again. Nolan is a first-rate director, for me Interstellar lacked both the adroitness of the nonlinear narratives of Memento or Inception, or the compelling atmosphere of the Dark Knight films. I’m going to give this one two Jacqueline Susanns, and incur the wrath of my wife, who enjoyed the film much more than I did.
In the opening credits to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s new film Birdman appear these lines, which form the epitaph on Raymond Carver’s tombstone at Ocean View Cemetery in Port Angeles:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
The quotation serves as well as anything to describe the motivation of the film’s protagonist, the aging actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who twenty years before, after becoming a worldwide sensation playing the superhero Birdman in three films, walked away from the franchise and into acting obscurity. In the movie, he is putting Hollywood behind him and trying to come back repackaged as a serious artist on Broadway, directing and starring in his own adaptation of one of Carver’s best-known short stories, “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.”
Unless you’re six years old or have been living your life under a rock, you will likely recognize the deliberate irony in Iñárritu’s choice of Keaton as his leading man. Not only did Keaton rise to the height of popularity in 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns, but he also famously turned down a $15 million paycheck to make a third film in the series. Thus Keaton is playing himself to some extent, as his character tries to rise once more into the spotlight, “to feel himself beloved on earth,” but this time for something more artistically respected than playing a comic book hero.
This self-referentiality continues to spin out as the film advances. Riggan Thomson’s co-star, whom he refers to as “the world’s worst actor,” is accidentally but fortuitously struck by a falling light during rehearsal, and Riggan and his lawyer and agent Jake (played by the surprisingly slim Zach Galifianakis) discuss several other possible actors to bring in at the last minute, but all are currently committed to other superhero movies. Finally, leading lady and nervous first-time Broadway actress Lesley (Naomi Watts, whose first Oscar nomination came for Iñárritu’s 2003 film 21 Grams) volunteers her live-in boyfriend Mike (Edward Norton), a popular but notoriously difficult, yet extremely talented Broadway star.
In case you need reminding, Norton’s biggest blockbuster role was as The Incredible Hulk in 2008. And Norton, of course, did not play the Hulk again in the Avengers follow-up. Norton told NPR that he declined the role because “I think you can sort of do anything once, but if you do it too many times, it can become a suit that’s hard to take off, in other people’s eyes.” The sentiment could apply just as well to Keaton’ case, but for Norton, there were also rumors that his own well-known obsessive perfectionism made him too difficult to work with, a trait that the actor also shares with his character of Mike in the film.
And just in case that is not enough, Iñárritu has also included Emma Stone, fresh from her role in the new Spiderman blockbuster, as Riggan’s troubled daughter Sam, just out of rehab and working as Riggan’s less than enthusiastic assistant.
The film’s self-reflexive theme is underscored by its imagery: Riggan is photographed only from behind until he looks in the mirror in his dressing room, where we first see his face. In a later scene, he has a discussion with his ex-wife in which he can be seen only in a mirror, and as the film draws toward its bewildering conclusion, we see Riggan’s face again in a mirror as if for the first time. It is as if Riggan only exists in his own reflection: if art, whether film or theater, holds a mirror up to nature, Riggan exists only in that mirror, only in the art through which he longs to be, as the film’s headnote says, beloved on earth. The popularity he seeks is scoffed at by his foil Mike, who tells Sam at one point that he really doesn’t care what people think of him. His kind of art exists for its own sake, to be admired rather than loved. “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige,” he tells Riggan at one point. At the other extreme is Sam, who in a long monologue midway through the film tells Riggan that his dream of theatrical prestige is pointless in today’s world—performing a thirty-year-old story by a dead white guy for a thousand “rich, old, white people” is meaningless in the face of today’s only real source of power, popularity, and prestige: social media, which can reach millions in the blink of an eye. His work just does not matter. As if to underscore Sam’s assessment, on the play’s second preview night, Riggan accidently locks himself out of the theater, catching his robe in the locked door, and has to dash through Times Square in his tidy whities to come into the theater’s front door and make his next entrance—a video of which is tweeted and reaches 300,000 people before the performance is over.
So the film questions the purposes and effects of art, creating a dichotomy of theater vs. film (and the more extreme case of social media), of popularity vs. prestige, of meaningfulness for the few vs. mattering to the millions. Against Sam’s lambasting of theater art at one end of the spectrum are balanced Mike’s Broadway snobbery against film acting, and the powerful New York critic Tabitha Duncan (played, in another self-referential casting decision, by the distinguished London and New York theater actress Lindsay Duncan), who plans to “kill” Riggan’s play before she has ever seen it because she resents popular, untrained film actors foisting their amateurish productions on legitimate theater.
But a major thrust of the self-reflexiveness of Birdman is to blur the distinctions between theater and film. First, of course, the film is about the production of a play, and in it we return to the same two scenes of the play on three consecutive nights, so that the recursive narrative form forces us as viewers to apply those scenes to new things we have learned about Riggan’s life in the interval.
Second, the film seems much like a play: filmed on location at Broadway’s historic St. James Theatre in just thirty days, the finite setting has the feel of a staged play, and—because the dialogue drives the plot from beginning to end in a way that reviewers of today’s visual-heavy movies are likely to call “talky”—Iñárritu and co-writers Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo have created a script that seems much more like that of a theater drama than a film .
And most stunningly, Iñárritu’s cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, whose long shot that opened last year’s Gravity netted him an Oscar, has outdone even that tour de force in Birdman, creating a film that has the appearance of consisting of a single long continuous take, emulating Hitchcock’s 1948 Rope. Birdman does in fact contain some transitions and subtle cuts, but the overall effect is astounding in its breathless motion, and more than that, gives the film the continuous action of a play—forcing its actors to perform as they would in a stage production as well. Thus the film itself provides in its own form a reconciliation of the popular and the prestigious, of the high art of drama and the popular culture of cinema.
I realize I have made the film sound like an essay on critical theory and aesthetics. But it is also popular entertainment. There are moments of broad humor—as Riggan runs through Times Square in his underwear, for instance, he is stopped by fans who want his autograph, (which he gives them)—but also moments of high drama. Keaton is more than just convincing as a self-doubting actor worrying about his legacy. He is also a father worrying about his daughter and worrying that he was not there for her or for his ex-wife, and he seems unaware that he is repeating those same mistakes with his current girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough). But more disturbing than these things is the voice that he hears consistently inside his head: it is the voice of his former Birdman self (a hoarse croak reminiscent—in the film’s metafictional way—of one of Keaton’s successors, Christian Bale, in his turn as Batman) that speaks consistently to Riggan about his Broadway project’s likely failure and the past cinematic glories he wants him to return to. On top of that, Riggan seems to seriously believe that he has telekinetic powers, and that, for example, he caused the light to drop in his first co-star to eliminate him from the play. He also seems to believe that, like Birdman himself, he can fly.
As an audience, we are inclined to believe that these things are all within Riggan’s own mind—particularly since the rest of the movie, like Riggan’s play and Raymond Carver’s fiction, is starkly realistic. The opening shot of the film, however, showed a rear view of Riggan in a yoga pose, hovering in the air. So we need to remember that Iñárritu has stated his literary influences have been modern Latin American masters like Julio Cortázar and Jorge Luis Borges. The latter is particular known for his use of “magical realism”—a style that blends magical or fantastic elements into an otherwise realistic narrative in a way that suggests a broadening of normal western conceptions of reality. Do these magical things really happen to Riggan? The film leaves the question open to interpretation, but Iñárritu definitely allows you to believe in them. After all, if we are going to have a film that blurs the distinctions between serious and popular culture, between high and low art, between drama and film, we need to include a blending of the cinematic magic of Birdman with the realism of Carver.
You shouldn’t miss this movie. Come Academy Award nomination time, expect Iñárritu to receive a Best Director nod. Lubezki is a shoe-in for a cinematography nomination, if not for the Oscar itself. Keaton’s performance is generating buzz for Best Actor nomination, and Norton and Stone could easily garner supporting nominations for themselves. This is an entertaining and an intelligent movie, well-acted and technically brilliant. Four Shakespeares for this one for sure.
“It is what it is,” a bank clerk tells Vincent McKenna (Bill Murray) early in Theodore Melfi’s new film St. Vincent. Vincent, who has been trying to get some kind of relief from the bank because of his severe financial problems, responds that everybody says that nowadays, and what it really means is “You’re screwed and you’re gonna stay screwed.” It’s a set up for a scene later in the film when a nursing home administrator repeats the “It is what it is” line and we can see in Murray’s eyes the feeling that, once again, he knows what the cliché really means.
In a sense, this is a microcosm of the entire film. For no one going to this movie will fail to recognize that to a large extent, the movie itself is one big cliché. In the grand tradition of Bad Santa and Gran Torino, the plot of St. Vincent revolves around a relationship between a curmudgeonly, profane, and unlikeable old man and a young, pre-teenaged boy who is in severe need of a father figure—in this case the boy is Oliver, played by the surprisingly genuine Jaeden Lieberher. The crotchety old man turns out, of course, to have a heart of gold and teaches the boy valuable lessons, in particular how to defend himself against the bullies who are making his life miserable since he has started at his new school after his suddenly-single mother (in this case Maggie, played with unlooked-for restraint by Melissa McCarthy) has moved him to this place (in this case, Brooklyn). Can anybody say Karate Kid?
But just as Vincent looks through the verbal clichés he is fed by authority figures in the film, so first-time writer-director Melfi takes us beyond the formulaic motifs in the plot to something much more real behind them. While some reviewers might complain that Vincent’s transformation from drunken, gambling lout to heart-of-gold “saint” at the end of the movie is banal and unrealistic, I’d suggest they look at his character again: the fact is there is no transformation at all. Vincent is precisely the same person at the end of the film as he was at the beginning. It is what it is. He was screwed at the beginning of the film, and he is similarly screwed at the end. In the beginning, he lives in a rundown house, is in deep financial trouble, drinks too much, smokes too much, gambles too much, and owes a good deal of money to the bookie Zucko (Terrence Howard). Few people like him, except for two regulars at the bar he hangs out in, an attendant at the nursing home that he visits regularly, and Daka (Naomi Watts), the pregnant Russian immigrant stripper/hooker whom he sees once a week (and to whom he also owes money). At the end of the film, almost none of this has changed. We still don’t know how he’s going to pay his bills, and whether he will ever dig himself out of his situation with Zucko. He hasn’t quit drinking or smoking. He has had some losses that make his life even sadder than it was before. It’s true that he has gained two new friends in Maggie and Oliver, and Daka has moved in with her baby—at least for now. But Vincent is no different than he was. And his life has not really changed. He was screwed and he is going to stay screwed.
But the audience, by the end of the film, has learned a lot more about Vincent. Twice in the script—once in addressing Maggie and once Oliver—Vincent declares matter-of-factly “You don’t know me.” The line is also directed in part at the audience, as a kind of warning not to judge him until you know his whole story. Much of his story does come out in the movie—but not all of it. We are given enough, though, to see that his kindness toward Oliver is foreshadowed in his kind treatment of Daka as well as his nursing home visits, which I can’t get into without a spoiler alert. We know some of the things that have caused his downward spiral. We find out about his record in Vietnam. But these are all things that happened before the timeline of the film. They have made Vincent what he is at the beginning. They don’t change what he is at the end.
For ultimately, this is a movie about character, and the story is secondary. And so we can forgive some of the unrealistic plot elements: How believable is it that a mother, even one fairly desperate for childcare, would hire a fairly obvious derelict like Vincent to babysit? And how likely would Vincent be to think that babysitting for twelve dollars an hour would somehow help alleviate his money woes? And is it really likely that a hard-drinking retiree could drag a twelve-year old kid around to bars and to the racetrack without his mother’s knowledge and without raising the eyebrows of anyone in authority? Finally, how likely is it that Brooklyn would consistently enjoy southern California weather in the middle of Oliver’s school year?
But it is difficult not to care about the characters in this film. Bill Murray has become a remarkably nuanced actor in his roles of the past two decades, in films like Lost in Translation, Broken Flowers, and his Wes Anderson vehicles beginning with Rushmore, and his turn as Vincent McKenna is natural, believable, and manages to makes Vincent a character with whom we sympathize without drowning the role in sentiment or bathos. Newcomer Lieberher makes Oliver a regular nerdy kid, and manages to make the character uncannily perceptive without making him cloying, cute, or affected. McCarthy is refreshing playing against type in a “straight man” role, with none of the broad humor we are used to seeing in her performances. Like Vincent, her character is a cliché—the newly single mother battling to keep her child with her and working long hours because her cheating husband won’t pay her child support. But through the formula we do see her own mistakes and weaknesses: she is no saint, but she is also not in need of “rescuing” as so many single movie mothers are. As for Watts, she has less to work with and a role that is mainly caricature, but there are moments—sometimes only in a facial expression—when she becomes more multi-faceted than might be expected. I should also mention Chris O’Dowd (McCarthy’s co-star in Bridesmaids), who is likeable as ever playing a Catholic priest who is Oliver’s teacher.
The one exception is Howard as Zucko the bookie. He is given almost nothing to do, and nothing in the script allows us to see anything other than the one-dimensional heavy. One wonders why an actor of Howard’s caliber would have taken this role, unless of course a significant portion of his role was edited out of the film’s final cut.
Ultimately, though, this is Murray’s movie. Apparently Melfi, who has been peddling this script for years, was finally able to get a meeting with Murray and sell the notoriously reticent actor on taking a chance with this first-time filmmaker. Murray’s association with the film doubtlessly helped land other talent in the likes of McCarthy, Watts, Dowd and Howard. But Murray’s performance is a memorable one, and one that some are already touting for a possible second Oscar nomination for him. Though that seems unlikely, since such honors do not often go to comic roles like this one, the performance does make this movie worth watching, and convinces me to give it three Tennysons.
“Ideals are peaceful. History is violent,” the war-hardened Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) tells his tank crew’s young untested new forward gunner Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman, 3:10 to Yuma) early in David Ayer’s new devastatingly brutal World War II combat film Fury. The film, which Ayer wrote as well as directed, goes on to illustrate that concept in scene after scene, until it is pretty convincingly driven home. History itself may not be exclusively violent, but war certainly is, and what Saving Private Ryan did to undercut the naïve pretensions of films like The Longest Day, Fury does while undermining chauvinistic Hollywood productions like 1949’s Sand of Iwo Jima. Indeed John Wayne’s Sergeant Stryker is the spiritual forerunner of Pitt’s Sergeant Collier: the tough, no-nonsense veteran whose harsh tactics are resented by new recruits but who proves in the end to be right all along. But by the end of Fury, it’s hard for moviegoers to view Collier’s methods uncritically, and it’s impossible to take seriously the idea that these soldiers are motivated by the chance to make the world a better place.
They are motivated by two things: First, they have been given an assignment and they are going to complete it. “Do your job,” the crew members of the M4 Sherman tank (nicknamed “Fury”) tell Norman again and again. Second, they are fighting for each other—to stay alive and to keep one another alive—to make it through this war. These are realistic motivations, not the motivations of celluloid heroes in propaganda movies. Collier has been with three of his crew since northern Africa ca. 1943: Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña, who was in Ayer’s End of Watch), the blunt, hard-drinking, but sympathetic driver; Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal, The; Walking Dead), the vulgar, ill-tempered mechanic; and Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf, Lawless), the born-again, scripture-quoting gunner who moves through the film with moist eyes and a faith that God is directing him through all of this. Collier has sworn to get his crew through this war alive, and has managed to get them as far as April 1945, the final month of the war, as the allies pushing toward Berlin are fighting stubborn resistance from surviving SS troops, women, and Hitler youth who make American pay for every inch of the Fatherland they seek to gain. The Germans must eventually surrender, but when Collier’s commander asks rhetorically “Why don’t they just give up?” Pitt’s character answers, “Would you?”
Norman becomes the fifth member of the tank’s crew, pulled from a clerk-typist job after eight weeks in the army to replace a gunner who has just been annihilated in one of these vicious last battles, and Norman (the “Normal-man”) becomes the character with whom the audience identifies: like Charlie Sheen in Platoon, Norman knows nothing when he arrives, and like the audience must be taught about tank warfare, and more importantly must have his “normal” morality driven from him so that he, like the rest of his crew, can survive this war—and help them survive it. When he fails to machine-gun a pile of apparently dead Germans as he is ordered to do, Sergeant Collier wrestles him to the ground, forces a gun into his hand, and makes him execute a German prisoner who is begging for his life and displaying pictures of his wife and children. Collier and Norman’s relationship is not unlike that of Ethan Hawke and Denzel Washington in Ayer’s earlier screenplay for Training Day, and has some of the moral ambiguity of that film.
As the somewhat episodic plot moves on, Norman develops a healthy hatred of the “damn Nazis” and has little compulsion in blowing them away. He has become one of the crew, and he is baptized into their fellowship when they give him the “war name” of “machine”—as if he has been transformed into a Nazi-killing automaton. This aspect of the film is somewhat clichéd, but unlike other war films, in this one that transformation does not seem an unquestionably positive thing. It is difficult not to like the earlier Norman better than this one.
For one of the questions raised by this thought-provoking film concerns the changes that must occur in a man with a conventional moral sense when he witnesses and takes part in the atrocities of war. Do those changes make him better somehow? Do they “make a man” out of him, as Norman sarcastically asks after his forced murder of the prisoner? Or by hardening him to endure war’s brutality do they change him into someone unfit for normal society? Pitt’s character seems to feel this dehumanizing effect more keenly than others, and he can be seen in contemplative moments breaking down in private, when his shell-like veneer is momentarily let down. In one of the film’s most inventive and original scenes, Collier and Norman enter the apartment of two German women in a town they have just “liberated.” It is a surprisingly domestic scene—though there is some tension as the women are terrified by these Americans with guns and Norman is unsure what Collier has in mind for these women. Collier produces half a dozen eggs, takes the opportunity to have a wash, and encourages Norman to have sex with the younger woman: that proves a tender scene, though the shadow over it is the fact that these men have entered the room with guns and the whole American army at their back. But a peaceful, homey breakfast is interrupted by Bible, Gordo and Coon-Ass, who drunkenly disrupt the humane idyll and bring the brutality of the war, and the brutality of what war has made of men, into the scene.
That brutality is palpable in this film. Ayer and his cinematographer Roman Vasyanov have created a barren landscape of grays and browns, in which mud-colored vehicles and mud-colored infantry move through a landscape that is essentially mud. It’s a landscape in which the seed of life can find no purchase, like the surface of the moon or hell itself.
This atmosphere all leads up to the final shot of the film: a gray scene, photographed from above as the camera pulls back to reveal a landscape strewn with hundreds of dead and intertwined gray German soldiers, surrounding the tank.
A number of reviewers have criticized the film’s final thirty minutes as a machismo display inconsistent with the weighty pounding of the “war is hell” message in the rest of the film. It’s as if Ayers decided that he wanted to put something into the film for everyone in the audience, and elected to end it with a hackneyed “last stand” of five brave Americans against hordes of evil but faceless bad guys, sure to appeal to action-movie fans who might have been bored up to this point. But such a criticism is, I think, unfounded for two reasons: First, it has been set up well in advance by Collier’s “wouldn’t you?” answer to the question of why men keep fighting when they know they cannot win. And secondly, the fight sets up what may be the most important, and ironic, incident in the film, for which I must declare a spoiler alert: Norman, having escaped from the tank, is hiding beneath it covered with the ubiquitous mud. He is spared by an SS trooper who finds him but decides neither to kill nor arrest him, gives him a suppressed half smile, and moves on. It is ultimately not the conditioned toughness of Sergeant Collier that gets Norman through the war, but rather the humanity of a German “Norman” who, at least momentarily, refuses to allow the brutality of the war to destroy his fundamental moral code.
These final scenes create a morass of ambiguities and ironies surrounding the American “rescuers” who collect Norman and call him a hero right before that final shot of the field of the dead. One is reminded of nothing more vividly that Tacitus’s description of the Roman army: “They created a wasteland, and they called it peace.”
This is a difficult film to watch, and an even more difficult one to enjoy. Ayer has gone to unprecedented lengths to recreate meticulously the precise details of tank combat and of the situation in Germany that last month of the war. So much has gone into this that one wonders if that is the extent of what Ayers wanted to do with the movie: present combat more realistically than it has ever been produced on film. But that hardly seems enough to carry a two hour movie. And there are so many ambiguities that it is difficult to be sure where the filmmakers stand, or where they want the audience to stand. The audience-surrogate, Norman, seems unsure just how to feel at the end. That may be what Ayer intends. In view of that uncertainly, I’m going to give the film three Tennysons.