Handyfilm etc

Film reviews and other thoughts

My Photo
Location: New York, New York, United States

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Anti-Bourne: Matt Damon in a Far More Serious Spy Movie

Serious and thoughtful, smoothly textured and deliberately paced, The Good Shepherd is a very different type of spy movie from Matt Damon’s Bourne pictures, which are all briskness and nervous kinetic energy, with barely a meaningful thought in their heads. This new film, written by Eric Roth (Munich, Forrest Gump) and directed by Robert De Niro, is about the origins and history of the CIA, covering the years 1939-1961 in the life of one important agent, from college right through to his involvement in the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba. In fact, it could occasionally use more kinetic energy of some sort (though the Bourne type of pinball pacing wouldn’t work here), but it’s a respectable piece of work, never less than interesting – yet rarely generating the intensity or sparks one hopes for based on the fine opening scenes.

Well, not the very first scenes, which establish what will turn out to be a too-contrived spy mystery concerning the Bay of Pigs operation. That material, puzzling and murky enough to be annoying at first, alternates with flashbacks to Yale in 1939, where Edward Wilson (Damon), a poetry student, gets tapped for membership first by the Skull and Bones secret society, and then by government spies. We learn that his naval officer father was a suicide amid rumors of treason. Edward is recruited to spy on one of his professors, and then eventually to go to London as part of a new military intelligence organization, the OSS.

This part of the story fascinates, draws you right in to both the mechanics of spying and the way Edward’s personality is being formed and changed. It may actually be unfair to complain that the intrigue generated in the first hour sets you up for a later letdown. It’s probably inevitable that the payoff won’t match our expectations. But at least at first, The Good Shepherd is bracingly reminiscent of Graham Greene, if far less subtle. As we realize that many of the things required of Edward will be horrendous, morally indefensible – and as he realizes it too – the movie casts a real, if too brief, spell.

Part of the problem is the amount of time spent on Edward’s personal life: his blossoming romance with a young deaf woman (Tammy Blanchard) and his ambivalent and potentially disastrous flirtation with a classmate’s sister – and senator’s daughter (Angelina Jolie). At first the light romance contrasts pleasingly with the darkening spy plot. There’s also a disquieting, not entirely defined aura of emotional and sexual repression in Edward’s interactions both with women and with his fellow spies. But his life at home eventually takes on the arc of a rather dreary soap opera, and begins to drag down the rest of the story – with at least one too many heavily ironic juxtapositions: sentimental songs underscore The Hard Truth of what Edward does for a living, and the destruction it is bringing to his life and his family.

The best sections of the movie end with World War II. Once we have entered the Cold War, both the spy and personal parts of the plot begin to seem somewhat airless and preordained – not to mention often skimpy, lacking in nuance or detail, shallow. (There is one brilliant exception, when a dubious Russian defector, given LSD as a “truth serum,” unsettles the CIA agents by telling them the Soviets are not even a real threat; this scene is far less routine than the rest of the second half.) The model here may be John le Carre…but the results fall short. Nonetheless, the film has an indispensable secret weapon, and his name is Matt Damon.

Damon is splendid in a very challenging role. Edward’s most notable characteristic is his stony silence, expressionless, inscrutable. But Damon makes this silence mean many things: the bafflement of a shy youth encountering sex and love, the appalled realization of just how brutal and awful spying can be, the scary determination of a master adversary. He fights gamely against the soapy sludge of the later scenes, and he is genuinely frightening in a Michael Corleone-like episode of icy, heartless betrayal at the film’s climax (though the script hasn’t earned that kind of payoff, and the plot surrounding the scene is way too contrived). It’s a remarkable performance, convincingly taking us from initial innocence to final corruption (even if Edward still wants to believe his honor is intact). Matt Damon holds this movie together and flies it home.

The large supporting cast is often excellent, with the standouts being Michael Gambon as Edward’s mysterious poetry professor, Tammy Blanchard as the heartbreaking first girlfriend, and Oleg Stefan as a Russian spy code-named Ulysses. Director De Niro has a couple of effective scenes as a character based on the OSS/CIA’s founding father Bill Donovan. But as a fictionalized Kim Philby, the usually marvelous Billy Crudup is hampered by a fey British accent that fits him uncomfortably. And while Angelina Jolie and Eddie Redmayne give their valiant best as Edward’s wife and son, their unconvincing roles ultimately defeat them.

The physical production of The Good Shepherd is of a very high caliber. Robert Richardson is a peerless cinematographer, and the movie often looks just stunning, both in shadowy rooms with dramatic, noirish lighting and in vivid exteriors set on several continents. The costumes (by Ann Roth) and production design (by Jeannine Claudia Oppewall, who also did Seabiscuit and Catch Me If You Can) take us convincingly through the various eras and settings. (Let’s also give some credit to whoever aptly decided to fit Matt Damon with perhaps the least flattering pair of eyeglasses in the history of the cinema; this is not the right movie for a sexy, glamorous spy.) But the gloomy and beautiful musical score, by Bruce Fowler and Marcelo Zarvos, is far too plentiful, overemphasizing every emotional moment and leaving very little room for a viewer to breathe, much less respond spontaneously.

Considering that this is only the second film Robert De Niro has directed (and that it has been 13 years since the first), his storytelling ability and skill with actors is impressive. And still it’s almost impossible not to imagine what Martin Scorsese or Alfred Hitchcock (or Paul Greengrass, who directed the second Bourne movie, brilliantly, as well as this year’s finest film, United 93) might have done with the same material. With the touch of a film artist, the audience might feel real terror, might gasp with laughter at some perverse, daring bits of business, and might be whisked more confidently past the soap and contrivance; without it we have to settle for an interesting, flawed story well told – not the worst of compromises.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Short Takes – Recently Seen

Casino Royale
Simply put: the best Bond in nearly 40 years. It may not have the pop-classic panache of the first five Sean Connery films, but it shows up all the ones between starring Moore, Dalton, Brosnan, for the silly monstrosities they are. Daniel Craig is nearly perfect as a steely, scary, sexy 007 without a trace of camp. Martin Campbell’s direction, the photography, the editing are extraordinarily skillful. The only spy film to compare to it in recent years is Paul Greengrass’s equally amazing The Bourne Supremacy, which surpasses Casino Royale in artistry though not in pop fizziness. Although slick spectacles like this are not to be confused with art, let me quote Pauline Kael’s review of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the last really first-rate Bond: “I know that on one level it’s not worth doing, but it sure has been done brilliantly.” The only really shoddy element is the wretched theme song, which we have to endure twice.

’s heavy ache to be important and worthy reminds one of Crash, and like that widely overrated film, it has good elements: a strong cast, good photography and editing, the skill to hold an audience’s attention through multiple connected stories. But it only rarely seems spontaneous, or as stirring as it wants to be. The best scenes involve the two Arab shepherd boys who put the main part of the plot into motion; and also Adriana Barraza as the ill-fated Mexican immigrant nanny of two Anglo California kids. Tied for worst are the scenes set in Japan concerning a deaf teenager whose longing for emotional comfort turns into a dangerous (and ridiculous) obsession with sex; and Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as glamorously suffering American tourists in Morocco. Babel lacks the intricate jigsaw structure and cutting of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s previous film, 21 Grams, but it is also less annoying than that picture was.

Happy Feet
Some of the visuals are stunning, and there is the novelty of skilled tap dancing incorporated into animated animal characters using miraculous new technologies. But the script is far from being as compelling or delightful as Babe, George Miller’s earlier entertainment for smart kids of all ages. And I had a mixed reaction to the grab bag of contemporary tunes that periodically turn the movie into an Antarctic MTV for 8 year olds. Still, much of the comedy is charming and the adventure quest of our penguin hero will hold your interest.

The History Boys
Although this film has been nearly as overpraised as the slick, empty play it’s based on, it can be very entertaining if you don’t take it too seriously. The mostly excellent performances of the stage cast (playing the students and faculty of an English boys’ school in the 1980s) have been preserved for posterity, and especially in the cases of Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, and Samuel Barnett, the preservation is very valuable. Some of the more glaring examples of gay self-hatred that were woven uncomfortably tightly into the play’s script have been toned down or omitted, and I was happy to see this change, since these elements were not handled skillfully enough by author Alan Bennett to have much resonance beyond an unpleasant aftertaste. I think of The History Boys as a sophisticated sitcom, and its nominal subject, two approaches to learning represented by two teachers, seems to me just a McGuffin on which to hang the jokes, many of which remain quite charming. The look of the film is cheap and it feels like a rush job, but this is not too damaging to the breezy writing and acting that provide most of its appeal.

For Your Consideration
I’m not the biggest fan of Christopher Guest’s satirical mock-documentaries, but they all have moments and performances of sweet-sour charm and hilarity, and this is no exception. Wild-eyed, unpredictable Catherine O’Hara is the standout here, and it’s of course amusing that she is garnering year-end award recognition for a film that not-so-gently skewers Hollywood’s obsession with such awards. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the film-within-the-film, Home for Purim, is too silly and sketchy to be completely effective as satire. But there are plenty of laughs, and if you don’t expect too much, this is a pleasant little movie.

Miraculous Moments: Company on Broadway

I don’t really go to all that many plays and musicals, but this season I’ve been lucky enough to experience three wonderful scenes that had an electrifying effect on audiences. The musical plays that surrounded these moments have all three been very uneven, but the best parts were good enough to make them worthwhile:

  • In Spring Awakening, when one of the students (in a play set in Germany in the 1890s!) first pulls a microphone from the inside of his jacket, and his classmates follow suit, as they sing “The Bitch of Living,” a rock song about the frustrations and excitement of adolescence.
  • In Grey Gardens, the opening scene and number (“The Revolutionary Costume for Today”) of the second act, which brings the cult documentary film to startling and hilarious musical life.
  • And now, in the new revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, the final song, “Being Alive.”

The actors also serve as the orchestra in this production of Company. Our protagonist, Bobby, a single man in a group of mostly married friends, is the only character not to play an instrument during the first two hours. Then at the end, he walks over to the piano, sits down, opens the keyboard, and begins to play – beautifully – “Being Alive.” And when he starts singing, Raul Esparza’s gorgeous and heartfelt performance brings the house down – no dry eyes anywhere.

The song and the performer are so good, in fact, that they highlight the shortcomings of the rest of the evening. You realize just how shallow and unmemorable the script is, as well as the overall conception. There are other very fine songs, but few carry the emotional impact of “Being Alive.” The direction and design are excellent, as they were in last season’s excellent production of Sweeney Todd. Even better than in that production, the music here is particularly well served by the actors-as-orchestra setup. But it all comes together with full power only in that last scene. And yet it’s enough, and it’s more than one gets from most musicals.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

"Is the 'War on Terror' a Myth?" and Other Questions

This is an article about questions, not answers.

In the blogosphere, especially, many people shout out very loud, confident answers, explanations, conspiracy theories, and name-calling tirades. Some of these blustery monologues could be improved just by starting with the right questions – and by admitting that we don’t necessarily have the answers.

In America as a whole, the culture of conformity rules. Entirely too many people prefer to eat at the same chain restaurants, wear the same brands of clothing, have the same opinions about the same movies and television shows, and most insidiously of all, either ignore politics and world affairs altogether, or else follow the group-think political inclinations and worldview dictated by their chosen tribe – roughly and broadly, either the Red State Club or the Blue State Club. It’s the duty of citizens in a democracy to be skeptical both of those currently in power and those who would like to take their places. And skeptical citizens should be asking questions.

I have a few.

Is the “War on Terror” really a war, or is it an advertising slogan? Is it necessary? Is it making us safer or less safe? How can we tell? Whose word can we trust?

Was military action the best and only possible response to 9/11? Or did we blow an important opportunity to win hearts and minds? Did our hunger for “justice” (i.e., vengeance) blind us to the long-term consequences of our actions?

Why was so much of the world sympathetic to us, “on our side” in the weeks immediately after 9/11, and why does so much of the world now, in Europe as well as the Middle East, think of us as the Big Bully on the Block? Are they right? Do we care what they think? If not, why not? What will be the consequences of years or decades in which most of the countries of the world see us as a club-wielding empire?

If most of the potential terrorists in the world are angry young Muslim men, taught to see the US as the Great Satan and the killer of children and the friend of autocratic Arab regimes, shouldn’t we try to change their minds, demonstrate that they’re wrong? Why instead do we bomb first and ask questions later, keep hundreds in detention for years without charges, maintain our largely uncritical “friendships” with the oppressive governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, prefer threats to diplomacy – in short, why do we go out of our way to prove to these young men that we are exactly as awful as they have been taught we are?

Do terrorist bombings in Madrid, London, Bali and elsewhere confirm the existence of a sinister network of terror? Or were they the work of separate groups of extremists inspired by similar ideas? Is the distinction worth making? Is Al Qaeda an actual group with members, or is it the “brand name” of a style and strategy of anti-Western violence? If in fact we are facing separate groups of extremists, not a global network, what does that tell us about how we should be answering this threat? Have our efforts to date accomplished anything? Have they inspired new extremists and thus led to new danger?

If, as some have said, our post-9/11 stance has been based in part on that of Israel, a state that has faced Arab terrorism for decades, do we have lessons to learn from the Palestinian conflict that we haven’t heeded? Does following a policy of always striking back after each and every attack in fact give the terrorists what they want – an escalation of conflict and another step away from any possible peace or resolution? Are there similar lessons from other “intractable” tribal conflicts, as in Northern Ireland and the Balkans, where extremists on either side who don’t want peace only have to blow something up to derail any ongoing negotiations?

Does the fact that there has not yet been another 9/11-scale attack, or even a smaller one, inside the US, mean that the Bush policies are working? Or does it mean that the actual threat has been poorly understood and described – or in fact deliberately distorted?

If we are facing an imminent threat of more massive violence here at home, why have so many of the “plots” uncovered in the US since 9/11 (e.g., in Lackawanna and Detroit) been so puny or in many cases actually nonexistent? Why have so many of the “dangerous terrorists” (“These are really bad guys,” we were reassured by Donald Rumsfeld) held at Guantanamo been released? Why have so few of the rest been charged? Did we possibly overreact and arrest a lot of innocent people? Is this something we should be proud of?

Why have we spent so many billions on an air travel security system that many experts warn provides only an illusion of safety? Why do we have laws like the US Patriot Act and the Military Commissions Act (and non-laws like warrantless wiretapping of US citizens) that seem to contradict our own ideals as expressed in our Constitution, as well as international ideals as expressed in the Geneva Conventions? Have these documents become irrelevant in a more dangerous modern world? What other bits of our democratic heritage are now dispensable?

Why are we in Iraq? Why did we go to begin with? Why were so many of us so gung-ho to go originally, and why are so many of us now in such a hurry to leave? Did we ever really know what was going on there before the invasion, or what the potential consequences of invading a country and dismantling a government could be? Was Saddam a genuine threat, or just a gigantic pain in the ass? Which would have caused more death and suffering: allowing him to remain in power as a mass-murdering thug, or deposing him and setting in motion the murderous conflicts (featuring new casts of mass-murdering thugs) going on in Iraq now? Was he in league with terrorists? Who says so? Is there proof? If not, what have we done?

Why is Afghanistan no closer to genuine democracy or stability now (beyond Kabul and a small perimeter around it) than it was five years ago? Does the US government give a damn?

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, what will be the ultimate consequences of wiping out the sitting authoritarian governments, replacing them with nominally democratic but very weak regimes – and then turning our attention elsewhere? Have we set up big disasters to follow in the near future?

Did the brilliant BBC filmmaker Adam Curtis get it right in The Power of Nightmares, a movie so radioactive no film or TV company in the US will touch it? Was he correct in describing 9/11 as the last desperate act of a small, failed group of Islamists – an act that did more than they could have imagined to revive both radical Islam and American neoconservatism, which was also at a dead end in 1999-2001? Is it possibly true, as Curtis asserts, that governments and politicians, striving to maintain their power in the post-Great Society, post-Cold War world, have latched on to the War on Terror as their means of survival? Have they taken advantage of the fear and lack of knowledge among ordinary people to say, “Don’t worry – this stuff is too complicated and frightening for you to understand or for us to even reveal it to you – but we’ll protect you…just keep voting for us”? Does the Republican rhetoric of the last two elections (“A vote for the Democrats is a vote to let the terrorists win”) back up this assertion? Do the Democrats offer any kind of viable alternative, or just a craven me-too-ism?

Is anyone telling us the truth? Are we interested in pressing the point until they do?

I’m just asking.