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Movie Review: 12 Strong

This is a good war movie with moments approaching greatness. If you’ve enjoyed Thank You for Your Service, 13 Hours, American Sniper and other movies about the nonstop, unending U.S. military response to the Islamic jihad slaughter on September 11, 2001, you’re likely to appreciate 12 Strong for its pointed depiction of American heroism.

I figured this would be a proper, which is to say relatively straightforward and unfiltered, dramatization from its setup scenes. 12 Strong rightly begins in 1993, when Moslem terrorists first attacked the Twin Towers. Then, to other acts of war on America in 1998 and 2000. So, right off, there’s at least an attempt to provide pretext to the story of 12 heroes who volunteered to deliver America’s first post-9/11 military retaliation, which is one of the few the U.S. got exactly right.

To underscore this unequivocal rightness, the Army team’s single-minded captain (Chris Hemsworth, Thor: Ragnarok) asks the helicopter pilot after the pilot tells him that the aircraft is descending over northern Afghanistan: “On purpose?!” The captain’s short, urgently repeated demand signals the caliber of soldier about to disembark and confront the guerrilla Islamic terrorist state. The band of men do not just listen, obey and follow orders: they make crucial distinctions, take command and act with swift thought and precision, leaving nothing to the aims — and sloth and errors — of others, including those in their own army.

The captain’s leadership is based on study, clarity and reason. From camping his men at an allied Afghan base 40 miles from their terrorist center target to leading the horse soldiers’ charge toward the enemy’s worst weapon, Hemsworth’s captain examines every angle, nuance and trajectory necessary to achieve his goal. Director Nicolai Fuglsig shows fidelity to the essential facts of this hard-fought, extraordinary and, yes, glorious military victory. He doesn’t adorn the movie or characters with frenzied or slow-motion moments of blood splattering and bombs exploding. There’s no showboating. There’s the hard work and grit of men fighting to avenge their country and defend their lives, fortunes and future.

The men include the silent loner (Trevante Rhodes, Moonlight) who becomes the fixation of an Afghan boy. And his opposite, an expressive fighter who once taught history (Michael Pena, Lions for Lambs, The Lucky Ones). Or the team’s chief warrant officer and voice of reason (Michael Shannon, Mud, The Shape of Water). Some of the 12 Strong have wives, some have kids, and most have gripes and doubts, though 12 Strong stays on track and avoids war movie cliches. They all trained for war in the Middle East and they all want nothing less than victory. 12 Strong does not deal with the fact that Bush, Obama (and, so far, Trump) equivocated, appeased and never came close to wiping out states that sponsor Islamic terrorists let alone declaring, waging and winning the war the enemy started.

The Jerry Bruckheimer (and scads of others) produced film, co-written by Peter Craig and Ted Tally and based on the book by Doug Stanton, does, however, allude to U.S. military incompetence. So-called smart bombs fall on the wrong coordinates. There’s an implication about friendly fire (remember Pat Tillman). And then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s bravado, which would thrust America into an unwinnable war in Iraq, gets an apparently and deservedly fact-based dig.

12 Strong focuses, though, mostly on what it takes to render the deadly counterstrike to 9/11. From the Northern Alliance faction leader skillfully portrayed by Navid Negahban to the sharp colonel incisively portrayed by William Fichtner, the team earns and keeps the support of superiors and natives alike to trudge through the passes and trails of the Taliban-run country. Without neutralizing moral judgment on Islam, the religion which motivates the enemy, 12 Strong puts the campaign in clear perspective. Females are slaughtered like American infidels, simply for seeking knowledge. “God is great!” goes the familiar death call as the U.S. first applies its antiquated rules of engagement (which got worse after this campaign). So don’t expect the now-incessant and tired evasion of any mention of what makes the enemy evil. A murderous mullah speaks the truth about his religion.

Also, don’t expect evasion of what makes Americans good. Though 12 Strong is a good, not great, war movie depicting soldiers in a particularly grueling combat, and I do wonder whether the team declined to wear helmets throughout the battles and trek, the two-hour film lets its heroes shine.

Thankfully lacking vulgarity, and with a stirring gallop to answer the Flight 93 passengers’ call to arms, “Let’s Roll”, 12 Strong is the inspiring tale of the twelve soldiers who rolled. They did it weeks after America was attacked in New York City and Washington, DC.  They did in weeks what experts projected would take two years. This combat picture shows that twelve men rolled with the thunderous strength and purpose that America and Americans deserved. It pretty much ended there. It hasn’t happened since. 12 Strong demonstrates with power and skill that this victory did happen.

Movie Review: Darkest Hour

If director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, Anna Karenina) wanted to burnish his cinematic credentials and establish himself as a filmmaker capable of making movies with substance, he’s succeeded with Darkest Hour. If, however, Wright, who answered audience questions following the ArcLight Hollywood screening I attended this week (see my notes below), sought to make a great movie, his picture about Prime Minister Winston Churchill falls short.

The problem with Darkest Hour is not its leading actor, Gary Oldman, an outstanding performer in nearly every movie in which he appears. Despite uneven directing and questionable makeup, Oldman (Book of Eli, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Batman Begins, The Professional, JFK) often shines. As his resilient secretary, Lily James (Baby Driver, Cinderella) also stands out. Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) is less fortunate as Mrs. Churchill in an underdeveloped role. The problem with Darkest Hour is its lack of depth. Wright underplays the leader’s greatness and overplays his fallibility, leaving a lighter impression of a heavyweight leader who single-handedly rallied a great Western state to save itself from annihilation.

Churchill’s part of the story barely grazing this year’s Dunkirk is a remarkable tale of courage, grit and mastery of facts, resolve and history. Wright’s emphasis on Churchill’s idiosyncrasies and doubting, as against the confidence, knowledge and principles he used to guide Britain to defeat Nazi Germany, leaves too much that’s essential offscreen and too much of what is not essential on screen.

Close-up shots and scenes of Churchill in doubt, deep thought and consternation, which Wright takes as fundamental to Churchill’s greatest decisions, contrast with the grand scale of his extraordinary call to glory. Of course, it’s legitimate to portray this British prime minister as mired in doubt. But in portraying Churchill’s doubt, and suggesting that how he eased or alleviated it by means of the approval of others, drawing strength from encounters with those some might refer to as commoners, Darkest Hour minimizes the scale and brilliance of the achievements.

Screenwriter Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) delivers the lines for a clear and coherent case of soaring heroism with realism. The story’s so involving thanks to his script that you can’t stop watching Churchill gallivant with his port, brandy and cigars, citing Cicero and military maps. Oldman depicts with relish Winston Churchill’s eccentricities such as his aversion to the noise of typing keys, his dread of single-spaced copy and his penchant for enunciation and working with young women in his bedroom while naked or half-naked. The stirring words stir — he stresses “buoyancy”, insists that “France must be saved” and plainly asserts that, against Hitler, Britain must reject living in “a slave state”, “wage war” against Germany and that “nothing less than victory will do” “if necessary alone” — while he’s fully self-aware, thanks to his wife.

“Never surrender to servitude and shame,” Oldman’s Churchill says with thunderous conviction.

A man with such forethought, wisdom and rationality needs more than doubt to galvanize an empire to unite against a tyrant and defend itself. Darkest Hour, more than the movie about a similarly inspiring British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, The Iron Lady, misses the depth. It is not enough to see that Winston Churchill experienced self-doubt as a way toward accomplishing his greatest moments. Portraying how and why he marshaled optimism and put it toward putting down doubts would have accounted for moments in full. As such, Darkest Hour ends up being too slight, despite Gary Oldman’s finest efforts, for a proper account of the undaunted British hero. The score by Dario Marianelli (Agora, Atonement, A Long Way Down) accentuates the film at its best.


Director Q & A Notes

Director Joe Wright discussed his film Darkest Hour with one of those fawning press types at the ArcLight Hollywood this week.

The director’s comments explain a lot. Wright said that his commercially and critically panned movie Pan lead to his own self-doubt, from which he gained an appreciation for a historical figure that he said he really didn’t see as having much practical relevance to his own life. He also told a heartbreaking story about the late John Hurt being cast in Darkest Hour as Neville Chamberlain (played by Ronald Pickup). Hurt, Wright told the audience, had been diagnosed with cancer. During the first day of rehearsals, Wright explained, John Hurt (V for Vendetta, Contact) got out of bed, slipped and crushed his hip. Sadly, he was unable to perform thereafter.

Wright also entertained the audience with tales of Gravity director Alfonso Cuaron providing crucial career guidance, Wright’s admiration of movies by Bergman, Fellini, Bertolucci and, for his economy and “precise storytelling”, Hitchcock, and, tellingly, given his preference for playing with scale and characters playing God, Wright’s parents both being puppeteers. He said puppetry gave them as artists a great sense of autonomy. His next project, he said, is a movie adaptation of a novel titled Stoner.

Movie Review: Thank You for Your Service

Writer and director Jason Hall, who wrote Clint Eastwood‘s searing American war drama, American Sniper, debuts his feature directing skills in Universal’s Thank You for Your Service. With commitment to his script, based on the book by David Finkel, Hall largely succeeds. I found myself wanting a wider scope for much of the movie. The intense war veteran drama sub-genre comes from this long, endless, asinine non-war in the Middle East, which Sen. John McCain once let slip might become a hundred-year war. They’re piling up, from Jarhead, Green Zone, Rendition, Stop-Loss and The Lucky Ones, which this picture most closely resembles, to The Hurt Locker, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi and the sterling American Sniper. And the cluster of post-2001 war movies deserve rapt attention from today’s American moviegoer. Most are mediocre to bad. They all merit praise for daring to dramatize what Americans ignore and evade.

Thank You for Your Service is good, and by good I mean it is moving, sad, horrifying — which every war movie if it is a war movie ought to be — tense, confused and heartbreaking. Thank You for Your Service is also absorbing. You watch the men in agony, you want to know if they make it, you care about the characters, who, incidentally, are based on real American soldiers, a fact the movie thankfully doesn’t inflate and lord over the audience. The title is both biting and unbowed. And that faraway look in the movie poster’s Army sergeant (Miles Teller, Whiplash) is earned.

The vacancy this ‘war on terror’, as George W. Bush described it when he was president after Islamic terrorists attacked America in 2001, marks three war vets’ faces when they at last come home from Iraq. There’s husband, father and explosives expert Sgt. Schumann (Teller, as sharp as ever) and his grunts Solo (Beulah Koale) and Heller (Joe Cole). They jostle, tease and prep for the homefront on the plane and it’s already clear that they’re feeling restless about coming home to Kansas. One returns to a wife who dares him to test her strength. Another wants to father a baby with his missus. Another is engaged and he’s all about that right now.

They attempt to adjust. As they do, the complexity of the task and the complications of what constitutes the military service for which they volunteered become a moving tapestry of what’s now known two decades into this war for nothing in the Arab world (not to mention West Africa). Mental illness, trauma and suicide loom. But the men hold tight to one another. In an emotional bonding scene and set-up for what’s to come, they take a break from re-connecting at a local bar and hop around to a pop tune about love.

It’s one of the best scenes because Hall lets this initially humorous outlet for the men’s anger, pain and physical trauma unwind naturally, melding into a moment in silence with gripping and holding on. This transition is memorable. It could’ve pulled the camera back and gone on.

Thank You for Your Service does go on, with other manifestations of what today’s war veteran faces. Prosthetics, ignorance, trauma. Flashbacks, delusions, more trauma. Waiting for bureaucrats, accounting for the impact, trudging through the lowest moments of more trauma, which means melting down, and this part Thank You for Your Service gets down pat. As Sgt. Schumann’s wife, Haley Bennett is excellent. The whole cast shines, too, with Teller in the lead, Koale as the American Somoan soldier and Kerry Cahill as a dead soldier’s mom standing out.

Hall might have made more or less of certain details, such as the horseshoe in the Humvee or the flag-poled house as a symbol for the happiness pursuit. But he gets the emotional power just right, in scenes with them dancing through the rage, losing power during sex and embracing at a bus stop. Like American Sniper, Thank You for Your Service puts the audience smack into the soldier’s world. There, one sees the value of a fast car, the toxicity of a brainless video game and the importance of owning — and stitching — a dog. War cliches abound, it’s true, and surely someone’s going to find fault in this for that. It comes down to combat, roads not taken and men you may have left behind.

Thank You for Your Service dramatizes with skill and emotional impact the aching loss, void and aim of war in its last two words. It does this about a war which — still, outrageously, after 16 years!!! — is not allowed to be a war in any way that matches this sacred, highest goal. Whatever its flaws, Thank You for Your Service shows the unjust process, from deployment to Veterans Administration (VA) deathtrap, of Americans being soldiers in a deliberately forgotten war. It depicts an ongoing, in-your-face tragedy that’s more important and powerful in this sense than all the artsy films combined. Have a look at what becoming a soldier’s become and think about what it means that they’re coming undone. Everyone should thank Thank You for Your Service.

Movie Review: Dunkirk (2017)

Telescoping a major battle in the second world war, writer and director Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) touches on major aspects of war in his harrowing epic, Dunkirk. This movie for Warner Bros. is sufficiently horrifying and powerful and it is also daring in certain respects. Dunkirk is also flawed.

Putting the action to three arenas—land, air and sea—permits Nolan, a talented storyteller and filmmaker, to fold his refined tales into each other neatly and with a strong, meaningful sense of purpose. This he accomplishes with economy, too, bringing Dunkirk in under two hours, keeping his top cast in a proper scale and cutting dialogue down to phrases and brief exchanges. Most of Dunkirk is told in pictures, many of which are riveting. The gray, droning disorientation of days at this coastal place called Dunkirk in the north of France as the Germans push the British to the sea, leaving hundreds of thousands—hundreds of thousands—as sitting ducks waiting to be shot, bombed or rescued. The aerial view of the coast, the tilting views of Spitfires and Messerschmidts, the rolling waves of the English Channel as it erupts in crashes, sinkings, gunfire, torpedoes and the flames of hell on water.

Much of Dunkirk is also told in audio, too, with a Hans Zimmer score which is both too obvious and too much. The droning begins the movie, pegging the film to a ticking clock, and never lets up. Not that any of that is necessary, however, and it’s often distracting, diminishing and detracting from what little’s being said among characters.

But Mr. Nolan knows the stories he wants to show and, to his eternal credit, he wants to show the audience what happened at Dunkirk. This remains his focus, not importing modern ideas into the past, thank goodness, or pictorial fancies and flourishes that have nothing to do with the battle, the war and the civilization desperately at stake. And this—civilization—is very much the point of Dunkirk, again to Christopher Nolan‘s credit. His characters, composited from those hundreds of thousands and those who came to get them out and the nearly 70,000 killed by National Socialist Germans, fight. They fight to live—not to die and not out of duty to the state, the volk or the tribe.

This is an important distinction and essential part of why Dunkirk is emotionally moving; in its two most powerful scenes, Dunkirk affirms the values and ideals of Western civilization.

Christopher Nolan‘s war history movie does so in other scenes, too, such as his shots of a sunny countryside to accentuate that which they’ve fought to preserve and protect. One gets the sense that the writer and director knows on some level that this grand story about soldier and civilian alike uniting to save civilization from barbarians applies centrally to today’s jihadist siege against the West. This is unmistakable if you think, reason and judge and it is lurking nevertheless if you don’t. A combat pilot (Tom Hardy, Mad Max: Fury Road) feels for his comrade Collins (Jack Lowden) when he goes after the Germans, for instance, and, because he gets the best view and sense of what this disastrous battle means, he alone knows the widest perspective; he sees the lines of British soldiers on the beaches and he sees the civilian boats racing to the rescue. It’s both wrenching and haunting and he knows what must be done.

“Dead, mate”, “home”, “for the French” are a sample of the sparse words used to punctuate the blistering, whistling battle in action, further underscoring that the Brits act to live, not to serve a fuhrer, and Dunkirk evokes Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film Saving Private Ryan for its capture of the combat. One of the flaws, though, in this otherwise tightly drawn and focused war movie, is its failure to depict what the soldiers say. Half the dialogue, especially in battle scenes, is lost. Sensory immersion is a tradeoff. Subtitles might have helped, not that I’m proposing this as a serious solution, or toning down the self-important score, though I suspect there’s a deeper problem with Dunkirk: it’s hard to follow.

This is a common Christopher Nolan problem and it’s not the same as saying it’s too difficult, deep or abstract (Dunkirk is none of those in excess). Titles lack exposition; the audience that knows the history of this major turning point of world history will feel underserved and still want to know more. Those that do not know Dunkirk’s history—almost anyone born after history teachers replaced facts with agendas—are likely to be like, meh, whatevs (confirmed by the chat between smug Millennials overheard after the movie). Dunkirk‘s expository history feels tacked on. Dunkirk’s geography and significance (that Dunkirk led to Churchill’s great line to “Never surrender” is as parenthetical as this is) are too abbreviated.

Those waiting to go home, and those coming for them, keep eyes on the skies in what is primarily a visual motion picture and Dunkirk in this sense is balanced, integrated and framed perfectly for its revolving stories of individual men. Christopher Nolan lets Dunkirk’s men at war go completely to war—there are no opposite sex love stories, for instance—and this is a pointed and proper writing and directing choice because it never lets the audience forget that this is what happened in those days and moments. So, too, is Mr. Nolan’s decision to not show every gash, limb and drop of blood, none of which is needed to dramatize the horror of war. Without leading ladies, gore and, not incidentally, Nazis portrayed as characters—hardly a Nazi appears on screen—Dunkirk leaves its audience as stranded as the soldiers, civilians and pilots fighting to turn an epic loss into a reason to rally for man.

Whatever it’s missing, and it’s missing a lot, this is chiefly what Dunkirk does.

 

Movie Analysis: Empire of the Sun (1987)

On its own terms, Steven Spielberg’s epic Empire of the Sun doesn’t make an everlasting impact. The 1987 movie is too stylized and self-conscious to successfully execute a coherent theme. It is an engaging movie nonetheless.

Made as a response by the director to critics claiming he makes movies about only innocent childhoods, Empire of the Sun is best understood as a transitional and reactive film in Mr. Spielberg’s career. Every frame of this movie about a British boy’s wartime separation from his parents in Shanghai—resulting in imprisonment in a Japanese internment camp—moves with a sense of purpose, unfolding the story of one child’s trauma, loss of innocence and damaged, stunted growth. From the opening scenes’ floating coffins, children’s choir and comic books to the elegiac final picture of a drifting collection of what’s been lost and dispensed with, Empire of the Sun is somber and severe.

Introducing Christian Bale (American Psycho, Terminator Salvation, Batman Begins, Swing Kids, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) in his movie debut as a diplomat’s only child on the eve of Japan’s invasion of China, the film’s main character goes from being called James to Jamie to Jim. For two and a half hours, Bale’s boy makes a full circle with his angelic choirboy’s voice. Interestingly, this film is extremely focused on the choirboy’s view of the world and it’s interesting because the exposition leaves out what informs and contextualizes that viewpoint.

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For instance, his worship of the Japanese kamikaze, which entails a fascination with militarism which could be born of his lack of power over his own life in a foreign land where his parents are detached, is inexplicably persistent. Certainly, children become obsessed with certain things. But this kid goes out of his way at an elaborate costume party to go off on his own and play with his model airplane. The model is a Japanese zero—the kamikaze’s fighter plane used in the sneak attack that destroyed Pearl Harbor—but why this child is drawn (and encouraged) to worship it remains elusive.

In any case, the zero is what fuels Jim’s imagination, allowing Mr. Spielberg to juxtapose the horror of war with the beauty of life and love. He did this, too, in 2005’s atrocious Munich. There are echoes of several future Steven Spielberg motifs, notions and themes here: the scrap and random subsequence in war of 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, the smoke, ash and nonstop death of 1994’s Schindler’s List, the pacifism and equivocation of 2011’s War Horse and Munich.

Other scenes are as warm, potent and majestic as only Steven Spielberg (Jaws, The BFG, The Sugarland Express, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Always, Bridge of Spies, Hook, Jurassic Park, Lincoln, Raiders of the Lost Ark) can produce. A thief’s slap of contemptuous envy, a promotional mural for David O. Selznick’s Gone With the Wind as Shanghai falls to the Japanese, learning the word ‘pragmatist’ while learning the cost of living by doing only what’s convenient in the moment, the imagined fancies of a traumatized child in captivity—all and more make Empire of the Sun immensely watchable.

But the film impresses for what’s left off the screen, too. How Jim survives imprisonment in terms of food, clothing and shelter are clear, as Jim trades on material possessions and cigarettes, however, how he relieves himself (apparently, he doesn’t) is left untold. There’s also—in retrospect, not surprisingly—very little of the Japanese in Empire of the Sun, which is based on the war memoir by J.G. Ballard, adapted by playwright Tom Stoppard and produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. In fact, the imperial Japanese were voraciously mystical and religious—like today’s Communist North Koreans, they worshipped a state dictator as a deity—brutal and barbaric. But Mr. Spielberg omits any serious and lasting references to such key facts, which are crucial to grasping Japan’s empire, invasion of China and lust for war with the West.

Yet his Empire of the Sun, unlike the tribalist Schindler’s List, focuses on the individual. “You’re an American now,” a gruff but decent scoundrel (John Malkovich) tells Jim during internment, and, for all the dodging and hustling Jim does, he means it as a compliment, signalling a turning of the tide in war. This is another Steven Spielberg imprint; jaunty Americanism matched by what’s regarded as a fundamental emptiness in what makes an American—specifically, that he’s self-made, especially through trade. Empire ties this theme into its final frames.

Seeing himself in a Japanese boy he tries to save, catching a Hershey’s bar and manmade goods that fall from the sky as hallelujahs play in song (on a score by John Williams), Jim the boy finally faces reconciling what he’s been through even as he’s forced to march or die. That Jim goes from worshipping self-sacrificing Japanese to cheering self-reliant Americans doesn’t mute that he also makes himself something of an easterner who discards his possessions and begins a postwar childhood devoid of idealism. The boy’s romanticized empire marches in, gets real, and dissolves. Jim’s cherished Empire of the Sun comes to an end.

Leaving gaps while immersing the audience in the color of bomb blasts and the rising sun, Steven Spielberg counters his early movies’ benevolent intimacies with a hollow if stunning epic about the wreckage of a boy’s sense of life.