Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (BBC; 2015)
For a longtime devotee and serial recommender of Susannah Clarke’s 2004 novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, the prospect of any screen adaptation of this most absorbing and beguiling tale of magic and manners in the Early 19th Century England sparks excitement and trepidation in nearly equal measure. Excitement at witnessing the book given visual form, with sumptuous sets and costumes, handsome cinematography and computer effects, and idiosyncratic performances by observant actors. Trepidation at the inevitable pitfalls of adaptation, and the helpless petit morts of disappointments when some cherished narrative element, characterization, or mental image from the pages does not transfer with the proper alacrity to the screen.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has taken a long path from book to screen before landing at long last at the BBC, whose attractive if streamlined seven-part miniseries based on the novel and directed by Toby Haynes recently completed its broadcast run in the UK (BBC America is still in the midst of airing the weekly episodes in the U.S., while Space has the Canadian broadcast rights). New Line Cinema snapped up the movie rights and planned a big-screen version as an expansion of its post-Lord of the Rings profile as a fantasy genre powerhouse, but the project never proceeded beyond the screenwriting phase as other British fantasy literature adaptations like The Golden Compass flopped and New Line Cinema went belly-up and was swallowed by Warner Brothers. The BBC stepped into the breach in 2012 and produced the final adaptation, which at seven hours surely covers more of Clarke’s thick tome with a keener British eye, albeit with a lesser budget and weaker onscreen talent than Hollywood could probably have mustered.
Haynes’ television version has widescreen ambitions, but translates Clarke’s narrative surprising closely, at least to begin with (greater dramatic liberties creep in as the climax approaches, some of them of a dubious and cliched nature). That narrative concerns the titular gentlemen, who semi-reluctantly restore the public practice of magic in England in the early 1800s after it has lain dormant since the waning days of the Middle Ages. Clarke imagines a compelling but merely sketched alternate history of England in which magic and faeries play an important part. At the dark heart of this history is a legendary (and more than a little sinister) figure known as the Raven King, a magic-practicing monarch who ruled Northern England from Newcastle for 400 years before vanishing, perhaps into death, perhaps into another world. The heritage of his rule is still felt in the gothic moors of the northern shires, an ever-haunting mist of gloomy superstition set against the rational, imperial, and mercantile modern state of London and the South.
The historical-fantasy events related take place between 1806 and 1817, as England struggles against Napoleon on the continent. The wealthy reclusive landowner and scholar Gilbert Norrell (Eddie Marsan) is coaxed out of seclusion by a Yorkshire society of “theoretical magicians”; “theoretical” because they’ve read about magic in books (though not many good ones, as Norrell has ravenously bought them all up) but never performed acts of magic themselves. Norrell claims to be able to do magic, and is convinced by Society members John Segundus (Edward Hogg) and Mr. Honeyfoot (Brian Pettifer) to hazard a demonstration. Norrell obliges, bringing the carven stone statues inside the cathedral church of York Minster to sudden, jabbering life for the amazed members of the Society (this first instance of the magical is milked for atmospherics in the dim grandeur of the Minster). This public return of the practice of magic to England brings Norrell to overnight prominence, although it ends the operations of the York Society, part of the exacting Norrell’s desire to control the practice of and discourse around magic in the country as completely as possible.
Norrell arrives to great fanfare in London with the expressed intent of restoring English magic to a more respectable and modern place in society, in contrast to the wild and dangerous magic of the Raven King, whose magical practices Norrell despises and finds unsuitable to the modern context. Accompanied by his grim, tarot-card-toting servant Childermass (the excellently sneering Enzo Cilenti), the bookish, peevish Norrell has trouble establishing himself and magic in London society at first, but scene gadflies Drawlight (Vincent Franklin) and Lascelles (John Heffernan) soon usher him into the proper circles. He gains the attention and the trust of the government when he effects the miraculous resurrection of Lady Pole (Alice Englert), the fiancee of minister Sir Walter Pole (Samuel West) who has tragically died shortly before their wedding. Unfortunately, in order to raise her from the dead and gain the influence and notice for his magic that he so craves, Norrell must call upon forces of magic that have been long kept out of the human world, and for good reason.
Meanwhile, an amiable but aimless country gentleman named Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) quite accidentally (or perhaps not so) happens upon a travelling street magician named Vinculus (Paul Kaye), who sells him some magic spells which Strange then performs with the élan of an unschooled natural. Strange and his newlywed wife Arabella (Charlotte Riley) are soon ensconced in London, where Strange becomes the pupil of Norrell in a partnership that will prove extremely tumultuous as well as decisive for the course of magic in England. The two magicians of very different temperments and outlooks will become embroiled in the struggle against Napoleon, against each other, and against a powerful foe from the land of Faerie with thistle-down hair and a certain sartorial flair (Marc Warren), who has eyes for Lady Pole, for Sir Walter’s African butler Stephen Black (Ariyon Bakare), and for Arabella, and will not let two English magicians stand in his way.
Even such a detailed plot summary barely scratches the surface of what makes Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell such a rare delight on the page. Clarke combines a Dickensian flair for eccentric character (especially with figures like the sycophantic fop Drawlight, played with impeccable smarm by Franklin, who adds the canny detail of Frenchifying the pronunciation of his magician patron’s name: “Nor-relle!”) with a mordant, dry wit in her narrative voice, an impeccable and endlessly clever pastiche of Jane Austen’s recognizable free indirect speech. If it sounds a bit old-fashioned in literary terms, it both is and isn’t. Clarke’s book is a tremendously bookish read, full of nested narratives and illustrative anecdotes from magical history that are often self-reflexive if not necessarily post-modern. Many of these are contained in her wonderful footnotes, which sometimes take precedence over the main text itself but generally act as tangents from the main story that are at the same time illuminating and obscuring, distracting and deepening (Strange, for example, is introduced in a footnote before he ever appears in the narrative proper).
Her use of magic is also a marvel. Unlike the wand-pointing and Latin spell-declaiming of the Harry Potter universe to which Clarke’s world has been (unproductively) compared to, magic in Strange & Norrell is unsettling and unpredictable, an uneasy and sometimes imperceptible warping of the rhythms of the quotidian world. It manifests as an invisible smoke, in the reflections of mirrors and the language of birds, emerging out of dusty libraries and busy city squares like a secret door being opened for only a fraction of a second. Even the ampersand in the title seems like an unfamiliar rune, a mystery separating the two magicians. Magic is a digression from the “real” world, a match for her self-aware literary voice in telling her story.
It should be fairly clear from the outset that no visual medium, with its stark representational requirements, can approximate such purely literary devices, such purposely, artfully vague and suggestive descriptions. Images, dialogue, and tics of actors’ performances must perform similar functions, or broad, brief strokes of them at least, and that is what Haynes’ Strange & Norrell does. It frequently does a very impressive job of this. This miniseries is handsomely shot and miraculous lit. The period-recreation sets bristle with details both immersive and symbolically suggestive. The special effects are well-rendered and effectively used if noticeably restrained in comparison to blockbuster films, although the appearance of misty rain ships off the French coast or galloping horses conjured from sand are couched as showy spectacle rather than with Clarke’s nuanced diminishment of magic’s effectiveness (Strange’s spells in particular have a habit of getting out of his control and becoming a mischievous nuisance in the book).
Both Carvel and Marsan are dedicated and mostly beyond reproach in their embodiment of the titular magicians. Marsan’s peevish, self-serious Norrell glowers in his library with his old-fashioned wig (it almost deserves its own cast credit, especially after its suffering in the finale), tugged between Childermass’s underworld knowledge of magic doings and the increasingly manipulative influence of Lascelles but occasionally capable of a wide, infectious impish grin at an unexpected display of magic by Strange. He’s a putative dictator of magic in the nation, naturally suspicious of rivals and even of his talented pupil for reasons that are never quite elucidated in Peter Harness’s script but that aren’t hard to fathom given Marsan’s characterization of the inherently fearful little man. Carvel, with his uneven hair and careless grin, represents a telling contrast. His eccentricity (and incipient madness) aligns him with the haphazard, hidden world of magic more closely than does Norrell’s prim, cranky bookishness, and makes the Raven King a much more fascinating figure to him. The younger Strange carries much more of the action than does Norrell, and whether bantering with Lord Wellington or the mad King George III or defending himself on the battlefield of Waterloo with desperate magic, Carvel seems ever in his element.
The supporting cast, however, is considerable less so, suffering from the relative compression of the material and flattened characterization as well as from casting less prominent talents for a more marginal television production. Riley’s Arabella is not such a clever, enticing partner for Strange as on the page, and their separation and his quest to get her back is rendered in much more conventional tragic romance terms (they also sleep in the same bed, which plays into an important plot point but is wholly unbelievable for anyone with any knowledge of the upper-class marriage conventions of the period). Cilenti and Kaye are pretty great together (and are at the centre of the closest thing to a sequel stinger that the series can manage), as are Warren and Bakare, although the latter lacks in general as Stephen.
Something rather substantial is missing from the gentleman with thistle-down hair as Harness writes him and as Warren plays him, however. On screen, Warren plays the troublesome faerie as consistently imperious and sinister, every inch the obvious villain at every moment. He becomes serious at times in the book, but when he does Clarke describes him “putting on grave and important looks quite unlike his usual expression”. Warren is always putting on grave and important looks, and his mercuriousness, his changeability, his fundamental faerie-ness, is entirely lost. It’s an important mistake, and as a result the character not only feels wrong to the book reader but distinctly single-note to the neophyte to the material.
While the television miniseries context makes for a less truncated narrative, its more limited set of resources dials back the ambition of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell in what will surely be its definitive screen version. A Hollywood blockbuster take on the material, even one extended over an unlikely two or three films, could very well make many of the same debatable adaptation choices and character missteps as were made here. It may well have butchered other elements as well, while not getting nearly as much right as this Haynes version does. Despite my misgivings there is plenty of good here; this is not at all an unreasonable or unrecognizable screen version of Clarke’s book, and is in fact a frequently entertaining one made with real craft and verve and respect for the source (which one hopes will gain new readers via the show, as it is by far the superior work). Still, there remains a small but unavoidable sense of mild despondency when considering that this is the only Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell screen version that lovers of the book will get. As good as it mostly is, there is often something missing that diminishes the magic.
Gone Girl (2014; Directed by David Fincher)
David Fincher’s films have long been marked by troubling sexual politics and depictions of women that run the gamut from merely stereotyped to deeply unsettling. In this way, they reflect the pervasive politics of gender representation, which allow only slightly more leeway to break from dominant gender assumptions in the case of men but pigeonhole women (who are already in a marginalized position in general) with particular persistence. If women aren’t victims of brutal violence (Seven), rape (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) or public humiliation (The Social Network), then they are nagging housewives (Zodiac) or hyper-sexualized dream-pixies (Fight Club). In this latter form, they possess the greatest agency of any of these iterations (especially if they’re played with venomous spite by Helena Bonham-Carter), but their role is still proscribed. The heavy narrative and moral lifting is always left to men in David Fincher films. For all the very good things about them, Fincher’s films always seem to be afflicted with that specific hitch in their otherwise confident gait.
Into this well-established pattern that diminishes one of the most consistently distinguished oeuvres in contemporary American filmmaking strides Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) to scramble it thoroughly. As the seemingly innocent and wholesome all-American blonde beauty who disappears in mysterious circumstances from a Midwest town, leaving her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) to fall under suspicion for her murder, Pike’s Amy winds up running the gamut of feminine identity in a series of forms both positive and negative. Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel (Flynn also penned the screenplay) attempts to settle on the pernicious stereotype of the manipulative, sociopathic femme fatale for Amy in deference to its thriller conventions, but the prior range of Pike’s performance complicates that narrative end point. What emerges instead is a comprehensive portrait of the inherent performativity of womanhood as conditioned by American social expectations and cultural norms. Amy is buffeted on all sides by these expectations and norms, but exploits them to gain an odd, disturbing type of personal agency.
Flashing from the main plot strand of Amy’s disappearance on her fifth wedding anniversary back to her and Nick’s early years together (and, later on, back to explain how that disappearance went down), Gone Girl introduces both parties of the marriage as witty young writers in New York City: Nick, the prototypical male, writes for a men’s magazine, and Amy, who will assume multiple identities before the film is out, writes personality quizzes. Amy has seen her identity being artificially constructed for most of her life. Her parents fictionalized their daughter as a popular children’s books character called “Amazing Amy”, with the literary accomplishments of “Amy” always outstripping the real-life ones of Amy. If Amy believes that marrying Nick will open up new possibilities for her, it doesn’t turn out that way: they lose their creative class jobs and ideal NYC life, move back his hometown in Missouri to shepherd his mother to her grave, and settle into an increasingly tense and unhealthy relationship that drives her to extremes in order to escape.
With his “girl” gone, Nick is the focus of intense media attention and a police investigation, both of which view him with ever-growing suspicion, especially when it turns out he’s been hiding an affair with a much-younger woman (Emily Ratajkowski). But was Amy the victim of foul play, or is there another explanation? If she’s dead, where’s the body? Why does the crime scene in the Dunne’s home look oddly staged? What do the scavenger hunt anniversary gifts that Amy left behind have to do with it all? What of Amy’s ex-boyfriend, the wealthy Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris), against whom she has filed a restraining order but whom she has also corresponded for years?
Flynn’s plot shifts gears, directions, implications, and sympathies quickly and deftly. There’s no single twist so much as a constant corkscrew effect, leaving the viewer disoriented and uncertain. Fincher holds the film’s focus with a firm hand, allowing bursts of compelling style when needed. He gets a decent turn out of Affleck, though his case is helped by Nick Dunne’s contours as an intelligent but unchallengingly ordinary masculine sort (kind of like Affleck, really). Harris, Kim Dickens, and Tyler Perry(!) provide decent supporting work, and another oscillating, paranoid score from recent go-to Fincher musical collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross sets an ominous, unsettling mood.
But to whatever extent Gone Girl is ever extraordinary or notable, it only reaches such heights within the reach of Rosamund Pike’s remarkably rangy take on Amy Dunne. Gone Girl was the target of plentiful criticism for perceived misogynist and sexist leanings, especially as concerns fantastical invocations of pervasive and damaging myths around rape allegations and “crazy bitch” stereotypes. The condensing process from book to movie is said to have compressed and elided some of Amy’s perspective and made her seem less of a fully realized person, but I never found her motivations or psychological profile unclear or constricted. Pike, who played an ice-queen Bond girl (Miranda Frost was her actual, no-foolin’ name) and has been slotted into girlfriend and wife roles for years like any other conventionally attractive actress, channels typecasting frustrations into a highly skilled (and utterly ruthless) commentary on those limiting types.
Amy assumes roles, slips into characters, tries identities on for size, and uses expectations and assumptions to her maximum advantage. She has a memorable voice-over monologue in the middle of the film about wearing the mask of the Cool Girl, the fun-loving, not-too-uptight, “funny” but not transgressively satirical young woman who is supposedly every man’s idealized fantasy. She assumes this superficially innocuous stereotype with the ease of some of the more malevolent feminine roles because it is not her; it is only a performance targetted with precision to exact a certain effect on a certain audience. Who is Amy Dunne? Pike doesn’t let us completely into her character’s head, just as she doesn’t let Nick into her head. She’s inherently an enigma, as every person is when you eventually get down to it. The ambiguity of Amy Dunne sets her apart from Fincher’s previous onscreen women. The way that Fincher, Flynn, and Pike turn that ambiguity towards and against a whole range of cultural stereotypes of women makes Amy Dunne quite a memorable character, whatever the roiling sexual politics beneath her portrayal.
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 is one of the Big Three book-length works of Gonzo Journalism by Hunter S. Thompson, the heroically depraved and indulgently eloquent chronicler of America’s desperately Rabelaisian society and culture of the 1960s and 1970s. It cannot match Hell’s Angels for sheer daring hubris or palpable sense of danger, and it is not as disorienting, literary, or evocative as his greatest book (but not his greatest work of journalism), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s not as gripping or involving a read as either, particularly because the deflating final result is known in advance to anyone with even a bare knowledge of American political history. But Campaign Trail ’72 combines Thompson’s uncompromising subjectivity with furious detail and brief flights of hallucinogenic fancy to provide what one prominent campaign functionary called the least factual but most accurate account of America’s quadrennial gladiatorial match for its tenuous future.
The 1972 American Presidential Election had rich potential to be one of those historical fulcrum campaigns on which the country’s ever-fluid national identity could well have turned. Richard Nixon, for Thompson as for many other liberals the very personification of the worst, most reactionary and most authoritarian impulses of the American lizard brain, was running for reelection after having picked up the Electoral College pieces following the shattering of the Democratic Party in 1968 amidst division over the Vietnam War, policy and culture war quarrels, and frightful political assassinations. The seemingly unpopular Nixon seemed vulnerable, and a cadre of Democrats lined up to contend against each other in the primaries to win the nomination to oppose him in the general election.
Democratic Party establishment candidates with considerable union support like Senators Ed Muskie and Hubert Humphrey (the latter, for whom Thompson reserved nearly as much derision as he did for Nixon, had lost narrowly to Tricky Dick in ’68) looked to sweep aside countercultural niche candidates like youth-appealing Eugene McCarthy (who had helped to make Lyndon B. Johnson’s candidacy unviable 4 years before) and rock-star Southern segregationist demagogue George Wallace before aiming their guns at Nixon. But an underdog emerged from the pack instead, Senator George McGovern, who built a formidable organization and appealed especially to the young voters who had been driving social upheaval in the counterculture of the late ’60s (Freak Power, as Thompson dubbed it). Winning enough delegates to be in a position to outmaneuver a determined Humphrey at the Democratic National Convention in Miami (McCarthy was a non-factor, Muskie imploded early, and Wallace was shot), McGovern made a massive blunder by choosing an unvetted running mate with a history of mental problems (Thomas Eagleton, with his infamous shock therapy treatments) and was absolutely crushed by Nixon in November, winning only a single state.
This is the story of the 1972 campaign, as history would have it. Thompson hits on most of these points in differing degrees of depth and focus, as well as on details that seemed minor at the time but loomed larger in retrospect: Jimmy Carter, the Democratic victor for President in 1976, is mentioned in a very cursory way in the Vice-President discussion, major McGovern campaign figure Gary Hart’s later electoral career is teased near the end, and there are a few references to the Watergate burglary that would take down the Nixon White House barely two years after his landslide victory.
But minor anecdotes and details are treated with particular importance, the immediacy of Thompson’s New Journalism expanding greatly on features of the election campaign that would be of less interest if examined solely in retrospect. Thompson shares a tale of chatting football with Nixon in the back of a campaign car four years before, the only time he met his cosmic nemesis; recounts the bacchanalian circus on board the McGovern press plane, dubbed the Zoo Plane; and infamously (and satirically) smeared Muskie as junkie whose erratic, awkward behaviour on the campaign trail could be explained by the Man from Maine’s addiction to an obscure South American narcotic called ibogaine.
With so many wild tangents, and with so little access to the Nixon campaign due to his various negative public statements about the President, Thompson’s journalistic legacy in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 is most evident in his close examination of the McGovern campaign, which he was in near proximity to (some reporters might say unprofessionally so) from very early on. He gets an inside look at the formidable organization that helped McGovern to win over voters in key early primary states like Wisconsin, shakes down important campaign operatives on South Beach to get the full story of the byzantine convention machinations that allowed McGovern to overcome challenges to his nomination, and carries out a wary dance with McGovern’s campaign manager, the inscrutable Frank Mankiewicz. He even scores a one-on-one with McGovern himself for a thoughtful but maddeningly vague post-mortem discussion of the historic defeat.
What emerges above all else from this book, and the thesis-like point Thompson makes near its conclusion, is the idea of political campaigning as a drug, as the means to reaching a psychotropic high unlike almost any other. Thompson himself ran for Sheriff in Colorado before going on the road with the candidates in ’72, and mentions contemplating a Senate run in the state for the next cycle (Hart beat him to it, and indeed won). He also, quite famously, consumed a great deal of narcotics, alcohol, cigarettes, and other indulgences of all kind. This did not necessarily pre-condition Thompson to become the pre-eminent commentator on America’s heedless culture of overindulgence, but the fact remains that he was, so no one could be faulted for filling in the premises from which that conclusion stemmed. Politics carries a persistent aura of selfless public service and civic grandeur even in our inescapably cynical age. There are no scales whatsoever on Thompson’s eyes as concerns the delirious madness of America’s robust but crooked political process, however. Politics is a drug, and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 vividly imparts the giddy high of being in the middle of it.
The Adjustment Bureau (2011; Directed by George Nolfi)
David Norris (Matt Damon) is one of those people who simply seemed tapped for success from a young age. Destined for greatness, you might say. Despite growing up in the legendary white ghetto of Red Hook in Brooklyn and losing his entire family in various tragic circumstances by the time he reaches adulthood, Norris still manages to be becomes the youngest person ever elected to the U.S. Congress (at the utterly improbable age of 24!). We learn much of this in The Adjustment Bureau‘s opening montage of campaign appearances, fawning media coverage, and the male lead’s grinning face; perhaps the day will come when Damon (40 years of age when the film was made) will not be cast as the boyish upstanding man who achieves beyond his tender years, but it will not come before America abandons the habit of having its top television journalists appear as narrative-embellishing sycophants in its movies (Jon Stewart debases himself by appearing not once but twice with Norris as his guest).
Norris runs for the Senate in New York, but suffers a humbling thumping at the polls after some photos of a prank confirm the frat-boy labels concerning his youth and inexperience. On the night of the election, while rehearsing his inspiration-lite concession speech, he encounters an attractive, mischievous free spirit of a woman (Emily Blunt) in a hotel washroom. They talk, flirt, are briefly, brutally honest as only strangers in the movies can be, and then kiss before she is run off by security. An enervated Norris goes on to give the sort of disillusioned speech calling out focus-group politics and the tyranny of image polishing that the American public likes to imagine that it wants to hear from its politicians but will invariably react with hostility to when someone dares to actually pull back that particular curtain. But this is Hollywood, so the speech goes over gangbusters. Even as he retreats to the private sector, Norris is discussed as a shoe-in for another Senate run in four years, and maybe higher offices beyond that.
Something strange and sinister begins to creep into the daily life of David Norris as he commutes to his first day of work at the venture capital firm of his longtime best friend Charlie Traynor (Michael Kelly). Despite the botched efforts of men in old-fashioned suits and fedoras to throw him off with a spilt coffee, he serendipitously encounters the woman from election night on a Manhattan bus, coming away with a name (Elise) and a phone number. But when he arrives at the office, all of his new coworkers are frozen in mid-motion, and the men in the suits and hats appear to be tinkering with Traynor’s head.
This adjustment crew capture Norris after he tries to bolt, and their apparent leader or spokesman Richardson (John Slattery) has no choice but to explain their modus operandi. They are the worker bees of a higher power, the Chairman, who has laid out meticulous plans for the life paths of every human on the planet and relies upon the men of this bureau to ensure that the plans are carried out to their preset conclusions. The things that happen to us, the twists and turns that define our lives, are neither chance nor the result of our free will and decisions; everything that happens to us is predetermined in advance, and the men of the Adjustment Bureau make sure to hide the strings. Had Richardson’s subordinate Harry (Anthony Mackie) not napped through his assignment, Norris would not have met Elise again and certainly would not have caught them at the office fine-tuning his corporate future.
Richardson warns Norris off Elise and especially off revealing them or their mission, on the pain of a total memory wipe that would be akin to a lobotomy. But Norris, who feels his stubborn determination and not a fine-tuned divine plan brought him through humble beginnings and tragedy to the verge of greatness, refuses to cut off ties with a woman that he feels himself falling for, who he seems to (and, as it happens, may actually) be meant to be with. Even when offered a stark choice between love and mutual professional failure for himself and Elise (a contemporary dancer), Norris is not dissuaded; not even an escalation in Bureau antagonists from ironical Roger Sterling to imperious General Zod (Terence Stamp as Thompson) discourages him. He will challenge the predetermined plans and authority of the Chairman him(her?)self, as he would rather live free than submit to invisible control.
The Adjustment Bureau is a curious but not uninvolving film that skirts the edge of many genres. It has a central romantic element that is frequently subsumed by its speculative concept, but the execution of that concept is too smooth and naturalistic to qualify as science fiction. Its pulse doesn’t pound like a thriller, its incident and activity never rise to the frenetic energy of an action flick, and its ideas and themes are broad and deep but never intellectually challenging or unsettling to a serious degree. It’s a resolutely old-fashioned film in its presentation, pace, performances (Damon and Blunt are very Studio Era in their general approach), simmering-wit dialogue, ideological conclusions, and clean, friendly Manhattan setting.
Again, this is not to say that The Adjustment Bureau is not enjoyable or nicely crafted. Director George Nolfi very carefully and deliberately associates the quasi-angelic Bureau operatives not with Judeo-Christian conceptions of divine intervention in human affairs but with the ubiquity of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit types that run the world through the diffused conduit of transnational business. It’s a prototypically Corporate America idea of God and power: an unseen business titan ensconced high in a Lower Manhattan skyscraper with an army of functionaries doing their bidding in the wider world (all agents but Harry, the sympathetic ally of Norris played by go-to genre film sidekick Mackie, are given patronymic surnames, emphasizing their anonymity). It’s not a very empathetic or humanistic vision of choices and fate, and Nolfi frequently imparts a sense of dwarfed isolation by placing his actors in vast, slightly anachronistic midcentury architectural spaces. People are made insignificant in comparison with the gilded finery and ambitious largesse of these places, just as the Chairman’s exquisitely worked-out plan for their lives makes their daily struggles and hopes seem insignificant.
Stamp’s Thompson lectures Norris concerning humanity’s dubious exercises in free will at one point in The Adjustment Bureau, revealing that both the degeneration of the Roman Empire into the violent chaos of the Dark Ages and the 20th Century’s wars and genocides and environmental devastation were the result when the Chairman stepped back and let human beings manage their own affairs for a time. It’s a pessimistic conceit and a historically questionably one as well; the Gibbon-fed popular misconception of Rome as a civilized utopia chased by medieval backwardness has been unfashionable in historical scholarship for a century at least, and the 20th Century’s mechanized barbarism had technological, political, and ideological roots in the 19th Century, as well as numerous dress rehearsals. In this way and others as well, The Adjustment Bureau aims to be grand, entertaining meditation on free will vs. determinism, but its strokes are too broad and its conclusions too pat to be a particularly memorable one.
A defining feature of politics and public engagement in our contemporary age is a deeply cynical perspective as concerns the possibilities of accomplishing whichever goals are felt to be worth accomplishing. Regardless of one’s placement on the political spectrum, dissatisfaction with the state of politics, culture, and society predominates. Despite unprecedented wealth in Western democracies, millions (indeed, billions) of people are left behind around the globe and even within those nation-states that lead the world economy, while many millions who have not been so left behind feel like they have been, or that key features of their identity have been, at least.
Even incremental reforms seem just beyond our collective reach, and more drastic and meaningful change is predicated as unprofitable and, thus, impossible. The hegemonic influence of corporate capitalism takes much of the credit/blame for this state of stasis, with the small armies of lobbyists and mounds of campaign contributions standing between the masses and their representatives in government. This helpless inertia of thwarted social improvement sparks serious doubts about not merely the systems and institutions that we have built to govern ourselves, but about the basic decency and worthwhile character of human beings in the first place.
Such pervasive cynicism, bordering on self-involved nihilism at times, must necessarily penetrate our popular culture. In the American television prestige drama, a tone of cynicism as concerns the amassing and exercise of power has become recognized shorthand for integrity and seriousness. This has been the case for more than a decade, as HBO’s ascendance in the form has inspired offshoots and influenced followers well beyond the pay cable giant. So the serialized TV drama has been the domain of reluctant gangsters, emotionally stunted undertakers and detectives, privileged but self-loathing advertising geniuses, a morally compromised chemistry-teacher-turned-drug-lord, desperate zombie apocalypse survivors, even unrepentant criminal bikers. The term “anti-hero” is bandied about with regularity by cultural critics in reference to the lead figures in these narratives (as well as to describe contemporaneous cinematic protagonists), but the perspective that these anti-heroes embody is to heroism as antimatter is to matter: a black hole, swallowing everything, even (especially) light.
Consider House of Cards, the Emmy-winning political drama that was online streaming service Netflix’s breakthrough original series effort. Based on a BBC drama of the same name about the Machiavellian machinations of a brilliant, unscrupulous political operator in the bowels of Westminster (itself based on a novel by Michael Dobbs), the American version casts the exquisitely, appealingly serpentine Kevin Spacey as Rep. Frank Underwood, a conniving Democratic House Majority Whip from South Carolina who is the man behind the curtain, every curtain, in the Washington, D.C. power structure. In partnership with his wife Claire (Robin Wright), who runs a non-profit organization like a pitiless, well-oiled corporate machine, Underwood manipulates Capitol Hill staff, the House, the press (mostly Zoe Barnes, a cub reporter played by Kate Mara that he elevates to star status with well-timed leaks), even Governors and the President himself to his maximum advantage, leveraging power and influence at every turn and accruing ever more of each as he does so.
Although House of Cards humanizes Underwood at many points in its first season (whose conclusion is as far as I’ve proceeded in its world thus far) and shows him losing televised debates and key House votes in an embarrassing, humbling fashion, his trajectory through the channels of D.C. power bends more crookedly upwards as the concurrent graph line of the venal immorality of his acts rises alongside it. He uses everyone for his own devices, even his putative partner-in-crime Claire, his illicit lover and media mouthpiece Zoe, and Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), the Pennsylvania Congressman whom he blackmails into doing his dirty work, forces to sell out his constituents for a House power play, elevates to a run for the Governor’s office, and then brings crashing all the way down to prevent his scheming from being revealed. The cynical use of power for personal gain is the only path to success in American public affairs, House of Cards not so much suggests as advertises on a blinding neon billboard the size of the Lincoln Memorial.
Still, compared to HBO’s successful fantasy serial Game of Thrones, House of Cards can seem positively starry-eyed and cheery. The television adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series concerning the dynastic intrigues and political double-crosses of the fictional continents of Westeros and Essos can make for grim viewing, for all of its involving detail, performances, and shocking plot twists. Whatever one might think about contemporary American power, there is no question that whatever oppressions and exploitations it carries out pale in comparison to the outright brutality and pitilessness of the powerful in the medieval context of Game of Thrones.
Frank Underwood may threaten an opponent’s political future or quietly engineer the death of a wavering subordinate, but at least he doesn’t murder half a wedding party like Walder Frey (David Bradley, sadly absent from the show since he perpetrated the Red Wedding a couple of years ago), shoot prostitutes full of crossbow bolts like Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson), or flay old women alive like the tiresomely sadistic Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon). And these individual acts of cruelty are mere pinpricks in the wide, dark sky of inhumanity that inhabits Martin’s world as imagined onscreen by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.
Westeros, with its dangerous gulf of class inequality, inherent social instability, perpetual wars, and zombie-making White Walkers, is a meat grinder for the common people especially, but also for the nobility, whose privilege renders them no more immune to violence than their vassals and peasants. Essos is little better, with its roving Dothraki marauders, slave cities, Rome-like gladiatorial fights, and mysterious assassins’ orders. Asked to endure through the story despite the myriad cruel twists and unremitting horrors and suffering, the show’s most ardent fans may be reasonably thought to display the acute symptoms of a mass case of Stockholm Syndrome, rationalizing their weekly beatdowns by Benioff, Weiss, and Martin as worth bearing up against for the promise of a satisfying conclusion.
Those rare figures defined by honour and decency in the face of such violence and clandestine plotting invariably pay a harsh price for their principle on Game of Thrones (especially if they are surnamed Stark). Still, Martin has created these characters with some rudimentary moral compass, and the long arc of his convoluted epic tale may yet be intended to bend towards justice. Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) was always possessed with bravery and a strong sense of duty as an illegitimate son of the Stark family, but he has come to develop a political savvy and larger vision for the world (although he experienced a quite considerable setback at the conclusion of the recently-completed fifth season because of his principled plans). Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) holds relatively progressive views concerning the emancipation of Essosi slaves , even if her methods of bringing about the revolutionary change she plans not only for Slavers’ Bay but eventually for Westeros as well (she vowed this season to break the wheel of noble house domination of Westeros’ population) are still unformed and green. Despite his indulgence of bacchanalian tastes and the betrayal of his (admittedly awful) family, even Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) is willing to dedicate himself to the establishment of a better world.
Despite the depths of its dark hollows, then, Game of Thrones holds a greater potential for eventual progressive sociopolitical redemption in its sword-and-sorcery context than House of Cards does in its semi-realist modern setting. Westeros’ destructive aristocratic power struggles can only continue for so long, and not only because a long winter is coming with an indestructible army of snow wizards and risen dead alongside it. Might Martin’s saga (and Benioff’s and Weiss’s too, as it increasingly diverges from the literary source material that it has now caught up to and, along some threads, surpassed) reflect another, less brutal sector of civilized history, namely the slow process of stabilization and gradual damping down of quotidian violence and its consequences? Might Game of Thrones conclude with a Late Medieval tipping point towards the incremental improvement of quality of life that Europe began to see in the Early Modern period, with a concomittant Renaissance, Enlightenment, and general equalization of opportunity to follow?
It’s an intriguing possibility, and one that might serve to mitigate the grinding, repetitive drumbeat of cynicism about the uses of power on Game of Thrones. House of Cards, in which American liberalism is depicted as deeply compromised in its way as movement conservatism (though you wouldn’t know it from Season One, with its glaring dearth of Republican-leaning characters), offers less hope for an eventual rise from the cynical morass. It may seem laughable to imply that Game of Thrones‘ philosophy may be more optimistic than that of any other cultural text this side of a Tom Waits album, but given the foreseeable endgame of both Game of Thrones and House of Cards, the former clearly holds more potential for overcoming the crippling, nihilistic cynicism that characterizes contemporary attitudes towards power.
Happy Valley (2014; Directed by Amir Bar-Lev)
On a football field in the middle of a stadium filled with 100,000 spectators, men kneel as they are lead in prayer. It is moments before the start of a historic NCAA football game at Pennsylvania State University in State College, Pennsylvania, the first Nittany Lions home game in nearly half a century not to be coached by the legendary secular saint of the college game and the local pope of the symbolic diocese of football fanatics, Joe Paterno. With the university reeling from child molestation charges levelled against his longtime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, Paterno was judged complicit in the enabling of Sandusky’s crimes (or at least deficient in their detection and prevention) and removed from his longtime post amid a national media firestorm that shook the Penn State faithful’s communal self-conceptions to their very core.
But nothing may stop the onward march of the inexorable mass ritual of college football. One might as well cancel a Penn State home game as brazenly burn a medieval town’s cathedral to the ground: the complete apocalypse of the local infrastructure of collective meaning in either case would be entirely equivalent. And so the game is held against rival Nebraska, with overt attempts to render the occasion as a popular healing exercise highly conspicuous, a transparent thrust at turning the page from a feeling of mass shock and shame for a stadium full of acolytes.
Thus, at this most American intersection of violent athletics and faith (football as religion, religion as football, both so mutually miscegenated as to be genetically indistinguishable from each other) as the locus of collective identity, players from the Penn State and Nebraska teams cluster into a prayer huddle. The congregation leader is Nebraska assistant coach Ron Brown, whom we are informed is a radical Christian conservative with publically-expressed anti-gay views. Demonstrating his evangelical preaching tendencies, Brown tells the gladiators arrayed around him that in front of TVs across the nation, young boys gaze on, enraptured. He says that these impressionable boys want to know what manhood looks like, and they’re observing a fine example of it at that moment.
In Amir Bar-Lev’s remarkable documentary film Happy Valley, Brown’s framing of this seminal event in the history of the community’s and even of the nation’s understanding of the nature of masculinity takes on a depth and breadth that he could not have fathomed when he uttered it as a manly, rah-rah subcultural rallying cry on the field of Beaver Stadium in the fall of 2011. Happy Valley is profoundly about what manhood looks like in contemporary America, and it’s not a remotely flattering portrait. It’s a document of the consequences of unchecked patriarchal authority in an isolated social and cultural system, of the sublimated aggression and popular anger inherent to college football culture, and of the damaging, sociopathic perversions that those men in positions of power in such a structure can carry out under its protections.
Bar-Lev has been involved in some notable social-issues documentaries, including as co-producer on the slice-of-life Hurricane Katrina narrative Trouble the Water and as director of The Tillman Story, but Happy Valley is his most fully-formed and layered statement as a documentarian. His camera catches the discomfort of the intractable social conflicts that stem from the scandal, such as a protestor holding a sign denouncing Paterno’s failure to decisively act to end Sandusky’s crimes when they were brought to this attention next to Paterno’s on-campus statue. He gets into tense confrontations with fans and tourists taking their picture next to the likeness of Joe Pa, the incident acting as a narrative preface in the film for the eventual removal of the statue and commemorative site entirely.
Despite the initial strong reaction of the university to the damaging scandal, the campus and the community did not take long to circle the wagons, especially when the levying of heavy sanctions against the university by the NCAA gave them an outside oppressor to feed into an inflated sense of persecution. Happy Valley provides a decent account of Sandusky’s crimes, as well as his exposure and eventual conviction. But the film is much more concerned with Joe Paterno and the cult of personality he inspired in State College and its surrounding region, a cult that is shaken but never collapses. It’s a powerful portrait of a community’s almost unconscious labours to quarantine off any lingering sense of guilt rather than confront and reform the system that allowed terrible things to happen, to save the corpus of their collective identity by amputating the sources of shame like gangrenous limbs.
A living saint in his late years not only for his success on the field but for his philanthropy and focus on the academic performance of his players, Joe Paterno was depicted in a mind-bogglingly bathetic college town mural entitled “Inspiration” with a literal halo around his head. The artist, Michael Pilato, paints the halo out shortly after likewise removing Sandusky’s image from the mural, a highly ironic erasure given the complaints made in the film by Paterno’s biographer about the rewriting of history after the NCAA vacated all of Paterno’s wins with Penn State over his last 13 years with the team (a punishment that was later reversed). Paterno died of cancer a mere two months after being removed from his Penn State head coaching job and the shame of the scandal’s revelations, as if he could not live without his team or his community’s adulation. Bar-Lev shows us vivid instances of that adulation on a mass scale, expressed in the thunderous roar of the stadium crowd, the chanting choruses of rally after rally in support of Paterno, and in the violent rage of the campus riots that followed his dismissal. He also shows Pilato symbolically sealing Paterno’s public redemption by painting a white rose into the late coach’s hand on the State College mural.
Happy Valley is less rosy about Paterno’s legacy. His family pays a quack psychologist a handsome fee to spearhead a public relations campaign to absolve not only Paterno but the entire community of complicity in Sandusky’s serial molestation (to summarize: no one could have known anything because Sandusky was an evil supergenius, of course). But Bar-Lev highlights the evidence in court documents and independent inquiries that Paterno did not merely report word of Sandusky’s misdeeds to his superiors at the university rather than to the police, but highly suggestive references to the coach’s role in discouraging the administrators from bringing in the law. And there is no easy redemption for Sandusky’s adopted son, who went public about his father’s abuse of him in support of the man’s other victims and was ostracized from the family as a result.
Such lingering reminders of shame are easily-spackled cracks in the gleaming facade of a college football culture, however. Traditional conceptions of patriarchal masculinity are destabilized briefly before being carefully shored up. The imperatives of collective identity, which always already support the patriarchal power structure, must be maintained at all costs. Happy Valley offers a compelling portrait of what manhood looks like in the preserved conservative heartland America co-built by men like Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky: exploitive of the weak, hagiographic of their exploiters, buttressed by belligerent groupthink and feel-good bromides and by the blazing light of mass sports spectacle. A scrupulously-maintained fantasy that obscures a dark reality.
Margin Call (2011; Directed by J.C. Chandor)
As the only American narrative film of any note about the 2007-2008 financial crisis, Margin Call carries a heavy symbolic and expository burden. The film is set inside a fictional Wall Street investment bank whose over-leveraged “toxic assets” reach a financial breaking point over the course of a day, necessitating a desperate sell-off that its analysts and executives understand will barely save the company while bankrupting many fellow investors and much of the market with them. No one inside the bank who consults on the decision-making process can claim to be unaware of the consequences: great sums of capital will be lost, with the greatest burden falling on those furthest down the economic food chain, and lives will be ruined (though not their own; the worst that any of them can expect is a golden handshake with a handsome severance parachute). But American capitalism is ever a Darwinian struggle for survival, and the willingness to sacrifice others to save your own skin is one of the most vital adaptations in this dangerous environment, especially at the pinnacle of the pyramid.
It’s near, but not too near, that pinnacle that the fatal leak in the boat is discovered, to mix my metaphors a bit. Mega-smart risk analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) is tipped off about some alarming discrepancies in the company portfolio of securities by his departing boss Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a victim of sudden mass layoffs. Poring over the data after hours, Sullivan finds evidence of catastrophic volatility levels that not merely threaten but indeed ensure a catastrophic loss over and above the market capitalization of the entire firm (he’s literally a former rocket scientist, so there isn’t much doubt that he’s wrong in his projections). They’re going down unless immediate action is taken to bring down someone else instead.
This action requires the consultation of most of the company’s braintrust, and the process of assembling them for a meeting in the middle of the night functions like a more sophisticated and hostile inversion of the common caper film trope of “getting the team together”. The head of the trading desk, the alternately confident and brutally honest Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), is brought into the loop first, then the head of the trading floor, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey). From there, a rising succession of smug reptiles in expensive suits enter the picture as the discovery goes up the food chain; Demi Moore surfaces as a risk management officer whose warnings were not heeded, and then comes the head of the division, Jared Cohen (Simon Baker, not seeming especially Jewish). He’s one of those coiffed pythons that utterly no one else seems to like, but he’s merely the warmup act, the unhinged Dennis Hopper to Jeremy Irons’ masterful CEO, who descends from the sky in a helicopter and lords over the fateful boardroom confab like Brando’s Kurtz from Apocalypse Now.
Margin Call was the debut feature of writer/director J.C. Chandor, who got a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination for his rhythmic, natural script, whose dialogue rolls confidently even when it must explain in great jargon-addled detail. It is reflective of the commonly-conceived popular view of the crisis, its causes, and the nature of its high-powered Wall Street architects. Which is to say that it is strangely ambivalent, caught between moral outrage and admiring, romanticist sympathy for their swashbuckling arrogance in navigating a world of incredible wealth well beyond both the economic reach and cognitive comprehension of society’s rank and file.
Characters voice concerns that the planned firm-salvaging sell-off of assets will have dire results for many ordinary working Americans, and Rogers in particular indicates that he may not go along with the proposed solution out of regard for his conscience (it’s odd but somehow comforting seeing Spacey as a vaguely sympathetic character considering his history of self-possessed schemers and villains, especially recently in House of Cards). His closing post-mortem conversation with Irons’ John Tuld in a white-clothed dining lounge overlooking Manhattan, however, brushes aside petty moral objections with an arrogant sweep of unquestionable dominance. The imperious Irons, so suited to embodying authority figures that no one would dare to cross, beats down even the barest hint of humanity on Spacey’s part, then chews it and spits it out like the superfluous gristle of an ill-prepared steak (not that he’d ever tolerate being served a steak like that). Rogers can but accept the verdict and slink away to his ex-wife’s yard to bury his dead dog.
The scene is a more stark and unforgiving companion to the young and impressionable Leonardo DiCaprio’s meeting with the brash, kooky executive played by Matthew McConaughey in The Wolf of Wall Street, minus the hints of outrageous indulgence, mental imbalance, and ritualistic chanting as motivation for the financial rapine to follow. The message of both scenes is the same: we in high finance take what we want because we are better, and there is no need to apologize or feel guilty or unworthy, because that is how things must be in this capitalist ecosystem. Bettany’s Emerson says something similar, and even has the blinkered gall to bemoan how little money he seems to have despite making millions of dollars per year.
It isn’t untrue that bleeding-heart sympathy for the economic suffering of the masses must seem puny and dismissable to the financial world’s self-styled cowboy titans. The Tulds and Emersons of Wall Street and their equivalents in satelitte offices in places like Hong Kong, the City of London, Frankfurt, and Toronto’s Bay Street are detached from the human consequences of their large-scale shell game and it would be unrealistic to depict them any other way. But doing so in the brash but involving form of a solid cinematic outing (with a discernable theatre influence, to be sure) like Margin Call carries the (certainly unintended) side effect of legitimizing their perspective to a certain extent, it must be said. The human dimension, as critics like to say, is conspicuous in its absence.
Defenders of unfettered capitalism are fond of riposting to its vehement opponents that, despite implications about their inhuman dimensions, corporations are people. Margin Call features plenty of those people, but no human beings. And corporations, at the end of the movie’s long day, invariably come out on top.