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Film Review: Valkyrie

October 26, 2015 1 comment

Valkyrie (2008; Directed by Bryan Singer)

Like many Hollywood protagonists over the past seven decades, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) hates Nazis and believes that they are destroying Germany and, to a lesser extent, threatening Europe and the wider world. Also like many of those protagonists, he yearns to do something about it. Unlike most of this continuity of Nazi-haters, however, Stauffenberg works for the Nazis and their Führer, Adolf Hitler (David Bamber), and fairly high up the command structure of the Wehrmacht, too.

Recovering from the loss of an eye, a hand, and all but three of his fingers in North Africa, Stauffenberg is approached by a general even higher up the chain, Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy), with a tantalizing offer to act decisively on the bitter disdain for Hitler’s leadership that he expresses in a letter home from Tunisia (Cruise’s voiceover of the letter’s contents begins in German before transitioning to English, the spoken language of the rest of the film’s dialogue, a minor but elegant and appreciated acknowledgement of a common linguistic conceit of American films telling foreign stories).

Olbricht and Major General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh), whose recent attempt to assassinate Hitler with a bomb hidden inside a bottle of Cointreau failed and got a previous collaborator arrested by the Gestapo, inculcate Stauffenberg into their wide-ranging conspiracy to kill Hitler, seize control of the German government in a lightning coup, and negotiate a peace settlement with the Allies whose grip on the Reich is ever tightening. Well, the German Resistance plotters had not actually gotten as far as considering the second and third parts of the plan yet, or indeed anything past the moment of the Führer’s death, which the meticulous and driven Stauffenberg (he’d make a heck of a Nazi if he wanted to) finds shocking and sets about to remedy immediately.

His remedy is suggested to him during a bombing raid at his Berlin home, as shuddering impacts set a gramophone record of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries skipping (the real-life Stauffenberg despised Wagner, which is surprisingly one of the larger historical inaccuracies in a film uncharacteristically close to the true events upon which it is based). Stauffenberg proposed a re-writing of the protocols of Operation Valkyrie, an established contingency plan for a national crisis calling for the rapid deployment of the Reserve Army to restore order and stabilize matters (martial law, basically). Once Hitler has been taken out, the SS would be blamed and accused of fomenting a coup, the Reserve Army would disarm and arrest civilian Nazi leaders, and the army leadership at the heart of the conspiracy would secure control of the country’s civil affairs. An ingenious, if extremely risky and not entirely bloodless, plot, with the Reserves being duped into overthrowing the very state authorities they were ostensibly being deployed to safeguard.

Unfortunately, a successful application of Operation Valkyrie requires the general in command of the Reserves, Friedrich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson), to join the plot, as only he and Hitler can initiate the protocol. Even more unfortunately, Fromm is either too loyal or too cowardly to defy his Führer, and blows off an approach by Stauffenberg and Olbricht. The need is judged to be too dire, however, and the conspiracy proceeds without Fromm’s cooperation (he can always be locked in a cellar at the critical moment, after all). Stauffenberg himself will execute the assassination-by-bomb at Hitler’s secret Wolf’s Lair before rushing back to Berlin to coordinate the seizure of power.

One hardly need be a WWII history buff to realize that the so-called 20 July Plot was not successful. This makes Valkyrie a depiction of a heroic failure, an underappreciated example of German defiance against the historic monster who had marshaled a nation to his nefarious ends. Director Bryan Singer allows his film, tightly constructed and taut like a bowstring, to hunker down into the desperate moral ambivalence of the plotters. If they do not, for as much a fleeting moment, express philosophical misgivings about killing their leader for the greater good, they do appreciate (or are dragged into this awareness by Stauffenberg, whose robotic, hyper-masculinized sense of duty makes for a good match with Cruise’s particular thespianic capacities) that merely taking out Hitler is not sufficient to defeat his cause. That puts Valkyrie, whatever its faults, well ahead of a recent meme-worthy New York Times Magazine Twitter poll posing a moral dilemma related to time-travelling infanticide.

Mounted with skill, tenacity, and redolent of real tension despite the foregone narrative conclusion, Valkyrie is notable among WWII films for its refusal to over-simplify the events it depicts in either their storytelling detail or their moral dimensions. It depicts internal divisions in Germany as the worm turns in the war’s latter stages, and finds courage and sacrifice among the usually unquestioned villains of Second World War narratives. But it’s also a portrait of an elite resistance quite removed from the dangerous underground efforts across Nazi-occupied Europe. Germany’s 1% also thought Hitler was terrible, Valkyrie is saying, and look what they tried to do about it!

It is giving Valkyrie entirely too little credit to suggest that it attempts to absolve Germans of historical guilt and complicity in Hitler’s destructive warmongering or in his genocidal Final Solution by dint of this pyrrhic attempted coup. It does suggest, however, that the 20 July Plot came much closer to succeeding than it really did, and dramatizes its gradual, inexorable dismantling with excruciating inevitability that presents as high tragedy. A short but key conversation between Stauffenberg and Hitler concerns the mythic valkyries that figured in Wagner’s operas, which the Führer so adored. Angelic but terrible and foreboding servants of the pagan gods, valkyries do the bidding of these higher powers. Valkyrie is a story of men (and some women) who refused to follow the orders of the temporal state authorities while attempting to fulfill what they felt were higher moral principles. These particular valkyries are doubly-inscribed in ironic ambivalence, but above all are deeply human, and defied their leader’s mad disavowals of human decency in an important if oft-forgotten episode of WWII history.

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Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: What We Do in the Shadows

October 23, 2015 2 comments

What We Do in the Shadows (2014; Directed by Taika Waititi & Jemaine Clement)

The vampire genre might be reaching the end of its recent popular renaissance, but if so then its generic boundaries may be expanding and admitting different twists on the formula to stay relevant and active, much like its subjects sapping blood from victims in order to sustain their undead forms. Therefore, we see morality-play romance (Twilight) and its teen drama offshoots (The Vampire Diaries), sex-soaked Southern gothic social commentary (True Blood), leather-clad B-movie action (Underworld), and foreign and/or indie-friendly artistic meditations (Byzantium, Only Lovers Left Alive, Let the Right One In and Let Me In) jostling for space in the realms of vampiric film and television.

What We Do in the Shadows brings deadpan New Zealand social comedy to that list of intrageneric variations, and it’s a welcome addition. Co-directed and co-written by and co-starring Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, the ineffably droll duo behind the hilarious low-key Kiwi gem Eagle vs. Shark, it drops four centuries-old undead bloodsuckers into a rambling, tumbledown gothic house in the suburbs of Wellington, New Zealand and explores their difficulties in cohabiting with each other and with adjusting to the modern world.

The vampire flatmates are Viago (Waititi, who affects a naif-ish wide-eyed grinning expression that is deeply funny from his first moment onscreen), an 18th Century dandy who is fastidious to a fault with his dress, the household rules, and even feeding on his victims (he thoughtfully lays down towels and newspapers to soak up the blood); Vladislav (Clement), a pompous, perverted, violent former medieval lord (Vlad the Impaler is the clear prototype) with waning powers and cruelty (he still has a torture chamber, but recognizes he only needed it when he was in “a dark place”); Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), the “rebellious teenager” vampire (he’s only 183 years old) who hasn’t done the dishes for years; and Petyr (Ben Fransham), who dwells in a dark basement surrounded by the bones of his victims, resembles the monstrous Count Orlok from F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, and is as old as human civilization.

Sleeping during the day to avoid deadly sunlight, the younger trio of vampires prowl downtown Wellington bars at night (though since they cannot enter an establishment unless they are invited in and bouncers are reluctant to do so, they mostly end up at the same undead-friendly dive) in search of victims. Alternately, Deacon’s servile familiar Jackie (Jackie Van Beek) delivers human bloodbags to their residence, scouring her phone contacts for people whom she doesn’t much like and inviting them to the vampires’ house for “dinner” (she’s also a dab hand at cleaning up bloodstains, which comes in handy, as you might imagine).

Deacon toys with Jackie, promising to vampirize her and grant her eternal life (or undeadness) but never following through. His buddies have problematic relations with women, too: Viago still pines after the love of his life, whom he followed to New Zealand (she married a mortal man and is now elderly, but he’s still some 250 years older so the May-December thing is still oddly in play), while Vlad nurses his wounded pride after what he claims to have been a crushing defeat in battle to his powerful female nemesis, known only as The Beast. Waititi and Clement envision these immortal beings as fundamentally socially inept and out-of-touch, their lifestyles a sort of absurdly elongated (and brutally bloody) funhouse-mirror version of selfish manchild excess. They’re immortal bloodsucking aging frat boys, or whatever the New Zealand equivalent of that characterization might be.

These vampires argue over household responsibilities, ensnare victims, perform erotic dances for each other’s amusement, and carry on beefs with a local pack of werewolves; led by Clement’s Flight of the Conchords colleague Rhys Darby, these lycomorphs cope with their uncontrollable full-moon transformation with a rigorous but inconsistent regime of self-abnegation which extends even to eliminating curse-words: “We’re werewolves, not swearwolves” is a common mantra. Like the vampires, they’re members of a socially-divergent subculture who have to manage their peculiar and dangerous nature in a polite, well-ordered society that they cannot help but be excluded from.

But the tenuous undead equilibrium of the flatmates’ lives is thrown off-kilter when the unpredictable Petyr converts an intended devouring victim named Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) to vampirism. Knowing no other vampires, Nick gloms onto the existing trio who once tried to feast on his blood (the scene in which they pursue him with this goal features many of the film’s clever and stealthily deployed visual effects, including Clement’s face transposed onto that of a black cat and Waititi emerging from inside of Nick’s backpack). Unable to cut ties with his human life entirely, his unassuming software engineer friend Stu (Stu Rutherford) is inculcated into the social circle though not into undead status, although this becomes more and more difficult to sustain as the highlight event on the annual social calendar of Wellington’s undead denizens, The Unholy Masquerade, approaches.

A giddily inventive spoof of vampire genre conventions, What We Do in the Shadows is so successful at least partly because it also respects certain internally consistent guidelines and boundaries for its vampires. It is, at times, a high comedy of manners, contrasting the mélange of liberties and limitations of the vampire existence with roughly equivalent liberties and limitations of normal mortal society. Like other fine recent genre satires, the film engages in an intertextual conversation with the genre’s iconic classics as well as its more streamlined and commercially successful products. The mockumentary conceit is supplemented by the visual application of archival photos, woodcuts, drawings, and paintings, both historical and specially created, to serve as signs of a deeper folkloric history not only for these specific vampires but for the genre as well. The mockumentary framing is also destabilized by shaky-cam bursts of spurting gore, a sharp reminder of the grisly gothic roots of the vampire genre buried deep in the crypts of its past which complicate the ascendant mode of moody teens and the conformist moral dictation of Stephenie Meyer’s Mormonized vampires.

The consistent comedic trajectory of What We Do in the Shadows is traced by the contrast of the grand supernatural sweep of vampire myth and the humility of mundane everyday struggles. The Unholy Masquerade turns out to be little more than a square species of organization holiday party, while Vlad’s traumatic past run-in with the Beast was certainly no epic combat. The gaping gulf between the vampires’ dramatic and grandiose self-image and their deflated quotidian reality sparks guffaws but also sympathy for these murderous undead misfit freaks. We perhaps feel more sympathy for Stu, whose survival as a decent but kind of dull human becomes the film’s main rooting interest as it goes on (it becomes clear fairly quickly that such hopes are doomed, though Stu’s fate is not quite what might be expected). But the vampires are so variantly hapless in their specific, anxious ways that one can’t help but migrate to their side.

It’s a strange compulsion, this willingness to sympathize with demonic, immortal aberrations who can’t abide the sun and whose lusts are only sated by the blood of the innocent living. Waititi and Clement appreciate this strangeness and gesture deliberately to all of the things about vampires that are disturbing and frightening rather than worth identifying with. But they also very keenly appreciate that the particular alienations of vampire existence are perfectly applicable and relatable to the malaise of modern human life as well. Most especially for this trio of suburban vampire slobs, the universal experience of hanging onto what once defined you well beyond the point that it even resembled anything “cool” is a highly recognizable form of angst, and is only amplified by living hundred of years beyond most people’s corporeal expiry date.

Locating poignancy in the vampire legend, Waititi and Clement seem to be saying, is both profoundly misguided and completely understandable. Vampires are unspeakable horrors, monstrous aberrations of nature, and terrifying existential threats to humanity. But deep down and also right on the surface, vampires are us, too, consumed by desires and needs that are all too human, if fantastically hyperbolized. The vampire genre’s zeitgeist moment may have already dwindled by the time What We Do in the Shadows arrived on the scene, but this delightful movie is a surprisingly rich reminder of all that vampire stories can evoke and accomplish at their best.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Vendettas, Votes and Vindication: The 2015 Canadian Federal Election

October 20, 2015 1 comment

Ready or not, here he comes.

After a lengthy, bitterly contested 78-day federal election campaign, 43-year-old Justin Trudeau led the Liberal Party of Canada to its first majority government in 15 years, ousting the decade-old government of Conservative Party leader and incumbent Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the process. The often-labelled “natural governing party” of Canada had suffered three consecutive electoral defeats against their fiercely determined nemesis Harper, whose ruthless Conservative campaign machine dismantled three tremendously accomplished party leaders (Paul Martin, Stéphane Dion, and Michael Ignatieff) on its way to a majority which promised to allow Harper to remake Canada along the right-wing ideological lines that he had always dreamed of (or so says the established media narrative, which history may not ultimately support).

Harper and the well-honed Conservative attack apparatus laid the groundwork for the 2015 election years before it happened, characterizing Justin Trudeau as a naive, inexperienced lightweight in ads and mail-outs before he was even chosen as Liberal leader and carpet-bombing pre-election TV and radio with the now-infamous “Just Not Ready” commercials, criticizing his policy justintrudeaurallystatements alongside jibes about his name and (slightly envious) references to the quality of his coiffure. Despite the Official Opposition status of the New Democratic Party and the impressive credentials of its leader Tom Mulcair, it was always clear that Trudeau, despite the Liberals’ 36 House of Commons seats and third-party status, was viewed by Harper and his strategists as the true threat.

As it turned out, their suspicions were well-founded but ultimately futile in salvaging Stephen Harper’s attempt for a fourth term in the PMO. It must be a particularly bitter defeat for Harper, who was driven to get into politics by an incandescent hatred for Justin’s father, the long-serving Liberal PM Pierre Elliott Trudeau (charismatic angel of progressive baby boomers, distrusted demon of Western Canadian conservatives), and had his ambitions for a transformative reign over the nation ended by the son that he attempted to destroy. It was a generational vendetta of political bloodthirstiness worthy of Gangs of New York‘s Bill the Butcher, and it ended only slightly better for Harper (who stepped down as leader but remained on as MP, a force of influence still) than it did for Bill.

But as in Martin Scorsese’s historical epic, victory and defeat in the 2015 election came down not to a superiority in masculine will but to the applied inertia of larger forces, to tides of political history, social change, and cultural proclivities that even the observer with the widest perspective can barely fathom. With polls static in a three-way dead heat for weeks, the Conservatives opened a small lead which was then reduced and eclipsed by a late Liberal push, very much at the expense of the NDP, who fell back to the 40-ish seats level of their low ceiling of support prior to Jack Layton‘s historic breakthrough in 2011 (a legacy which now seems distinctly short-lived).

What motivated this decisive shift? Pundits and operatives on the left and right might point to the controversy over the wearing of the niqab as an important vote-shifting issue. Conservatives might have believed it to be a safe, disavowable dog-whistle to a traditional, xenophobic (and not entirely white) base distrustful of the social, cultural and economic changes that immigration continues to portend. The niqab was only the tip of an Islamophobic iceberg that manifests alike in other Tory promises and policies like the military coalition against ISIS and the creepily McCarthyist “barbaric cultural practices” hotline. Trudeau and the Liberals condemned the niqab issue as a cynical distraction, while Mulcair went even further, denouncing rhetoric and policy of its sort as dangerous and damaging to multicultural Canada’s social stability.

The niqab issue may not have been a direct impetus for the vote shift that gave Justin Trudeau his dad’s old job, but there is an argument to be made that it galvanized a pre-existing progressive plurality of anti-Harper and anti-CPC sentiment to action. Despite a decade of attempted enforcement of a new, distinctly paternal conservatism under Harper, a string of chest-beating military glorification, low-key culture wars, and unregulated market-first capitalism, Canadian identity is still stubbornly entwined with progressive conceptions of tolerance and integration (the reactionary resistance to which partially explains the belligerent, open discriminatory language of Rob and Doug Ford, whom Harper rallied with in their stronghold on the eve of the election).

The specific issue of the ban on niqabs in citizenship ceremonies (which a majority of Canadians supported, contradicting the interpretations of the policy as a fatal blow to Harper’s Conservatives) was less threatening to this identity construction than was the mean-spirited and discriminatory attitude that it reflected. Harper’s Stephen HarperConservative government conducted their crusading remolding of Canada with a spirit of arrogant compulsion, bullying and pushing harder than necessary when a more honeyed approach might have had a more perniciously successful result. Driven by a resentful neoconservative ideology that multiplied its enemies and alienated its potential allies, the Conservatives (and control freak Harper especially) made themselves a target whose electoral defeat was widely desired outside of the die-hard party loyalists in the Ontario suburbs and the rural West.

The 2015 election was more about taking down Stephen Harper than anything else, and the voting public’s long feeling-out process to determine the best weapon to bring down the beast meandered finally to the camp of Trudeau’s Liberals for reasons that I will not even pretend to be able to comprehend, let alone expertly analyze. But support moved decisively red, and one has to recognize and appreciate the concerted migration of the anti-Harper voting block on the left to the Liberals rather than to the NDP (handcuffed by Mulcair’s charisma gap and his greedy and increasingly desperate shift to the centre). Witness the clean Liberal sweep of central Toronto, home to the most media-saturated and media-savvy urban population in the country, which decisively shifted its considerable electoral weight to name a new Prime Minister who stood the best chance of toppling the old one.

And what of that new Prime Minister, who shares a name and fulfills the political dynastic promise of an alternately venerated and villified old one? Perhaps some aging boomers gravitated to the young politician with the familiar name out of a vicarious nostalgia, but the younger urban progressives who pushed turnout rates higher than they have been for 20 years are unlikely to feel much connection to a dead Prime Minister that they do not remember, nor to the lingering historical fissures that his long premiership caused.

Stephen Harper and the Conservatives, as is their fundamental ideological wont, remain in the grip of the past, entangled in its sharp, brambled conflicts. The youthful Justin Trudeau, not wholly unlike a less historically significant, more vaguely nepotistic, scrubbed-clean Canadian version of Barack Obama, looked towards an uncertain future with a sense of generalized hope and optimism (even if, like Obama, his actual policies and legislation are unlikely to be so clear-eyed and big-hearted). That same uncertain future unsettled and terrified Stephen Harper and his Conservatives, or at least they thought it worth their while to convince voters that they should be unsettled and terrified by it. Canadian voters of a different and more progressive stripe rejected this distrust of the unknown, the unproven, the unpredictable. They embraced it instead. The upcoming first term of this second Prime Minister Trudeau may yet tell if their embrace was well-placed.

Film Review: Bridge of Spies

October 16, 2015 1 comment

Bridge of Spies (2015; Directed by Steven Spielberg)

Bridge of Spies is a film of contrary impulses which is tugging fitfully against itself in nearly every moment. A historical drama of paranoid Cold War backroom tension from two of the contemporary American cinema’s pre-eminent creative power-brokers of mass-appeal neoliberal optimism, Bridge of Spies was also (re-)written by two of that same cinema’s wooliest and most idiosyncratic artistic iconoclasts. This tension is ingrained in its tone, themes, and storytelling choices, and grants the film a series of contrasts that are, at times, compelling and, at others, highly problematic.

The optimists in question are director Steven Spielberg and star Tom Hanks, who see in the secret negotiations carried out by insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Hanks) for the exchange of a Soviet spy for American captives behind the Iron Curtain a complex but ultimately patriotic parable of their nation’s determined and intelligent preservation of its democratic soul in the face of an implacable challenge from a forbidding enemy who does not share its high-minded scruples. The iconoclasts are Joel and Ethan Coen, who revised Matt Charman’s original screenplay and whose signatures are evident all over the dialogue and some of the outlandish situations faced by Donovan (and even, I would fancy, on Spielberg’s visual composition).

The Coens’ screenplay carries the heavy-handed messages about unimpeachable American freedom and constitutional values that Spielberg and Hanks envision this account of the early 1960s negotiations in Berlin involving imprisoned spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) being traded for captured U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) and detained student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) as typifying. But it isn’t difficult to descry a much stranger, more paranoid and ambiguous version of this same story straining to break free in the Coens’ words. One cannot help but wonder what the Coens’ take on this material would be in another world, although it’s far from their particular cup of tea and the brothers have already tackled America’s post-war anxiety in The Man Who Wasn’t There and provided a rebelliously loopy takedown of the U.S.’s secret state in Burn After Reading.

But Bridge of Spies is the movie that it is, not what it might have been with different creative stewards. One has to admit that it isn’t bad, in general terms. To summarize at least some of the plot setup, Donovan is asked to defend the accused Soviet spy Abel in what is essentially a show trial. He accepts, but takes the lofty principles of the American justice system much more seriously than those running it: what was intended as a token defence of an enemy destined for execution becomes a vigorous legal fight all the way to the Supreme Court that sees Abel imprisoned for life instead of being put to death, largely through Donovan’s efforts in the name of due process.

Donovan sways the good-ol’-boy judge in Abel’s case to forgo the death penalty mainly by invoking the possibility that a Soviet spy in an American prison could be a valuable trade asset should an American of similarly high value ever fall into Russian hands. As Donovan proceeds with Abel’s defence, Spielberg sprinkles in scenes of Powers’ preparations for his fateful spy plane flight. Shot down by Soviet missiles over the Urals in the film’s sole spectacular seat-gripping effects showcase, Powers winds up in Soviet custody and, as Donovan predicted, Abel is a tantalizing bargaining chip for the young pilot’s return.

To Spielberg’s credit, Bridge of Spies does not shy away from the tangled and sometimes bizarre details of Donovan’s exchange-brokering sojourn to a Berlin newly divided between West and East by a barbed-wire-topped wall. Donovan’s initial awkward and almost certainly staged meeting with Abel’s supposed “family” plays out like a classic Coens scene, as does much of Donovan’s interactions with his CIA minder Hoffman (Scott Shepherd), whom he bullies into following his lead from their first meeting forward. The arrangement of actors, props, and lighting in a couple of covert-action scenes in the Berlin safehouse even seem like compositional homages to the Coens’ masterfully stark imagery in their revered neo-noirs like No Country For Old Men and Fargo. This is not to say that Spielberg does not assert his own visual sense: the climactic early-hours exchange on a Berlin bridge is a practically monochromatic masterpiece, white snow and the black bridge, dark figures concluding geopolitical machinations upon this simultaneous visual metaphor of tentative outreach and cooperation and Manichean good-evil contrast (more on that in a moment).

Hanks cannot ably resist leaning into Donovan’s Middle-American dadhood (sweater vests, ahoy!) and self-deprecating modesty like the latter-day Jimmy Stewart archetype he’s chased since transitioning to drama, though he is canny enough to slip in a shadow of the recognition that the latter trait at least is frequently employed as a cagey ploy to strengthen his negotiation position through misdirection. He comes to like and respect the taciturn Abel (Rylance is the best thing about Bridge of Spies by many miles; his wry and careful performance is just the type of turn that often earns the Academy’s attention for Best Supporting Actor) enough to entwine a protective impulse with his ironclad values and drive his mission to legally defend the enemy combatant as best he can, despite escalating personal costs (the ever-excellent Amy Ryan provides standard-issue counter-pressure as Donovan’s wife). Sebastian Koch stands out among the rest of the supporting cast as the protean East German representative Vogel, although not least among Spielberg’s adaptations of the Coens’ methods in Bridge of Spies is the careful application of memorable and unique actors for even the slightest supporting roles.

But Steven Spielberg has got to be Steven Spielberg, and he does not choose to borrow the Coens’ cynical (yet finally humane) skepticism concerning the trumpeted values of the American project. Spielberg rose to be the pre-eminent cinematic mythmaker of his era by melding his perspective (which is not always easy to pick out in his films) with dominant conventions and myths, not by deconstructing and challenging them as the Coens have. A notable episode of the Cold War, particularly one that was largely a face-saving effort after the putative good guys were humiliatingly caught with their hand in the proverbial espionage cookie jar, might seem like an odd choice to demonstrate the triumph of American values for the nominally liberal Spielberg (as opposed to a filmmaker more in tune with neoconservative self-aggrandizement). The erection of the enormous secret state, whose pernicious tendrils are now inextricably woven up with the American government and pervade and threaten every aspect of liberty in civic life, is the greatest legacy of the Cold War (with empowered international terrorism and Vladimir Putin’s regenerated post-capitalist Iron Curtain as close podium-placers). A success in this conflict, even one so sublimely telegraphed as being uncompromised as Donovan’s, hardly seems cause for triumph, but Spielberg can find the humanist glow in almost any bleak social or political scenario, much like a latter-day Charles Dickens.

Also like Dickens, Spielberg never trusts his audiences with too much complexity or ambiguity, especially in moral terms. Although Donovan finds in Berlin that Russian and East German interests are not as monolithically entwined as Stateside propaganda would have it, Bridge of Spies must club viewers over the head with this divergence of goals in the early years of the Soviet/satellite relationship, as it must with Donovan’s principled stand for constitutional rights, even for a non-citizen like Rudolf Abel. Spielberg’s habit of mawkish emotional manipulation makes an appearance more than once, as well. Donovan’s teenage daughter endures gunshots through the front window of the family home in response to her father’s defence of Abel, the lanky and innocent Pryor’s capture by jackbooted East German troops at the newly-closed Berlin Wall is wrung shamelessly through his anguished girlfriend, and there is even a tearful schoolgirl watching a classroom civil defence film about the threat of nuclear war.

More than simply emotionalizing the context, Bridge of Spies establishes a blatant contrast between the opposing Cold War superpowers that is unambiguous and cut-and-dry. Even if bluff men in suits declare Abel guilty before his trial even commences, despite cagey CIA types willing to abandon lower-priority American captives to their fates rather than antagonize the Russians, there is never any question that the United States, represented by that angel of its better nature Jim Donovan, wears the white hat while the Soviet Union wears the deepest black. Abel may be rushed along to conviction, but Powers is dwarfed by propagandistic absolutism at his sentencing without even the barest hint of jurisprudence; Abel is interrogated but later allowed to listen to classical music and otherwise is well-treated, while Powers is subjected to sleep deprivation tactics by the Soviets to coerce him into revealing state secrets (the association with America’s Guantanamo detainees is evident, but is smothered by the soft-focus flag-waving that dominates otherwise). Even if America is bad, this film asserts, it is never nearly as bad as those rascally Reds.

Spielberg’s core visual metaphor for the vital difference that he perceives between Communist oppression and American freedom is among the most powerful invoked in Bridge of Spies, but also among its most naive and rose-tinted juxtapositions. While in Berlin, through the windows of a train, Donovan witnesses ordinary Germans gunned down while attempting to scale the wall between East and West on a dark, frigid winter night. Back in New York City, he looks out of the window of an elevated subway car and watches as children, dappled with warm sunlight, leap a fence in joyous liberty. Hanks, to his credit, does not have Donovan smile beneficently in this closing statement summarizing what he has seen and done; he is troubled by the first-hand memory of tyranny, the trajectory of brutality rising unbidden into his life when he does not expect it.

A more daring and confrontational filmmaker might have turned this visual metaphor into something more compelling and less maudlin. Let’s say, an African-American male scaling the NYC fence only to be pulled down and beaten (or even shot) by police. But the instinct to make such an inflammatory association is not Steven Spielberg’s (or, one should acknowledge, the Coens’ either). Questioning America’s firm but insufferable sense of self-righteousness when compared to the Soviet Union, or any other foreign power, whose state-sponsored violence diverges from its own merely by openness and magnitude (and sometimes not even by those measures) is not what Bridge of Spies intends. Or, rather, it does intend that at times, with its depictions of an anti-democratic elite, a lynch-mob public, a cynical and dull-witted intelligence service, and potentially provocative associations between the interrogation practices of past authoritarian states and the contemporary American one. But at key junctures, it elects not to carry through with its trembling critiques of American power, selecting instead a sunny illumination of idealistic American exceptionalism. Bridge of Spies is frequently fascinating in its Cold War intrigue, but ultimately inadequate in its treatment of the implications of that intrigue.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Rome According to Robert Hughes: A Piecemeal History

October 13, 2015 Leave a comment

Summarizing the history, culture, art, and politics of 3000+ years of the “Eternal City” of Rome in a single 500-page volume ought to be considered a folly worthy of an excessive hedonistic Roman emperor. As it happens, the folly belongs to the highly-regarded art critic, popular historian, and cultural critic Robert Hughes, and it is no complete folly by any stretch of the imagination. But it is uneven and episodic, its segues often awkward, with different periods of Roman history (especially the millennium-long stretch of the Middle Ages) accorded less emphatic perspective than others. This is to say nothing of the persistent accusations of mistakes and inaccuracies in the section on classical Rome, first noted by Mary Beard in her Guardian review of the UK release of the book but left troublingly uncorrected in the subsequently-published US edition.

Maintaining a consistent quality of observation and insight on a city with such a varied and deep legacy would be a task beyond even a scholar in his prime. Hughes, hughesromehobbled by a serious car accident in his native Australia years before and fighting a long illness that would claim his life about a year after Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History was published, was at the end of a notable career as a critic of art, history, culture, and politics and cannot be counted on to muster his peak powers in the service of his civic subject. It does not help, perhaps, that Hughes has only been a visitor to Rome and not a resident, a shortfall which he acknowledges at the onset but never quite overcomes. Far be it for me to question a revered scholar’s understanding of an extremely complex world capital when I could never claim even a sliver of his expertise on the matter, but at many times Rome seems to be missing the irresistible force of scholarly prowess combined with penetrating, fabulously-written insight that defined Hughes’ remarkable account of Australia’s system of penal transportation in The Fatal Shore.

But there’s much good to Rome, and ought to be noted. As Beard notes in her Guardian review, it’s difficult to fault Hughes’ portraits of the heavy hitters of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque in the city. Summoned from the dusty annals of history and the fading works that they produced are the driven, powerhouse anatomical genius of Michelangelo, the sublimly gifted social butterfly Raphael, the quarrelsome but uncompromising champion of the Counter-Reformation Caravaggio, the impossibly talented giant of public design Bernini, his innovative but difficult architectural rival Borromini, and the mighty, ambitious Popes Sixtus IV, Julius II, and Clement VII, who between commissioned so many enduring works of public religious art.

Hughes also conjures the freewheeling 18th-century heyday of privileged tourism known as the Grand Tour in all of its heady admixture of highfalutin, demonstrative refinement and grubby, greedy exploitation. Even the late sections covering Italy under Mussolini and his Fascists and his neoliberal contemporary heir Silvio Berlusconi are trenchant and magnificently detailed, not to mention almost needlessly fair (Mussolini is frequently lumped in historically with his fellow Axis leader Adolf Hitler but his Fascist regime boasted both better art and public works patronage and less restrictions on minority ethnic rights in relation to Nazi Germany, at least until its closing years).

Even the opening pages on republican and imperial Rome, despite their evident errors, are rich with details from this profoundly alien past world whose cultural and political output was romanticized by Britain’s elite for so long. Magnificent villas and palaces rise alongside squalid tenement housing and brigand-ridden nocturnal streets, incredible engineering and architectural feats coexist with sickening self-indulgence and violent power seizures. Public baths, rowing ships, garum factories, imperial wars, and the upheaval of the rise of Christianity drift from the mists of time. Can you trust the truth of every word of it? Not really, if Beard is right, but even if this is the case, then what a compelling fantasy Hughes makes of this history.

Hughes has a talent for deploying fantastic (and maybe not strictly historical) anecdotes that illustrate the character of a time, a place, an important historical personage. He could detail the psychopathic excesses of Emperor Caligula (and does, at least a little), but he instead relates a bizarre (and possibly apocryphal) story of the Emperor ordering his legions to collect seashells as war booty as opposed to invading the British Isles. For all of his moderation as concerns the nature of Mussolini’s regime, he deposits a depth charge of terror in the form of the Fascist torture practice of forcing prisoners to eat a live toad (“The poor toad!” he mentions an Aussie actress reacting upon hearing the tale). And his riveting narrative of the moving of a towering stone obelisk during the Early Renaissance is both tense and dense with examples of superior engineering acumen.

But these anecdotes add up to more of a piecemeal history than a full, rounded view of what Rome means in historical or cultural terms over the centuries. This approach goes especially off the rails in his section on medieval Rome, which is rushed and betrays not merely a lack of expertise in the city of the period but a lack of interest in obtaining that expertise. This section becomes more of a history of the Catholic Church than a panorama of a thousand years of civic history. Hughes expends his efforts on discussing the 13th-century Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars in France, a vital and under-recognized episode in the Church’s highly ambiguous legacy but not really, ultimately, a Roman story at all. He also drops in the compelling story of 14th-century popular leader and self-proclaimed Roman tribune Cola di Rienzo without drawing out the social and political forces of the period that contributed to his rise. It’s as if Hughes can’t wait to hurry on to the safe ground of the Renaissance, where his blows of insight land more truly.

It’s undeniable that Robert Hughes gave himself too much to do with Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal Memoir. His panorama of Roman history never rises back up to the level of his initial metaphor: the menacing bronze statue of Giordano Bruno glowering down at the lively flower market in Campo de’ Fiori, the piazza in which he was burnt at the stake for heresy against the Church in 1600. This contrast of beauty and horror, historical portent and quotidian delights, religious rigidity and belated guilt, is somehow understood by Hughes as quintessentially Roman. Does the rest of his book on Rome, at once overlong and not nearly lengthy enough to do the city’s ages proper justice, fully illustrate this quintessential character, whatever one might choose to call it? It’s hard to say that it does. But what a ride nonetheless.

Film Review: Robin Hood (2010)

October 7, 2015 Leave a comment

Robin Hood (2010; Directed by Ridley Scott)

Ridley Scott is resolutely the wrong filmmaker to make a Robin Hood movie. Russell Crowe is utterly the wrong actor to play the leader of the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest. Their Robin Hood is not the beloved, merry Robin Hood of Errol Flynn and Disney’s underrated anthropomorphic 1973 animated version, for certain. It follows the much darker, much more violent rendition of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, with its relative period accuracy and invocation of the quotidian horrors of the medieval life. Such an adaptation is not wholly unwelcome. The Robin Hood of benevolent redistribution of wealth, athletic derring-do, good-tempered comradery, and mischievious defiance of villainous authority is a prime carrier of the romantic myth of the chivalric Middle Ages. This myth is one of history’s great white lies, suffusing the heritage of European civilization with a nobility and pride that the historical record of grasping exploitation, divisive superstition, and pervasive barbarity greatly undermines. Why not demystify?

Unfortunately, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood demystifies with a self-flagellatory determination before naively re-mystifying. Crowe’s Robin Longstride is working his way back to England after crusading in the Holy Land in the army of King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston). Richard, often a romanticized figure of glory of arms who righteously descends to restore justice at the conclusion of Robin Hood narratives, is no such hero here. He’s a galvanizing military leader, certainly, but that only makes him a king of thugs, and Robin challenges him for the massacre he carried out at Acre on the Crusades that tarnishes his legacy. Richard is equally tarnished at home, where his constant campaigning has bankrupted the royal treasury, placed noble and commoner alike under an undue taxation burden, and exasperated his younger brother John (an appealingly preening Oscar Isaac) and their imperious mother Eleanor of Aquitaine (Eileen Atkins).

The Lionheart is felled by a crossbow bolt during the siege of a French castle, and then his right-hand man Sir Robert Loxley (Douglas Hodge) is killed in an ambush while en route back to England to deliver the news of the king’s death along with the crown for John. Robin and his comrades Little John (Kevin Durand), Will Scarlett (Scott Grimes), and Allan A’Dayle (Alan Doyle of the Newfoundland folk-pop band Great Big Sea, a buddy of Crowe’s who gives the film some needed verve with spirited performances of period music) happen upon the dying Loxley, who extracts a promise not only to return the Crown but also his father’s sword to the family estate in Nottingham.

After a pit stop in London to see the protean John made King, Robin arrives at his promised destination and finds Loxley’s resilient widow Marion (Cate Blanchett, doing absolutely everything that she can to overcome material clearly that is beneath her) and his blind, aged father Sir Walter. The latter is quick to press Robin to pose as Robert to put off the king’s tax collectors and to protect the family estate, much to Marion’s consternation (the Robin-Marion hate-to-love arc is completely paint-by-the-numbers and is dotted with stultifyingly awful attempts at lightness and humour). His acceptance of this role puts Robin and his allies on a collision course with a marauding shakedown effort led by King John’s advisor Godfrey (Mark Strong), which is secretly the vanguard of a planned invasion of England by King Philip II of France (Jonathan Zaccaï).

The resulting cinematic product is classic late-period Ridley Scott: an impressively staged and detailed historical epic, but bloated, broad, and stubbornly whitewashed. If it’s not as pretentious as some of his recent efforts, then it does not scratch fitfully at Big Ideas as they do, either. It’s a collection of reproduced tropes, its forward movement distinctly inert, its existence sustained by common recognition of its stock concepts and familiar elements of the Robin Hood myth (not all of these are bad; Mark Addy, for one, was utterly born to play Friar Tuck at some point in his career, and does not waste the opportunity offered to him here). Crowe, not exactly a figure of onscreen magnanimity on a good day, stalks through medieval England with an adamant glower, about as far removed from Flynn’s chortling acrobatic trickster as a crocodile is from a puppy.

In terms of its politics, Scott’s Robin Hood betrays the persistent tendency of Hollywood historical epics to reflect and appeal to contemporary conceptions of personal freedom in reference to state power. Like the hint of religious tolerance in Scott’s Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven but ultimately more similar to the proto-democratic yearnings of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, Robin Hood imagines the embryonic contract of post-despotic liberty known as the Magna Carta as the product of some broad-based populist sentiment rather than a tensely-forged and oft-discarded definition of contentious power relations between a king and his least cowed nobles.

It’s telling that a document that has been granted such mythic status requires a myth of a man to champion it, as well as a fantasy foreign threat to motivate it. The jumbling of the historical chronology around the events of King John’s reign and his conflicts with the northern barons and King Philip II of France serves the quasi-democratic urges of the English people, as focused through the proxy of Crowe’s Robin. As an archer, he cuts an apt figure in this role, although the most notable overthrow of aristocratic privilege in war by the common folk of the English longbowman ranks was at Agincourt, two hundred years in the future. In historical fact, Philip never invaded England itself, only its territories in Normandy, where he thumped King John’s armies soundly and repeatedly in the early 13th Century. The rebellion of the northern barons was launched in response to King John’s discarding of the Magna Carta agreement, and was fomented by the intriguing Philip, not as a defensive measure against his incursion onto English soil.

The threat of French invasion sets up a climactic battle sequence that is both staged and symbolically couched as a sort of inverted 13th-century D-Day. French landing craft disgorge warriors on an English beachhead, where a vicious engagement commences, ostensibly in the name of liberty from autocratic tyranny. It’s June 1944, sometime in twelve-oh-whatever. Martial brutality carried out under the banner of lofty principles of freedom is the sole acceptable method of justifying war to a modern popular audience; the cocktail of territorial ambition, greed for plunder, and desire for power that fuelled most medieval warfare (like Richard the Lionheart’s campaigning at the start of the film) seems too petty and small, and heroism is ever defined by service to a larger cause.

One of the things one learns very quickly about medieval history if one actually studies it, however, is that there are precious few larger causes available to serve. The fealty of vassalage was almost always all that was required to put boots on the ground. If a lord wanted to fight, he did, and his dependents fought and died for him. The Crusades, with their fanatical mutual jihad, are virtually the only exception to be found in the rich annals of medieval warfare, and modern sensibilities (including Scott’s own, as expressed by Kingdom of Heaven) don’t find such zealously religious motivations to be righteous at all.

Overlaying myths of freedom onto these wars typifies the modern imperialist notions towards history as having worth mainly as a seed-planting operation for our current neoliberal capitalist democracy (Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history”). Robin Hood gets the surface details of the Middle Ages broadly correct, but like many of Hollywood’s popular historical fictions will not let the Middle Ages be what they were: a cruel grind of hopelessness for most, the pain and resentment of which was soothed and/or strangled by aggressively enthusiastic and unquestioned (and unquestionable) religious fervour, punctuated by endemic deadly violence. The fundamentally alien quality of the medieval world, its preternatural distance from our modern experience, is subsumed, understood as primarily a question of placement at a juncture of less sophisticated technological and ideological development rather than reflecting a deep gulf of sensibility and conception of life.

Perhaps this re-mystifying is perfectly appropriate for a Robin Hood movie. As a popular myth, the Robin Hood legend can be traced to a period of great social pressures and general discontent about ingrained economic inequalities in medieval England, where tales of the greenwood outlaws expressed a colourful fantasy of defiance and limited inversion and overthrow of that unjust order. All periods of history across the globe witness such periods and such myths in reaction to them, and that includes our own. What are anti-social anti-heroes like Walter White, Don Draper, or Batman but Robin Hoods of their particular context? They are vessels for anxieties, for discontent, for sentiments of revolt against inequitable power relations.

But Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood makes for a poor fit in this thematic receptacle. Linked to historical figures and events, inhabiting a reconstruction of the medieval world that spares no expense or detail in achieving a convincing simulacrum, this film purports in both its production and marketing to imbue the Robin Hood legend with a veneer of historicity that it has never previously possessed. Whether it is a worthwhile aim to grant a popular myth such historical authenticity, Robin Hood does a creditable (if not very enjoyable) job of it.

But it must have its myths too, albeit of a more grimly self-serious, less merry sort. Liberty in the Middle Ages reposed not in hard-won rights (which were rarely fought over and even more rarely won), but in brief interludes of festive celebration. Tellings of the Robin Hood legend have often operated as part and parcel of those celebrations, and Hollywood versions have often joined in the festivities. But this quasi-historical take on the myth renders the merriment very briefly indeed. Robin Hood is a bit of a joyless slog, which makes it quite a bit like the Middle Ages, after all.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: The Walk

October 2, 2015 1 comment

The Walk (2015; Directed by Robert Zemeckis)

Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) walks literal tightropes, but he also walks a figuratively tightrope in his personality and philosophy. He balances between maniacal dedication and playful charm, between insufferably whimsical tweeness (he is a French street performer, how much more twee can one get?) and serene, almost transcendent grace. He has the subversive and anarchic instincts of an uncompromising street artist, but when his illegal art is revealed to the world, his audience (which includes the supposedly oppressive state authorities) gasps in wonder and delight even while nothing vital is really subverted. He is both an unstable, unreliable trickster and a heroic protagonist in his own magnificent odyssey, a man who converts followers and accomplices for his grand scheme and alienates them almost as quickly.

Petit’s grand scheme – his “coup” as he calls it in a punning French/English hybrid – will be familiar to buffs of Manhattan-centric 1970s cultural ephemera, as well as to viewers of James Marsh’s fantastic Oscar-winning documentary, Man On Wire. Petit, who had previously performed guerrilla high-wire walks between the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and the Sydney Harbour Bridge (only the former makes it into this film), glimpses a magazine image of the under-construction twin towers of New York City’s World Trade Centre in 1973 and conceives of a mad plot to rig his wire between them and walk across it, 110 stories above the pavement of Lower Manhattan.

Everybody in his life, from his girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) to his wirewalking mentor Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) to his friend and “official photographer” Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony) to his cadre of accomplices (the excellent James Badge Dale as a French-speaking New Yorker master talker, César Domboy as a loyal but acrophobic French math teacher, Steve Valentine as a magnificently mustachioed insurance company dandy who is their WTC inside man, Ben Schwartz and Benedict Samuel as stock stoners) thinks him completely bugnuts insane for even dreaming up such an act. But they help him to make it a reality, perhaps realizing that being denied in his ambition will make him even crazier and perhaps being seduced by the eccentric, intoxicating grandiosity of the “coup”.

Director and co-writer Robert Zemeckis is certainly intoxicated by the grandiosity of Petit’s wondrous high-wire act, and constructs The Walk in anticipation and in celebration of it. The sustained climax of the coup is The Walk‘s obvious hook, and Zemeckis and his team utilize the full digital design toolset and narrative shaping expansion set to render Petit’s audacious feat of death-defying artistry as a vertiginous spectacle of maximum memorability and visceral impact. Be forewarned: if you have any sort of problem with heights, The Walk will trigger it often and fiercely. If you do not have a problem with heights, The Walk may well aid you in developing one. I have seen Man on Wire and know that Petit both succeeds in performing his precarious walk and lives to tell about it. I’ve been to the top of the Empire State Building and several lofty European bell towers, not to mention taken a helicopter flight above a lush Hawaiian island. None of this served to prevent my palms from sweating for 45 solid minutes of absorbing but psychologically unnerving cinema in The Walk. I can’t recall ever having such a pure, potent physical reaction to a movie, and for that alone Zemeckis deserves credit.

He deserves credit, too, for bringing together many elements of disparate nature and quality from the establishing acts of The Walk to maximize the sequence’s prodigious impact. Just as Man on Wire did with its lower-budget re-enactments, The Walk frames the coup in the generic terms of a heist caper, focusing on its details and minutae, its ingenious flourishes, its odd twists, and above all the multiple close calls of its premature discovery by the authorities who might shut it down. The audience’s resistance is so weakened by the maintenance of tension for such an extended period that it is helpless in the face of Zemeckis’ photo-real re-creation of the wire walk itself. Our fears and concerns are also carefully seeded by previous wire-walking scenes, each one presenting vividly what might go wrong for Philippe Petit 1,300 feet in the air: heavy winds, inadequate rigging, and loss of mental and physical concentration could all doom him to a fatal plunge into the void.

Zemeckis does such a thorough number on our psychological impulses that he neglects the sense of summoned wonder that motivated Petit and thrilled both the walker himself and his live impromptu audience on that August morning in 1974. Even as he struts across the wire, gaining confidence and performative bravado with each careful step, Petit’s act in The Walk pins us down but doesn’t so much raise us up. It’s a tremendously viscerally affecting cinematic moment but not really a transcendent one. Why is this?

Although Gordon-Levitt’s performance in this sequence is both elevated and grounded (it’s hard to imagine another near-A-level actor who has the requisite mix of puckish twinkle and graceful physical command to pull off this particular role), Zemeckis and co-writer Christopher Browne saddle the moment with so much extraneous visual and reactive baggage that it is dragged down just so slightly, like a wire loosened of its vital tensile strength. Alan Silvestri’s score swells, Petit’s accomplices on the towers and on the ground weep and woop in joy, the collecting crowd’s awe is lacquered on thick, massively stereotyped Noo Yawk police urge him off the wire and react cartoonishly when he dances away from their reach, and blood from a foot injury soaks through the wirewalker’s shoe, like a balletic French version of Curt Schilling in the 2004 World Series.

These lingering weights are carryovers from the rest of the film, which runs the gamut from goofy to cliched to downright irritating when it’s not set a quarter-mile above the ground. Perhaps due to Petit’s involvement in the production as Gordon-Levitt’s high-wire coach and a general consultant on all elements of the art, Zemeckis and his team greatly overestimate how much of the man’s unwavering whimsy will be tolerable to audiences. Not content with the manic presence of Gordon-Levitt’s Petit in every scene of the proper narrative, Zemeckis and Browne place him as an omniscent narrator of the events on the torch of the Statue of Liberty, looking across the stretch of New York Harbour at the World Trade Centre. Even if this framing device grants The Walk a subtle and eloquent closing nod to the towers’ telling absence from the current Manhattan skyline, it’s just another case of the film going for a bit too much.

So much of The Walk‘s framing of Philippe Petit and the incredible performance between the World Trade Centre towers that is his legacy hinges on his pursuit and eventual completion of this nigh-on impossible dream, and of this dream ultimately meaning something profound and even sublime. Zemeckis and Browne put all of their eggs of signification in the basket of conventional inspirational movie tropes, urging the romantic diaspora in the multiplexes to Follow Their Dreams like Petit did, impossible as they might seem. But they do not consider for a moment whether the masses are willing to follow where the shining example of Philippe Petit (highly acquired taste that he is) leads.

What is certain is that they are not able to. Petit’s WTC walk was truly singular. No other person ever stood where he stood and saw what he saw, and thanks to another devious plot involving the towers, no other person ever will. Robert Zemeckis’ laudably impressive technical and psychological mastery of epic image-making puts moviegoers in Petit’s place, or as close as they ever can be, via the medium of a huge screen and 3D glasses. But even as the The Walk approximates this otherwise inaccessible experience, it cannot access its meaning, if it indeed has any meaning to speak of. For Philippe Petit, alone on a wire at the pinnacle of the world’s metropolis, the experience was no doubt profound and beautiful. But for spectators, on the towers or at street level that day or in theatre seats forty years later, it is but a vicarious sublimity, an angel walk that we can only marvel at and never share. What Petit and Zemeckis conceive of as a generous act is more of a self-centered one; it cannot take us out of our own limited lives because it leaves no space for us on such a high, thin stage to go along with it. An inspiration that no one can ever aspire to, a closed beauty. Whatever you do, don’t look down.

Categories: Film, Reviews