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“The Terror” and the Consuming Horrors of British Imperialism

September 18, 2018 Leave a comment

The Terror (AMC; 2018)

There’s a moment in the graphically baroque climax of AMC’s compelling Arctic survival horror/drama The Terror that gives in to temptation and drags the burgeoning anthology series’ grinding subtext about the costs of ravenous British imperialism into full-throated text with amplified bravado. Fair warning, though, that to discuss this moment (and indeed the entirety of the series, which the strong-stomached viewer is sure to devour regardless) involves venturing into spoilers.

Engineering a fateful confrontation with the avenging polar-bear-esque monster that has been hunting down and consuming the dwindling remnants of the ill-fated Franklin expedition in the Arctic for months, sociopathic mutineer Cornelius Hickey (Adam Nagaitis) takes leave of the shackles of respectable Victorian reason, order, and hierarchy. He addresses the spirits of the windy wastes, renouncing the anchoring mainstays of the Empire that spanned a third of the world but whose best technology and ingenuity proved no match for the inhospitable cold and difficulty of the North. “Our empire is not the only empire,” Hickey monologues as the beast known as tuunbaq lumbers towards his band of terrified expedition survivors. But his attempt to appropriate the role of indigenous shaman to the creature fails in a spectacularly gory fashion, even as tuunbaq succumbs to its sustained unhealthy diet of diseased British sailors. This predatory emissary of the hostile native environment that the imperial subalterns seek to conquer consumes them, but that consumption likewise poisons and destroys that emissary.

The visceral explosion of this climax is a sweeping thesis statement of a series of themes and ideas about imperialism, masculinity, and military hierarchy that had built their impact prior to that point in The Terror with slow (perhaps too slow, at first) incremental aggregation. The ten-episode narrative begins with the entry into the Arctic waterways of the polar exploration voyage led by Sir John Franklin (Ciaran Hinds). It takes its time establishing the various characters onboard the two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, among them leadership figures such as Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris) and Commander James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies), as well as surgeon and naturalist Harry Goodsir (Paul Ready) and men lower down the ranks like Hickey, with their own tensions and concerns interwoven with and separate from those of the officers. With the vicious Arctic winter coming on and the Erebus and the Terror stranded in constricting ice, Hickey urges Franklin to abandon his plan to weather the season on board the ships and begin travelling on foot towards settlements in order to survive. Their disagreements on this point are complicated by the appearance and attacks of tuunbaq, as well as by the presence of an Inuk woman they call Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen), who might exert some influence or at least possess some important connection to the monster that might safeguard the crew from its wrath.

Based on Dan Simmons’ best-selling novel of a decade ago, The Terror is built on the imaginative uncertainty underlying the horror of the Franklin expedition’s cataclysmic end (not a man who set out from the last port of call returned alive, but only fragmentary clues suggest the causes). Simmons’ addition of an element of supernatural horror served to dramatize and account for a disaster that history and the isolated hardness of the land, sea, and ice had left tantalizingly under-detailed, and combined with a flash-forward ending emphasizing climate change’s terrible effect on the polar regions gave this tale of Victorian heroic folly some contemporaneous relevance. History, science, and questionable notions of Canadian arctic sovereignty have since combined to alleviate more of the mystery around the Franklin expedition’s fate with the discovery in recent years of the wrecks of the Erebus and the Terror. But this still leaves major thematic and metaphorical implications to Simmons’ fictionalized narrative of the destruction of the expedition, whose television adaptation was supervised by Dan Kajganich and his team of writers (and executive produced by Ridley Scott as well as by Simmons himself).

The Terror doesn’t merely park the Franklin expedition’s demise on the premises of a (slightly goofy) gigantic all-devouring behemoth. The unforgiving elements, hostility to and misunderstanding of indigenous peoples who could have aided them, encroaching disease, lead poisoning from the cheaply-tinned canned food, and despair among and in-fighting between the men contribute to the disaster, as do a litany of unwise command decisions, first from Franklin (played by Hinds as an ineffectual booster too rigid in his ways and too far out of his depth), but later from Fitzjames (Menzies excels at playing men of assumed dignity who find themselves sinking into disastrous and fatal self-doubt) and even from the series’ putative protagonist and most sympathetic figure, Harris’ layered, savvy, brave Crozier, who proves as susceptible to weakness in the face of the howling Arctic wastes as any other man.

But the grander point of The Terror is that this well-supplied and capable band of British adventurers could not have helped but met lonely, cold, gruesome ends in the frozen north of the world. It is the logical end of their grandiose imperial hubris. Franklin’s team seeks to penetrate the Arctic waterways in search of the fabled commercial throughway known as the Northwest Passage, but when Goodsir attempts to explain to Lady Silence the vital importance of finding this passage for British economic and prestige concerns, he not only comes across as incomprehensible to her but ridiculous to us. There are numerous examples early in the series of that breed of confident-to-the-point-of-arrogance imperial/patriarchal/hierarchical masculine order that enervates their quest and provides the men with a sense of unity of purpose that is often the only thing that binds them to one another and keeps them alive. But that same binding sense of order also contains the seeds of the expedition’s demise, growing brittle and unenforceable as numbers dwindle and authority can no longer compel obedience with brute punitive force.

Cornelius Hickey is the nexus of authority’s impotent impunity. An Irishman and a homosexual, Hickey is already doubly othered in relation to the British imperial centre and its identity markers. He is privately chastized by a straight-arrow bible-thumping lieutenant for his penchant for buggery: in one of the series’ funniest scenes, this Lieutenant Irving, played by Ronan Raftery, suggests alternative outlets for these sublimated sexual energies, including “climbing exercises”. Hickey conceives of his Irishness, meanwhile, as a potential bridge to favour from fellow Irishman Crozier, but it mostly gains him epithets from his crewmates (it is never gestured to, but it’s hard to ignore that as Franklin’s men were starving to death in the Arctic between 1845 and 1848, the British Empire stood by as a million or more Irish starved to death in their own food-exporting country).

Punished for insubordination (ironically, for acting on a plan without orders that the command group was on the cusp of ordering anyway) with painful and humiliating lashes, Hickey is not cowed but emboldened. Crozier orders his punishment in recognition of the necessities of chain of command and the need to protect authority to preserve order, but ordering the whipping of Hickey is the one decision that most directly leads to the expedition’s disastrous demise. Otherwise canny and open-minded when it comes to strategies of survival, Crozier falls back on the imperatives of pitiless imperial authority and masculinized command strength in this instance and it costs his men dearly. This is not to diminish Hickey’s mutinous choices, which are deplorable and increasingly monstrous and entirely of his own terrible volition. But the punishment prods him in a dangerous direction that leads to a frozen vision of hell.

This hell, of course, involves cannibalism (oddly ritualized, in a carnival-mirror inversion of imperial etiquette), a possibility initially denied by a Victorian public culture that painted Franklin and his men as fallen heroes but now basically accepted as the evidence-supported horror of desperate survival that had to have been the expedition’s only end-point. There are layers of meaning to consumption of nourishment in The Terror: the men become sick from eating the lead-poisoned preserves, tuunbaq becomes sick from eating the men. Seal meat in a man’s stomach unveils Hickey’s treachery. When Hickey’s faction begin eating each other, a moral or spiritual sickness reduces them, especially the anatomist Goodsir, who is compelled to become their designated butcher against his will.

“Tell me what you eat,” declaims Lt. Hodgson (Christos Lawton) in anticipation of the final meeting with the creature, “and I will tell you what you are.” What Franklin’s desperate men eat is what they constitute as agents of imperial expansion and dominion: poison, corruption, cannibalistic self-destruction. Tuunbaq, superficially a vengeful spirit representing diminished and exploited indigenous peoples that strikes satisfyingly back against British colonial hubris, eats these corrupted bodies and is poisoned by them too. Even when utterly annihilated in microcosm, imperialism leaves an indelible mark. If Victorian Britain saw jingoistic masculine endurance and heroism in the Franklin expedition in the immediate aftermath of its loss, The Terror reflects a worldview more jaded and wary of imperial chest-beating and the long, cruel tail of its consequence.

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Categories: History, Reviews, Television

Film Review: Mudbound

April 12, 2018 Leave a comment

Mudbound (2017; Directed by Dee Rees)

The opening scene of Mudbound features two white brothers digging a grave in the sodden earth of their farmyard in 1940s Mississippi. It is revealed that the hole is for their father when elder brother Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) unearths human remains and realizes that a slave’s grave is located on the spot. There’s nothing that the bigoted old man (played in life by the current master of deep-grained crusty menace, Jonathan Banks) would have despised more than being buried alongside a black person, but with a saturating rain coming on, younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) notes that they have little choice but to finish the trench, and thus lay their racist pater eternally beneath the ground with the people he considers his inveterate inferiors. As the deluge begins, Jamie is consumed with anxious fear that Henry will leave him in the grave, stranding him fatally in this drowned, unwelcome delving into the painful past.

This sequence foreshadows events and themes of Dee Rees’ shaded and powerful adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel, but it also sets down Mudbound‘s significant method of weaving its characters’ dominant qualities and psychological cores into the larger social forces of racial and gender hierarchy in the segregation-era American South. Given its early-’40s setting, the film also productively introduces the perspective-widening exposure of American GIs to World War II-era Europe’s differing (though hardly non-discriminatory) cultural norms as well as to the mentally-disfiguring horrors of combat carnage. These unfamiliar elements, when gradually introduced into the hardened psycho-sexual gauntlet that was the rigid order of the Deep South, have brutal and tragic consequences for the men and women of different races brought tentatively together in the crucible of a hard country life.

After Henry McAllan asks for the aid of his African-American tenant farmer and amateur preacher Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) and his family in burying the deceased old man, Mudbound flashes back a few years to before America’s entry into the war. Henry meets and proposes to his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), who finds the dashing, handsome, liberal-arts-educated Jamie a bit more attractive but is glad to be plucked from nascent spinsterdom by his duller, seemingly more dependable brother. The initial happiness of their growing family in Memphis is cut off when Henry makes a unilateral decision to move them back to small-town Mississippi to start a farm and care for his aging father. Henry is constantly thinking he has told Laura of his often-poor decisions and middling ambitions before he acts upon them, which he never has, perhaps because he does not value her opinion or consider it worth his consideration, perhaps because, despite his bluff matter-of-fact entitled manner, he does not value his own judgement. He also seems always to be away when crises descend and he is needed most by his family. As an upholder of a tradition ideal of Southern masculinity, Henry is an inept and foolishly diminished embodiment of white patriarchal privilege, and emotionally and morally insufficient to every challenge he faces.

The more sensitive and romantic Jamie goes off to war, traumatized in a flying metal coffin as a bomber pilot but also shaken from his culture’s racial assumptions by the experience of fighting alongside African-Americans. Upon his return, he connects with Hap’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), a tank sergeant under Patton who also saw death in mechanized boxes but found love overseas too, with a white German woman with whom he fathered a child. Building a friendship over pulls of a whiskey bottle (alcohol dulls Jamie’s shell-shocked unease) and combat veterans’ reminiscences, their hopes and frustrations forge a common bond that, much like Ronsel’s unwisely open disdain for the South’s racial segregation when compared to the relative openness of Europe, will prove extremely dangerous to both men when it collides with those dedicated to violently upholding these hierarchical norms.

Mudbound can be a little on-the-nose when dealing with the racial violence that sustained an unequal social order in the South (not that lynching was ever especially subtle as a tool of influence on social behaviours). Banks’ villain Pappy McAllan is a sneering old backwoods racist with a posse of Klansmen backing him up, while the film takes pains to note early on that the most sympathetic and least bigoted whites, Jamie and Laura, are also the most educated and well-read (Laura insists on keeping a piano in their rural shack, as a single token of civilization in this near-wilderness). In Laura, the patriarchy is shown to cruelly oppress women in a manner similar to but different than the white supremacist order cruelly oppresses blacks. Literally stuck in the mud of the farm, she is inculcated in the violent dramas of others and in family disasters of her own: whooping cough afflicting her daughters, an agonizing miscarriage.

With Henry increasing emotionally unavailable, Laura can only find (fleeting, forbidden) comfort in the largely-broken Jamie, but more so in Hap’s wife Florence (Mary J. Blige), who nurses her children back to health and tends to her in her abortive pregnancy. Even this tentative female compact across colour lines, however, is compromised by systemic mechanisms of racism. Florence is hired as domestic help by the McAllans, her paid service to them, like a mule rented almost forcibly by Henry to an injured Hap so that he can complete his harvest on time, constituting a web of pecuniary obligation between white landlords and their black tenants that serves to perpetuate a deep-rooted system of economic subservience undergirding the brutally-enforced social hierarchy.

Mudbound is part and parcel of a recent renaissance of ambitious and eloquent African-American films that are addressing historical and contemporary injustice in bold new ways. Despite its four Oscar nominations (two of them came from Blige, for Supporting Actress and Best Original Song, along with Best Adapted Screenplay for Rees and Virgil Williams and Best Cinematography for DP Rachel Morrison, astonishingly the first woman ever nominated in the category), Mudbound found itself lost a bit among some of these other, more forceful pictures, like Get Out, Black Panther (which Morrison also shot), and even last year’s Best Picture winner Moonlight. As the grave, handsome, and serious realist historical drama out of this list (one might include Ava DuVernay’s Selma and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave to these recent annals as alike films of that type), it might be surprising that Mudbound did not leapfrog some of its thematic brothers and sisters, but then genre films are breaking down old prestige-film distinctions more each year (or perhaps more film observers are belatedly recognizing the oft-glorified realist drama as simply another genre among many).

Still, Mudbound is a fine and significant work, intelligently and movingly communicating the injustices of racial discrimination and hierarchical society as enacting upon the lives (and bodies) of sympathetically-drawn and beautifully acted individuals. There is no Best Ensemble Oscar, but Mudbound ‘s uniformly excellent cast snatched up awards and accolades from various critical bodies that do hand out such honours. Watching them work small wonders in Dee Rees’ exquisitely-crafted examination of inequitable social and economic forces working on mid-century Southerners grants Mudbound a particular appeal of its own, regardless of its relative position in any conceived wave of social justice films.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Documentary Quickshots #6

Civilisation (BBC; 1969)

Civilisations (BBC; 2018)

Kenneth Clark’s 1969 BBC art history and high culture documentary series Civilisation is perhaps the seminal work of the genre that has become one of the British public broadcaster’s signatures. All of those handsomely photographed programmes crowding the primetime hours on BBCs 2 to 4, featuring erudite university professors expounding on beautiful paintings or grand architecture or important literature or great movements of history as they walk through historic sites or museum galleries, can trace their lineage back to Clark and his defining 13-part innovation of the form. The knighted art historian, who passed away in 1983, exerted a great deal of influence on the British cultural establishment during his career, but Civilisation reached beyond the cloisters of the upper crust to inculcate a wider general audience with an appreciation for the high water marks of European culture.

Civilisation, despite its grandiose title, was not be taken, in any way, as some sort of definitive survey of human civilization, and yet its success and surprising staying-power has given it such scope and stature despite itself. Very deliberately subtitled A Personal View, Civilisation was predicated on a focused perspective, its 13 hour-long episodes remaining fixed on Europe between the early Middle Ages and the start of the 20th Century and relying on Clark’s thoughtful, subtle, often idiosyncratic observations. This narrowed focus, excluding the Classical world and the great civilizations of Asia, Africa, and the Americas, has brought the series in for a healthy measure of retrospective criticism, as has Clark’s lionizing of “great spirits” of cultural history, basically all of whom happen to be white men. There is certainly something about the series that might well present to the contemporary eye – especially one clouded by the arrogant, half-informed intellectual pretentions of the chauvinist alt-right online trolls who swarm annoyingly in the comments of YouTube videos of the series – as a spirited defense of Eurocentric white supremacy, although it is much too thoughtful and subtle in its considerations to be pigeonholed and marginalized in that way.

In these ways and more, Civilisation is a product of its times. Certainly, Clark’s Received Pronunciation accent can be jarring now to the modern viewer used to the more “authentic” dialects of diverse television presenters (they all sounded like Clark at the Beeb in the late ’60s, though), just as the casual attire favoured by current culture documentary stars contrasts with Clark’s consistent brown suit jacket and thin tie, which seem out of place as he ascends romantic peaks and expounds in sun-soaked Italian piazzas (whither the jeans and leather jacket? asks the modern viewer conditioned by photogenic and youthful historian-presenters with glamour-shot galleries on their self-promotional websites). One wants to dab his sweat-beaded forehead at least once an episode. Also, when other talents are called upon, there are happy stabs of period-specific recognition: a young Patrick Stewart shows up as Horatio in a staging of a scene from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Daniel Day-Lewis’ poet father Cecil reads Wordsworth poems in voiceover.

In the more important realm of ideas, however, Civilisation is perhaps less a creature of the canonical cultural patriarchy than its reputation suggests. One of the consistent points maintained by Clark in the early medieval and Renaissance programmes and made explicit in his consideration of the post-Reformation era is the vital role of the Catholic Church in shepherding forward the cultural patrimony (I know at least one person who was converted to Catholicism by the series). It is especially noted that Catholics come across as far more important stewards of civilization than rival Protestants in terms of enduring visual arts, although the latter do better in literature and particularly music. Although Clark closes on the subject with an elliptical acknowledgement of the tendency towards authoritarian obedience in the Catholic Church (which has at least contributed to the Church’s foundation-shaking sexual abuse scandals of recent decades), his comprehensive defense of Catholic art and architecture must have presented as surprisingly contrary to WASP Britain at the end of the 1960s, a place and time where anti-Catholic sentiment (certainly in Northern Ireland, but hardly only there) was hardly a relic of the past. Late in the series, Clark even notes (though belatedly and almost as a footnote) that many of the spectacular wealth-driven displays of refinement that he has pored over in recent programmes were supported, directly or indirectly, by the socioeconomic horror machines of the modern era (which he, unfortunately, characterizes as a bit too equivalent): the Transatlantic slave trade and the labour exploitation of the Industrial Age.

But what is great about Clark and his documentaries is how he talks the viewer through what a painting or a building or a poem means, not only its in immediate artistic interpretation but in its larger social, cultural, and historical hermeneutics. It’s a simple, straightforward, but surprisingly powerful method: well-shot visuals of a great work, intercut with audio of a well-rounded analysis of its significance. Art history books are fine things, and Clark wrote his share, but his work in Civilisation refines and very nearly perfects a most immediate and persuasive form of art criticism that can only be accomplished with such a potent effect on television and influences subsequent generations of his peers.

Given this mixed legacy both great and problematic, BBC’s sequel Civilisations set itself up with a monumental task this year of following up on Clark’s series four decades later while expanding the original’s scope and correcting for its omissions and occasional flaws of perspective. While this nine-episode series may not, strictly speaking, match the quality of Clark’s original, it is a gorgeous, diverse, spirited, and deep and questioning consideration of what “civilisation” really means. This uncertainty about the very idea of “civilisation” is a by-product of the fragmented cultural consciousness of our era, certainly, of post-modernism and post-structuralism and post-anything-ism. But it’s also a pointed reaction to the sort of horrors that the progressive idea of “civilisation” is supposed, in an idealized vacuum, to save us from: war, genocide, poverty, brutality, racial discrimination, capitalist exploitation, imperial domination, deprivation and humiliation and misery.

Civilisations locates in art and culture laudable bastions of resistance against these dark forces, which are the products of human creativity and ingenuity just the same. Historian and BBC culture standby Simon Schama, whose A History of Britain series in 2000 is one of the few documentary series that can stand with Clark’s Civilisation at the pinnacle of the form, presents five of the episodes, and opens two of them with purposeful parables of civilized people standing against forces of unspeakable evil: a professor of antiquities executed by ISIS, a Jewish art teacher who instructed children in a Nazi concentration camp. His colleagues, who present two episodes each, likewise note this tension in human civilization: classicist Mary Beard considers the problematics of the human gaze and the mixed cultural legacies of religious faith, and Nigerian-British historian David Olusoga explores how the cultural accomplishments of Africa were looted and diminished by European colonial powers, as well as looks at the 19th Century’s imperialism and industrialism with a withering critical eye.

Expanding the series’ perspective to that of a triumvirate of bespoken diversity – a Jewish Brit, a feminist woman, a Black Briton – continues into their subject matter, which encompasses not merely European art and culture but also that of Africa, China, India, Japan, the Muslim World, and the civilizations of the Americas, not to mention classical and pre-classical examples of artistic representation. Furthermore, where Clark provided only a bare coda about his contemporary world without a statement on the past half-century of modern art, Schama dedicates the series’ final episode to contemporary art from Mondrian to the Abstract Expressionists and Pop Art to highlights of contemporary art, which include his favourites like Anselm Kiefer, Kara Walker, Ai Weiwei, and Cai Guo-Qiang.

Featuring living contemporary artists risks setting a too-short expiry date on Civilisations (and I couldn’t fathom a meaningful justification of Schama’s championing of the aesthetically pathetic Matisse in his otherwise wondrous episode “Radiance”), but it’s a reminder that this, too, is a view of cultural history more personal than comprehensive. It’s also a reminder, and one of several throughout this excellent series, that civilization is a constant creation, a matter of ongoing redefinition. Kenneth Clark understood it this way, too, even if the canonical boundaries of his 1969 series did not always allow him to express it quite as firmly as those of its 2018 sequel manage to do.

Film Review: Hidden Figures

November 25, 2017 Leave a comment

Hidden Figures (2016; Directed by Theodore Melfi)

A surprise hit historical/inspirational drama and multiple Oscar nominee, Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures engages racial and gender discrimination in ways at once fresh and contrived, subtle and predictable. It’s generally a broad crowd-pleaser in the old-fashioned Hollywood tradition, with heavy-handed themes of hard-won progressive social justice amplified by largely invented incidences of prejudice dialed up to frequencies that can hardly be believed. Still, it’s redeemed in no small measure by the effusive charm of its trio of female leads, as well as its (largely fictionalized, but still pertinent) illustration of the sometimes less-than-heroic everyday mechanisms of social change.

Hidden Figures focuses on (and partly mythologizes) the stories of three African-American women who played important roles in the American space program in the 1960s, based out of a NASA research facility in southern Virginia. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer, Oscar-nominated for her supporting role) supervised a computing team at NASA and became one of the first supervisors (female, African-American, or otherwise) of the workers running calculations on the agency’s pioneering IBM supercomputer. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) was NASA’s first black female engineer, who also broke through the segregation line at a Hampton, Virginia high school in order to take the classes and obtain the necessary degree for the position. Most importantly, Katherine Johnson (née Goble) (Taraji P. Henson) was a key mathematician on the Project Mercury program that eventually made astronaut John Glenn (aged down here and played by Glen Powell) the first American in space in 1962.

Although these three women worked in different divisions at NASA and may not have even crossed paths, Hidden Figures (its screenplay is by Melfi and Allison Schroeder) makes them friends and car pool mates who rise out of the all-black-female computing unit. Their individual charisma is combined and amplified in their intermittent scenes together: bantering about work in the car, noticing attractive men (namely Katherine’s future husband Major Jim Johnson, played by Mahershala Ali) at church picnics, and drinking and dancing together in off hours. Henson is superb at invoking Katherine’s reticence in professional interactions as a combination of intellectual concentration and the limiting pressures of workplace segregation, while Spencer is by now an old hand at polite but firm resistance to quotidian injustices (she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Help, which this film resembles in numerous respects). Monáe is the real revelation, though, a sprite of energy and poise that the film uses far too sparingly.

Although it seems strange to say this about the forever-glossed-over conditions of race in America, Hidden Figures in truth depicts segregation of African-Americans and discrimination of women as worse than it really was, at least in the very specific case of NASA. Spencer’s Dorothy struggles to impress her reluctant white overseer Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) with how much she deserves to be promoted to supervisor, when the real Dorothy Vaughan was made a supervisor in 1949, before the agency was even called NASA. Mary is shown presenting an eloquent and impassioned petition in court to a state judge to be allowed to attend classes at segregated Hampton High School; the real Mary Jackson asked for and received an exemption from the city, no court order required.

Katherine’s struggles in the Space Task Group, where she is assigned due to her skills in analytic geometry, are more involved and even more elaborated-upon. In a room full of white men crunching numbers to calculate atmospheric exit and re-entry speeds for the sub-orbital and fully orbital spacecraft, her abilities are doubted, her accomplishments diminished, her problems linked to her difference simultaneously disavowed and exacerbated. There is no real villain in Hidden Figures (besides the unseen, distant Soviets, always the ultimate motivating Cold War bogeymen), but the closest the movie comes is the STG’s head engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory), who becomes the personification of the smugly superior patriarchal bigotry that cossets Katherine: he bids her to re-check his math despite classified redactions making it technically imposssible, chastises her for listing herself as co-author on reports she mostly calculated and prepared herself, and maximizes the inefficiency of her work by refusing the allow her to break protocol and enter top-level meetings on the latest mission preparations. These obstacles he erects are not openly motivated by racism or sexism, and especially in the latter case, Stafford’s reticence creates inefficiencies under tight, high-pressure deadlines that it seems any professional engineer would realize were only getting in the way and ought to be swiftly swept aside. Still, casting Parsons as such a character demonstrates that Melfi has a keen sense of how expertly odious and irritating he can be as a performer, to which anyone who has watched even a few minutes of his sitcom can attest.

The main showcase episode of Katherine’s travails against racial and gender norms of segregation involves a seemingly mundane workplace reality elevated to civil rights grandeur by Melfi: bathroom breaks. With no coloured women’s washroom in the STG’s building, Katherine must rush off to her old West Computing stomping grounds across the Langley base, taking half an hour or more out of her daily time-crunch workday at a time. When confronted about this by her boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner in Southern-accented, sugar-and-spice, all-American decency and dedication mode) in front of the entire group, the pent-up frustration explodes – understandably but, given the segregation-era expectations of African-American conduct in the society, perhaps unrealistically – and her male coworkers’ dismissive treatment of her is openly called out. Harrison responds by taking a crowbar to the “Coloured Women Only” sign outside the bathroom in question, thus unceremoniously desegregating the NASA base in the process.

Let’s leave aside that this entire episode is invented (Mary Jackson did use a distant coloured washroom at the facility, while Katherine Goble simply employed an unlabelled washroom intended only for whites, ignoring the only complaint that she received), or that it casts Costner’s Harrison (a composite character of various STG administrators) in a benevolent white saviour role (it’s also his intervention that gets Goble admitted to the Pentagon meetings, where she wows the assembled men with her math wizardry; Melfi continues the Hollywood tradition of treating advanced mathematics like pure magic). It gets to the core point about civil rights and racial discrimination being made in Hidden Figures, and it’s a point that ought not to be discarded too lightly.

What is this point? Namely, that the structures and practices of official and unofficial racial discrimination are just as susceptible to the pragmatic concerns of productivity culture and individual interpersonal relations as they are to organized, public political action. Goble/Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson are presented as pioneers, but not street-marching revolutionary agitators: Jackson’s husband (Aldis Hodge) is more socially conscious and radical in his dedication to civil rights but comes to respect his partner’s specific skirmish for her rights, while Vaughan is shown ushering her children away from a civil rights demonstration, telling them that it has nothing to do with them. Of course, it does has everything to do with them and their lives, but Hidden Figures argues that driven, intelligent black female math geniuses gaining respect and accomplishing wonders in the space race has plenty to do with them and their lives, too.

Hidden Figures takes this somewhat-milquetoast and more than a bit complacent point, which values orderly, labour-based boundary-pushing over open demands for equality and justice, and endows it with the magnificent justification of space-conquest myth. Granting African-American women a starring role in sending an American into space – and, eventually, to the moon, that symbolic pinnacle of scientific exploration of last century, if ultimately one whose benefits are more emotional than strictly practical – likewise grants them a key participatory role in America’s self-aggrandizing mythos, which more than any other factor of American life (voting very much included) essentially entails immutable citizenship.

This full and equal citizenship is what segregation (and the more disavowable but no less constraining set of social and political conditions that replaced it) denied to African-Americans, just as sexist practices and laws denied (and still deny) to American women. Hidden Figures has undeniable weaknesses, relying too heavily on feel-good tropes and scrubbed-up boomer-vintage conceptions of the civil rights movement as a group of determined but entirely well-mannered and polite black activists patiently awaiting enlightened white uplift. But if one had to choose a single solidly-built element of the film with which to anchor an argument for its importance (besides the fact that it allowed this photo to come into being, of course), it would be that Hidden Figures makes a firm symbolic and emotional case for the centrality of African-Americans in a strain of the American myth to which they have previously been denied open access. Accepting such access makes America a stronger and better place. If a mere movie, however contrived it might sometimes be, contributes even in a small way to that process, then we should be glad to have it.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Assassin’s Creed

September 17, 2017 Leave a comment

Assassin’s Creed (2016; Directed by Justin Kurzel)

One year prior to the release of 20th Century Fox’s distinct but patchy big-screen adaptation of the popular action-adventure video game series Assassin’s Creed, its director Justin Kurzel, cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, and stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard collaborated on a dynamite cinematic take on William Shakespeare’s Macbeth that was one of 2015’s finest films. The clear next step for this core of creatives after an invigorating version of one of the pinnacles of the English literary canon was, quite obviously, a sci-fi/historical-fiction blockbuster potboiler with undertones of eternal Manichean dichotomies, pulpy hidden-past conspiracism, and creepy pure-blood genetic determinism. Assassin’s Creed is absurd both on its surface and in its depths, but Kurzel and his team treat it with the same serious-minded sincerity they accorded the great Shakespearean tragedy a year prior.

I can’t claim to possess any helpful familiarity with the Ubisoft game series on which Assassin’s Creed is based, though its acrobatics-and-combat gameplay and time-bending concepts do resemble the Montreal-based game studio’s previous platform hit, Prince of Persia (also adapted into a much worse film several years back). The film introduces and re-affirms its core concept several times, though, so it’s hard to miss: two secretive orders – the shadowy, cult-like Assassins and the patrician, theocratic, elite-entrenched Knights Templar – battle throughout history over the preservation of human free will, which the Templars seek to eliminate through the use of the Assassin-protected Apple of Eden, an ancient artifact of dangerous power and biblical symbolism.

In the modern day, the power and influence of the Templars has eclipsed the Assassins, a cadre of outcasts and criminals whose cultish killer’s “creed” (working in the darkness to serve the light, etc.) is a matter of genetic heredity. The Templar-affiliated Abstergo Foundation, headed by Dr. Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons) and his brilliant scientist daughter Sofia (Cotillard), have collected as many descendants of Assassins as they can and imprisoned them in a facility in Madrid. There, the Rikkins and their minions hook these men and women into a sophisticated machine called the Animus and run them through a draining mental and physical process of reliving the genetic memories of their Assassin ancestors. Their goal is to use these subjects to locate the missing Apple in the mists of the past and apply its power to end violence, conflict, and strife in the world by choking off human freedom and self-determination forever.

Their most recent and important subject is a convicted and ostensibly executed murderer named Callum “Cal” Lynch (Fassbender), whose Assassin forebearer Aguilar de Nerha (also Fassbender) was the last known possessor of the Apple before it was lost to history. Flashing back to Aguilar’s experiences in Spain in the tumultuous year of 1492 via the Animus, Cal’s wounded identity (his Assassin father killed his mother and was captured by the Templar, leaving him alone) begins to meld with his Assassin legacy and physical prowess, and exposure to the other Assassin descendants and creeping doubt about the Rikkins’ stated peaceful intentions presses him onto a path of destiny.

As silly as its core ideas may be, Assassin’s Creed has a tremendous amount going for it as a film. Kurzel directs confidently, and there are some memorable visual moments involving a symbolic soaring bird of prey in particular: introduced alongside a song by the Black Angels on the soundtrack as it glides through time between late-medieval Spain and modern Mexico, the flying bird later appears multiplied on a magical, haunting animated ceiling at the Abstergo facility during a tense meeting between Cal and his father, played with great gravity by Brendan Gleeson. Arkapaw’s cinematography is again tremendously beautiful, though it is often saturated by Andalusian sunbeams and digitally colour-graded into moody, dim foncity.

Performance-wise, Fassbender brings intense commitment and ferocity to a blockbuster anti-hero role that most serious actors would imbue with arms-length irony, and memorably sings Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” in an aggressively unstable timbre as he is dragged into another Animus session. Cotillard’s character is buffeted about by the script (credited to Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage, it smacks of repeated rewrites) and I can’t for the life of me begin to explain any of her words or actions in the closing sequence based on what came before it, but, like Fassbender, she really means it, anyway. An international cadre of supporting actors from Gleeson to Michael K. Williams to Essie Davis as Cal’s mother to Ariane Labed as Aguilar’s right-hand Assassin to a fiery, scenery-chewing Javier Gutiérrez as infamous Grand Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada lend potency further down the cast credits, too.

But for a movie based on a consistent, even relentless action game, Assassin’s Creed disappointingly holds back on its action sequences. Cal’s first Animus session drops him into an uninspired Hollywood Western/Indiana Jones-style horse-and-cart chase through the parched landscape of Southern Spain, and the movie’s rote faux-climax features a rebellious Cal and his Assassin brothers and sisters fighting off Abstergo’s security thugs as the Rikkins helicopter away to fetch the Apple. Only a rambling, enervating mid-film escape from Torquemada’s theatrical, Goya-esque auto-da-fé that transitions into a white-knuckle foot-chase and running battle through Seville’s medieval streets, rooftops, and bazaars manages to simultaneously demonstrate the mastery of artful action filmmaking that Kurzel demonstrated in Macbeth and live up to the balletic, wall-climbing, Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling derring-do that makes Ubisoft’s games such a thrill to play. Scored with subtle but driving Spanish-Arabic rhythms by Kurzel’s composer brother Jed, it’s Assassin’s Creed‘s highlight sequence, bar none.

Assassin’s Creed doesn’t spend enough of its running time being fun, therefore. How does it spend its time? On repetitive and sometimes poorly-emphasized world-building exposition, much of which collapses upon even cursory examination. More than that, though, its themes of hereditary legacy and free will vs. determinism play out questionably not only through its fictional characters but through its wider historically-fictive backdrop. Cal’s anticipated turn to defence of his Assassin heritage as redemption for his family trauma doesn’t land quite right, despite being the central thematic fulcrum of the movie; the sense of ambiguity in Sofia’s attitude towards her father’s goals and towards Templar dogma, and its frequent opposition to her dedication to bettering the world through science, is never resolved, and she simply pivots into a sequel-teasing promise of villainy in the film’s abrupt denouement.

But this ambivalence is nothing compared to how Assassin’s Creed utilizes its historical setting in the Spain of 1492. A momentous hinge in Spanish history and indeed for the world at large, 1492 was the year that the Reconquista was completed, with Ferdinand and Isabella’s forces conquering the last Muslim stronghold of Granada and fully re-Christianizing the Iberian peninsula for the first time in centuries; it was the year that Spain’s Jews, who played a disproportionately important role in the cultural and intellectual vibrancy of Muslim al-Andalus, were expelled from the country in one of European history’s numerous anti-Semitic irruptions; and it was the year that Christopher Columbus sailed west from a Spanish port to “discover” America, with all that this would mean for Spanish wealth and imperial prestige and for world history.

Assassin’s Creed draws from the first and last of these vital events (self-serious as it may be, tackling anti-Semitic discrimination through time is a bridge too far for a video-game movie like this, at least for the moment). A key scene involving Aguilar and the Apple takes place in Granada’s Alhambra palace, and Aguilar then travels to Cadiz to give the artifact to the departing Columbus for safe keeping. The Rikkins soon enough deduce that this means that the Apple is hidden in Columbus’ tomb and saunter over to Seville Cathedral to fetch it with ease from the local bishop.

This plot point asks for a logical leap of faith similar to the literal Leap required of Cal in his Assassin training. We are already asked to leave aside the historical fact that the Knights Templar, a religious-military order of great power and wealth in medieval Europe, were dismantled by inquisitional forces in the Catholic Church in collaboration with its closest secular ruler, the King of France. We are informed instead that the Templars and the Church are intertwined, even united, sharing the same leadership, ideology, and short- and long-term goals. But, despite this established collaboration since at least the 15th Century, the Church seemingly knew that the Apple of Eden, the ultimate item of desire for their Templar allies for centuries, was sitting in a key spot in one of its largest catherdrals and didn’t bother to let them know? Add to this the clear missed opportunity for some clever last-act plot misdirection as concerns the Seville vs. Santo Domingo Columbus’ tomb controversy, and it’s a plot element that lands with a splat.

The Inquisition setting is thematically apt, certainly, emphasizing the Templars’ single-minded mission to crush all dissenting viewpoints and freedom of thought (Irons monologues about religion, politics, and consumerism as past grand schemes in this regard) and thus suggesting the Catholic Church’s infamously brutal crackdown on heretics of all sorts as a mere corollary of this more entrenched will. Combining it with the final defeat of rival Islam, understood here as another contending heresy, in Western Europe at the end of the Reconquista, these forces of control come to be refocused with renewed vigour on an entire new hemisphere and its unsuspecting peoples in the era of colonialism that Columbus kicked off with his Atlantic crossing. Assassin’s Creed comes shockingly close to distilling the disparate historical turning points of the momentous Spanish year of 1492 into a coherent and even powerful hybridized statement about human civilization, power and psychology, then and especially now.

There’s a hefty suggestion in Assassin’s Creed, in this over-ponderous, heavy-handed, only rarely purely entertaining movie adaptation of an action-packed video game, that the Templars’ long-running mission to choke off human freedom has already all but succeeded, Apple or no Apple. “The modern world has outgrown notions like freedom,” a senior Templar (Charlotte Rampling) tells the elder Dr. Rikkin. “They’re content to follow.” But what is the freedom represented by the Assassins but a genetically predetermined legacy of violence? In this theme concerning the human tendency to allow our past heritage to become our future legacy, or to poison and undermine that legacy, perhaps there is not such a wide gulf between Assassin’s Creed and Macbeth after all. That this suggestion can even be tentatively made is a testament to the kind of film that Justin Kurzel manages to make Assassin’s Creed into. Maybe he ought to have been making a popcorn movie, yes, but recognized for what it is, this is a film with something to say in between badass assassin killing, even if what it has to say is frequently self-contradictory.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

The Confederate Lost Cause, Ruby Ridge, Waco, Oklahoma City, Donald Trump and the Alt-Right: The Roots of the American Moment

August 16, 2017 Leave a comment

The events of this past week, which have revolved around a far-right rally and march in Charlottesville, Virginia that turned predictably deadly, feel definitional of the fraught current moment in American politics and society. A complex web of long-simmering ideological subcultures and raging-id grievances combined in this event. Ostensibly organized and headlined by a variety of far-right internet and alternative-media figures to protest the debated removal of an equestrian statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from the recently-renamed Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park) in Charlottesville, the so-called Unite the Right rally last weekend became a magnet for right-wing groups from neo-Nazis to neo-Confederates, pseudo-intellectual white nationalists to heavily-armed “patriot” militias, the Ku Klux Klan to the smugly ironic online “alt-right”. The glue holding together these disparate pieces and giving them some desultory but dangerous sense of cohesion and social validation is a shared allegiance to President Donald Trump. His golf-course attire of light slacks, white polo shirt, and red “Make Americ Great Again” hat was even an unofficial uniform for many of the reactionary marchers.

The Unite the Right cohort were confronted by a prominent and critical swath of media coverage for their Friday night torchlight event and a strong showing of diverse but not ideological-fixed counterprotesters, united more than anything by their opposition to the white supremacist ideals being advanced by the chanting marchers, on Saturday. Violent clashes erupted between the opposing sides, culminating in a terrorist car-ramming attack by a far-right-connected young man who took the violent rhetoric of his confrères all too seriously. His attack killed one person and injured 19 more, but also turned general public opinion even more strongly against the fascistic rightists than it had initially been.

The aftermath of the deadly rally has become even more disconcerting. Amidst arrests, chastened media-shy Nazis losing their jobs, and denunciations by politicians of both parties, the reaction of President Trump was watched most closely. After running a victorious presidential campaign that featured the most openly racist and authoritarian tone in modern memory, Trump’s team continued to cultivate close ties with many of the very far right groups involved in the rally, who were also among his most loyal supporters. His chief political strategist, Steve Bannon, was a key figure in this new resurgent extreme Right through its most prominent media mouthpiece, Breitbart News. Moreover, Trump himself often echoed the language and beliefs of this troubling slice of the spectrum, spouting racist conspiracy theories, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and anti-left insults like a particular belligerent Redditor.

Trump first partially hijacked an intended inoffensive White House statement of dismay and denunciation with ad-libbed equivocation about the “many sides” to blame for the organized gathering of proponents of a violent ideology descending into violence. Then, after delivering a seemingly-forced stronger repudiation of the specific hate groups involved in Charlottesville’s tragedy, Trump alarmingly and semi-incoherently ranted out a series of Fox News talking-points and responsibility-deflecting YouTube comments blaming the essentially imaginary “alt-left” for the violence and insisting that there were many “good people” among the Nazi apologists chanting about exterminating Jews and threatening African-American churches with burning tiki torches. Even for wearied observers used to new descents into the muck by this most odious President, not to mention the savvy critics who have noted that Trump’s only consistently-held belief (besides his own continued self-aggrandizement and self-enrichment) is his racism, the sight of a sitting President openly and vociferously defending no-fooling Nazis and KKK was shocking.

How did America reach this moment? The contributing factors stretch on back before the founding of America or even the arrival of Europeans in the Western Hemisphere, to be frank, but the shock of Charlottesville has a set of clear antecedents. The rally’s impetus, the proposed removal of the Robert E. Lee statue, links everything back to America’s founding sin: slavery. Furtively outlawed after the Union defeated the rebellious Confederate States of the South in the grindingly bloody Civil War in 1865, the enslavement of black people, and the racial order of white supremacy that mandated it, was thereafter transmuted into different forms: Jim Crow laws, lynchings and racial violence, segregation, and mass incarceration. Ava DuVernay’s documentary on these mechanisms of structural racism, 13th, offers a strong summation of their intent and effects.

In cultural and discursive support of these structures, the Lost Cause of the Confederacy gained prominence almost immediately after the Southern surrender at the end of the Civil War. Valourizing the bravery and sacrifice of Confederate Army soldiers but eliding the truth that what they fought for was the enslavement of African-Americans, the Lost Cause manifested itself in many ways, from the founding and periodic resurgences of the KKK to cinematic fictions of Southern nobility like The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. But through the first decades of the 20th Century, it manifested noticeably across the South and beyond with a flurry of monuments honouring Confederate generals like Lee and Stonewall Jackson, as well as political figures like Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Rebels against government authority who would have been hanged as traitors in previous times and historical periods, these Confederate figures were instead enshrined as heroes in the public spaces of the old Confederacy (and in a surprising litany of non-Confederate states as well).

The commemoration of these monuments (many of which were cheap and mass-produced for quick distribution to counties across the country) not only rallied white citizens to the Confederate values of white supremacy reflected in then-contemporary social, legal, and political elites, but it also served as an implicit statement and even a threat to the African-American minority and its white allies that trangression of this order would meet with the full force of its vengeance. Combined with the increasing official usage of the infamous Confederate Battle Flag by state governments of the South, these monuments to slaveowners and slavery-defenders were a clear message: the White Man is in charge here, and don’t you forget it. Thus, the gradual progressive effort to remove these flags and statues from America’s public spaces is understood by right-wing white nationalists as a symbolic prelude to their feverish nightmare fantasies of “white genocide”.

While the cultural and discursive battles of the Lost Cause narrative have worn on, another parallel force arose on the American Right in recent decades: the so-called “patriot movement”. Focused around white-dominated (but not necessarily or inherently racially-demarcated) state militia groups, gun-ownership activists, and anti-government libertarian extremists, “patriots” conceive of gun control campaigns and legislation as the opening parry in the establishment of an authoritarian suppression of individual rights in America. The development of this subculture is traced indelibly in two films from PBS’s American Experience which aired, with serendipitous confluence, in the weeks following Donald Trump’s inauguration as President earlier in 2017: Ruby Ridge and Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma City especially acts as an illuminating history of the anti-government ideology that radicalized Timothy McVeigh and led him to commit one of the worst terrorist acts of American history: the bombing of Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1995, which killed 168 people. The events at Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992 – a deadly stand-off between law enforcement and an isolated and armed family – as well as outside of Waco, Texas in 1993 – where a 51-day standoff between a fundamentalist Christian sect and the FBI lead to shootouts and an infamous conflagration that killed 76 people in total – figured vitally into the self-conception of the patriot movement and into McVeigh’s motivation for his mass murder. But the films also detail surprising unorthodoxies in the belief-systems of their principle actors. Ruby Ridge raid target Randy Weaver was a conservative Christian who socialized with white power groups but did not share their racial views; Waco’s Branch Davidians might have constituted a cult, but David Koresh’s followers were an inclusive and racially-diverse cult; Tim McVeigh began doubting his government’s intentions after serving in the Gulf War, his stated objections to what happened in Iraq reflecting progressive anti-imperialism more than right-wing ideas.

Often appearing in public heavily armed but purporting to be fundamentally law-abiding, current “patriots” may not sympathize with many of the beliefs of Lost Cause neo-confederates or white power groups, but they feel that they share the same enemies (liberals, the federal government, cultural elites). And they also increasingly share the same champion: Donald Trump. Add Evangelicals and cultural conservatives to his basket of deplorable acolytes, as well; although they were not necessarily wielding torches in Charlottesville, the relative silence of these groups in the aftermath of this past weekend makes their sympathies, or at least their perceived best interest, crystal-clear.

The absurdity of looking to a petulantly unstable, hideously narcissistic, and incompetently corrupt New York City business tycoon far more interested in golfing weekends than in ethnic cleansing to achieve their oppressive goals will surely dawn on even the most obtuse of these new fashionable Nazis and their loose affiliation of fellow-travellers sooner or later (though they’re mostly stunningly dim, so perhaps not). Donald Trump will disappoint and betray them as he always does to those who put their faith and trust in him. He can do no better. But racist white supremacists have far more reason for confidence in his dedication to their cause than anyone else, and he has signalled once again that he is firmly on their side.

Much of the criticism of these new young Nazis, most of whom are little more than wishy-washy weekend fascists trying on a shocking costume as they stumble around in search of an identity, has focused on the unAmerican-ness of fascism. But as we’ve seen, the ideological bedrock of the Lost Cause and the patriot movement is deeply entrenched in American history. Indeed, in both cases, much of the heavy lifting of self-justification of baldly undeniable treasonous resistance to the authority and legitimacy of American government is achieved by a historical appeal to the founding national myth of the Revolutionary War. Confederate rebels during the war (and their venerators well afterwards) thought themselves the Second Coming of the Sons of Liberty, defending the social order enshrined by slaveowning Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence from a changing, confused, bastardized nation that had lost its way. From their self-given moniker, it should likewise be obvious that the patriot movement considers itself the heirs to the righteous rebels of the 1770 & 1780s, upholding their constitutional right to keep themselves well-armed in the event that they would need to revolt against government tyranny once again.

The alt-right, as the social-media-savvy millenials arguing for everything from anti-Muslim laws to unfettered gun ownership to rollbacks of LGBT and minority rights to old-fashioned racist views of the inferiority of blacks to whites with Facebook posts and Tweetstorms and YouTube video essays, have marinated in the juices of the various Lost Causes of the Right for their entire adult lives. They can trumpet these ideas without understanding them, without conceiving of the contours of their consequences, and certainly without having witnessed the damage those ideas can do. They dip their toes in water that runs deep and cold, toss around casual extremisms in meme form like so many skipping stones as the ghostly corpses of past horrors float up beneath the surface like in the Dead Marshes. But the past cannot be simply retweeted. Its roots entangle us all, and they will drag us down if we do not cut ourselves free from them, from time to time. Now, Americans appear to be coming upon just such a time.

Film Review: Dunkirk

August 6, 2017 Leave a comment

Dunkirk (2017; Directed by Christopher Nolan)

Christopher Nolan’s first shot of the infamous beach of Dunkirk, France is fastidiously regimented and technically ordered, as is his habit and his wont. When a British Army private named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), the last survivor of his retreating squad, stumbles onto the beach from which more than 330,000 Allied soldiers were evacuated to save them from the advancing German forces in late May and early June of 1940, he finds not chaotic terror and demoralized disarray, but orderly, geometrically-arranged columns of soldiers and materiel. Framed between rod-straight vertical flagpoles and the natural horizontal progression of beach, waterline, surf, sea, and sky, Nolan composes the notoriously desperate, frantic, and hellish Operation Dynamo as history’s grandest queueing exercise. This 70mm panorama view (like much of Nolan’s blockbuster work, the film was also shot and exhibited in IMAX, but never in dreaded, gimmicky 3D) of a pivotal event in human history’s deadliest war is carefully composed and impeccably clean. Even the sand on the beach appears to have been painstakingly raked; perhaps the BEF evacuees decided to do some calming zen gardening while they waited for rescue?

In case the observation being made is unclear, Nolan’s Dunkirk is predicated on a certain visual and functional incongruity from the hard-edged realities of the Second World War even while it strives to replicate the unbearable sensory tension of the war-zone experience. Jonathan Raban, in a perceptive piece on the film for The Stranger, notes that incongruity on the basis of the remembered experiences of his father, a survivor of Dunkirk. Raban recalls the memorable, five-minute tracking one-shot of the Dunkirk beach from Joe Wright’s 2007 film Atonement as a truer re-creation of the surreal horror and bedraggled absurdity of the evacuation, and indeed of the whole terrible, pitiful war. No less technically impressive than Nolan’s Dunkirk and a fraction of the length, the sequence in Atonement is infinitely psychologically (and, perhaps, artistically) deeper and richer.

This is not to say that Dunkirk is not excellent, potent, inherently impressive filmmaking. Or that its metronome-ticking rhythmic shifts between uneasy anticipation and smothering intensity are not, in their way, accurate representations of the lived experience of war. If Nolan’s controlled direction and fine shot-making, assisted by the cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema, can trespass into the too-perfect, the nigh-on precious, then other technical elements bring the full weight of craftsmanship and vision to bear with powerful affect. The sound design, in particular, is spectacular and extremely effective; when Luftwaffe planes make their first bombing and strafing pass over the sitting-duck soldiers on the beach, the roar of their engines is that of a swooping, avenging valkyrie, bent on soul-reaving. Shrill and penetrating, the sound evokes the terrifying sensation of an air assault better than any other film I can recall.

Since this is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, the story of the British soldiers’ peril and the efforts to evacuate them is told non-linearly. Cutting between events on the beach, on the sea, and in the air and covering the respective time of a week, a day, and an hour for each location, Dunkirk is arranged not by direct chronology but more in the interest of maximizing tension and impact. Characters’ dire predicaments – white-knuckle dogfights between RAF and Luftwaffe, escapes from sinking boats and planes, contentious bottle-episode dramas on board watercraft – are arranged to crescendo in concert with each other rather than for strict temporal or even thematic reasons. Hans Zimmer’s unsettled score of rising anticipation of disaster (while no match for his remarkable work for Nolan’s last film, Interstellar) contributes greatly to this overwhelming feeling of dread anticipation.

The tone and feel of Dunkirk is delineated so strong primarily because it must be, as its characters are purposely not. Plenty of capable and recognizable actors show up in the almost exclusively-male ensemble cast (a female nurse literally has a single line, and that’s it for women here). Frequent Nolan collaborator Tom Hardy is one of the RAF pilots (along with Jack Lowden), his face once again hidden behind a mask (a flight one, this time); Oscar-winner Mark Rylance is a weekend sailor who answers the Britain-wide call for small craft to ferry men from the beach at Dunkirk to the deeper-draught Royal Navy ships further offshore, and another Nolan fave, Cillian Murphy, is a traumatized officer he saves from the water; Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy are the commanding officers of the evacuation from the beach, while Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, and Harry Styles (of One Direction fame) provide a grunt’s level view of the operation. Although all of Nolan’s actors inhabit their men-at-war archetypes convincingly and a couple of them even have something resembling an arc, the general intent is to depict men caught up in the larger sweep of the grinding war.

Dunkirk became a propaganda cause célèbre for Britain in the dark, dispiriting early days of WWII, a military debacle turned into a tempered victory and patriotic fodder for Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s legendary “we will fight on the beaches” speech to the House of Commons that steeled the nation for the forthcoming hunkering-down of the Battle of Britain. Although Nolan thrills and unnerves his audience by putting his characters in deadly peril, he does not telegraph their emotional responses with anything resembling the manipulative hand of, say, Steven Spielberg; the peril is impressionist, experiential, not necessarily empathetic in intent or effect.

The heroism celebrated in Dunkirk is of a stereotypically British stiff-upper-lip sort, driven by grim survivalism and undergirded always with firm, understated duty-bound commitment. Nolan does allow himself a moment or two of inspirational uplift: Hardy’s Spitfire heroics earn some throaty climactic cheers, as does the arrival of the greatly mythologized “little ships” at a moment of great despair for the evacuees. The latter scene is quite nearly indulgent and mawkish, with Branagh heralding the boats’ appearance with the word “Hope!” and Zimmer allowing his score to swell the heart just a bit. But the stoic eyes-forward poses of the flotilla crews save the moment from sentimentality; it’s on to the task, old chap, no need for fussing.

This focus on the task, on the ineffable realness of every moment onscreen, defines Dunkirk. It’s undeniably intense and immediate, resisting rote mythologizing almost (but not quite) to the last. Nolan’s approach and visual style can be a bit too clean and regimented to handle the full, ragged spectrum of the horrors of war, it’s true. But then human emotional trauma being smoothed over (erased, even) by sophisticated technical organization is also a vital part of the story of war, particularly of World War II, in which that organization, when combined with technological developments and mass mobilization of people, products, and ideas, produced great horrors on the battlefield and greater ones off of it. Dunkirk may not be especially good at representing the breadth and complexity of human history’s most cataclysmic conflict, but it is highly superior at drilling deep into the experience of a single, defining episode of that conflict and rendering it for a modern audience with powerful, intelligible clarity.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews