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Film Review: Us

March 26, 2019 Leave a comment

Us (2019; Directed by Jordan Peele)

Before almost anything else happens in Us, Jordan Peele’s anticipated follow-up to his widely-acclaimed, Oscar-winning, high-grossing, conversation-starting debut smash “social horror” film Get Out, we in the captive audience are having Bible verses thrown at us. When little girl Adelaide Thomas (Madison Curry) wanders away from her half-soused, whack-a-mole-playing father (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) at the Santa Cruz boardwalk amusement park in 1986, she passes a ragged transient holding a handmade cardboard sign with “Jeremiah 11:11” scrawled on it. Adelaide will wander into a house of mirrors and have an encounter that changes her life and the fate of the world, but as in so many other moments in Us, Peele is gesturing at deeper meanings via the conduit of the intertext.

Jeremiah, Chapter 11, Verse 11 in the King James Version of the Bible reads:

Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.

Esquire‘s Matt Miller rounds up the lion’s share of the implications of this verse in terms of the premise and conclusions of Us, so I shan’t repeat the work (though be warned that he and I both delve into spoilers; of the movie, that is, not the Bible). But Jeremiah 11:11 is central to Peele’s dominant racial, social, and political metaphor in Us, and it simultaneously acts as a reflective hint (the duality of 11:11 is repeated in television sports scores and alarm clock digital readouts) at the doppelgänger premise of a story that operates much more as a straight (although intelligent and self-aware) horror-thriller than Get Out did.

In the present day, adult mother Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is spending summer vacation near Santa Cruz with her family: her husband Gabe Wilson (a very funny Winston Duke, Nyong’o’s Black Panther co-star), her smartphone-absorbed teen track star Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and her son Jason (Evan Alex), who is a bit awkward and is never without the double horror-movie-history nod of a Jaws shirt and a wolfman mask. Adelaide becomes alarmed and nervous when Gabe tells her that they are to meet their friends – strained but well-off married couple Josh and Kitty Tyler (Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss) and their teen daughters (Cali and Noelle Sheldon), who, given the themes of duality at play, are of course twins – at the Santa Cruz beach, setting of her childhood trauma. Adelaide panics when she loses track of her son there, while Jason has a premonitory glimpse of horrors to come. But things get truly frightening that night, when the Wilsons’ summer home is visited by a family very like them. Almost exactly like them, in fact.

Without quite giving away the whole of Us‘s game (though much of it, so watch for falling spoilers), the Wilsons come face-to-face with their red-jumpsuited, single-gloved, golden-scissors-wielding doubles, who hail from a disturbing subterranean mirror-world located in underground tunnel networks stretching across the country (at least a little like those in Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad), whose rooms and halls also noticeably and provocatively resemble a public school. Known as the Tethered, they are mute, lobotomized slaves (not at all an off-base comparison) to the whims of their doubles on the surface, doomed to robotically replicate their movements like so many dumb puppets, or like human shadows (an association hinted at visually by a fine overhead shot from Peele’s cinematographer Mike Gioulakis of the family walking along the beach, their long shadows stretched on the sand). Adelaide’s shadow Red has had enough of the Tethered’s subjugation, and, believing herself marked by God for a special purpose after meeting Adelaide years before, has launched a joint bloody revolution and symbolic demonstration to put an end to it.

Peele’s premise for Us is a hybrid of a 1960 The Twilight Zone episode about a woman and her evil doppelgänger and the Eloi and the Morlocks of The Time Machine, H.G. Wells’ proto-science-fiction allegory for Victorian England’s socioeconomic disparity. White rabbits abound in the underground as well, referencing the animal guide into Lewis Carroll’s fantasyland of unreality Alice in Wonderland. The Tethered and their role in relation to their surface doubles is Peele’s charged metaphor for the history of African-Americans as an exploited underclass, whose hidden toil makes the comfort and privilege of middle- and upper-class white Americans possible. The film’s title, after all, might be read as US (United States), and when Adelaide asked Red who she and her family are, the eerie but revealing answer in Nyong’o strangled vocalization is, “We are Americans” (Nyong’o, both as Adelaide and especially as the graceful but twisted Red, is incredible; post-modern horror queen Toni Collette had better watch her back).

It could be argued that the Tethered represent poor minorities in general, but the symbolism of African-American enslavement is paramount: Adelaide spends much of the movie handcuffed, ie. in chains, and Red’s “fucked-up performance art” revolutionary stunt is an eerie re-creation by her shadow-people of the Hands Across America charity event of 1986, in which human beings literally embody the chain. One might likewise quibble that the precise nature of the Tethered underclass is of hazily-defined provenance and utility, but one shouldn’t discount the possibility that this entirely is Peele’s point: the maintenance of a permanent racial underclass by the ruling elites in America is often understood as having a macroeconomic impetus, but maybe it really is just a symbolically and surreally cruel charade with no overarching teleological function worth quantifying. Often, the cruelty is the point.

As in Get Out, these grander allegorical meanings of Us are accompanied and enticingly flavoured by social observations and cathartic humour. The black Wilsons are clearly comfortable socioeconomically (they can afford a summer home, after all), but Gabe in particular is stung that the white Tylers, despite being stupid and vain people, are a cut above them wealth-wise. Director Peele, his production designer Ruth de Jong, and his costume designer Kym Barrett show us this in ways both blatant and subtle. The Tylers’ summer home is noticeably more luxurious and modernly-decorated than the Wilsons’ homey, dated one, and similar gaps are evident (and are noted by Gabe) in the quality of their respective cars and boats. At the beach, Josh wears a black t-shirt with the Fragile label and broken wine-glass symbol on it, perhaps hinting at the fragility of white identity (maybe a bit of a stretch) as well as the careless alcoholism that he and his wife, who despise each other, rely upon to make interaction tolerable; as the Tethered terrorize the Wilsons through the night, Gabe is wearing a Howard University sweatshirt, marking him as an educated member of the African-American bourgeoisie.

Social politics abound in Us. When the Wilsons call the police when confronted by the Tethered, the 5-0’s promised response time is unfortunately slow, and in the end they don’t show up at all; one might nitpickingly accuse Peele of simply forgetting that the cops were supposed to be on the way, but again it’s just as likely that a point is being made about the police’s fraught relationship to African-Americans and crime, as it was in that gut-turning appearance of flashing lights at the climax of Get Out. In a later dark comic inversion, when Kitty tries to call the police during the attack of her family’s Tethered doppelgängers (Moss has one astounding horror reaction as Kitty’s shadow-person in this sequence, an agonized cry melting into maniacal laughter, that should also make Toni Collette nervous), her Alexa/Google Home digital assistant pod (called Ophelia after the tragic suicide case in Hamlet, because Jordan Peele has read books and thinks you ought to know it) misunderstands, and the last thing she hears is NWA’s ‘Fuck tha Police”. There’s even a moment that constitutes an added chapter in Peele’s career-spanning dissertation on code switching: when Gabe’s polite, respectability-coded request to the creepy lurking Tethered to leave his family alone fails to elicit a response, he tries again, this time wielding a baseball bat and talking a tougher, more aggressive street-talk-coded game.

As you might have gathered from these scattered observations, Us is a rich and ambitious but not always focused and coherent text in its political and social metaphors. Get Out likewise indulged a variety of ideas about race and social norms, but it snapped neatly and potently into place when the central body-snatching premise was made manifest in all of its terrible dimension. Perhaps, amidst Get Out‘s thunderous success, Jordan Peele was put off, if only a little, by how his film’s thesis was smoothly delineated in so many critiques and thinkpieces. Perhaps Us is the reaction to that, a film full of charged ideas and symbols and reference-points that is less confidently parsed and interpreted, an unruly work whose meanings don’t stand still and allow themselves to be deconstructed and apprehended.

But on the subject of unruly texts that defy firm interpretation, let’s return to that biblical quotation. Jeremiah 11:11 evokes a judgemental Old Testament deity unleashing punishment and misery on those he deems unworthy of his supposedly boundless mercy and love, chillingly unmoved by the pitiful appeals of his fragile creations for clemency. Jordan Peele’s Us conceives of this terrifying, inequitous tableaux as the model for the relation of the powerful to the powerless, which in America is always already a relation predicated on and inextricably tied up in race. It’s the painful flip side of the coin of the liberation theology of the African-American church that has held such a central role in the history of the African-American community’s organization and agitation for its civil rights, but which in its long-arc-of-justice incremental approach might well be seen by a more militant and less god-fearing activist generation as being insufficient to the challenges facing Black America. Us uses Jeremiah 11:11 as a pointed riposte to liberation theology: if an all-powerful God intends to set African-Americans free one day if only their collective faith is strong enough, why has he put them in chains in the first place, and been blithely deaf to centuries of his purported children’s cries for aid? If he intends to do good – indeed is the shining, remote, omnipotent epitome of good – why does he bring inescapable evil upon us?

The Tethered’s bloody uprising is the apocalyptic answer to this blithe unconcern for the plight of the vulnerable, on the part of God or White America or the government or elites in general or the common polity in general. Of course, even this imagined horror-movie revolution is hardly simple, straightforward, or uncompromised, and Peele prods insistently at his audience’s empathy for the shadow-people and their uncanny plight just as he deploys them as his stalking monsters. So much of the meaning of Us is tied up in the symbols and intertextual associations that Peele deploys liberally (there is an essay to be written on the visual nods to Michael Jackson, in child Adelaide’s Thriller t-shirt and the Tethered’s single-glove aesthetic), but quite probably its ultimate point is dropped into view with the film’s final twist, which for all of the spoilers I’ve delved into so far, I wouldn’t dream of revealing (I will only say to watch the clues around Adelaide, especially the foreshadowing of how Peele and Gioulakis shoot her in the scene in which she tells Gabe about her traumatic experience on the Santa Cruz beach as a child). Us is another expertly crafted elevated entertainment from Jordan Peele, and it shakes us just enough to make our question our place in a world that is never for a moment as safe or as fair as it may seem.

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Film Review: Little Dieter Needs to Fly

March 22, 2019 Leave a comment

Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997; Directed by Werner Herzog)

A documentary film about war, survival, beauty, madness, dreams, nightmares, heroism, barbarism, triumph, absurdity, and above all memory, Werner Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly evokes and summons more depth of meaning and indelible thought and fascinating ambiguity in a barely-feature-length 80 minutes than most films, fiction or non-fiction, can muster in twice that running time. It relates the incredible (and quite possibly embellished) story of German-American Navy pilot Dieter Dengler’s imprisonment in Laos and escape to Thailand after being shot down during the Vietnam War, mostly through Dengler’s own overflowing narrations of remembrance, but also through odd re-staged re-enactments of his time in the jungles of Southeast Asia featuring the aged Dengler himself alongside hired locals, and some archival wartime footage as well.

Like many of Herzog’s documentary subjects, Dengler is both a semi-autobiographical reflection of the inimitable (though often hilariously imitated online) German director and a profile of a figure entirely alien to his own (hardly proscribed) experience that deeply fascinates Herzog and his camera. Growing up in the abject poverty and starvation of post-war Germany as Herzog did, Dengler (who hailed from the Black Forest village of Wildberg in Baden-Württemberg, not too far from Herzog’s native Bavaria) became fascinated with flying during a wartime bombing raid on his village and moved to the U.S. to become a pilot, eventually working his way into the cockpit of a Navy fighter over Laos, where he was shot down in 1966. Captured by Pathet Lao guerrillas and eventually handed over to the Viet Cong, Dengler endured imprisonment and torture and witnessed myriad bizarre and brutal episodes in the sweltering jungle before escaping improbably and returning to the U.S. as a decorated veteran (Herzog returned to Dengler’s story with a more conventional Hollywood action movie telling, directing Rescue Dawn with Christian Bale in 2007).

Herzog introduces Dengler as an older man (he died in 2001, four years after the release of the film, as a postscript of his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery reveals), who is disarmingly voluble, bracingly forthright, and marked by his experiences in psychologically visibile ways. His house sits high on Mount Tamalpais in the Muir Woods north of San Francisco, which gives him a sense of security; one episode Dengler relates from his Laotian experiences involved scaling a mountain’s heights to escape his captors and (unsuccessfully) signal rescuers. He is shown obsessive-compulsively opening and closing his car and house doors numerous times, which he effusively explains is a reminder to himself to cherish his freedom, in remembrance of his imprisonment; he also hangs multiple paintings of open doors in his entryway, probably for the same reason (although Herzog, always ready to stage-manage the “reality” of a documentary in search of deeper truths about his subjects, crafted the moment for that effect; Dengler claimed that he only bought the paintings because they were such a good deal). Little Dieter Needs to Fly gives off the distinct impression that Dieter Dengler would be a strange man even if he had not suffered through what he suffered through in the jungles of Laos, but his eccentricity was more extremely shaped by those experiences.

But how much does Dengler, who relishes the storytelling and being put through the re-enactment scenes like a born performer, shape those experiences himself? In many cases, he is the only witness (or the only identifiable, surviving, English-speaking witness) to what happened in the jungle. His reminscences are so vividly, minutely detailed that they carry the whiff of hyperbole at least, if not fabrication. They are often quite literally unbelievable. Little Dieter Needs to Fly is not an open door on this question, but then the documentary films of Werner Herzog are not documents of bare, useless fact but existential quests through the swamps of lived reality for deeper, more mystical truths. All of their narrators are unreliable, because to be human is to be unreliable, unknowable, a well and a mirror of memory and experience.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly is also the rare Vietnam War film that does not stake out a stance about the conflict, let alone about conflict in general. Dengler’s prison camp sufferings are not understood by Herzog to be reflective of any particular injustice or larger political project, and they are not pivoted purposely against either the imperialist American war machine or the repressive communist state apparatus. They are points on an endlessly stretched-out continuum of barbarous fellowship, the infinite ribbon of violent and intimate proximity that constitutes human civilization, forever sustained and obliterated by armed conflict. Herzog even finds an incongruous and twisted beauty in modern warfare, interspersing hypnotic aerial footage of American bombing runs over Southeast Asian jungle villages. Scored by otherworldly traditional Tuvan throat singing and his trademarked narration characterizing the images as a “distant, barbaric dream”, Herzog edits devastating slow-motion napalm explosions to resemble precious unfolding flowers in an apocalyptic spring. He sees art in destruction, but not as fascistic romance like Marinetti did but as something alien, unfamiliar, and dangerous in its beauty, like the magnificence of a remote galactic supernova.

When Dengler’s Viet Cong guards try to make him sign a statement against America’s actions in Southeast Asia (many U.S. POWs did, especially after persistent torture), he flatly refuses. He harkens back to his grandfather, who suffered terrible reprisals when he would not cast his vote for Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party during World War II, and tries to emulate his strength of will and conscience. The connection between German fascists and Vietnamese communists is not an ideological one for Dengler, nor is it based in wider historical sweep. It’s family history, personal principle, psychological bedrock. History, like memory, is fluid and subjective, and what it is most subject to is perspective. Little Dieter Needs to Fly is a marvel of perspective, and, like all films by Werner Herzog, a unique, strange, and indelible experience.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: First Man

First Man (2018; Directed by Damien Chazelle)

First Man is a space exploration movie that is sturdily, even stubbornly earthbound. Like the version of its focal character played by Ryan Gosling, Damien Chazelle’s biographical drama about NASA engineer and astronaut, American icon, and first human being to step onto the moon Neil Armstrong is determined, practical, and emotionally reticent, expending maximum effort on technical accuracy and experiential fidelity and allotting naught but a bare sliver of space to wonder and transcendence. As with many recent Hollywood films of note, First Man was burdened (and, perhaps, its box office and awards prospects weakened) by a boundingly moronic bad faith controversy (“con-troversy”, I call them, emphasis very much on the “con”) driven by jingoistic online-right reactionaries disappointed that Chazelle did not show Armstrong plant the American flag on the moon’s surface like a boastful interplanetary conquistador. Even the Con-in-Chief, U.S. President Donald Trump, weighed in stupidly on First Man‘s mortal representational sin.

Even if the Right’s self-serving whipped-up outrage over the missing flag-planting hadn’t blocked First Man from their sight like an artificial eclipse, it’s doubtful that these arrogant, magical-thinking nationalists would have found much to like in the film anyway. Chazelle, directing a screenplay by Josh Singer based on James R. Hansen’s book, gives us a profile of Neil Armstrong that is doggedly unromanticized, emphasizing his stoic work ethic, his ever-increasing matter-of-fact nature, and stone-faced emotional bottling in the face of recurring, agonizing tragedies. Gosling plays Armstrong as a man who puts his head down and presses on through pain and danger that consumes men around him, and wins enough saving throws to get through NASA’s sometimes lethally audacious Gemini and Apollo programs with his skin intact and, almost incidentally, with his name etched in the annals of human history.

But Gosling’s internally-contained performance also clearly registers how Armstrong’s professionally-focused march to immortality comes at the cost of his family and personal relationships. The early part of First Man details the devastating loss of Armstrong’s daughter Karen to a brain tumour. Armstrong tracks her symptoms and treatment options in a notebook, displaying a methodical approach that serves him well with NASA but makes her death no less inevitably or agonizing. The tears he sheds for her are last that we see stain his cheeks, and he buries almost any hint of open emotional communication with her. This walling off of Neil Armstrong from the world increasingly strains his relationship to his wife Janet (Claire Foy, doing remarkable things with the usually thankless wife role), who he eventually separated from and then divorced in the 1990s, and to his two sons (Gavin Warren and Connor Colton Blodgett), who he can barely bring himself to say goodbye to before his fateful (and very possibly deadly) trip to the moon on Apollo 11. Armstrong retreats ever further into himself and into his work, even as that work claims the lives of colleagues close to him like Elliot See (Patrick Fugit) and Ed White (Jason Clarke), the latter one of three astronauts to perish in the Apollo 1 fire.

First Man contrasts the earthbound scenes of Armstrong building up his personal walls with white-knuckle sequences of Armstrong tensely striving against the gargantuan forces of spatial physics. More so, perhaps it actually likens the scenarios that face him on earth and in space: Armstrong strains to survive against forces that would crush him pitilessly, protected only by the shuddering but stalwart metal armour of the space capsules. The space flight scenes operate as embodied metaphors for his personal life. What does Neil Armstrong do on earth but rely on similar armour to protect him from being crushed by forces of feeling that are all the more terrible to him for being unquantifiable and unmeasurable, unlike the realm of math and physics of rocket science? There’s a breaking-point tension to these scenes: his opening atmospheric test flight, his Gemini 8 orbital flight with David Scott (Christopher Abbott) that sees Armstrong narrowly avert disaster with timely ingenuity, and finally the nail-biting climactic lunar landing alongside Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), with the red digital fuel indicator counting down ominously and Justin Hurwitz’s score pulsing with mortal urgency. But for Gosling’s Armstrong, none are as tense and terrifying as looking his sons in the eye and willing himself to tell them that they may never see him again.

First Man functions as a demystifying artistic document as regards the mythical Neil Armstrong, who, at least in Gosling’s no-nonsense incarnation, would not have long suffered the grasping, grubby fools who sought to use him to represent the dubiously-conceived positions of their cause in the 21st-century American culture wars. But it also demystifies the inner workings of 1960s NASA: it’s a workplace, albeit a high-stakes and highly specialized one, with its rivalries and alliances, where the personnel decisions behind history-making missions are mostly about whose turn it is. And it leaves time, in a tonally incongruous but undeniably interesting montage aside, to demonstrate the contemporary disagreement about and criticism of the American space program. Although now beknighted and glorified by the boomer-centric epistemological elite for its leaping aspirational achievements, the U.S. space program’s literally astronomical costs and risks were controversial across the political spectrum in the 1960s, and Chazelle cheekily scores a compilation of these protests with a re-creation of jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” performed by Leon Bridges.

This sort of demystification is particularly abhored by the breed of power-worshipping authoritarian nationalists who criticized First Man sight unseen, like Trump and Republican Senator Marco Rubio (who called the choice not to show the lunar flag-planting in the film “total lunacy”, which makes one wonder how he would characterize his party’s legislative agenda). The complications of history and human psychology, the limitations and minutiae of science and engineering, and the realities of messy political and social non-consensus give the lie to their propagandistic fantasies of manifest destiny reaching into the cold, dark immensity of space. First Man very skillyfully and compellingly turns Neil Armstrong from an icon into a man, and transforms his historic steps on the moon from an act of immortality into the laboured achievement of a mortal, of many mortals. It brings this astronaut down to earth, and in the process tells us more about him than any number of jingoistic skyhopping hagiographies ever could.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: Chappaquiddick

February 3, 2019 Leave a comment

Chappaquiddick (2018; Directed by John Curran)

What was it that the Kennedys meant to America? Did they leave a real, tangible mark on American politics, society, and culture, or was the brief, flaming-out ascendance of their heavily-compromised brand of masculine-coded New England brahmin liberalism in the 1960s of simple (or not so entirely simple) symbolic value? The romanticized patina of the presidency of John F. Kennedy, ended with assassin’s bullets in Dallas in 1963, was referred to with puffy chivalric non-irony as Camelot, and it’s arguable that the achievements of JFK’s administration were quite comprehensively eclipsed by camera-friendly appearances and the hindsight mythos of his martrydom (they were also outdone by the much more important legislative advancements of Lyndon B. Johnson’s succeeding administration, although both Democratic presidencies were fatally compromised by the expansion of the Vietnam War). Essentially, reality swamped by fantasy, in a manner that reflects, in a rudimentary funhouse mirror way, the complete devastation of reality at the hands of fantasy of the present presidential moment.

John Curran’s Chappaquiddick captures the moment at which the hard pitiless difficulty of reality – random, amoral, and unconcerned with justice or legacies or human intent or emotional fulfillment – most finally and most irrevocably caught up with the Kennedys, when the boundlessly consuming ambitions of the clan at last ran out of spare male scions upon which to lay the mantle of hopeful power. Over a weekend in July 1969, as the Apollo 11 crew set first foot on the moon in a vindication of JFK’s inaugural speech pledge to put an American on the lunar surface as an aspirational image of national courage, spirit and ingenuity, his younger brother Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy (Jason Clarke) drove his car off a dike bridge on the island of Chappaquiddick on Martha’s Vineyard off the Massachusetts coast, leading to the death by drowning of his also-slain brother Robert F. Kennedy’s former staffer Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara).

Ted Kennedy’s confused and shambolic response – he did not report the incident until 10 hours later, seems to have tried to suppress some details and positively spin others at several points, and later clownishly showed up to Kopechne’s funeral wearing a neck brace that he clearly did not need – deepened a PR crisis that erupted in the U.S. media once the glow of Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind faded from the headlines. Although Ted later ran for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President in 1980 (losing to incumbent President Jimmy Carter, who then lost the White House to Republican candidate Ronald Reagan), the Chappaquiddick incident was widely understood to have cost Ted Kennedy any hope of ever ascending to the highest political office in the United States.

The careful, procedurally-minded, step-after-step approach of Chappaquiddick shows effectively how poor the judgement of Ted Kennedy and his immediate circle was in the aftermath of the incident (which, of course, showed literally fatally poor judgement in the first place). Kennedy cousin and close advisor Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) acts as the exasperated voice of moral reason, while the imperious family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. (Bruce Dern) – physically reduced by a stroke and months from the grave but still as unbowed and unscrupulous as ever – raspily urges his last surviving son to craft an alibi and summons a cadre of canny suits (including Clancy Brown as former Secretary of State Robert McNamara) to cover up and spin the situation as much as still may be possible.

Chappaquiddick notes that Edward Kennedy went on to four distinguished decades in the U.S. Senate (where he likely leveraged more influence on the direction of the country than he would have in four or eight years in the White House), and it treats his martyred elder brothers (not only John and Robert but eldest brother Joseph, Jr., killed in action in World War II) and their political and personal legacy as a model to which he could never hope to live up to. Indeed, while the script (by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan) is careful not to even hint at any sexual impropriety between Ted Kennedy and Kopechne (which was always forefront in the rumours and innuendo about the incident), it characterizes the Senator as being hopelessly weighed down under the pressure of the expectations of his greatness.

The crash on Chappaquiddick Island, this film suggests, was the final instance of Edward Kennedy crumbling under those expectations of his family, his country, and above all of his iron-willed father. In the scenes leading up to the crash and flashing back to before it happened to reveal additional details, director Curran and lead actor Clarke portray Ted Kennedy as being not so much drunk on alcohol (though maybe he was also that) but mentally and physically disoriented and exhausted by self-doubt and despair at the thought (perhaps the certainty) of failing to live up to those expectations. Kopechne is intelligent and sympathetic (we have patriarchy to thank for having needy man-children like Kennedy and not capable women like her as natural assumed leader material), and attempts to comfort, or steady, or understand this weak man who is supposed to be a great one. That effort sucks her into his vortex, and costs her life.

“I’m not gonna be President,” Clarke’s Ted Kennedy utters to Gargan as he returns from the crash site to seek his friend’s aid. Clarke is careful to imbue the necessary weight and sadness in his character’s voice as he says this, but surely there must have been a sore temptation for him to express a note of relief as well. One core premise of Chappaquiddick, made explicit in Clarke’s final scene with Dern’s wheelchair-bound Joseph Kennedy, is that Edward Kennedy never wanted to be President, whether or not Mary Jo Kopechne’s death made that impossible. The mythic Kennedy curse is invoked, but maybe the curse of Edward Kennedy and his elder brothers was one of inheritance, not merely of their difficult father’s character (or, more psychologically compelling, as a result of that difficult character) but of a patriarchal masculine hero complex (perhaps more firmly inculcated into the younger three after the eldest’s war hero demise) that refused to release them from its domineering grasp for even scant moments of respite.

This male hero complex, a cultural inheritance of the sort of chivalric knighthood romance that was being invoked with the Camelot moniker, is still often lionized by traditionalists and conservatives as a catalogue of lost virtue. But we know from the #MeToo moment of our culture, and can see from Chappaquiddick‘s case study example, that these conceptual frameworks of male power and superiority not only preclude emotional self-examination and psychological honesty in a manner damaging to men and to those around them, they also compel immoral (or at least self-interestedly amoral) conduct in those powerful men when the fanciful assumption intended to justify those codes is that they should compel moral conduct instead.

One ought not to suggest that John and Robert Kennedy were assassinated because they adhered to this code, but their younger brother’s troubles as re-created in Chappaquiddick can be traced straight back to it, and are. Hardened by self-righteous anger, Helms’ Joe Gargan confronts Ted Kennedy at one point during his messy, disheartening response to the crash that, after all, killed another person, telling him that he is not a victim. But Ted Kennedy, like most men reared in his time, is a victim, though not in the way that Gargan is thinking of.

Chappaquiddick feeds into the narcissism of focusing on male suffering when it is in truth eclipsed by the suffering of others with the misfortune not to be important men, but it also subtly tracks, so deep in the subtextual background that it could easily be missed, that this narcissism (a trait not alien to the Kennedys, whatever other positive things might be said about them) can also be debilitating, a peculiar species of slow-poison curse. There is a tension of surface and depths, fantasy and reality, political spin and bare human tragedy, in Chappaquiddick. As in the case of the real-life incident as well as in the case of the Kennedy political legacy, that is a tension that is never, and inherently can never be, satisfactorily resolved.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Outlaw King

January 19, 2019 Leave a comment

Outlaw King (2018; Directed by David Mackenzie)

It’s fascinating to watch Scottish director David Mackenzie’s earthily epic narrative telling of the initial stages of early-14th-century Scottish monarch Robert the Bruce’s largely successful wars of resistance and independence against the English crown in comparative contrast with its much more famous historical counterpart, Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning biographical epic of contemporaneous Scottish rebel warrior William Wallace, Braveheart. Outlaw King operates partly as a parallel story to Braveheart: Wallace is mentioned a few times in the first act, and his execution by the English is constructed (somewhat inaccurately) as an impetus for the Bruce’s own rising, so that if one was so inclined it would not be difficult to imagine that previous narrative of medieval Scottish-English warfare taking place somewhere just out of frame.

This makes Outlaw King a sequel of sorts to Braveheart, a sequel-in-spirit more than an intentional continuation. But to a greater extent, it functions as a corrective text, setting straight the story that Mel Gibson turned into such a self-serving Hollywoodized myth in 1995. Robert the Bruce was made an equivocating fence-sitter in Braveheart, whose doubting-Peter unwillingness to commit to Wallace’s rebellion cost Gibson’s mud-splattered paladin of freedom his life in a Christ-like sacrifice (Gibson has always loved those, which is why he literally filmed one a few years later). History tells us, of course, that despite swearing fealty to the English Crown and pledging not to take arms against it, Robert did eventually commit and accomplished what Wallace could not: Scottish independence from England, maintained by his descendants for centuries. He was the one actually called “Braveheart”, not Wallace; after his death, his heart was transported at his request to Southern Spain on Crusade by his right-hand man Sir James Douglas and, according to romantic poetry sources at least, tossed symbolically into the midst of battle against the Moors. But he did what he did as a more complex, compromised, and flawed figure than Wallace, or at least than Gibson’s absurdly lionized version of Wallace.

This complicated antihero profile (emphasized by the title card of Mackenzie’s film, which inserts a slash between “outlaw” and “king” to gesture at Robert’s dualized nature) marks Outlaw King‘s Robert the Bruce, played by Chris Pine, as a cultural figure of the moment, with all the good and bad associations that entails. In retrospect, Braveheart was the last gasp of a more traditional and soon-to-expire version of Hollywood historical fiction that almost entirely jettisoned the history for the fiction (the film’s depiction of belted plaid kilts in medieval Scotland remains the gold standard for period anachronism onscreen, for my money). Outlaw King is the reflection of the same sort of cultural view of the Middle Ages that Braveheart trafficked in, one characterized by violence, dirt-bound poverty, ritualized superstition, and brutality par excellence, what Umberto Eco classified as “Barbaric Age” medievalism and what Shiloh Carroll has called (largely in reference to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and its hit companion TV series Game of Thrones) “grimdark” medievalism. This more grim and realistic depiction of the medieval era (where “realism” generally means plenty of mud) is offered as an overcompensatory corrective to the colourful, scrubbed-up, ren-faire version of the chivalric Middle Ages derived from medieval romance poetry, which influenced films set in Medieval Europe for a long time; look at the Errol Flynn classic The Adventures of Robin Hood from 1938, for example, which does not at all seem to be in the same contiguous reality as a much later medieval film like Outlaw King.

Although possessed of a greater level of historical fidelity than Braveheart, Outlaw King still understands the Middle Ages, or at least the warfare in their midst over political power and dynastic succession carried out by feudal society’s war-drilled aristocrats, as a consistently dirty and bloody affair, with none of the trade and agriculture and prosperous plenty and feast-day revelry that characterized much of pre-Black Death High Medieval Europe. To be frank, though, if the barbaric terms of grimdark medievalism did actually apply anywhere on the continent in that era, it was surely in Scotland, with its almost constant warfare both intercenine and inter-state, the latter mostly with the England of King Edward I, known as the Hammer of the Scots for his forceful victories over and pitiless treatment of his country’s northern neighbours.

Outlaw King‘s avatar of that brutal reality is not Edward I (Stephen Dillane of Game of Thrones plays him here as a rusting iron fist) or even his more weak-willed and thus more desperately cruel son, Edward, Prince of Wales (Billy Howle), later Edward II. No, the grimdark ambassador is clearly Robert the Bruce’s lieutenant Sir James Douglas, played by a quite nearly feral Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a canny killer of enemies, a prolific fornicator, and a vicious berserker on the battlefield. Outlaw King‘s battles and skirmishes and slayings are prodigiously gory, full of mutilated bodies and bursts of red mist, and Taylor-Johnson’s the Black Douglas is ever at its blood-pumping heart. Outlaw King includes a rendition of the infamous Douglas Larder episode of the Wars of Scottish Independence, in which Douglas and his men-at-arms infiltrated his home seat of Douglas Castle and ruthless assaulted the English garrison that holds it, ambushing and slaying men as they prayed in the chapel (as an applicable side note, James Douglas’ great-great grandsons, the elder of them the 6th Earl of Douglas, were the fatal targets of the infamous “Black Dinner”, the model for George R.R. Martin’s centerpiece of grimdark medieval violence in A Song of Ice and Fire, the Red Wedding).

But Outlaw King is, after all, about the outlaw king, Robert the Bruce. Played by Pine (surely now established as the most able and gravitas-ready of the Chrises) as a plain, pragmatic, and conflicted moral man who leads more by example than by inspiration. He dutifully lugs his taxes to the English king’s agents but is persuaded to embrace rebellion by a popular riot at the display of the executed William Wallace’s severed arm. He is gentle and loving with his daughter Marjorie (Josie O’Brien) and gives space to his intelligent and strong-willed arranged bride, Irish aristocrat Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh), until she is ready to love him and come to his bed. He is kind and familiar with servants. He is thoughtful and sensitive but determined in adversity, and not boastful in victory. On the cusp of the turning-point Battle of Loundon Hill which forms the film’s climax, he digs strategic ditches alongside his men, and instead of full-lunged exhortations about freedom, his pre-battle pep talk to his troops eschews all the standard appeals to personal and ideological motivating factors in favour of bloody-minded directness: you’re here, now fight and fight hard.

Though still an idealized and glorified figure in many ways, the earthbound directness of Pine’s Robert the Bruce defines the film around him. This is a tremendously pragmatically-minded film, primarily concerned with the grim acceptance of unwavering necessity of action compelled by events, history as action and reaction. When Robert commits his most antihero of acts, the sudden, shocking stabbing of his rival John Comyn (Callan Mulvey) at the altar of a church where they were meeting under supposed truce, this cold-blooded murder is couched as being a snap decision of necessity driven by Comyn’s explicit statement of his intent to reveal Robert’s incipient disloyalty to the English authorities. Although the Bruce claims the mandate of the Scottish people upon his coronation, his rebellion against the English is not defined by fidelity to high ideals but by basic hardscrabble survival. Director David Mackenzie gained wider critical notice with 2016’s Hell or High Water (also starring Pine), a film about men driven to outlaw extremes by moral objections to wider injustice. Outlaw King doesn’t universalize Robert the Bruce’s struggle for an independent Scottish throne and, despite personal grievances between him and the English leaders, doesn’t turn it into a vendetta either. The real Robert the Bruce was ambitious and power-hungry, and Pine’s version isn’t not like that, though not too openly.

Whatever medieval historians might think of the species of social and military realism represented by movies like Outlaw King, there’s something convincing in its understanding of this particular conflict later enshrined as a national struggle as a nasty species of rural gang scuffle, a glorified street battle with swords and mail and lances and horses. It’s hardly a great film despite its handsome production and firm performances, but Outlaw King is a step away from the chest-beating of Braveheart and just maybe, in spite of its dominant grimness, towards a more honest and nuanced representation of the Middle Ages on the big screen.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: BlacKkKlansman

December 19, 2018 Leave a comment

BlacKkKlansman (2018; Directed by Spike Lee)

Spike Lee surely must be master of the problematic nearly-great film. One of the most talented American cinematic craftsmen and capable ideological disseminators of his generation, Lee has nonetheless made frustratingly few above-average films over the past quarter-century. It’s always difficult to diagnose from a remove, but the Spike Lee joints that climb close to greatness since his early-’90s peak – Bamboozled, The 25th Hour, Inside Man, his definitive Hurricane Katrina HBO documentary series When the Levees Broke – accomplish much only to be frustratingly hamstrung by something: generic convention, low-rent production, thwarted ambition, a questionable choice or five. But sometimes that something is very obviously Lee himself, polemically preening and chest-beating and double-underlining his intentions and pushing his luck too far, finally.

BlacKkKlansman nearly makes it to the rarified heights of Lee’s best work (by which we mean Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, though I’m working by reputation alone since I am mortified to admit that I haven’t yet seen either of them to remedy that particular gap in my film history knowledge), only to badly miss its landing. It can be argued, as Sorry to Bother You director Boots Riley did on Twitter upon the film’s release in August, that it’s only by a series of dishonest fabrications and general political wishy-washiness that BlacKkKlansman even approaches those heights. We can consider those complaints in due time as well, and indeed the film’s problems vis-à-vis its supposed “true story”, though strictly speaking lying outside the textual purview itself, are inextricable from the elements of the film text that kneecap its stronger aspects.

BlacKkKlansman is based on the memoir of African-American undercover cop Ron Stallworth (played here by John David Washington). A fresh addition to the Colorado Springs Police Department in the early 1970s, Stallworth chafes at his rookie assignment to the records room and the casual anti-black bigotry of white officers. He presses Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) to use him on undercover work, which the chief eventually does, but only to run intelligence against local black activist groups and surveil a speech in town by former Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael, now going by the Africanized name Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins). Though he is there to sniff out potential black radicalism and threats of insurrectionist violence (the real Stallworth infiltrated and destabilized radical groups along the lines of the FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO program, as Riley notes but Lee does not), Stallworth has a sort of stealth awakening listening to Ture’s words about historical and current oppression of African-Americans. He also meets and becomes involved with a local college’s black student body president and activist, Patrice (Laura Harrier), who doesn’t know he’s a “pig” and would be quick to dump his cop ass if she did.

Perhaps impelled by Ture’s ideas but also seemingly on a random whim (more than a few plot points here feel this way, to be frank), Stallworth dials up the phone number of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter advertised in the newspaper and pretends to be a virulently racist white man (unfortunately while using his real name) who is interested in joining what initiates call “the Organization”. He strikes up a rapport with contacts by repeating bigoted Klan-friendly talking points and even applies for membership, but cannot infiltrate the group in person, for obvious reasons. Fellow undercover detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) attends Klan meet-ups and ceremonies in his place, though Flip’s being Jewish introduces another wrinkle of tension to his encounters with the anti-semitic Klansmen. Together, Ron and Flip get an inside view of “the Organization”, and uncover members in sensitive military and national-security positions as well as a deadly plot against Patrice and her fellow black activists, even as Ron becomes telephone pals with the KKK’s Grand Wizard and National Director David Duke (Topher Grace), who plans to visit Colorado Springs for his prized new recruit’s initiation.

Broadly speaking, this is some of Spike Lee’s strongest material in years, and BlacKkKlansman‘s core premise is suffused with dramatic irony and tension that proves both entertaining and productive for raising ideas about the African-American struggle for social justice. In a conversation with Ron, Patrice introduces W.E.B. Du Bois’ conception of Black American identity as a kind of double consciousness, an internal psychological and identitarian cleavage in every African-American body between the American ideal of citizenship (liberty, justice, inalienable rights) and the oppressive reality of life in American as a black person (where the rights that are inalienable for white folks are consistently denied to black folks, whether in law, in systemic tendencies, or in social conditioning and practices).

BlacKkKlansman‘s layered ironies and juxtaposed ideas are grounded in double consciousness. Ron and Flip both find the beliefs and rhetoric of the KKK deplorable, but Washington and especially Driver slip so convincingly into performing the role of white supremacist that they bamboozle the targets of their investigation and even trouble the audience with the thought that they might really mean it. Both men have internalized the language of bigotry that they hear around them (and sometimes about them) in their country, and when they project it, it is readily believed. There is a double consciousness to this performance, and performance it is, as signaled firmly by Lee in the film’s opening sequence, with Alec Baldwin as a Klan propagandist recording polemic for the group and frequently breaking the litany of racism with actorly touches like enunciation exercises and line checks. This double consciousness is even legible in the figure of David Duke, who presents a well-dressed professional corporate front to the Klan as an extended PR campaign but can slip with sinister ease into the worst racist tropes in a manner made only more unsettling by the inspired casting of Grace, who presents as an amiable Eric Foreman all-grown-up before slipping on the robe and hood.

BlacKkKlansman‘s employment of Du Bois’ double consciousness reaches a virtuoso crescendo in the film’s centerpiece sequence (and one of the AV Club’s film scenes of the year). Lee crosscuts between Flip’s Klan initiation ceremony as Racist Ron, which includes a screening of D.W. Griffith’s seminal 1915 KKK propaganda epic The Birth of a Nation, and a speech about the heinous and contemporaneous 1916 lynching of African-American Jesse Washington made to Patrice’s activist group by a witness to it, Jerome Turner (played by civil rights veteran Harry Belafonte, no less). Turner details the inhuman torture, mutilations, and execution of Washington by a white mob, the carnivalesque atmosphere that accompanied it (photos were taken of the lynching and souvenir postcards were sold), and the role of Griffith’s blockbuster film (“history written with lightning”, as President Woodrow Wilson praised it) in rejuvenating the Klan and emboldening its attacks on the black way of life, while Flip/Ron’s Klan confrères hoot and holler approvingly at a KKK lynching depicted heroically in Birth of a Nation. Lee closes the scene with contending chants of “black power” and “white power” at each event, his crosscutting (a filmic technique pioneered by Griffith in Birth of a Nation, as AV Club’s Jesse Hassenger notes in its Scenes of the Year entry) becoming a counterattacking weapon against the racist cinematic propaganda enshrined at the heart of American movie history by Griffith while also noting the intractable persistence of the racial divisions that animated that film and define American society down to today.

“Propaganda” is a key term, because for all of its considerable strengths, BlacKkKlansman is partly undone by a turn towards the propagandistic, complete with the form’s fabrications of convenience and self-favourable framings. For all of its compelling subtextual applications of double consciousness, the forefront textual use of it is to consider, and ultimately provide a stamp of thoughtful approval to, Ron Stallworth’s contradictory attempt to turn the authority and power of the police towards social justice goals. Boots Riley comes down particularly hard on this element of BlacKkKlansman, criticizing the script’s inventions and elisions of Stallworth’s work: he was undercover in radical black organizations for not one night but three years and did not begin his Klan infiltration until 1979, not in 1972; his white undercover partner was not Jewish, there was no ticking-bomb terrorist threat by the KKK he investigated as the film’s climax depicts, and a goofy feel-good coda sting on a bigoted white cop did not happen.

According to Riley, much of what BlacKkKlansman shows as going on behind the scenes in its Klan investigation could not happen: Black Lives Matter and related social justice spearheaders continue to spotlight police profiling and oppression of and violence towards African-Americans in the country of today, as well as law enforcement’s comparative kid gloves approach towards hard-right groups who incite and commit violent acts with far greater regularity. Riley firmly believes and expresses his belief that the police are not on the same side as progressive black social activists, and notes suggestively that Spike Lee has been paid by the NYPD to help improve their image with black communities. BlacKkKlansman is premised on the idea that the police not only can and should but have previously busted up racist organizations in a humbly semi-enlightened effort to be social justice warriors. Riley argues it’s a lie, and despite Lee’s protestations, it’s hard to learn much about the subject and say that he’s entirely wrong.

Lee mildly fudges his film’s true-to-life claims with an opening title card in his idiomatic vernacular: “Based upon some fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t”. But BlacKkKlansman turns from polemical fictionalization to sober, pointed documentary in a startling and more than a little off-putting whiplash switch at its conclusion. The film gives way to news footage of the August 2017 far-right march in Charlottesville, Virginia (BlacKkKlansman‘s release was timed to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the event that shocked the country), reports of the murder of liberal counterprotestor Heather Heyer that weekend, and President Donald Trump’s infamous hood-lifting moment in which he informed the press that some of the tiki-torch-wielding neo-nazi marchers were “very good people”. The real David Duke even makes an appearance, his continued presence as a public figure proving that Stallworth’s duping of him was of only marginal use, in the end.

BlacKkKlansman has its problems beyond its predilection towards propaganda and provocation. The screenplay by Spike Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Wilmott shows a fondness for silly, borderline-cartoon supporting characters (like Ashlie Atkinson’s Connie, the ebullient but virulently racist wife of Jasper Pääkkönen’s hostile Klan member Felix who cannot wait to be the virginal white female rape victim in a vigilante lynching fantasy), and overemphasizes beats that another filmmaker might have left respectfully subtle and implied. Wilmott’s screenwriting credit calls to mind his politically challenging but inescapably cheap (in all senses of the word) satirical mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (which Lee produced), and BlacKkKlansman contains far more of that film’s cornpone carnival-barker tone than is good for it (though I laughed at the callback to Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s immortal catchphrase from The Wire, his early cameo including it takes one out of the film right at its beginning).

But ultimately BlacKkKlansman is afflicted with a larger, self-hampering double consciousness. It is grounded in a deep knowledge of African-American history and politics and considerable filmic craft and film-history literacy. In the memorable Birth of a Nation montage sequence, Lee makes a powerful audio-visual argument about how racial inequality is reinforced and spread. It leans towards manipulative fabrications on top of established fact to strengthen its points and concludes its essentially comedic story with feel-good limited triumphs and solidarity while paying lip service to the ingrained inequity and cover-ups endemic to the system. But it renders these narratively-earned victories entirely pyrrhic with its concluding documentarian evocation of the continued and even increased relevance of far-right racism of the Klan sort. The struggle, of course, always continues, and racism, in America as elsewhere in the world, persists and must continue to be fought. But just how it should be fought is a matter that Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, as potent and effective as it can be at its best, proves frustratingly inconsistent, obtuse, and disingenuous about.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: The Death of Stalin

December 5, 2018 Leave a comment

The Death of Stalin (2017; Directed by Armando Iannucci)

In her 1963 book on the trial of the Nazi German SS commander and Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann, political thinker Hannah Arendt coined the term “banality of evil” to describe the species of dumb quotidian striving and uncritical order-following that characterized Eichmann’s participation in the Final Solution. The idea of the banality of evil is sometimes misquoted and very frequently misapplied, and was and is quite controversial in philosophical circles. However, it usefully pinpointed in Arendt’s subject Eichmann a sort of unremarkable normality, a featureless bureaucratic ordinariness that, through a thoughtless disengagement from the harsh realities that lay behind his career-driven pencil-pushing actions, was complicit in terrible, terrible things. Arendt’s conclusion was that Eichmann did evil, but was not evil. Whatever problems this concept presents, the banality of evil focuses on an important contradiction that animates modern political action: what can appear professional, customary, and everyday can in truth be working towards the very worst, the most evil, of outcomes.

Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is a raucously funny but quietly vicious extrapolation on the banality of evil with a far keener eye for the ridiculous, but no less ghastly, fundaments of oppressive totalitarianism. Call it a comic treatise on the absurdity of evil, if you will, a farcical satire about the frantic power struggle for primacy at the top of government of the Soviet Union after the demise of the iron-willed tyrant Joseph Stalin. Despite the sharp-tongued banter, selfish scheming, and copious bumbling on the part of the succeeding members of the Central Committee, however, horrors take place, crimes against humanity are committed, lives are altered, destroyed, or brutally ended, even within the rarified heights of the Politburo. We laugh while the blood flows, and perhaps the oxygen from the laughter makes its sick colour all the more vivid.

The Scottish-Italian Iannucci has ramped up to The Death of Stalin by establishing himself as one of the sharpest satirists of back-room political operations in the English-speaking world. At the BBC, he co-created Steve Coogan’s iconically mediocre television presenter caricature Alan Partridge (along with Coogan and future Four Lions director Chris Morris), then on the sitcom The Thick of It (and its accompanying movie In the Loop) unleashed the verbal-bomb-throwing of Peter Capaldi’s aggro political operative Malcolm Tucker on unsuspecting audiences. He crossed the Atlantic to conquer American comedy, too, creating and showrunning the early seasons of HBO’s White House satire Veep and winning a pair of Emmys for his trouble.

In Iannucci’s closed backrooms of power, whipsmart tongue-lashings greet scandals and missteps and PR disasters and not-infrequent bad intentions. It can be tempting to read Iannucci’s satires, with the potent rudeness of their most cynical and inhuman characters, through the lens of laments for political incivility. There is, after all, an entire legacy-media constituency dedicated to the persistent idea that the nasty, destructive partisanship of American politics in particular could be convincingly defused (ideological differences be damned) if everyone could just be nicer to each other. Lucrative punditry sinecures await any and all willing to parrot such a line of thought, and there are not a few such voices in the American media still labouring under the assumption that this symptomatic lack of politeness is the real problem with Donald Trump (and not his stupid, mean, greedy, prejudiced awfulness as a person).

But Armando Iannucci will wring out laughs at the bickering and sideswiping of the powerful before turning our attention to the terrible meat-hook realities that lie at behind the rude spewing. In The Death of Stalin, this approach constitutes the blackest of dark comedies about the shabby cheapness of human mortality: whether of a towering political leader like the eponymous expiring Man of Steel or of the millions of people, specific and generalized, whose lives he claimed in the Soviet Union and beyond. When Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) suffers a stroke after a night of carousing with his Central Committee cronies, he is found with his bowels voided on the carpet, and is hauled to what will be his deathbed by those same cronies, who bumble and fumble the organization of even this simple task, leading to some satisfying slapstick as the corpus of the dictator is dragged over one of their own bodies to rest on the sheets.

Iannucci revels in both the absurdity and the bruality of Stalinist Russia, and finds those characteristics inextricably entwined. He includes (and compresses and dramatizes, yes) comically absurd and sharply ironic real-life anecdotes that demonstrate the ludicrous whims of Stalin and how it affects those around them, who are in terror for their lives should they offend the leader. The film opens with a classical concerto performance broadcast on state radio that Stalin decides that he wants a recording of. The harrassed program director (Paddy Considine) finds that the performance was not recorded, and hastily, desperately reconvenes the musicians and the resistant pianist (Olga Kurylenko) to play the concerto again, this time to record. After Stalin’s non-fatal stroke, his flunkies must scramble around Moscow to collect even retired, inexperienced, or incompetent doctors to treat him, as the paranoid General Secretary had the city’s best doctors (mostly Jews, natch) put to death for supposedly plotting against him.

More darkly, a few scenes take place in a secret interrogation and execution facility of the Stalinist secret police, the NKVD, where detained persons are rushed about to torture or imprisonment, and the gunshots of death sentences ring out as a constant background score. Stalin’s right-hand man in these manners, the enforcer of his enemies lists and the primary bureaucrat responsible for the ongoing reign of terror, is his fellow Georgian Lavrentiy Beria (the great Simon Russell Beale), who is also at the heart of the jockeying intrigues that follow the General Secretary’s death (Beria was also a serial sexual predator, using his position at the head of the NKVD to commit numerous rapes, which this film makes very clear).

Although Stalin’s official successor to the Secretariat is the dim, vain, and malleable Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Beria and Nikita Khruschev, played by Steve Buscemi (who seems born to spew Iannucci’s inspired invective) in a counter-intuitive masterstroke of casting, are the real contenders for the throne. The veteran diplomat Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin, who is in a supporting role but is granted a clutch of moments to demonstrate his absolute expertise of comic timing and performance) plays a key role as an elder statesman kingmaker (though he was just spared the wrath of the enemies list by his old boss croaking), as does the spiky, bloody-minded WWII hero and head of the Red Army, General Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs). Stalin’s children are kicking around, too, but neither the paralyzed-by-woe Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) or the foolish, preening, conspiracy-minded Vasily (Rupert Friend) are real factors in the power transfer.

The collision of these outsized, overtly hostile personalities makes for frequent great comedy. The Death of Stalin is pitilessly hilarious, and Iannucci facilitates and maximizes this hilarity in numerous masterful ways, from the writing (of course) to the you-are-there mockumentary cinematography to the irony-laced editing to the inspired decision to allow his actors to speak in their native accents, rather than some forced Russian-accented English, to allow a full range for their natural timing and expression (Buscemi’s clipped Italian-American force and Isaacs’ Liverpudlian flintiness define their characters essentially as well as deliver their lines to best effect).

But it is worth asking if The Death of Stalin hits the ideal notes in relation to the murderous (indeed, nigh-on genocidal) authoritarianism of its setting and subject. Though Iannucci’s favoured blood-drawing political satire frequently focuses on the underlying corruption and immorality beneath the vile language and bantering insults, one might say that Stalin’s Soviet Union is kind of low-hanging fruit in that regard. There are few places and times in human history in which it was worse to be alive than the Russia of Joseph Stalin, particular because for myriad reasons it was exceedingly unlikely that you were to be alive for long. Is this a fit setting for comedy, no matter how pitch-dark?

I admitted to being slightly disappointed with the relative superficiality of how In the Loop tackled the deceit and ill intent of the American venture in the Iraq War. The Death of Stalin is better in this regard, though it emphasizes the role of cruel random chance even more than bureaucratized detachment in the commission of atrocities in the Stalinist Soviet state: a prisoner about to be killed exclaims “Long live Stalin!” in a last-ditch effort to save himself, only to be informed by his executioner that Stalin is dead; a second after he is shot and before the next man in line can meet his fate, Beria’s order halting the executions arrives. This randomness that governs life and death defines not only Stalinist oppression for Iannucci, but also the rule of the state in our vaunted democracies as well. But it’s a very different, and perhaps ultimately weaker and less human, force than the systematized and obscured evil that Stalinist Russia is also a defining example of.

The Death of Stalin takes no prisoners, does not soften its harsh blows, offers no really sympathetic port-in-the-storm characters to grasp on to, and concludes not with a note of hope or change but with a postscript on the continuity of backstabbing intrigue at the top of the USSR. In the moment and even for some time afterwards, this is a patently hilarious and deep-cutting satire that doesn’t pull its punches. But in rendering evil in the only way that he really can do it, as absurd rather than as banal, as foolish and random rather than as professionalized and disavowed, I fear that Armando Iannucci waters down Hannah Arendt’s potent critique, both in the historical context of his film and in the contemporary context of our battered and bruised political and social firmament.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews