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Chernobyl: A Miniseries About Radioactive Lies and the Meltdown of Truth

Chernobyl (HBO/Sky, 2019)

In the Soviet Union in 1986, a nuclear reactor blew up. A disaster of this type is rare enough (nuclear power is generally quite safe and harmless, until it really, really isn’t) that it would hold a unique sensationalist interest on its own merits, if adapted as a big-budget disaster screen narrative. The insidious dangers of violently dispersed radioactive materials take on a horror movie dimension, while the disaster’s historical setting in the waning years of the USSR could be seen to portend the political and societal fall of the Iron Curtain, a sort of karmic reckoning for the vaunted “evil empire” of anti-communist fever fantasies. The fine technical details and scientific minutiae of the accident could even be marshalled for a sort of adapted detective story, a complex whodunit with a nuclear reactor as the murder victim.

The five-part HBO/Sky miniseries Chernobyl is about the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat in the Soviet Union (now part of Ukraine). It could have been merely any of the generic exercises described above, and in its final broadcast form is a little bit of all of them. But it is so much more than any sum of its genre parts, and it becomes so by being less: although Chernobyl is a handsomely staged and meticulously detailed production whose scale runs to the epic, it is also understated and scrupulously realist, subtle and nuanced, and more profoundly a study of human behaviour, social institutions, and the ever-fraught tug of war between the two. Far more deeply and broadly than being a time-capsule historical drama bashing the mean, myopic Soviets for nearly making Europe uninhabitable with their dishonest hubristic mistakes, Chernobyl is concerned with the slowly accruing weight of lies that will unavoidably collapse catastrophically in the face of a truth so terrible as to be inevitable. It is an unsettling and fascinating work of art both movingly timeless and urgently timely.

Chernobyl was conceived and written by Craig Mazin, heretofore a successful but unremarkable screenwriter of American comedy films (such as the two Hangover sequels), but with Chernobyl behind him, now a definite giant of screen narrative. Mazin has smartly accompanied the dramatic series with thoughtful and open engagement with fans and critics alike on his Twitter, but more notably with the five-part Chernobyl Podcast co-hosted by NPR broadcaster Peter Sagal. Mazin talks with Sagal about the ways in which Chernobyl accords with real events and the ways in which it departs from them, a startlingly transparent look into not only his creative process but the nuclear reactor-like balance between the hard truths of history and the pretty lies of narrative (Mazin also co-hosts a screenwriting-centric podcast with John August called Scriptnotes, so he’s well-versed in such discussions). It’s a canny multi-pronged employment of our contemporary multimedia landscape to grant depth, shading, and perspective to storytelling that, as careful and accurate as it attempts to be, is in and of itself a grand lie.

But Chernobyl is a lie shot through with galvanized truth. The first and most impressive thing to be noted about Chernobyl is how much effort is made on the production design end of the show to immerse the viewer in the peculiar, shabbily dated world of the mid-1980s Soviet Union. Although production designer Luke Hull and costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux are from the West, their local crews in Lithuania (where much of the show was shot) largely grew up in the late stages of the USSR, and their firsthand knowledge of the fine details of Soviet life – from the fabric used in suits to ubiquitous sunflower seed snacks to household garbage buckets to firefighter gear – combines with meticulous research to create an eerie verisimilitude of a social order that now seems even more strange to outsiders than it did when it still existed. For viewers from the former Soviet Union – like hockey writer Slava Malamud, whose Twitter threads on each of the series’ five episodes are every bit as essential secondary commentary as the podcast – this attention to detail has been appreciated while also calling up memories of the former regime that are not always fond.

But as Malamud and other Russian observers have also noted with appreciation and not a little astonishment, Chernobyl also provides a surprisingly true perspective on “the beauty, the ugliness, the mystery” of the Russian soul, whatever that might be vaguely understood to be (two of the great Russian literary giants, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, would have disagreed fervently over what that “soul” happened to be). At the heart of the series’ understanding of how Soviets, from professional nuclear engineers and scientists to common firefighters, nurses, and miners to party bureaucrats and the powerful Central Committee, responded to the Chernobyl disaster and its horrible aftermath is on the one hand a mixture of wounded pride and cynical resignation to suffering in a harsh physical, economic, political, and social environment, while on the other a profound love for the country that pains and oppresses them, a sharp distrust and disrespect for authority (even if that authority is brutal and repressive in the face of defiance and dissent), and an incredible, heroic bravery that is matter-of-fact, self-effacing, and grimly accepting of ultimate sacrifice.

Russians sacrificed greatly in World War II, the blood of millions of its people soaking the frozen earth to defeat Hitler and Nazi Germany, only to see D-Day’s American GIs and a cigar-chomping British imperialist PM get the lion’s share of the credit in the post-war cultural debriefing. The Soviet Union’s sacrifice had little of the grandstanding of its Western democratic allies, but the WWII-era USSR’s solution of throwing overwhelming numbers of human bodies at its enemy was repeated, in many ways, at Chernobyl. The Soviet Union could ill afford the massive cost in manpower, materiel, and money that characterized the Chernobyl containment, clean-up, and “liquidation”, and Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev claimed that Chernobyl more than anything else finally brought down the USSR (it was going down soon anyway, though Chernobyl may have accelerated the breakdown).

Chernobyl documents these sacrifices and costs again and again, and the number of (mostly) men willing to lay down their lives at various critical junctures in the cleanup efforts will strike the viewer in America or the UK or Canada as amazing and insensible. As Malamud points out (and it’s not an observation that I, as a non-Russian, would dare to make entirely on my own), Russian strength, resilience and willingness to sacrifice the individual need for the betterment of the collective is very Eastern in character, not just a corollary of communist ideology but reflective of a mindset moulded by the unique history and environment and social and political order of the broader Russian nation. Chernobyl provides a striking contrast for the Western viewer, used to the gospel of happiness and individual worth; Russia, as Malamud observes, is not a happy place, and it does not value the individual above the collective. But it is because of this that it was able to respond to the Chernobyl disaster in the manner that was required, a manner that frequently counted lives and sent smaller numbers of men to their likely deaths to save the larger population by dousing radioactive fires, draining cooling tanks to prevent an apocalyptic thermal explosion, digging tunnels underneath the reactor to prevent a meltdown, and removing radioactive graphite from the exploded core from roofs with simple shovels.

The human costs of Chernobyl are written on the faces of the series’ core (mostly British) cast. Jared Harris, who after last year’s outstanding The Terror has carved out a niche for himself as the rational voice of warning in richly textured, bleakly metaphorical historical dramas, is Valery Legasov, a nuclear scientist sent to assess and address the Chernobyl incident. Legasov’s suicide two years to the day after the disaster is Chernobyl‘s initiating incident, and the rest of the series follows his wearily practical assessments of the damage and increasingly strident and dangerous criticism of the state’s failures and corner-cutting measures that contributed greatly to the accident. Aiding him with gravel-voiced, steel-spined bureaucratic muscle is Stellan Skarsgård’s Boris Shcherbina, who like much of the Soviet power structure initially doubts Legasov’s alarums on the dire severity of the situation but soon enough gains appreciation and admiration for the scientist’s knowledge; after Legasov explains how a nuclear reactor works under Shcherbina’s threat of being thrown from a helicopter, there is a thawing of tensions that eventually grows to a sort of limited professional collaborative friendship.

As Shcherbina marshals overwhelming manpower, a fleet of helicopters to douse the burning reactor with sand and boron, lunar rovers and a West German police robot to clear the radioactive roofs, and any other resources Legasov deems necessary to lessen Chernobyl’s terrible post-explosion impact, Emily Watson’s Ulana Khomyuk plays detective, investigating the causes of the disaster. A composite character representing the legion of nuclear physicists and other scientific minds who aided Legasov in responding to the disaster in its aftermath, Khomyuk is even more willing to call out the incompetence of the Soviet power structure than Legasov (in real life a committed Communist Party ideologue who was slow to publically acknowledge where the ultimate fault for Chernobyl lay).

The heartbreaking human costs of the disaster are imparted through the subplot of Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Irish actress Jessie Buckley) and her firefighter husband Vasily (Adam Nagaitis, Harris’ co-star from The Terror); Vasily is among the first responders to the power plant fire on the night of the explosion and dies in agony from the radiation poisoning, but not without the loving Lyudmilla by his side to the end, even though her own exposure to the radiation devouring his body claims the life of their unborn child. In the series’ difficult fourth episode, Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk) is Pavel, a green recruit to the ranks of the clean-up crew of liquidators (many of them hardened veterans of the USSR’s war in Afghanistan) who is assigned to animal control, the wrenching elimination of the irradiated housepets left behind in the evacuation of the Exclusion Zone.

As tremendous as Chernobyl is, Mazin turns it towards a more conventional sense of narrative closure and blame of antagonists for the worst aspects of the disaster in the final episode. Intercutting the show trial of the promotion-minded engineers in charge of Chernobyl’s Reactor Four (Paul Ritter, Con O’Neill, Adrian Rawlins) on the night of the disaster with a belated re-creation of the fateful events of the night in that room, Mazin and director Johan Renck find a highly hateable (and surprisingly meme-able) villain in Ritter’s recklessly arrogant Anatoly Dyatlov, and allow Harris as Legasov (a figure not even present at the trial) to not only clearly and compellingly demonstrate what went wrong (good) but also launch into a dramatic courtroom thesis statement speech about bureaucratic lying and how the harsh truth always catches up to it, with often deadly consequences (less good). It’s a climactic moment of shameless dramatic license that may have been earned by a miniseries otherwise mostly characterized by heartening historical fidelity, but turning Legasov into a grandstanding, truth-defending Slavonic Atticus Finch in the closing episode is still an indulgence that Mazin ought to have resisted.

Chernobyl found fans and admirers not only among the standard prestige television cosmopolitan liberal audience, but among conservative commentators who characterisitically read it as a simple and blunt takedown of Soviet corruption and incompetence (and what, they bleat, do you think would happen if Bernie Sanders became President? Vote Trump! Who we deeply morally object to, we swear!). Although many former Soviet citizens, as noted, found the miniseries to be accurate and even affecting, Putinists and nationalists chafed at the critical tone and the revisiting of Chernobyl’s humiliation; a propagandistic Russian production based in anti-Western conspiracy theories is apparently planned in response.

Mazin himself has superficially resisted firm ideological readings, at least those from the right, preferring instead to emphasize the human fallibility at the core of the disaster. But he has also related the miniseries’ central metaphor about the radioactive nature of lies and the inevitable meltdown that is the truth to contemporary political discourse in its primary airing locations of the United States (where the dizzying layers of lies of the Trump Administration have already precipitated disasters such as the inadequate response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the migrant concentration camps along the southern border) and the United Kingdom (where the irresponsible dishonesty of the powerful that has underscored Brexit remains a sword of Damocles poised above Britain, Ireland, the rest of the EU, and the whole world). Chernobyl does not contain the root causes of its radioactive horrors in the past, but shows how human errors and compounding deceits threaten the stability and safety of the social order, even today.

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Categories: History, Reviews, Television

Film Review: The Favourite

The Favourite (2018; Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos)

The Hollywood awards-season breakthrough from idiosyncratic Greek arthouse auteur Yorgos Lanthimos is a mordant dark comedy of society, manners, love, and politics. The Favourite features a central triangle of defining, superb performances from three very different actresses (and a fourth fine turn from a rising male actor) and displays technical virtuosity that doesn’t merely impress but deepens and defamiliarizes genre material that might have slipped to the predictable. Lanthimos and his team painstakingly re-create the royal court of early 18th-century Britain, but The Favourite possesses and transforms the period costume drama like a parasitic wasp, devouring it from the inside out and turning it into a work with a skewed and troublingly absurd view of privilege, power, and human nature.

In 1708, Great Britain’s final Stuart monarch Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, who won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance) is constantly unwell and adrift in her own court. Her country battles longtime enemy France in the War of Spanish Succession, and her friend, confidant, court favourite, sometimes lesbian lover, and defacto regent Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) argues for its continuation, with property taxes across the realm to be raised to fund the effort. Sarah’s motivation to keep the war going is threefold, though largely implied: it increases the prestige of her husband the 1st Duke of Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), who commands British forces, allows the Churchills to skim money from the war purse to fund their extravagant lifestyle and building projects (including Blenheim Palace, the opulent near-royal-level palatial home in Oxfordshire begun in Sarah’s lifetime, later the birthplace of their descendant and historical biographer Winston Churchill), and sends her husband away from court so that she may tryst with and influence the Queen unimpeded by his presence.

She is opposed by parliamentarian (and later Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer) Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult, in that fourth and often overlooked excellent performance), who wants to end the war and avoid tax rises. At this time, Sarah’s penniless cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) arrives at court and takes work as a scullery maid, but her intelligence and cunning sees her rise to a lady of the bedchamber to Queen Anne, which sees her enter into direct conflict with Sarah over closeness to and influence over the moody and ill queen. Their increasingly hostile rivalry over the queen’s affections is used by Harley to leverage his power in the government over the 1st Earl of Godolphin (James Smith), who sides with the Duchess while opposition leader Harley is fed information by Abigail, who also hooks a future husband in military officer Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn).

Working from a script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, Lanthimos, who usually writes his own films with inimitable deadpan absurdism, emblazons his peculiar brand on The Favourite visually, tonally, and thematically. The production values re-creating the upper-crust world of the early 1700s are exquisite, although Lanthimos and his cinematographer Robbie Ryan rarely linger on sumptuous details of the set or costume design. Lighting is pale and natural, coming in the day from sunlight through windows and at night from flickering candlelight, like Stanley Kubrick’s period epic Barry Lyndon. The camera moves with disarming fluidity in the historic spaces that provide the film’s setting (Hatfield House and Hampton Court Palace, primarily) that is the result of neither Steadicam nor track dolly work. These tracking shots, panoramic pivots, and Lanthimos’ use of wide and fisheye lenses turn these elegant spaces into inhospitable and claustrophobic gilded cells, with metaphorical bars of ambition, jealousy, loneliness, and regret.

Lanthimos also pushed his actors to detach from the meaning of their lines, putting them through absurd, experimental-theatre rehearsals of bizarre physical contortion exercises to render their performing reactions ever more instinctual. The result is more strange, primal defamiliarization, encouraging random deadpan absurdities to burst through the rich psychological and interpersonal atmosphere being crafted. Weisz, who worked with Lanthimos on The Lobster, stays focused laser-like on the Duchess’ manipulative steeliness, while Stone and Colman, comic actresses at their core, employ the atonal liberty to explore unpredictable respective corners of Abigail’s faux-naive ingratiating instincts and Queen Anne’s fickle and emotionally needy grasping nature. Hoult leans into both Harley’s clever, ruthless string-pulling and his sartorial clowniness; he can give the appearance of being connivingly ahead of the game and humiliatingly baffled at the same time. The numerous pages and footmen are slow-witted, awkward, and terrified of the changeable queen. Most bizarrely, Alwyn and Weisz share a dance at a ball which departs wholly from historical accuracy and becomes a weird and hilarious semi-modern, semi-improvised vogue that drives a jealous and self-conscious Queen Anne to call an end to the whole affair.

Lanthimos also continues his career fixation on animals. One scene features ducks racing in slow motion in a drawing room to the delight of ludicrous aristocrats (Godolphin owns the duck racing champion and ridiculously walks it on a leash). The shifting power dynamic between Sarah and Abigail is imparted through a series conversations during live-bird shooting sessions, with the increasingly assured and Machiavellian Abigail moving from a place of sympathy for the creatures to efficiently blasting them from the sky, once so vindictively close to Sarah as to splashback bird blood on her face. Most charged with symbolism are Queen Anne’s 17 pet rabbits, one for each child she had borne and lost. Sarah considers them morbid and tells the queen so, but Abigail feigns affection for them to get into Anne’s good graces before becoming so confident in those graces as to casually threaten injury or death to one of them.

The rabbits also feature in Lanthimos’ arty closing superimposition shot, contrasting Colman’s Queen Anne grimly determined to assert her power over a prostrate Abigail while hopping bunnies fill the background. Lanthimos cultivates ambiguity in this moment, but it’s fairly unambiguous, honestly. The rabbits are Anne’s isolation and tragic regret, her diminishing health and mental acuity made manifest, hopping unrestrained through her prison-like palace rooms. Abigail lets them loose as she lets the Queen loose, leading her to assert greater control over official affairs such as the war and taxes than under the stewardship of Sarah Churchill. But the animals, like the queen, go out of Abigail’s control, and the final shot is a re-assertion of royal authority over the wheedling influence of court favourites. Power is still power, The Favourite reinforces, even if it lies in the unreliable hands of the capricious, the self-interested, and the barely-competent. As if, today, we needed this point to be made clear to us.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

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.

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