Rating: The Good – 75.8 Genre: War, Drama Duration: 133 mins Director: Clint Eastwood Stars: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner
Bradley Cooper takes on the role of Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in U.S. history, in Clint Eastwood’s take on the personal politics of war and the wearing effects it has back home. Putting in another immense shift, Cooper constructs a strong character that sways and bends under the stresses that come with his elite skill. Beginning with his training as a Navy SEAL, we follow Kyle through his four tours in Iraq and his intervening attempts to build a family, where a number of plots play out in successive manner. Plots ranging from the SEALS’ mission to take out a local warlord to Kyle’s personal but often thrilling battle with an elite enemy sniper. Eastwood is to be commended for maintaining the integrity of each of these plots while sewing them into the wider dramatic story concerning Kyle’s wife (Sienna Miller in a solid turn) and his increasingly debilitating PTSD. In fact, American Sniper is arguably the veteran director’s most artful film from the point of view of its structuring. His use of flashback and parallel scenes help to move the film forward so the audience is informed and engaged at an equally steady rate. The action sequences are less inspired with respect to Clint’s directing but their sheer scale tend to compensate for that. Where Eastwood’s touch truly lets him down, however, is yet again in the dramatic stakes. Always a relatively cold director, he fails to make the camera one with his protagonists and while this could have allowed for a more realist style, his pedestrian camera work is incapable of serving that end. In the end, much of Bradley’s good work is left unharnessed as what should be a very personal movie feels decidedly impersonal. American Sniper has been the subject of much political discussion concerning the “War on Terror” and the lauding of an elite killer who showed less remorse in real life than is depicted here but such criticisms are outside the scope of a straight up film critique and so, as a war movie with a dramatic edge, American Sniper must stand on its artistic merits alone. In that respect, it has much going for it even in spite of some directorial limitations.
Very likely the best of all the WWII movies, The Longest Day is a masterful account of the preparation for and execution of the largest land and sea military action in history: D-Day. Starring practically every available movie star of its day and directed by a crew of directors including an unaccredited Darryl F. Zanuck, it’s a logistical achievement worthy of the momentous day it’s chronicling. All the major elements of Allied invasion are represented with John Wayne and Robert Mitchum taking on the roles of the commanders of the front line divisions, the former of the airborne, the latter of the marines. Robert Ryan, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, and Richard Todd also feature but more peripherally, the latter excelling as leader of a British commando unit. The Germans are represented in force too (with Curd Jürgens doing particularly well) as the action constantly switches back and forth between both sides.
Needless to say the acting is first rate with Mitchum especially standing out as the beleaguered general of those who were always going to be the hardest hit as they stormed the beaches. The battle sequences involving him and his men are by far the most thrilling and rightly so given how relevant they were to the entire invasion. That said, there isn’t a single battle sequence in The Longest Day which won’t have you on the edge of your seat and what’s more, they are all entirely different to each other in both logistics and execution. However, during all the back and forth shifting between battle sequences, it still finds the time for moments of quiet reflection and the tone which it sets during these moments is deeply affecting.
The most impressive feature of the film is without a doubt the fact that at all times, The Longest Day never fails to intertwine the role and perspective of the individual soldiers with the broader strategic advancements of their respective units. The later A Bridge Too Far did this too when chronicling Market Garden but not as well as it’s done here. The Longest Day puts us right in the middle of the action so that we feel intimately familiar with the ebb and flow of the advance and it’s thrilling stuff. The film is shot magnificently and even though the US, British, and German episodes are all helmed by different directors, there’s a seamless look and feel to the whole thing. Overall, The Longest Day is a captivating piece of cinema which shows great deference to the momentous events of that day. There are some fine movies which focus on the same events but none are as comprehensively great as this.
Rating: The Good – 77.1 Genre: Drama, Satire Duration: 102 mins Director: Mike Nichols Stars: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Mike Nichols turns his prodigious talent for satire to Aaron Sorkin’s clever adaptation of the true story of a Texas congressman’s attempts to secure the covert military funding that would ultimately tip the balance of the Soviet-Afghan war. Tom Hanks as the unorthadox good-time politician and Philip Seymour Hoffman as his irreverent CIA adviser form one of the best on-screen partnerships in recent decades as they bat Sorkin’s indignantly funny dialogue back and forth while Julia Roberts and Any Adams help to fill out the support roster intelligently rising to the spirit of Sorkin and Nichols’ storytelling as they go. The movie that unfolds is a delight of sardonic wit in both its writing and directing but, in typical Mike Nichols fashion, it effortlessly doubles as an engrossing political drama by perceptibly accounting for geo-political implications and character development alike. Sorkin’s feisty screenplay zips along at its usual pace but Nichols knows exactly when to channel that momentum or temporarily contain it so that its energy is maintained without dumbing down the drama. Unsurprisingly, Wilson comes out smelling like roses but only because Hanks and co. know exactly how to turn those warts into beauty spots and so, like the man himself, Charlie Wilson’s War charms its way into the audience’s hearts.
Rating: The Good – 83.4 Genre: Thriller, Drama Duration: 95mins Director: John Flynn Stars: William Devane, Tommy Lee Jones, Linda Haynes
As good a thriller as the 70’s offered up, Rolling Thunder is damn near perfect. The ever cool William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones play two POW’s who, after returning home, find life as torturous as their imprisonment was. Things get steadily worse for the hard boiled Major Charles Rane (Devane) when his wife and son are murdered by a gang of home invaders who also take his hand. Devane gives a smouldering performance as a man who has “learned to love” torture as a means to surviving it. A young Tommy Lee Jones is sensational as the equally stoic Johnny who ultimately helps him to exact his revenge. John Flynn allows this masterpiece to develop at its own pace building the film not around the inevitable action but rather the drama that comes with a man who is pushed to the brink but never breaks. The parallels between Rane’s time in captivity and the life he has returned to are repeatedly drawn but never explicitly so, ensuring that the viewer discovers something new on each viewing. Thus, the more one watches this gem the better it gets. “Let’s go clean ‘em up”.
Rating: The Good – 67.1 Genre: Thriller Duration: 128 mins Director: Roger Spottiswoode Stars: Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, Ed Harris
Slightly above average war-drama from Roger Spottiswoode and starring Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, and Joanna Cassidy as war correspondents who rush from one third world country to another in order to get the scoop on the latest skirmish between despot and the poor. Landing in Nicaragua in time to document the final days of the Somozoa regime, the three find themselves caught up in a love triangle, bombings, and the political machinations of spies and government officials alike. Not quite as subjective and daring a film as Missing or as cavalier a film as Salvador, Under Fire falls in between as a safer and more mainstream examination of the South American political climate of the 70’s/80’s. That said, it’s an interesting story with solid performances and some decent action thrown in to boot.
Rating: The Good – 76 Genre: Drama Duration: 138 mins Director: Rob Reiner Stars: Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore
One of the most quoted movies in recent decades, Rob Reiner and Aaron Sorkin’s legal drama pits Tom Cruise’s talented young JAG Corps officer against Jack Nicholson’s tyrannical Marine Corps division commander. Cruise excels as the plucky lawyer faced with the task of defending two marines on trial for murder. However, this one will always be remembered for his co-star’s scenery-chewing turn as the defendants’ base commander and the man behind their illicit orders to “train” the soon-to-be victim. A host of top names fill out the rest of the bill with both Demi Moore and Kevin Pollak (as Cruiser’s legal team) playing more grounded roles than was typical of their careers at that point. Kevin Bacon is his usual safe pair of hands as the prosecutor while a nasty Kiefer Sutherland and the late great J.T. Walsh offer strong support as Nicholson’s underlings. Sorkin’s sharp script is best remembered for its relentless courtroom dialogue but it’s laced with subtleties that augment the drama from all angles. From its nods to the various character’s backgrounds to the unspoken enmity between the Marines and the Navy, they provide a rich subtext to the plot. From the director’s chair, Reiner generates a palpable tension and swift pace from the screenplay with much help from composer Marc Shaiman’s exciting score and, of course, his two leads. Though “Colonel Nathan Jessup” has probably gone down as Nicholson’s most famous role and though he certainly provides the lion’s share of the movie’s dramatic thump, it’s not the most nuanced piece of acting we’ve seen from the screen legend. Playing up to a caricature of his own celebrity, he never attempts to escape his “Big Jack” persona and is content to let his famous sneering delivery and scathing smile do most of the work. Not that it hurts the movie in the slightest but it seems a relevant footnote when discussing one of modern cinema’s most memorable characters.
Rating: The Good – 73 Genre: War, Action Duration: 134 mins Director: David Ayer Stars: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman
Writer-director David Ayer’s gnarly actioner follows a WWII US tank crew as they take the war with Germany into the inferno of the crumbling Third Reich. Led by their legendary commander “Wardaddy” (a well seasoned Brad Pitt), their adventures repeatedly morph between a muse of personal and social reflection to a high intensity, mechanised struggle for survival. The WWII action genre saw its heyday come and go in the 1960’s and 70’s and the self conscious stylising of recent cinema has struggled to match the story-telling power of yesteryear’s movies. Perhaps the genre benefited from being made by people who had lived and even fought through the war or at least grew up in its aftermath but whatever the reason, glossy effects and hollow moral messages being shoved down the audience’s throats does this species of film no favours.
Fury is certainly a modern movie, powered forward as it is by stirring score and moments of earnest soul-searching. The fortune cookie meaning of war is given much consideration as Ayer tentatively paints the objective and subjective pursuit of its endeavours in a mismatch of Christian duty and cliched nihilism. Any caricatures, and there are plenty, are drawn along those theme lines from Shia LaBeouf’s lay preacher to Joe Bernthal’s monosyllabic cutthroat. However, despite such tedious trappings of the modern war movie, Fury achieves and maintains substantial traction in the hearts and minds of the audience and rolls forward menacingly to a more than pleasing close. Pitt’s honed presence is certainly a determining factor in this as he sidesteps the cliches associated with the trope of hardened platoon leader but it’s primarily the grit of Ayer’s directing and the unpretentious bite of the overall story that allows this movie to survive its more wooden screenplay. Nothing is dwelled on. Like the guys in the tank, Ayer just gets on with it and, in doing so, succeeds in unfolding a simple canvas of coherent action sequences from beginning to end. A truly unerring momentum and ever darkening tone transforms his depiction of war-torn Germany into a nascent underworld of hellish mythology more akin to something Dante would dream up than a Hollywood director. It’s an emphatic triumph for Ayer and one that marks his full evolution from writer of substance to director of note. Steven Price’s relentless hum of a score will prompt much admiration too and the ensemble cast as a whole remains interesting and worthy of our support. Overall, Fury counts as a rare success for a modern WWII action-retrospective.
Richard Burton leads a unit of commandos behind enemy lines to infiltrate the Alpine headquarters of the Wehrmacht located in an inaccessible fortress perched atop of a snow covered mountain. WWII based men-on-a-mission movies are very a different animal to the more mainstream WWII treatments. Emerging in the 1960’s & 70’s as a less cynical tonic to the earnestness (forced or otherwise) of the propaganda films of the 40’s and dramatised retrospectives of the 50’s, they were the first action extravaganzas of the genre – not to be taken too seriously but a pleasant distraction on a lazy Sunday afternoon. And Brian G. Hutton’s 1968 classic is arguably the best of the bunch as Burton and Clint Eastwood sidewind their way through a series of double crosses as labyrinthine as the formidable fortress amid gunfire, TNT, and showers of grenades, and all along to Ron Goodwin’s mighty soundtrack. The brilliant action becomes a cathartic backdrop to the intelligently constructed plot, and mirroring those dual tones are Burton and Eastwood at their most enigmatic. The former’s character with that mellifluously accented English being the very embodiment of intrigue and deception while the latter, Eastwood’s serial Nazi slayer, Lt. Schaffer, being the coolest and baddest assassin to ever grace a war movie. While classics such as The Dirty Dozen and Guns of the Navarone (also penned by this movie’s writer Alistair MacLean) mixed personality with an edge of moral commentary, Where Eagles Dare substituted any such sentiment for immense style and a callous bodycount making the whole thing a treat to the the baser depths of our brains. Given the more carefree vibe of the sub-genre, such stylish entertainment is perhaps its most critical quality and so Hutton’s movie rises to the top of the pot.
Rating: The Good – 71.1 Genre: War Duration: 117 mins Director: Mark Robson Stars: Frank Sinatra, Trevor Howard, Raffaella Carrà
“Padre, you’re priceless.” Frank Sinatra and Trevor Howard pair up for this jaunty WWII actioner as senior Allied officers imprisoned in an Italian POW camp on the eve of the country’s liberation from Nazi rule. One being an improvisational US Air Corps Colonel, the other being a stoic by-the-book British Major, the two inevitably butt heads in how exactly they’re going to safeguard the entire prison camp across Italy after their camp wardens flee. It never really got the credit it deserves but Von Ryan’s Express is loaded to the hilt with fine action set pieces and defined by a cast with personality to burn. From the earlier scenes of the soldiers toiling in the prison camps to the frantic rail pursuit of the last two acts, the movie swings easily between explosions and wisecracks. That said, there are more pensive moments to be had here and there and a few dark tracks are crossed along the way. Sinatra is in cruise control but he seems to be enjoying every bit of it while Howard hams it up for all he’s worth. It’s not the most delicate turn from the great English actor but, like the movie itself, it’s bags of fun.
Rating: The Good – 76 Genre: War, Drama Duration: 130 mins Director: Joseph Sargent Stars: Gregory Peck, Dan O’Herlihy, Ed Flanders
Joseph Sargent’s little recognised account of General Douglas MacArthur’s career from the beginning of WWII to his retirement is a rather compelling and fully engaging military drama. Gregory Peck takes on the role of the larger than life figure and imbues him with all the self-certainty and military vision that have come to be associated with him but balanced that with a healthy dose of sadness at the passing of time, and a complicated look at the self-proclaimed pacifist’s contradictory craving for war.
As much as Franklin J. Schaffner did with Patton, Sargent captures the point at which myth and reality meet and seems to paint the entire picture with that theme. At all times, we feel we are witnessing something epochal. Befitting the name and the myth, there’s a majesty to the tone of the film and there’s nobody better to shoulder any accompanying stress points than Gregory Peck. Such stress points take the shape of necessary omissions of key occurrences that would give more accurate shape to the political and military incidents MacArthur is otherwise given full credit for. But through Peck’s ownership of the role, he gives one the impression that such cracks in the story don’t exists – just like the General himself did! In its place, is a very elegant progression of events as Sargent unfolds a rather substantial history of the man and America’s contemporaneous international concerns.
The look of the movie can impress at times but, at others, it has a distinct TV movie feel. The wide staging of some of the battle sequences for example is magnificent but when up close with the soldiers, it all gets a little artificial. But unlike say The Longest Day, this isn’t about the knitting together of the large and small scale realities of war. Instead, it follows the likes of Patton, by using the latter as dramatic filler between the more dramatic scenes. Just not as substantially as was done in Patton.
Unfortunately, MacArthur has been forgotten by everyone but the strictest of war movie buffs. Peck always walked a tightrope between stoic brilliance and wooden delivery but such an affectation seems very befitting of the blood-military “General’s General”. Like the film as a whole, it’s a delicate balance that comes out firmly on the right side and deserves a wider audience.
Rating: The Bad – 54 Genre: Drama, War Duration: 114 mins Director: Morten Tyldum Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode
Morten Tyldum’s moody WWII drama is based on the true life endeavours of Alan Turing as he attempted to crack the Nazi’s Enigma code by building a top secret machine that would become the platform for the modern computer. Outside of the broader premise which is executed rather well using montages of actual WWII footage, a lot has gone wrong here. The “extraordinary guy in an extraordinary situation” has become a staple of Benedict Cumberbatch’s career so much so that one struggles to think of him as anything but the socially inept, arrogant, patronising, superior mind so far removed from the rest of us that he’s destined to be misunderstood forever. What’s worse is that, over the last decade, this personality has crept insidiously into the television and Hollywood mediums like few others. Everyone from Hugh Laurie’s House MD to Claire Danes’ Carrie Matheson has had a crack at it and while a small few like Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network have done it with a level of complexity that humanises the conceit, most have bored the socks off us. If Cumberbatch’s Sherlock placed him among Eisenberg’s precious minority, his version of Alan Turing is very much the other kind – though his screenwriter Graham Moore (adapting Andrew Hodges’ biography) should shoulder some of the blame. Inaccessible but interesting isn’t easy to pull off but a lack of effort in achieving such balance is what is most concerning here. Everyone seems happy enough to portray the tortured mathematician as an oddball and nothing more. To celebrate it, in fact. As such we get a one-dimensional (not to mention cliched) central performance that scuppers the film from the outset.
Unfortunately, the screenwriting problems don’t end with its protagonist for The Imitation Game is the latest film to culminate every sequence of dialogue with an awfully clever sounding bit of folkish wisdom framing the entire scene around it as if to iterate that we’ve just heard something very special. You know, kind of like grabbing the audience by the back of the head and forcing them to appreciate the “genius” of the line up close. Sadly, more often than not, lines such as “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine” are borne of anything but genius and so the less attention they attract the better for everyone. But of course increasing the pace of the dialogue helps substantially in disguising inanity as wisdom and The Imitation Game isn’t about to buck the trend here either. Nor is it likely to pass up an opportunity to intertwine three different timelines from Turing’s life so as to tease out the ostensible profundity of the movie’s title (and that of his most famous book). After all, the dual relevance of mimicry to his personal and professional life is so subtle that it needs to be the central thread of any modern movie that has designs on being “smart”. What better way to achieve this than employing a similar backstory device as that used by The Social Network. And didn’t they talk really fast there too? Wait a minute! Is this a WWII version of Fincher’s classic? Well not quite because Fincher, Sorkin, and their cast gave their characters depth to begin with. The devices simply allowed for an artful way to unfold those layers.
With such bland characterisation, The Imitation Game instead gives one the distinct impression of being conned. Conned into thinking Turing is being humanised without him actually being humanised. That he and his fellow code breakers are intelligent in the absence of any really intelligent dialogue. That the film is profound even though it’s not. In fact, one could argue that it stands as testament to how far mainstream movie-making has strayed from the basics of storytelling so as to indulge gimmicks and the formula of those few thematically similar films that have proved successful. That it toils in a genre that has been addressed over and over again by previous generations of filmmakers perhaps underlines this more but it’s about time producers reinvested some trust in the writing process.
Rating: The Ugly – 60 Genre: Action, War Duration: 121 mins Director: Peter Berg Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch
Highly dramatised account of a Navy SEAL team’s desperate attempt to escape dozens of Taliban during a compromised mission in Afghanistan. Peter Berg is a curious director. A glance at his CV and he could look like simply another journeyman director. But every now and then he pops up with a film that seems uniquely his. The fact that Lone Survivor counts as one such movie is both good and bad for Berg. Good because we have a movie with its own personality but bad because the cheesiness and fundamental idiocy of the plot must therefore reflect largely on him. Far from being an unashamed propaganda movie, Lone Survivor is a crudely veiled one. It doesn’t focus on the skill of the soldiers as a more straight up propaganda piece would. Instead, it’s an attempt to appeal to the emotional bonds that exist between the them. By placing them in a hopeless situation and having them shepherd each other to safety, bullet-ridden and broken… but never beaten. Of course, most propaganda films will play on the audience’s heartstrings aiming for emotional resonance. But Berg doesn’t simply play on them. He bounces on them – trampoline style. Some action fans will forgive this. Many won’t – and the truly awful dialogue during these gut wrenching moments won’t help them to in the slightest.
But for those who can forgive it’s more ridiculous qualities, there are rich rewards to be had in the action department. For Lone Survivor is a relentless shrapnel cloud of an action film, more visceral than most. The final hour is an excruciating embellishment on the levels of pain and punishment these men supposedly volunteer for and, as the opening scene alludes to, even crave. Sure, we recently had a rather complex analysis of this peculiar personality in the The Hurt Locker and, in contrast, Berg’s more exaggerated and fallow depiction of war addiction seems all the more disrespectful to the actual men and women of combat. However, what it lacks in subtlety and insight it makes up for in thump by putting us right in the middle of his imagined experience. An experience that amounts to a discombobulation of close quarter hillside combat interspersed with bone crunching mountain tumbling and lung bursting falls.
If the film is let down by a lack of believability in the action stakes, it’s not making up any ground in its character development. The four SEALS are introduced briefly in the beginning but any notion of building on that gets lost once the bullets start flying. And when two of those guys are played by Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch, it’s an unforgivable waste. Needless to say, the bad guys, to specify, the Taliban, are even more one dimensional. Strangely bedecked with ‘Ming the Merciless’ inspired makeup (just in case their slaughter of unarmed civilians didn’t make them seem mean enough), the story would’ve been made at least somewhat substantial if they were given even a modicum of personality. So extreme are they in their badness that the inclusion of a village of kind Afghans towards the end seems all the more conspicuous and, worse, tokenistic. A painful coda dedicated to their real life contribution to the SEAL’s escape only compounds this.
Where Berg truly fails however is in confusing his audience with respect to how he frames his heroes. We’re asked to sit in awe of their dedication, skill, and courage yet the tactical ineptitude that these supposed elite soldiers demonstrate is mind boggling. Their decision making, rationale, and professional comportment appear rather sloppy even to the layman. In the absence of any commentary on this supposed true event, we are left scratching our heads as to how this could’ve happened. Who knows how much liberty was taken in the adaptation but Hollywood is usually guilty of overplaying their heroes not underplaying them let alone leave the audience uncertain as to how much respect they deserve. What is for certain is that we miss much of the action as we ruminate on it. Given that the action is the solitary virtue of this movie, that’s all the more unfortunate.