March 14, 2008

To Iraq. And back.

Reviewer: James van Maanen

To Iraq. And back. Followed by torture, terrorism, genocide--and history.

The films under consideration and their ratings (out of five):
Redacted (* * *½)
In the Valley of Elah (* * *½)
Rendition (* * * *)
Terror's Advocate (* * *)
Screamers (* * *)
Goya's Ghosts (* * * *½)

One of the beauties of DVDs is that you can rent a batch of similarly-themed movies and--over a weekend or a week--expand your knowledge and appreciation of our world due to the opportunity to see these films (along with their "Special Feature" extras) as a group in which one enriches the next and/or harks back to its predecessor. A single day in February saw the release of four such movies (Redacted, Rendition, In the Valley of Elah and Terror's Advocate) preceded one week earlier by Screamers and followed the week after by Goya's Ghosts , a film that surprised me by unexpectedly bringing many of the themes of the former five together under the panoply of history.


Brian De Palma's Redacted is commendable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it is only the second movie I know of (after Philip Haas' The Situation) to deal with the current Iraq war as narrative rather than documentary--even though the incident on which it is based should be well-known to anyone who has followed this despicable war. During festival jaunts and upon its commercial release, the film divided critics. Commercial audiences, as expected, stayed away in droves. DVD may be the perfect format in which to view this ragged, challenging, alternately moving, funny and frightening feature that uses several video formats (home movies via camcorder, stationery surveillance cameras, a documentary being made by a French crew and Al Jazeera-like newscasts) to piece its story together.

Writer/director De Palma has done a fine job of assembling the pieces: his movie clips along at a good pace, and you won't get lost amidst the disparate characters and locations. You'll also come to know enough about the recruits to understand their actions--which is what I think De Palma most wants us to do. This does not mean we approve, but simply better comprehend. We may also begin to ask some worthwhile (if nearly eight-year-old) questions: What kind of soldiers are we accepting into the military today? What kind of training (not to mention protection--armor and the like) are we giving them? Only at its end does the movie feel both forced and not enough. Perhaps the actors did not rise to the occasion, or maybe the finale in the bar was not the best choice of a concluding scene. Even if De Palma means to lay responsibility at the feet of Americans who blindly elect incompetent leaders and then follow them into the abyss (a point I would agree with), what we see and hear seems underwritten and overacted. Still, what precedes this scene puts you squarely in the soldiers' position and sculpts events so that they cohere about as well as anything I've seen--including most of the documentaries.


The return of American soldiers from the first Iraq war, in which there was little or no "ground" action, nonetheless left some infantrymen (and women) in terrible disrepair, suffering ailments our military either refused to acknowledge or swept under the usual carpet (remember Agent Orange from Vietnam?). The current Iraq war will leave returning soldiers--and our country--much worse off, which is the point of writer/director (from a story co-written with Mark Boal) Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah. The title pertains to the Biblical location in which David slew Goliath, and it is among the few symbolic notions that Haggis has needlessly dragged into his movie and then made too much of (he had a lot more of these in his overrated Crash). The story--in which Tommy Lee Jones plays a father insistently looking for answers to his Iraq War vet son's disappearance--is no metaphor and is sturdy enough to stand on its own.

Basically an "investigation" movie (of a crime, of the military then and now, of soldiers' bonding, of prejudice and more), Elah boasts generally good writing and direction plus fine performances from Jones, Charlize Theron and a number of young and old men who play soldiers, current and ex-. In the course of the investigation, what slowly becomes clear is scary indeed. Who are these men returning from Iraq, what have they become, and how will our society be able to cope with them? If the denouement is a tad obvious (a quality Haggis demonstrated both in Crash and in his screenplay for Million Dollar Baby), it also seems truthful. And the aftermath has barely begun.


What is helping to send our soldier boys around the bend in Iraq (as reflected by Redacted and Elah) is the central subject of the woefully under-seen and under-appreciated Rendition. Written by Kelley Sane and directed by Gavin Hood (whose somewhat overpraised Tsotsi won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for 2006), the movie does, I admit, look like a glossy Hollywood terrorist thriller. But just as you can't judge a book by its cover, you should not judge a movie by its cinematography--which in this case, though glossy, is also damn good (Oscar-winner Dion Beebe was in charge). What makes Rendition so interesting and watchable, however, is its full-speed-ahead story and willingness to confront our country's power elite with its actions regarding torture.

"We don't do torture," a certain ex-official of ours is on record as telling us, a line that is repeated by his semi-stand-in for the film, capably played (would you expect anything else?) by Meryl Streep. Of course, this is a blatant lie, and the fact that the movie says so and shows so in no uncertain terms probably accounts for its failure at the box-office. (Even a trashy terrorist pot-boiler like The Kingdom drew bigger crowds at the multiplexes.) Rendition is difficult to watch and even more difficult to countenance because it is our country that now subscribes to this vicious and pointless (the tortured will confess to anything) procedure. Watching Rendition is like looking into a shit-encrusted mirror. And the crack performances by Reese Witherspoon, Peter Sarsgaard, Jake Gyllenhaal, Alan Arkin, Streep and especially Yigal Naor and Omar Metwally (as, respectively, torturer and tortured) simply add to the uncomfortable verisimilitude.

A word should also be said about the film's canny construction. Two stories unfold in front of you as the movie proceeds. Then, toward the end, the filmmakers pull the rug from under you. What you've been assuming is simply wrong, and the disorientation is stunning. Not unlike perhaps, one's initial reaction to being whisked out the side door of an airport, told that you're suspected of terrorism and then flown to a foreign country where...But it's only a movie, folks.



Torture? Big deal -- it's a good way to combat terrorism, right? This is partially the subject of our next film, one honored with France's César award for best documentary of the year. Terror's Advocate is a creation of the very intelligent director Barbet Schroeder (La Vallée, Barfly, General Idi Amin Dada, Reversal of Fortune), who works in a variety of genres and is a little hard to pinpoint in terms of style (not much, whatever the subject calls for) and belief. It's often hard to know where Schroeder stands and what he thinks, which, I suspect is exactly how he wants it. In this film, he explores one Jacques Vergés, a man who began his "career" fighting the Nazis with the Free French during WWII and looks to end it as a lawyer who loves the good life and pays for it by defending the likes of Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, while hob-nobbing with terrorists such as Carlos the Jackal and his former main squeeze Magdalena Kopp.

Schroeder enjoys (to borrow from Kevin Smith) the view askew. While he interviews Vergès and allows the man his say, his fingernails (via camera and sound) lift and pry into all sorts of odd places and people, giving us a much more nuanced, if not so nice, look at the enigmatic lawyer. Initially, it seems as if Vergés legitimately wanted to offer help to those defendants who lacked money, power or friends. As the documentary moves along however, it is difficult not to question many of the man's choices--not to mention his relatively luxurious lifestyle, together with his rather feeble explanations. But that's my take; you'll have your own.

Of particular interest are the interviews and snippets that feature ex-terrorist Hans-Joachim Klein, a man who has a much more important role in Jessica Yu's recent and fascinating documentary Protagonist. In that film, Klein gets to tell his own tale in his own manner and comes off quite the intelligent, sensitive penitent. Schroder, weaving Klein into his entire tapestry, shows the man in not exactly a contrary, but certainly a different, light.


How big a step is it from torture/terror to genocide? Some would argue it's only a matter of degree. Hitler, after all, in planning his Holocaust-to-come, did mention that no one would remember the ethnic cleansing of the Armenians by the Turks that took place only 20-some years before. Carla Garapedian's Screamers fuses performances by the rock group System of a Down with interviews and information about the genocide to the Armenian people. Some of this information you may already know [read interview with Garapedian here], but I found a good deal that was new to me here.

The title of Garapedian's film refers to those people who simply cannot remain silent about this genocide, despite the constant pressure from Turkey over the decades to ignore it and claim that it never happened. Enough evidence has been presented to make any thinking person admit to its reality. But not the Turks--or at least those Turks in control of the government, hence possessing the ability to inform and control the people. I recall Croatian film director Ognjen Svilicic telling me that the Bosnian genocide could happen again because too much has been kept secret and not investigated properly. This assumption, if correct (and I suspect it is), does not bode well for either the perpetrators who insist on burying the truth--or for their victims, past and future.

While many viewers will come for the music but stay for the message, I'm rather the reverse. Although I am pleased to have watched Screamers, I must admit to not particularly enjoying rock groups who "scream" their songs, though this style is certainly a la mode. If this is your reaction as well, you can fast forward through some of the numbers (while others are intercut with information you won't want to miss). I mean no disrespect to the System of a Down performers, who seem like a thoughtful, intelligent and talented bunch. And their hearts and heads are in the right place. But their music is just not my cup of tea.



There is a shocking yet oddly amusing scene from Goya's Ghosts in which the family of the character played by Natalie Portman hangs the character played by Javier Bardem backwards by his arms from their chandelier. As I watched, I had one of those little epiphanies that can come from viewing similarly-themed films in quick succession. Portman, you see, has been tortured and remains imprisoned by the Church (represented by Bardem) during the Spanish Inquisition. Her family wants her back, and they're ready to fight fire with fire. At this point I flashed back to Rendition, and the scene in which the character played by Peter Sarsgaard confronts the one played by Meryl Streep with the fact that a most-likely innocent man is being held against his will and probably tortured. The exchange is brief and filled with barely concealed contempt on both sides, ending in a short speech that encapsulates the problem nicely. Still, these are just words, and Streep is able to wave them off. How unfortunate, I thought, that Sarsgaard could not have immediately hung Streep backwards by her arms from the local chandelier until her character could experience the kind of simple empathy needed to condemn torture.

It's difficult to believe that one of the world's great writer/directors Milos Forman did not have our current times in mind when he filmed his most recent work, a movie rich in history, the uses/abuses of power, and the sad, relentless and numbing fact of who it is that inevitably pays power's price. Forman is from the Czech Republic and the American movies he has chosen to direct and/or write/adapt reflect a keen interest in society at various points in history. Forman's "takes" on this have not always proven as popular as in his Academy-honored films (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus, the former of which, to my mind, offer the least depth of any of his work), but they remain worth seeing for their rich, disparate mix of appropriate style and thoughtful content: Taking Off, Hair, Ragtime, Valmont (by far the best of the several "Choderlos de Laclos" adaptations), The People vs. Larry Flynt and now Goya's Ghosts.

Forman is especially good, I think, with historical films -- Amadeus, Valmont, Ragtime and his Goya piece. These are all visual feasts, yet the sets and costumes never override what is going on with the films' characters or with the bigger picture--in this case, what happens to Spain, first under the Inquisition, then via the conquering French (who toss out the creeps at the top of the Church but still treat the people as easily dispensable). Once the British conquer Napoleon, those same Church creeps take over again. Through it all, Brother Lorenzo, the monk played by Bardem--as one of the more successful opportunists you're likely to encounter--takes advantage of one and all. As a director, Forman usually manages to coax wonderful performances from his casts. Portman is as good as she's ever been, as a character who ages by 15 years, and then plays her daughter, too. Bardem, as always, is magnetic. Though his large, craggy face lends itself easily to villain roles, I'll treasure him more as the complex people he portrays in films like Second Skin, Before Night Falls, Mondays in the Sun and The Sea Inside. And Stellan Skarsgård is a splendid Goya, combining reticence and honesty, cowardice and courage to excellent effect.

Beautiful, sometimes thrillingly so, and filled with strange moments (the last of which takes hand-holding into a whole new realm), Goya's Ghosts is an odd duck. There is such a distance between its personal story and its larger canvas, yet I think Forman manages to bridge this gap with finesse and feeling. I recommend the movie highly, as I do a revisit to this filmmaker's earlier work. Even if you don't watch Goya, as I did, to cap off a week of Iraq-and-back-cum-torture/terror, I believe you'll still find it more than worthwhile in its own right.

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Posted by cphillips at March 14, 2008 5:36 PM
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