“Duck and run for cover!” is one way to warn you about December’s deluge of quality films. These films are being released in NYC in hopes that Oscar nominators will make people forget all the good movies that came out earlier this year. It is overwhelming, quite frankly. There are just too many really high quality films to see this month. As a form of active meditation and psychic survival, I drop into a movie theater to escape high-energy shopping on the street or news of another shooting (etcetera, etcetera, etcetera) because I feel safe in a movie theater. This is why I suggest a movie gift card or membership (e.g., Film Forum or Film Society of Lincoln Center) for Christmas or Hanukkah gifts. Let me recommend films that you will enjoy seeing in a movie theater with a large screen.
Let’s Go To the Movies
1: Hacksaw Ridge
Director: Mel Gibson
I admit that I was not looking forward to seeing a new war film by Mr. Macho, Mel Gibson. I was wrong. Gibson tells the story of WWII conscientious objector Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield). Doss answered his country’s call to duty, but declared that he would not carry a gun. He said that he wanted to serve as a medic caring for wounded soldiers in battle. In basic training, he became, in the judgment of the military training staff, a potential liability. Yet, he develops personal relationships and tai chis the bullies. True to the Gibson sensibility, Doss is a man of courage and principal—just not the kind you would expect from a soldier in battle.
While watching the film, I was reminded of just how visually beautiful, frame by frame, films like Apocalypto and The Passion of the Christ were. Passion had blood almost dripping from the screen because of Gibson’s fascination with torture. In Hacksaw Ridge, he shows how horrible actual war is. Gibson does not use soft dissolves, nor does he sentimentalize soldier relations. He shows the bloody deaths that happen without warning as soldiers try to dodge bullets. I stayed in my seat while sometimes closing my eyes and wanting to leave, as it became almost too real for me. Gibson uses a palette of colors that resonates just like the brutal strokes and colors of Goya’s battle scenes. His use of long-range thermal weapons that shoot flames as they scorch the earth and anything in their range, including trees and humans, light up the screen with the beauty of a Turner battle scene. The film’s climactic sequence comes in a battle with the Japanese on a hilltop overlooking the Okinawa coastline. There, U.S. soldiers are landing and are ordered to take the hill. Death is everywhere as the soldiers continue to climb and occupy the hill. The Japanese are waiting for the right moment to take it back. It is a violent and gut-wrenching sequence. Finally, the U.S. command orders its soldiers to abandon the hill and return to shore. Doss does not leave, as he knows that his soldiers are seriously wounded, though not all dead. He buries himself under dead soldiers so that the Japanese patrols do not catch him. Night falls. Doss begins to find the injured survivors and drags and lowers them one by one down the hill on ropes. It is a very powerful sequence. Gibson’s interest here is not the politics of war, but who these soldiers actually are. Doss was awarded the first Medal of Honor ever given to a conscientious objector. Gibson delivers an important, beautifully-crafted film. Garfield is perfectly cast.
2: MISS SLOANE
Director: John Madden
As I sat down to write this review, I had just heard that a new campus gun massacre was unfolding. I had joined Gays Against Guns (an inclusive direct action group modeled after ACT UP) in the days after the Pulse nightclub gun massacre. Miss Sloane is the new Jessica Chastain film directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The Debt). I went and paid to see it because it was a Jessica Chastain film. So, imagine my surprise when I learned that the plot line revolved around a smart, confident, and fearless female lobbyist. She knows that she is at the top of her game in the very competitive D.C. world of courting congressional votes for corporate clients. She is asked to lead the NRA objection to gun control legislation. We watch as this hard-as-nails, take-no-prisoners femme fatale out of nowhere listens to her conscience and says no. She will not work on that account, she tells the CEO and the client, to their dismay. They both wanted a woman at the helm in opposition to the bill. She walks out and into a nonprofit, public advocacy firm that asks her to work for the passage. She agrees. Is it principles or the drive to win that motivates? This is one underlying tension. I also thought of the Advise and Consent and All the President’s Men intrigues. Modern touches include her dependence on what appears to be Adderall and her hiring of a male escort with pecs and a brain (played by Girls hunk Jake Lacy). Also memorable is John Lithgow as an arrogant NRA puppet politician—a Senator who has sold his vote. Miss Sloane is edited with a kinetic sense of energy, much like the sound of her stilettos on the congressional hearing room floor. The NRA fights back by attempting to ruin her reputation and call her integrity into question. It is chilling to see how far the NRA will go to destroy anyone who stands in its way—no matter how successful that person is. This is a good window into how Washington actually works.
Two very different documentaries have premiered that demand attention.
3: Bobby Sands: 66 Days
Director: Brendan J. Byrne
There have been a number of documentaries and narrative films on Bobby Sands that chronicle the Irish struggle for independence from Britain, including the excellent Sunday Bloody Sunday and Steve McQueen’s antiseptic art film Hunger. 66 Days refers to the amount of time it took for Bobby Sands to die on a hunger strike in prison. This documentary examines the more personal motivations of Bobby Sands, given that Margaret Thatcher refused to relent and concede anything to the Irish Independence Movement. The IRA was guilty of planting bombs that killed people and attacking and killing public leaders of Northern Ireland. That is not in dispute. But, history tells us that the Irish people needed to have symbols of resistance. I was profoundly moved by the film and challenged by the information that I learned. Today, we live in the era of advocacy documentaries, where one side of the story is told, leaving unanswered questions that you would like a documentary to address. This is why I like this documentary. You may think you know everything about the Irish struggle, to the point where you don’t care about the IRA. But, I recommend this movie if you’re trying to understand why people who feel disenfranchised in our own country are willing to sacrifice good sense and deep thought to simply vote for change—no matter who is on the ballot.
4: Two Trains Runnin’
Director: Samuel D. Pollard
1964. The year of Freedom Summer—when college students and clergy joined forces with black civil rights activists to register black voters in the South. What happened on the Freedom Bus Ride, when the bus entered deep into Mississippi, has been documented in vivid footage—the murder of two white college students and a young black man. Two Trains Runnin’ is about two other groups of young white people who traveled South that summer from the Northeast and the West Coast. They were fans of the blues. They were in search of two black blues legends they knew only from their recordings. They were searching for Skip James and Son House—names that rock ‘n’ roll culture in the U.K. knew because of John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers and the Rolling Stones. They hoped, but did not know, if the artists were still alive. One of the groups contained a young white musician named John Fahey who would, years later, become a guitar legend himself. The blues caravan actually went into the black community and asked if anyone knew either of these men. We see more of the everyday life of rural southern blacks in Two Trains than we see in Freedom Ride documentaries. These two groups of white people were both traveling in Mississippi but were unaware of each other. We know what happened to Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner. What we discover with the blues-seekers is that, in fact, they do find the men they are looking for in Mississippi and take them back to perform at the Newport Folk Festival.
Tragedy and affirmation are the themes. Two Trains reveals a part of civil rights history that is culture-based—not in opposition to political reality, but in a desire for authenticity that, to me, is also political.