Produced by: Tim Bevan, Lisa Bruce, Eric Fellner, Anthony McCarten, Douglas
Written by: Anthony McCarten
Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ben Mendelsohn
What makes human beings want to go to war? What is it that determines thoughts and actions which will lead to the death of another human being? Is it: a genetic trait; a tribal desire; a psychological defect; financial gain; jealousy; boredom; passion; political chicanery; religion; greed; anger; revenge; or quite simply madness. Taking a life is something I have never understood. I mean, unless you are forced to defend yourself against a foe hell-bent on your destruction why would you wish to harm anyone else?
So, Adolf Hitler has a lot to answer for because, even accepting the political and social reasons for the rise of the Nazi party and his desire to repair national pride after the first World War, what the hell gives a nation the right to invade and conquer other countries. If you choose to go down that road you are signing the death certificate of a generation men and women and children. It’s not just Germany either. The British Empire, Roman Empire, Vikings, Mongols, United States of America, France and many more have waged war against humanity down the years. Will it ever stop? Sadly, I doubt it.
In times of war what is needed is obviously bravery, steel, fight, intelligence and more than a little luck. You need hearty human beings to stand and be counted and to die on the battlefields and in the air and in the sea. You also need leaders; figureheads who can rally the troops and galvanise that last ounce of fight in order to repel the enemy. During World War II, with the country on its knees and backs to the walls we had many leaders, but Winston Churchill, above all else, became synonymous with victory.
As portrayed in Joe Wright’s beautifully shot microcosmic epic, Darkest Hour, Churchill is presented as a flawed-pink-pyjama’d-cigar-chuffing-blustering-iconoclastic-functioning-alcholic prone to fits of rage, melancholy and depression. He also happens to be devilishly intelligent, full of energy, with a wicked tongue and talent for brilliant oration. Much of the plaudits must go to Gary Oldman, and his make-up team, for creating such a wonderfully human portrait. Indeed, Oldman owns the screen with his damned-near perfect impression.
Anthony McCarten’s fine script centres on a finite number of days during World War II when Churchill became Prime Minister. Aside from one emotionally effective yet historically grating symbolic scene on the London underground, is it well written with fantastic one-liners and Churchill’s greatest verbal ‘hits’. Joe Wright is a talented director (the mis-guided Pan (2015) aside) and he evocatively conveys the shadow of looming defeat. Wright traps Churchill and ensemble in cars, lifts and in underground chambers. Shafts of light also pin the characters to the corners of the screen; pushing them toward the darkness. But through the spirit of Churchill’s never-say-die attitude we fought back against the Nazis and eventually stole victory from the jaws of defeat. War is hell. War is madness. But sometimes it is unfortunately a necessity to prevent the bullies from winning.
I thought I would make an effort to watch more documentaries over the last few months. Personally, I love nothing more than to immerse myself in fictional worlds created by writers, show-runners and filmmakers etc. but sometimes it’s important to face the “truth”.
Having said that are documentaries actually reflecting reality or the truth? Because the documentary genre over the years has become ultra-sophisticated and many “true” stories are not just simply filmed documents or events or interviews. Now, documentaries are often carefully constructed narratives with as much if not more drama and turns in their tales than fictional works.
I wasn’t the only one who was gripped by Netflix’s Making a Murderer (2015) or HBO’s exceptional The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. Moreover, I’ve always been an avid viewer of the work of dogged filmmaker Nick Broomfield, the disarming talent of Louie Theroux, and at his best the polemical Michael Moore. However, you always have to be aware that what one is watching has been manipulated and finessed to tell a story or a certain agenda; thus truth is not always absolute and should always be questioned.
Nonetheless, the documentary film or programme remains an important tool to confront existential, sociological, historical and political events and issues. It also tends to be a lower budgeted medium – compared to fictional works – with which to illuminate and entertain an audience. So, here are some documentaries I have been watching of late.
Crime documentaries are big business and along with historical Nazi dramas fill up the TV screens and online. Netflix has some well-presented and often controversial documentaries, one such is AMANDA KNOX (2016), which interviewed many of those involved in the despicable murder case of Meredith Kercher a few years back. This intriguing documentary lifts the lid on a case where the media and Italian legal system are on trial as much as Knox herself.
With the Nazis in mind, the BBC documentary AUSCHWITZ: THE NAZIS AND THE FINAL SOLUTION (2005) is a horrific examination of wartime atrocities which probes the means with which the Nazis tried to wipe out all the Jews. This is a challenging yet incredible mix of interviews, dramatic re-enactment and detailed research on the evil death camp Auschwitz. While not an easy watch it is a brilliantly devised series which illustrates the blackest stain of one of humanity’s darkest periods in history.
From World War II to a very contemporary conflict Netflix presents THE WHITE HELMETS (2016), which over a hard-hitting forty minutes profiles the heroism of the eponymous rescue workers striving to save civilians from conflicted Aleppo and Syria on the whole. The short film won an Oscar but having done some research online the other side of the argument suggests this is a propaganda piece and does not represent the real work of this group. All I can say is someone somewhere is blowing the hell out of Syria and it is a bloody tragedy because people are dying! Indeed, whichever side the White Helmets are on the filmmakers show the insane destruction of war and suffering occurring for reasons that are beyond my understanding.
For something far more heart-warming I recommend the majestic film THE EAGLE HUNTRESS (2016). It documents the story of Aisholpan, a 13-year-old girl from Mongolia, as she attempts to become the first female eagle hunter in her country. Beautiful vistas and soaring eagles amidst the snow are to the fore in a very sweet tale of a young lady facing up against years of cultural chauvinism and prejudice, for something she loves doing.
More harrowing though is the well-constructed Killer Whale documentary BLACKFISH (2013) which highlights the cruelty to these beautiful creatures in captivity and the alleged corporate greed of SeaWorld following the deaths of trainers at the park. It also illustrates, in my opinion, the idiotic folly of human beings who think it is wise to get in the water with gigantic aquatic hunters. We are imprisoning animals for our own apparent entertainment and killing ourselves because of it. Idiots!
More human lunacy can be found in the harrowing film VIRUNGA (2014) set in the Congo where director Orlando von Einsiedel stabs at the heart of darkness and finds Soco International and civil war damaging the natural beauty of Virunga National Park. It’s another sad indictment on humanity as the people who live there and the animals, notably the Gorillas, find their habitat is surely being destroyed in the name of greed and insane mercenary bloodlust.
Taking the nature documentary in the direction of horror is Morgan Spurlock’s brutal film RATS (2016). This sickeningly impressive doc takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the globe with gruesome scenes of rat-catching, scientific experimentation, baiting and butchering of rats. Most disgustingly the eating of rodents in Vietnam is considered a delicacy. Gross!
Arguably the most powerful of the documentaries I watched was Ava DuVernay’s polemical and politically charged 13th (2016), a film which slams years of Government policies in regard to incarceration. Indeed, the evidence presented shows systematic lobbying from big business to turn the prison system into a means of enslaving the less socially advantaged. The mass rise of inmates in jail from the 1970s to now bares out this fact and the harsh stories within the documentary too are shocking. 13th is a savage indictment against the United States Government treatment, over the years, of black and Hispanic communities, and while it’s very one-sided, the points it is well researched and makes are incredibly powerful.
An altogether less incendiary and academic approach comes via Noam Chomsky’s interviews represented in REQUIEM FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM (2015) where the ultra-intellectual argues lucidly that a half-century of policies have been designed to favour the most wealthy at the expense of the majority. It’s thought-provoking and makes you wonder if this real life “They Live” style of social domination by the rich is truly real or just a dreamt up socio-liberal political conspiracy. To me, and I am not particularly bright when it comes to such matters, believe it is capitalist Darwinism at its worst and the wealthy and powerful are simply protecting what they have to the detriment or the less socially advantageous. Bastards!
I have to say that I admire the bravery of many documentary filmmakers, especially the ones who get right into the nitty gritty of the action. One such filmmaker Matthew Heinemann and his film CARTEL LAND (2015) has a lot of bottle going to Mexico and the US border to film events relating to the drug trade, criminality and nefarious Cartel factions and Government groups. Heinemann and his crew deserve praise for bringing these incredible events concerning an ongoing bloody civil war which seems to have no end in sight.
America is a continual goldmine for fascinating documentaries and Louis Theroux has proved time and time again he is a dab hand at gently poking a stick into some of the darker areas of humanity. Two such BBC documentaries he made are LA STORIES (2014) and THE CITY ADDICTED TO CRYSTAL METH (2009) where Theroux’s unassuming style examines the lives of people and animals affected by drugs, paedophilia, death and social decay. I like Louis Theroux as he isn’t afraid to ask important questions and his work gets into your psyche, without ever smashing you over the head with a definite agenda or tunnel-vision polemics.
The comedian Russell Brand presented a more vigorous approach when challenging the UK government’s ‘war on drugs’ policy by finding out how other countries are tackling their problems of drug abuse. RUSSELL BRAND – END THE DRUGS WAR (2014) was an passionate crusade by Brand to treat drug addiction as a disease and not a crime and he made some excellent points in carrying his case to legal and Government figures.
For some lighter viewing I also watched an informative documentary about filmmaker, actor and theatre genius called: MAGICIAN: THE ASTONISHING WORK OF ORSON WELLES (2014), which entertainingly ran through the career highs and lows of Orson Welles. Meanwhile, I AM YOUR FATHER (2015) was a likeable tribute to the man who WAS Darth Vader in the original Star Wars franchise – David Prowse. However, the film was ruined by the Spanish director crow-barring himself into the film and also trying to create some drama out of Prowse being gazumped by George Lucas for the shooting of Vader’s death scene. Prowse had a great career and I found the attempts at controversy were unnecessary and the film should’ve concentrated on the man in the suit himself.
Last but not least if you love filmmaking docs you must watchLOST SOUL: RICHARD STANLEY’S ISLAND OF DR MOREAU (2014). This documentary charts the journey of director Richard Stanley and his attempts to bring classic novel The Island of Dr Moreau to the silver screen. With a massive budget and filming taking place in Australia it all starts to go wrong for Stanley as tropical storms hit the set and the money men at the studio lose confidence. Add the crazy Marlon Brando, difficult Val Kilmer and hedonistic extras to the mix and you get a box office turkey burning in front of your eyes. Both funny and tragic it reveals the folly of filmmaking yet sadly also seemed to finish Stanley’s promising directorial career.
Films based on “true” stories are interesting to review as they will inevitably distort situations in the name of drama. I personally do not mind if a film compresses times, characters and incidents as I am interested firstly in my emotional response to the story and characters more than historical authenticity. If I want accuracy I’ll rely on Wikipedia.
Yet, as films based on ‘real’ events go The Imitation Game (2014) is a creditable distillation of the WWII code-breaking heroics as well as being a high class theatrical tragedy in cinematic form. Having said that while the film acts as an excellent tribute to the genius of Alan Turing (phenomenal Benedict Cumberbatch), the work of others in the field such as the Polish code-breakers, Tommy Flowers and many others must also be recognised. But perhaps that is for another film altogether.
I didn’t know much about main protagonist Alan Turing prior to seeing this movie but having done some basic research one soon realises what a great British hero he was in terms of cracking the Nazi Enigma codes. Moreover, his incredible mind also contributed in some way to the invention of what you are reading this very review on right now. No, not http://www.wordpress.com but the actual computer itself.
The fact that one of humanity’s greatest minds was treated so badly because of his homosexuality is a genuine war crime. It’s also a massive indictment AGAINST the Government and the Official Secrets Act that Turing is only just being truly recognised for his outstanding work in the last few years. Indeed, one of the films main strengths — not forgetting Andrew Hodges’ book on which it is based — in bringing Turing’s story to the screen is it acts as a thrilling monument to a man so cruelly destroyed by an intolerant 1950s society.
The narrative switches between Turing’s life pre-war, post-war and in-between. Graham Moore’s screenplay is deftly written and well-paced; both personable and witty. In terms of genre we are in biography and war film territories with a sprinkling of espionage and suspense thrown in. The code-cracking team at Bletchley Park are a kind of super-intelligent version of Marvel’s Avengers and include a handsome cast supporting Cumberbatch including: Matthew Goode (the next James Bond I reckon), always reliable Mark Strong and a commendable turn from Keira Knightley.
Firstly the team clashes with the prickly and arrogant Turing. Then, of course, over time they come to respect him. Meanwhile, idiosyncratic Turing finds his main ally in Joan Clarke (Knightley) as their “romance” becomes the heartbeat of the piece amidst the manipulation of machines. Both hearts and minds are drawn to each other and the two get engaged. But Turing’s sexuality proves an obstacle to the marriage and there’s a wonderful scene which reflects this; beautifully played by Cumberbatch and Knightley and echoes — albeit more seriously — the classic “No one’s perfect” end-scene from Some Like It Hot (1959).
There is so much heartache in the character of Turing. The flashbacks to Turing’s school years when he was bullied and suffered personal loss garners further pathos. Moreover, the “peas and carrots” scene alludes to the possibility of Turing having Asperger’s or similar high-functioning autism. And in Benedict Cumberbatch we have an actor who imbues Turing with a grandiose pain which I found genuinely moving. Here’s is an actor — who while cornering the market on misfit geniuses — once again shows terrific range and surely he will be nominated come Awards ceremony time.
This is a tremendous drama directed by Morten Tyldum which is arguably more televisual than filmic. Indeed, it reminded of those amazing BBC Play For Today productions I grew up watching when a young boy. It works mainly as a fine biopic of an incredible man so cruelly persecuted for just being born slightly different. Yet it is also has touching romance and high drama as shown when having cracked the Enigma the team face the agony of having to hide the fact as a strategy to win the war. Ultimately, I left the cinema uplifted by the work these amazing code-breakers did and but also with anger in my heart; anger at the damned British Government for not rewarding Alan Turing for his miraculous contribution to the war effort. He deserved so much more.