Monday, April 16, 2007

What I'm Watching: Lives, Smoking, and Courage

I've had a chance to watch a few movies lately, and for one of them I actually watched at the movie theatre, which has become rare for me lately.

On Saturday night, I went down to the Coolidge Corner Theatre, which is a terrific local movie house, which does goofy things like host a Buffy The Vampire Slayer Sing-Along midnight show (it had a prom night theme this year, so on my way after watching my movie, there were scores of folks clad in suits and evening gowns waiting in line). As for me, I finally got to watch The Lives of Others, written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. I figured that since it has been out for a while, I'd be by myself, but the small theatre was completely sold out (as was the earlier showing).

The movie completely deserved to be sold out. It's a spare, tense film, about a playwright and actress in East German under surveillance from a taciturn (and arts loving) Stasi agent. It's a movie that shows how you can offer an illuminating view of an expansive, oppressive regime and time, by focusing closely, intensely on the lives of just a few people. The actors were completely convincing, breathtaking really. For me, it was one of those rare films, where I was completely caught up for the entire time, and afterwards wasn't even tempted to try to look for parts that didn't work. It all meshed together for me. I'd actually love to watch it again, just so that I could look more closely at how he put it all together.

Thank You for Smoking, written and directed by Jason Reitman from Christopher's Buckley's novel, was on a Netflix DVD that lurked around our house for weeks. It was a movie that ended up on the list somehow, I guess it sounded good, but then once it was here, it never really caught our interest. We finally watched it and wondered why we'd waited so long.

Aaron Eckhart turns on the charm full blast as a spokesman for Big Tobacco. Thank you For Smoking is a rare case of a satire that manages to walk along the knife edge between preachiness and silliness, and come out intact. Though it's about spin in the world of business, the movie feels especially relevant today to our current political situation, living in a country whose political leadership is constantly trying to paint a happy face onto a war without popular support, and scandal after scandal in the executive branch. The character of Nick Naylor makes a point of teaching his young son how to direct an argument away from factual truth, and shows him how to make it all about winning and losing (and how to make sure you always win).

If this was a typical Hollywood movie, you'd expect Naylor to eventually get his comeuppance, and there's some of that, but it doesn't quite work the way you'd expect. The tricky thing is that we're rooting for this grand deceiver, in the same way that you end up sympathizing with the gangsters in the Godfather, or the crooks in a jewel heist movie. Naylor loves what he does and he's good at it, and Eckhart's clear love of his character is infectious.

Last night our Netflix copy of Munich wouldn't play, so we were onto Courage Under Fire, starring Denzel Washington (and nominally Meg Ryan). (Directed by Edward Zwick and written by Patrick Sheane Duncan.) Released in 1996, this is a film about the first Iraq war and the aftermath of a friendly fire incident. It's a bit of a character piece about Col. Serling (played by Washington), who, while trying to deal with a deadly error in Iraq, also has to investigate the details of the first woman up for the Medal of Honor.

Ah, the first Gulf War. I fear that we'll look back on it fondly someday (or do we already). I can guarantee you that the war movies made about the current Iraq war will look nothing at all like this. The combat, what little there is, is out in the empty desert, with a few anonymous Iraqis getting shot by the Americans. But the war was over so quickly, the films have to deal with American v. American violence and conflict. And there's no political comment by anyone over whether it was a good idea to be there or not.

The movie is a bit of a mess. The big incident that haunts Serling isn't given the weight it needs to explain Denzel's struggles, and the puzzle that he tries to unravel around Meg Ryan's character, feels awkward and forced. I guess, ultimately, this movie is trying to deal with the notion of "the truth shall set you free" but you'd be better off watching something else for that, or even to get a sense of war (for a good Gulf War movie, I think you head to Three Kings.

Mostly Courage Under Fire made me very curious about what sorts of movies we'll see about our current war, five years from now. I think they'll be much more powerful, emotionally and politically.


Malachy Walsh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Malachy Walsh said...

THE LIVES OF OTHERS - an amazing movie. Just amazing.

We couldn't stop talking about it after we saw it.

It'd be nice to have a few more movies like it.

patrick said...

I need to get my wife to see it, because I want to talk about it with her in depth, but can't because I don't want to ruin it for when she does see it.

I agree that I wish there more like it.

YS said...

Hey Patrick,

Thanks for starting a blog. We need more Bostonians in the 'sphere.

Break a leg in the Dragonfly.

pat said...

Thanks! We start rehearsals this week. I'm excited to finally get a chance to work on the play in production (it's been done a bunch of times in other cities, but I've never seen it).