"Advice & Consent" "All The King's Men" (1949) "All The King's Men" (2006) "All The President's Men" "The American President" "The Baader-Meinhof Complex" "The Bang Bang Club" "The Battle Of Algiers" "Being There" "Bobby" "Bulworth" "The Butler" "The Candidate" "Carla's Song" "Che: Part One" "Che: Part Two" "City Hall" "The Confession" "The Contender" "Cry Freedom" "CSA: Confederate States Of America" "The Dancer Upstairs" "Dave" "Exodus" "Fahrenheit 9/11" "Four Horsemen" "The Front Runner" "Frost/Nixon" "Gandhi" "The Ghost" "Good Bye Lenin!" "Good Night, And Good Luck" "Hotel Rwanda" "The Ides Of March" "An Inconvenient Truth" "The Iron Lady" "J.F.K." "Knock Down The House" "The Lady" "Land And Freedom" "The Last King Of Scotland" "Lincoln" "The Lives Of Others" "Long Shot" "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962) "The Manchurian Candidate" (2004) "Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom" "Michael Collins" "Milk" "Miss Sloane" "Missing" "The Motorcycle Diaries" "Mr Smith Goes To Washington" "Music Box" "Nicholas And Alexandra" "Persepolis" "Peterloo" "Primary Colors" "The Quiet American" "Quo Vadis Aida?" "Reds" "Salvador" "The Seduction Of Joe Tynan" "Selma" "Shooting Dogs" "State Of Siege" "Thirteen Days" "Under Fire" "The Unknown Known" "Vice" "W." "Waltz With Bashir" "Welcome To Sarajevo" "The Wind That Shakes The Barley" "Winstanley" "A World Apart" "Young Mr Lincoln" "Z"
"Advice & Consent" (1962)
Otto Preminger directed this insight into Congressional affairs, examining how the Senate has to give 'advice and consent' in relation to the nomination by President (Franchot Tone) of a new liberal Secretary of State (Henry Fonda) against the determined opposition of a southern senator (Charles Laughton). Based on a novel based Allen Drury, this is an unpleasant portrayal of American politics in which Laughton takes the acting honours.
"All The King's Men" (1949)
This classic film is based on a novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Penn Warren published in 1946. It tells the story of the rise to power of charismatic and populist Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford) who storms his way to becoming Governor of a Southern US state in the Depression era. Along the way, a host of characters, including narrator and political journalist Jack Burden (John Ireland) and campaign assistant Sadie Burke (Mercedes McCambridge), bend to his will, even when knowing just how venal and corrupt he is. The movie won three Academy Awards - one for Best Picture and others for Crawford and McCambridge - but nothing for writer, producer and director Robert Rossen.
At the time of the film's release, viewers would have seen in the morality tale a reflection of the career of Louisiana governor Huey Long. Today, so much of the dialogue and so many plot points seem eerily prescient as the playbook of President Donald Trump. Towards the end of the film, Stark is impeached by the state's House of Representatives and, as the Senate decides whether to uphold the charge, it is surrounded by baying, ultra-loyal Stark supporters. It is entirely a coincidence - it just happened to be on television - that I caught this movie the week that Trump fanatics stormed the Capitol and Trump was impeached (for the second time) by the House.
Jack Burden explains how it's done: "Appeal to their emotions. Make them laugh; make them cry; make them mad, even if they get mad at you. But for heaven's sake, don't try to improve their minds." And Sadie Burke states of her boss: "He'll ditch everybody in the whole world, because that's what Willie wants. Nobody in the world but him!" Remind you of anybody?
Link: my review of the book click here
"All The King's Men" (2006)
This remake of the 1949 classic has some notable differences. Obviously it is not in black and white but in colour. The period has been moved from the 1930s (as it was in the original novel) to the 1950s and, instead of being located generally in a southern state (again as was the case with the book), it is specifically set in Louisiana (which in fact was the state in the mind of the novelist).The central role of Willie Stark is now taken by Sean Penn who gives a rather histrionic performance which is more caricature than character. The support roles are filled by a lot of fine actors - James Gandolfini, Mark Ruffalo and Patricia Clarkson plus British Jude Law, Kate Winslet and Anthony Hopkins - but the casting does not always seem sensible. The staging is often overly melodramatic, not least in the final scene. But, in spite of all these reservations, it is a striking story which, following the experience of Donald Trump in the White House, looks all too plausible.
Link: my review of the book click here
"All The President's Men" (1976)
It was "Washington Post" reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Berstein who uncovered the connections between the Watergate 'plumbers' and the White House and Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman respectively are excellent as the two young men who unravel the complex truth. Alan J Pakula was the director of this absorbing work, but it is not always easy to follow the dialogue or the plot and it is more about investigative journalism than politics as such.
It was only 31 years after Nixon's resignation that the informant 'Deep Throat' was revealed to be former Federal Bureau of Investigation Associate Director Mark Felt."The American President" (1995)
This was produced and directed by Rob Reiner who struck gold with "When Harry Met Sally". Michael Douglas plays a widowed Democratic President romancing environmental lobbyist Annette Bening. It is light and amusing and politically liberal. The real significance of the film is its authorship - scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin was motivated by his work for this movie to go on and write one of the most brilliant television series ever, "The West Wing". Several of the actors in the film in fact turn up in the series, notably Martin Sheen who is Chief of Staff in the former and President in the latter.
"The Baader-Meinhof Complex" (2008)
Formally named the Red Army Faction (Rote Armee Fraktion in German), this German urban terrorist group - at its height in the late 1960s and 1970s but only formally dissolved in 1998 - was more commonly referred to by the names of two of its leaders, Andreas Baader (played here by Moritz Bleibtreu) and Ulrike Meinhof (portrayed by Martina Gedeck). This is not an easy movement to represent, still less explain, partly because the events are so numerous, partly because the timescales are so long, and above all because the politics behind it and the state reaction to it are morally complex, but this German film makes a very commendable attempt, showing the narrative mainly from the perspective of the group without ever glamorising their actions which resulted in 34 deaths and many injuries.
The script is based on a best-selling book by Stefan Aust, Chief Editor of the German weekly news magazine "Der Spiegel", but considerable credit must go to Uli Edel who both co-wrote and directed this compelling work that tries to face up honestly to a terribly painful period of post-war German history. It is a long film (two and a half hours) and sometimes confusing, with plenty of graphic violence, hard language and some nudity, but it raises sharp questions that still resonate today about the idealism of the young, the expression of political protest, and the role of the media and the police in confronting such anger and disillusionment.
Link: Wikipedia page on the RAF click here
"The Bang Bang Club" (2010)
The 'club' - a real life group of four white photographers - operated in South Africa during the difficult last years of the apartheid era in 1990-1994 when the white regime encouraged the Inkatha Freedom Party to attack the supporters of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress and appalling atrocities of black-on-black violence were committed. Two of the photographers won Pulitzer Prizes for their shots but all suffered psychologically and physically.
The film is an adaptation of a book by the two surviving members of the 'club' written and directed by South African documentary film-maker Steven Silver and it was shot on location in Thokoza township south of Johannesburg. So there can be little doubt about the authenticity of the principal events and the verisimilitude of the settings. Somehow, however, the script and acting have a amateurish feel, so that the work is not quite as gripping as it should be.
The movie reminds me of the 1973 work "Under Fire". Although the political situations are different - the 1973 film is about the civil war in Nicaragua - both films centre on the work of photographers in recording conflict and presenting it to the wider world and both explore how the motives and role of such participants can be complex and controversial. Even observers of dramatic political events cannot be neutral or passive.
LinK: Wikipedia page on the club click here
"The Battle Of Algiers" (1965)
This is a remarkable film in many ways. It was commissioned by the Algerian Government to record the war of independence against the French, but it was directed and co-written by the Italian Marxist Gillo Pontecorvo and it is a honest work that shows the conflict from both sides. Shot at the actual locations and not long after the actual events, Pontecorvo produced a black-and-while newsreel-like narrative with few professional actors, so that the whole feel of the work is one of brutal reality. The dramatic score from fellow Italian Ennio Morricone only adds to the gripping atmosphere.
"Being There" (1979)
Peter Sellers played an illiterate gardener whose banalities on gardening are taken as insightful aphorisms in this political satire which concludes with the simpleton being made the American president by manipulative powerbrokers. Maybe, after Ronald Reagan and George W Bush, this movie does not look so fanciful.
Robert Altman may now have shuffled off to the great director's chair in the sky, but his hallmark style of multiple storylines and well-known actors has been picked up here by Emilio Estevez who is writer, director and one of the stars of this compelling work which manages to be both hugely entertaining and strikingly political.
Although there are no less than 22 characters - the majority played by very well-known faces in a star-studded, ensemble piece - all the action occurs on one day (6th June 1968) and in one place (the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles) - the day and the location of the assassination of Robert F Kennedy as he was winning the California Democratic primary in a race that might have taken him back to the White House, this time as president instead of Richard Nixon. Much use of archive footage almost makes RFK himself one of the cast.
The inter-related stories of the staff and occupants of the hotel are told so well that, by the time the movie reaches its inevitable conclusion, we care about the welfare of the fictional charcters almost as much as we tense up at the knowledge of the senseless slaying of RFK. This is one film where it pays to stay for the credits because there are so many interesting photographs of RFK and other historic characters.
In one sense, this is probably a work that resonates particularly powerfully with those who were alive at the time (I was 20 but Estevez was only six). On the other hand, the speeches of RFK referenced by Estevez sound astonishingly contemporary, as he laments America's involvement in a foreign war, the growing threat to the environment, the scourge of working-class poverty, and the divisions between racial groups in the USA. If anything, for a general audience, the political messages are bludgeoned a little too strongly in the final set of speech extracts, but this is a minor complaint.
Martin Sheen, Emilio's father and liberal activist, a man who played John F Kennedy in a television mini-series and fictional president Josiah Barlett in "The West Wing", and one of the wonderful ensemble cast in "Bobby", must be mighty proud of his boy.
There's no doubting that Warren Beatty is a political animal. This is the man who gave us "Reds" (1981) with its sympathetic portrayal of communism. Now Beatty has co-written and produced a work which savages contemporary American politics in a bizarre, but comedic and effective, style. Beatty himself is Senator Jay Bulworth in the last stages of a re-election campaign backed by the necessary big business finance obtained in return for a cynical Bill-blocking operation, but the corruption of Congressional politics has now eaten so deeply into his soul that he makes some fateful decisions. Halle Berry - in a grittier role than her appearance in "The Flintstones" - plays Nina, a poor black American who helps to reshape his vision.
The message is uncompromising: US politics has been totally corrupted by the campaign funding of corporate America and neither Republicans nor Democrats are prepared to fund the programmes necessary for disenfranchised blacks to move out of poverty and crime. But the format is new: this revolutionary message - on two occasions, even the word "socialism" is used - is delivered in the main through rap music. The movie's intention is honourable, but do we really believe that, if a senior American politician came out against corporatism and called for public funding of anti-poverty programmes, voters would give him landslide support? Bullshit, Bulworth!
"The Butler" (2013)
This hugely ambitious and immensely worthy film attempts, through the experience of the eponymous manservant in the White House, to tell the story of American racial segregation and the civil rights movement that challenged it over three decades. It is "inspired by a true story" which came to light in a "Washington Post" article in November 2008 as the first black President in US history was about to secure his momentous victory.
The real life butler was Eugene Allen (who spent 34 years in service), but in the film he is called Cecil Gaines and portrayed with understated sensitivity by Forest Whitaker. In her first acting role for a decade a half, Oprah Winfrey is excellent as his long-suffering wife Gloria. This is a movie with lots of roles for black actors, such as Cuba Gooding Jr and David Oyelowo, but there are also many celebrity cameos, especially in the representation - of varied quality - of a succession of Presidents: Eisenhower (Robin Williams), Kennedy (James Marsden), Johnson (Lieb Schreiber), Nixon (John Cusack), and Reagan (Alan Rickman).
There are echoes here of "Forrest Gump", another movie that sought to narrate social change in America over a period of decades with all sorts of chance encounters by the character of the title but, in that case, we excused the contrivances as part of the humour. Another film that comes to mind is "The Help" where again we had an indictment of racial discrimination in terms that lacked much subtlety or nuance and that all too obviously wore its heart upon its sleeve. In "The Butler", director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong strain to do too much and be in too many places and some of the characterisations are stereotypical and a few of the scenes mawkish.
This is a movie which will play better in its home country than elsewhere but still, in the north-west London cinema where I viewed it, there was a substantial black element in the audience and there was applause at the end. So, for all its flaws as a film, this is cinema with a powerful message.
"The Candidate" (1972)
This film ought to be much better known than it is. Robert Redford plays the idealist lawyer Bill Mackay who is persuaded by the political establishment to run for the Senate on the grounds that he cannot possibly win and so he can say what he wants. The trouble is, of course, that he starts to do much better than expected, he begins to compromise his political beliefs to win votes and, before he knows it, the machine has swallowed him whole.
The movie anticipates Clintonism in the States and Blairism in Britain - where the spin often means more than the substance - and the best scene is where the whole charade becomes so farcical that the candidate simply cannot stop laughing as he tries to record a television interview. Both the director Michael Ritchie and the scriptwriter Jeremy Lander were political campaigners in the 1960s and they have obviously brought some of their own experience to this incisive movie.
"Carla's Song: (1997)
This is another polemical offering from British director Ken Loach (see Land And Freedom). This time the focus of attention is Nicaragua in 1987, a time when the CIA-backed Contras are attempting to overthrow the revolutionary government of the Sandinistas. Glasgow bus driver Bobby, played consummately by Robert Carlyle of "Trainspotting", accidentally makes the acquaintance of Nicaraguan refugee Carla, portrayed by dancer Oyanka Cabezas, and, in helping her to confront her wartime traumas, embarks on his own journey of discovery. Often the Glaswegian accents are almost as hard to decipher as the Latin American Spanish, but at least the later comes with sub-titles. However, Loach is known for the realism of his cinema and this film is uncompromisingly worthy but much too one-dimensional. A better film on the war in Nicaragua is "Under Fire".
"Che: Part One" (2008)
A year after I visited Cuba, the country celebrated the 50th anniversary of its revolution and the week of that commemoration marked the release of the first part of this lengthy diptych on the most famous - indeed iconic - participant in that revolution, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara. In Cuba even today, Che's image is omnipresent, with a particularly huge portrayal on the side of the Ministry of Interior, and in Santa Clara - the town where Che fought and won the last and decisive battle of the revolution - there is museum marking his life and containing his remains that projects the man as a secular saint. How would this film represent such a complicated and controversial character?
Picking up where "The Motorcycle Diaries" left off, the movie covers the period from Che's meeting with Fidel Castro in 1955 to the successful overthrow of the dictator Fulgencio Batista in January 1959 with interspersed black-and-white scenes of Che's visit to New York in 1964 when he spoke to a journalist and addressed the United Nations. The whole thing has the feel of a documentary, with director Steven Soderbergh also responsible for the cinematography, and the sense of verisimilitude is aided by use of Spanish and actors who pass quite reasonably for the real life Fidel, Raúl, Camilo and the asthmatic Che himself (an excellent performance from Benicio del Toro).
Shot largely in Puerto Rico, this a serious and worthy work that has obviously been the subject of meticulous research - it is based partly on Che's own "Reminiscences Of The Cuban Revolutionary War" - and many individual scenes are gripping and insightful. The problem is that the sum of the parts is strangely lacking. The narrative lacks form and flow so that the story jerks around rather than sweeps us along and, in the process, we learn little about Che's motivation and character and see nothing of his noted cruelty and arrogance.
Link: Wikipedia page on Che Guevara click here
"Che: Part Two" (2008)
Part One left Che on the road to Havana following the overthrow of the Batista dictatorship; Part Two jumps forward seven years, so that we miss out his time as a minister in Castro's government and his abortive adventures in the Congo. Compared to the earlier film, this second element of the diptych is much tighter than the first in narrative terms, focusing only on Che's year in Bolivia (1966-67) and takes a straightforward chronological approach.
It has some of the strengths of the first film: the cinematography and direction of Steven Soderbergh, which give the whole work a lifelike, almost documentary feel, and the superb acting of Benicio del Toro who - even more than before - is rarely off the screen. However, the narrative is less compelling this time with the guerrillas seemingly going from one place to another with no obvious strategy. The main criticism of both parts though is that we have over four hours of excessively reverential treatment of an immensely controversial figure with little acknowledgement of the egotism that was at the heart of the doomed Bolivian mission.
Link: Wikipedia page on Che Guevara click here
"City Hall" (1996)
A sharp script and some fine acting distinguish this rapid-dialogue, plot-twisting examination of the intersection of politics and crime in the administration of New York City, but it is not always clear what is happening. One of the four writing credits goes to Paul Schrader who wrote such gritty pieces as "Blue Collar" and "Raging Bull". The many mini homilies include: "You want an answer? Okay, pappy, think of it as colors. There's black, and there's white, and in between is mostly grey. That's us. Now grey is a tough color, because it's not as simple as black and white - and for the media, certainly not as interesting. But... it's what we are."
Al Pacino plays the charismatic and well-intentioned but hard-bitten Mayor John Pappas, an excellent performance with a memorable if over-the-top funeral oration, while fresh-faced John Cusack is the idealistic Deputy Mayor Kevin Calhoun. The able support cast is led by Danny Aiello as political boss Frank Anselmo, a role based in part on Brooklyn-born Queens Borough President Donald Manes, who was caught up in real estate development scandals.
"The Confession" (1970)
Directed by Costa-Gavras and starring Yves Montand, this French film was the same team as for "Z" (1968) and did for Left-wing communist regimes what the earlier movie did for Right-wing fascist regimes, only this time the violence was psychological rather than physical. It was based on the experiences of Arthur London, one of the 13 defendants (10 of them Jewish) in the infamous Stalinist show trial of Communist Party General Secretary Rudolf Slánský and others in Czechoslovakia in November 1952. As politics, this is an interesting work, showing how committed communists can be made to sacrifice their lives for the cause, but as cinema it is quite frankly slow and boring.
"The Contender" (2000)
As a political animal who could not get enough of the American television series "The West Wing", I approached this political thriller with high expectations and, on the whole, I was not disappointed. Former film journalist Rod Lurie provides an accomplished debut as both writer and director of this dramatic account of the Congressional nomination hearings of the first woman to be put forward as Vice-President.
There is a sharp script and authentic sets, but what really makes the movie is a triumvirate of fine performances. Jeff Bridges is excellent as Democratic President Jackson Evans, exhibiting the charisma of a Clinton but without any women - even a wife - in sight; a barely recognisable Gary Oldman fills yet another bad guy role with distinction as the hard-line Republican Shelly Runyon; and, in a role specifically written for her by Lurie, Joan Allen is superb as the nominee Laine Hanson, facing allegations of sexual misconduct with a coolness only a few degrees above her performance in "The Ice Storm".
It all becomes a little trite towards the end with some implausible plot twists and two grand-standing speeches, but one forgives this because of its uncompromising support for political liberalism and gender equality. Indeed a measure of the difference between British and American politics is that positions which are so commonplace in the former - support for a woman's right to choose an abortion, opposition to the death penalty, abolition of possession of hand guns, and separation of church and state - seem so radical when espoused by Allen's character.
"Cry Freedom" (1987)
At the dawn of the 21st century, the apartheid regime of South Africa seems like an aberration or nightmare of history, but the first political demonstration I went on in the late 1960s was against the regime and, when Richard Attenborough produced and directed this film in 1967, the edifice of discrimination seemed all too entrenched. Shot mainly in Zimbabwe, it is the true story of the 1975-1977 relationship between the charismatic Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko portrayed by Denzil Washington and white newspaper editor Donald Woods played by Kevin Kline.
The film is a moving and powerful attack on the system of apartheid which opens with the raid on the Crossroads shanty town and closes with the Soweto riots and a roll call of those who had died in South African jails. The soundtrack by James Fenton is brilliant and I cried at the scene of Biko's funeral which features the anthem "Nkosi Sikelel Afrika". At the end of the showing I attended, the London audience applauded. Some months later, I chose the film as the first serious work of cinema to be seen by my son (then 11) and he cried at the Soweto shootings and, like me, still remembers the film with emotion.
It seems churlish to criticise such a worthy work, but there is more of Woods than Biko in the film and the Afrikaaner case is hardly stated.
Footnote: On the day that Nelson Mandela was released from 27 years of imprisonment, on 11 February 1990, I played Fenton's version of "Nkosi Sikelel Afrika" at full volume in triumphant joy.
"CSA: Confederate States Of America" (2004)
Suppose the South had won the American Civil War? That is the counter-factual premise of this film written and directed by Kevin Willmot. It is presented as a British documentary - newsreel footage, interviews with commentators, and titled segments - presenting an alternative history of the country over tha last century and a half as broadcast on American television with lots of commercial breaks featuring racist advertisements. There is nothing subtle about this biting satire but it does serve to underline how deep racism has run in American history - both reel and real.
"The Dancer Upstairs" (2002)
Acclaimed actor John Malkovich has made his directorial début with an assured political thriller that combines tension and intelligence to make for a gripping two and a quarter hours. The setting is a South American country which is unnamed, but the clear inspiration for the storyline is the early 1990s experience of Peru (which I have recently visited) when the bizarre Abimael Guzmán led the murderous Shining Path movement, while the movie was shot in Spain, Portugal and Ecuador.
Javier Bardem plays Augustin Rejas, a former lawyer turned policeman who manages rare dignity and honesty as he battles with the interventions of a regime teetering on the edge of a military dictatorship and the pursuit of a fanatical revolutionary codenamed Ezekiel, while struggling with the varying emotions associated with a vapid wife, an adoring daughter, and his daughter's dance teacher, the eponymous and allurring woman upstairs (Laura Morante as Yolanda). Bardem - who reminds me of an early Raul Julia - gives a languid yet charismatic performance and hopefully we will see much more of this talented actor.
In some respects the work is reminiscent of Costa-Gavras's "State Of Siege", a clip of which is actually used here. However, the movie is based on a novel by the British writer Nicholas Shakespeare, who wrote the screenplay which features some conversation in Quechua (a native language of Peru and Bolivia), and this is a more personal examination of terrorism than the 1973 movie.
This is a film with a political setting rather than a political message. When the President of the United States has a stroke, a lookalike Baltimore businessman (Kevin Kline) is drafted to stand in for him and manages to impress the previously estranged First Lady (Sigourney Weaver) at least. Although a comedy, director Ivan Reitman injects some liberal political sentiments into the tale.
When this film was first released (1960), I and the state of Israel were just 12 years old; by the time I finally caught up with it (2008), we were both 60 and I had just visited the country for the first time. The creation of Israel - the subject of the movie - was highly problematic and its survival and success over six decades are little short of miraculous, so this film, based on the best-selling novel by Leon Uris, ought to have been thrilling, but it turned out to be an exercise in dullness.
Set and filmed in Cyprus and Israel (Jerusalem and Acre), there is a good deal of historical verisimilitude here, especially in the treatment of the conflict between the Haganah and the Irgun (for my description of these organisations click here), but everything moves so slowly and so deliberatively, while much of the acting - especially from the younger performers - is dire.
The presence of stars Paul Newman and Eve Marie Saint cannot lift the work beyond the well-intentioned but mediocre and the love story between their characters is one of the weaker lines of narrative. At the end, Newman's character, a senior Haganah man, makes a graveside speech looking forward to Jews and Arabs living together in peace. Of course, sadly we are still waiting.
The whole epic runs an incredible three and a half hours. There's a story - possibly apocryphal - that, at a preview with the director Otto Preminger, the Jewish comedian Mort Sahl stood up after three hours and pleaded "Let my people go!" In short, very worthy, very long, very pedestrian.
"Fahrenheit 9/11" (2004)
This is a must-see movie whose images live long in the mind. Written, narrated, produced and directed by the maverick Michael Moore - who has, almost single-handedly, reinvented the political documentary - this is a tour-de-force which deconstructs the simple-mindedness, dishonesty and corruption at the heart of the Bush administration. It is not fair or balanced, it is frequently outright satirical, it is sometimes too personalised, and (at one point at least) it is frankly cheap (the effort to persuade Congressmen to send their sons to war). But we know before we go into the cinema that this is not a standard documentary but a personal polemic and it is all the more powerful and impressive for that.
From the opening scenes - where we are reminded of how differently it should all have been (since Al Gore actually won the Presidential election of 2000) - the visuals are captivating. So often, Bush destroys himself by his vacant stare or his banal comment or totally inappropriate behaviour. The testimony from a dead soldier's mother from Moore's home town of Flint is very moving and the footage from Iraq itself, obtained while with US troops, is deeply disturbing. It reveals the class divide in America - poor, often black, men fighting wars that make rich, white men even richer - in a political system that likes to deny the concept of class. Indeed this is a very a rare work: a political film that might actually influence politics.
"Four Horsemen" (2012)
"Four Horsemen" is the debut feature from writer and director Ross Ashcroft and the four parts of this documentary address the banking crisis, the terrorism threat, worldwide poverty and ecological collapse respectively. While worthy, well-intentioned and (mostly) well-evidenced, for the non-political, this critique of rampant capitalism is probably heavy going with lots of talking heads - no less than 23 experts, including many senior economists and academics, express their trenchant views.
The film seems to have been popular in film festivals and indeed I saw it at the first London Labour Film Festival where it was applauded at the end, but it has some major deficiencies.
First, it is overly ambitious in scope and should perhaps have concentrated simply on the crisis of the banking sector. The links between the four threats were not always made clear and the section on terrorism was particularly weak and over simplistic. Second, the policies promulgated at the end - while rooted in a pro-capitalist position intended to be 'realistic' - involve some outrageously fanciful notions such as returning to a gold standard and abolishing income tax. I would like to know more about Ross Ashcroft and the funding of this work which might explain the source of these odd notions. Third, at no point in either the analysis or the prescription does the film acknowledge that economic and societal change does not start with institutional reform but with the organisation of workers, consumers and citizens. Real change comes through people working together in political parties, trade unions, pressure groups, and social movements.
For all these weaknesses, "Four Horsemen" does make you think and will engender much-needed debate about the urgent need to reform radically our ideas on how we create, consume and distribute wealth and how we regulate and control the institutions involved.
"The Front Runner" (2018)
Gary Hart was a US senator for Colorado who, after a credible but failed attempt to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984, was the eponymous leader in the race to secure that nomination in 1988 when he was forced to withdraw because of news of an extramarital affair. This story is told in a film directed and co-written by Canadian Jason Reitman who is known for his cinematic work on social issues and here has deliberately adopted a naturalistic style. Hugh Jackson is accomplished as the charismatic, fluent and liberal senator who, like the candidate in "The Candidate" (1972), wishes to remain authentic; J.K. Simmons as always is excellent as his campaign manager Bill Dixon; but the female roles - Vera Farmiga as the hurt wife and Sara Paxton as the girlfriend - are underwritten.
Well-made though the film is, it tells a simple tale in a conventional manner with no surprises or insights - so why was it made? It was based on a book titled "The Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid" and looks at how the media - especially the "Miami Herald" and the "Washington Post" - handled the scandal, so it appears to be inviting us to look back sympathetically to an earlier, simpler age when a politician like JFK could have multiple affairs and the media looked the other way.
If that was the reason for making the movie, the timing is odd when we have an occupant of the White House whose affairs (well, some of them) are very public but his political base simply does not seem to care."The Front Runner" ends with the information that Gary Hart and his wife remain together 30 years later with the implication that, if she could forgive his misdeanour, perhaps the media and the voters should have been willing to do so too.
Michael Sheen is excellent as British television interviewer David Frost while Frank Langella is outstanding as American President Richard Nixon in this recreation of the famous four interviews conducted in the summer of 1977, three years after Nixon was forced from office after the cover-up of Watergate. The strategy, the tactics, the mind games make for compelling viewing and the script - adapted by Peter Morgan from his own play - is razor-sharp. Ron Howard directed this in between "The Da Vinci Code" and "Angels And Demons" and knowing that this particular conspiracy was the real thing and not the invention of Dan Brown makes the movie all the more chilling.
The life and death of Indian nationalist Mahatma Gandhi is inspirational material for a political movie and British producer and director Richard Attenborough spent a lot of time and money to bring this almost old-fashioned epic to the screen with wonderful locations and beautiful photography. Ben Kingsley gives a brilliant performance in the eponymous role and the rest of the cast includes a role call of fine (mainly British) actors including John Mills, John Gielgud, Trevor Howard and Edward Fox. However, at 188 minutes, it is somewhat ponderous and Attenborough's treatment of his subject is almost too reverential.
"The Ghost" (2010)
The storyline - based on a novel by British writer Robert Harris - has nothing to do with the supernatural; instead the title (in Europe) refers to the ghost writer (the title in the US), ably played by Ewan McGregor disguising his Scottish accent, drafted in to rewrite the memoirs of recently retired British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) who has just been charged with war crimes in the conduct of his government's ant-terror policies. The action is set on America's north-east coast but the film was shot in Germany with seemingly endless rain-lashed days.
This is a work with a lot of baggage: Harris has written a series of adequate but formulaic novels and adapted his own book for the screen which gives it a rather 'by the numbers' feel; Harris famously broke with Tony Blair when the latter took the UK to war over Iraq and this is a thinly-disguised critique of a political leader he once admired; while the director Roman Polanski could never have shot the movie in the United States, where it is set, because he is wanted there on charges of child abuse and indeed had to edit the film while under house arrest in Switzerland.
It is one of those films that works fine at the time, with sustained tension and a final twist that is satisfyingly sudden and dramatic, but once out of the theatre one quickly realises that the plot devices are both contrived and implausible.
"Good Bye Lenin!" (2003)
A little over a decade after its demise, communism in Europe is becoming an historical curiosity. In Prague, there is now a Museum of Communism (next door to a McDonalds) and here we have a German film which satirises the Honecker regime through an inventive storyline set just before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
A middle-aged woman - movingly played by Katrin Sass, a successful actress in the former East Germany - goes into a coma due to a heart attack and, when she resumes consciousness eight months later, her son (Daniel Brühl) is warned that a sudden shock could kill her, so - through increasingly complex contrivances - he has to maintain the fiction for her that communism is still thriving. This requires him not just to disguise, but ultimately to subvert, history by representing the pulling down of the wall as a kindly act by the Communist regime to admit West Germans disillusioned with the excesses of capitalism.
Perhaps one needs to have lived in an East European communist state (or at least to have visited one - as I did) to appreciate the bitterness of some of the humour and certainly this movie has done incredibly well in its native Germany. But anyone can enjoy this work, directed and co-written by Wolfgang Becker, for its mixture of quaint love of a son for his mother and sending up of some of the injustices and indeed absurdities of the former regime. The most memorable visual image is a brief, but somewhat surreal, one involving a statue of Lenin, seemingly bidding farewell to a failed system permeated by waste and deceit.
"Good Night, And Good Luck" (2005)
This wordy and worthy film is a homage to veteran CBS newscaster Edward R. Murrow who dared to challenge the hysterical campaign of Senator Joseph McCarthy to find Communist sympathisers in every corner of the post-war American establishment. David Strathairn is wonderful as the fearlessly independent TV presenter who would sign off his pieces with the phrase "Good Night, And Good Luck".
The black and white treatment and the close-up camerawork make this look like a documentary and indeed a good deal of film footage from the time is used which adds to the effect. Such an uncommercial movie could not have been made without George Clooney who directed, co-wrote and stars as Murrow's producer Fred W Friendly. The whole thing was made for a mere $7M.
Other well-known actors contributed to this political statement that television has to be about more than entertainment and advertisers: Robert Downey Jr, Frank Langella, and Jeff Daniels (who some years later headed the cast of "The Newsroom", a TV series inspired by the spirit of Murrow).
"Hotel Rwanda" (2004)
Like most ethnic conflicts around the world, the divisions in Rwanda between the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis have long antecedents, in this case the invasion of the Rwanda highlands by the Tutsis from Ethiopia in the 15th century. However, it was Belgium - who ruled the country under a UN mandate from 1918 to 1961 - who institutionalised the discrimination by favouring Tutsis and introducing identity cards which specified the holders ethnic group. The spark which lit the tinder was the shooting down of the aircraft carrying the Hutu President on 6 April 1994. In the next 100 days, there was a ferocious outbreak of genocide orchestrated by the Interahamwe militia and sanctioned by the Hutu government in which around 800,000 mostly Tutsis were massacred while the world community failed to intervene. A decade later, a kind of collective guilt sees the release of no less than four films about these events, the most high profile being "Hotel Rwanda" which garnered three Academy Award nominations.
Portraying death on this scale in a work of 'entertainment' almost demands that we observe the savagery through the prism of selected individuals and, in this case, Irish writer and director Terry George has chosen to use the real-life experience of hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina and his family. Rwanda is often called 'Le pays des Milles Collines' (the Land of a Thousand Hills) and Paul worked at the Sabena-owned Hotel des Mille Collines, a four-star establishment in the capital of Kigali. A well-educated Hutu, he was married to a Tutsi and had three young children, so he was geographically and ethnically at the heart of the madness. Like a kind of Oskar Schindler, he used a mixture of simple bribery and his sharp wits, together with charm and even obsequiousness, to create a haven in the horror that enabled 1,268 mainly Tutsis to survive.
American actor Don Cheadle, who played a cockney fool in "Ocean's Eleven" & "Ocean's Twelve", gives a powerful and textured performance here which marks him out as someone who is going to become an A-list star, while able British actress Sophie Okonedo is his wife Tatiana (Tutsis are lighter-skinned and finer-featured), and it is such a change to see the leading roles in a movie taken by black actors. The fear and powerlessness of the hotel occupants - over a thousand men, women and children crammed into a 113-room establishment - is well created and sustained. The settings are very realistic, being largely shot in Johannesburg, and most of the technical and support crew were African. The focus of the action is the hotel itself and the violence is deliberately understated and left largely to the imagination.
While one does not wish to see killing portrayed gratuitously, this artistic decision runs the risk that a largely ignorant western audience fails to appreciate the true nature and scale of this machete-fuelled rampage of rape and murder but, this reservation aside, "Hotel Rwanda" is an important and worthy work that should serve as a political warning of the price of international inaction in the face of ethnic conflict. Paul Rusesabagina, now lives in Belgium with his family, and recently told the US "People" magazine: "What happened in Rwanada is now happening in Darfur, in the Congo, in all of these places they are butchering innocent civilians. It is high time we know that a human life in Africa is as important as a human life in the west."
Link: Paul Rusesabagina click here
"The Ides Of March" (2011)
In one sense, this is George Clooney's film and I have been a fan of his since forever. Not only does he direct (his fourth such outing), he is co-producer and co-writer as well as taking a lead role as the charismatic and liberal contender to win the Democratic nomination for the White House. In another sense, this is Ryan Gosling's movie and I've been impressed by him since "Blue Valentine" and especially "Drive". He is the face we see first and last in this story and he plays the pivotal character, the idealistic press officer to the candidate. But there is even more acting talent on display, notably Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti who are both terrific as heads of campaign for rival Democratic candidates in the key primary of Ohio in the melting snows of March.
What attracted such a stellar cast and gives them such a vehicle to shine is a sharp script, based on a play by co-writer Beau Willimon who was himself once a key aide to a political candidate (Howard Dean). The play was called "Farragut North" which is the nearest metro station in Washington DC to the hub of lobbyist organisations in the capital. For an international audience, "The Ides Of March" works better as a title, giving us not just a calendar reference but a clear indication that we are going to experience more than one act of betrayal.
This is no cinematic equivalent of "The West Wing", my all-time favourite television series. The small-screen team may have fallen short and even messed up on occasions but were fundamentally decent and honourable political operatives. In the more cynical "The Ides Of March", everyone is compelled sooner or later to make compromises which represent an abandonment of principles. The plot details do not bear too much post-viewing analysis, but this is an intelligent and serious work that captures some of the flavour of American political campaigning and the pressures to sacrifice means for ends faced by decision-makers everywhere.
"An Inconvenient Truth" (2006)
Three years after the production of this documentary on Al Gore's presentation on global warming, I finally caught up with it. In the meanwhile, it had won a host of awards including Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, while Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Although the film has been challenged in a British court, for me its overwhelming message is incontestable and compelling and director Davis Guggenheim has done the world a service in making the lecture accessible to many more millions than have witnessed Gore's oratory at first hand. The man who was once the next President of the United States concludes powerfully: "Future generations may well have occasion to ask themselves, 'What were our parents thinking? Why didn't they wake up when they had a chance?' We have to hear that question from them, now."
Link: Wikipedia page on the film click here
"The Iron Lady" (2011)
I approached this portrayal of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher by American actress Meryl Streep with some trepidation. As a member of the Labour Party for over 40 years, I am ideologically opposed to all that the Conservative Party icon stood for, but I have been a massive fan of Streep ever since "The Deer Hunter" in 1978. Streep is brilliant, representing three versions of Thatcher: the high-pitched speaking ambitious politician, the lower-tone speaking stern Prime Minister, and the dementia-ravished widow. For this performance, Streep deservedly received her 17th Academy Award nomination and her third win.
Both director and writer are women: respectively Phyllida Lloyd, who directed Streep in "Mamma Mia!", and Abi Mprgan, most of whose work has been for television. Although Thatcher was of course an immensely strong character and one can only sympathise with the sexist attitudes that she had to combat in the British political scene of the 1960s and 1970s, virtually all the male characters in this film - notably Thatcher's cabinet colleagues - are represented as pathetically weak cyphers. Even her husband Dennis, played by Jim Broadbent, comes across as a kind of of Charlie Chaplin clown rather than an astute businessman.
I have two major problems with "The Iron Lady".
First, for a film about the towering figure of British post-war politics, it is remarkably light on actual politics. There are references to events like the Falklands War, the miners' strike, and the poll tax riots, but the issues are never examined and arguably Thatcher's most profound impacts on British society - the reduction in public expenditure and the programme of privatisation - are never mentioned.
Second, the narrative structure of the work is wrong. Far too much time is spend on portaying Thatcher in her dotage with imagined conversations with her dead husband; one could have begun and ended with this perspective but it dominates the film. As a result, too little time is spent on Thatcher in her prime and the storyline is fractured and confused. In the end, this is not so much a film about a politician or about politics, but a vision of aging, loss and loneliness. Not so much an iron lady as a female King Lear.
Who killed John F Kennedy in Dallas on 22 November 1963 and why? New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison - played by Kevin Costner - carried out his own investigations which drew very different conclusions than the official Warren Commission. This film was co-written, co-produced and directed by committed Oliver Stone and it is his 3 hour 10 minute demolition of the lone gunman theory. It is a powerful piece of film making with some fine performances - Joe Pesci, Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Oldman are among the other actors - but Stone's alternative conspiracy theory casts a net that seems to include almost every American agency and institution. Basically the message is that 'they' did not want JFK to pull the USA out of Vietnam.
"Knock Down The House" (2019)
This documentary looks at a little-covered feature of American politics - primaries for the House of Representatives - from an unusual viewpoint - that of four progressive female candidates challenging the establishment incumbents. Directed by Rachel Lears, it follows the 2018 insurgency campaigns of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) of New York, Amy Vilela of Nevada, Cori Bush of Missouri, and Paula Jean Swearengin of West Virginia. Only AOC was successful, defeating Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley, a 10-term incumbent (she went on to become, at 29, the youngest ever member of Congress). However, what the film demonstrates is the passionate commitment of all four women and the phenomenal work involved in a grassroots political campaign.
"The Lady" (2011)
Making a commercial film about a struggle for human rights and democracy is a real struggle because most audiences want entertainment and not politics. So the producers have to find an 'angle'. In 1987, "A World Apart" told the story of the fight against apartheid in South Africa but through the prism of the strain that this put on ANC activist Ruth First's relationship with her young daughter. A similar approach is used here in this account of the life of Aung San Suu Kyi, the eponymous lady and leader of the National League for Democracy in the dictatorship that has ruled Burma for most of the period since post-war independence from Britain. So it is not politics as such which is to the fore here but Suu Kyi's relationship with her husband, Oxford academic Michael Aris, and most especialy the regime's brutal refusal to allow Aris to see his wife one last time when he was dying of prostate cancer. It is a gut-wrenchingly sad tale.
Malaysian-born actress Michelle Yeoh - a Bond girl in "Tomorrow Never Dies" and pugilist star of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" - looks perfect in the leading role, giving a performance which, while often understated, is deeply moving. David Thewlis (various "Harry Potter" films and "The Boy With The Striped Pyjamas") is very effective as the long-suffering husband. The exotic locations and local faces in Thailand serve the movie well and original music by the French Eric Serra plus some Mozart enhance the emotional power of the work. It is perhaps no surprise that the script for what is in essence a love story comes from a female writer - the British Rebecca Frayn - but one might not expect the identity of the director for this Anglo-French film: Luc Besson, best known for such action movies as "Nikita", "Leon" and "The Fifth Element".
"The Lady" may be a bit one-dimensional and lack nuance, but it highlights a long struggle for human rights that is not sufficiently well-known and the timing of its release (I saw it in January 2012) is poignant. When filming started, Suu Kyi was still under house arrest, as she had been in total for some 15 years, but by the time the film was finished she had been released. At the end of the movie, the iron grip of the regime and the number of political prisoners are highlighted but, in the weeks around the film's release, the generals instituted a series of liberalisation measures including the freeing of most political prisoners. If all this augurs an era of genuine democracy in Burma, "The Lady" will be a wonderful testimony to the power of personal courage and sacrifice to effect political change.Link: Wikipedia page on Aung San Suu Kyi click here
"Land And Freedom" (1995)
Directed by the committed British Ken Loach, this was a British/Spanish/German co-production about the Spanish Civil War with half the dialogue in English and half in Spanish with subtitles. The work demands a lot of the viewer with, at one stage, a prolonged political debate between the political factions, but there is some good acting - especially from Ian Hart as the unemployed Liverpudlian who volunteers for the International Brigade - and some dramatic action sequences. The viewpoint is that of the Republican side and it is fiercely uncompromising in its stance, claiming that the Stalinist Communist Party sabotaged the revolution by liquidating the Trotskyist POUM (and the anarchists). Although no doubt well-intentioned, the film is rather confusing for those who know little about the factional differences and too one-sided and simplistic in its support for the Militia viewpoint.
"The Last King Of Scotland" (2006)
Based on a novel by Giles Foden, this tells the story of the friendship between a fictional young Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) and the all too real Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (Forester Whitaker) who took the country into the bowels of hell during his period as president from 1971-1979. The Garrigan character was loosely inspired by the experience of Bob Astles, a British soldier and diplomat who was one of Amin's confidants, while many aspects of Amin's personality as portrayed in the film and many of the events depicted - such as the expulsion of the Ugandan Asians and the holding of Israeli hostages at Entebbe airport - are the stuff of history.
Scottish director Kevin Macdonald has produced a fine work which was largely shot in Uganda itself and made good use of local music. McAvoy is excellent as the naïve doctor who gets in way above his head, but it is Whitaker who is outstanding as the eponymous tyrant, switching from affable father figure to nervous paranoid to chilling psychopath - a performance which won him the Academy Award for Best Actor.
Many film directors stick to one broad genre or style; some deliberately try to range across genres; and then there is Steven Spielberg who makes two very different types of movie: thrillingly entertaining works usually aimed at young audiences, starting with "E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial" and "Raiders of The Lost Ark", and serious, worthy, usually historically-based pieces, such as "Schindler's List" and "Munich". "Lincoln" falls squarely in the second category and, like others in this grouping (such as "The Color Purple" and "Amistad"), has the issue of slavery at its heart, in this case the struggle by the 16th President of the United States to persuade the House of Representatives to pass the Thirteen Amendment to the Constitution in January 1865, the 'lame duck' period between his re-election and inauguration and a mere four months before the bloody and protracted Civil War would end.
The restrained direction of Spielberg and the historically-laden script of his writer Tony Kushner expect a lot of non-American audiences who will not be familiar with the Congressional politics of the time, when the Republican Party was actually the liberal wing of the political spectrum, in a narrative which assumes some knowledge of a host of characters and deploys over 100 speaking roles. Those who know little of the iconic Abraham Lincoln will be surprised, maybe even shocked, at the dubious legality of his Emancipation Proclamation and the skulduggery that this wily lawyer deployed to win the neccesary two-thirds majority for the proposed Amendment (as a change to the Constitution, a simple majority was not sufficient).
In the eponymous role, Anglo-Irish Daniel Day-Lewis totally inhabits the part and gives a towering performance with his stooped frame and high-pitched voice. The support roles are played by a strong cast, including Sally Field as Lincoln's troubled wife, David Stratham as his loyal Secretary of State, and Tommy Lee Jones as the ultra-liberal Thaddeus Stevens. The only lightness in a heavy work comes from three political fixers who act as reminders that lobbying has always bedevilled American politics. The cinematography is superb with many scenes shot in bleached-out colours and even dark shadows. In the end, however, "Lincoln" feels more like a rather ponderous exercise in political education than a work than excites the emotions or entertains an audience.
"The Lives Of Others" (2006)
Commendably German cinema is not afraid to confront the ugly past of the country. We had "The Boat" and "Downfall" on the Nazi era and "Good Bye Lenin!" and now "The Lives Of Others" on the communist period. Like "Good Bye Lenin!" this newest film is set and shot in East Berlin and features the collapse of the Wall in 1989. However, whereas the former was a satire set mostly after the fall of communism, "The Lives Of Others" is a sombre work located overwhelmingly before the demise of the regime.
The film opens with the brutal facts on the formidable size of the secret police apparatus operated by the former East Germany: the Stasi employed 100,000 full-time workers and had an incredible 400,000 informants. In a country of just 17m, there weer 5M personal files. Playright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his lover, the actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedek), think that they can survive the worst of the surveillance machine but, when a Government minister decides that he wants Christa-Maria for himself, a chain of events is set in motion which changes everything and everybody.
Surprisingly the greatest changes occur with the Stasi agent assigned to bug the flat of Georg & Christa-Maria. Ulrich Mühe gives an outstanding performance as the intially cold and efficient Gerd Wiesler and the poignancy of his role is only heightened when one remembers that Muhe himself was married to a Stasi agent. At first utterly chilling, he and we are moved by the gradual transformation that goes on in his perspective and behaviour. The Stasi probaly had nobody like Wiesler but, as a cinematic device, the character works well.
It is remarkable that such an assured film could be the début work of 33 year old Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck who both wrote and directed it. Deservedly it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film of 2006.
article on what was right and what was wrong click here
article on why it could never have really happened click here
"Long Shot" (2019)
In this politically-themed romantic comedy, Charlize Theron - a talented actress who is also gorgeous and here gets to wear to some great outfits - plays American politician and environmental campaigner Charlotte Field, a female Secretary of State who plans to run for President. This is not such a long shot. After all, in real life, Hillary Clinton did that and, in the world of television, Elizabeth McCord is doing just that in the series "Madam Secretary" (the creator of this series was an excutive producer on the film).
What is too long a shot is the idea that such a capable and beautiful woman with the highest of political aspirations could fall for a character like Fred Farsky, an overweight, bearded and crude journalist portrayed by Seth Rogan who has represented this typle of character so many times now. And constant four-letter utterances plus dick jokes and an unforgiveable casual treatment of drug use may make the movie more appealling to a young audience but undermine what is less of a rom-com and more of a political satire.
"The Manchurian Candidate" (1962)
The 1962 version of "The Manchurian Candidate" - starring Frank Sinatra and Lawrence Harvey - caught the conspiratorial mood of the time when so many Americans saw a commie round every corner. John Frankenheimer's classic version of Richard Condon's 1959 novel - made in black and white - is memorable for its chilling narrative and original plotting.
"The Manchurian Candidate" (2004)
The current 'war of terror' might have seemed like an apposite time to attempt a remake of the 1962 original. I've been a fan of Denzel Washington since he played Steve Biko in "Cry, Freedom" and I regard Meryl Streep as the finest actress of her generation, so the chance to see the two starring together for the first time was an attractive one. Since I'm a political animal, the vehicle of a political thriller appeared to add to the attraction. But Jonathan Demme's remake, although it has a certain style, is overall a real disappointment. Frankly it is lacklustre when it is not simply silly.
Streep gives a bravado performance as the manipulative mother of the Vice-Presidential candidate who is under external control and Washington is always watchable, but Liev Schreiber as the brain-drilled war hero and politician is robotic even when he is not 'activated'. The 'up-dating' of the story to make corporations rather than Communists the enemy is a well-worn theme, ranging from the Peter Sellers' movie "Being There" to the more recent television series "24". What this new version tells us is that Americans are no less fearful and paranoid than they were in the Cold War and Hollywood is no better at remakes than it ever was.
"Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom" (2014)
This is a film that is difficult to judge simply in cinematic terms since the subject is such a titanic figure in recent history, many older viewers (such as me) will have lived through most of the events depicted, and Nelson Mandela himself - the prisoner who became a president - unknowingly heightened the interest around his life by dying just weeks before the film was released. Yet, allowing for all of this, by any standards "Mandela" is a success, telling a powerful story in a honest and immensely moving manner with some outstanding acting. If it is somewhat reverential, this was to be expected, given the subject and the timing.
Unfashionably for recent bio-pics, "Mandela" chooses not to concetrate on a seminal incident in the subject's life but to paint on a huge canvas, covering many decades and lots of political events in a linear narrative that frequently deploys news clips from the time. It is based on Mandela's long 1994 biography of the same name which I bought on a visit to Robben Island and read with great admiration. British William Nicholson ("Gladiator") has done a skilful job of turning such a huge story into a manageable script and British director Justin Chadwick ("The Other Boleyn Girl") handles a complex of ingredients with genuine talent. It looks good with attention to period clothing and artifacts and use of actual sites and some breathtaking countryside (it was shot entirely on location in South Africa).
Ultimately, however, the success of such an ambitious work rests especialy on the lead actors and the casting here was inspired. Idris Elba as the eponymous hero gives a towering performance, while Naomie Harris is a revelation as the more complex and less sympathetic character of his second wife Winnie. It helps that both are not major stars - although that is now set to change - and notable that both are British actors who affect convincing accents.
This is a balanced portrayal of multi-layered characters. Mandela is represented with great respect but he is not offered to us as a saint. He treats his first wife unkindly and his support for violence is not disguised. The film really impresses with its representation of Winnie, a woman who suffered so much, hated so much, and herself caused so much injustice. Mandela is now dead but his great project - the creation of a peaceful and prosperous multiracial nation - is still a work in progress.
"Michael Collins" (1996)
Directed by Neil Jordan ("The Crying Game"), this is a really excellent film: a serious and intelligent subject - the liberation of Ireland by the violence of the IRA between 1916-1922 - handled in a dramatic, even entertaining, but reasonably balanced manner. All the performances - minus the Julia Roberts role - are fine and Liam Neeson, rarely off the screen as the eponymous revolutionary, deserved an Oscar. It is incredible to think that the structure of Irish politics even today is that determined by the period depicted in this movie and that the partition of Ireland - which led to the assassination of Collins - is still causing death in Ireland and Britain almost a century later.
"Milk" (2008) In 1978, San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk - the first openly gay man to hold public office in the United States - and the city's mayor George Moscone were assassinated by a fellow supervisor Dan White. This film - directed by Gus Van Sant ("Good Will Hunting") - tells the story from Milk's 40th birthday in 1970 when he was fearful that his life had accomplished too little. It is a terrific performance by Sean Penn in the eponymous role with the actor capturing the speech and body mannerisms of a gay man in an understated way that avoids caricature or stereotyping. James Brolin is also accomplished as the putative killer, unable to come to terms with a changing world. In a bio-pic of this kind where the ending is already known and so clearly signalled, the power of the film comes in its style. A mixture of actual television footage from the time and a grainy and jerky style of cinematography, the real and the reel merge almost seamlessly to present a work with a distinct documentary feel, obviously intentional and perhaps enhanced by the screenplay coming from documentarist (and former Mormon) Dustin Lance Black. If the movie rather glorifies Milk and presents an uncritical portrait of a necessarily controversial character, this is a work which is about more than one man's struggle to achieve electoral power. It is an insight into gay politics that demonstrates the prejudice that had to be overcome, the hard and repeated campaigns that had to be fought, and the compromises and deals that had to be made. In that sense, it shines a torch on politics of any kind.
Link: Wikipedia page on Harvey Milk click here
"Miss Sloane" (2016)
This film is a terrific reminder of a lesson too often forgotten in the world of movies: a really good film has to start with a really good script. Amazingly, the scriptwriter in this case, the British Jonathan Perera, had never written a film before this one which won him Best Screenplay from the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. His legal and teaching background clearly helped but this is a man who has obviously devoured the work of Aaron Sorkin in "The West Wing" in order to produce this wordy and richly-textured script. I confess that i could not catch all the dialogue and some of what i caught I didn't understand, but the narrative is never less than compelling.
The next essential ingredient of a successful film is a fine cast. The eponymous role of Washington political lobbyist is brilliantly filled by Jessica Chastain. She is wonderful at playing strong women (think "Zero Dark Thirty") and clearly relishes a wordy script (think "Molly's Game"). But the support cast is excellent too with stars like Mark Strong, Sam Waterston and John Lithgow and newcomers such as Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Alison Pill. Once you have the script and the cast, it all needs to come together with an able director and here we have more British talent with John Madden who gave us such character-driven work as "Shakespeare In Love" and "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"
If you want car chases and shoot-outs, this is probably not the film for you. But, if you care how laws are made in the USA and how guns are controlled (or not) in that country or if you just like a fast-paced political thriller with as many twists as a corkscrew, "Miss Sloane" is highly recommended.
Following his three French-language political thrillers ("Z", "The Confession", and "State Of Siege"), Constantin Costa-Gavras made this his first English-language film. The territory is back like State Of Siege in Latin America, this time the American-backed coup against Allende in Chile in 1973. What made the film so compelling and so controversial is that it told the true-life account of American parents, played by Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek, to discover the facts behind the disappearance of their writer son Charles Horman in the aftermath of the coup.
Like "Z", the music is memorable and this time comes from Costa-Gavras fellow Greek Vangelis. Overall it is a depressing work but, like all this director's work, it forces us to face some uncomfortable truths. According to American documents declassified in early 2000, the CIA may have actually given the Pinochet Government the go ahead to murder Horman.
"The Motorcycle Diaries" (2004)
This is a very different kind of road movie: South America instead of North America, Spanish language instead of English, political consciousness rather than sexual liberation. It is the tale of an eight-month, 7,000-mile trip made in 1952 by Argentinean friends Ernesto Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal), then a 23 year old medical student but destined to become a revolutionary communist in Cuba, the Congo and Bolivia (where he was killed in 1967), and Alberto Granado Rodrigo de la Serna), then a 30 year old postgraduate in biochemistry and now (as the film shows in its final moments) an 83-year old still living in Cuba. The journey starts on a 1939 Norton 500 motorbike (hence the title), which they dubbed "The Mighty One", but the vehicle proved to be something less than almighty, necessitating less personal forms of transport.
The central performances are wholly convincing and the dialogue is crisp, credible and at times quite humorous. The film looks wonderful: shot largely in a documentary style, it features location shooting in Argentina, the Andes, Chile, and Peru and cinematographer Eric Gautier evokes a wonderful sense of time and place, while the use of non-professional bit players with marvellously expressive faces creates a real sense of authenticity. Above all, Brazilian director Walter Salles and writer Jose Rivera have ensured that the political messages are subtly understated. The viewer is left to observe the grinding poverty, yet quiet dignity, of the migrant workers, the itinerant miners, and the leper victims and sense - as young Guevara obviously did - the acute sense of injustice.
This is a movie which had resonances for my wife and me. She identified with the seriously asthmatic young Guevara, since her brother died of asthma when he was 21, and we have visited several of the locations featured in the film, including Cusco, Machu Picchu, and Lima. If this deeply impressive and memorable work has a fault is that that it treats its subject a little too reverentially. Guevara is portrayed somewhat one-dimensionally as uncompromisingly honest and almost saint-like in his concern for others and there is no hint of the ferocious rages and utter ruthlessness which was to mark his revolutionary leadership.
"Mr Smith Goes To Washington" (1939)
Director Frank Capra is best known for "It's A Wonderful Life" (1946) but, second to that, perhaps his most remembered work is more overtly political "Mr Smith ..." with the same star James Stewart in the two films. Names do not come more nondescript than Smith but the character's first name Jefferson tells of a leader of the Boy Rangers from an unnamed state in the mid-West whose idealism for the Founding Fathers of the USA is matched only by his naïvety about how the political system of his country actually works. He discovers this quickly when the state governor appoints him to fill a Senate vacancy in the belief that he can be relied upon to do what he is told by the senior senator for the state Joseph Paine (Claude Rains).
Interestingly the film has a strong female role in the shape of Congressional staffer Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) who, in an excellent sequence, explains to Smith the complexities of the legislative process on The Hill (which is no simpler today). To break the deadlock of both stultifying convention and outright corruption, Smith has to deploy the tactic of the filibuster which again is still a feature of Congress. Capra was not known for his subtlety and he lays it on thick with mono-dimensional characters (except for Paine who is conflicted) and a simplistic resolution, but it is a movie that makes its political points in a narrative with plenty of heart.
"Music Box" (1989)
This was directed by the Greek Costa-Gavras and, as with most films by this director, there is an interesting political theme. The script came from Hungarian-born Joe Eszterhas who went on to write such very different and more commercial movies as "Basic Instinct" and "Showgirls". Oscar-nominated Jessica Lange (who had come a long way since the remake of "King Kong") is first-rate as an American lawyer who successfully defends her Hungarian-born father (Armin Mueller-Stahl) against war crime charges involving participation in the Hungarian wartime fascist movement the Arrow Cross. As the movie develops and she visits Budapest, she is forced to see events and her beloved father in a new, much darker, light.
"Nicholas And Alexandra" (1971)
They don't make historical epics like this anymore and perhaps it's just as well because, while worthy and festooned with British character actors, this account of the final years of the Romanov dynasty in Czarist Russia is ponderous (there are no real action sequences) and very long (it runs to three hours).Having read the book by Robert K. Massie, producer Sam Spiegel (who gave us "Lawrence Of Arabia") spent fours years bringing this story to the screen and engaged fellow American Franklin J Schaffer ("Patton) as director. In the eponymous roles, we have Michael Jayston as the weak Russian Czar and Janet Suzman as his German Empress, a couple very much in love but incapable of understanding their rapidly changing world, and the array of other British talent includes Lawrence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Harry Andrews, Jack Hawkins, and a rather splendid Tom Baker as Rasputin. The scenes in the royal household are contrasted with debates in the Duma, led by Kerensky, and the plotting of the revolutionaries including Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky.
So the work does not lack acting talent or colourful characters and the costumes, sets and cinematography are all impressive too, but this is more of a history lesson than a piece of entertainment.There are many historical inaccuracies in this film, but neither the film makers nor Robert K. Massie can be held responsible for the inaccuracies in regard to characters and events since it was not until the fall of Communism in the USSR that much new information came to light.
Moviemaking is still overwhelmingly a male business with most directors being male and most films telling a male story, so it is a refreshing change here to see a female co-writer and co-director (Marjane Satrapi) telling a female tale (actually her own). Even more unusual is the setting (modern day Iran) and the format (black and white animation), so this a movie that is especially memorable and moving, by turns being tragic and amusing and at all times unremittingly political and feminist.
The original film is in French and based on a graphic novel written in French and drawn by Satrapi who has now lives in the Marais district of Paris with her Swedish husband, but the version I saw was dubbed into (American) English. This works well for a animated feature - there's no problem with lip-syncing and the technique allows one to concentrate fully on the impressive graphics.
"Persepolis" - named after the ancient capital of Persia that was ransacked by the troops of Alexander the Great - was nominated for an Academy Award in the section for Best Animated Feature and, while it never stood a chance against "Ratatouille", this is still an exceptional work that deserves a large audience.
On 16 August 1819 in St Peter's Field in central Manchester, around 60,000 pro-democracy reformers gathered in a peaceful protest that turned savage when it was attacked by armed cavalry, resulting in 18 deaths and over 600 injured. Until recently, the only public commemoration of this historic event was a plaque on the wall of what used to be the Free Trade Hall and is now the city's Radisson Hotel. Most people have never heard of this event which was quickly called Peterloo. However, I have always been aware of it because I grew up in Manchester until I was 23; I spoke as School Captain at my school's Speech Day in the Free Trade Hall; and I studied in the Central Library in what is now St Peter's Square.
Now a new film, called simply "Peterloo", both written and directed by Mike Leigh - together with bicentenary events next summer - will highlight this neglected piece of working class history. Leigh has crafted his work with great attention to historical accuracy and period detail and he brings home very powerfully the grinding poverty and perpetual hunger of the working class folk of Manchester and the surrounding Lancashire mill towns. The story is filled with a large group of well-cast personages, most notably Maxine Peake as Nellie, mother of a young, traumatised soldier back from Waterloo, and Rory Kinnear as Henry 'Orator' Hunt, the eloquent speaker at the rally calling for parliamentary representation more than a decade before the Great Reform Act of 1832.
This is an immensely worthy work that reflects my own politics, but my experience of viewing it at the cinema - even on the opening weekend, it was screened in a small theatre in front of a small audience - suggests that it is not going to pull in the punters. The reasons are clear. There are too many characters giving too many polemical speeches; too many of the characters - especially the politicians and the justices - are in fact caricatures; and, at two and a half hours, the whole thing is just too long and too pedestrian. This is such a pity because the history lesson is a vital one and the final massacre scene is stunning.
"Primary Colors" (1998)
This is a good film which follows closely a well-written novel of the same title, originally described as by Anonymous but later assigned to journalist Joe Klein. It is a parody of Bill Clinton's successful bid for the White House in 1992 with the message: accept that your hero will be flawed and support him anyway for the greater prize. John Travolta and Emma Thompson are excellent as the promiscuous candidate Jack Stanton and his long-suffering wife Susan, but the 'narrator' character Adrian Lester is a bit weak.
"The Quiet American" (2002)
Set in the French-occupied Vietnam of 1952, this is based on the 1955 novel by left-wing British novelist Graham Green and is a remake of the Mankiewicz anti-communist film issued in 1957. Coming out towards the end of 2002 as the United States prepares for a major confrontation with Iraq, this new version, directed by Australian Phillip Noyce, is not likely to appeal much to traditional Right-wing American sentiment and indeed the very limited release in the States means that few Americans will see it. But it is a compelling work which - unlike so much Hollywood fare - makes clear the moral complexity of one country intervening in the affairs of another and explores the origins of America's most serious foreign policy blunder.
Brendan Fraser is good as the eponymous aid worker whose life turns out to be somewhat less quiescent than at first appears. Do Hai Yen is beautiful as the Vietnamese girl who sees him as a route to the West. But it is Michael Caine, as the "Times" foreign correspondent Thomas Fowler, who is wonderful as the initially indolent, self-serving ex-pat who finds that, as he learns more about his new world, he has to make a moral and difficult choice. The film gains much by being shot on Vietnamese locations, including Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and the excellent soundtrack complements well the atmosphere of exoticism and danger.
Link: Graham Greene's Vietnam click here
"Quo Vadis, Aida?" (2020)
The break-up of the former Yugoslavia led to a number of brutal conflicts of which the worst was the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1992-1996 - a country which I visited in 2007. Hollywood has shown no interest in this war but there was a British-made film in 1997 called "Welcome To Sarajevo" about the four-year siege of Bosnia's capital city. "Quo Vadis, Aida?" deals with one particular incident - an especially brutal one - in that conflict when, in July 1995 at the small town of Srebrenica, over 8,000 men and boys were massacred by Serb forces in spite of the fact that the location was supposed to a UN 'safe haven' under the control of Dutch blue-helmeted troops.
This film is very much a locally-produced work which required the support of no less than 12 organisations to bring to the screen. It was shot locally with local actors and extras speaking local languages and at times the viewer can feel that it is almost a documentary. The writer, producer and directer is Jasmila Žbanić, a Bosniak who was born into a Muslim family. The titular role is that of a local teacher turned interpreter Aida Selmanagić, played powerfully by Jasna Đuričić who is actually Serbian, a woman does everything she can to save her husband and two sons.
We feel the fear but we never actually see the massacre in this restrained but compelling account that is deeply moving.
How could a film about the struggles of the American far Left attract multi-million dollar finance from Barclays Bank and pull in large audiences in Reagan's USA? "Reds" was a personal triumph for Warren Beatty - then aged 45 - who produced and directed this huge work, co-wrote the screenplay (with British Leftwing playwright Trevor Griffiths), and played the leading role.
At one level, "Reds" is a love story. It portrays the stormy affair and marriage between the American journalist, poet and playwright John Reed (played by Beatty) - the author of "Ten Days That Shook The World" - and the feminist writer Louise Bryant (played by Diane Keaton). But this grand romance is a Hollywood device to give popular flavour to the narration of the disintegration of the American Left and the birth of the Soviet Union.
It is a very long film - at 3 hours 19 minutes, just 21 minutes less than "Gone With The Wind" - and, in part, this is because it deploys the unusual device of intercutting throughout the movie interviews with 32 'witnesses', people who actually knew Reed and Bryant or moved in similar circles. However, it is compelling viewing and the principal achievement is to present something of the excitement and idealism, as well as the factionalism and verbosity, of revolutionary politics.
"Platoon" and "Salvador" were both released in 1986 and both written and directed by the renegade Oliver Stone. The former won the Academy Award for Best Film, while the latter was a commercial failure. Stone found it extremely difficult to get finding for "Salvador" and it was made on a low budget. Clearly, this brave, but uncomfortable, film - an examination of the poverty and carnage of the developing civil war in 1980-81 El Salvador - was just too political and too critical of American foreign policy for Hollywood financiers US audiences.
However, James Woods gives an excellent and Oscar-nominated performance as a self-centred, hard-living and frenetic American war photographer based on the real-life Richard Boyle who co-wrote the script. A number of the incidents portrayed - notably the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero - actually happened. The anarchic violence is reminiscent of "Missing", while the photographer-at-war theme reminds one of "Under Fire", two other political films about Latin America (it was actually shot in Mexico). The movie is fast-paced, powerful and committed with the Boyle character making something of a polemical speech - justifiably hard-hitting - in a scene set in the US Embassy in San Salvador.
I first saw the film on its release in the UK in 1987. I revisited the work after I went to El Salvador in 2014, a trip which included seeing the tomb of Romero and the site of a Government-sponsored massacre. The civil war actually began in 1989, was still running at the time of the making of "Salvador", and did not end until 1992. By then, some 70,000-80,000 had been killed, including around 'disappeared'.Link: Wikipedia page on the El Salvadorean civil war click here "The Seduction Of Joe Tynan" (1979)
Charming and ambitious Tynan is a husband, father and US Senator, played by Alan Alda, who is seduced in two ways. He falls for an aide (Meryl Streep) and his is consumed by politics, as a result of which he loses his mistress and then his wife and children. Although the subject matter is familiar, the film is finely observed and very well written, by Alda himself. There are some excellent performances, especially from (then newcomer) Streep, and one of the other actors is the unlikely named Rip Torn.
As a result of a trip to Africa, it was a few days after the Academy Awards 2015 ceremony before I was able to see "Selma". It was terribly unfair that David Oyelowo's commanding performance as Dr Martin Luther King Jr did not obtain a nomination for Best Actor but at least "Glory" - the moving piece that accompanies the film's credits - won the Best Song award. This is not a bio-pic but instead an examination of a short but seminal time in King's struggle for civil rights and specifically the right of African-Americans to vote, so the three Selma to Montgomery marches of March 1965 come after the "I have a dream" speech in Washington DC in 1963 and before the assassination in Memphis 1968.
"Selma" is no Hollywood blockbuster: the budget was a mere $20M, the director Ava DuVernay is a black woman whose previous work was mostly in television, and there are no big name American actors on show. Three key roles went to fine British actors: Oyelowo himself and Tom Wilkinson as President Johnson and Tim Roth as Governor Wallace, while Oprah Winfrey has a small but pivotal appearance. In all the circumstances, therefore, it is a real achievement that the movie was made at all and that it is so good.
A major problem in representing such an iconic figure as Dr King and such a noble cause as the civil rights movement is how honest to make the narrative. King is revealed as an adulterer and a leader who sometimes made decisions which many followers found hard to comprehend, while the film shows a little of the divisions in the movement, notably between the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Overall, however, this is an inspirational film that uncomfortably holds up a mirror to contemporary America where voting rights are still being circumscribed and blacks are still being beaten and shot by the agents of law enforcement.
Link: the marches from Selma to Montgomerey click here
"Shooting Dogs" (2005)
In three months of sheer horror, some 800,000 Rwandans, overwhemingly Tutsis, were massacred by bands of Hutu Interahamwe militia, aided by the national army, in an orgy of violence that still shames the international community that failed to intervene. "Shooting Dogs" is centred on events at the Ecole Technique Officiele where, on day five of the nightmare, some 2,000 Tutsis (called "cockroaches" by the Hutu) were murdered, and the title comes from the willingness of the UN peacekeepers to shoot at the dogs consuming human corpses while being totally unwilling to take on the killers themselves.
It's good that a subject as serious as the 1994 genocide in Rwanda can be addressed by filmmakers, but whether the topic suddenly needs no less than four works must be debatable. However, from a cinematic point of view, it is fascinating to see how different filmmakers are addressing what is intrinsically an exceptionally sensitive and uncomfortable subject.
"Shooting Dogs" simply has to be compared to "Hotel Rwanda". Not only do they address the same issue, but essentially they do so in the same manner, by locating the horrors in a specific location (a hotel in "HR", a school in "SD"), in each case a place where the threatened Tutsis might have expected protection by UN troops (Canadian in "HR", Belgian in "SD"). However, the differences in approach are profound.
Whereas "HR" was shot in Johannesburg, "SD" was filmed on location in Kigali itself in the actual places where most of the events portrayed took place. Indeed thousands of local extras were used and a good number of the technical support crew were locally recruited. The end credits summarises the losses of some of these crew members in a very powerful sequence. So, in a sense, "SD" is more authentic than "HR" and furthermore the violence - largely understated in "HR" - is more explicit in "SD" with the brutality of the machete made very clear. Certainly, for many of the local actors and extras, the whole production was deeply traumatic.
However, for me, "Hotel Rwanda" is the better film. Whereas "SD" examines the situation through the eyes of two white characters - an elderly Catholic priest played by John Hurt and an idealist young school teacher portrayed by Hugh Dancy - at the heart of "HR" is the black (Hutu) hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina. Whereas "SD" is a throughly depressing work - narrating the slaughter of 2,000 Tutsis (many of them children), ""HR" seems to strike a note of hope in the human spirit by showing how a few potential victims were able to survive the barbarity. Above all, "HR" is much the more professional film and conveys the sheer fear involved the more effectively.
Nevertheless British director Michael Caton-Jones has produced a very worthy work and the BBC is to be commended for part funding it. It was co-written by David Belton, a former BBC Newsnight journalist who worked in Rwanda in 1994 and two of the minor characters are members of a brave BBC television crew.
"State Of Siege" (1973)
Following "Z" (Greek fascism) and "The Confession" (Czechoslovak communism), this third French-language offering from the committed director Costa-Gavras examined Latin American politics through the conflict between Tupamaro guerillas and a CIA-back regime in Uruguay. Yves Montand - who was the star of the two earlier films - is back, but this time he takes the unsympathetic role of the meddling CIA agent. Although worthy, even courageous, the film has too much dialogue and is too one-dimensional.
"Thirteen Days" (2000)
I was 14 at the time of the Cuba missile crisis of October 1962. I was scared at the time and have seen no reason not to have been as a result of watching several subsequent documentaries and re-enactments of those incredibly dramatic 13 days. This 2000 movie of that historic period is directed by Roger Donaldson and often looks like a drama-documentary, a style deliberately evoked by occasional use of black and white, but underlines the sense of drama by using a few scenes of what might have been as missiles are launched.
The strengths of the film are its careful use of detailed records of the key meetings and conversations plus the use of a range of actors who look and sound like President John F Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood), his Attorney General Brother Robert F Kennedy (Steven Culp), Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Air Force General Curis Lemay and others. The weakness is the casting of Kevin Costner as Kenny O'Donnell, Special Assistant to the President, through whose eyes we see the events. Our familiarity with Costner as an actor and the use of O'Donnell for the perspective both serve to unbalance what should have been an unremitting focus on the President himself.
Having said that, what the film does really well - in total contrast to so many political movies - is to demonstrate how difficult and complex is the decision-making process, especially when one has imperfect information, conflicting signals, and rival factions (which frankly is usually the case).
"Under Fire" (1983)
This is a tension-packed, photographer's view of the revolution in Nicaragua in 1979 when the dictator Anastasio ("Tachito") Somoza was finally overthrown by the FSLN, better known as the Sandinitas. Actually shot in Mexico, the photography and sound are superb and the musical score by Jerry Goldsmith, which featured well-known jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, was nominated for an Academy Award.
The director is Roger Spottiswoode and the stars are the always impressive Gene Hackman as a television presenter, a much improved Nick Nolte as a war photographer, and the beautiful Joanna Cassidy as a war correspondent. It is really an astonishing film to come out of Hollywood: totally sympathetic to the Sandinista cause and arguably too 'black and white' in its treatment of guerillas and government. What ultimately elevates the movie is its honest representation that the truth is rarely pure and never simple. The Nolte character insists: "I don't take side; I take pictures". But events force him to chose a side.
Though the film is largely fictional, it was inspired by the murder of ABC reporter Bill Stewart and his translator Juan Espinoza by National Guard forces on 20 June 1979. ABC cameraman Jack Clark was shooting "incidental" footage, and caught the entire episode on tape. The footage was shown on national television in the United States and became a major international incident.
I first saw the film on its release in the UK in 1984. I revisited the work after I went to Nicaragua in 2014, a trip which included time in León - the scene in the film of a Sandinista victory - where I visited a former torture centre of the Samoza regime which is now in part a commemoration of the guerilla struggle. In fact, the fall of Somoza was not the end of the fighting, since the Americans backed efforts by the Contras to combat the revolution but, at the time of my visit, former Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega was back in power, having served as president from 1985-1990, made a come back as president in 2006, and been re-elected in a landslide victory in 2011.
Link: Wikipedia page on the Nicaraguan revolution click here
"The Unknown Known" (2013)
"There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns - there are things we do not know we don't know." This was the enigmatic quote from American politician Donald Rumsfeld that inspired the title of this interview by acclaimed documentary maker Errol Morris. Rumsfeld had an astonishing career working for no fewer than four US presidents and serving twice as Secretary of State for Defense - once as the youngest holder of the position (1975-1977) and then later as the oldest holder of the post (2001-2006). In his second term as Defense Secretary, he was a principal architect of the so-called 'war on terror', sending troops into Afghanistan and then Iraq.
The fascinating testimony presented by Morris is both written and oral. Rumsfeld was famous for his blizzard of memos - known as "snowflakes" - and Morris managed to gain access to all the unclassified ones and to persuade Rumsfeld to read out the most relevant to the documentary. Additionally Morris posed a series of searching questions in an interview shot over 11 days and recorded using the film maker's trademark "Interrotron" device which means that Rumsfeld is seen staring straight into the camera. It has to be said that Rumsfeld is a fluent writer and an articulate speaker and, after eight decades, is as sharp as ever, so there is no revelatory moment like David Frost's interview with Richard Nixon, but it is precisely his evasiveness and the charming manner in which he accomplishes this that is so revealing of a bizarre and (when given power) frightening character.
I saw "The Known Unknown" at its UK premiere in central London's Curzon Soho cinema in the presence of Errol Morris who made some opening remarks and then, after the screening, took a question & answer session. He compared this documentary with "The Fog Of War", his 2003 interview with another US Defense Secretary when he questioned Robert McNamara on the Vietnam war, and called the two films "bookends". He noted that McNamara was "deeply reflective", but characterised Rumsfeld's performance as "deeply unreflective". He called Rumsfeld "a skilful obscurantist" who was "obsessive with language" and had "a complete lack of irony", highlighting his "infernal grin".
The banality of much of Rumsfeld's language - "The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence" - reminded me of Peter Sellers' penultimate film "Being There" (1979) in which he played a simple gardener whose bland aphorisms about nature led to him being co-opted by America's political power brokers. Morris has done us a service in capturing all this for history in the hope that we can learn from history. What is totally unclear is why Rumsfeld agreed to the interview. This was Morris's last question to him and he responded: "I'll be darned if I know".
Adam McKay stunned us with the "The Big Short" in which, as co-writer and director, he endeavoured to tell the complicated story of the sub-prime crisis in the USA economy in a virtuoso style. Now, as sole writer and director, he attempts the tell the incredible account of how Dick Cheney somehow became the most powerful Vice-President in American history with devastating consequences for the US and the world.
Again McKay deploys an idiosyncratic style in which he uses a whole panoply of cinematic tricks, including breaking the fourth wall, a false ending, and a narrator whose identity is only slowly revealed and really shouldn't be any part of the movie. Such a scatter-gun approach does not always work, but it hits the target often enough to be both entertaining and informative in a manner which is both comedic and scary. By the time I saw it, the film had attracted 8 Academy Awards nominations.
There is a large cast with some terrific performances. None is better than an almost unrecognisable Christian Bale as the eponymous dark lord. It is not just that he looks utterly convincing, thanks to piling on 40 lb and having loads of prosthetics, but he even sounds like the guy with his gravelly voice and trademark pauses. Other excellent portrayals include Amy Adams (Cheney's wife Lynne), Sam Rockwell (George W Bush), and Steve Carrell (Donald Rumsfeld), while Alfred Molina has a delicious cameo role as a waiter offering Cheney and his chums a whole menu of devices to usurp power.
We even have a discussion of something called unitary executive theory which basically means that a US president can do just about anything he wants. A legal opinion asserting the validity of this principle is still in the records - but please don't tell Donald Trump.
So "Vice" is uneven and not quite up there with "The Big Short" but, more seriously as a criticism, is it simply too polemical in the style of Michael Moore? At the end, McKay anticipates this charge and, in a brief scene visiting a focus group, he has a liberal arguing that it is all true. Don't expect Cheney or anyone else to take McKay to the courts.
To see a film on the life of America's 43rd president just four days after the election of the 44th president was a weird experience. Let's face it: George W. Bush and Barack Hussein Obama could hardly be more different - Republican and Democrat, shock and awe, literally white and black. Now radical director Oliver Stone (the same age as his subject and a contemporary at Yale) is not noted for always being subtle, but here he makes a real effort to be respectful and even understanding of Bush; yet the whole work teeters on the edge of parody - much more like "The Jon Stewart Show" than "The West Wing".
Josh Brolin is remarkably good as the eponymous president, looking and sounding as like Bush Jr as any actor could. Indeed several of the support roles involve very passable imitations of the principals, such as James Cromwell as Bush Sr, Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld, and Toby Jones as Karl Rove. The two black characters stand out for different reasons: Colin Powell (played by Jeffrey Wright) is sympathetically represented as warning against the invasion of Iraq while, by contrast, Condoleeza Rice (Thandie Newton) is portrayed as weak and sycophantic.
The eight-year presidency of Dubya is a rich source of momentous material, yet this movie comes across as surprisingly flat. The constant flash backs to Bush's youthful years do not help and a more chronological treatment would have worked better. The choice of songs and certain fantasy images show an unfortunate heavy-handedness. Above all, the central theme - that Bush Jr was always trying to impress and ultimately out do his unloving and unforgiving father, even to the point of toppling Saddam Hussein where the older man pulled back - is really just so much psychobabble.
The first time we see W. in the Oval Office he is discussing the use in his next speech of the chilling phrase "axis of evil". His Manichaean view of the world, underlined by his born again Christianity, was his fundamental flaw - and Stone's body of work too often suffers from the same fault.
"Waltz With Bashir" (2008)
Animation is not just for children - the French Persepolis" (about a girl in Iran) made that clear and the Israeli "Waltz With Bashir" (about the invasion of Lebanon) dramatically underlines the point. The Israeli work was written , produced and directed by Ari Folman and is based on his experiences as a soldier and his video of his exploration of the traumatic events some 20 years later. Like any really powerful film, the opening and closing sequences are stunning - but the intervening one and half hours contain so many moving and disturbing images - some simply surreal - that the animation plays in the mind long after the credits have rolled.
The title is a reference to Bashir Gemayel, the newly appointed President of Lebanon, who was assassinated on 14 September 1982 following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon on 6 June 1982. The assassination led the Israeli command to authorise the entrance of a force of approximately 150 Phalangist fighters into the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, resulting in a massacre of at least 800 civilians. It is this horrific incident that is the emotional heart of the movie and the cause of Folman's mental repression.
Link: Sabra and Shatila massacre click here
"Welcome To Sarajevo" (1997)
The wars in former Yugoslavia were prolonged and bitter and - need we remind ourselves - located in 'civilised' Europe, so it is surprising that the conflict has resulted in so few films. It's almost as if there is a collective guilt about the weakness of international involvement until the Serbs tried to subjugate Kosovo and NATO finally intervened. Hollywood still shows no interest in this topic - this movie is a largely British effort, although it features two American stars (Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomie) in support roles.
The narrative, most of which actually occurred, is set in the Bosnian capital Sarejevo and - like "Under Fire" dealing with Nicaragua - focuses on war as seen through foreign media correspondents. It is based on the book by the British ITN journalist Michael Nicholson entitled "Natasha's Story". The reporter Michael Henderson (played sensitively by little-known Stephen Dillane) finds himself unexpectedly involved emotionally in events to the extent of deciding illegally to bring supposed orphan Emira out of the war-ravaged country and to his own home in England.
British director Michael Winterbottom shot the film on location in Sarajevo itself and parts of Croatia and Macedonia and this, plus the semi-documentary style of filming, gives a powerful authenticity to the work. There is no political background or scene-setting: we jump straight into the carnage and are as confused as the Bosnians being shelled and shot at. The political messages come from short but effective news clips of quotes from international figures, showing the powerlessness and incapacity demonstrated by too many of them at the time.
Many of the images are bloody and graphic. More films should deal with real issues in such a powerful manner. Then maybe we would take more notice at the time of such conflicts and not wait for them to appear on the big screen.
"The Wind That Shakes The Barley" (2006)
British director Ken Loach always makes films that are political in the broadest sense and several - such as "Carla's Song", "Land And Freedom" and this one - are explicitly about real-life political situations in another time and place. The enigmatic title is taken from a poem by 19th century poet Robert Dwyer Joyce and the subject matter is the Irish fight for independence from Britain in the early 1920s. In this powerful film as in the other two, Loach requires the viewer to work hard because the strong Irish accents make the dialogue difficult to follow and the internecine politics may be obscure to those not versed in Irish history.
The story is told through the conflicting perspectives of two brothers: Teddy (Padraic Delaney), an early recruit to the armed struggle who is later ready to accept the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and Damien (Cillian Murphy), initially reluctant to take up arms but then unwilling to support the Free State. As in "Land And Freedom", there is a scene involving a prolonged political debate - an unusual feature in movies - and, although, both sides are enunciated, it is clear that Loach as always favours the more radical position.
"The Wind That Shakes The Barley" makes an interesting contrast with that of "Michael Collins" which covers similar ground and was produced 10 years earlier.
Gerrard Winstanley (1609 – 1676) was an English Protestant religious reformer and political activist during the period after the English Civil Wat under the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. He was one of the leaders of a movement which called itself the True Levellers, was known by others as the Diggers, and could be characterised as a form of Christian Communism.
This little-known and well-intentioned film about the radical movement - directed and co-written by Kevin Brownlow - will not be to all tastes. Visually, it reminds one of the best of early cinema such as that of Eisenstein: 4:3 ratio, black and white, distant shots of figures, close up shots of faces, a variety of framed shots. And it is a vivid and authentic reaction of the period. But much of the acting is very amateurish and there is a lack of both characterisation and narrative.
"A World Apart" (1987)
Like "Cry Freedom" which was released in the same year, this is an examination of the South African apartheid system through the prism of a true life, very personal relationship, in this case that between a mother and daughter. It is based on the experience of white African National Congress supporter Ruth First (played by Barbara Hershey) who suffered 117 days detention without trial in 1963. The events are seen largely through the viewpoint of her confused and hurt 13-year old daughter Shawn Slovo (played by newcomer Jodhi May). In fact, the screenplay was written by the grown up Slovo for the directorial debut of Chris Menges.
Inevitably, given the subject matter and time of release, "A World Apart" is bound to be compared with "Cry Freedom". While it does not have the narrative, pace, and power of Attenborough's work, it is a well-made and moving indictment of apartheid that stands up in its own right and poses the painful question of how much a political activist should sacrifice her own family's welfare and happiness for a greater good.
Footnote: Ruth First died in 1982, killed by a parcel bomb which exploded in her office in Mozambique.
"Young Mr Lincoln" (1939)
Abraham Lincoln has an iconic status in American political history as the President at the time of the Civil War, so it is understandable that Hollywood would want to honour him, but this is a slow and sentimental portrayal of a slight storyline, centred on the aspiring politician's successful defence of two young men falsely accused of murder. The great director John Ford did the honours and 34-year old Henry Fonda managed to look remarkably like the clean-shaven Lincoln of the time.
This remains one of the most compelling political films ever made. Directed by the Greek Constantin Costa-Gavras in the language of his adopted country France, it is savage account of the colonels' regime in Greece, centred around the murder of the politician Lambrakis (portrayed by charismatic Yves Montand) in 1963. It makes a powerful impact - aided by the music from Mikis Theodorakis - and, when I saw it at the National Film Theatre in London, there was applause at the end.
Incidentally, how many other films do you know that have a single letter title? The only ones I know are the 1933 classic "M", its 1951 remake, a 1973 movie called "W", a 2002 'Othello'-inspired film called "O", and the 2008 bio-pic of the 43rd US president "W.".
All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON.
Last modified on 10 March 2022