FINALLY, THE CIA GETS THE MOVIE IT SO RICHLY DESERVES (At the Multiplex: October, 2017)

American Made (2017)
D. Doug Liman

Based on a true lie

Well damn. It’s about time.

I don’t see them all, but, as far as I know, the last great movie about the CIA was The In-Laws, all the way back in 1979.And it was all made up.

This one’s about half made up, which is about as close to the facts as any good CIA movie should ever be. Any closer, and it’s just a documentary, ready to be turned over to Ken Burns and produced on the public dime, like all the rest of the CIA’s activities, Viet Nam war included.

American Made was bound to be advertised as a Tom Cruise vehicle once Cruise was cast as Barry Seal, the Agency’s smuggler of choice for drugs, guns and Freedom Fighters back in the post-Vietnam, pre-Iran-Contra Go-Go phase of the Cold War. I grinned when I first heard about Cruise being cast. No matter the advertising, it’s very rare that I see a new movie coming and say “Well, I’m not missing that one.” And, despite our boy making no particular attempt to physically resemble Seal (who often checked in around 300 pounds), it’s every bit the inspired casting I hoped for.

The same people who complain about this or that historical detail being completely misrepresented in your favorite movie about Wyatt Earp or Jesse James are complaining about the same kind of things here.

My best advice is to ignore them.

Most of what we know about Barry Seal is what the CIA tells us anyway. Anybody who ever saw the In-Laws knows what that’s worth.

Suffice it to say he was a shady character and Cruise gets at the important thing, which is his motivation.

Yeah, American Made‘s Barry Seal has got some patriotic leanings and God knows he’s greedy.

But that’s not what makes him tick.

What makes him tick is a quality almost no movie ever gets right, even when it’s the very subject (as it is here, if only subterraneously). Before and after he was everything else–in life or film–Barry Seal was a primo example of a good, old American Type: the Danger Jockey.

No man who did what he did–in life or film–has ever been really high on anything but Risk.

And no man who did what he did has ever been cured of his peculiar addiction by anything but his Fate.

In Barry Seal’s case, that meant being cut down by Medillin Cartel assassins while reporting to a court-ordered work furlough at a handy Salvation Army depot in his home town of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at a moment when, by rights, he should have been in either a Federal Prison or the Witness Protection Program.

American Made stays in touch with the facts just enough to lay out a prima facie case–fictional but convincing–of just why and how all that was made inevitable. The biggest laugh in the theater came on the line “Governor Clinton is on the phone,” which comes just after Cruise’s Seal has assured the representatives of the umpteen law enforcement agencies who are gathered round a D.A.’s desk to determine which one of them is going to bury him under an Arkansas jail that he’s going to walk out of there.

Second biggest laugh?

When he walks out of there.

The film is skillful enough to have let us know by then what he already knows, which is that he is jumping from a frying pan to a fire–and the all-consuming flames will forever await him, no matter how fast he dances.

It’s also playful enough to get those laughs, all along the way.

Liman’s a plenty good director (Go, the first Bourne film, Edge of Tomorrow, Fair Game), but that last is a trick only Tom Cruise could do so well. He has made it look so easy so many times that he’s also made it easy to fool yourself into thinking he’s not acting, the same way Cary Grant and John Wayne weren’t supposed to be acting. But he’s made up his own iconography, without  the help they had from either Hollywood or the Culture (neither of which was any longer offering assistance in this regard by the time Cruise played his first iconic role in Risky Business). That’s not a small thing and he’s never put it to better use than here, where he’s all there is and all there needs to be. (The film’s one big mistake is sticking him with a devoted wife for whom he would do just about anything except give up being a Danger Jockey–it would be a mistake even if it were factual, which it ain’t. If there ever was such a Danger Jockey, it sure as hell wasn’t Barry Seal, and having the devoted wife be a confused, foul-mouthed, hypocritical Hollywood Southern sugarcake, who we’re supposed to love and admire anyway, doesn’t lessen the mistake).

In a world where the detritus of America’s classic transformation from Nation to Empire rolls daily by (just today, we decided that desertion would no longer be treated as a crime worthy of punishment by the American Military, a level of disdain for reason and tradition even Barry Seal might have blanched at if he could have stopped laughing long enough) American Made is just another two hours of entertainment. But when the court chroniclers of our long-promised future Golden Age come to write the last great score against our name, and ask themselves how and why it all went south so far, so fast, they could do worse than take a close, hard look at this great Tom Cruise vehicle, which already says to anyone paying attention:

Ah hah!

 

BABY WHOWHATWHENWHERE….. WHY? (At the Multiplex: July, 2017)

Baby Driver (2017)
D. Edgar Wright

So last Sunday (I think it was Sunday, I mean, it sure looked like a Sunday) I venture to the multiplex to see this movie called Baby Driver. And, of course, there being no likelihood of encountering a plot, I go in with one question and one question only.

Will they or won’t they?

And being a skeptic, pessimist, Gloomy Gus, what-have-you, I know they won’t, not in a million years, but the whole purpose of never expecting anything good to happen is to get all the joy you can from it when it does, so I have….well, not hope, exactly, but I don’t allow myself to be entirely immune to the idea.

It’s not healthy to be rational every second of every day.

There’s no way you’ll hear voices calling out from burning bushes if you take that attitude!

Then the movie starts with a bank robbery (it’s about a kid who drives for bank robbers and calls himself Baby–get it?) played out over some sort of Noise-A-Tron track all the hip kids probably know by heart and, just like in high school, it goes way over my head, so I safely conclude “No, they won’t…not in a million years!” and prepare to munch my popcorn (figuratively speaking, I never literally eat popcorn in a movie theater unless its the Alabama Theater in Birmingham) and sip water from my courtesy cup (yes, I had eyed the prices at the concession stand, hoping–and, having seen $4.99 next to the cheapest bottle of water, abandoned hope immediately as no doubt the movie would be sufficient to remind me of my face’s permanent relationship to the Overlord’s boot-sole all by itself) in peace.

But then, a funny thing happens.

Baby goes to get some coffee for his fellow bandits (he’s the kid, he’s the driver, he gets a full cut….he needs to earn his keep) and while he’s strolling down the street, this breaks out…

…as the soundtrack to Baby’s street-walk.

And I start thinking….Is it possible?….That….maybe….they will?

I settle in for two hours of mildly diverting suspense….with CGI car-chases for aspirin chasers.

And that’s what happens, alright. Only with diversions.

Every now and then, someone on screen tries to emulate a human emotion…and it’s scary.

How close they get.

Once….Twice….Thr–

Okay, twice. But still, in a car chase movie that’s a lot.

It’s the music, principally.

The writer/director (Edgar Wright, if anyone’s keeping score) seems to be working on a theory that runs something like this: Feelings come in two shades. Those worth having and those not worth having.

The natural soundtrack for those worth having consists of sixties’ soul music.

The natural soundtrack for those not worth having, consists of Noise-A-Tronics. Modernity, if you will.

Since this is pretty much in line with my own world view, I start thinking:

“Maybe they will….I mean it could happen.”

Granted, somewhere in there I forget why I’m even there. CGI overkill starts happening. Climaxes start coming. I start counting how many could qualify as the climax. I soon run out of fingers. I look around and realize I’m alone in the aisle, so I take off my shoes and socks and start counting on my toes.

When I run out of those, I’m done.

Florida public school education. Bought and paid for by taxpayer money. You get what the taxpayers pay for.

I put my shoes and socks back on.

More climaxes happen.

Twenty-five? Thirty?

Who knows.

Damn public school system. I know the Spanish Armada sailed in 1588 [had it as a multiple choice from grades 2 through 12–had to put some thought into the answers, too, because some years it was c. (and d. was 1589) and other years it was b. (and d. was 1590–see how they try to monkey wrench your brain, those taxpayers?) how could I forget?], but I can’t count past twenty and munch imaginary popcorn at the same time. What good were you education? If I ever get a chance to vote for Ron Paul again, I’m doing it in a heartbeat!

Anyway, after all the climaxes, there’s a slow bit at the end and I vaguely remember there’s a reason I came in here.

What was it again?

Oh yeah…

“Will they or won’t they?”

There’s Baby going to prison. Does that count as another climax?

Oh, right. It doesn’t matter, I ran out of fingers and toes twenty minutes back.

There’s Baby almost getting a reprieve.

There’s Baby not getting a reprieve and getting five years after all.

There’s Baby’s real name being revealed in a letter from the Girl (did I mention there was a Girl? No? Well, there was. If you didn’t know that one going in, I don’t even want to know where you went to school.)

There’s Baby (or whatever his name is now) strolling out the prison gate .(Dream or reality? Hell, I don’t know. See the movie and discuss it with your art-house friends. And, uh, yeah, do get back to me on that one, let me know what ya’ll decide. I promise I’ll stay blue in the face until you do.)

Where was I again?

Oh yeah.

Baby’s strolling out the prison gate.

His Girl’s waiting.

With a cool vintage car. The one he’s been dreaming about all movie, or ever since he met Her anyway.

Dressed like the sixties, both of them.

Back when all the feelings worth having were felt and all the records worth hearing were made.

And I think….”Will they?…I mean…”

And then I hear a slightly scratchy acoustic guitar.

And I smile and think….”Now I got to sit through the credits.”

Through which I do not quit smiling the entire time. Best time I had at the movies all decade even if all the Quaaludes on Planet Earth couldn’t make me sit through it again.

I mean, I do have it on CD.

And now I’ve got what I came for…the memory of hearing it in Dolby sound in a big ol’ movie theater.

O YE OF LITTLE FAITH (At the Multiplex: January, 2017)

Hacksaw Ridge (D. Mel Gibson)

Mel Gibson is, rather famously, a devotee of a brand of right-wing Catholicism (that no one believes has subsumed mainstream Catholicism), which is a rough equivalent of the Protestant Fundamentalism which is now supposed, by all the best people, to have subsumed mainstream Protestantism. This may have been why he was drawn to the story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist who, as a WWII conscientious objector, became one of that war’s great heroes in a manner very different than Alvin York, the conscientious objector who had been a great hero of WWI.

Whatever Gibson’s reasons, I’m not sure he was the right person to tell this story.

Or, to put it more directly, I’m not sure that the Mel Gibson who has been striving mightily these last few years to get back in Hollywood’s good graces, was the right person to tell this story.

Mind you, what is here is good. It punches all the buttons a non-Christian audience would expect to have punched and a few that folks who don’t mind a little Christianity might expect as well. The acting is good (especially by Andrew Garland as Doss and Vince Vaughn as his hard-ass sergeant). Gibson’s direction is mostly crisp and unfussy, only straying when he reaches here and there for inspiration (artistic, not religious, though if you can’t find one, it’s unlikely you’ll find the other). And the principal action scenes, which follow Doss as a medic who, without benefit of a weapon (which he refuses to carry), delivers body after wounded body from a nightmarish no man’s land which has opened up between Japanese soldiers and American G.I.s during the brutal fight for Okinawa, are tense and moving. The movie even ends with snippets from a documentary about the now-deceased Doss, in which he and some of the seventy-five men he saved confirm bits of the improbable story we’ve just seen and it makes for a lovely, understated coda.

But I found the movie more than a little disappointing for what it did not do, which was depict Doss as a man of a specific faith that must, by its very existence in a believer’s life, transcend any secular notion of redemption or honor.

That is, it does not really seek to understand the one really important thing one would expect from a director who has previously worn his religiosity so explicitly–one might say garrulously–on his sleeve.

Namely, why religion?

And why this particular religion?

That Doss is a man of faith is pounded home, you might say, religiously. But the source of his faith is shown to be not divine inspiration but, via a flashback that comes near the end of the film, a mere extension of an “event” of the sort which is common enough to have led men in a host of different directions (one such man, Bill Clinton, even went into politics). In other words, Doss’s particular conviction is shown as his own choice and a choice of convenience at that–an option among therapies that one can forgive a Virginia hillbilly for not recognizing as a crutch in a time and place where shrinks were in short supply.

As any believer knows, though, your choice is only half the equation. The part where God reaches out His hand (which must be at least as familiar to Seventh Day Adventists and Opus Dei Catholics, as it is to, say, Baptists like myself) to offer the sinner a redemption he could not otherwise hope to find, is curiously missing.

Back when Hollywood was principally in the business of telling stories, they knew better. Watch Sergeant York, Ben Hur, The Robe, The Nun’s Story (the latter three made by Jews who escaped the Holocaust, Ben Hur by a man whose family did not) and, whatever one thinks of them, they all acknowledge the primacy of the hero’s (or heroine’s) conversion. Having had a dust-up with your old man in your teenage years, however horrific the details, does not explain an unarmed man’s willingness to defy an order to retreat from one of the most hellish battlefields man has ever created on God’s earth, so that he can rescue the wounded.

For that, you probably need to have seen the light.

Obviously, the light itself can led different men down different paths. Desmond Doss won his Medal of Honor for saving men, Alvin York won his for killing them. My father, who hailed from the same part of the woods as Doss’s western Virginia and York’s east Tennessee, was sent to a firefighting unit (a more normal assignment for C.O.’s, even those who, like my dad, had their status rejected by the draft board) and shortened his time after VJ day by volunteering for psychiatric experiments. Then again, he didn’t really see the light until the late sixties when he rejoined the faith and wound up becoming a missionary.

So it goes. But one thing all three men could have told you is that the story of a Christian without reference to his specifically Christian conversion is a story with a hole in its center. Without that, Hacksaw Ridge is just a well-made war movie and amounts to little more than Mel Gibson’s self-conscious (and, to all appearances, successful) attempt to get back in the good graces of a Hollywood which seems now willing to forgive his anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny, et al, just so long as he doesn’t pretend those crazy Christians are motivated by their Christianity (as opposed to seeking “comfort” within it)–that any acts of heroism they may have committed are coincidental to their faith, as opposed to a feature.

Hacksaw Ridge is hardly without value–if Casey Affleck really is the competition for Best Actor, and really is going to be bypassed for his Clintonesque sins, my feelings would not be hurt if Garfield won it instead.

It’s just not what it might have been if Mel Gibson had found forgiveness for his own real sins and put his heart back in his chest where any true believer knows it belongs.

YEARNING TO BREATHE FREE (At the Multiplex: December, 2016)

New category…where I write about new movies I actually see in the theater.

Hell or High Water
(D. David Mackenzie, 2016)

and…

Manchester By the Sea
(D. Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)

Jeff Bridges and Michelle Williams are pretty much the only two working actors I’ll pay full price to see act in a theater anymore. (I’ll pay to see Jennifer Aniston, but that’s mostly to see what she’s doing with her persona, of which being even a very good actress is not the most essential part). Especially since Williams tends to make the kind of movies that rarely play around here, I don’t expect to get many chances to see them both in the same month. Some day they should do a movie together. Maybe he could play her dad. I’d pay to see that.

Bridges saves Hell or High Water even though he’s coasting. He hasn’t reached the state of post-Lonesome Dove Robert Duval yet, where he just plays the same guy over and over and looks sleepier and cootier every time out, but there’s a lot of his Rooster Cogburn (True Grit) in his Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton, here. And, though I’ve only seen clips of it, I suspect a lot of his Bad Blake (Crazy Heart) as well. In theory, the movie should have a lot of other things going for it. The plot is a nice twist on the Robin Hood theme, the writing and directing are efficient, if hardly inspired, and the rest of the cast is good enough to get by, with Gil Birmingham a standout as Bridges’s Half-Indian/Half-Mexican partner.

There’s fun to be had. It didn’t bore me, a quality which, at today’s prices, I don’t take for granted.

It didn’t grab me either, hard as it kept trying. The best chance it had at pulling me in was with a soundtrack that tried a little too hard to match the desolation of its West Texas setting. The comparisons to The Last Picture Show, noted by a number of critics as a nice metaphor for our current bleak state of the national heart, are not entirely off base.

The problem is, it stays metaphorical. The connection never hurts and that’s where I know the right soundtrack could have helped because the one selection that strikes all the way home–the one that plays out with Texas losers Chris Pine and Ben Foster (the Howard brothers…nice joke for the Jesse James crowd) running down the dusty roads listening to a radio that, for once, plays something that sounds like it came from that dust–is so perfect it throws the rest of the movie off stride.

I don’t usually concede that anything Elvis did so well was done better elsewhere and I don’t concede it here. But it does fit the setting better. There’s a quality in Waylon’s voice–and Waylon’s alone–that nails the wasteland spirit of the new Texas dirt the way Al Green’s voice once nailed Black America’s Crack Epidemic, and Patty Loveless’s voice nailed Hillbilly America’s Meth-driven White Death, years before they actually happened.

Anybody who knew enough to put one Waylon song in this should have known enough to give him the whole show.

If they couldn’t do that, they should have hired Michelle Williams and given her one big scene. That’s just about what she gets in Manchester By the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s drearily well-made chamber piece set on the other side of the country in contemporary New England.

It’s not the first time she’s blown the nihilism clean out of a movie. She did it in a better movie called Me Without You as far back as 2001, and, more recently, in 2008’s Incendiary, which was not as good.

She does it again here and could have probably done it for Hell and High Water if somebody had just asked.

I imagine she has done it in a few other movies I haven’t seen–much as I admire her for taking this task on, and much as I believe it’s necessary for somebody to take it on, I really have to be in the mood for this stuff. When she picks up her Oscar next spring it will be for blowing nihilism out of whatever movie she’s been in for fifteen years running and because it’s her turn. God bless her for that. The best thing about that, if it happens, is that it will just be possible the thing is being done in time to save her sanity. I can’t believe she can take much more of this.

She’s so good in that one big scene that she actually allows Casey Affleck’s previously bewildered performance to finally come together–to merge the ruined man he’s become in the movie’s present with the vibrant man we’ve seen in the movie’s flashbacks.

And when he wins his Oscar this spring (assuming his alleged tendency to abuse women doesn’t catch up with him first) he should really thank Michelle Williams.

Because, without changing a single thing more, his performance stays together the rest of the way. By the end, I almost liked a couple of the people I was supposed to like. I even almost liked him. The only thing lacking by then was nerve.

What it needed, as the last scene played and gave way, yet again, to the dreary score, was one perfect kick in the modern gut. One song that nailed everything in place and turned the whole thing from a chamber piece into something worthy of Michelle Williams showing up, yet again, to save the day.

What it needed was something to reestablish the filmmaker’s true fake vision, to show that he didn’t really believe everything would be alright in the godforsaken land he had just gone to such mighty lengths to portray in so much excruciating detail.

Of course, the song that would have nailed it all in place came straight into my head. They really should call me in to help out with this stuff.

Since they don’t, sometimes I just have to turn the sound off in the movie theater behind my bloodshot eyes and let the right song play in there and walk out with a grim smile on my face.

I was never more right than I was this time. By the time I hit the parking lot, I had convinced myself I had almost been in the presence of greatness.