The Hoover-era FBI becomes obsessed with taking down Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton
Directed by Shaka King
Starring Lakeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya, and Jesse Plemons
Review by Jon Kissel
In the book Twelve Who Ruled, an in-depth examination of the Reign of Terror period of the French Revolution by Robert Roswell Palmer, a lot of pages are given over to Louis Antoine de Saint Just and justifiably so. In his mid-20’s when he makes it onto the Committee of Public Safety that runs France during this period, Saint Just is depicted as an effective firebrand, not as bloodthirsty as some of his colleagues but plenty vigorous in keeping France from falling to the monarchist armies that surround it. He gets the book’s most romantic passages, like he and his close friend Le Bas are mythic heroes riding into towns beset by counter-revolution, only for them to quickly set thing right and move on into the sunset. Saint Just died in shame like a lot of other French did in this period, but a year or so before he went, he uttered his most famous line at the trial of Louis XVI; ‘One cannot reign innocently.’ In Judas and the Black Messiah, it’s unknown if the young revolutionary at its center could’ve one day achieved great power and influence only to fall into the traps of governance himself, as Saint Just did, because those that reigned during Fred Hampton’s time made sure that never happened. What Hampton shares with his revolutionary antecedents is the certainty of youth and a single-minded focus on a better future, plus a cadre of enemies who have no vision but the furtherance of the status quo.
Gangs of New York is the union of one of the greatest working directors (Martin Scorsese), one of the greatest writers (Kenneth Lonergan), possibly the greatest actor of the last thirty years (Daniel Day-Lewis), and his potential successor (Leonardo DiCaprio). A pedigree like that demands a scope and a scale with no less a goal than explaining America in 167 minutes. A college-aged me, snowed by the grandeur and the ambition, elevated Gangs of New York amongst Scorsese’s very best, but all this time later, it falls into the second or third tier. Scorsese’s trademarks become more intrusive, and his casting is either off or before its time. Such a serious assemblage of talent and vision could never be judged as anything less than compelling, but college-aged me was a sucker for a well-spoken threat at a rapid cadence and middle-aged me just isn’t as moved.
Selma, along with its structural cousin Lincoln, have cracked the biopic code. Take a single event or effort in a historical figure's life and focus only on that. No thematically resonant childhood, no old-age makeup, no single trigger for a lifetime of psychological distress. Just a well-characterized man or woman struggling against entrenched interests for a couple months. Director Ava Duvernay has not only taken Lincoln’s realpolitik approach to the social justice cause, but she’s also sculpted Selma to this end, eschewing clunky scenes in which 6-year-old Martin Luther King is called a racial slur for lived-in scenes of backslapping revelry between MLK and his compatriots over a potluck buffet. Her film makes the great man a recognizable person and not a sainted abstraction, while also constructing a visceral recreation of the march on Selma.
Martin Scorsese’s 2019 has found the hall-of-fame director in the center of two of the biggest concerns in the cinematic world. His thoughtful and high-minded discourse about where superhero movies fall in the film landscape endeared him to every cinephile concerned about monopoly power and the worrying trend of anonymous fans sticking up for multi-billion corporations. His choice to make his latest film with Netflix put him on the opposite side of the purists, though it’s hard to imagine a studio financing a $160 million, 209 minute epic that’s far away from the perversely enticing boisterousness of Scorsese’s Goodfellas or Wolf of Wall Street. A still-vital director wading into so many corners of the cultural landscape makes Scorsese a worthy spokesman for American film, especially when he has the goods to back up his talk. The Irishman places Scorsese as the driving force behind one of 2019’s best films, though anytime he makes something new, it’s likely to be in that conversation. What’s surprising is how viciously fanboys have attacked Scorsese’s eminently fair arguments. What’s unsurprising is that one of the medium’s best creators has once again made a masterpiece.
The Mercury Seven got their epic in The Right Stuff and so did the crew of Apollo 13, and now Neil Armstrong gets his cinematic apotheosis in Damien Chazelle’s First Man, a Kubrickian masterwork from a director who’s said all he has to say about jazz. Finding fertile new ground in the space race, Chazelle instills his historic representations with the flintiness of his Whiplash characters, portraying Armstrong as a difficult man who, in his difficulty, may have been the only person capable of emerging from the trying 1960’s intact. Utilizing you-are-there filmmaking and the best of Ryan Gosling’s oft-internal performances, First Man signifies Chazelle’s emergence as a singular auteur in total control of his art.
JUST SOME IDIOTS GIVING SURPRISINGLY AVERAGE MOVIE REVIEWS.
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