It was only a matter of time before Scott Z. Burns, the diligent screenwriter behind deeply-researched thrillers like Contagion and The Informant, would make his version of Spotlight or All the Presidents Men. Burns makes his blow-by-blow journalistic recreation about one of the last decade’s great works of investigation with The Report, a volcanically angry dedication to the years of lonely work that went into determining who, why, and how the CIA tortured detainees in the time directly after 9/11. This is a bulletproof film that, in an ideal world, would be a required civic lesson for all US citizens. Not only has it gone essentially unchallenged and praised by those most in the know, with the exception of the CIA war criminals and flacks it relentlessly indicts, but, like Contagion, Burns doesn’t let the drier, technical aspects of the script slow down a well-paced and propulsive film. The American people seem to have long forgotten about the crimes of the early 21st century, but The Report ensures that a chronicle of one of the most egregious lives on.
In The Report, Scott Z. Burns’ adaptation of the Senate investigation of the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program, the lead investigator glances over at a TV to take in a news segment about Zero Dark Thirty. Under the withering gaze of Adam Driver, and with the knowledge of everything that’s been depicted in The Report up to that point, Burns’ cinematic language implies how badly that film’s creators were taken for a ride by the CIA. The various war criminals still entrenched in America’s spy agency, having spent their country’s credibility on nothing more than a revenge trip dressed up in fake urgency, aren’t content to just slink away and avoid punishment. They want to be thought of as stoic heroes who did what had to be done in pursuit of the ultimate prize, namely the ocean burial of Osama bin Laden. However, the journalistic shortcomings of Zero Dark Thirty don’t stop it from being a cinematic tour de force that’s more complex than some kind of flag-waving apotheosis. Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t exalt her characters, but portrays them similarly to Robert Eggers’ characters in The Witch. Zero Dark Thirty indulges in the moral fantasies of its characters and turns them into anti-heroes, both in the eyes of the viewer and in the creeping suspicion the characters’ own minds.
Adam McKay’s semi-comedic plumbing of the depths of the 2000’s continues with Vice, a biopic about Dick Cheney that, while it spans his entire adult life, wouldn’t exist without the pinnacle of Cheney’s career at the beginning of the 21st century. Like McKay’s previous film, The Big Short, the writer/director employs diversionary sketches and meta fourth-wall breakages to tell his story, but the primary difference between Vice and The Big Short is a lack of interest in explanation. Scenes of The Big Short were given over to the inner workings of the arcane financial instruments that nearly destroyed the global economy. There weren’t villains as much as there were systems erected by large groups of humans who were less malevolent and more short-sighted and irrationally optimistic. Vice, on the other hand, has villains, none moreso than the man at its center, and it has little interest in finding a way into his actions beyond a lust for power and control. McKay also makes the mistake of not watching any of the most successful biopics from the last decade or so, films that took a single episode from a prominent person’s life and adapted that as opposed to clumsily cramming decades of experiences into a couple hours. In both The Big Short and his interviews surrounding the film, McKay was able to communicate that he understood a root cause of the financial crisis. Vice doesn’t have that feeling about Cheney or about political corruption in general, subbing out genuine curiosity for that hilarious time the vice president shot a hunting buddy in the face.
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 19606’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.
The complicated story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion doesn’t seem to lend itself to a two hour film. It contains such thorny moralistic questions that shortchanging them risks doing a disservice to the truth of the event. Violent uprisings against slavery were surely warranted and just, but what kind of retaliation is justified, both by the rebels and the slaveowners when they inevitably reestablish power? Nate Parker’s film, the provocatively titled Birth of a Nation, is solely interested in the most obvious and least compelling facet i.e. the threshold of indignity and injustice before a pushback occurs. By making this choice, The Birth of a Nation becomes a rehash of other, better films about slavery and ignores the cloudier, demythologizing parts of this story that would’ve made Parker’s film into something more than an antebellum Braveheart.
The last Churchillian England film of 2017 leaves behind the you-are-there intensity of Dunkirk and the propaganda efforts of Their Finest for the lonely seat of power in the last European state to actively withstand Hitler’s Germany. Darkest Hour puts the viewer in Winston Churchill’s head as he takes command and is immediately confronted with the potential annihilation of much of the British army, stranded across the channel in France. Joe Wright’s film is a visual study in leadership and how intensely isolating it can be. Led by Gary Oldman’s Churchill, Darkest Hour deigns to show the heroic amounts of courage, alcohol, and political will that must be expended even in something as self-evident as resisting Nazi’s.
The Revenant made Alejandro Gonzalex Innaritu into a dominant Oscar force. It gave him his second consecutive directing award after the previous year’s Birdman, putting him on a pedestal with other back-to-back winners John Ford and Joseph Mankiewicz. Who knows how cinematic history will remember any individual working today, but where Innaritu lands in comparison to those two is an interesting thought experiment. Ford is someone who mastered the Western and added immeasurable scope to his films while also communicating intimacy in his most famous shots, particularly his iconic end to The Searchers. Mankiewicz had some successes, particularly in All About Eve, but he’s also got his name on some huge blunders like Cleopatra and isn’t a guy that people think of first when rattling off the great directors of the era. Based on the thinness of the films that brought Innaritu his wins, it seems somewhat obvious that Innaritu will end up more like Mankiewicz. An exemplar of the maxim that Oscar wins aren’t given to the Best of something, but the Most, Innaritu’s The Revenant is a series of dares and tricks that becomes punishing and ostentatious and unnecessary long before its overlong runtime expires.
The epic to end all epics, Akira Kurosawa’s late-career masterpiece Ran spares nothing in the cause of blowing the viewer away with perfect frames and huge setpieces. The equivalent of Scorsese making Wolf of Wall Street in his eighth decade, Ran demonstrates that genius-level talents lose nothing of their energy and vision with age. There’s something to gawp at in every image, whether it’s the costuming or the acting or the composition. Even for a director with classics like Yojimbo, Rashomon, and Seven Samurai on his filmography, it’s not hard to imagine why the influential Japanese auteur declared this his best work. That Kurosawa was able to keep topping himself ensures his legacy as a titan on far surer footing than the doomed patriarch at Ran’s center.
Gender pay gaps, boys’ clubs, and blatant misogyny run rampant in Battle of the Sexes, a film that has absolutely no relevance whatsoever to the present day. Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton turn their indie sensibilities to a famous sports incident, playing things largely straight where they’d earlier been more inventive. Little Miss Sunshine practically invented a new subgenre while Ruby Sparks undermined the trope of the manic pixie dream girl that so many indie films rely on. Battle of the Sexes isn’t breaking new ground in the same way. Instead, Faris and Dayton found a fertile piece of history and put charming actors in it. The film works because it can’t really fail.
Icon of American cinema Martin Scorsese began his career with Mean Streets and its protagonist's struggle to reconcile his lifestyle with his Catholism. In the intervening 44 years, Scorsese has repeatedly grappled onscreen with his own faith. The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun both centered on religious figures struggling with doubt, and his long-gestating Silence returns to this theme. On the shelf since the 80's, Silence is Scorsese at his most austere, appropriate for a film about 17th century Jesuit missionaries and far from the rollicking hedonism of his best known gangster work. Having long made personal films, Scorsese's latest is cerebral, punishing, and very much the work of a man in his twilight years, wondering about what, if anything, comes next.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.