The years before Agnieska Holland, icon of Polish cinema, was born in 1948 placed her parents at the center of some of humanity’s worst crimes. Her father, a non-religious Jew and a Communist activist, served in Polish resistance armies while her Catholic mother fought in the Warsaw Uprising and was named as Righteous Amongst the Nations for hiding Polish Jews. That kind of center-of-history background has informed Holland’s work and led her to make several films about World War II and the postwar Communist regime in Poland. With In Darkness, she tells the gripping story of another person named Righteous Among the Nations, and sculpts an impossible morality play around the role of Poles under Nazi occupation.
Julie Taymor’s turgid and cliché-ridden biopic of Gloria Steinem, The Glorias, had the misfortune of coming out within several months of the excellent FX miniseries Mrs. America. Though Steinem was only one lead of many on that series, it both scooped and improved on every single aspect of Taymor’s attempt to tell the story of second-wave feminism and the women who led it. The Glorias, by contrast, falls into every biopic trap and ultimately has nothing to say about anything.
David Fincher’s newest film and his first in six years reaches back into his own history and that of Hollywood’s in Mank, a fractured narrative about the writing of Citizen Kane by Herman Mankiewicz. Working from a decades-old script by his father, Jack Fincher, the junior Fincher was supposed to direct Mank in the late 90’s, but things fall apart. Now, years after Jack’s death, Mank sees the light of day, or at least streaming in what is Fincher’s least commercial film. Shot in black and white and about a narrow slice of behind-the-scenes producing and writing, Mank is far away from Fincher’s adaptations of popular/controversial books, but box-office notwithstanding, the film contains that comforting sense that everything happening onscreen is purposeful and meaningful, even if the viewer doesn’t have the in-depth knowledge of Orson Welles and RKO Productions that would no doubt make Mank an even richer experience. After a too-long hiatus from film, Fincher churns out the ultimate one-for-me, paying tribute to his personal and professional predecessors, and finding camaraderie with writers everywhere despite him having never put his own name on a feature script.
After three off-the-mark movies whose low stakes made a mockery of his trademark style, Terence Malick returns to a time period he’s visited before that’s more suited to his love of nature and spirituality. Gone are the American banalities of Midwest subdivisions and tony LA parties, replaced with nothing less than the essence of political participation and morality. Malick’s films, laden as they are with searching voiceover and contemplation, don’t work if the setting of the voiceover doesn’t warrant that level of introspection. In A Hidden Life, Malick finds the ideal union, a protagonist whose enforced loneliness and reliance on his religion requires the viewer to go into his head. The result is a film that has a crystalline, essential perfection, though its elegance and simplicity doesn’t justify a three-hour runtime.
The dark years of the AIDS crisis in France are depicted with detail and resilience in Robin Campillo’s BPM, an epic political drama that unites the personal and the political. With a foundation in the French tradition of protest and revolt, the young Parisian activists of Act Up trade the Phyrigan caps and barricades of their ancestors for barrels of fake blood and provocative posters. In the leftist fashion of many offshoot groups at various stages of militancy, Act Up and half a dozen others with similar acronyms share the common goal of recognition for the suffering of the ‘undesirables’ of society and a prompt and effective treatment. When he’s not filming meetings with intense debate over strategy and tactics, Campillo excavates his own memory as an AIDS activist in the early 90’s for deeply personal stories of his peers afflicted with the disease as they transform from vibrant pictures of youth and promise to mottled shells who need all their energy to summon arguments that used to flow out of them at a hyper-literate pace. BPM’s you-are-there historiography of this period makes for a vital transportation back to a time when governments ignored and discounted a rampaging disease because it was happening to people they didn’t feel responsibility toward, a situation thankfully banished to previous decades.
Mary Harron’s Charlie Says was the first 2019 film to prominently feature the Charlie Manson murders. Specifically focused on the imprisoned Manson women and their induction into Manson’s Family, Charlie Says offers little of the vicious, history-altering catharsis of the second 2019 Manson-adjacent film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. In adapting the work of a prison criminologist who worked with the women, Harron identifies that there’s not much to be taken from the whole affair beyond investigation into how it could’ve happened, but a full understanding doesn’t alleviate the guilt and grief of anyone involved. Charlie Says works its melancholy magic as a blow-by-blow construction and destruction of a cult-infected brain and as a rebuke to the wave of true crime that imagines all of this as exploitative rubber-necking.
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.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.