Three more movies to add to my tally. Minor spoilers throughout – you have been warned.
Manchester by the Sea
Writer director Kenneth Lonergan was not someone whose work I was very familiar with. I’d seen Gangs of New York, but that seems like writer-for-hire stuff, owing much more to Scorsese’s vision that Lonergan’s. I haven’t seen You Can Count on Me or Margaret – but on the other hand, I have seen a fair number of Boston Male Angst movies, generally starring whichever Afflecks are nearest to hand, or Matt Damon if wet (here Damon produces and Casey stars).
Initially, Manchester is a slow burn. Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler operates according to the cast-iron law of movie heroes that the audience will always like you, no matter how grievous your crimes or appalling your character flaws, if you are good at your job. So, he can’t keep a civil tongue in his head while doing odd jobs in dilapidated apartment blocks, but he knows one end of a wrench from another and he’s a hard worker.
Then he’s summoned to his hometown, narrowly missing the death of his father, and needing to break the news to nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). When his brother’s will names him as the boy’s guardian, Affleck will do anything to avoid staying in Manchester by the Sea.
So far, so Hallmark. Just imagine the TV movie version of this story, where ill-matched handyman and teenage tearaway discover that despite their early clashes, actually they both need each other. Ugh. But Lonergan’s handling of the material is far more subtle, restrained and powerful. Of particular note is the flashback structure. Ultimately, we come to realise that the problem is not the sudden and unexpected burden of quasi-parenthood, nor is Affleck’s refusal to relocate sheer stubbornness. The whole town is full of ghosts, and some of the memories unearthed by his visit are truly ghastly.
So, the film nips back and forth along the timeline, but – emphasising that at any moment the lead character can be confronted with another grim reminder of horrendous past decisions – there is no visual distinction between then and now, nor any overt cue that a flashback has begun or ended. This makes for an initially confusing watch, but once I got used to the rhythms of Jennifer Lame’s editing, and once the jigsaw started to come together, everything made perfect sense.
That freed me to admire the crystal clear digital photography by Jody Lee Lipes, making the every-present cold feel absolutely real. And the powerhouse performances from Affleck, Hedges and Michelle Williams doing a great deal with not very much as Affleck’s ex-wife. And there are flashes of humour too – notably a lovely cameo from Matthew Broderick of all people, as well as Hedges’ endless quest to bed either or both of his girlfriends.
So, if the scope of the movie is not terribly broad, then the depth of the writing and the acting largely makes up for it, and although this isn’t a movie to watch and re-watch, it’s certainly a moving and effective piece of work.
Lion similarly doesn’t try to encompass anything more than the plight of a handful of people in a peculiar situation, but also like Manchester, on the whole it succeeds very well. Considering the pitch – Saroo, adopted by a white Australian family when he was only six years old, in his early adult life suddenly needs to reconnect with his origins in India and risks alienating his adoptive family – it would seem “obvious” to begin with marquee names Dev Patel (Saroo) and Nicole Kidman (his adoptive mother) and have the audience feel Saroo’s confusion and anguish along with him.
In fact, about the first hour of the movie concerns Saroo’s early life in India. We meet his brother, mother and sister and see exactly how he came to be separated from them, thousands of miles away from home, unable even to speak the local language. This whole section of the film works brilliantly, and the terrible details of his accidental removal from everything he knows are worked out with remorseless precision.
Sunny Pawar is astonishing as the young Saroo. Shot after shot depicts him furiously running away from some kind of danger, like a pint-sized Tom Cruise (insert your own joke here), tiny fists pumping, fierce little face set in grim determination. When he evades what were probably people traffickers and ends up at an orphanage, the tension ebbs out of the film a little, but the details of his arrival in Australia are some of the most affecting sequences. Kidman, barely on screen for more than twenty minutes, seizes every opportunity she is given, and her quiet outpouring of love for the little boy in her bathtub, who can’t yet speak her language, is incredibly moving.
Dev Patel – suddenly brawny, rangy and hairy, quite unlike the powerlessly slight figure he cuts for much of Slumdog Millionaire – also does well as the grown-up Saroo, and the early scenes of him trying to figure out just what had happened to him all those years ago are effective, but here’s where it becomes clear why this movie needed that long first act. There isn’t really enough story to keep the momentum going after Saroo makes his decision to try and Google Earth his way back to his origins.
Rooney Mara is largely wasted as his new girlfriend, largely because he’s not letting her in on what he’s trying to do. And the damage done to his relationship with his Australian family is undermined because the filmmakers – somewhat letting the truth get in the way of a good story – have included his brother Guddu, adopted a year or so after Saroo. Guddu’s mental health problems already mean that his family unit is under stress, and the film can’t make up its mind whether Saroo trusts or resents Guddu, so this portion of the movie represents a significant dog-leg, effectively marking time until Saroo can be permitted to solve the puzzle of his beginnings.
When – finally! – Saroo makes it to India, the film pulls out of the dive and really delivers a cathartic ending, emphasised by photos and video of the real Saroo, Sue Brierley and others, and with an absolutely brilliant title card punchline. It’s tremendously emotional stuff, handled beautifully by director Garth Davis, making his feature debut.
Not quite as complete as Manchester by the Sea, then, but still well worth seeing, especially for the opening hour.
I don’t really like war movies.
Of course, there are exceptions – Saving Private Ryan (mainly for the Omaha Beach scene), Paths of Glory (absolutely devastating) and, er, does Casablanca count?
But, by and large, tales of heroism behind enemy lines, brilliant military stratagems dreamed-up by inspired generals, or the bonding of boy soldiers who should never have been sent to the front lines, all leave me cold. And the wave of seventies and eighties Vietnam films similarly left me unstirred. No thank you Platoon, I’ll leave after the Russian Roulette scene The Deer Hunter, you’re not doing it for me most of Full Metal Jacket, enough already Casualties of War.
So, maybe I was never going to like Hacksaw Ridge, the true story of conscientious objector Desmond Doss who nevertheless signs up to serve as a combat medic in World War II and ends up saving the lives of dozens of men on the titular ridge at Okinawa. But honestly, Mel Gibson’s film is a total mess, tonally incoherent, riddled with inconsistencies, and clearly glorifying the very violence that its hero is so determinedly opposed to.
The first act of the film, sketching in Doss’s home life in Virginia, is pretty corny movie-of-the-week stuff. We begin with a very clumsy flash-forward, flash-back, flash-forward opening, seemingly designed to ensure that nobody expecting a military bloodbath panics that they’ve walked through the wrong door, while scooping up a supposedly key childhood incident which is never picked up on again (a later incident is drafted-in where this one presumably was meant to go). Then we follow Doss’s journey from somewhat misfitting youngster to eager recruit.
But Gibson keeps emphasising all the wrong things. He can’t even shoot Doss and his new girlfriend (the preternaturally beautiful Teresa Palmer) having their first kiss without trying to have them both killed in road traffic accidents. And it’s absolutely baffling when his dad (Hugo Weaving, wasted) tells him that his problem has always been that he has to ponder and pray on every little decision before acting – since up till now all we have seen is him being headstrong to the point of reckless. Later, in the training scenes, he will be resolute and steadfast and in the extended climax in Okinawa he will be decisive and focused. This ponderous indecision is simply not a part of his character. It’s almost as if the script was assembled from multiple drafts by choosing pages at random.
In the middle section, every cliché of the Army Boot Camp is wheeled out. The men are giving amusing quirks and cheeky nicknames so that we can keep them straight when they start getting sliced up by Japanese bullets (this doesn’t work). And Vince Vaughan of all people essays a hugely uninteresting take on the shouty drill sergeant who really only wants the best for his men.
But the conflict between a conscientious objector, who refuses to even touch a rifle but who nevertheless wants to join the Army to serve as a medic on the front lines, should make for a fascinating battle-of-wills – even if presented with these over-familiar tropes. But again, the key scenes evade Gibson’s camera. Doss repeatedly asserts that he was told by the recruiting officers that he would not have to handle firearms, but since we didn’t see this scene, we have no way of knowing whether or in what manner this undertaking was given. So rather than seeing him as a wronged man, a pawn mislead by the great machine of war, it’s tempting to see him as just naive or worse a simpleton not worth rooting for.
In the end, the stage is set for a court martial, but once again this is handed in the most clichéd way imaginable, with a “hail Mary” piece of key evidence arriving at the eleventh hour causing all charges to be immediately dropped with smiles and handshakes all round. For all I know, this is exactly the war things happened (although I doubt it) but events are presented with zero verisimilitude.
Act Three is the main event, Hacksaw Ridge itself. Take the ridge, you take the city. Take the city, you take the country and win the war. But the dastardly Japs have claimed many brave American lives already and this won’t be easy. It’s tempting to compare the gruesome battle scenes which follow to Spielberg’s handling of the Normandy Beaches in Saving Private Ryan, but while Gibson’s film handily exceeds the Tom Hanks movie for viscera, brutality and ghastly sound effects, it totally lacks Spielberg’s perfect balance between the fog of war and the demands of narrative clarity. Spielberg’s sequence is precision storytelling. Gibson’s version is a blood-spattered roller coaster.
When the American forces are cut to pieces and have no option but to retreat, brave Private Doss drags the wounded to safety and lowers them off the ridge. This selfless act of heroism is entirely true and it’s with genuine humility and shame that I watch my soft hands type these words. What that man did on that ridge is absolutely remarkable, but the film which was intended to honour his noble deeds continues to lose its footing in these crucial moments.
Firstly, as noted, Gibson succumbs to the temptation to make the battle scenes thrilling, which means that the film fails utterly as a parable about the horrors of war (should that point need making again). Secondly, the moral complexity of Doss’s position is completely overlooked. War is presented as a necessary tool to achieve global stability and the mission of the American forces is one of truth and rightness. When Doss drags Vaughan on a makeshift sled while the other man sprays bullets from a submachine gun behind him, we’re supposedly meant to punch their air, or cheer or something. I just thought this was a ridiculous spectacle belonging to nonsense like The Fast and the Furious, not a serious Oscar-winning movie confronting the realities of warfar.
In big ways and small, Gibson presents the Americans as all-too flesh and blood humans, whose lives would be deeply mourned if they were lost. But the Japanese are presented as boogie-men who exist only to imperil the lives of Our Brave Heroes.
This can be seen not only in their stereotypical presentation (when they are finally defeated, they even commit hari-kiri) but in more subtle ways as well. None of what they say is subtitled. Their faces are almost never clearly seen. Sometimes their whole bodies are obscured by smoke, but even when they emerge from the mists, the lighting and grading conspires to hide their eyes, or mute their features completely. They are alien, separate, other, killable. Doss does lower a couple of Japanese wounded off the ridge, but we never see them and we are later told they “didn’t make it” leaving open the question of whether or not American surgeons would have operated on them or not.
And the muddled writing hasn’t gone away either. Holed up for the night, Captain Glover marvels at Doss’s continued refusal to handle firearms. “Any sane man would want a rifle,” he exclaims. Doss quips in return “Well, I never claimed to be sane.” Fair enough, except that an hour earlier, I watched this same Captain Glover attempt to drum Doss out of his platoon on the grounds of insanity, in response to which Doss very cogently argued for his sanity, and this was the conclusion reached by the psychiatrist assessing him who then made his report back to – you guessed it – Captain Glover. Again, I can only assumed no-one was paying attention to which draft was being shot today.
Andrew Garfield, seemingly channelling Tom Hanks not as Captain Miller but as Forrest Gump, does well enough with what he’s given, but even he and a parade of talented Australian character actors, can save this nasty jingoistic propaganda piece from collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions.
Five down, four to go.