Friday 24 January 2020

Film Review: What happened in 1917?


What are the stories we choose to tell?

Every one of us grew up surrounded by stories. Some, we were told were stories. Others, we thought we knew to be the truth, until time revealed they, too, were stories of a kind. Still others were stories we told ourselves, one way or another. And sometimes these stories were embellished, and sometimes they were honest, and sometimes they were important to the world, and sometimes they were important to us, more than anyone else, but the ones we remember best are the ones that were our stories, and those were the once we wanted to tell.

In 1917, Sam Mendes tells a story, but…it’s not quite the story we might have expected.

After all, the ‘War Film’ is not new; from All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), through The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) to Patton (1970), Coming Home (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), Saving Private Ryan (1998)and last year’s Dunkirk, we have seen a number of films that dealt with war and its aftermath. Some of them follow a person, some an event, some take a more macro-level view of the ‘theatre’ of war, and the best ones have always shown up the futility of it, even in the midst of acts of great personal heroism. Hell, even Wonder Woman, that glorious, campy, charming World War I film, makes it a point to show Diana’s artless optimism wither away in the face of the realities she is facing.

But 1917, in a sense, is not about that. Or not as much as you think it would be.

The film begins and ends with a near-identical shot of a soldier relaxing against a tree. The story is what happens in-between, a saga that begins in a bunker in a trench and ends just outside a hospital-tent. It’s a heart-stopping, heart-rending, breath-taking, awe-inspiring saga of a mission to get a message across and through enemy lines to call off an attack, and through the use of a simulated single-shot, we are thrust into the story as though it were happening to us. We see the desperation of the men in the trenches, the rotting bodies and the pecking crows, the gnawing rats and the clouds of dust, the murky, blood-stained water, the senseless violence and gruesome deaths, the heavy, brutal reality checks, and the moments of tenderness that seem to redeem us as much as the characters.

Through long stretches of silence punctuated by loud noise, pitch darkness and vibrant light, silhouettes and close-ups, frantic chases and a memorable, melancholy moment of rest, 1917  tells a story that is utterly riveting; an experience that only Indian theatre-owners and their insistence on an ‘Intermission’ to sell overpriced popcorn can harm, though even so, not ruin.

George MacKay and Dean Charles Chapman are the lead actors in this drama, tasked with delivering a message to a regiment deeper in German-held France that is on the verge of walking into a trap. One of the soldiers in that regiment is the elder brother of Chapman’s Lieutenant Blake, giving him the personal interest in the mission’s success that the higher-ups seem to think is essential. He and his friend, an initially-resentful Schofield (MacKay), set off, through the trenches on their front, full of weary, irritable soldiers, past the men holding the frontline, past No Man’s Land, into the German trench, and beyond. 

Mendes paints scenes—or rather, given the whole film is simulated as one scene, let us call them moments—that stick in the viewer’s consciousness. 

There is the moment we realise that the General did not even know that the Colonel he referred the men to, had been dead for two days; when a Lieutenant administers them their final rites as they prepare to climb out of their trench; when Schofield’s hand goes into a dead man’s gaping, open, chest wound. Many, many moments when all hope is lost, moments when we see in the background a futility to their efforts that does not render them any less noble, moments of incredible beauty, as a village is lit up with blazing lights that are almost festive in their deadly, destructive dazzle.

And the climax, the rousing, distressing, stand-up-in-your-seat eye-popping climax…followed by the inevitable low of the realisation of how temporary victories are in a war such as this, of knowing that the war would not end till another year had passed, only to be followed by another.

1917 is all this, an achievement of technical brilliance, a thing of awesome beauty that leaves a lasting impression.

But it is, still, a story. The sort of story; perhaps a specific one, that Sam Mendes’ grandfather may have told him. A story of hope, with a hero and his journey, an Odysseus-like voyage through terror and treachery. In an age where memories of that time fade; when we think of that horrible war as an afterthought, when those who fought in it are long gone, it is an important story to tell, for it speaks to hope, and bravery, without glossing over the trauma that war engenders.

What it is not, is a commentary. As war films go, there have been better; as commentaries go, there have been better; but that—that is judging a fish on its ability to fly.

1917 is a story a man chose to tell, and he told it marvellously well. 

We should not ask for more than that.

Wednesday 22 January 2020

Film Review: The Story of 'The Irishman'; or, I hear you like old stuff?


What are the stories we will remember? 

As I look at my bookshelf, or at the…ahem…accumulated movie collection, I wonder how many of these will still be ‘popular’, as generations pass. Already, it’s difficult to find anyone who knows about the authors who were literary and commercial giants just a century ago; and even ‘Film Buffs’ couldn’t tell you what ‘pre-Code’ means, or pick out Theda Bara from a line-up.

Theda Bara, in a still from Carmen (1915)

It is a question that is asked in stark, nihilistic terms by Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. A deconstruction of his own oeuvre, a worthy piece of the mob-film genre, and a stunning period-piece, it manages to be all these things without losing touch with the need to tell a self-contained story.

Which it does—in fact going story-within-a-story for a while, as Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheeran, the titular Irishman, recounts a story from his wheelchair in a nursing-home, of a car journey he and Russell Bufalino, played to perfection by Joe Pesci, undertake to attend a wedding. On the way, they stop for cigarettes near a Gas station where, as Frank recalls, he and Russell first met. 

What follows is a study of how Frank, a former-soldier-turned-union-member truck driver, got involved in the Italian mob, first as a fixer and then as a hit-man. Carrying out a variety of crimes, which he is to later dismiss as ‘eh, some other things’, but which in reality, run the gamut of violence including arson and murder, Frank rises until he is close to not just Russell, but also trusted by several other ‘bosses’ in the seedy, grimy, world of organized crime. This makes him an ideal candidate to ‘help out’ the maverick Union Boss, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino with spiky hair and exuding charisma), when he needs to deal with a ‘problem’ in Chicago. 

The film then traces the Bufalino-Hoffa association, as Frank becomes something of a go-between for them, to the point of both considering him a close family friend. Of course, Frank’s rise in the mob is not without consequences—a violent outburst against a local grocer leads to an estrangement from his daughter Peggy (portrayed, as an adult, by Anna Paquin) that only gets deeper and wider as time goes on. He himself, while maintaining a cold-blooded, almost amoral approach to his job, finds his loyalties and feelings tested as Hoffa and the mob increasingly find themselves at cross-purposes, culminating in the quiet, anti-climactic climax of the film. 

But it does not end there, and therein lies the true value of The Irishman—it does not let up. It does not provide a ‘big-bang’ exit. Frank and Russell grow old, and the glory days of their brutal reign over the country are not just lost, but increasingly forgotten. 

Where once Frank was a part of Presidential plots (the film works in its references to real-life events of the Kennedy era), he now stands in line in a vain attempt to get his bank-teller daughter to talk to him, at least as a customer.

Where once his feet stamped down on a man’s wrist for the slight of ‘pushing’ Peggy, he now needs crutches to get around. 

Where once he was a feared sight on the streets, now when two Federal Agents try to get him to ‘talk’, they point out that, for all he has done, there is no one left for him to defend, no one to protect—he is all that remains of a time and culture that is no more, and his story has no value to anyone except the families of those he wronged. He doesn’t talk. Like another Scorsese character in another film, he prefers to stick with a code that no longer exists.

In its way, The Irishman also serves as a capstone to the universe of the ‘mob film’, of which Goodfellas and Casino are also such fine examples. One could even see them as a trilogy:—

Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) in Goodfellas is a gangster who seems blissfully unaware that his actions are repugnant, revelling in the lifestyle his depravity allows him to live and bitter about it all coming to an end. 

Sam Rothstein (Robert De Niro) in Casino, is a man duly aware of not just the danger, but the horrors of the world he is involved in, who tries to rationalize to himself that what he is doing is not, still, as ‘bad’ as what those around him (Nicky Santoro, played by Joe Pesci), are.

Frank Sheeran, in The Irishman, a man who’s perfectly aware of what he’s doing, how evil it is, but who doesn’t really think it’s very ‘important’ that he’s done the things he has; and by the end, realizing that no one cares about the people he did it for either.

Scorsese once said that The Age of Innocence, with its refined dialogue and genteel manners, was the most violent film he ever made. I would say that The Irishman, with its unrestrained ruthlessness and savagery, is the most gentle. Almost meditative in its content and structure, the violence shown on screen is not destructive, but instructive; a reminder that a life spent in trying to become the ‘big man’ is no solace when it nears its inevitable end. It’s a lesson that other storytellers might seek to tell through heavy-handed allegory that involves monks and Ferraris; Scorsese chooses to tell it through an expletive-punctuated, blood-infused saga of a corrupt union leader, deconstructing the concept of the ‘great man’, tearing down the concept of the ‘hero’.

To talk about the technical aspects of the film seems superfluous, the camerawork, the soundtrack, the acting, the dialogue (from the rambling, Seinfeld-ian discussions on buying fish to Peggy’s seven-word armour-piercing question to Frank) come together as they must. Sure, the de-aging can look spotty at times, and it’s hard to think of De Niro’s ‘young’ Frank Sheeran as being any younger than forty-five at any point, but maybe that’s a part of what we came to see—the inevitable viewing of stories of the past through the lens of what we know about those stories now.

It is telling that no studio chose to pick up the film; that it had to find a home in a streaming service that made its reputation by being willing to cater to niche viewers. 

In the end, Frank shows the nurse doing his check-up (Dascha Polanco, who should be instantly recognisable to fans of OITNB) old photos of his family. Seeing a photo of Peggy with Jimmy Hoffa, the man who once could bring America to a grinding halt with a word, she asks who he is. Frank’s answer has only a vague sort of meaning to her, a memory of something someone might have once said about a guy who disappeared.

The Irishman is a film about stories that are being forgotten, memories that will fade as a generation dies out. 

I look at the yellowing pages of the books on my shelf, recall the time I had to explain to a young friend that Alexandre Dumas was a writer, and wonder whether there will be a time when those stories, too, will crumble like the nitrate film reels on which Theda Bara’s Cleopatra once lived to inflame so many passions.

A still from Cleopatra (1917).
Barring a 20-second clip, stills are all that remain.
A critic said, the producers seemed to have stinted on nothing,
except perhaps Ms Bara's costumes, which were shockingly sparse.

They probably will, but that’s no reason not to celebrate the stories while we do remember them; and if that means relaxing with Scorsese’s three-and-a-half-hour saga, with maybe a viewing of Goodfellas and Casino on the previous day to build the mood, well, may I live long enough to do exactly that!

Available on Netflix