The Report


Going through millions of pages in government reports could turn anybody into Kylo Ren.

(2019) True Life Drama (AmazonAdam Driver, Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, Ted Levine, Maura Tierney, Michael C. Hall, Corey Stoll, Linda Powell, John Rothman, Victor Slezak, Guy Boyd, Alexander Chaplin, Joanne Tucker, Ian Blackman, Tim Blake Nelson, Fajer Kaisi, Scott Shepherd, Jennifer Morrison, Matthew Rhys, Kate Beahan, April Rogalski. Directed by Scott Z. Burns

 

As Americans, we have always held ourselves to certain standards. We are strong, true and follow the law. We do the right thing. There came a time though, that our self-image took a pounding.

Young Daniel Jones (Driver) is ambitious, ready to keep America safe after 9/11. He was anxious to make a difference the best way he could – behind the scenes as a Congressional aide. When Senator Diane Feinstein (Bening) asks him to look into recordings of interrogations that the CIA had reportedly destroyed, he uncovered something terrible; evidence that the CIA was torturing prisoners for information.

Calling the effort “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques,” or EIT, the program was put in place by a pair of contractors with backgrounds in psychology and the military. Nobody seemed to be bothered by the fact that the two men had never conducted an interrogation before, or that evidence was strong that torture almost never yielded any actionable intelligence. The program went on and keeping it covered up seemed to be the main focus.

Jones and a small team of researchers worked in a basement office in a CIA satellite office for five years, working crazy hours going through more than six million pages of documents. Despite reluctance by the CIA and certain segments of Congress, Jones pressed and pressed until he uncovered the shocking truth.

The story is an important one, one that is especially relevant these days. Not every important story makes a good movie, however; much of what happened involved researchers sitting in front of a computer screen in a jail cell-like atmosphere. The dramatic tension here is not very strong. It doesn’t help that Burns doesn’t really develop Jones much as a character; we never see much of his personality except for that he’s driven and almost obsessive. He’s passionate about what he’s looking for and sometimes gets frustrated when others don’t share his outrage.

Bening and Driver are both outstanding actors and they don’t disappoint here. Driver is definitely in a much more different kind of role than we’re used to from him and it’s a good fit. I’m impressed by his versatility as an actor and he really stretches himself here. Bening is an actress who doesn’t always get the due she deserves; she probably won’t get a ton of accolades for her performance here but she really brings Feinstein’s personality to the forefront; that’s not surprising considering the two are friends in real life. Good casting is important in any cinematic endeavor.

I can see where those who are politically conservative might not like this much; the Conservatives don’t come up covered in glory here. Still, it’s an important story about how easy it is for the way to be lost, and how wanting to preserve our security can sometimes lead to compromising our soul. It’s a chilling tale and one that needs to be committed to memory.

REASONS TO SEE: A compelling story chilling in its implications. Strong performances by Driver and Bening.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overall the movie is a bit more underwhelming than the story deserves.
FAMILY VALUES: There are disturbing depictions of torture, violence, plenty of profanity and graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Daniel J. Jones attended the film’s world premiere at Sundance and received a standing ovation from the audience.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews: Metacritic: 66/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zero Dark Thirty
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Last Color

Shock and Awe


You can tell they’re journalists by their rumpled clothes.

(2017) True Life Drama (VerticalWoody Harrelson, James Marsden, Rob Reiner, Tommy Lee Jones, Jessica Biel, Milla Jovovich, Richard Schiff, Luke Tennie, Terence Rosemore, Margo Moorer, Michael Harding, Kate Butler, Luke White, Gabe White, Bowen Hoover, Caroline Fourmy, Teri Wyble, Al Sapienza, Steve Coulter, Gretchen Koerner. Directed by Rob Reiner

 

We live in a world where the press is often vilified for having an anti-American agenda – by the President. We live in a world where good journalism is often – if you’ll excuse the expression – trumped by potential profit. We also live in a world where we have been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq for nearly 20 years, the longest period we have ever been in a sustained conflict.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, though. America had just endured the horror of 9/11 and the people were eager to make someone pay. Afghanistan was a good candidate since they had given bin-Laden and Al Qaeda shelter, but then the rumors that George Bush, Dick Cheyney and Donald Rumsfeld were planning on invading Iraq as well took a lot of people by surprise. “Oh, but Weapons of Mass Destruction,” said the White House and everyone believed it, even though there was little or no evidence that they existed.

Not everyone believed; reporters for the Washington bureau of the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain (for whom I once toiled although by 2001 I had been gone for five years) Warren Strobel (Marsden) and Jonathan Landay (Harrelson) were mystified at the media’s simple acceptance of the government’s claims without even basic fact checking, and began to dive deeper into those claims. What they found was disturbing to say the least, but nobody wanted to hear it; many of the papers in the Knight-Ridder chain refused to print the articles the men wrote, preferring to accept New York Times reporter Judith Miller and her pro-government assertions, for which she and the Times would later apologize – and which effectively ended Miller’s career as a respected journalist.

Clearly the film takes its cues from All the President’s Men, certainly the high end of crusading journalist movies. Reiner, who has made his share of politically charged movies (A Few Good Men and LBJ among them) doesn’t really instill the film with a lot of passion; perhaps it’s that he had to pull double duty as an actor when Alec Baldwin pulled out of the film literally a day before shooting started (it was a scheduling thing) but the movie is curiously low-energy.

Perhaps part of the film’s problem is that despite an excellent cast and a story that deserves to be told, it didn’t end well. The war, as we all know, happened and continues to happen to this day; thousands of American lives lost, literally more than a million Iraqi citizens dead, trillions of dollars spent and, well, here we still are. I suppose Strobel and Landay have the satisfaction of having been right but they weren’t able to convince anybody as we got our first taste of politics as entertainment. The media’s failure here only added to the distrust of the Fourth Estate which of course Trump and his cronies are exploiting and which have helped America into the mess it’s in now. Yes, I’m recommending the film – it’s a cautionary tale worth listening to, and it’s well-acted for the most part – but it’s a downer. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

REASONS TO SEE: The cast is extraordinary. Has a documentary-like feel, in a good way.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little heavy on the journalistic aphorisms.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth time Jones and Harrelson have appeared in the same film together, most notably in Natural Born Killers.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews: Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spotlight
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Hamlet in the Golden Vale

12 Strong


Chris Hemsworth to the rescue!

(2018) True Life War (Warner Brothers) Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Navid Negahban, Trevante Rhodes, Geoff Stults, Thad Luckinbill, Austin Hébert, Austin Stowell, Ben O’Toole, Kenneth Miller, Kenny Sheard, Jack Kesy, Rob Riggle, William Fichtner, Arshia Mandavi, Elsa Pataky, Marie Wagenman, Allison King, Samuel Kamphuis, Lauren Myers. Directed by Nicolai Fuglsig

 

After the attacks of 9-11, the military was caught a bit disorganized and flat-footed. Who do we attack? There was no geo-political entity that one could say “There! If we fight them, we can keep from having more terrorist attacks on the United States.” It wasn’t like Pearl Harbor; we knew who did it and we knew who had to pay.

It is true that a group of Marines – 12 of ‘em – went into Afghanistan early in 2012 to link up with the Afghan Northern Alliance and take down some Taliban baddies. While the ads for the film hysterically said that if we didn’t win this battle that there would be MORE terrorist attacks (there’s no evidence to suggest that was true) there’s no doubt that the men who went into Afghanistan only to find out that the terrain required horses rather than trucks and jeeps – and only one of them knew how to ride – were heroic, credits to the military and to their country.

Hemsworth has become a dependable star from the Thor films to other appearances. Here he shows off that he can be a badass without a magic hammer and his charisma and charm still stand him in good stead even when the film is dead serious. It helps that he has a fine support cast behind him, including Shannon who gets a rare non-villainous role.

While the movie felt more like a recruitment poster than entertainment at times, it still accomplishes the latter goal for the most part at least. While I thought it was a little long and may have been guilty of doing an inappropriate victory dance when we’re still fighting the same bloody war sixteen years (as of this writing) and counting afterwards, it at least will get American hearts beating and American chests pounded by American fists. Military lovers, have at this one.

REASONS TO GO: Hemsworth continues to develop into a solid leading man.
REASONS TO STAY: Many times the film didn’t feel as authentic as others covering the war did.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s lots of war violence and plenty of profanity throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Riggle plays Colonel Max Bowers in the film; a Marine before he became a noted actor, Riggle actually served under the real Max Bowers at approximately the same time period the film is set in.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Winter Brothers

Man in Red Bandana


Welles Remy Crowther believed we are all connected as one human family and we are here to care for and help each other.

(2017) Documentary (Verdi) Gwyneth Paltrow (voice), Barack Obama, Jefferson “Jeff’ Crowther, Alison Crowther, John Howells, Welles Remy Crowther (voice), Ling Young, Harry Wanamaker, Judy Wein (voice), Honor Crowther-Fagan, Kelly Reyher, Gerry Sussman, Richard Fern, Chris Varman, Ed Nicholls, Eric Lipton, Ron DiFrancesco, Donna Spera, Paige Crowther-Charbonneau. Directed by Matthew J. Weiss

 

There are heroes that we know about, those who are rightly praised and their stories oft-repeated. Then there are the heroes we don’t know about, people who should be household names but aren’t but still in all fit the definition of heroism to a “T.”

Welles Remy Crowther is one such. He is one of thousands who perished on September 11, 2001 in the World Trade Center – in his case, in the South Tower. What he did in his last hour of life has been enough to grab the attention of President Barack Obama, who recounted the young 24-year-old equities trader’s story at the dedication of the 9/11 Museum in New York City and has already been the subject of a documentary short on ESPN.

Crowther was the son of Jefferson “Jeff” Welles, a volunteer firefighter and his mother Alison and grew up in Nyack, New York. He was athletic, lettering in ice hockey and lacrosse in high school and playing varsity lacrosse at Boston College. After graduating, he got a job at Sandler, O’Neil and Partners on the 104th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. However, as he confessed to his father a month before the attack, he was considering a career change, one that he actually made – after he died.

After the United Flight 175 slammed into the South Tower, Crowther made his way down to the 78th floor where the plane had impacted. He found several survivors there, all frozen in fear and panicking in the dense smoke and flames. He was able to discover the one clear stairway left and guided those survivors to it, making three separate trips up and down the stairs. He was in the lobby, within sight of safety, preparing to return to the 78th with firefighters who had the rescue equipment needed to bring those who were unable to make the stairs on their own when the tower collapsed. His body wouldn’t be recovered until the following March.

He’d left a haunting voice mail message for his mother before the second plane hit, assuring her that he was all right. After that, he called his college roommate John Howells to let him know he was going to get out but the young man’s nature was not to abandon those who needed help. He always carried a red bandana – a gift from his firefighter dad whom he idolized and who carried an identical blue one – and he wore it on this occasion to filter out the smoke and dust. He took it off only briefly but survivor Ling Young, one of the ten (at least) that is positively known that he rescued that day, clearly saw his face and would later identify him to his mother but we’ll get to that more in a moment.

His family was understandably devastated; when his funeral was held, there had been no remains recovered to that point so an empty casket was buried. This was hard for his mother Alison to accept so she went on a quest, pouring over news photos, print articles and documentaries, trying to find some mention, anything, that would tell her something about how her son died. Years later, the New York Times did a comprehensive article on the timeline of the disaster, organizing it by towers and by groups of floors. Reporter Eric Lipton was assigned the area where Welles had been and noticed that several survivors had reported being guided out by a man in a red bandana. Alison knew immediately that this was her son. She contacted survivors Judy Wein and Young and both of them were able to identify Welles from pictures that Alison had.

The documentary was directed by first-time filmmaker Matthew Weiss, who had heard Welles’ story from Jeff Welles, who had worked in the bank Weiss uses. Weiss’ inexperience shows in a number of places; the movie feels padded a bit towards the end as all the monuments and tributes to Welles are listed and shown. The re-enactments are a bit sketchy as well. Paltrow’s narration is surprisingly bloodless; she has always been a very emotional actress so I was surprised when the narration sounded  a bit too much like she was reading it without caring much about the words.

But Weiss also took an inspiring story and brought it to life. The animated graphics he used to explain how the planes impacted the building, why the impacts brought the Towers down and where Welles Crowther went in that last hour are informative albeit simple. It’s a shame Weiss didn’t have the budget for more elaborate animation but on the flip side they may have detracted from the film. Simple is generally better even when it comes to films.

The interviews with Welles’ family are understandably emotional. You get a real sense of the devastating effect his passing had on them, on his friends and on the community at large. Clearly he was well-liked by just about everyone who knew him; high school hockey teammates (one tells of a pass that Welles made to him so that he could get the first goal of his varsity career and afterwards retrieved the puck so he could keep it), and work colleagues. He didn’t seem to have a steady girlfriend however; at least none were interviewed here although being a handsome and likable young man I’m sure he had his share of girlfriends. The movie doesn’t give too much of a sense of Welles’ personal life beyond his sports achievements and his love for firefighting and desire to become one.

One of the reasons Welles’ story isn’t better known may be that he “only” saved ten lives; the media loves big numbers over smaller ones after all but at the end of the day he gave his life for people he didn’t know at the cost of his own and despite the fact that he could have continued down the stairs with the first group and easily have saved himself. That he chose to return at least three more times is mind-blowing. I can’t think of anything more heroic than that. For his heroism he was the first man to be honored as a firefighter in the Fire Department of New York City posthumously and in several memorials to fallen first responded he is listed as a firefighter there. What is particularly moving about this is that when his father was cleaning out Welles’ apartment sometime later, he discovered applications for the FDNY that Welles had partially filled out. This was the career change he had discussed with his dad before he died.

There is a great deal of 9/11 footage here of the planes hitting the building and the towers collapsing, some of it unseen before now. Even though sixteen years have passed as of this writing since that terrible day, for some the images may just be too traumatic and trigger feelings that may bring back a whole lot of pain. Those who have difficulties still in watching 9/11 footage or seeing images from that day should be advised that this may be difficult for them to handle.

This is far from perfect filmmaking and some critics are really taking Weiss to task for not producing something more polished. I can understand their gripes but they are at the end of the day, it is the story and not always how it’s told that is important. This is a story that every American should know; hell, this is a story that every human should know. Welles Remy Crowther represents the best in all of us. He is a true hero in an era where they are desperately needed.

REASONS TO GO: The film is extremely inspiring. The graphics showing how the planes brought the tower down were informative. The background music is effective without being overpowering. You feel like you really get to know the parents. The survivor stories are extremely detailed.
REASONS TO STAY: This may still be too traumatic for those who are especially emotional about the fall of the Twin Towers.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes here are fairly adult and there are some disturbing images and re-enactments of 9/11.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The charitable trust founded by the Crowthers to honor their son can be reached (and donated to at) here.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 9/11: The Falling Man
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: The Mummy (2017)