John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls


Senator John McCain of Arizona; portrait of a maverick.

(2018) Documentary (HBO) John McCain, Joe Biden, John McCain IV, Henry Kissinger, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, Carol McCain, Hilary Clinton, Grant Woods, David Brooks, Mark Salter, Doug McCain, Frank Gambaa, Joe McCain, Andy McCain, John Fer, Rick Davis, Bill McInturff, Cindy McCain. Directed by George Kunhardt, Peter W. Kunhardt and Teddy Kunhardt

 

Most people who follow American politics are pretty well familiar with the salient points of Arizona Senator John McCain’s life; the son of a four-star admiral (and also the grandson of one), he became a Navy flyer during the Vietnam War. Captured by the Viet Cong, he was held as a prisoner of war for five and a half years, subjected to repeated torture and abuse. Finally weakened to the point where he could no longer take it, he signed a bogus confession – an act that has regretted ever since – and returned home to take on a political career. Running twice unsuccessfully for the Presidency, he won the Republican nomination in 2008 and unwisely selected then-Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, an act that changed the political landscape of the United States and not for the better. Last year, he was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer.

It is difficult to review a documentary about a man without reviewing the man himself. Those who read my reviews regularly should be aware that I am a progressive liberal so politically McCain and I disagree about a lot of things. I have never considered him anything less than an honorable man however; famously, he showed up for a vote that kept the Senate from passing  a bill that would have dismantled the Affordable Care Act and put in an absolute abomination of a replacement plan in its place, breaking ranks with his fellow Republicans and earning the wrath of President Trump who clearly dislikes the Arizona senator.

The movie utilizes a lot of archival footage, particularly from McCain’s Vietnam era, and a lot of interviews with political foes, allies, friends and family. Some of McCain’s closest friends come from the other side of the aisle; Joe Biden, for example and Joe Lieberman whom he toyed with asking to be his running mate in ’08 before settling on Palin. The movie also covers one of his more public blunders, his role in the Keating Five scandal which nearly marked the end of his political career. McCain is honest about his involvement and while he was exonerated of any wrongdoing, he admits freely to making an error in judgement which he was censured for.

Clearly the filmmakers admire McCain which I believe most Americans do; even the left respect his service and his willingness to vote his conscience, something few members of either party are willing to do these days. It’s not strictly speaking hagiographic but it is fawning in places and certainly admiring throughout. Then again, it’s hard not to admire a man like John McCain…oh, wait a minute, there I go reviewing the man rather than the movie. It’s a pretty decent documentary. HBO subscribers, particularly those of a political bent, should check it out.

REASONS TO GO: This doesn’t feel like a puff piece at all.
REASONS TO STAY: It seems to be a story that is still being written.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title refers to the book by Ernest Hemingway which is McCain’s favorite.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mitt
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Depths

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The 101-Year-Old Man Who Skipped Out on His Bill and Disappeared (Hundraettåringen som smet från notan och försvann)


101-year-old men stand out in any crowd.

(2016) Comedy (Netflix) Robert Gustafsson, Daniel Steiner, Caroline Boulton, Jens Hultén, David Wilberg, Shima Niavarani, Jay Simpson, Ralph Carlsson, Iwar Wiklander, Georg NIkoloff, Guhn Andersson, David Shackleton, Erni Mangold, Svetlana Rodina Ljungkvist, Eric Stern, Colin McFarlane, Cory Peterson, Shin-Fei Chen, Crystal the Monkey. Directed by Felix Herngren and Måns Herngren

 

Back in 2013, a Swedish cinematic adaptation of a bestselling novel The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared became a massive hit in Sweden, enough so that it was brought to America a couple of years later (and played the Florida Film Festival to boot). It was one of my favorite films from 2015 and is still one I watch periodically.

Now comes a sequel which while not getting a theatrical release here in the States is available on Netflix. The streaming giant hasn’t really promoted the film much, so much so that almost no major publication has reviewed it and it has gotten almost no advertising. Is it worth checking out?

The movie takes place a year after the first one; it’s Alan Karlsson’s (Gustafsson) 101st birthday. He is celebrating with his pals Julius (Wiklander) and Benny (Hultén). As they celebrate they drink a Soviet soft drink that puts a little more pep in their step. Realizing that there are no bottles left of the confection and that the formula could make them a mint, they go on an extended road trip to rediscover the formula. On the way they are chased by the CIA, Karlsson gets a job as a soft drink company executive and a monkey makes their lives miserable. Also the biker gang from the first film continues to chase them for the missing money.

While director Felix Herngren returns as does much of the cast, the sequel doesn’t hold a candle to the original. There continue to be Gump-like flashbacks to Karlsson’s colorful past (including meetings with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger) and Bennie continues to be the world’s most indecisive man – a shtick which is getting old at this point – but to the bad the make-up on Gustafsson is strangely less convincing than it was in the first film. Also the humor is a lot more pedestrian; it’s like the writers were trying to play it much safer than the first one. Maybe because this one is an original script rather than based on an existing property there’s a little less cohesion to the story.

For those looking for a good comedy to stream, standing on its own this isn’t bad entertainment. Fans of the first film however are going to be sorely disappointed.

REASONS TO GO: The characters are all nicely developed from the first film. Gustafsson is a gem.
REASONS TO STAY: This isn’t nearly as good as the first film. The humor is pedestrian and the monkey is annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, brief nudity and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The films that Crystal the Monkey has appeared in have a combined worldwide gross of more than $2.5 billion; this is her first Swedish-language film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/14/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Man Called Ove
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Goodbye Christopher Robin

Agnelli


The Prince of Italy surveys his kingdom.

(2017) Documentary (HBO) Gianni Agnelli, Maria Sole Agnelli, Henry Kissinger, Lee Radziwill, Jackie Rogers, Vendeline von Bredow, Anna Mucci, Nicolo Caracciolo, Cristiana Brandolini,,Gianni Riotta., Valentino, Diane von Furstenberg, Jennifer Clark, Reinaldo Herrera, Isabella Ratazzi, Giorgio Garuzzo, Alain Elkann, Valerio Castronovo, Taki Theodoracopulos, Ginerva Elkann. Directed by Nick Hooker

 

Certain people come along in life who by force of personality become symbols for both good and ill. Our current President, for example, is a symbol of things that depending on your political persuasion may either fill you with hope or with disgust. Malala Yousafzai has become a symbol of extraordinary courage and for women’s rights. Jackie Kennedy, in her day, became a symbol of elegance and grace.

Gianni Agnelli from the late 1950s onward acted as a symbol for the Italian people. Known affectionately by his nickname “L’Avvocato” (the advocate), he was the grandson of the founder of Fiat Motors, which at one time employed 3% of the Italian workforce. He was groomed to become the CEO and helped revitalize postwar Italian industry in a time when Italy was in ruins. He also stood up to Red Brigade terrorists who in the 1970s kidnapped and assassinated the Italian Prime Minister as well as one of his own executives at Fiat.

During the 1950s and 1960s Agnelli was the symbol of Italian sophistication and glamour. It was an era immortalized in films like La Dolce Vita and Agnelli certainly was symbolic of that epoch. He threw fabulous parties, hung out with glamorous people (including Jackie, designers Valentino and Diane von Furstenberg, diplomat Henry Kissinger and actress Anita Ekberg). He liked to drive fast; while he drove a Fiat, it was equipped with a Ferrari engine (Fiat purchased Ferrari in order to keep it out of the hands of an American automaker).

Agnelli was a great believer in the American system as was his grandfather, who took many of the ideas Henry Ford used to make Ford Motors more efficient and used them to modernize his own. Agnelli saw America in it’s splendid postwar prosperity and knew that was the route Italy had to follow. However, the road wasn’t without bumps; his grandfather was forced out of Fiat after being falsely accused of collaborating with the fascists; even though he was exonerated the ordeal essentially killed him. During the 70s, Italy had a strong communist movement going on, spawning the Red Brigade; Agnelli saw this as potentially catastrophic to Italy in the same way fascism had been. He remained a strong proponent for capitalism and democracy during that time, even though it painted quite the target on his own back.

The documentary is a bit on the long side, dividing the life of Gianni Agnelli into five distinct periods. Most of the focus is devoted to the La Dolce Vita years during which time Agnelli was a fashion icon as well as a notorious ladies man (there were rumors he had an affair with Jackie Kennedy between the death of President Kennedy and her marriage to Aristotle Onasis). In many ways that was a fascinating period in his life but in many ways it’s more of a People magazine portion of the film rather than a Wall Street Journal portion which comes later. We get a lot of the glitz and glamour but what we don’t get is a lot of context. He is clearly revered in Italy and particularly in Turin, not only for refusing to lay off workers when his company was hemorrhaging money but also for owning the Juventus soccer club which is only slightly less important a religion in Turin as Roman Catholicism.

There are a lot of interviews with relatives (two sisters, several nieces and nephews), staff (his personal assistant as well as the groundskeeper and chef on his Italian estate) as well as friends both famous and not. While some of the interviews give us insight into the man, a lot of them cover the same ground. The adage “women wanted to be with him, men wanted to be him” is used both directly and indirectly dozens of times during the film. We get it.

I did like the archival footage, some of which are compelling historical documents; that seemed to work better for me than the endless interviews. There is no doubt that Gianni Agnelli led a fascinating life and was an important person in the 20th century particularly in Italy but the filmmakers don’t seem very inclined to get beneath the surface of the man who was clearly intelligent and forceful and get into the things that motivated him to make some of the decisions he made. This is one of those documentaries that could have used a lot less fluff and a lot more meat.

REASONS TO GO: Agnelli was the personification of Italian glamour at the zenith of La Dolce Vita. There are interesting insights to Italy’s postwar political history.
REASONS TO STAY: There are way too many talking heads. As interesting as it is, the film runs far too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With a budget of $210 million U.S. this is the most expensive film ever made in France – to date.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No Score Yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Men Who Built America
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Murder on the Cape