The Unknown Known


Would you buy a used car from this man?

Would you buy a used car from this man?

(2014) Documentary (Radius) Donald Rumsfeld, Errol Morris. Directed by Errol Morris

documented

He sits in an immaculate suit that speaks of good taste. He has an almost professorial air about him, discoursing easily on philosophy, language and politics. He has a grandfatherly smile that beams out at the screen, but when you look deeper there’s an almost Machiavellian calculation going on behind his eyes. He is former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and there are those who despise him with a passion – and others who hail him as an American hero.

Now in his 80s, he is remarkably spry and articulate. During his tenure in public office which started in Congress in the 1960s, he wrote what he called “snowflakes” – memos that discourse on every subject you can imagine, ranging from dictionary definitions to discussions of military strategy. He has served as Defense Secretary to three different presidents – Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, more than any man in American history. He has presided over the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, starting wars that have not ended to this day, making them the longest armed conflict in American history.

On the other side of the camera is Oscar-winning documentary director Errol Morris, a truth-seeker who has challenged the judicial system as well as former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. He would be one of those sorts who would tend to despise Rumsfeld. On paper, it would seem to be a volatile mix, but both men are far too polite and professional to allow an emotional response derail their purpose here.

The movie mainly consists of Rumsfeld reading his memos aloud along with his interviews with Morris, mixed with archival footage and some graphic animations. However, it is the interview with Morris that takes center stage. Rumsfeld is smooth, even charming. He sidesteps questions he doesn’t want to answer, obfuscates often when he does and sometimes flat-out contradicts himself. At one point Rumsfeld claims to not have read the report on misconduct at Abu Gharib prison, to which an incredulous Morris inadvertently blurts out “REALLY?!?!?”

Still, his Midwestern grandfatherly demeanor lulls one into underestimating him, a tactic he’s used throughout his political career. That demeanor hides a sharp, analytical mind. As much as I dislike his policies and his philosophies, I can’t help but admire the intelligence, and trust me that’s not something I ever thought I’d say about anyone in the Bush administration.

Danny Elfman’s score nicely enhances the film, although from time to time there’s a bit of false bombast, but overall I noticed the music only in a positive way. Really though, there’s not much to say about this film; it is well-enough made from a technical standpoint, but it is the subject that is the attraction, a contradictory but compelling individual whom history has not yet fully judged and it will be decades before it does.

Still, there is an awful lot of watching Rumsfeld and it might get a little wearing after awhile. For those political junkies looking to try and make sense of the man, I doubt you’ll come away feeling that you know him any better than you did before. Still, as maddening as Rumsfeld is to the left, one can’t help think that we’re all getting played just a little and that truthfully, it is unlikely we’ll ever know the real Donald Rumsfeld.

WHY RENT THIS: Rumsfeld is engaging but elusive. Terrific music.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overwhelming amount of talking head time.
FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing images and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Morris interviewed Rumsfeld on eleven separate occasions and shot over 33 hours of film.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interview with Morris where he describes the process of getting Rumsfeld to agree to the interviews. There is also a Georgia Public TV production called Third Annual Report of the Secretaries of Defense in which six former Secretaries of Defense (including Rumsfeld) are interviewed by former Frontline correspondent Hedrick Smith as well as an op-ed piece by Morris for the New York Times.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $301,604 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix , Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fog of War
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Iraqi Odyssey

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Stop-Loss


Channing Tatum tells a disbelieving Abbie Cornish about his years as a stripper.

Channing Tatum tells a disbelieving Abbie Cornish about his years as a stripper.

(2008) Drama (Paramount) Ryan Phillippe, Abbie Cornish, Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ciaran Hinds, Timothy Olyphant, Victor Rasuk, Rob Brown, Quay Terry, Josef Sommer, Matthew Scott Wilcox, Connett M. Brewer, Linda Emond, Mamie Gummer, Alex Frost, Chandra Washington, David Kroll, Lee Stringer, J.D. Evermore, Kasey Stevens. Directed by Kimberly Pierce

For those of us who have never been to war, the things are troops that have been to war have been through is absolutely inconceivable (and yes, I do know what the word means). We absolutely have no clue. Coming home and readjusting to life after having been through those horrors has to be hard. The threat of being sent back after having been home – damn near impossible.

Steve Shriver (Tatum), Tommy Burgess (Gordon-Levitt), Rico Rodriguez (Rasuk) and their squad leader, Staff Sergeant Brandon King (Phillippe) survive an ambush in Tikrit during the Iraq war that leaves three of their squad dead, including Tommy’s close friend Preacher Colson (Terry) who died in his arms. Rodriguez was severely injured in the melee protecting Tommy. None of them got out unscathed.

A couple of months later, the tour ended, Shriver, Burgess and King returned home to Brazos, Texas where they were received as the heroes they were. At a ceremony honoring the returning heroes, U.S. Senator Orton Worrell pulls Brandon aside and lets him know that anything he needs, his friends need, any help the Senator can give will be gladly given.

Despite all this, the boys aren’t adjusting well. After the ceremony, they all go out and get drunk. Steve strikes his fiancée Michelle (Cornish) and digs a foxhole in the front yard. When Brandon comes over the check on him, he is unable to get through to Steve and reassure him that they are home. Tommy drives over drunk after his wife (Gummer) has kicked him out.

Brandon suggests they drive up to “the Ranch,” a small cabin in the forest outside of town where they go to hunt, fish and drink. Tommy ends up shooting his wedding gifts after the cards are read. Steve, awakened by the commotion, shoots the cards to put an end to the proceedings.

 

The next day the three report to the local army base, expecting to receive their discharge papers and formally end their tour of duty. Instead, they are ordered back to duty through the military’s controversial “stop-loss” policy which gives the military the right to extend the tour of service without the consent of the soldier. Brandon isn’t ready for this. He refuses to report and is listed as AWOL. With his friends falling apart, Brandon decides to drive to DC to see the Senator to see if there is something he can do about this. Accompanying him is Michelle, who is separated from Steve. Can Brandon take on the Army and get his life back?

Pierce, whose previous film Boys Don’t Cry was one of the most acclaimed movies of the last decade, seems a little bit muddled here. It’s plain that she has a point of view critical of the stop-loss policy but she doesn’t seem to know how to express it well.

She does know how to get the most of her actors and Tatum gives a strong performance, something he hadn’t been known for up until that time when many – including myself – thought him wooden and more of a pretty boy than an actor. He gives Steve depth and foreshadows better performances in the post-Magic Mike era of his career.

Cornish, an Aussie, shows here why she is one of the most exciting young talents in the movies right now. She nails the perfect Texas woman – strong as a longhorn bull but tender and feminine as the proverbial Texas rose. There are reasons you don’t mess with Texas and their women are a big reason why. Cornish makes Michelle represent that in a big way.

There is a good movie in the material but I get the sense that the writers didn’t really know where to go with it. The ending is a big slap in the face to the audience who have followed the plot and committed to it, sadly and keeps this movie from being a flawed classic. Good performances and a thoughtful premise make this worth checking out but sadly, the filmmakers can’t elevate this beyond another movie about the Iraq war that is ignored by the moviegoing public.

WHY RENT THIS: Strong performances by Cornish and Tatum. Has a lot of material to think about.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Mishandles a good premise. Ending is just plain awful.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some fairly graphic violence and foul language throughout.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script went through 65 drafts, which is a highly unusual number. Most feature films go from anywhere from two or three drafts to a dozen.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette that takes a look at the actors boot camp to get them into a military character mindset.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11.2M on a $25M production budget.

SITES TO SEE: Netflix DVD, Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu,  iTunes

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brothers

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Taqwacores

The Prisoner: or, How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair


Yunis Khatayer Abbas awaits arrest in the front yard of his home.

Yunis Khatayer Abbas awaits arrest in the front yard of his home.

(2006) Documentary (Truly Indie/Magnolia) Yunis Khatayer Abbas, Benjamin Thompson. Directed by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker

In the miasma that was the U.S. involvement in Iraq, it wasn’t uncommon for overeager American military intelligence to arrest and detain Iraqi citizens who had done nothing wrong. It is not unusual for an occupying force to behave with paranoia; after all, it is actually true that the population is out to get them.

Such was the case of Yunis Khatayer Abbas, a respected journalist who had been imprisoned by the Saddam Hussein regime for expressing views critical of the regime. We see Abbas in an anonymous hotel room, dignified and dapper, his goatee flecked with grey but his eyes much younger than that as he describes (and we see footage of) his arrest at the hands of American military forces. Along with two brothers, Abbas is accused of conspiring to assassinate Tony Blair, then the Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Abbas would be held for over nine months in the notorious Abu Gharib prison. During that time he would undergo a goodly number of inquisitions and some torture both mental and physical. He would also be befriended by Thompson, an American soldier on duty in Abu Gharib who utilized Abbas as a translator – his English is in the main flawless although from time to time he makes the occasional syntax error. Thompson, who gradually comes to believe that Abbas is innocent of the crimes he is accused of, tries unsuccessfully to get Abbas released but as with all things military the wheels grind slowly.

Filmmakers Tucker and Epperlein (who are married in real life) first met Abbas during the filming of their previous documentary Gunner Palace about American troops stationed in the lavish palace of Uday Hussein. They augment their footage with home video footage and cartoon-like animations that are as amusing as they are unsettling.

The story itself is very compelling as we witness a man who supports the United States protest his innocence over and over again as those who provide the faulty intelligence that put him in prison refuse to admit they were wrong even though all the evidence seems to indicate that they are; nonetheless they are forced to cover their ass and hope that Abbas is broken into confessing that he is a terrorist. Abbas however never breaks and by the film’s end you’ll wind up admiring the man’s quiet dignity.

Like many documentaries, there is an inordinate time viewing the interviews with the subject and despite the bells and whistles added here, there just really isn’t a way to make a talking head all that interesting. Overcoming that, the story and the personality of Abbas will stay with you and lead you to once again question our involvement in this country and the methods we used while we were there. It will come to pass that someday down the line it will be a time and events that our descendants will not be proud of.

WHY RENT THIS: Compact and tight. Compelling story with nice cartoon-like visuals.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too much talking head footage.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the language is a bit rough and there are some fairly mature thematic elements.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The initial arrest, shown here, was filmed during the directors’ last documentary Gunner Palace.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3,103 during its domestic release; overseas numbers and production budget unavailable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Standard Operating Procedure

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Son of No One

The Hurt Locker


The Hurt Locker

This is about to be a very bad day at the office for Staff Sgt. William James.

(Summit) Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, David Morse, Ralph Fiennes, Evangeline Lilly, Christian Camargo. Directed by Karthryn Bigelow

The movie opens up with a quotation from New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges: “War is a drug.” That is to say, the exhilaration brought on by the adrenaline rush of imminent death and constant danger is addictive. At least, so it seems to be for some.

Staff Sgt. William James (Renner) is a bomb defuser for an Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit, responsible for rendering harmless roadside bombs, car bombs and other devices meant to cause harm to soldiers and civilians alike. It is Iraq in 2004, and the U.S. military has become entrenched in a war no longer justifiable, at least to our minds. Those who are there might see things a little differently.

James has joined a support crew of Specialist Owen Eldridge (Geraghty) and the team’s nominal leader Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Mackie) due to the grisly death of his predecessor, Sgt. Matt Thompson (Pearce). This is indeed a dangerous business, and the support crew needs to be as alert and on their toes as the bomb defuser or else people die. The support crew keeps watch for Iraqis with detonation devices, snipers or other means of causing the defuser to be unable to do his job. The support crew, particularly Eldridge, had failed to do this and Thompson wound up paying the price for it.

Eldridge and Sanborn have about a month left in their rotation and their only concern is making it out alive. While Sanborn is a pretty by-the-book guy, James is another kind of animal entirely. He is reckless, taking chances not only with his own life but with those of his team. He disobeys protocol without batting an eyelash. The only thing that keeps him from being locked up is that he is absolutely superb at what he does, taking terrifyingly complex devices and figuring out how to defuse them safely.

He seems to be an adrenaline junkie on the surface, but he has another side to him, one he doesn’t allow his team to see. He befriends a young Iraqi boy who sells pirated DVDs; when the boy is killed by insurgents, James loses it. He is almost cocky in his arrogance but shows a great deal of vulnerability when he lets his guard down – which is admittedly not all that often.

Still, he is called upon to take out bomb after bomb in the heat of an Iraqi summer. How long will his luck last – and how long will his skill save him?

This is the reigning winner of the Best Picture Oscar, and you certainly can argue that it deserved it. While there is much room for debate over the morality of the war, this isn’t about whether we should be there and instead tackles the question of how the stress of being there affects those who deal with the situation day after day.

Jeremy Renner was until now a well-regarded but not well-known actor but all that has changed. The performance he gives here is a career-maker, one that will be associated with him for the rest of his life. His portrayal is nuanced and layered; you get a sense of what motivates SSgt. James but only tantalizing glimpses; much of what is behind the bravado is inferred, and Renner does a marvelous job of giving you clues without being overt.

Lost in the accolades for Bigelow, who became the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar for her work here and for Renner, who was nominated for a Best Actor, is the supporting cast. Mackie and Geraghty in particular deliver top notch work, giving Renner all the room he needs to shine.

Bigelow ratchets the tension up with every mission the team goes on. Each bomb is more fiendish and complicated than the last. Because we come to care for these characters, the tension works much better because we don’t want to see them get blown to pieces.

At times the imagery is simply horrifying, much more so than any horror movie can deliver because you realize that the perpetrators are human beings and that these kinds of things really do go on, with our servicemen and women having to deal with the emotional fallout of these horrors. Some of what we see is almost beyond imagining, like a young boy who has an explosive device surgically implanted in him, or an unwilling man who has a suicide bomb strapped to him. The cruelty of those who would do such things makes you wonder if it might not be better for everyone involved if we didn’t bomb the whole damn country back into the Stone Age. Of course, we have to keep in mind that they are the actions of a fanatic few, not the entire population but the thought is certainly tempting at times.

The Hurt Locker is probably not going to change your mind about war. War is Hell, as the saying goes, and Hell is an unfathomably hot and cruel place. The soldiers in this movie are getting a guided tour, and through them, so do we. Unfortunately, movies set in the Iraqi War have not done well at the box office, even superb ones like this one, but this is the kind of movie that you will remember for a long time after having seen it.

WHY RENT THIS: Great intensity from beginning to end. Renner gives a career-making performance. We care enough about the characters that the tension is increased exponentially because of it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too intense for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of war violence and the kind of language you’d expect in these situations. Quite frankly, it’s the tension more than anything else that makes this not for the faint of heart.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Hurt Locker is the lowest grossing movie (adjusted for inflation) to ever win a Best Picture Oscar.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed, but given the honors accrued by the movie after the home video release, it wouldn’t surprise me if we see a special edition sometime around Christmas.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Toy Story 3