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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Killing Them Softly


Brad Pitt hits the streets looking for people to go see his new movie.

Brad Pitt hits the streets looking for people to go see his new movie.

(2012) Crime Dramedy (Weinstein) Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Vincent Curatola, Max Casella, Trevor Long, Sam Shepard, Slaine, Garret Dillahunt, Bella Heathcote, Linara Washington. Directed by Andrew Dominik

 

Tough economic times make people a little harder. They grow skittish at any sign of trouble; they are unforgiving of mistakes, even those not of your making. When people get scared, their tendency is to go into self-preservation mode with most decisions made on pure self-interest.

In an indeterminate American city (but looks somewhat like New Orleans), a poker game gets robbed by two masked men. These things happen, even while the 2008 Presidential election rages and speechifyin’ is underway from candidates Barack Obama and John McCain, while President George W. Bush tries to calm people down as the economic meltdown strikes, crippling our nation and casting doubt on our future.

Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is called in to investigate. You see, this poker game wasn’t just a poker game; it was run by the Mob and they don’t take kindly to being robbed. Driver (Jenkins), the go-between for the committee that runs the Mob in New Orleans and Jackie, is glum. Examples must be made but a bloodbath isn’t necessarily welcome.

It soon turns out that there are four people involved in the robbery; Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Curatola), the dry-cleaner and low-level thug who masterminded it, Frankie (McNairy) – who is Squirrel’s choice to execute the robbery (yes, Frankie and Johnny – cute, no?) – Russell (Mendelsohn), the Aussie heroin addict that Frankie brings in to assist and Markie Trattman (Liotta) who runs the game.

Now Markie is completely innocent; his problem is that five years earlier he had arranged to rob his own game. This is common knowledge and even though he had nothing to do with this robbery, the clientele think he does and they don’t want to play anymore. While the mobsters in charge would be satisfied with a beat down of Markie (and a fine beating is administered to him), Jackie contends that Markie has to be whacked. With all due haste.

Jackie is not keen on getting all of these hits done himself so he brings in Mickey (Gandolfini), a hitman who is having some personal issues not the least of which is alcoholism and sex addiction. He proves to be worthless so Jackie is on his own, having to carry out all the hits himself.

The movie is based on a book by George V. Higgins called Cogan’s Trade which was set in Boston in 1974. Dominik chose to bring the action to New Orleans in 2008 and there are some compelling reasons to do that – the economic hardship thread is one of the main issues in the movie. I haven’t read the book to be honest so I don’t know if that’s something that was part of the original novel (it may well could have been) but it certainly is something that the filmmakers hit you in the face with quite regularly.

This is a fine cast and Pitt does a pretty good job with the enigmatic Jackie Cogan. I like that you don’t get a sense that Jackie is invincible and smarter than everybody else. He makes mistakes. He screws things up. However, he thinks quickly on his feet and takes care of business and is ruthless as they come.

Gandolfini, a fine actor who tends to be cast in roles that aren’t dissimilar from his Tony Soprano role, has a couple of really nice scenes here. Jenkins and Liotta are essentially wasted in roles that they shouldn’t have accepted (yes, further career advice to professional actors from a blog critic – just what they needed).

The big problem here though is Dominik. He consistently throughout the film reminds you that there is a director and that he has an Artistic Sense. From the most annoying opening credits ever through a slow-mo death scene of which Sam Peckinpah would have said “Didn’t I do that already?” in scene after scene you are given odd camera angles, unnecessary montages, and other little tricks which is a director inserting himself into the film. Word of advice to any aspiring directors out there – stay the heck out of your movie. If you must insert yourself, do a cameo. Or cast yourself in a role. Otherwise, let your actors and crew do their jobs and trust them to tell the story without your help.

This is frankly quite a mess. It is destined to be Pitt’s lowest grossing movie of his career to date and for good reason; this is the kind of film that people walk out on, as several folks did at the screening we attended. Da Queen and I hung in there but we were frankly dissatisfied when we left. I like a good neo-noir as much as the next guy but sometimes, simpler is better.

REASONS TO GO: Pitt gamely does his best. There are a couple of terrific action sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: A fatal case of “Look Ma, I’m Directing” syndrome. Distracting continuity errors.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a ton of bad language,  a surfeit of drug use, plenty of violence and gore as well as a few sexual references; fun for the entire family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Richard Jenkins character is never seen standing up in the movie. He is always seated in a car or at a bar.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/12/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100. The reviews are surprisingly strong.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Burn After Reading

BARACK OBAMA LOVERS: .The film is set during the 2008 Presidential Election and features a number of speeches by the recently re-elected President.

FINAL RATING: 3/10

NEXT: Color Me Kubrick

The Tillman Story


The Tillman Story

The brothers Tillman (Pat and Kevin) in country.

(2010) Documentary (Weinstein) Pat Tillman, Mary “Dannie” Tillman, Patrick Tillman Sr., Marie Tillman, Richard Tillman, Kevin Tillman, Josh Brolin (narrator), Russell Baer, Phil Kensinger, Stan Goff, Jason Parsons, Bryan O’Neal. Directed by Amir Bar-Lev

 

It has been said that in times of war, the first casualty is the truth. That is just as true today as when it was first spoken.

Most Americans know who Pat Tillman was; a highly paid star for the Arizona Cardinals of the NFL, he left a lucrative career to serve his country as an Army Ranger. He served in Afghanistan only to fall in battle, dead at 27 leaving behind a grieving widow, parents and siblings. The army painted his death as a heroic attempt to save his men during an ambush by the Taliban. At his funeral, the oratory from such personages as Senator John McCain as well as by a parade of army brass bordered on the hysterical in painting a picture of a heroic American who died for a cause he believed in.

But to Dannie Tillman, Pat’s mother, something didn’t smell right. She wanted details about the death of her son and the Army at first was reluctant to provide them. Then, the story changed; it wasn’t a bullet from the Taliban that killed Pat, it was friendly fire – rounds fired by his own fellow soldiers. But how could that happen? What really went on? The more questions Dannie asked, the more frustrating the answers became. The Army finally provided her with the documentation she asked for – 3,000 pages worth, most of it redacted (i.e. heavily censored).

Many women, grieving over their lost sons, would hesitate to read documents detailing the gruesome manner in which their sons died but Dannie persevered. She hired Stan Goff, a former Army investigator and current private detective, to look into the matter. After months and years of being lied to and stonewalled, Pat’s father Patrick Tillman Sr. wrote a scathing and blistering letter which finally prompted a Congressional investigation into the death of Pat Tillman.

What eventually came out was a miasma of cover-ups and an attempt to turn the tragic death of the highest profile soldier in the Army into a propaganda goldmine. Scapegoats were found and those who had the most to do with it – including General Stanley McChrystal  and possibly up to and including then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld – got away with it.

Bar-Levi tells the story chronologically, allowing us to discover the extent of the cover-up along with the Tillman family. He wisely allows the facts to speak for themselves and tries not to editorialize much (although the Tillman family does that for him). He is also careful to make the distinction that nobody is criticizing the military as such – just the people who would use the deaths of the soldiers for political gain.

It is easy to get consumed by outrage watching this and as the movie has been out for quite awhile there is no need to be a belated bandwagon-jumper to express my own feelings other than to say “what they said.” As a documentary, this is well-made and just a little bit manipulative; while there can be no justification for what was done, little effort is made to hear opposing sides so be aware of that when watching the film.

Pat Tillman was not a religious man – he has been characterized as an atheist as has his family by detractors which I found profoundly pathetic and a little bit funny in a sad way; I suppose there are those in the military who think the best defense is to go on the attack. It would be nice, however, for the military – even at this late date – to man up and admit what happened and let those who were responsible for lying to the family of a fallen hero be made to answer for their actions.

We all want to believe that our military hold themselves to higher standards. We want to believe that the courageous men and women of the armed forces who put their lives in jeopardy for the sake of the nation have not made that ultimate sacrifice in vain. We want their deaths to mean something. Sadly, there are those who see these human beings as means to an end. That is perhaps the most detestable aspect of this whole senseless affair.

This is a movie that will inflame your passions but at the same time it is advisable to temper that passion with a little bit of forethought; like anything else, there are no absolutes in the military. As it is an institution made up of human beings, there will always be things that happen that are regrettable and even unconscionable. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for the military or their values. It is at times necessary to shine the light on those who misuse their authority. Perhaps the real legacy of Pat Tillman is to remind us that it is at all times necessary for us not to accept things at face value and that the test of a truly free people is the ability to pursue the truth, no matter how painful it might be.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie has a real sense of fun and looks at a less glamorous side of the business. Hanks and Malkovich make a good team.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie takes it’s time which may not sit well with audiences used to much faster-paced comedies.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words scattered about.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Buck is depicted as appearing on MTV’s TRL show, which had been canceled between the time the movie was filmed and when it was released.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $802,535 on an unreported production budget; it’s possible that the movie made a little bit of money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Friendly Fire

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: In Her Skin