Official Secrets


The reflection in liberty is sometimes the courage of a single person.

(2019) Biographical Drama (IFC) Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Adam Bakri, Indira Varma, MyAnna Buring, Tamsin Grieg, John Heffernan, Clive Francis, Kenneth Cranham, Jack Farthing, Katherine Kelly, Conleth Hill, Hattie Morahan, Shaun Dooley, Monica Dolan, Chris Larkin, Peter Guinness, Jeremy Northam, Hanako Footman Directed by Gavin Hood

 

There is a fundamental question when you hold a position within a government and that is this: do you work for the government, or for the people it represents? Not all of those who toil in government positions understand the distinction.

Katherine Gun (Knightley) works as a Mandarin translator for GCHQ – essentially the British version of the NSA – interpreting diplomatic and military communiques and writing reports. It’s a low-level job requiring high security clearance. At night, she goes home and watches the telly with her Turkish immigrant husband Yasar (Bakri) and shouting at the television as she watches American officials making speeches justifying their intent to go to war with Iraq and knowing that nothing that they’re saying is supported by fact.

The straw that breaks the camel’s back, however, is an NSA memo that is distributed to the GCHQ requesting information on six UN delegates on the UN Security Council who are standing in the way of that body approving the American invasion of Iraq. This is patently illegal by British law, but because this is a classified document, it is protected by the Official Secrets Act of 1989, a Thatcher-era British law that broadens what can and can’t be leaked to the press.

Understanding the ramifications of what she’s doing, Gun gives a copy of the memo to an anti-war activist who in turn forwards it to the offices of the Observer, an English newspaper. The Observer, like much of the conservative British press, had officially supported war (despite the evidence that the overwhelming majority of the UK was against it). While gung-ho activist reporter Ed Vullamy (Ifans),  a seething mass of liberal anger wants to rush this bombshell to press, calmer heads like foreign correspondent Peter Beaumont (Goode) want to first verify that the document  and make sure it’s authentic – you know, do the job the press is actually supposed to do.

That job falls to reporter Martin Bright (Smith) who diligently looks into the authorship of the memo. Eventually, the story goes to press but despite the outrage, the United States invades without a U.N. resolution and nearly 20 years later we’re still there.

Of course, all hell breaks loose at the GCHQ and the various people who work there who had access to the memo are interrogated. Not wanting to see her colleagues subjected to a witch hunt, Gun confesses. She is eventually arrested and after a year, charged with violation of the Official Secrets Act. On the advice of Bright (relayed through their mutual friend), Gun retains Ben Emmerson (Fiennes), founder of the activist legal group Liberty that defends British civil rights (think of a smaller scale ACLU). The government, seeking to make an example of Gun, undertake to harass and in general make her life miserable even before the charges can be filed. In the meantime, she is terrified that her husband will be deported.

This is a story on the level of that of Valerie Plame and Edward Snowden, of those who chose conscience over safety. Gun is most certainly a liberal hero and is treated as such by the film and South African director Gavin Hood, who has made two other films (Redacted and Eye in the Sky) about the U.S. involvement in Iraq.

The film has a crackerjack cast led by Knightley, who has in recent years done a lot of period work. I suppose this is also a bit of a period piece but at least this one is set after the Regency Era. She plays Gun as an impulsive and passionate woman who hadn’t looked to become a spy but became one anyway. When faced with a moral dilemma, she responded with the kind of courage that is rare. Understanding that a prison sentence is inevitable as would be massive personal consequences, would any of us have stood for what we felt was right? As much as I would like to think I would, I suspect that I – like most people – would opt for what is convenient. Knightley gives Gun a kind of vulnerability that makes her relatable as she second-guesses her decision as it becomes terrifyingly clear the ramifications of what she has done to her marriage and standing. Gun is not always heroic here and that makes the movie stronger.

Smith and Ifans, as reporters of opposing demeanors, both do impressive work which again, considering how strong this cast is, can be no easy feat. Hood, who co-wrote the film, tends to get bogged down in legal details during the third act and the nearly two hour movie begins to drag at that point. It is a bit exhausting by that point. Still, in an era where governments seem to be marching ever alarmingly to the right, it behooves us to remember how important it is for people of conscience to stand up and say “this is wrong,” even if it doesn’t make a difference immediately. In the long run, it makes every difference.

REASONS TO SEE: A really top-notch cast with particularly impressive performances by Knightley, Ifans and Smith.
REASONS TO AVOID: It’s a little bit too long and gets bogged down in legal details.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In real life, Gun’s husband was deported to Turkey where he now lives along with Gun and their young daughter.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/14/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews: Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: All the President’s Men
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Liam Gallagher: As It Was

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Snowden


Edward Snowden in the military.

Edward Snowden in the military.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Open Road) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, Shailene Woodley, Nicolas Cage, Rhys Ifans, Joely Richardson, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Olyphant, Scott Eastwood, Ben Chaplin, Lakeith Lee Stanfield, Nicholas Rowe, Bhasker Patel, Patrick Joseph Bymes, Christy Meyer, Robert Firth, Edward Snowden. Directed by Oliver Stone

 

Edward Snowden remains one of the most controversial figures of our time. There are those who label him a hero while others loathe him as a traitor. He polarizes opinion like nobody else and there are those on both sides of the political aisle that would like to see him answer for his crimes of revealing the NSA’s program of secret surveillance of the American people.

The movie has had a bit of a checkered history; it has been delayed at least twice, once to complete some of the special effects and the other to avoid competition from the major blockbusters. Once the film was released, it got almost zero support from its distributor and came and went from the theaters with little fanfare. Did it deserve that kind of fate?

Edward Snowden (Gordon-Levitt) is an idealistic young man whose ideals are somewhat conservative. He joins the military, wanting to serve his country but a badly broken leg puts an end to his military service. Instead, he’s recruited by the CIA to write code and serve his country in a different way. His mentor at the CIA, Corbin O’Brien (Ifans) takes a healthy interest in the young man’s career.

He also meets Lindsay Mills (Woodley), a free-spirited college student who supports herself through exotic dancing. The unlikely couple form a close bond and soon have a budding relationship, even though she’s as liberal as they come and he’s a staunch rock-ribbed conservative. He ends up writing programs that help root out terrorists and keep America safe.

Then, as he switches to the more lucrative consulting position at the NSA, he begins to discover some disturbing things. For example, the phone surveillance program he wrote is now targeting everybody and is gathering so much data the NSA has to build huge facilities to store it all. So despite having a beautiful home in Hawaii, a lucrative job and a bright future, he decides to blow the whistle on all this patently illegal material.

He sets up a meet with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Quinto) in Hong Kong. He is clearly paranoid, expecting to be grabbed by NSA agents or the local police at any moment. But once Poitras and Greenwald have a chance to examine the documents, they realize they have the story of the century on their hands. It is just a matter of convincing their editors to allow them to tell it.

How you’re going to receive this film is going to depend an awful lot on how you view Edward Snowden. If you see him as a vile traitor giving state secrets to the media, then you’ll hate this movie. If you think he’s a heroic whistleblower who tried to put the brakes on what was clearly a morally heinous policy, you’re more likely to like this movie. Know going in that Stone is clearly in the latter camp and really doesn’t offer any sort of alternative viewpoint. It seemed to me that most reviews followed the political line; conservative movie critics tended to give it lower scores, more liberal critics higher ones.

So I’m trying to be as objective as I can, but it is difficult to filter out one’s own precepts. Gordon-Levitt I think does a very credible job as Snowden, capturing the cadences of his speech nicely although in a much deeper register than the real Snowden speaks in. Snowden is in many ways not the most charismatic of men so it’s hard to fault Gordon-Levitt for being a bit dry here, but he does seem to capture Snowden’s essential personality.

The rest of the cast is pretty strong – Ifans is virtually unrecognizable – but a lot of the big names are in for what are essentially cameos. Most of the film revolves around Snowden, Lindsey and the journalists. Basically, that’s enough to keep my interest.

I can understand some questioning that the movie makes Snowden to be something of a saint. I don’t think he is and I don’t think that he himself is above questioning by the filmmaker. Poitras, whose documentary on the events here CITIZENFOUR won an Oscar, painted a much more balanced picture of Snowden and in the process, made him more relatable. The Snowden here is a little bit less so because of that and I think it does the film a disservice to go that route.

There are some pretty good moments throughout the movie – Snowden’s initial meeting with the journalists, the events of his smuggling the data out of the NSA facility (a conjectural scene since Snowden has yet to and probably never will reveal how he actually did it) and the end scene when Snowden speaks to the TED conference via satellite – and Gordon-Levitt morphs into the real Edward Snowden, who gets the last word in the film fittingly enough.

It’s a well-made film – you would imagine Stone would at least produce that – but it’s more than just that. It gives us an opportunity to reflect on the state of things, whether the price of security is too high or whether liberty trumps that price. We’ve got a lot to think about as a society, much to demand from our leaders. Snowden reminds us that sometimes, doing the right thing isn’t doing the right thing.

REASONS TO GO: Gordon-Levitt really captures the cadences of Snowden’s speech. It has the taut atmosphere of a spy thriller.
REASONS TO STAY: The film lacks any counter-argument to make it seem more fair-minded.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Gordon-Levitt’s second straight film based on an Oscar-winning documentary; the first was The Walk which was the dramatic account of the documentary Man on Wire.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: CITIZENFOUR
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Midnight Special


Abracadabra!

Abracadabra!

(2016) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Bill Camp, Scott Haze, Sam Shepard, Paul Sparks, David Jensen, Sharon Landry, Dana Gourrier, Sharon Garrison, Allison King, Sean Bridgers, Lucy Paust, James Moses Black, Yvonne Landry, Maureen Brennan, Ann Mahoney, Garrett Hines, Kerry Cahill. Directed by Jeff Nichols

It goes without saying that a father will do just about anything to protect his son. But what if protecting your son means the world dies? Would you trade your son’s life to save the world?

In a dingy Texas hotel room, a news broadcast tersely announces an amber alert for a young boy named Alton (Lieberher). Watching intently are Roy (Shannon) and his friend Lucas (Edgerton) – and Alton. In the dead of night, the two men grimly leave, taking their young charge with them.

A Texas ranch is raided by the FBI and the leader of the cult that lives there, Calvin Meyer (Shepard) reiterates that Alton, the boy kidnapped from their ranch, isn’t just some ordinary kid. The vision he has may be the key to Armageddon – and saving those who listen from being destroyed in the fire of the end of days.

As it turns out, Roy is Alton’s dad and he took him away from the cult, which has sent a couple of true believers to bring Alton back. Also on Roy’s tail is the NSA in the person of Sevier (Driver) who has more than a passing interest in the case – apparently the lists of numbers that Alton has been having visions about contain sensitive NSA data.

But where Roy, Lucas and Alton are headed is to see Alton’s mom Sarah (Dunst). You see, they know that what Alton’s visions are telling him is that he has to be at a certain place by a certain time. And it’s literally a matter of life and death – the death of everyone on the planet.

Jeff Nichols has only four films to his credit (a fifth, Loving, is in the can and should be out in late 2016 or early 2017) but they have all received heaps of critical praise and as you can see by the scores in Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, so has this one. Nichols, who also co-wrote the film, makes subtly thoughtful films, movies that on the surface look pretty straightforward but the more you think about them, the more there is to think about.

He’s also a very visual director and some of the visuals here are thrilling, from the flaming wreckage coming down from the sky like meteorites to the expansive denouement which is largely computer generated. The big graphics seem a bit out of his style, but then Nichols has largely worked indie films – this is his first studio-made film. And it’s a good one.

Shannon has appeared in three of his four films, and he is his usual intense self. I have become a big Michael Shannon film in recent years and for the life of me I can’t recall a truly unsatisfactory performance that he’s given in a long, long time. He’s as versatile as they come and here, he plays the desperate loving dad with the same force of will as he plays, say, the psychotic dirty cop, or the amoral collection agency owner. Every role he takes on he makes his own and the amazing thing about Shannon is that no two characters that he portrays ever feel alike.

A lot of this movie is spent riding around in cars. There are some car chases in it (a good one during the climactic scenes) but mostly the main characters are just trying to get from point A to point B. I don’t mind some travelling scenes but I found the movie could have used fewer of those in this case. Also, the climax includes some very striking visuals but in a sense they almost felt like they come from a different movie.

There is a bit of a Spielberg vibe here, particularly in the relationship between father and son. But in a lot of ways, Nichols is the anti-Spielberg; he’s not dealing with kids in suburban homes but in kids from rural environments. Like Spielberg, growing up is a central theme in his movies but while adults can be more white noise in his movies, the adults in Nichols’ movies are often flawed and a central part of the story.

There are a lot of good elements here; I actually like it more than the rating I’m giving it, but I think most moviegoers will find this less rewarding than I did. More discerning movie buffs however might find much more here to offer than just a road movie with science fiction overtones in a family atmosphere. It’s a lot more than the sum of its parts in that aspect.

REASONS TO GO: An intense yet subtle performance by Shannon. Thought-provoking material.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a little bit over the top. A little too much riding around in cars.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a modicum of violence and sci-fi action, as well as a child in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Adam Driver found out that he had been cast in Star Wars: The Force Awakens on the first day of filming for this project.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, FandangoNow
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starman
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Everybody Wants Some!!

Sicario


Josh Brolin is just happy he's not on Mt. Everest right now.

Josh Brolin is just happy he’s not on Mt. Everest right now.

(2015) Drama (Lionsgate) Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya, Jeffrey Donovan, Raoul Trujillo, Julio Cedillo, Hank Rogerson, Bernardo P. Saracino, Maximilliano Hernandez, Kevin Wiggins, Edgar Arreola, Kim Larrichio, Jesus Nevarez-Castillo, Dylan Kenin, John Trejo, Marty Lindsey, Alex Knight, Sarah Minnich. Directed by Denis Villeneuve

One of the casualties of any war is human decency and nowhere is that more apparent than in America’s war on drugs. Of course, the enemy that’s being battled – the Latin American drug cartels – are particularly vicious. How do you fight an enemy who will go to any lengths to win – beyond the pale of anything that could even be called human?

FBI agent Kate Macer (Blunt) leads a raid on a home that may be owned by a high ranking member of a Mexican cartel in Arizona. There she, her partner Reggie (Kaluuya) and her boss Dave Jennings (Garber) discover horrors that boggle the imagination, as well as a nasty surprise. Her work on this raid gets the attention of Matt Graver (Brolin), a breezy government agent theoretically with the Department of Justice but that part is pretty murky. He’s putting together a cross-organizational team to take down one of the cartels that’s been making lethal inroads to American cities and he wants Kate on it.

Also on the team is Alejandro (del Toro), a mysterious figure whose allegiance could be to anybody on either side of the conflict. In going after Manuel Diaz (Saracino) whose brother Silvio (Hernandez) runs the cartel, they’ll have to make a dangerous prisoner transfer from Mexico to the U.S. that will lead to a deadly shootout, traverse a drug runner tunnel with numerous gunmen guarding its secrets, and eventually lead to the discovery that neither side in this war has clean hands – and maybe that’s the only way to fight it.

Villeneuve, who is probably best known in this country for Prisoners (although Incendies is in my opinion a much better film) is enormously talented and has nearly unlimited potential. Every film he makes is at least interesting, and a few are stellar. This is one of the latter; he has an economy of camera movement as well as of image; everything is important and nothing goes to waste. He knows also how to use silence; some of the best moments in the film have little or no dialogue.

Blunt who has been on the radar since Edge of Tomorrow further cements her standing as the thinking person’s action star. She isn’t the invincible killing machine that is a Schwarzenegger or a side-of-the-mouth quipster that is a Willis; instead, she’s a little vulnerable (being nearly strangled by Jon Bernthal as a corrupt cop midway through the film) and a little fragile (there are times that she literally is shaking after things go south), yet she’s as tough as nails and at the end of the film has a moment in which she asserts that she does have control – and chooses to go her own way. It is one of those silent moments I spoke of earlier that is used to great effect.

Del Toro, who often gets slotted behind Javier Bardem when it comes to Latin actors, is magnificent here, a brooding presence whose gentle voice belies an inner rage which is kept under wraps until the very end. His motivations also remain murky until we discover what is driving him late in the film. Brolin, who has been appearing in supporting roles in some very good films lately, adds another solid performance to his resume.

This is one of the better-written films of the year, one in which Villeneuve is able to thrive with. He creates a tension that begins from the amazing and shocking opening sequence and never lets up until the final frames. Sicario defines intensity pretty much, from the actions of the onscreen characters to the offscreen political aspect.

The war on drugs continues apace in a non-fiction world where bad things happen to good people and those who dare to stand up to the cartels are made gruesome examples of – wee see some of that here. It is a world that those in the Southwest are terrified might make its way up into the Estados Unidos and with good reason. Walls may make it difficult for illegals to emigrate here but it won’t keep the cartels out.

This is part political thriller, part police procedural and part action movie. There is likely to be some Oscar consideration for it down the line but to what degree remains to be seen. It wouldn’t surprise me if it gets some Best Picture consideration come February. There are a lot of movies to come out before anyone hands out statuettes but one thing is for certain; this is a feature worthy of any serious filmgoers attention.

REASONS TO GO: Intense and riveting. Extremely well-written. Strong performances from Blunt, Brolin and del Toro.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing feels a bit jumpy.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, some fairly gruesome images and a whole lot of expletives.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The thermal vision scenes were actually shot with a thermal vision camera and the optics were not added in post-production.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Traffic
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: He Named Me Malala

blackhat


Wei Tang is waiting for Chris Hemsworth to finish his phone call.

Wei Tang is waiting for Chris Hemsworth to finish his phone call.

(2014) Thriller (Universal/Legendary) Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Wei Tang, Leehorn Wang, Holt McCallany, Andy On, Ritchie Coster, Christian Borle, John Ortiz, Yorick van Wageningen, Tyson Chak, Brandon Molale, Danny Burstein, Archie Kao, Abhi Sinha, Jason Butler Harner, Manny Montana, Spencer Garrett, Shi Liang, Kan Mok, Sophia Santi Directed by Michael Mann

Cyber crime isn’t just science fiction anymore; it’s a fact of daily life. Between the hacking of Sony and Target, our private information is at risk nearly every hour of every day. So too is the private information of corporations – and governments. And all of it can be manipulated for the benefit of a greedy soul with a computer and an idea.

When a hacker causes a Chinese nuclear facility to explode, it’s a tragedy. When the same hacker infiltrates the Chicago commodities market, them’s fighting words as far as the U.S. is concerned. A joint task force is convened with Chinese military officer Chen Dawai (Wang) and FBI agent Carol Burnett…err, Barrett (Davis). When the code used to hack both institutions turns out to be familiar to Dawai, he recommends that the man who co-authored the software with Dawai himself – one Nick Hathaway (Hemsworth) who was Dawai’s college roommate at Stanford – be released from jail for the cybercrimes he’s committed.

Hathaway realizes quickly that the guy they’re chasing is basically using his own software to get into very difficult hacks; the software that the hacker has authored is like a blunt force trauma, whereas Hathaway’s is more like a rapier wound. However, the hacker (van Wageningen) who is one Hawaiian shirt away from living in his mom’s basement, has hired a vicious terrorist named Kassar (Coster) to kill anyone who is in the way or no longer of use. And the point of all of this? Let’s just say that the Tin Man would be thrilled.

Michael Mann has always been a director who has exemplified style over substance and sometimes when that style is cool enough, he can get away with treating the substance as an afterthought. What would seem to be a fairly crucial movie about the effect of hackers and cybercrime on all of us and how vulnerable we are as nations to hackers is almost non-existent here.

Hemsworth who is a pretty great action hero is wasted in this role. It’s not that he can’t play smart; it’s just that he’s playing a guy who can pick up a gun as easily as program a computer virus…or hack into an NSA super-decryption program, which he does at one point – because the NSA won’t allow a convicted hacker to access it, particularly with Chinese military officers in tow. Of course, the knowledge that the guy they’re chasing has already caused one nuclear plant to meltdown might at least give them pause to work with the FBI agent, no? Maybe not.

And therein lies one of the main problems with the movie – the script. There are so many lapses in logic it’s hard to know where to begin. For example, why would anyone parole a hacker who has already shown a lack of respect for authority to chase down another hacker, particularly when the NSA has plenty of computer geniuses available at a moment’s notice? Sure, he co-wrote the code of the software that was used, but still, other than for dramatic purposes there is simply no reason to use a blackhat in this situation. Maybe the Bad Hacker has a personal score to settle with Hathaway, in which case by all means, use that as a selling point, but don’t pee on your audience and tell them it’s raining. Besides, it staggers the imagination that the guy is apparently an unstoppable killing machine in addition to being a computer genius. Are there any computer experts you know who spend time on the firing range, or in hand-to-hand combat training?

And when they get to cities they don’t know – like Jakarta or Shanghai – Hathaway is able to navigate through labyrinthine city streets to get to exactly where he needs to go without fail. Or does he have a GPS chip in his head?

The film has been cast with some fairly well-known Chinese actors in an effort to appeal to Chinese audiences who are quickly becoming a very large slice of the box office pie. However, Wei Tang – who is absolutely stunning and a terrific actress – is essentially shoehorned in so that Hathaway has someone to bed. The relationship at no time feels authentic, it’s just a con who hasn’t seen a woman in awhile getting lucky and for her part, she seems much smarter than to fall into a relationship with someone who is likely going back to prison. And to make her the sister of his ex-roommate and close friends – awk-ward.

A word about the score; it’s annoying, a kind of electronic noodling that reminds you that there’s someone trying to be sophisticated at the synthesizer. It’s so bad that one of the composers credited to the movie, Harry Gregson-Williams, has gone so far to post on his Facebook page that almost none of the score was his. I would have done the same thing, if I were him.

Like all Michael Mann movies, blackhat looks terrific. Lots of beautifully shot cityscapes, plenty of shots of Hathaway staring thoughtfully into the distance past urban wastelands and other thought-provoking vistas. But like a lot of his more recent movies, the style only goes so far and can’t hide the sorry fact that there’s nothing of substance here. While you get the sense that Mann and the writers did their homework when it comes to the computer hacking aspect, they could have used a remedial course in storytelling. Even the presence of Viola Davis, one of the finest actresses in Hollywood at the moment (and who does a yeoman job of trying her best) can’t save this movie.

REASONS TO GO: Typically cool cinematography for a Mann film. Seems fairly authentic.
REASONS TO STAY: Muddled and often hard to follow. Large gaps in logic. Moviemaking by committee. Annoying score.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language throughout with occasional bouts of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Over 3,000 extras were used for the movie’s climactic scene.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/4/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Net
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: The Wedding Ringer