Exodus (2016)


A refugee child shows his resiliency.

(2016) Documentary (108 Media) Elias Matar, Ethan Bochicchio, Mixail Vorrias, Dr. Khalil Kermani, Ali Güray Yalvaçli, Hacer Hariklar Vlici, Lee Wlmsn, Dr. Bita Kermani. Directed by Elias Matar

 

The recent chemical attacks in Syria and the President’s retaliation for the same have brought back Syria into the spotlight. While President Trump moans about Syrian babies, one may note that he still wants to ban all Syrian refugees from our shores, the majority of whom are women and children.

Elias Matar, who although was born in America was raised in Damascus, feels a particular connection for the refugee crisis and for those crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey into the outer islands of Greece. In addition to documenting their journeys, he volunteers for a humanitarian agency that helps land the boats making the often perilous crossing, makes sure that the refugees are given dry clothes and food, and helps them to get to refugee registration centers.

The movie documents what the volunteers encounter; overloaded boats and dinghies landing often in the dead of night with cold, wet and desperate refugees fleeing unspeakable horrors not only in Syria but in Afghanistan and Iraq as well. Many of the refugees are children who are most at risk for hypothermia which is a real danger particularly during winter crossings (when this was filmed).

We also get a look at the Greek refugee camps which are fairly ordered, and the illegal Turkish ones which are often run by the smugglers who charge 1800 Euros for the crossing. The conditions in the camps are deplorable and often the refugees go days without food or drinkable water. Thus they are often in weakened conditions when making the dangerous crossing and are more often than not abandoned by the smugglers who leave the refugees alone to make their way to islands like Chios and Lesbos without any sort of navigational equipment or even experience in steering or running a boat.

The numbers can be staggering; in one atypical night, the volunteers were swamped by 37 boats arriving on the island carrying more than 1,900 refugees, overwhelming their resources which are mostly donated to begin with. That particular night had been the first night after several days of rough seas that boats could be safely launched or landed.

The movie, narrated by Matar who has an upbeat tone despite some of the grim things he has to say, puts a human face on a crisis that Americans largely turn their backs on, particularly those who are in the conservative movement. It is popular to defend that attitude of turning away refugees by saying that they could be terrorists but to date no refugee has committed a terrorist act in this country and one look at the faces of the children, who continue to hold out hope for a better life despite indications to the contrary, is convincing enough to make that attitude what it is; a self-serving lie, a means to assuage guilty consciences. Simply put, watching this film will document just how reprehensible that policy is.

We don’t really get much information about the refugees themselves or their stories; mostly they are just a flood of people who cross the point of view of the camera. We do see much of what the volunteers do on a daily/nightly basis and while again we don’t get the stories of what prompted these people to volunteer for this job (other than Matar and Ethan Bochicchio, a high school student who saw Matar’s first film and was moved to travel to Greece to volunteer himself) but the movie runs a compact 72 minutes so there’s not a lot of room for fluff or talking heads.

The footage is raw and sometimes moves from one scene to another without much flow; I suspect this is much like how Matar’s life as a volunteer was. While it’s not particularly hard to follow, it comes off a bit jarring at times. Also there’s a sequence in which a dinghy is loaded (or I should say overloaded) with refuges from one of the more deplorable Turkish camps; that sequence inexplicably goes on and on unnecessarily. A bit more judicious editing would have been nice.

This should be must-viewing for anyone who thinks this country should refuse entry to refugees as well as to all members of government who are connected with immigration in any sense. That our nation once opened our doors and extended our hands to those leaving situations of war, famine and terror makes our present stance all the more disgusting. This is a movie which can potentially change hearts and minds and I urge anyone with any interest in the refugee crisis, whether pro or anti refugee, to see it.

REASONS TO GO: The movie hits some powerful emotions as we see the human faces of the refugee crisis. Some of the footage of the boats landing on Chios is absolutely stunning. Matar is a lively narrator. The compassion of the volunteers is palpable.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a bit raw and rough.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief mild profanity, children in peril and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second in a series of films documenting the plight of refugees moving from the Middle East to Western Europe by Matar; the first was last year’s Flight of the Refugees which covered the trek from Macedonia to Germany (a third, Children of Beqaa is in post-production).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fire at Sea
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Sense of an Ending

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Dheepan


The choices of a refugee are never easy.

The choices of a refugee are never easy.

(2015) Drama (Sundance Selects) Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Claudine Vinasthamby, Vincent Rottiers, Faouzi Bensaidi, Marc Zinga, Bass Dhem, Franck Falise, Joséphine de Meaux, Jean-Baptiste Pouilloux, Nathan Anthonypillai, Vasanth Selvam, Kartik Krishnan, Rudhra, Tassadit Mandi, Marie Trichet. Directed by Jacques Audiard

 

The issue of refugees from Asia and the Middle East in Europe is a real hot button topic these days. It was one of the key points that caused Britain to leave the European Union and the remaining countries in the Union continue to wrestle with the issue, trying to balance humanitarian concerns with an overwhelming of services in dealing with the influx of new residents.

The civil war in Sri Lanka is winding down and the Tamil Tigers, a fighting group of mostly adolescents but also young men is on the losing side. One of their number is fearful that his participation as a soldier in the Tigers will get him jailed and/or executed so he decides to flee the country. He needs a false passport and gets one for a man and his family, all of whom were killed in the war. The newly re-christened Dheepan (Antonythasan) needs a wife and daughter to make the illusion work; he recruits Yalini (Srinivasan) who is just as eager to get out of Dodge, and orphan Illayaal (Vinasthamby) who has nowhere else to go. The newly minted family takes a boat and heads to France.

They get settled in what appears to be government housing on the edge of Paris. The apartment blocks are overrun by gangs and drugs, much the same as they are here. Dheepan gets a job as a caretaker for the blocks; he often has to dodge drug deals and gang meetings to get his job done. Yalini, who is forced to don a veil when in public even though she isn’t of that religious persuasion, takes care of a disabled old man who turns out to be a former gang member whose apartment is used as a kind of office and conference room for his former gang. Illayaal starts going to a public school where she has issues fitting in – nobody wants to play with her and she reacts the only way she knows how. She also has to learn how to eat with silverware, something she didn’t have to do in Sri Lanka.

The violence they escaped however finds them as the gangs around them erupt into open warfare. The fragile bonds of this family are beginning to dissolve and Yalini is ready to leave France altogether, but still, against all odds, the forced relationship is beginning to take – if the violence doesn’t rip them apart first.

Audiard is one of France’s premiere directors of crime dramas, often taking themes that Martin Scorsese has used and giving them his own twist. This one is superimposed with a timely political issue that seems to be one of Europe’s most pressing concerns at the moment. We get to see the issue from the inside, as the refugees struggle to fit into a society that fears and mistrusts them and in fact despises them. It is clear that all they want is to live in peace but that isn’t always possible in this world.

Antonythasan is a real find. His eyes are extremely expressive; they reflect mournfulness, anger, frustration and occasionally, hope. He is generally disheveled and unkempt but is a handsome man underneath it all as his character is a good man underneath all the wariness and pain. Dheepan has real demons in his past and they are always evident – through his eyes.

Srinivasan is new to the acting game, but she also delivers a raw, uncompromising performance. Her character isn’t always the nicest and she gamely allows the nastier characteristics to be shown as is without glossing it over. In many ways, it’s a brave performance depicting brave people going headlong into the unknown with an uncertain future. It is true that they felt compelled to do it for some pretty overriding reasons but nonetheless one has to admire people who are willing to do that to find a better life. Not all of us could manage.

The objection I have to this film is that the third act eventually becomes an action hero shootout with Antonythasan Schwarzeneggaring it through the last ten minutes or so. After all of that, the ending itself is an abrupt reversal of tone, making three in about fifteen minutes. Even the most skillful directors would have a hard time pulling that off effectively and Audiard certainly has the skills, but unfortunately it doesn’t work here, at least not for me.

Even with that said, this is an impressive movie. It really forces you to see things from the refugee’s point of view and that’s a point of view we rarely get to see amid all the rhetoric of pro-refugee folks who can be condescending about the actual immigrant, and of course the anti-refugee crowd who tend to demonize them as potential terrorists and criminals. Here, Audiard seems to suggest, the refugees have more to fear from the natives than the other way around. I’m not sure that’s true in every case, but it is certainly something to consider.

REASONS TO GO: A crime drama with social commentary thrown in. Searing performances are delivered by the leads. The film addresses a real cultural concern. This is a very human film.
REASONS TO STAY: The third act turns into an action film which is a bit jarring. The daughter’s situation is neglected a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence, a bit of foul language and brief sexuality and partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Antonythasan was actually a member of the Tiger Tamil as a boy and made corrections to the script in places.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix, Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Woman in the Fifth
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Disappointments Room

They Will Have to Kill Us First


Songhoy Blues has the blues.

Songhoy Blues has the blues.

(2015) Documentary (BBC Films) Fadimata “Disco” Walett Oumar, Moussa Agbidi, Khaira Arby, Songhoy Blues, Jimmy Oumar, Nick Zinner, Brian Eno, Damon Albarn, Marc-Antoine Moreau. Directed by Johanna Schwartz

Mali is a West African nation that most Americans probably have never heard of, let alone pick it out from a map. It has been beset by a civil war initiated in 2012 by the MNLA, or the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, a group ostensibly fighting for the ethnic Tuareg minority to create their own state in the Saharan northern portion of the country. In order to further their own ends, they made a deal with the devil – fighting along with jihadist separatists who were determined to institute Sharia law and a religious totalitarian government. You can guess which group got their way.

The broadcast of music was thus forbidden in the territories that the jihadists, some of whom were linked to ISIS, controlled. For the people of Mali, who had developed their unique style of music that included hip-hop, rock and roll, folk styles and to a very large extent the blues, this was tantamount to surgically removing their souls. Music was part of the national identity of the country.

All of this was told in a clever rap song at the beginning of the film which immediately links the importance of music and the story of this country’s misery. Harsh punishments were instituted in the jihadist territories, with a graphic video depicting a man’s hand being amputated. Rape became common in the area and infractions such as not praying loud enough triggered brutal reprisals.

Two of Mali’s biggest musical stars are women; both of whom are best known by a single name. Disco (a nickname bestowed on the Madonna-loving artist as a youth) is a more modern artist and Khaira more traditional but both have huge audiences. Both, like millions of Malians, have been displaced from their homes – one to a refugee camp in Burkina Faso, one to the capital city of Bamako in the South, away from her beloved home of Timbuktu. Guitarist Moussa Agbidi from Gao is also in a refugee camp in Burkina Faso, but his wife remained in the city of Gao where she was arrested. He was trying to eke by playing at what venues he could find work at or whatever occasions (weddings, parties) that required musicians.

Also in Bamako, a group of young musicians calling themselves Songhoy Blues were writing some wonderful songs, one of which plaintively called the displaced back to Mali to help rebuild the country. Ironically, they themselves would end up leaving after being discovered by a French producer and English musicians Damon Albarn of Blur and noted minimalist Brian Eno as well as American guitarist Nick Zimmer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They moved to London to record a critically acclaimed album and went on tour to support it.

The stories here are raw and wrenching. The ability of man to be completely and utterly inhumane to his fellow man is going to make you shake your head in sorrow at the very least. There are moments that are hard to watch as we’re shown news footage of bodies and body parts strewn about the rubble of a small town that has felt the brunt of the war between the government, the insurgents of the MNLA and the jihadists.

But then there’s the music and oh my goodness, it’s incredible. I expected African music that was more rural and rhythmic with chanting and gorgeous harmonies but this is very close to what I would consider Indie Rock. The musicianship is incomparable and the songs plaintive and longing. The lyrics are thoughtfully translated through subtitles – much of the dialogue is in French which is what the Malians mostly speak. It’s not often I urge readers to buy a soundtrack to a documentary, but this one is worth it; it’s on Atlantic Records and should be available through most vendors who sell music either digitally or in the rarest of the rare, CD stores.

The film ends with a concert in Timbuktu organized by Keira and Disco. We don’t really get a sense of being there, although it IS beautifully photographed. The ending should be uplifting, cathartic or depressing but here it’s only kinda meh. It left me feeling that I was missing a few minutes of ending. The narrative does tend to meander a little bit as we bounce from subject to subject but then again that is true of most documentaries.

Still, the movie is plenty powerful throughout, the ending notwithstanding. Most of us here in the west know little or nothing about Mali’s suffering. We get an inside glimpse at it, the frustration of those caught in between warring factions who just want to live their lives in peace. Most of these people are Muslim and they despise the jihadists who have so disrupted their lives. One of the best sequences in the film shows a group of men and women in full dress dancing enthusiastically. One look at that and that might change some minds about the people who follow that religion. This is a movie full of vitality and joy – and also frustration and despair. The human condition in 90 minutes.

REASONS TO GO: The music is amazing. The stories are heartbreaking.
REASONS TO STAY: The narrative is disjointed and meandering occasionally.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some gruesome images of civil war, a little bit of profanity and some of the themes here are pretty adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Schwartz’s first cinematic feature film (she previously directed a made-for-TV documentary Mysterious Science: Rebuilding Stonehenge).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Timbuktu
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: 45 Years

The Good Lie


The importance of family is universal.

The importance of family is universal.

(2014) Drama (Warner Brothers) Reese Witherspoon, Corey Stoll, Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, Kuoth Wiel, Femi Oguns, Sarah Baker, Lindsey Garrett, Peterdeng Mongok, Okwar Jale, Thon Kueth, Deng Ajuet, Keji Jale, David Madingi, Kon Akuoe Auok, Sibusisi Moyo, Elikana Jale, Afemo Omilami, Michael Cole, Brian Kurlander. Directed by Philippe Falardeau

From 1983 to 2005, the Second Sudanese Civil War was one of the longest wars of its kind on record, and one of the most lethal wars in modern history. Nearly two million people died as a direct result of the war or from the famine and disease that followed it. Four million people were displaced, many more than once. Atrocities were committed by both sides, the government forces and the rebels alike. Many children were forced to serve as soldiers.

During the fighting, entire villages were wiped out and that’s what happened to Mamere (Mongok), Theo (O. Jale), Abital (K. Jale) and their brothers. They tried to make it out to Ethiopia on foot but the fighting was so intense they were forced to find a refugee camp in Kenya, a trip of nearly one thousand miles. Not all of the kids would make it to the Kakuma Refugee Camp. Theo, in fact, would sacrifice himself when soldiers see Mamere. They take Theo, allowing the other kids who now included Jeremiah (Kueth) to escape and make it to Kakuma.

There they waited for thirteen years, hoping and praying to be allowed to emigrate to the United States. Now grown, Mamere (Oceng) has become an assistant to Dr. Monyang (Omilami) and dreams of going to medical school. Jeremiah (Duany), a devout Christian, leads religious services in the camp. Paul (Jal) who they also picked up along the way, is thoroughly traumatized but all three of them fiercely protect their sister Abital (Wiel).

Then, the good news comes and they are allowed to fly to the States but once there they are in for a shock. For one thing, a bureaucratic INS regulation forces the family to be separated with Abital going to Boston with a foster family there and the boys sent to Kansas City to find work. They are met at the airport by Carrie Davis (Witherspoon), a spirited woman whose life is a bit of a mess, who is supposed to assist them with finding jobs – the charity worker Pamela (Baker) having been unable to pick them up.

It becomes clear that neither the agency nor the charity are prepared for these lost boys who have lived in a village their entire lives and do not know what a telephone is as Carrie discovers when she tries to call them. They have no concept of privacy or understanding of technology. The culture shock is overwhelming, but what is beating them down most is the separation from their sister. Although Carrie’s boss Jack (Stoll) warns her not to get involved, she can’t help but want to help them and so begins an odyssey to reunite a shattered family.

While the story itself is fiction, it is nonetheless based on actual events. The actors playing the refugees are Sudanese Lost Boys themselves, which adds a certain level of poignancy to the film; just try to make it through the end credits with a dry eye. A couple of them were child soldiers as well. With the exception of Duany who previously appeared in I Heart Huckabees they aren’t professional actors. You’d never know it from watching this.

Some might get the impression that this is a starring vehicle for Witherspoon but that would be incorrect. She has an important supporting role but it is the Sudanese actors who are the leads here. This is their story; Carrie just plays a part in it. Witherspoon, a fine actress, does a great job in a most decidedly un-glamorous role but she doesn’t appear in the film until nearly half an hour in. If you’re planning on seeing the film just to see her, you are in for a disappointment.

In many ways while we were heaping mea culpas on ourselves for ignoring the Rwandan genocide we were ignoring the carnage going on in the Sudan at the same time. Many people are unaware of the Sudanese Lost Boys or how they have integrated into our society. Some have returned to the South Sudan to help rebuild it now that the war has ended and some have even become part of the government of that new nation (following the Civil War the Sudan split into South Sudan and Sudan, with the latter  retaining its Muslim culture and the former its East African identity. This movie at least serves to illustrate their plight making it important for that reason alone.

Fortunately, it also happens to be a really good movie. Sure, it does drag a little bit in the middle as they first come to the United States and Falardeau inserts maybe more humor in their fish out of water situation than was necessary; we get the point that there was a culture shock. Nonetheless, this is a moving experience that will leave you feeling empathy for these kids who saw things children should never see and made choices nobody should have to make.

Frankly, I’m astonished that it hasn’t gotten any sort of push from the studio – it certainly will contend for top ten movies of the year with me but most folks, even some movie buffs, haven’t heard of this movie which received a pretty cursory release. Not that Warners should feel like they had to give it a wider release because of the subject matter but I think had this made more screens more moviegoers might have found this film, which deserves a much larger audience than it has gotten so far. I hope at least a few of you are motivated to go check this extraordinary film out. It deserves your support.

REASONS TO GO: Important subject matter. Affecting performances by the largely Sudanese cast. Witherspoon and Stoll are both impressive.
REASONS TO STAY: Overdoes the fish out of water element. Lags a bit in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: At times the themes can be rather intense. There’s some violence (although little blood) and occasional rough language. There is also a scene or two of drug use..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Falardeau came to prominence with an Oscar nomination for Monsieur Lazhar in 2012.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hotel Rwanda
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Hank and Asha

Lore


Lore's future looks bittersweet.

Lore’s future looks bittersweet.

(2012) Drama (Music Box) Saskia Rosendahl, Nele Trebs, Andre Frid, Mika Seidel, Kai-Peter Malina, Nick Holaschke, Ursina Lardi, Hans-Jochen Wagner, Sven Pippig, Philip Wiegratz, Katrin Pollitt, Hendrik Arnst, Claudia Geisler. Directed by Cate Shortland   

 Offshoring

Florida Film Festival 2013

 

The Second World War left millions of refugees at its end, many traversing shattered lands as survivors tried to find some semblance of family, often with roughly the same odd of finding a needle in a haystack.

Lore (Rosendahl) is a beautiful young German girl just entering her mid-teens. Her parents are important people and they live in a beautiful home near Buchenwald. She has a younger sister, younger twin brothers and a baby brother. Life is good.

Except that this isn’t modern Germany but Nazi Germany and the war is grinding to a conclusion. Her father (Wagner) and mother (Lardi) are fleeing their home and headed to a rural cabin to hide, hoping for the best but fearing that if the Americans win the war that they’ll be arrested. In fact, that’s what actually happens. Alone, Lore knows she must take the children to her grandmother’s house 900km away. Without any choice, she hits the road.

Once there they are followed by a mysterious young man in black. Lore frets. At a schoolhouse where many have taken refuge, the American soldiers have posted pictures of the concentration camps. Lore is shocked at the horror depicted. Some disbelieve it completely – “they’re actors,” is the general thought. Lore knows better – one of the “actors” peering down at a pit of dead emaciated bodies is her father.

When Lore and the kids are stopped on the road by American soldiers demanding travel papers, she is terrified but the young man, who calls himself Thomas (Malina) and has the necessary papers (not to mention a Star of David identifying him as a concentration camp survivor) intervenes and gets them  a ride for at least part of the distance.

Lore is drawn into a love-hate relationship with Thomas. There’s no doubt that the kids love him and that he is looking out for them as he would his own family, but he is also everything her parents warned her against and was the object of their scorn and hatred. She doesn’t know what to think about him – nor of her own burgeoning sexuality which is beginning to emerge. It’s a long, long road to Hamburg and they’ll have to get through plenty of obstacles to get there.

This is a movie that looks at the other side and not necessarily with sympathy. Lore’s parents are monsters, and the more we see of them the more we realize that they had full knowledge of what was happening in regards to the Final Solution.

The problem I had is with Lore herself. One moment she’s sympathetic, the next intolerable, the following plucky, and the moment after that sensual. Her emotions are like a pachinko machine, bouncing from here to there without any real rhyme or reason. Part of that is endemic to being a hormonal teenage girl, another part is inconceivable stress. Either way, it makes it very difficult for an audience to identify with Lore.

That’s not necessarily Rosendahl’s fault. She seems to be a very capable young actress with a great deal of promise – she’s just given a character to play who isn’t an easy one to pull together and she does the very best she can. I’m not sure that any actress, even a Meryl Streep, could have pulled off this part any better.

Lore is beautifully photographed as we see pristine German woodlands and bucolic country villages which makes the heinous deeds we see even more wrenching. There are unburied bodies everywhere, some dead by their own hand. A misguided old woman who takes Lore’s family in temporarily wails at a portrait of Der Fuhrer “We let him down. He loved us all so.”  It’s disquieting to say the least.

These aren’t perfect kids and the world they inhabit is chaotic and unpredictable. There are no real rules and surviving is not an easy task – just procuring food isn’t a given. Survival isn’t a given. The baby give them a bit of an advantage and Lore knows it but she also realizes that she is becoming a woman and that can be an advantage with certain kinds of men.

Lore grows from being something of a spoiled brat at the beginning of the movie into a cynical woman who is in bare-bones survival mode. Her last actions in the film are of defiance and transformation as she realizes that what she has been through has changed her forever – nothing will ever be the same again. It’s a powerful message.

And yet I didn’t connect with the film the way I think I should have. Perhaps it’s the pacing which is very slow. Perhaps it is the emotional pinball machine that is Lore. Or perhaps it’s just the wrong day and the wrong time for me to see a movie like this. It certainly requires a good deal of commitment from the viewer. It’s a movie whose skill and technique I admire, and whose story I think is one that should be told. I just didn’t fall under its spell the way I would have liked.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully photographed. Gripping material.

REASONS TO STAY: Lore’s character is all over the map and gives us nothing to hold on to emotionally.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence, some sexuality, a bit of foul language and some adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The family photographs in Thomas’ wallet actually belong to Shortland’s husband, who is of German Jewish descent and whose family fled Nazi Germany in 1936.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100; this is a critical hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Way Back

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring, Day 3

Argo


Argo

I just wish Ben Affleck had shed this much light upon his character.

(2012) True Life Drama (Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Kerry Bishe, Kyle Chandler, Rory Cochrane, Tate Donovan, Scoot McNairy, Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham, Zeljko Ivanek, Richard Kind, Bob Gunton, Titus Welliver. Directed by Ben Affleck

 

In late 1979, a group of Iranian “students,” angered over the United States giving shelter to the dying former Shah (with some justification – the despotic Shah had many, many atrocities committed in his name) had taken over the U.S. Embassy (without justification – this was a violation of International law and was almost universally condemned) and held some 52 Americans for what would turn out to be a total of 444 days, accusing them of being spies rather than diplomats. Depending on your perspective, they had some justification for thinking that as the coup d’état that had placed the Shah in power in the first place had been organized by the British and American espionage agencies and had used the U.S. Embassy as something of a headquarters.

Six Americans escaped the embassy takeover – a fact that I’d forgotten and I consider myself a student of history – and hid in the residences of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor and immigration officer John Shearsdown (although Shearsdown’s part in the affair is left out completely in the movie). Their ordeal is captured here.

The six Americans – Robert Anders (Donovan), Joe Stafford (McNairy), his wife Kathy (Bishe), Mark Lijek (Denham), his wife Cora (DuVall) and Lee Schatz (Cochrane) see the writing on the wall as the angry mob chants for blood outside the doors of the Embassy. Because they are in a side office with direct access to the street and lacking any sort of directive, they make a run for it. They wind up at Taylor’s (Garber) home after being refused safe harbor at the British and New Zealand embassies which in fact was untrue – that was a bit of license taken by the filmmakers to give a sense that the Americans had nowhere else to go to.

Back in the United States, the State Department is in an uproar over the hostage crisis. They feel, correctly, that the 52 hostages in the embassy are reasonably safe as they are in the public eye but the six who have been separated are in far more danger, and their presence is putting Canada in an awkward diplomatic position. CIA supervisor Jack O’Donnell (Cranston) has brought in exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) into a meeting in which the State Department is exploring ways to get the six out safely but the ideas they come up with are ludicrous to say the least.

While watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes on television, he hits upon the idea of giving the six cover stories as being part of a Canadian film crew doing a cheesy Star Wars rip-off movie using Iran as an exotic location. In order to add plausibility to the story, he enlists Oscar-winning make-up artist John Chambers (Goodman) to help create a production company. To lend credibility, producer Lester Siegel (Arkin) is also brought aboard. They stage a publicity event in which actors perform a reading of the script which gets enough press coverage that give credence to this being a “real” film.

Mendez enters Iran posing as a producer for the film and makes contact with the refugees. At first, there is some skepticism that this idea will even work – and Joe Stafford in particular has some trust issues for Mendez. Still, all of them realize that it is only a matter of time before the Iranian authorities realize that there are Americans missing from the embassy and once that happens, only a matter of time before they are found and that once they are found, their deaths will be extraordinarily bad.

As I said earlier, I’d let this incident – known as the Canadian Caper – fall into the recesses of my mind and I suspect most people my age are going to find the same effect. Younger audiences may not have any recollection of the incident at all and may know the hostage crisis as something they read about in modern American history or saw on the Discovery channel.

Affleck has really come into his own as a director; while The Town served notice of his skills both as a lead actor and director, Argo is likely to net him some serious Oscar consideration in the latter category. This is a movie that has you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end and even if you remember the incident in question, you’ll still be right there. He also captures not only the look of the United States and Iran circa 1980 but also the feel of both; it is an era when disco still reigns and America is beginning to grow bloated and ineffectual. Still reeling from Watergate, Vietnam and a moribund economy, there is a feeling that our country had lost its relevance and in fact, its cojones.

There are some strong performances here. Garber always carries himself with a certain grace and as the courageous Canadian ambassador that’s in evidence a ‘plenty here. The Emmy-winning Cranston continues to make his presence felt in supporting roles in films; now that his “Breaking Bad” run is over he no doubt will be getting lots of feature roles thrown at him and here he has some really good moments. On the Hollywood side, Arkin and Goodman are pros that can be relied upon to deliver solid at worst and spectacular at best performances and both are more towards their best here.

Strangely, the one performance I found less than compelling was Affleck’s. There is a little distance in him; Mendez clearly cares very much about the fate of the six and this spurs him to actions he might ordinarily not have taken. Still, Affleck doesn’t show us very much about the man Tony Mendez is/was and that’s puzzling since the real Mendez was available for him to study from; it’s possible that Mendez himself is this hard to know as well.

Still, this is likely to wind up on some end of the year lists and quite deservedly so. This is one of the Fall’s must-see films and if you haven’t already caught it, you really should before it gets pushed out by all the Thanksgiving blockbusters that are already making their way into the multiplex. Even if you’re not old enough to remember the hostage crisis, you’ll appreciate one of the great thrillers of the year.

REASONS TO GO: Captures the era perfectly. Puts you on the edge of the seat even if you know how the affair concluded.

REASONS TO STAY: Affleck’s performance is a bit distant; I left the movie wondering who Tony Mendez was. Plays fast and loose with the facts.

FAMILY VALUES:  The language is pretty rough in places and there are some disturbing images, as well as some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter’s chief of staff, and Kyle Chandler who played him in the movie were both graduates of the University of Georgia.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100. The reviews are extremely strong.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Syriana

JIMMY CARTER LOVERS: The former President makes several appearances in the movie via archival footage.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Imposter

Ahead of Time


Ahead of Time

Ruth Gruber, back in the day.

(2009) Documentary (Vitagraph) Ruth Gruber, Louisa Herz Leopold, Eli Wallach (voice), Dava Sobel, Lee Taylor, Harold Ickes, Manya Hartmayer Breuer, Tom Segey, Ike Aronowitz, Mordechai Rossman, Therese Plummer (voice). Directed by Robert Richman

Some people live extraordinary lives. We know about a lot of them – Amelia Earhart, Ernest Hemingway, Jackie Onassis – but some we hear little or nothing about. In a few cases that’s truly a shame.

Ruth Gruber is one. A strong-willed, sharp-as-a-tack woman who got her doctorate at 18, she worked for the government documenting Alaska as a homesteading location for soldiers prior to World War II, she also worked for the State department smuggling Jewish refugees into the United States during the war, documenting attacks on refugee ships after it.

She was a foreign correspondent for the New York Daily News and bore witness to some of the most significant events of the 20th century. She was often allowed where no other women were – to the new state of Jordan (she was the first female journalist allowed in) the Soviet Union and on board the Exodus, a refugee ship that had been denied access to Israel by the British and was turned back to send the Holocaust survivors to Germany.

97 years old when this was filmed (she will turn 100 this year), she is still as sharp as ever and is very objective about her own life story, which shows her journalistic training. She has a fascinating story to tell, and nobody tells it as well as she does during the course of the film.

Unfortunately director Richman (who was a cinematographer on An Inconvenient Truth) tends to use a lot of talking heads here and despite the fascinating subject, the movie gets awfully dry in places. That’s just kind of a forewarning.

The subject is so fascinating that you can’t help but be sucked in however. Ruth Gruber is the kind of role model that most women would be proud to emulate – if they knew who she was.

WHY RENT THIS: A portrait of an amazing woman who most people don’t know much about these days.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit talky and sometimes a bit dry.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of smoking but otherwise nothing you couldn’t show to the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gruber was close friends with author Virginia Woolf early in her career.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33,024 on an unreported production budget; the movie might have broken even.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: John Carpenter’s The Ward