The Journey


Two serious fellas take a walk in the woods.

(2016) True Life Drama (IFC) Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney, John Hurt, Freddie Highmore, Toby Stephens, Catherine McCormack, Ian McElhinney, Ian Beattie, Barry Ward, Kristy Robinson, Mark Lambert, Stewart David Hawthorne, Frank Cannon, John Wark, Michael Hooley, Aaron Rolph. Directed by Nick Hamm

 

Younger readers probably don’t remember much about what the Irish with their typical gift for grim understatement refer to as “The Troubles.” There was a time in Northern Ireland when the Catholics, represented by the Irish Republican Army and their political arm the Sinn Fein were in open revolt against the British-backed Protestant government. The IRA was in all senses a terrorist organization, planting bombs, assassinating political leaders and ambushing British soldiers sent to keep the peace. Belfast became a war zone. Readers over the age of 30 – particularly those in the UK – will remember these times vividly.

It is not like that any longer and while there are still some hard feelings particularly among older hardcore sorts, Ireland is at last at peace and Belfast is a wonderful place for tourists to visit rather than a place for anyone who didn’t have to live there to avoid. The reason for that is that the two sides got together and decided that peace was better than pride, but in order for that to happen the leadership on both sides – represented by firebrand minister Rev. Ian Paisley (Spall) for the Unionists (the Protestant political party) and alleged former IRA coordinator turned politician Martin McGuinness (Meaney) – had to take the message to heart.

Orchestrated by British Prime Minister Tony Blair (Stephens), the two sides met at St. Andrew’s in Scotland to discuss a final, lasting peace but early on the curmudgeonly Paisley informed Blair that he was going to leave for a few days to attend his 50th wedding anniversary celebration in Belfast. McGuinness, realizing that once Paisley was surrounded by hardliners in his party he would be unlikely to budge on important points to making the peace happen, invokes one of the rules of the meeting and arranges to be flown on the same plane to Ireland. However, due to storms the nearest airport in Glasgow had been socked in. There would be a chance to fly out of Edinburgh instead but they’d have to drive there quickly.

Former MI-5 director Harry Patterson (Hurt) arranges for the driver Jack (Highmore), a field operative normally, to have a hidden earpiece and for the car to have microphones and cameras all over it. The hope, shared by Republican politician Gerry Adams (Beattie) and Protestant politician Bertie Ahern (Lambert), is that the two men, who have never spoken to each other and had publicly disdained one another, would get to talking if forced to by a long car ride. All of them felt like McGuinness that once the crusty Paisley, who once declared Pope John Paul II to be the Antichrist, was in Belfast the talks would essentially collapse and the bloodshed would continue.

Essentially the whole movie is two people talking to each other with periodic interjections from Jack and occasional switches to the command center where the two are being observed. There is a prologue (which unusual for a true life drama features pictures of the actual participants rather than having the actors digitally inserted) that explains the lead up to the peace talks (and to be sure, it’s very well done) and an epilogue but mainly it’s just two guys talking. That can be a good thing or a bad thing but when you have two great character actors the caliber of Spall and Meaney, it’s definitely the former.

While I wouldn’t say necessarily that the performances here are Oscar-worthy (although Spall comes pretty close), they are super strong nonetheless. Both actors are riveting and the two have tremendous chemistry. Meaney, chiefly known for his Star Trek role as Miles O’Brien, is jocular as McGuinness, the one who truly understands the horrors of the Troubles and is quite eager to end them but knows that he won’t be very popular with his own people, as Paisley won’t be popular with his if they do find a way to make peace. However, he also realizes that they’ll both be popular with history. Spall is stentorian as Paisley, a perpetually sour expression on his face although he is prone to a somewhat impish (and corny) sense of humor. We’re used to seeing Spall portray English bulldogs; here, he portrays an Irish one.

While the actors don’t really resemble their real life counterparts in the slightest, they both capture the essence of the men they’re portraying, from Paisley’s bombastic speaking style to McGuinness’ haunted thousand-yard-stare. Neither man is with us any longer which is likely just as well; neither one would have been comfortable with the liberties taken with history here.

The former child actor Highmore is solid and likable in an adult role, while the late John Hurt is as dependable as always in a fairly small role but it is enough to remind us of what a great talent he was. Most of the rest of the cast are fine but unremarkable in their parts but Spall and Meaney get the lion’s share of screen time.

Yet the filmmakers cover themselves during that prologue by boldly stating that “this story imagines that journey” which covers a lot of sins. The tale of how two sworn enemies who literally loathed what the other stood for could bury the hatchet and not only learn to work together but indeed became fast friends whose banter was so universal they became informally known as “The Chuckle Brothers” during their tenure as Ireland’s number one and number two politicians.

The cinematography is beautiful as Greg Gardiner gives us lovely vistas of the Scottish countryside (although ironically some of the scenes were filmed in Ireland) and gathering storm clouds, of quaint villages and lonely country roads. It’s a beautiful film to look at. Spall and Meaney are given a lovely sandbox to play in.

I’m conversant with the events of the actual peace talks rather than expert in them but from what I understand the actual story behind how Paisley and McGuinness came to become friends after being enemies is more interesting albeit less dramatic than what’s portrayed here. The changing of hearts and minds tends to be a gradual thing rather than something that happens during the course of a road trip. In some ways the film cheapens the life journey that Paisley and McGuinness actually took with this imagined one but I suppose one could look at it metaphorically and find some common ground with history.

This is despite its laissez faire attitude towards facts a solid and impressive film thanks largely due to the performances. It’s never a bad thing seeing great actors act well and you’ll certainly see that here. One gets a sense of the depth of hatred that each side had for the other and the desperate but slender hope that they could find some common ground for peace. One thing is for certain; it was hellaciously difficult  for both sides to get past their hatred and distrust for the other and learn to live in peace. If the Irish can do it, that gives us some hope that it can happen here too.

REASONS TO GO: Tremendous performances by Spall and Meaney who work very well together. The cinematography is top-notch.
REASONS TO STAY: History is fudged quite a bit and the story is oversimplified and “Hollywoodized” for the sake of unneeded dramatic tension.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are adult and there are some violent images as well as plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The journey depicted, sadly, never actually happened. The Rev. Paisley did not fly to Belfast for his Golden Wedding anniversary as depicted for the simple reason that his wife Eileen accompanied him to St. Andrew’s. McGuinness later recalled that the two didn’t speak directly at the St. Andrew’s Peace Talks and didn’t have their first actual conversation until about six months later.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hunger
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: F(l)ag Football

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13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi


(2016) True Life Drama (Paramount) John Krasinski, James Badge Dale, Pablo Schreiber, David Denman, Dominic Fumusa, Max Martini, Alexia Barlier, David Constabile, Peyman Moaadi, Matt Letscher, Toby Stephens, Demetrius Grosse, David Giuntoli, Mike Moriarty, David Furr, Kevin Kent, Freddie Stroma, Andrew Arrabito, Kenny Sheard, Christopher Dingli, Manuel Cauchi, Frida Cauchi. Directed by Michael Bay

One of the watershed moments of the last five years is the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. temporary embassy in Benghazi, Libya. Three people were killed, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Since then, it has been used as a rallying point for the right to display the incompetence of the current administration and to place themselves in the role as advocates for the victims. The left has come to see the attack as something of a conservative media Judas goat in which facts are obscured or downright fabricated for the sake of scoring political points, particularly against presidential candidate Hilary Clinton who was Secretary of State at the time.

The movie is based on the accounts of three members of the Global Response Staff, the private contractors employed by the CIA to protect agency installations worldwide. The GRS is mainly made up of ex-military members. Jack Silva (Krasinski), a veteran of GRS tours of duty, arrives in Benghazi to find a city in chaos. Their longtime military dictator, Moammar Qaddafi had fallen and the government was struggling to keep order. The city of Benghazi was essentially ruled by competing militias of which the 17-Feb was most closely allied with American interests.

Included in the six man team protecting the Annex, the CIA installation a mile from the embassy, was Tyrone “Rone” Woods (Dale), his good friend and commanding officer; Mark “Oz” Geist (Martini), Dave “Boon” Benton (Denman) – the team sniper, John “Tig” Tiegen (Fumusa) and Kris “Tonto” Paronto (Schreiber). The station manager, known only as “The Chief” (Constabile), seems annoyed by the presence of the security professionals and warns them against engaging with the locals. Even though tensions are high, the men have a lot of down time to think about their families and their choices to serve their country so far from home.

As the anniversary of the attack of 9/11 nears, Ambassador Chris Stevens (Letscher) arrives with a small Diplomatic Services security team with the aim of strengthening U.S./Libya relations. Despite security worries on the part of the GRS team, he is determined to stay at the temporary embassy which is a security nightmare defended mostly by members of the 17-Feb militia. When after darkness falls an attack on the embassy is made by militants, the militia runs for their lives and the embassy is left wide open for attack. The GRS team wants to head over there to rescue those who are being overrun but The Chief refuses to allow them to go, unwilling to let the Annex go undefended. However, as it became clear that those at the Embassy were in mortal danger, the GRS team elected to mount a rescue mission, realizing that the militants might well follow them back to the Annex and mount an attack there as well.

Bay is known for his big budget special effects extravaganza and while there are some well-choreographed combat sequences, this is a much smaller scale than we’re used to seeing from him. In some ways you get the sense that he tends to be better suited for the Transformers-style action epics, but he handles the scale here pretty well although there doesn’t seem to be a ton of character development. I had a hard time differentiating the GRS team from each other (there are also other GRS operatives who show up later, including Glen “Bub” Doherty (Stephens) who also perished in the attack. There is a lot of gung-ho testosterone bonding among the men, which is to be expected.

The filmmakers took great pains to recreate the embassy and annex in Malta, and the combat sequences look pretty darn realistic from my uneducated point of view. Those sequences are pretty terrifying as it must have been for those inside both compounds. I would have been the one balled up in a corner weeping for my mommy. I can’t imagine living through something like that.

What was unexpected for me was the emotional impact of the film, and that has more to do with the significance of the event rather than Bay’s skills as a filmmaker. I can imagine that if the characters were a little more drawn up I would have cared a great deal more and the film would have had even more resonance. As it is you leave the movie feeling genuine grief for those who didn’t make it, as well as admiration for those who did.

Earlier I discussed the politicization of the event and it bears discussion here. Much of how you see this film is likely to be colored by your politics. Some critics of a right-wing leaning have overpraised the film (in my opinion) while other critics of a left-wing leaning have been unduly harsh (again in my opinion). I think that Bay went out of his way to make the movie apolitical, but let’s face it; making the film at all was a political statement. As best I can, I tried to leave my political hat out of it and tried to judge the film purely on entertainment value, and found that this is a solid, better than average movie that in a season when most of the offerings out there are pretty awful, can be recommended with little reservation although again, you’ll tend to see this movie viewed through the lens of your political outlook. As long as that’s duly noted, you should be okay.

REASONS TO GO: A very realistic account. A powerful emotional experience.
REASONS TO STAY: Politicization or the events may inform your perspective. Not a lot of character development.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of combat-style violence, rough language and some images of bloody carnage.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Krasinski, Denman and Constabile all starred on the hit sitcom The Office.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 55% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Sniper
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Finest Hours