It never rains, it pours. This week the big screen is teeming with history and politics. From America, fairly recent events are mythologized in two docudramas: Oliver Stone spins an instant-replay of George W. Bush’s life and times in W., which could be subtitled Attack of the White House Clones. And Stuart Townsend dramatizes the anti-globalization movement’s 1999 baptism of fire in Battle in Seattle, which conjures a pre-9/11 era of uncomplicated protest. In Canada, meanwhile, Paul Gross launches Passchendaele, his strained but valiant attempt to honour Canadian heroism in the First World War. These three films are radically different in tone and substance, but they are message movies—movies on a mission. And they all attempt to fuse entertainment with politics with mixed results.
However, if you’re up to here with war and politics and would like a slice of intelligent escape, there’s Happy-Go-Lucky from British working-class realist Mike Leigh, who’s on much less of a mission than usual, with actress Sally Hawkins already igniting Oscar buzz with her giddy performance as a kindergarten teacher who refuses to grow up
No matter how disappointing Oliver Stone’s latest opus happens to be—and believe me, like it’s subject it falls short in many ways—it has an irresistible allure. It sits out there beckoning, like a big fat issue of Vanity Fair. All those famous faces, cloned by a gallery of skilled actors. We’ve seen the CNN version, and the SNL version. Now we expect Oliver Stone to give us the operatic version, larger than life, and more outrageous than the real thing. But the only thing shocking about W. is how tame it is. This is like Oliver Stone on anti-depressants, as if the master of hyperbole has has resigned himself to the Capitol Hill equivalent of sketching wildlife. The movie doesn’t tell us much we don’t already know, and it dodges some of the most dramatic epicentres of the perfect storm that was the Bush presidency. I won’t try to talk you out of seeing it. It is worth seeing, if only for Josh Brolin’s superb performance, and to grade the various impersonations. But it makes you wonder. Oliver Stone has made a message movie with no real message. Like Bush’s presidency, it seems lost: it lacks direction. W. could very well stand for why?
Here’s what I had to say about the film in this week’s issue of the magazine:
Faking it even better than George W.
Oliver Stone’s biopic feels slapdash. Josh Brolin’s performance, though, is anything but.
Making a Hollywood movie about an American president before he has even finished his term is without precedent, and risky. Legacies are supposed to take time to gel. But then George W. Bush is no ordinary President. As he prepares to vacate the White House, leaving America’s economy in ruins, its empire shattered, and his reputation in disgrace, he already looks like a lost little boy who wonders why all his friends have left the playground. And that, essentially, is Oliver Stone’s summation of him in W. — an instant biopic that tries to explain how an affable loser bluffed his way into the world’s most powerful job without any real qualifications.
Whether or not Stone is fully qualified to tell the story, he has shown a certain aptitude for the genre. After JFK and Nixon, W. lands like the third chapter of an ad hoc trilogy about White House hubris. But unlike the other films, W. is not a typical Stone melodrama threaded with conspiracy theories. (The Bush administration concocted enough of its own fictions that there’s no need to make stuff up.) And George W. — played with charismatic charm by Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men) — is hardly sinister. Stone paints a surprisingly sunny and empathetic portrait of Bush, as a man who is never evil, only confused — a good-natured naif who got in over his head and was always more passionate about baseball than politics.
Stone has a natural-born affinity for the character. Like Bush, he was a child of privilege with an overbearing father, lost interest at Yale, and struggled with cocaine and alcohol. And as W. shows, Stone can be as blunt and boneheaded as his subject.
W. toggles between two time frames. The movie begins with Bush and his cabinet preparing the 2003 invasion of Iraq; flashbacks take us through his days as a drunken frat boy at Yale, his decision to swap the bottle for born-again Christianity at 40, and his political breakthrough. Scripted by Stanley Weiser (Wall Street), a conventionally stolid narrative spells out how Bush’s ambition was forged in the frustration of being unappreciated by his father. “Partying, chasing tail, driving drunk — what are you, a Kennedy?” George Bush Sr. (James Cromwell) fumes. Even after Dubya has reformed, George Sr. remains skeptical. Backed by a steely Barbara Bush (Ellen Burstyn), he tries to dissuade him from running for Texas governor while his younger brother, Jeb, has his eye on Florida. Jeb, they believe, is the smart one, and the dynasty should rise “one Bush at a time.”
Stone’s coverage of political events is scattershot. He doesn’t bother to dramatize the 2000 election or Bush’s handling of 9/11. As he dwells on the Iraq debacle — Bush being led astray by advisers, stumbling over malapropisms, and rushing to judgment with jock-like zeal — the narrative has a slapdash quality, perhaps because it was rushed to the screen in time for the election. I never thought I’d complain about an Oliver Stone movie being too short, but W., which is under two hours, feels incomplete.
Its pleasures lie in the gallery of performances, which are uneven. Brolin is a delight. He nails Bush’s vocal tics and body language. Taking a cue from Tony Soprano, he’s always eating, as if world politics is one long ball game that can only be endured by constant snacking. As the devoted Laura Bush, Elizabeth Banks is utterly engaging. And Richard Dreyfuss incarnates Dick Cheney with eerie force. But among the collection of Bush advisers, a number of fine actors fall into lame caricature — including Thandie Newton (Condoleezza Rice), Jeffrey Wright (Colin Powell), and Scott Glenn (Donald Rumsfeld). When you marry literal impersonation with clunky, expository dialogue, things get prosaic pretty fast.
Which is why Brolin’s performance is so remarkable. We’re getting used to seeing actors impersonate politicians with such dead-on accuracy that after a while they become more convincing than the real thing. After Tina Fey gave us the definitive Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live, when Palin performed in the vice-presidential debate, she seemed like an inauthentic facsimile of herself: her Sarah Palin wasn’t as good as Fey’s. Brolin’s Bush is like that. He’s more three-dimensional than the man he’s portraying. And why not? Politics is acting, and Brolin is the better actor.
But the movie, like its subject, is confused. W. won’t fully commit to satire. Unsure if it’s tragedy or farce, it compresses the two into a flattened docudrama — an instant replay of history with the game still in progress.
Battle in Seattle
Some “political” movies use the politics as window dressing for Hollywood formula. That’s the case with Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies, a spy thriller which turns America’s war on terror into a big-budget location spectacle, then uses glib narration to slap on a liberal message like a coat of lacquer. Battle in Seattle works the other way around. Stuart Townsend, an Irish actor making his feature debut as a writer-director, begins with a message movie, then dresses it up with some sentimental conceits and some Hollywood stars (notably his wife, Charlize Theron). Setting up a gallery of fictional characters, he has dramatized a historical event
If Battle in Seattle is transparently earnest in its intentions, that’s because it’s an authentic echo of the movement that created it. And although its politics are unequivocally left-wing, it examines the event from various viewpoints—the protesters, the politicians, the cops, the innocent bystanders—and succeeds in goings beyond agit-prop. To that extent this movie is historic. Over the past decade, we’ve seen a wave of popular leftie documentaries led by Michael Moore. But Battle in Seattle is the first mainstream dramatic feature that feels like a direct product of contemporary mass protest in America; it’s not just about the movement, but of the movement. Yet it also provides a more detailed and comprehensive view of the 1999 anti-globalization protests than the mainstream media ever did. Now that seems like eons ago. But in light of the current economic collapse, the protesters’ doomsday view of global capitalism comes across as more prescient than anachronistic.
Townsend weaves a drama of mostly fictional characters around an attempt to faithfully reconstruct Seattle’s five days of protest. And there are times when it’s more exciting than it has any right to be. The movie opens with a bit of high-wire suspense: the story’s two lead protesters, Jay (Martin Henderson) and Lou (Michelle Rodriguez), get in trouble while dangling from a giant crane as they unfurl a banner above the city. For a moment there, it could have been the opening of of Casino Royale.
As the film tracks the development of what turns out to be the first Internet-organized mass demonstration, the logistics are fascinating—it’s fun to see the protesters outwit the police as they effectively shut down the WTO opening ceremonies by locking themselves together with ingenious non-violent means. And with a level head, the film explores the conflict between the non-violent organizers and the fringe of window-smashing anarchists.
Ray Liotta is almost cruelly typecast as the well-meaning but ineffectual Mayor Jim Tobin, who caves into political pressure and unleashes the riot police against his better judgment. Woody Harrelson plays a riot cop who’s pregnant wife, Charlize Theron, gets trapped in the thick of the chaos And Connie Nielson plays a cynical TV journalist who undergoes a conversion after seeing innocent bystanders being clubbed by police.
The movie’s dramatic devices are schematic, but in the end there’s something strangely moving about Battle in Seattle. And it’s not just the idealism and romance of a movement that succeeded in putting a political issue on the map via the new Wobbly democracy of the Worldwide Web. Though it seems too soon for anti-globalization nostalgia, what’s moving is the unabashed innocence of secular protest in a pre-9/11, pre-Iraq war America. Now it seems like a lost age, a time when young people were rising up and trying to change civilization with coherent mass movement, rather than wondering how to rescue it from annihilation, collapse or mass psychosis.
I got a bit of shock when I saw myself prominently quoted in a newspaper ad for Passchendaele with a one-line blurb: “Astonishing.” I didn’t remember being quite that keen on the film. But after looking up my advance piece on it in the magazine before its TIFF premiere, I located the quote: “. . . the graphic images of horror and futility on the battlefield are astonishing.” I stand by that. But battle scenes make up less than half the movie, and I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the rest of it. In what amounts to a big-screen war memorial, Paul Gross—Passchendaele’s writer, director, producer and star—has done an admirable job of drawing attention to an under-heralded chapter of Canadian military history in a war that is sadly fading from the national heritage. He conveys the nightmare of that battle with real eloquence.
As docudrama, in other words, the film has power. But in trying to forge a Canadian alternative to gung-ho stereotype of Hollywood heroism, Gross has forged a construct that’s equally far-fetched. His character is no Rambo; his glory does not come from the barrel of a gun. But he turns out to be a kind of Captain Canuck Christ figure, dedicated to the salvation of a weaker comrade and performing a stunt of magic-realist peace-keeping in the thick of battle.
The problem is, the film begins with him stabbing a helpless young German soldier for no good reason, suggesting his character, Michael Dunne, has a dark side. But aside from a stray reference to him once robbing a bank, that darkness is never sustained or explored. Between tours of duty, as Dunne falls in love on the Albertan home front, he’s too good to be true. Gross is most appealing when he gives free reign to his sly wit and rogue malevolence—the subversive Gross we saw in Slings and Arrows. But between the telegraphic script and the gleaming performance, his character in Passchendaele feels too carefully honed. At times I felt he was running for office in some imaginary election.
That said, Passchendaele remains an impressive piece of work, a movie worth seeing and discussing as much for its flaws as its merits. As I’ve noted in a previous post, though it may lack subtlety, it comes from the heart, and is armed with a bold emotional and political agenda. In the rain and mud of senseless carnage, it grapples with the wrenching paradox of war—valour merging with futility as tragically young men are led to slaughter down a grim trail of colonial error. Here’s what I wrote about the film, and about Gross’s struggle to make it, in the magazine before its premiere at TIFF:
The war to make ‘Passchendaele’
A decade in the making, Paul Gross’s passion play kicks off the Toronto film festival
Paul Gross remembers the moment distinctly. He was a 16-year-old kid, fishing for pike with his grandfather on a lake in southern Alberta. Grandpa, Michael Dunne, fought for three years in the First World War, and had been wounded three times, but refused to talk about it until his grandson prodded him that day at the lake. “It was a big day,” Gross recalls, “because it was the first time I’d been allowed to drive the boat. I remember his back was turned to me.” Dunne then told the story of a grisly encounter in a French village after the Battle of Vimy Ridge. His patrol exchanged fire with a machine-gun nest that was holed up in the ruins of a church. Dunne was the only one of his squad to survive. He crawled over the sandbags to find the German gunners all dead but for a scared, blue-eyed boy. “The boy raised his hand to my grandfather saying ‘Kamerad,’ ” says Gross, “and my grandfather bayonetted him in the forehead.”
That act of impulsive, inexplicable brutality haunted Dunne to his deathbed, and for his grandson it fostered a lifelong obsession. Now it climaxes the opening scene of Passchendaele, a $20-million all-Canadian war epic that Gross spent a decade making, and which premieres next week as the opening night gala of the Toronto International Film Festival. Performing a kind of cinematic decathlon, Gross is the film’s director, writer, co-producer — and star. He portrays a fictional Alberta soldier (not coincidentally named Michael Dunne), who returns from France wounded and traumatized, falls for a nurse of German descent (Caroline Dhavernas), then goes back to the Western Front to play a heroic role in the 1917 Battle of Passchendaele.
Canadian cinema is virtually devoid of war movies. That’s partly because they’re costly to make. But it’s also because Canadians are nervous about the very notion of war heroes. “We seem constitutionally indisposed to mythologizing,” says Gross. “And there remains this terrible post-Vietnam fashion, where to teach military history is conflated with being militarist.” The First World War is especially neglected, he adds. “We come out of this horrible crucible of the Western Front, yet most of us don’t even know about it.”
Although Canadian valour at Vimy Ridge is legendary, the Battle of Passchendaele, near Ypres, in Belgium was much larger. To capture a short strip of land that the Germans would soon reclaim, the Allies sustained 310,000 casualties, including 16,000 Canadians. The battle was waged amid relentless rain in a cratered wasteland of mud so deep men and horses drowned in it. “It was a truly god-awful blasted landscape,” says Gross, who recreated the battlefield on the Tsuu T’ina Reserve in the Calgary area. Canadian Forces troops served as extras, and, adding an accent of authenticity, Brig.-Gen. Gregory Gillepsie portrayed Lt.-Gen. Arthur Currie.
The combat scenes were “exhausting and freezing cold,” recalls the director. Water was trucked to the set daily from the glacier-fed Bow River to supply giant rain-trusses. On the first day of shooting, four extras were sent to hospital to be treated for hypothermia.
To even have such problems reflects an ambition that’s rare in Canadian film. While $20 million is a pittance for Hollywood, it’s enormous for a domestic production. After giving up on foreign co-producers, who wanted to make the story less Canadian, the filmmakers raised the entire budget locally, helped by $5.5 million from former Alberta premier Ralph Klein and $3.5 million from Telefilm.
For Gross, Passchendaele is an epic gamble. Famous for whimsical confections like Due South and Men With Brooms, here he’s going for the gravitas, casting himself a kind of star without precedent in this country. But can an earnest Canadian war movie with a diphthong in the title triumph at the box office? We’ll see. Less than half the film is combat. The rest takes place in the Alberta foothills, as Dunne courts the nurse — whose German ancestry makes her the target of xenophobia — before heading back to the front to protect her asthmatic kid brother. The romance has the sentimental sweep of Legends of the Fall, recast as a CBC miniseries. But the graphic images of horror and futility on the battlefield are astonishing. If the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan raised the bar for combat movies, some scenes in Passchendaele are of that calibre. And there, as Gross struggles to drag his national heritage out of the mud, the valour of the character and of the filmmaker become synonymous.
As the title suggests, this is Mike Leigh-lite. In a more comic vein than most of his work, Happy-Go-Lucky also lacks the brilliance and rigour that made Naked, Secrets and Lies and Vera Drake so powerful. Nonetheless, it bubbles along with great charm, entirely driven by the infectious energy of its incandescent star, Sally Hawkins, who’s allowed to run riot through the movie in a star-making performance. Cast as a primary school teacher named Poppy, Hawkins plays the kind of offbeat free spirt who would have once been called “kooky.” She reminds me of Rita Tushingham in The Knack. Flirtatious, single, and sharing a North London flat with her best friend, Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), Poppy is a distaff Peter Pan who refuses to grow up, or at least pretends to. She treats life as a never-ending lark, yet is capable of mature sensitivity the minute a shadow of malevolence or real suffering crosses her path.
Poppy falls into the company of a few unhinged, potentially dangerous men, notably her manic driving instructor (Eddie Marsan), whose bigotry is the tip of a repressed iceberg of English intolerance. Crystallizing pure rage, Marsan is like a right-wing variation on the David Thewlis’s character in Naked. But then, all Leigh’s films, light and dark, keep coming back to the same gray, brutal vision of England, as if the country has never recovered from the war. Here we see it through Poppy’s rose-coloured glasses. She is another one of Leigh’s eternal optimists. Like Vera Drake, and like so many irrepressible English women, she’ll put a happy face on the most mortifying situation. Never mind! You’ll feel as right as rain in the morning.
In this case, though, we’re in the realm of comedy, not tragedy, and her happy-go-lucky optimism is allowed to prevail. Whatever mode he’s working in, Leigh always creates scenarios and lets his actors improvise. With comedy, that can get out of hand. And Hawkins is an energizer bunny of improv. The entire movie is built around her runaway performance, which is rooted in that baroquely English sense of humour, riffing on complicity as if through a secret code of nuance and innuendo. There’s a hilarious scene in which our heroine takes flamenco lessons, and one of its joys is seeing the teacher actually upstage Poppy, who lives and breathes for being the centre of attention.
If you find Hawkins irritating, which is entirely possible, Happy-Go-Lucky could drive you quite crazy. But she won me over, and I suspect that will be the case with most audiences: a bright light in dark times.