I do not hail from a traditional “military family,” but my family has proudly served its country in the military. Across several generations, on both maternal and paternal sides, and by blood and marriage, I have relatives who served in all four branches of the United States Armed Forces during World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and/or The Gulf War. I am so very fortunate that despite the action they may have seen – in some cases to the degree of being unable to discuss it after returning home – no one was killed or physically injured in battle. I mention all of this as my way of expressing that I understand what it means for loved ones to leave their families and these shores to face death in the name of liberty.
Lone Survivor is a based-on-true-events story of a team of US Navy SEALs whose orders are to drop into the rocky terrain of Afghanistan enemy territory and surveil a small village in hopes of finding Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami), a leader and high-value target in the Taliban. The mission is called “Operation Red Wings,” and the four-man SEAL team is led in the field by Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) and consists of Matt Axelson (Ben Murphy), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg). The men make light work of reaching the point where they will be able to recon the village, but a goat herder and his sons happen upon the SEALs, creating a dicey situation.
The options the military men are left with are: kill the herders so they don’t report back to the Taliban; tie the herders to the trees and leave them for dead so they don’t report back to the Taliban; or let the herders go, call the mission a bust, and radio to be extracted. They choose the third option, and no sooner are the herders released, they make a dash for the Taliban village where Shah is located. Unfortunately for our men, technical communications problems and a lack of immediate and sufficient air support keep them trapped on the jagged Afghani hills long enough for the Shah-led Taliban to mount an attack with countless others, leaving the four US military men to face unbelievable odds.
Writer/director Peter Berg makes an interesting choice in his open to Lone Survivor: he uses actual footage of real Navy SEALs-in-training surviving grueling physical and mental rigors to become members of this elite military unit. At first, it seemed to me that Berg’s intent was to illustrate that not only are the SEALs elite, but that they are real, too; that even though you know going into the film the events of the film are based on a true story, here are some faces of actual SEALs to remind you that the dramatization you are about to witness is deeply rooted in fact.
It’s a good thing Berg does this, because the film that follows doesn’t feel real at all. In fact, the film that follows is nothing more than a 21st century video game with a 1980s action/war movie mentality.
The men are written and portrayed in the flattest of terms: SEALs united in a common goal. This very much lends to the video game/’80s movie aspect of the film, where there are good guys and there are bad guys and the good guys need to beat the bad guys and that is all they or you need to know. And that would be okay in your run-of-the-mill, Rambo-esque actioner, but this film is promoted as being more than that. This film is promoted as being about real men, it opens with footage of real men. Yet for a film that is supposed to be a remembrance of four real, four brave men, Berg shares nothing about them that is at all memorable.
Once the obligation of character introduction is met, Berg moves forward to the action sequences, where his inability to direct action sequences becomes woefully evident. The entire second act is a hail of gunfire, again reminiscent of modern war-themed video games and ’80s Vietnam War revenge flicks. But it isn’t even the endlessness of it all that is the issue; it’s how sloppily it’s shot and how poorly it’s framed and how choppily it’s assembled. (Speaking of the ’80s, there is one dreadful shot in particular where the four men must leap off a rock to avoid an impending explosion, and the whole thing looks like A-Team b-roll.)
The entire second act is summed up as a bunch of guys shooting at another bunch of guys and then those guys shooting back, while squibs endlessly pop like money shots in a frenetic orgy of random violence. I don’t shy away from onscreen shoot-em-up/blow-em-ups; I never have. But here there no sense of flow to it at all, and it glaringly shows. Tack on some of the worst dialogue since Chuck Norris‘ dark days onscreen (including the eye-roll-inducing “You can die for your country, I’m gonna live for mine.”) and what you get is a shoddily-directed action flick swaddled in Old Glory.
All is not lost. Proving that even a broken clock is right twice a day, Berg manages to pull off a couple of excellent visuals, including two of the men taking painfully perilous tumbles down steep, rocky embankments, as well as the achingly gradual demise of one of the men, culminating with an enemy bullet to his head. The real treat of the film, though, is Tobias Schliessler‘s cinematography. For all of Berg’s flaws in the countless fast-and-tight shots, he has a great eye for sweeping, wide shots of the Afghanistan terrain and especially massive aircraft approaching vast swatches of land. It’s here he lets Schliessler really shine, and every shot is prettier than the next. I had the chance to see this film on a 60-foot GTX screen and at that size, some of the exteriors were simply breathtaking.
This is not an indictment of Lone Survivor‘s subjects or their actions. Opinions about the theater of battle are best left to cable news and kitchen tables. This is a criticism of art, of the theater of film. When the artist poorly represents the subject, it is critical that the subject be separated from the artist, lest the blurred lines of reality blend with the fog of war to make a mess of history.
I’ve been on Twitter since April 2011. During my near-three years and 11,000+ tweets on the social networking site, I’ve enjoyed friendships of varying depths, just as if I had met the same folks at school or at work or in some other flesh-and-blood social environment. Some friends I chat with occasionally, other friends I’ve become closer with and connected with via platforms like Facebook and Words With Friends, and with a select few I’ve exchanged emails, texts, Christmas gifts, family pictures, and so on. There are even friends I’ve lost – not to death, just to other circumstances that end friendships. I’ve never experienced an online romance, but I would imagine that if I weren’t married, that probably would have happened too (at least once).
This is the way it works now; screen-to-screen is the new face-to-face. Traditional relationships aren’t a thing of the past, they are simply part of the evolving way we interact as members of society. In writer/director Spike Jonze‘s Her, the protagonist finds himself in a traditional romantic relationship with a woman, with the modern slant of having the relationship exist completely online, but with the (not too distant) futuristic twist of making the woman not an online personification, but making the woman the Operating System itself.
Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix), a man soon to be divorced from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), lives in relative solitude. His job requires little interaction with others, he only sees old friends (including Amy, played by Amy Adams) when he bumps into them at the elevator in their apartment building, and he has no romantic pursuits. With no structure in his life, Theodore is enticed by a new Operating System that promises to not only get him organized, but to serve him across all of his devices and to evolve as he evolves so that it will continue to meet his needs. When he installs the OS and answers a few quick questions, Samantha is … well, let’s just say Samantha is born.
Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is less OS and more AI – an amalgam of billions of bits of information that people experience over their lifetimes, making her the closest thing to human that a non-human can be. After some early suspicion (and disbelief) from Theodore, he hits it off well with his new OS, and she becomes his friend and Girl Friday. But as time passes and the two grow closer, they begin a romantic relationship that takes a path unlike any other.
The genius of Her is not so much in what Spike Jonze the director does with the film, although he does an excellent job. No, the real genius lies in the concept and the characters that Spike Jonze the writer creates for the film. It all starts with Theodore and the believability that this could happen to him.
The obvious is that Theodore is still in emotional pain from the loss of his marriage, and that entering into a virtual relationship is the safest thing for him. (Even in advance of his involvement with Samantha, there is a humorous phone sex scene that underscores Theodore’s need for emotional distance, even when physical needs must be met.) More subtle, though, is that all of Theodore’s interactions are virtual: he plays a life-size 3D video game where he and the characters interact; he directs his computer to play songs or read email or write email; he has made a career out of writing letters to people on behalf of others who cannot express themselves on the printed page. This is the most clever bit of all, as he has written for some of these people for so long, he knows little details about their past in current writings – they epitomize virtual relationships.
Take away the fact that Samantha is just a voice … wait. About that. Samantha is always just a voice, and she sees the world though the camera lens of Theodore’s smartphone. She is never given a face. There is never a moment where she considers whipping up a 3D image of what she wants to look like and then designing a machine that makes her “human” (and looking like ScarJo). There isn’t a moment where she thinks maybe her digital self could somehow be implanted into the brain of a living woman. (There is, however, a brilliant scene involving a physical surrogate that is a highlight of the film.) None of those sci-fi scenarios are even played for laughs, let alone taken seriously, and it’s a shrewd decision by Jonze. It makes the love story more believable because what is happening, while a stretch, isn’t fantastical; it’s firmly based in near-future reality, not distant-future fantasy.
Okay. Now take away the fact that Samantha is just a voice and what you have is the most classic of love stories: Boy meets Girl, Boy gets Girl, Boy evolves, Girl evolves, Boy may or may not lose Girl or vice versa. It really is that simple, but to get into details would be to spoil some things, and I don’t want to do that. Suffice it to say that even though the Girl in this equation is an OS, I still found myself watching their relationship grow and change and thinking at times, “Yeah, I’ve been in relationships where that happened.” That’s how based in reality their relationship is.
What I think is most clever about the story, though, is how it not only avoids the pitfalls of something closer to traditional sci-fi, but how it portrays society. Rather than make Theodore the lone OS-loving freak in the world, trying to convince everyone that he isn’t weird (keeping the focus on the relationship, not the peripheral drama that can come with it) , the story instead references how other people are doing the same thing – becoming involved with their Operating Systems. Some relationships are like Theodore and Samantha’s while others are more platonic and so on, but becoming emotionally involved with an OS becomes a societal norm. It’s the ultimate mixed relationship for the Internet Generation.
The supporting cast is fine. Chris Pratt is good as Theodore’s only friend at work and Olivia Wilde (as a blind date for Theodore before things with Samantha get serious) seems to be only utilizing her sex appeal until the last moments of her scene with Phoenix, when she becomes remarkably realistic as one of those girls that goes from just-met-you to let’s-take-this-thing-very-seriously in about the length of time it takes to have a first date. At the next level, Adams makes a very nice female friend for Theodore to talk to. This film, however, is not about them; it’s about Phoenix and Johansson.
Johannson’s performance makes an excellent companion piece to Robert Redford‘s performance in this year’s All Is Lost. Whereas Redford had no dialogue and had to be convincing with only physical actions and facial expressions, Johansson has no physical presence at all to fall back on – not even her beauty. Instead she must use every vocal inflection and affectation she has to prove everything from the self-wonder of her own newness to her burning desire to learn, and from her worry about their relationship path to her grand plans for the future. She does it all so very convincingly. It’s a harder sell than even animated vocal work because there is still a visual component to animation; here she has none but she doesn’t need it.
As for Phoenix, he is an artist with a mastery of his instrument. To make another Redford comparison, Phoenix is alone for most of the film. Yes, he has some scenes with others, but in a majority of his scenes, he is forced to interact with nothing but a voice. He is brilliant, with a full range of complex emotions laid bare, as well as a collection of facial tics that Jonze’s pore-counting close-ups spotlight. It’s one of the great performances of the year.
Her is a romantic drama from Hollywood’s Golden Age, set in a time that is closer to tomorrow than we probably realize, with a meet-cute for the tech-set. It is slightly sluggish in spots, but those spots never last long, and the characters that Jonze and Phoenix and Johansson give us – whether flesh-and-blood or 1s-and-0s – are characters to root for and believe in.
Intent is easy, even if successfully executing that intent isn’t. Intent is typically connected to the genre of the film. Comedies intend to make you laugh, horrors intend to scare you, and so on. Even adult films have the intent to arouse you.
But responsibility? I don’t know that any film has a responsibility for anything other than to give the audience its money’s worth. Don’t average moviegoers approach most films this way anyway? Don’t average moviegoers – and even some critics/bloggers – have a thumbnail system of measurement that says whether a film is worth a trip to the theater vs. a rental vs. skipping it entirely? As much as purists decry the commerce side of moviemaking, everyone from average moviegoers to film snobs will say or think something like, “That movie isn’t worth my time,” which is a thing of value akin to money. If I invest my time (no matter the length) and I invest my money (no matter the amount) then Hollywood should give me something of equal or greater value in return. That’s where the responsibility ends.
I pose all of this because social media has been at DefCon 1 since reactions to Martin Scorsese‘s The Wolf of Wall Street have made the rounds, and the film has created debate – sometimes intelligent, sometimes disrespectful, always fierce – that has gone far beyond the usual impassioned “loved it/hated it” division associated with recent releases like this past summer’s blockbuster Man of Steel or last year’s Oscar hopeful Les Miserables. But first the film.
Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is new to the stock trading game when he takes his first Wall Street job. He is eager to please, but more importantly he is eager to learn, and in the few months he works for a major brokerage firm, he learns much from Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey): lessons in everything from blue chips and pink sheets to cocaine and hookers. But six months into that career, the crash of 1987 occurs and Belfort finds himself unemployed. With the support of his wife Teresa (Cristin Milioti), Belfort takes a job selling penny stocks out of a strip mall storefront.
Belfort turns out to be a master salesman, and soon he is leveraging the volume of penny stock purchases and their high commission rates into a $70,000-a-month career. But he wants more. He starts his own firm (Stratton Oakmont), teaches friends how to sell, and in no time moves from five figures per month to nearly seven figures per week. But his climb to that pinnacle is done by stepping on the backs and throats of the investors he defrauded – not just big-time players, but average folks, too – and eventually his rise gets the attention of both the SEC and the FBI. The former is easily placated but the latter isn’t, and when Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) closes in, Belfort’s arrogance and recklessness become his undoing.
Something that I have seen no debate about are the performances in the film; almost everyone – from early-in McConaughey to late-in Jean Dujardin (as Swiss banker Jean Jacques Saurel) is excellent. (The weakest of the bunch is Jon Favreau as Belfort’s securities attorney; he is painfully out of his thespian league. The man I wish had more screen time is Rob Reiner as Belfort’s father; after 50+ years in the business, Reiner’s comic timing is still as sharp as ever.) But it’s the film’s Big Three that really make it work.
Margot Robbie plays Belfort’s second wife Naomi. Ever the object of Belfort’s carnal desires, Robbie plays to the physical sexiness of her character, maximizing her sultry eyes and dangerous hips, but she is not just the prettiest face in Belfort’s daily crowd pretty faces. She is strong and stands up to Belfort when she should, even using his weakness for her flesh to her advantage. Jonah Hill is marvelous as Belfort’s #2 man, Donnie Azoff. Working through an almost-laughable set of dentures, Hill’s Azoff can hang with Belfort in the ribaldry department, yet he is (and never will be) the man Jordan is. He is the eternal sidekick and he knows his place.
And of course there is DiCaprio, who dominates the screen when he’s on it, and he’s on it for a better part of the three-hour run time. It’s a performance that is in the conversation of his best ever, channeling equal parts Michael Douglas‘ Gordon Gekko, Tom Hanks‘ Forrest Gump, and John Belushi‘s Bluto. Speaking of Douglas-as-Gekko (from 1987’s Wall Street), he has been toppled by DiCaprio-as-Belfort, who is now the face of the Wall Street trader.
Beyond the stellar performances, the film itself is … good. Scorsese masterfully captures the lifestyle that Belfort leads and the addiction the man has. It’s an addiction that starts with money and leads to drugs and sex, and it ultimately becomes a combination of all of those things and more: an addiction to what his power, influence, and wealth allow him to enjoy. In fact, he does so many drugs and spends his money on the craziest things (a marching band leading a parade of hookers, for example), the story itself must be true because it is far too bizarre to be believable fiction.
And this is my core issue with the film: the story, such as it is. A lot has been made of the film’s three-hour running time and I agree that it is probably about an hour too long. But it isn’t just the run time of the film; it’s what you get in that time. The 2013 French film Blue is the Warmest Color, which also runs three hours, is loaded with story and beautifully tells it. The Wolf of Wall Street has a story in there somewhere; in fact, I would say (anecdotally) that Belfort’s rise and fall are probably given about equal story time. It’s the overloaded middle, with its endless series of over-the-top, drug-fueled events that only serve reinforce what we already learned the first several times we saw such things – drugs / sex / money / crazy / drugs / sex / money / crazy / drugs / sex / money / crazy.
None of these things offended me. (There are reports that the sex is near-pornographic, and I would disagree. It is certainly excessive in the context of a mainstream Hollywood film, but with the exception of one or two specific incidents, it’s no different than what you might happen across on Cinemax any given night.) I simply reached a point when I said, “Okay, I get it already.” And if the rebuttal to that is some film school retort that the excess of the film is representative of the excess of Belfort’s life, then I say, “Why stop at three hours? If more equals more, why not endlessly pursue more? What is the acceptable length of time to not only make the literal point, but to get that symbolic point across too? Three hours? Six? Thirty-six?”
What makes all of it so maddening is that each scene is very good on its own. Then again, so is each glass of Johnnie Walker Blue scotch. But if I don’t stop drinking it at some point, I will get nowhere and it will have a negative effect on me. The same happens with this film: it struggles to make progress and its excess is its own detriment.
This, I think, is what is helping fuel the controversy: that Scorsese’s film glamorizes and glorifies Belfort’s lifestyle without taking him to task on the lives he ruined – through illegal means – on his way to the top, and/or without looking at the real devastation left in the wake of Belfort’s actions. I understand the sentiment given the current economic climate in the United States (bailouts and Occupy and whatnot), and I’ll always be curious about how this film might have been received had it been made in more prosperous economic times. I also understand how the endless scenes of Belfort’s lifestyle give the look of glorification; the string of so many of them have a real rub-your-nose-in-it feel.
But Scorsese’s job is to tell the story he wants to tell, period. He has no responsibility to offer equal time to Belfort’s victims the same way he has no responsibility to tell the story of Belfort’s childhood. Scorsese made artistic choices about the timeframe he wanted to cover and the events within that timeframe he wanted to highlight. Had the story been fictional, this conversation wouldn’t be happening; the fact that it’s based on reality isn’t reason to begin that conversation.
The only thing that leaves me scratching my head is Scorsese’s decision to cast the real Belfort in a bit part near the end of the film; it almost feels like some kind of reward. Perhaps it was done as part of the rights acquisition, or perhaps (as some have speculated) it was an effort by Scorsese to show the genuine article next to the guy who was making him look like a man whose life spiraled out of control and ultimately crashed. I’m not sure I buy that. It’s also possible that the movie folks thought it would be cool to have the real deal hanging around the set. I would have a problem with that because that feels like less than an artistic decision and more like a reward for bad behavior. I don’t know. I probably never will.
With The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese and DiCaprio swing for the fences … and swing … and swing … and swing … and swing so many more times that their arms ought to be tired. Instead, our senses are the things fatigued.