Clint Eastwood

Richard Jewell

14/01/19

We’re only two weeks into the new year, yet we’re already on our third excoriating movie exposé of a corrupt American justice system. Appalled? Yes. Saddened? Yes. Surprised? Not so much. Not any more.

Richard Jewell is the story of a hapless security guard, the focus of an intense FBI and media investigation. His crime? Discovering a bomb and alerting the authorities. But lazy  stereotyping (‘he’s a bit of an oddball and he lives with his mom’) is enough to convince the forces-that-be that Jewell is the perpetrator, responsible for two deaths and more than a hundred injuries, despite a lack of any evidence whatsoever. And, once that suspicion is leaked to the press, Jewell loses control of his life.

Paul Walter Hauser gives us a convincing portrayal of a decent man driven almost to despair. He portrays Jewell as utterly sincere – a naïve, mild-natured, over-zealous employee, a stickler for the rules. His mother, Bobi (Kathy Bates), has always taught him to respect authority, and Jewell has absolute faith in law and order. He is devastated when it proves to be a phoney, a façade.

Sam Rockwell plays Watson Bryant, the real estate lawyer who comes to Jewell’s rescue (in real life, Bryant employed a team to help him; here – for the sake of a stronger storyline – he goes it alone). It’s a terrific performance, giving us a real sense of the man’s selfishness and impatience as well as his deep-rooted morality. Thank goodness for Bryant; I dread to think what might have happened to Jewell if he hadn’t once worked in the same building and earned the man’s respect. Without representation, who knows?

It’s so depressing. How can a so-called mature democracy have a justice system that is so blatantly unfair, where guilt or innocence is decided by how much money an individual has, or by the colour of their skin, or by how desperate the law enforcers are to meet their targets? And Eastwood’s film delivers this message well.

A shame, then, that the women’s roles are so reductive, and that real-life AJC news reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) is depicted as having slept her way to success. It’s an evidence-free stereotype as offensive and pervasive as the one the movie exposes.

It’s not the film’s only fault. Billy Ray’s script is somewhat pedestrian – long-winded in places – and the cinematography a little murky but, nevertheless, taken in conjunction with Seberg and Just Mercy, this amounts to a searing condemnation of a broken institution.

3.5 stars

Susan Singfield

The Beguiled

15/07/17

In The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola’s remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 Clint Eastwood vehicle, received wisdoms are questioned at every turn. For a start, we’re clearly positioned on the women’s side, with their talk of ‘our boys’ at odds with the dastardly Union soldiers and the havoc they wreak (disrupting schooling, stealing chickens, killing brothers – the list is long). It’s easy to forget, while watching, that history is on the Unionists’ side: Colin Farrell’s Corporal McBurney is fighting to end slavery. Even if he is a mercenary, he’s doing the right thing.

But this is history Jane Austen-style: the politics and horrors of the outside world barely penetrate these school walls. Oh, their impact is felt and heard: there is shooting in the distance; the girls can’t go home; soldiers pass by the house or come in to search the place – but the focus is on the interior domestic world of women, ostracised by the fighting, trapped indoors, biding their time.

Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) is the headmistress; the school is her family home. She clings to a sense of tradition in the face of uncertainty, citing the lineage of everything, even her father’s desk and gun. There might be shells exploding on the horizon, but the gates are locked and the girls must learn their French declensions. Everything is very ordered and proper, and decorum is everything.

Into this world comes the injured Corporal McBurney, as charming and handsome as, well… Colin Farrell. He’s discovered by Amy (Oona  Laurence), one of the younger pupils, on a rare and forbidden foray into the woods. She’s looking for mushrooms, but she finds the wounded and immobile soldier instead, and takes him to the school for her teachers to assess. “I couldn’t just leave him to die,” she says, seeking approval, clearly conflicted. Miss Martha agrees: “The enemy, viewed as an individual, is often not what we expect.” (The same can be said, of course, of these privileged women, whose ‘side’ is that of the oppressor, not the oppressed.) But the act of charity is doomed: the house is a hotbed of repressed sexuality, from Miss Martha’s uptight propriety to Alicia (Elle Fanning)’s burgeoning self-awareness, not to mention Edwina (Kirsten Dunst)’s blushing neediness and the little girls’ barely understood desire for male attention. These are women without men in a patriarchal world: Corporal McBurney offers them the chance to relieve their frustrations. They vie for his affections, and begin to fall apart.

It’s a tense, exciting kind of film, in the same way as The Falling or Picnic at Hanging Rock. It’s slow and sensual, forbidding and unsettling. The claustrophobia is palpable, and it’s clear that something must erupt from this seething undercurrent of repressed passion. The acting is superb, each character utterly and devastatingly believable. There’s a lovely ambiguity too: who’s really in the wrong? Does Miss Martha really have to take the drastic action she does (I can’t say more without revealing far too much), or is she acting to protect the girls and regain control? Is McBurney to blame for looking out for himself, for using what he’s got to keep himself safe? These are all flawed, credible people, acting and reacting to the cards they’ve been dealt, making mistakes and having to live with the results of them. It doesn’t pull many punches, and it’s really very good indeed. Sofia Coppola’s best director award at this year’s Cannes film festival is very well deserved – let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another fifty-six years before another woman gains this accolade.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Sully: Miracle on the Hudson

16/11/16

For his previous cinematic outing (the indifferently reviewed Inferno) Tom Hanks broke out the Grecian 2000 and presented audiences with an airbrushed version of his real self, trying to pass for someone considerably younger. Here, he’s playing someone closer to his own age, veteran airline pilot Captain Chesley Sullenberger,  who in 2009 managed to do the seemingly impossible, by crash-landing a stricken airliner in the Hudson River without incurring a single fatality. (Well, that’s 155 tickets sold, right there.)

Clint Eastwood’s retelling of the story is never less than compelling. Since we already know the outcome of the story, he can’t really hope to generate any real suspense; so he opts instead for a strange, circular narrative, opening with the moment that Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) realise that they are deep in the doo-doo after a catastrophic bird strike. From here, the story loops around like a plane looking for somewhere suitable to land, touching briefly on Sully’s early days in aviation, before finally revealing the workings of the crash landing itself.

The main tension in the story is generated when a team of crash investigators (including Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn), assigned to examine the circumstances of the accident begin to look as though they might disagree with Sully’s account of the story, something which threatens to turn him from overnight hero to an absolute zero. A series of computer simulations have raised the distinct possibility that the plane might have been able to return safely to Laguardia airport, from where it had recently taken off. Hanks does his usual ‘Everyman’ persona with the understated dignity we’ve come to expect from him and he’s ably supported by Laura Linney as Sully’s unfortunate wife, stuck on the end of a telephone line, while her husband faces the hearing that could destroy his career.

It’s only in the film’s post credit sequences where Eastwood cannot quite resist tipping the project into cheesiness – we see the real Sully and the real survivors, making speeches at one of those celebrations the Americans love so much – and there’s an onscreen credit that pays tribute to the emergency services in New York who worked together to save so many lives. But ultimately you can’t help concluding that Sullenberger took a chance in a desperate situation and (luckily for him) it paid off.

Still, this is nonetheless an entertaining film, particularly when projected onto an IMAX screen, which makes the crash landing a startlingly immersive experience. Nervous fliers might want to give this one a miss.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

American Sniper

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1/2/15

The unprecedented success of this film at the American box office, displays the depth of feeling that the US audience (especially those who vote Republican) have for Clint Eastwood’s biopic of Chris Kyle, proclaimed on the poster as the ‘most lethal sniper in history.’ Interestingly, it’s not something that Kyle himself ever wanted to boast about and as the film makes clear, it’s a legacy that took a terrible toll on the man himself and, indirectly, even led to his own death. There are many liberal-minded people who have been quick off the blocks to denounce this as dumb, Republican rhetoric, a recruitment film for would-be psychopaths, racists and the NRA, but I honestly feel that those who denounce it are failing (perhaps deliberately) to see it for what it is – a grunts-eye view of the war in Iraq from the perspective of somebody who had the unenviable task of actually being there.

The film begins with a young Chris being taken hunting by his daddy and making his first ‘kill,’ a deer. (So far, so redneck.) We then gallop on some years to find an older Chris (a beefed-up Bradley Cooper) witnessing the attack on the World Trade Centre and promptly enlisting in the Navy Seals. The man is a unabashed patriot who doesn’t hesitate to do what he perceives as ‘his duty to his country.’ He undergoes a brutal training regime and his gift for target shooting some comes to the fore. And all to soon, he’s in Iraq, on the first of four punishing tours, working as a sniper, only to discover that his first target is a little boy carrying a lethal weapon…

Now, if there is a criticism to be made of the film, it’s this. We only ever see the ‘enemy’ from the point of view of the American soldiers and, to a man, woman or child, they are all duplicitous, evil villains, every one of them intent of killing the infidels at any cost.  Common sense tells us that that simply can’t be the case and it would have been nice here to have witnessed some Iraqi characters portrayed in a more sympathetic way, but that clearly wasn’t Eastwood’s objective here and he ignores it.

But don’t go thinking either that this is a film that glorifies or whitewashes the war in Iraq. It’s a savage, visceral recreation that horrifies as much as it thrills and Eastwood makes it clear how such a career exacts a punishing price on those who live it, something that is clearly demonstrated by Kyle’s fraught relationship with his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), whenever he comes home on leave. Cooper plays Kyle as a big, genial giant, a quiet man who constantly hides his inner turmoil from the world and who only eventually finds release by working with veterans who have themselves been damaged by the war. Whatever your political take on this (and there’s no doubt that Eastwood pitches his tent squarely in the Republican camp) the film surely doesn’t deserve the approbation that’s been heaped upon it. It’s well directed, its battle scenes are unflinching in their graphic detail and at no point does anybody stand up and make a speech about how America has done the right thing.

War is always a tragedy and American Sniper never pretends that it’s anything else.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney