In-flight movies used to provide the very definition of the term “captive audience”. I remember reading that there are always a million people in the air, flying to various destinations, and it’s fun to picture them all being forced to watch Kurt Russell in Disney’s THE STRONGEST MAN IN THE WORLD as they scream through the stratosphere in their jet-propelled passenger tubes. Of course, they had the option of not watching anything, unless they had the misfortune of flying Air Ludovici.
Today the options are wider, so I got to pick from a range of recent product. BENJAMIN BUTTON felt like a transatlantic journey when I saw it in an earthbound auditorium, and it seemed possible that MARLEY & ME might have me tearing open the emergency exit or attempting to detonate my shoe within seconds of the opening credits, so I gave both a wide berth and started in on Clint Eastwood’s GRAN TORINO. This seemed not bad, although the caricaturing of Clint’s family was overdone: Clint’s face creasing into that ever-so-familiar moue of distaste at the sight of his granddaughter’s pierced navel was extremely funny, but when the kid turned out to be an incredibly spoiled, insensitive brat, it seemed to let some of the wind out of the humour. Clint’s legendary hard-line stance, applied to domestic drama, is a promising trope, epitomised by his beautiful Harry Callahan line-reading, “Get off my lawn,” but it’s more effective if the stuff he’s pitted against starts very small and petty. When the grand-daughter openly laughed at Clint’s wife’s funeral, I sort of felt he’d be justified in reaching for the Magnum right there and then.
But I can’t actually critique this film because an aeroplane isn’t the place to watch it, and I started to feel restless. Maybe you just need distracting crap when you’re hurtling about the upper atmosphere. I put on QUANTUM OF SHIT-TITLE, the latest James Bond. I’d heard that the opening car chase epitomised what I shall henceforth call the New Incoherence, that tendency of action movies nowadays to serve up ten minutes of motion-blur and impact FX and call it a brilliantly choreographed set-piece.
The film begins, with chase in media res, and I thought, “No, what’s happening here is that they’ve reduced the chase to the abstract, details and moments, and it will settle down and become specific soon.” It seemed like a nice way to start a chase.
But not, I would submit, a nice way to continue and end it. Who’s driving which car? Which car is in front? A police radio voice, obviously dubbed in to add a vestige of clarity, says something about a grey Aston Martin, so I started looking for the familiar Bond car, latest model. But Bond’s car is black, like all the other cars (a fairly basic mistake, surely?). Then the titles, full of CGI sand-storms, which are the one thing CGI can’t do at all (see THE MUMMY and sequels) and the worst Bond theme song ever, and I turn off.
FROST/NIXON. Fiona had been keen on seeing this, and I’d poo-pooed it. Didn’t want to see no stinkin’ Ron Howard film. Fiona like Michael Sheen and Frank Langella and Toby Jones, and while I do too, I felt it would be wrong to let that sway me.
Fiona was right, in that the film is very entertaining, and perfect for those parts of your journey when the craft is buffeted by what they call “rough air” and I call GUSTS OF DEATH.
Howard is genetically bland, but skilled. He knows how to serve up his performances, catching an expression just as a door closes. He’s tasteful to the point of translucency, but the plus side of that is he didn’t slather the movie in retro-details or an oldies soundtrack. I was waiting for the one ’70s song to come in a the end though, and it did. Donna Summer.
Michael Sheen at times resembles one of his previous roles, Tony Blair, as much as he does David Frost, perhaps because he’s trying to avoid caricature, and Frost has plunged into self-caricature these days. When a member of the public accosts Sheen’s Frost with the catchphrase, “Hello, good evening, and welcome,” the presenter remarks, “I don’t actually say that.” But Frost today does. He has embraced the one-dimensional image people have of him. (Anybody can impersonate Frost by shaking there head violently from side to side as they speak; Frost doesn’t actually do this, but he sounds as if he does.) Frost, at least in this movie, resembles Blair in that he’s an over-confident idiot who faces the world from behind a protective grin, raised before him like a Roman legionary’s shield.
Frank Langella as President Dracula is a welcome relief from the ludicrous Spitting Image Nixon puppet seen in WATCHMEN. He’s not quite as magnificent as Philip Baker Hall in Altman’s SECRET HONOR, but he’s good. His slurring is authentic, although in his drunk scene it threatens to jam the film in the projector. He sounds like a man going back in time underwater.
It turns out I’ve seen Rebecca Hall in three different things now, and liked her in all of them, but her range of accents and mannerisms is so rich I never realised it was the same person. I wonder if this will actually hinder her career. It doesn’t seem to be doing so.
Matthew Macfadyen is good as John Birt, although not to mention that he later helped destroy the BBC seems a wasted opportunity (neverwaste an opportunity to kick John Birt) and Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt actually become the characters you care about. Impossible to really root for Frost. And I certainly hope nobody wants me to root for Tricky. Toby Jones is hilarious as Swifty Lazar, Nixon’s agent. The whole performance is reduced to a sneering expression, plus Jones’s startling appearance: bald, round, shiny and beautiful, like a woman’s knee. A woman’s knee emerging from a shirt collar. My God, that’s an arousing image.
Oh, and Kevin Bacon is playing Clint Eastwood, although for some reason his character is called Jack Brennan.
Peter Morgan’s script is very entertaining, serving up chucklesome moments with the regularity of a tennis champ. It simplifies and distorts, of course. I liked the description of Nixon as having “an anti-democratic personality,” but the movie, like Frost, doesn’t really bring home the enormity of the man’s crimes. There is a good bit about the bombing of Cambodia, but nobody actually comes out and informs the modern audience (whom they’re otherwise quite concerned about) that it was illegal. You could walk out of this movie believeing, as Nixon wants Frost to accept, that it was simply a bit of policy that went wrong. Next to that, the film’s most obvious central lie, that the Frost-Nixon interviews made riveting, dramatic television (they were mostly a snooze) is unimportant.
Still, emboldened at my success in actually watching a film in mid-air, I decided to try something cinematically more stimulating. MILK.
Great film, and an instructive contrast to FROST/NIXON. There’s more period flavour, much of it thanks to Harris Savides’s beautiful grainy photography. More of a melange of pop music, but some interesting and erratic choices to stop it becoming a tedious array of chart-toppers. While some critics found the film too conventional to satisfy as a Gus Van Sant movie, apart from the too-familiar device of Milk recording his testament on a tape deck, I found the narrational strategies pretty interesting: it’s a mix-and-match approach rather than a “pure” style, with mocked-up home movies, titles on screen, close-ups of campaign posters, split-screen — whatever works.
At the eye of the storm is Sean Penn, giving one of those rare performances which deserve awards and get them. It’s a major transformation without announcing itself as one. His Harvey Milk is lovable, which is something I’ve never felt about a Penn characterisation before. Those aspects of Penn that can seem unappealing — vague aspects I can’t even put a finger on, apart from his obvious unhandsomeness, which are deployed extremely well when he’s playing sleaze-bags and creeps — become endearing vulnerabilities here. His observation of the man he’s playing seems acute, and he’s not pussyfooting around trying to avoid caricature, he just goes for the essence and trusts that will stop any of the outward aspects appearing too outre.
The film I thought of most apart from FROST/NIXON (which, after all, I’d just watched) was PHILADELPHIA, which always seemed like a chickenshit movie to me — well-intentioned and anemic, and paralysed at the thought of its historical import. Jonathan Demme, a nice fellow and a skilled filmmaker, in trying to make a film that would convert homophobes, converted himself into a cartoon Stanley Kramer. Just comparing the Demme and the Van Sant in their approach to the male-on-male kiss, which seems to petrify everybody concerned with PHILADELPHIA, but which is treated in MILK just as it should be — as no big deal. Because if you see it as a big deal, it becomes one. You can’t kiss well under such pressure. And if you’re worried that your audience can’t handle this image… who is your audience? And why do you want to pander to such idiots? MILK, for all its greater “explicitness” (only the playful butt-slap might raise an eyebrow in a “straight movie”) contains nothing that could shock a sentient human not deeply entrenched in prejudice. I think it’s about context.
Maybe on the return trip I’ll try GRAN TORINO again.