TWO EXPOSES’ DELVE INTO THE DARK SIDE OF AMERICAN POLITICS…with uneven results

Yes, it is fall, the season of more “mature” adult fare at the multiplex as studios begin to trod out their prestige “awards” films, and this year it is especially such.  Already we’ve had intriguing, well-executed broad-audience hits like The Martian, Bridge of Spies, Black Mass, and Siccario, and the critically-acclaimed but box-office bust Steve Jobs.  Now come two political dramas, both based on real events that took place in the early 2000’s.  While one is a dramedy whose tone shifts from silly to sober so often that critics (and apparently audiences as well, who have christened it with a dreaded C+ CinemaScore grade) can’t seem to wrap their heads around and the other a superbly made drama about the devastating facts behind one of the most scandalous episodes in modern broadcast journalism, they both could be worth a watch if you’re an adult who enjoys true-life American political drama.

OUR BRAND IS CRISIS **1/2

A passion project of George Clooney, his producing partner Grant Heslov, and Sandra Bullock (part of the team that brought you last year’s Gravity) this film takes a serious, yet tongue-in-cheek look at American political influence abroad by fictionalizing an award-winning documentary of the same name that recounts how revered (and reviled) American political strategist James Carville was hired in 2002 to ensure the election of an unpopular former president of Bolivia to the presidency once again when it looked like a more Socialist-leaning candidate might win the election.  Apparently, Carville and his firm manufactured the idea that Bolivia was at a point of extreme crisis and needed the experienced leadership of his candidate over that of the less-experienced Socialist, and it was this strategy that got his candidate elected, against all odds.  Of course, there really was no such extreme crisis–it was all a matter of perception and manipulation.  Parallels have been drawn to how the Bush Administration in the US used a similar strategy to cajole Congress and the American people into approval of his pre-emptive Iraq War, which later proved to have been entirely unnecessary (for the reasons that Bush stipulated, at least) and became both a political, economic, and humanitarian nightmare that the US still hasn’t recovered from.

In the film’s case, Bullock actually plays the character based on Carville, “Calamity” Jane Bodine.  Here, she’s a washed up political genius brought back into service to find a way to get the lackluster Pedro Castillo elected President despite the fact that his poll numbers are in the single digits and he is reviled by most as an autocrat running against the man-of-the-people populist who is currently leading, thanks to Bodine’s nemesis, rival American political strategist Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton).  An altitude-sick, hung-over Jane suddenly comes to life when a protester smacks her candidate with an egg, and Castillo clocks the guy in the jaw in retaliation, creating the crisis theme that will eventually carry her candidate to victory, despite she and Candy’s often hilarious efforts to thwart each other.

While the movie is often uneven in its mix of comedic moments and biting political commentary, its point is still clear, and one that is worth noting in our own domestic political world.  Political candidates are handled by strategists who dictate their every sentence, and for whom no shenanigan is too low, too hurtful, or too dishonest as long as the candidate wins.  That’s what American-style democracy is all about, whether here in the US, or on the high-altitude steppes of some obscure place like Bolivia.

And yes, that is, in the end, very depressing…

 

TRUTH ****

Once again, the theme here is the ludicrous levels of dishonesty and obfuscation the vested interests of various political candidates will go to to ensure the election of their chosen candidate.  Here, Writer/Director James Vanderbilt adapts Pulitzer Prize-winning news producer Mary Mapes’ book Truth and Duty; the Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power about the infamous scandal that destroyed both hers and news anchoring legend Dan Rather’s careers in broadcast journalism.

The scene is the contentious 2004 US presidential election between controversial incumbent George W. Bush and Democratic rival Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.  As the actual election nears, attention turns to the military service records of each candidate, introduced by conservative Republican interests who refute Kerry’s Vietnam War record, which show him to be a hero, with their infamous “swift boat” attack ads that show so-called comrades of Kerry’s on one particular mission, for which Kerry was decorated as a hero, refuting the validity of those medals.  At the same time, Mapes (Cate Blanchett) is made aware of documents that indicate that President Bush, during the same period, was shunted away from service in Vietnam by a Texas millionaire who many wealthy “sons of Texas” paid to be given cushy homeland military service jobs in the National Guard.  Subsequently, he then had not even fulfilled his Guard obligations, but spent an entire year AWOL and another period going to an Ivy-League college, all without any sort of disciplinary action from the National Guard.  Though there are some minor concerns about the validity of a couple key documents because they are both copies and therefore can’t be authenticated accurately,  Mapes and legendary CBS newsman Dan Rather (Robert Redford) decide to run with the story anyway, since the documents, along with confirmation by several human sources, indicate that Kerry is not the only one with skeletons in his military service closet.  The findings are aired on CBS’s 60 Minutes II in September of 2004 and look to be a slam-dunk equalizer to the Republican “swift boat” attacks on John Kerry.

However, within days, Republican proxies seize on the document validity issue, and when the corporate higher-ups at CBS, fearing a ratings backlash, fail to support Mapes, Rather and their team, all hell breaks loose as experts parse about super-script “th”s and official military abbreviations, Mapes’ sources are badgered, bullied, and intimidated into retracting their statements, and everyone forgets the rest of the overwhelming evidence that confirms the truth of the report.  The sad results are the stuff of epic broadcast journalism infamy.

With a script whose pacing and style are as riveting as anything by Aaron Sorkin and an all-star cast that features Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid, Stacy Keach, Bruce Greenwood, and Elisabeth Moss as well as Blanchett and Redford, this is a superbly made drama that so graphically portrays how money, politics, and expedience destroy truth that I doubt that I’ll ever really believe anything that comes from the news media anymore, especially when it has to do with politics.  The “truth” has literally become whatever each particular side has decided it will be, or at least what those who fund them have decided it will be.  Meanwhile, the real truth gets so lost in the shuffle that it becomes unrecognizable.  Is it any wonder that polls these days show voter apathy and disgust for our political institutions at an all-time high?  And that, sadly, really is the truth.

 

 

BRIDGE OF SPIES ***1/2 – Spielberg and Hanks Slam Another Historical Home Run

It is no secret in Hollywood that both Actor Tom Hanks and Director Steven Spielberg are history nuts, and when the two collaborate on such efforts, the results can be stunning (who can forget Saving Private Ryan…).  The same happens again here as the actor, the director, and acclaimed writers Joel and Ethan Coen (more noted for their quirky dark stories like Fargo and No Country for Old Men) bring to life the early days of the Cold War in this riveting story.

Based on true events, Hanks stars as insurance lawyer James B. Donovan, a mild-mannered family man who is asked by federal prosecutors to be the defense attorney for captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.  The position is, in the eyes of the feds, an essentially perfunctory one.  Abel has been caught red-handed passing government secrets to Soviet contacts.  He’s guilty as sin, and Donovan’s job is merely to play the caricature of “defense attorney” so that it will appear that Abel has a fair trial before he is convicted and fried in the electric chair.  But Donovan is a man of principle, and isn’t about to be just a place-holder.  He vigorously defends Abel, much to the chagrin of the Justice Department, and though Abel is indeed convicted of spying, Hanks is able to convince the judge in the case to sentence the spy (played with sobering complacence by Brit Mark Rylance) to merely life in prison rather than a swiftly executed death sentence.  How would Americans look to the world if they merely did as the Russians did–executing spies on the spot after extracting whatever intelligence they could from them–and what if, God forbid, some American was captured by the Soviets?  Abel could become an important “prisoner exchange” bargaining chip in the case of such an event.

As if he were a Biblical prophet, Donovan is proved right when, not long after, one of the US’s top-secret U2 spy planes is shot down over Soviet territory and its pilot, Francis Gary Powers, is taken prisoner.  The ensuing exchange negotiations, whom the State Department insists that Donovan conduct without the official sanction of the US government, become more tense and complicated when the Russians insist that they take place in East Germany just as the Berlin Wall is being constructed, with the Russians and East Germans having their own internal battles that Donovan must navigate, including the fate of an American student captured by the East Germans while trying to get his girlfriend back into West Germany through one of the Wall’s few remaining “holes.”  The tensions of the intrigue, along with heart-tugging scenes of the panic in Berlin as the Wall goes up and families struggle to get out of East Berlin while they still can, make for edge-of-your-seat entertainment that will stick with you after you leave the theater, particularly if you’re of a “certain age” and have personal recollection of the period.

Here is a fascinating historical drama that features one of the premiere actors of our time collaborating with one of its premiere film directors to make some seriously high-quality entertainment.  For adults yearning for something to see at the cinema besides popcorn action/adventures and shallow genre fare, this is a must-see movie that totally fits the bill.