Dunkirk – unresolved tensions

There’s a climactic scene in Dunkirk (Warner Bros, 2017) where some of the exhausted British soldiers are pulling in to station on a train. Suddenly one of them worries: will they be reviled as cowards? The retreat from Dunkirk feels like a massive failure. They fear they have let their country down. There are knocks on the window. The fists of an angry mob? No, a grateful crowd of cheering men and women, handing bottles of beers to the soldiers. They are welcomed as heroes.

There’s emotional content here, and a sense of relief, for sure. But whatever feeling Nolan is trying to wring from this scene, I don’t really feel he’s done much to earn it. For the length of the preceding film, we’ve seen and heard virtually nothing of the English homeland; if any of the characters had families, we weren’t told about it (heck, none of them are even given names); and the abstract ideas of heroism or cowardice, which could have made a nice structural opposition for the film’s framework, have never even been alluded to. Why should we care if they are heroes or cowards? What is at stake?

It would have been easy enough to set up an opening scene or two, to give a little context to the lives of the soldiers; establish a home, a family, a loved one. Once planted, these dramatic elements could have been revisited in the final scenes, and given far more resonance, far more emotional truth, than the perfunctory scene described above. Further, the director could have begun early on with a clue that he intended to address a real human conflict (are we cowards, or are we heroes?), and give us some resolution at the end.

But there! That’s just me being stuffy and old-fashioned, hoping for conventional structure, narrative closure, emotional honesty in a film. Nolan has largely dispensed with all of these conventional elements in Dunkirk (and indeed his other movies, where he frequently plays with temporal structure), because he clearly regards them as corny, trite, clichéd. How can he make a truly modern war movie instead? By studiously avoiding the narrative traps, as he would see them, that get in the way of the statement he wishes to make. No tedious set-ups for him; we’re plunged into the action immediately. Instead of resolution, Nolan gives us perpetual unresolved tensions.

There’s a lot to be said for his confrontational, “you-are-there” styled approach to his take on the Dunkirk story. But in following his chosen path, I feel he sacrifices the context that might give the struggle some meaning that the viewer can identify with. And he doesn’t leave himself time to explore the themes that his station scene is trying to capitalise on; which is why the scene is such an empty payoff. This is what I’m trying to get at when I say it’s “unearned” emotion.

Guest blog post by Ed Pinsent

The Promise: a slurpy romantic melodrama overshadows significant historic events

Terry George, “The Promise” (2016)

A film about the Ottoman Turkish genocide of Armenians and other Christian minorities (1915 – 1918) is probably never going to succeed with a wider audience than the communities involved – and especially as the genocide is still denied by the Republic of Turkey – so one resigns oneself to a retelling of that horrific period in 20th-century history through a melodramatic plot revolving around a complicated love triangle. In 1914, young Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac) aspires to become a doctor in his backwater community of Sirun in southeast Turkey but needs money to travel to Constantinople and pay his way through medical studies there. He is betrothed to local girl Marta and her dowry money helps get him to Constantinople and enrol at university. He boards with Uncle Mesrob and his family and almost immediately falls for his young cousins’ dance tutor Ana (Charlotte le Bon). If you think young Mikael will have problems juggling his affections for Marta and Ana, there’s more to come: Ana herself has been in a long-term relationship with American news reporter Chris (Christian Bale) so, er , the two young people have their hands and heads preoccupied with conflicting emotions and guilt. Unfortunately for them – and maybe fortunately for us having to sit through 133 minutes of film – events in southeast Europe drag Germany and Ottoman Turkey into war against Britain, France and Russia, and almost straight away (as if on cue) the dastardly Turks start rounding up Armenians and throw them into prison camps (to be forced into hard labour, dying of malnutrition and maltreatment), forced marches into the mountains and deserts, and cattle trains going into the wilderness. As the war drags on – and the Ottomans are failing badly, though the film makes no references to how the Turks are faring in the war – the government resorts to mass slaughter of the Armenian people.

Through the tumultuous events, Mikael, Ana and Chris endure personal and shared hardships and sufferings: after escaping a prison camp, Mikael is briefly reunited with his family and marries his betrothed in Sirun while Ana and Chris manage to rescue a group of orphans and take them to safety with an American Protestant missionary. The three main characters reunite again and try to save Mikael’s parents, wife and nieces. They are too late and only manage to rescue his badly injured mother and young cousin Yeva. Chris is captured by Turkish soldiers and incarcerated in a prison where he is sentenced to death as a spy. He is rescued by the US ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau and a mutual playboy friend (Marwan Kenzari) of his and Mikael’s (whose life was also saved by the friend) but the friend pays for his generosity by being executed by a firing squad.

Mikael and Ana take the orphans to a refugee camp and the camp moves to Musa Dagh mountain where the men vow to fight the Turkish army following them. Chris boards a French war cruiser which arrives at the bay beneath Musa Dagh. While the refugees try to fight off Turkish bombardment and board the life-boats that will take them to the cruiser, the tension that naturally arises from the scenario gets an artificial lift from the tension surrounding the love triangle: out of the three – Ana, Chris, Mikael – someone will meet his/her kismet in a most tragic way.

The slurpy melodrama just manages to stay mildly annoying thanks to good acting performances from the leads, though there’s hardly any chemistry between le Bon and Isaac. The plot piles cliché upon cliché with stock characters like the token good Turk who starts out dissolute spoilt playboy son but redeems himself by saving Chris and Mikael’s lives, and with often unnecessary action thriller scenes that add nothing to the plot save one miraculous escape after another. The Musa Dagh stand-off and subsequent rescue of refugees by the French cruiser are worth a film in themselves and should not have been overshadowed by the love triangle’s resolution.

The film’s concentration on the romance leaves no room for a wider investigation into why and how the Ottoman Turkish genocide against Christian minorities in the empire started: no context is provided as to why all of a sudden ordinary Turkish people who had previously been friendly with Armenians should turn on them. Nothing is said of European powers’ intentions to dismember the failing Ottoman empire which would have been enough to give any tottering, unstable empire paranoid thoughts as to whether its minorities were being encouraged from outside to revolt against it. The Turks and their German allies are tarred with a black villain’s brush while the Americans and the French at least are treated as saviours. Audiences are basically brow-beaten to accept the genocide as given, and not to question why it should have happened late in the history of the Ottoman empire, decades after it embarked on Westernisation / modernisation, and not earlier in its 460+ years of existence.

9 Days – From My Window in Aleppo: an ordinary documentary short with little too say and leaving too many unanswered questions

Floor van der Meulen, Thomas Vroege, Issa Touma, “9 Days – From My Window in Aleppo” (2016)

Filmed over nine days (hence the title) in August 2012, this 13-minute documentary short captures one witness’s view of the beginning of the war between the Syrian government and the jihadis in Aleppo that was to last over 4 years until east Aleppo’s liberation by the Syrians and their Russian, Iranian and Lebanese (Hezbollah) allies. Photographer Issa Touma filmed scenes within his apartment and outside through his apartment window; the effect is to give a very intimate and often claustrophobic, even paranoid view of the war as it developed (rapidly as it turned out) from what appears to be a skirmish between the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to a more serious conflict between the SAA and jihadi terrorists that promises to be longer and brutally violent.

While the film, chronologically ordered by day, looks interesting enough in its scenes and their details, it lacks a clear narrative: why did Touma choose to film over nine days, as opposed to, say, seven days or 14 days, and why did he decide to stop filming once the terrorists replaced the FSA? Where does his despair emanate from? Why does he refuse to take sides in the war? For that matter, why did he decide to stay in his apartment instead of leaving the apartment block with his neighbours? Why did he prefer to stay in the apartment, to stay isolated (and watch Hollywood movies on TV) and not look out for his remaining neighbours? Assuming that he spent most of his daylight hours in the apartment, I am astonished that so little film and so little monologue ended up in this documentary.

Had Touma admitted his opinion of the Syrian government, the FSA and the jihadis, viewers would have a better idea of his demoralisation at the arrival of the jihadis. However, by saying that he refuses to support one side or the other, Touma ends up appearing apathetic and passive, and this impression may turn off viewer sympathy for his plight.

For a film that won the European Short Film Award in 2016, this documentary has very little to commend it. While street scenes and the ambient background soundtrack convey the drama of escalating conflict encroaching on an individual’s neighbourhood, the film overall turns out to be an ordinary piece of workman-like quality and offers nothing new or different that most people following non-mainstream news media on events in Syria over the past several years do not already know.

Son of Saul: a modern morality play in the midst of extreme evil

László Nemes, “Son of Saul / Saul Fia” (2015)

Of all the stories László Nemes could have chosen to film to launch his career as a director, few are so terrifying as a day or two in the life of a Jewish Sonderkommando unit member working at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex in 1944. The Nazi German war machine is on its last legs and its death factories are going full-tilt as the regime begins its psychotic self-cannibalism. Hungary has just been swept up into the embrace of the Third Reich and the deportations of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau begun almost immediately. On arrival at the camp, the strongest men among these Jews are separated from the rest by Nazi administrators and forced into Sonderkommando work units under threat of death. Their duties are to collect the clothing of people herded by Nazi guards into the gas showers and to search the clothes for gold, money and other valuable trinkets needed for the German war effort; to haul away the dead and throw them into the ovens; to dispose of their ashes; and to clean out the shower rooms for the next lot of victims.

One such Sonderkommando unit member is Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) who gradually becomes numbed to the dreary and tough physical work he has to do, day in, day out, under close supervision from the guards, with little time for himself … in case he starts plotting with other men like himself to fight back against their oppressors, blow up the camps and escape to alert the rest of the world to what’s been happening there for the past three years or so. One day while helping to dispose of yet another batch of asphyxiated victims, he discovers that a 13-year-old boy survived the gassing. A prison doctor comes over to examine the boy and smothers him. Saul however becomes obsessed with the boy: he believes the child may be his son whom he abandoned many years ago as the child had been conceived and born out of wedlock. With great difficulty and putting his life and others’ lives at risk he retrieves the boy’s body. He then searches for a rabbi among his fellow prisoners and new arrivals for chambers who can say a kaddish (a hymn of praise to God) for the boy so he can be given a proper burial. Saul endures unimaginable suffering and torment from both the Nazi guards and other Sonderkommando work unit inmates to find the rabbi; at the same time, he is also part of a scheme worked out by his work unit leader and other Sonderkommando work units to collect enough gunpowder to make bombs that will blow up the camps and help the prisoners escape into the outside world.

By focusing on Saul’s point of view and following him closely, the film relays the horrors of the death camps and the indignities suffered by Jewish prisoners at the hands of their jailers effectively without delivering any sermons or passing any judgement. It is up to the viewer to decide whether to condemn Saul for risking his life and other prisoners’ lives for the dead boy. For Saul, the child represents an opportunity to redeem himself for not having taken care of his son while he was alive; at the same time the dead boy also represents a continuation of the Jewish people since by being buried his body will be evidence of his people’s former existence if they cannot be allowed to live in the present and into the future. As the film continues, the dead boy may be viewed as representing all the victims who perished in the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau and other death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland.

In his obsessive search for a rabbi – so much so that he risks his own life and at least one other man is killed as a result – Saul in his own way upholds the importance of the spiritual life and the traditions and rituals associated with spirituality and communion with God. Saul is mocked by his fellow prisoners in his search but they do help him find the boy’s body and help lead him to a rabbi, risking their own lives in doing so. Saul’s obsession causes him to fail in his allotted part in the scheme to help blow up the camp but the rebels pull him along with them in escaping from the camp. One would think that, having failed his friends, Saul would have been left behind to face the tender mercies of the authorities when the pathetic rebellion fails as it was bound to … so it is all the more remarkable that they rescue him not once but twice during the rebellion. This might say something about the level of camaraderie that the Sonderkommando prisoners have managed to develop and the depth of humanity they retain in the midst of all the hellish, machine-like evil they are exposed to.

The dialogue is extremely minimal and matter-of-fact and Röhrig is stoic in his facial expressions that seem to say more than words could possibly ever express. This narrative approach allows for multiple interpretations of Röhrig’s motivations and actions, and those of his fellow prisoners, whether they are justified or not in the context of his environment. The cinematography by Mátyás Erdély, relying on a hand-held camera and following Röhrig very closely, so closely that the film jumps when he jumps and swims when he swims, is a stand-out feature of the film; it captures the sickening and hellish ambience of the gas chambers, and the brutal and dehumanising work routines endured by the Sonderkommando work units. Another outstanding aspect of the film is its ambient soundtrack of shouting, crowd noises, explosions and gunfire to suggest various horrors occurring off-screen.

Whatever message the film carries, for most viewers it should surely carry the message that even in the midst of great evil where absolute hopelessness dominates, and people, jailers and prisoners alike, are stripped of all that makes them human, an individual may still be able to find some remnant of humanity within his / her being and through that defy oppressors and gain some redemption. The film drives home the point that morality is very much a personal choice and how one deals with the consequences of making that choice in one’s immediate situation is what saves or damns that person. “Son of Saul” is perhaps best read as a morality play in which a protagonist must decide how best to live his / her life in the midst of unrelenting bleakness, suffering, brutal violence, oppression and hopelessness.

Fear and Desire: an uneven debut meditating on the degradation of war

Stanley Kubrick, “Fear and Desire” (1953)

Stanley Kubrick’s debut feature film may be an awkward and clumsy beast in many ways but for its time (at the height of the Korean War) it’s quite daring for its anti-war stance and investigation of how war breaks men psychologically. The plot is overloaded with an existentialist theme and a lot of psychoanalysis but it’s easy to follow.

Four soldiers land their plane behind enemy lines in dense forest – the film deliberately does not say where the soldiers are from and what enemy country they are stuck in – and must try to make their way back home. To do this, they must face their fears about being alone and cut off from humanity, and about dying. They must also fight against what they want and desire if they are to go home. On their odyssey, they invade an enemy hideout and slaughter everyone there. The youngest soldier of the four, Private Sidney (Paul Mazursky) is disturbed by their action. Next, the men capture a peasant girl (Virginia Leith) who cannot speak their language and hold her hostage. The men then try to locate the enemy base that they have to storm to assassinate an important enemy commander and leave Sidney in charge of the woman. While the threesome make their way through the forest, Sidney is overcome by his delusions and desires and attempts to rape the woman in the belief that she loves him. She manages to escape and Sidney, maddened by her rejection, shoots her dead.

The other three men agree to separate with one soldier, Mac (Frank Silvera,) to act as decoy to draw away the guards at the base while the other two, Lieutenant Corby (Kenneth Harp) and Fletcher (Stephen Coit) try to kill the commander and his aide (Harp and Coit again). While Mac sails on a raft down the river, he reflects on the human condition, preparing himself for possible death as it were. While Corby and Fletcher make their way to the base, the enemy commander coincidentally also reflects on life and death, and the possibility that he may die very soon.

The themes of how war dehumanises people and how individuals cope with alienation from others are often dealt with uncertainly and in a heavy-handed way. Sidney’s descent into madness is not at all convincing though in the context of an hour-long film on a small budget the narrative has to push him into derangement very quickly. The other men in the film also have to confront their own particular hearts of darkness in ways ranging from shocking and terrifying to frankly unbelievable.

While the acting is not bad, it isn’t great either but Kubrick’s direction of the small cast does give a suggestion that the soldiers are inexperienced and fumble their way through their assignment. The consequences of their incompetence are devastating to them and to the civilian population as represented by the innocent peasant woman. The technical aspects of the film are uneven: while some scenes are very beautifully done, others are rather workman-like.

Though this first effort certainly does not scream “genius at work!”, one can see in it motifs and characteristics that will turn up in later Kubrick films. Several of Kubrick’s films delve into exploring and deconstructing Western notions of masculinity and “Fear and Desire” sets that ball rolling; the upshot of this is that female characters in Kubrick’s films are usually undeveloped and certainly Leith’s peasant woman is no more than a blank canvas onto whom Sidney pours out his desires and burdens.

Curiously while Kubrick was to go on to make some very powerful anti-war films in the course of his career, the one anti-war film “Fear and Desire” most reminded me of is Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”. In both these films, there is a journey by soldiers into territory that breaks down the barrier between reality and fantasy, and in like manner these soldiers, forced by their superiors to labour under the stress and degradation of war unleash their anger, repressed instincts and darkest urges onto people they are taught to fear and despise. The results are horrible and tragic indeed.

Russian Media interview President Bashar al Assad of Syria: a view of how Syria is fighting terrorism and advancing political change

Russian Media Interview with President Bashar al Assad (16 September 2015)

Syrian President Bashar al Assad granted a rare interview to representatives from various Russian media outlets including RT, Rossiskaya Gazeta, Channel 1, Russia 24, RIA Novosti and NTV Channel. Given that for the past four years Syria has been under siege from various rebel groups such as Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS, the interview inevitably centred on Syria’s fight against these terrorist groups, how this fight is progressing and what the process to achieve and maintain lasting peace will be, and the huge wave of refugees leaving Syria for Europe. The interview was conducted in Arabic, English and Russian, and can be viewed at this RT link. The English-language transcript is also at the link.

The interview starts at the deep end with a multi-loaded question on the political process to peace, the President’s view on sharing power with Syrian opposition groups that originally wanted him gone and how he plans to carry out political reforms in the current difficult circumstances. The President replies that from the outset his government used dialogue to bring together different groups of Syrians in Damascus, Moscow and Geneva, to discuss political change and how to fight terrorism, and that this dialogue is still ongoing. However for political change to occur, terrorism must be defeated first, and to defeat terrorism and stop the exodus of refugees, the West must stop supporting terrorists. Most Syrians who are refugees are fleeing Syria because of the terrorist threat, and most remaining Syrians want security and safety first before political reforms can take place.

On the question of international co-operation to solve the terrorism problem, Assad acknowledges the support from Iran, Egypt and Russia at varying levels. There has been some co-operation with Iraq as well. On the other hand, the coalition of countries led by the US has had no success in combating terrorism and has only allowed ISIS to expand its forces. Some Middle Eastern countries are assisting ISIS by providing fighters and weapons.

On the question of the type of enemy Syria faces in ISIS, whether ISIS is a large organisation or an actual state, Assad asserts that the state ISIS claims to have created is artificial and bears no resemblance to a normal society. ISIS is an extremist Islamist creation of the West and serves as a de facto army to bring down Assad’s government and create chaos and instability in the Middle East.

Asked if he was prepared to work with those Western politicians who had wanted his overthrow once peace is restored to Syria, Assad indicates that he would if such co-operation brings benefits to Syria and the Syrian people and that his personal feelings were irrelevant. Assad expresses sorrow that there are so many Syrian refugees who have fled to Europe, as every person gone is a loss to Syria but he also emphasised that the deaths of people in Syria from terrorism are no less tragic than the deaths of refugees on the high seas in the Mediterranean.

The interview concluded with a question as to whether the war in Syria against ISIS and other terror groups began and who Assad thinks is responsible for it. He lays the blame squarely on the US and the oil kingdoms in the Arabian Peninsula and refers to the general historical background stretching back to the 1980s when the West adopted the murderous mujahideen in Afghanistan as “freedom fighters”.

Watching and listening to the interview, I was impressed with Assad’s soft-spoken demeanour and his fortitude in the most difficult circumstances. He may not have willingly taken on the role of Syrian President – he was originally an eye doctor working in London until the death of his older brother who had been groomed by their father Hafez Assad as his successor forced him to return to Syria – but he has shown tremendous moral fibre in staying with his people and defending them.

 

Sõda: political satire as animal fable takes on a dark tone

Riho Unt and Hardi Volmer, “Sõda” (1987)

It has the look of a political satire disguised as an animal fable and I would say that the hapless little bat represents Estonia, buffeted by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Our flitter-mouse friend takes shelter in an abandoned water-mill and initially whiles away its time catching flies to eat and exploring its new surroundings. Before long though, the water-mill is invaded by crows from the sky, having found their way through a hole in the roof, and the bat is under siege from the birds which peck at it and try to dominate it. If that weren’t enough, hordes of rats from underground flood into the water-mill and attack the bat in the few refuges it can find. Soon the crows and rats start fighting over possession of the water-mill and the bat does its best to escape the crossfire and occasionally swing the battle in its favour.

The stop-motion animation has a raw and crude look which is effective for the film’s theme and plot. The puppets look cartoonish enough yet (in the case of the crows and rats) convey sinister menace. The music soundtrack is not intrusive and helps define the characters and the plot trajectory. The general look of the film is dark and grey-ish, in agreement with its sombre theme.

The film’s theme is adequate for a mainstream audience in scope though the reality is more complicated: Estonia did in fact collaborate with Nazi Germany during the Second World War, helping to round up Roma gypsies and Jewish people for incarceration and extermination. Currently Estonia finds itself losing people due in part to following an austerity program (which is eroding social services and infrastructure) and being part of the Schengen zone (meaning Estonians can travel to any part of the European Union to find work without needing visas) within the EU; and has accepted American troops in its territory on a supposedly temporary basis to defend itself against supposed Russian aggression. It seems that the bat is now up against forces more powerful and terrible than the crows and rats ever were. The film’s conclusion takes on a darker tone than the film-makers intended.

Hollywood and The Pentagon: A Dangerous Liaison – where entertainment recruits cannon fodder for the military

Maria Pia Mascaro, “Hollywood and The Pentagon: A Dangerous Liaison / Marschbefehl für Hollywood” (2003)

People may be surprised that the United States Department of Defense takes a keen interest in much of Hollywood’s movie output, in particular the industry’s production of war movies, to the extent that the Pentagon has an office in Los Angeles that gives advice to film-makers, vets scripts and makes changes to scripts to portray the military in a favourable light. The military also supplies equipment and provides technical advice to enable film-makers to be as accurate as possible in their portrayal of soldiers in action. But there is a price to be paid in accepting the military’s advice and using its equipment (including hardware): the Pentagon demands that films must show American soldiers as heroic and moral, to the extent that truth and narrative accuracy end up being sacrificed and the results turn into pro-military / pro-war propaganda. This made-for-TV documentary demonstrates that the close relationship between Hollywood and the Pentagon goes as far back as the 1940s at least and that this relationship has a heavy and deleterious influence on public support for the military, reflected in military recruitment of people. The romanticisation of US soldiers in popular cinema conceals real crimes they commit in other countries during war and peace-time: mass murders, rapes, torture and other atrocities inflicted on enemy combatants and civilians, and even incidents like traffic accidents resulting in the deaths or crippling of civilians, with perpetrators more often than not being exonerated by US military courts.

The documentary relies heavily on interviews with military officials who present their side of the issue in a matter-of-fact way, focusing on details of their engagement with aspects of the film industry, that sidesteps the ethics of their involvement. The interviewer does not probe very deeply into what individuals do – perhaps because these people from choice or compulsion would not co-operate otherwise. The film skips around different aspects of the Pentagon’s complicated relationship with Hollywood, ranging from film directors having to agree to Pentagon interference in writing and rewriting scripts and the military’s refusal to provide hardware and equipment if film-makers do not agree to its demands; to Pentagon interest in developing computer and video games that draw on real wars and incidents and reshape them to the Pentagon’s liking; and to the Pentagon’s practice of embedding journalists with troops so that reporters are exposed only to the military point of view. Some famous Hollywood films like Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down” and his brother Tony’s “Top Gun” are discussed as examples where the Pentagon exercised a great deal of influence in changing the script so as to whitewash American actions or suggest that atrocities or incidents of torture are the work of a lone “bad apple” rather than the foreseeable results of a culture of bullying, misogyny, intimidation, the exaltation of violence and an apocalyptic mind-set within the military.

The film is not very structured and viewers have to follow the voice-over narration and the interviews closely to make sense of what they see and hear. There can be a lot of information to absorb and viewers might need a second viewing to digest it all. Probably the creepiest part of the documentary is where a lawyer explains that Hollywood (in particular, Hollywood actors) seems obsessed with its self-importance and the industry imagines it can have more influence in US culture and society by contacting Washington and offering its services. By doing so, Hollywood and Hollywood actors end up prostituting themselves by virtually agreeing to propagandise for Washington’s interests. The otherwise laudable efforts of actors like Angelina Jolie and George Clooney in supporting human rights and advocating for particular issues now take on a sinister sheen.

This film best serves as an introduction to a deep and worrying issue of how closely inter-twined the US government and US military are with the nation’s entertainment industries, and how popular entertainment now serves not only as the dominant propaganda tool but also in shaping culture and society to serve a dysfunctional and psychopathic leadership and its ideology.

Full Metal Jacket: how people are dehumanized by war and the culture of war

Stanley Kubrick, “Full Metal Jacket” (1987)

According to Wikipedia, a full metal jacket refers to a bullet consisting of a soft core (usually made of lead) surrounded by a harder metal shell casing. This is the clue to a major theme of this anti-war film by Stanley Kubrick: the dehumanization of men by war, in particular by the culture and organisation of war to achieve ends other than what the men themselves have been told about what they are fighting for. The movie is well made, with skilful deployment of the Steadicam camera that follows the actors quite closely so that the viewer is brought right into the action of war and is able to feel something of the sweat, exhaustion, uncertainty and sheer hard grind (physical and psychological) of being on the front-line. The cinematography is magnificent in its portrayal of the claustrophobic environment and the scale of destruction in Vietnam wrought by the Vietnam War.

The film divides into two halves: viewers will be hard pressed to figure out which half features more brutality and violence. In the first half, a platoon of US marine recruits is put through its boot camp paces by the sadistic and implacable Sergeant Hartman (R Lee Ermey, who drew on his experiences as a drill sergeant in the US Army and saw action in Vietnam in the 1960s). Almost straight away Hartman finds fault with one recruit Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio), whom he dubs Gomer Pyle after a TV sitcom character because of his bumbling ways. Pyle finds keeping up with the recruits during the hard physical training very heavy going and continually attracts the ire and insults of Hartman. Hartman pairs him with another recruit “Joker” (Matthew Modine) who tries to help Pyle. Pyle makes considerable progress until he is humiliated by Hartman who then starts punishing the entire platoon every time Pyle makes a mistake. The platoon then hazes Pyle. From this moment on, Pyle suffers a slow mental breakdown, disguised as his reinvention as a model soldier, to the horror of Joker who observes his deterioration. This gradual collapse comes to a horrifying and incredibly tragic climax.

The second half of the film sees Joker, now a sergeant and war correspondent for a military newspaper, covering events as they unfold during the Vietnam War. Accompanied by photographer Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard), Joker is sent to Phu Bai where they follow a squad of soldiers, one of whom is Cowboy (Arliss Howard), Joker’s friend from boot camp. The men are involved in a number of actions that culminate in their entrapment in an unfamiliar part of an unnamed bombed-out city by a sniper who picks them off one by one. The men lead an attack on the sniper and Joker discovers the sniper’s identity. A shoot-out follows and Joker is left with a dreadful choice to make.

As the moral pivot around which FMJ revolves, the mostly passive character of Joker is important: he represents the ordinary person thrust into extreme situations where he is forced to make unenviable choices, and each and every one of these choices has the potential to cut him down as a moral being. At the end of the film, Joker is glad to be physically alive but whether he is morally and spiritually alive is another question. The men around him represent particular aspects of the human character under duress and some of them, like Pyle, become psychotic to a degree. Because Joker is essentially an acquiescent character who basically does as he is told despite a minor shallow rebelliousness, the film may seem less stronger to many viewers than it might have done had he been more assertive.

Some viewers may gripe about the film’s structure but the two halves complement each other well: the first half is ordered with a definite narrative. Hartman carries out a brutal regime of degradation in a more or less restrained and controlled environment. In the film’s second half, chaos and disorder reign. The psychological degradation is more gradual. The film’s conclusion appears banal but it is a logical summation of the brutality and violence that the US troops have brought to Vietnam. The film is actually very tight in its overall structure. Just as Joker claims to a disbelieving senior officer that he wears a helmet baptised “Born to Kill” and a peace symbol at the same time to represent the Jungian dualities that exist in his nature, so the film conveys a similar duality in its halves that reflect and comment on one another. Should we be surprised that both halves resolve in similar climaxes that test the moral strength of Joker and the audience who witness with him?

Details within the film, especially in a scene in which the soldiers are interviewed by news reporters, delineate the extent to which the soldiers are becoming paranoid and hateful towards the Vietnamese: they believe the Vietnamese are ungrateful at the Americans’ presence and what they believe is a noble fight against Communism. The extent to which the Americans and Vietnamese exist in parallel but are actually worlds apart thanks in part to the Americans having been brainwashed by their own government and media propaganda can be faintly discerned. The Vietcong enemy initially appears mysterious, sinister, larger than large, ominous and multi-tentacled yet when it is revealed at close quarters, the soldiers are devastated to discover they have been picked off by a teenage girl.

A major theme of Kubrick’s films is the cultural construction of masculinity in Western, principally American, society and how manhood can be distorted and undercut by prevailing cultural delusions about war and how it is best prosecuted. The film’s two climaxes demonstrate how fragile this masculinity is and how culture can destroy humans in just as devastating ways as war does.

On the whole, this is a very good film though it lacks the power of Francis Ford Coppola’s excellent “Apocalypse Now” with which it is often compared.

The Imitation Game: another simplistic cog in the propaganda war aiming to demonise Russia

Morten Tyldum, “The Imitation Game” (2014)

One of a slew of historical films from the UK depicting hitherto unknown or unfamiliar aspects of Britain’s role in World War II against Nazi Germany, “The Imitation Game” is a fictionalised account of the renowned British computer scientist Alan Turing’s work at Bletchley Park in decoding the encryption and deciphering codes used by the Nazi enemies’ Enigma coding machines. The film’s narrative takes the form of flashback recounts made by Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) under arrest for indecency offences to a dumbfounded police detective (Rory Kinnear) after a mystery break-in at Turing’s home in 1951. In Turing’s retelling of his World War II work, the story flies back and forth between his teenage years at boarding school, during which time he suffers from severe bullying and develops an intense friendship with another boy, and his efforts in building a machine that will decipher Nazi German messages under various pressures exerted by his initially uncooperative work colleagues led by Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), his superior Commander Alasdair Denniston (Charles Dance) and above all, time itself, as the Germans continue their sweep across Europe, capturing Paris and several other European capitals, and threaten the security of Britain itself with bombing raids and strikes against shipping in the North Atlantic.

A significant criticism of the film can be made in the way characters and the overall story narrative were changed so as to conform to a simplistic Hollywood story of lone outsider with Asperger-like geek tendencies fighting against an unsympathetic bureaucracy and disbelieving colleagues to fulfill his life’s dream and in the process become a hero. In real life Turing was very friendly and enjoyed good working relationships with others; likewise other characters in the film who are portrayed in stereotyped ways – Denniston as unsympathetic and rigid authority figure comes to mind – were nothing of the sort in real life. Also the film’s plot casts Turing and his colleagues as being solely and heroically responsible for cracking the Enigma machine’s codes when in fact thousands of people (80% of whom were women) from all walks of life – mathematicians, chess players and historians alike, thanks to Denniston’s recruitment efforts – were involved in the code-breaking efforts. In such an environment, the chances that Turing would meet and work with someone like John Cairncross, who was secretly working for the Soviets, were close to being so small as to be infinitesimal. A subtle and quite unnecessary subtext that demonises Russia is present.

In this unrealistic narrative also, an unnecessary plot crisis is invented when, having cracked the Engima machine’s codes and read its recent messages, Turing and his team (which includes one woman, Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley) discover a convoy of British ships carrying 500 civilians and a navy sailor brother of one of Turing’s colleagues is about to be attacked by German U-boats in the next 30 minutes. The young colleague understandably wants to save his brother’s life … but to do so by phoning Downing Street, who would then order an attack on the U-boats, risks publicising the British discovery of the Germans’ encryption codes to the Germans themselves. The Germans would then resort to using new codes which would force the British to try to decipher the new codes after years of trying to decipher the current codes. This version of the classic trolley-bus dilemma (should one sacrifice one person so that five others end up being killed, or should one save that person but allow those five to die?) is so contrived that audiences can see it in advance before the young man even tells Turing about his brother. Of course, the answer, given the constricting social and political circumstances, is obvious and in the reality of the time, the young man would accept that his brother, in joining the navy and swearing his oath of loyalty, had already made his choice … but in the world of mainstream British historical film-making, Hollywood dictates rule that Turing alone makes the decision and in doing so, becomes a bit less human in the short term – and perhaps more corruptible as a result – if more heroic in the long term. From this moment on, one senses that Turing’s life trajectory must take a downward turn in the fantasy-land that is current Western mainstream cinema.

The film does very little to follow Turing’s post-war activities except to highlight his arrest for gross indecency (for having engaged in homosexual activity with another, much younger man) and to paint him as something of a pathetic figure forced to undergo chemical castration whose side effects undermine his intellectual work. A definite subtext that protests any action seen as discriminatory towards LGBTI people and impinges on their freedom of sexual expression, whether such action is intended or not, seems to be at work here. The reality is that Turing voluntarily accepted to undergo hormonal treatment to avoid imprisonment which would have affected his future employment and work prospects. The only person who would know if the hormonal treatment had affected his intellectual activities would be Turing himself – his work after Bletchley Park and during his last few years would suggest that the injections had few side effects on his output (though they did feminise his body somewhat). The end titles which state that Turing committed suicide contain a suggestion that his final years were tragic but his mystery death from cyanide poisoning has never really been adequately solved. Given that he had a small laboratory set up in his home and that he was a bit careless with the way he stored dangerous laboratory chemicals, there is a possibility that his death was more accidental than deliberate.

The film’s chief assets are its lead actor Cumberbatch in the pivotal role of Turing and the cast assembled around him. The film is easy enough to follow though it is uncritical of the Second World War and the way in which it was fought. The film’s release during a period in which the UK is pumping out historical dramas set between World Wars I and II for cinema and TV release, at the same time that the US and its allies including the United Kingdom are ratcheting up a new Cold War against Russia and use the crisis in post-Yanukovych / EuroMaidan Ukraine to conduct a proxy war against Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation leaves this reviewer feeling uncomfortable about “The Imitation Game” being another cog in a propaganda storm aimed at softening up the public in the West for more global conflict.

In all, if readers of this blog want to know more about Alan Turing, they’d be better off staying away from the cinema and reading this article by Christian Caryl for the New York Review of Books that all but pulverises the movie for turning Turing into a one-dimensional totem.