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.

No Russian troops but plenty of Donetsk determination and pluck in “Donetsk: An American Glance”

Miguel Francis Santiago and Alexander Panov, “Donetsk: An American Glance” (RT Documentary, 2014)

Cheerful LA film graduate and investigative journalist Miguel Francis Santiago, fresh from filming his travelogue “Crimea for Dummies” journeys on to Donetsk, one of the two major cities in eastern Ukraine where civil war has raged between Ukrainian government army forces and separatist rebels since April 2014. With so much contradictory information and propaganda pouring from the Western news media about the situation in eastern Ukraine, much of it emanating from the Ukrainian government itself, and with an agenda to discredit Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin in particular, the only way to find out anything resembling the truth is to visit the area and talk to the local people, and this our hero MFS does with his open and frank manner that encourages others to warm to him. The aim of the film is to investigate and verify Kyiv and Western news media claims that Putin has sent Russian army troops into eastern Ukraine to wage war on the Ukrainian army.

MFS appears to be based mostly in Donetsk City for the making of this film and a tidy and attractive city it looks too, even under duress of bombing, with plenty of city gardens and green space. The streets are spacious though empty and a few people can be seen pounding the pavements. Even trolley-buses, recent targets of the Ukrainian army, are gliding along. Damage to the streets and buildings is being repaired by city workers as best as they can. One of the first individuals we meet is Veselina, commander of a separatist division, who features throughout the film so one assumes that MFS is more or less attached to – or embedded with – her group. She tells the reporter that she gave up her regular work to fight with the rebels and that her desire is to ensure that the people she knows and loves all survive the war. Her men are loyal to her and respect her experience, leadership and judgement.

With Veselina’s division, MFS meets a young woman desperate to rescue her grandmother who stubbornly refuses to leave her home in spite of the bombing around her and a small opera company in Donetsk city trying to maintain a busy schedule of rehearsals and performances to keep up the citizens’ spirits. MFS then trails another commander, Givi, who shows him what remains of Sergey Prokofiev International Airport in Donetsk, once the most modern airport in eastern Ukraine: the entire complex has been destroyed and all that is left is endless ruin. MFS talks to people living close to the war front, several of them forced to live in basements where among other things they celebrate a young man’s birthday. What MFS sees and hears, and what civilians tell him, are all too much for the journalist to bear and the film concludes with MFS doing his grunge guitar thang, singing his heart out to the world and expressing his anguish and rage that senseless war is being visited on Donetsk and other places in eastern Ukraine.

MFS never does find Russian troops in and around Donetsk, and local people tell him they have never seen Russian soldiers either. All the fighting against the Ukrainian army is by local people, all Ukrainians speaking Ukrainian dialects of Russian. One man condemns Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko for bringing war and suffering to Donetsk.

It is possible that by only visiting Donetsk, MFS has received a biased point of view about the war in eastern Ukraine and that if he had gone to places like Lugansk, Kramatorsk and Mariupol, he might have seen Russian troops on eastern Ukrainian soil. The people he talks to seem genuine enough: they are all ordinary people employed in jobs like mining, carpentry, various professions and farming, and all have felt compelled to take up arms against Kyiv to defend and preserve their language, culture and land. The spirit and independence of the people of Donetsk city and region are prominent and infectious, and at the end of the film I can’t help but cheer them on and hope that they succeed in retaining their land and identity.

Yes, this is a propaganda film; in the midst of war, in which two opposed sides claim to possess the truth, seeking and claiming “balance” in viewpoint is impossible. One cannot be “impartial”, one must decide who to believe and not to believe, who is right and who is not, based on the evidence and facts found. MFS has bravely put his life and beliefs on the line to bring what he believes is the truth and it certainly does not reflect well on Western news media, our governments and ultimately us that we may be the ones supporting forces inimical to democracy and good governance.

Yet even in an awful and brutal war such as this civil war against the people of Donetsk, the human spirit, as exemplified by the Donetsk people’s cheerfulness, communal spirit and determination to carry on as normal, keeping their city clean and comfortable and performing music and opera, is radiant and shines through the terrible destruction.

Formation of a State: the fight for independence by Donetsk National Republic

“Formation of a State” (NovorossiyaTV.com, 24 August 2014)

After capturing a group of neo-Nazi fascists fighting for the Poroshenko regime in Ukraine, the self-proclaimed Donetsk National Republic paraded the prisoners on 24 August 2014, the day of Ukrainian independence. Later Alexander V Zakharchenko, Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Donetsk National Republic, and Vladimir Kononov, Minister for Defense of the DNR, gave a press conference in which they informed the press of the current situation on the battlefield and invited the journalists to ask questions. The Q&A session makes up the overwhelming bulk of the press conference.

Facing the camera directly, Zakharchenko and Kononov are open and frank in the answers they give and the two give no impression of hiding anything or dissembling in any way. They are well-informed about Donetsk’s history, economy and resources, and about other countries as well. Zakharchenko, fielding the bulk of the questions, is polite, speaks quickly and well, and never bats an eyelid in the face of sometimes aggressive and even hostile and biased questioning from reporters. Kononov is attentive in listening to Zakharchenko and never interrupts what he says.

Zakharchenko has a lot to get off his chest and what he says is not only highly informative but dovetails with other news from alternate news blogs and websites about the astounding incompetence and lack of proper military leadership and management within the Ukrainian armed forces, resulting in high Ukrainian soldier casualties and desertions, and instances of Ukrainian soldiers being surrounded by DNR forces who cut them off from reinforcements that never arrive due to bad logistics, of which Kyiv tries to downplay by reporting many deaths, desertions and surrenders as soldiers missing in action. Zakharchenko quickly addresses a question on the marching of Ukrainian prisoners down the main street of Donetsk city by noting that Kyiv had earlier declared that its soldiers would be marching through Donetsk, though not in the way the Kyiv regime imagined. He denies that Russia is sending DNR soldiers, weapons and ammunition. He sarcastically notes that some western European countries have charters guaranteeing the right of self-government and separation after referendum and that Scotland will be holding an independence referendum in September, 2014.

A French reporter refers to two French volunteers who have arrived in Ukraine to fight with the DNR and Zakharchenko says they will be available for a later press conference. He then answers a question about what Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko might discuss at a summit in Minsk, Belarus, by saying that Donetsk will now not agree to federalisation (which option both Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts had hoped for initially after the February 2014 overthrow of the previous Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukoyvch) and has vowed to go its own way after the war crimes committed by the Ukrainian government and forces against it and Lugansk. Contrary to Western media reports about Donetsk’s economy, painting it as inefficient and run-down, the self-proclaimed republic has what it needs to be self-sufficient in food, manufacturing, energy and natural resources and tourism potential. (Indeed before the war began, Donetsk was one of the richer oblasts in Ukraine and had a very high gross regional product compared to other oblasts.) The press conference concludes with a couple of questions on the adoption of the death penalty and laws pertaining to the keeping of prisoners: Zakharchenko admits that the death penalty is in effect to safeguard security in Donetsk and that a new criminal code has been adopted with courts-martial and tribunals to support it.

For many people who so far have received all what they know about the situation in Ukraine from mainstream Western news media, the press conference is sure to make a stunning impact on them. For many if not most, this will be the first time that they discover that the war has not gone well for Ukraine and that thousands of its soldiers have died unnecessarily. They will also discover that the defenders of Donetsk are determined and have a great belief and confidence in their cause. No matter what the odds are and what sacrifices they will have to make, I feel sure that the Donetsk National Republic will achieve the independence and freedom they have fought hard for.

The video can be viewed at this Youtube link created by Vineyard of the Saker and a transcript in English can be read here.

Lili Marleen: a celebration and critique of the Hollywood musical tradition and its historical context

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “Lili Marleen” (1981)

An unhappy tale of thwarted love, Fassbinder’s “Lili Marleen” plays hard and fast with its original source material, a biography of Lale Anderson who originally performed the famous World War II song “Lili Marlene”, beloved of Allied and Axis soldiers alike. The film is set during a period spanning a decade from the late 1930s to mid-1945. German cabaret singer Willie (Hanna Schygulla) and Swiss Jewish composer Robert Mendelssohn (Giancarlo Giannini) meet in Zurich and fall in love; but Robert’s father (Mel Ferrer) is concerned that his son’s affair with a German citizen will jeopardise his secret mission of rescuing Jews and spiriting them out of Nazi Germany. He tricks the couple into leaving Switzerland and going into Germany on business; when they arrive back at the Swiss border, they discover that Willie is banned from entering Switzerland. The lovebirds are forced to go their separate ways.

Alone and heart-broken, Willie sings Robert’s song “Lili Marleen” in a night-club and a senior Nazi military officer Henkel (Karl-Heinz von Hassel) happens to be visiting at the time. He hears the song and arranges for Willie to cut a single of it. Although Willie is hardly a great singer and her pianist is a fairly ordinary musician, the song enjoys a huge amount of air-time on Radio Belgrade, a German military radio station in the Balkans, and Willie is catapulted to fame. Robert makes a risky trip to Berlin to see Willie and ends up being arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo. His father, repenting of his cruel trick, agrees to support a clandestine mission in which Willie tours Poland and picks up a roll of film detailing the plight of Jewish prisoners in the Treblinka concentration camp. Willie carries out her part of the mission but an informant reports her to the authorities and her career is ruined. However the film reaches Robert’s father safely and Robert is eventually freed and returned to him. Robert becomes a successful and famous composer while Willie, under constant surveillance, attempts suicide and ends up even more of a pawn of the Nazis as the war drags on and Germany’s war-machine and society are sapped and spiral downwards into ruin.

The film is a fine illustration of the ways in which the individual’s quest for love and freedom is thwarted and denied by society and its institutions, and by other individuals as well. Willie is forced to pay a heavy price by Robert’s father for her love of Robert. Naive and guileless, she ends up in the grip of the Nazi war and propaganda machine. Robert suffers a great deal as well and the fame and fortune he enjoys at the end of the film suggest he will do much better than Willie, materially at least anyway if not in his private life. Schygulla and Giannini’s acting is adequate for the roles though Schygulla seems old for a role that basically calls for an innocent dumb blonde who knows zip about the Nazi government’s policies against non-Aryan Germans, the scale of the war and its utter violence, and the privations suffered by ordinary Germans as the war continues without end. Everything Willie does, she either does wrong or she gets caught out and she eventually pays a price. The pity of it all is that Willie is essentially an innocent who of all people does not deserve the bad luck she attracts; but she lives in a harsh world in which to survive successfully, one must give up child-like artlessness and become hardened and hollow inside.

The film gives full rein to Fassbinder to indulge his love of Hollywood musicals with an extended sequence of chorus girls and other performers dancing and leading massed singing on stage while soldiers and Nazi officers engage in revelry. The cinematography is excellent and gives prominence to an artful use of colour and interior props, especially doors which are used to herald changes in mood and a character’s development. The film does a fairly decent job of highlighting how far removed Willie and elite German society are from the realities of war, the suffering of ordinary Germans subjected to rationing and endless propaganda and the treatment of Jews, gypsies, POWs and other social and ethnic misfits in concentration camps. The song “Lili Marleen”, repeated ad nauseam throughout the film to the point where it becomes an instrument of torture – Willie sings nothing else – despite it being a mediocre effort, can be seen as a metaphor for the banality of popular culture and its purpose as a mass sleeping pill to be ingested daily by a gullible public. This point is driven home by the Nazis’ spiteful drafting of Willie’s clueless pianist as a soldier: he is sent to the Eastern front where he is promptly gunned down by Soviet forces: deliberate murder using your enemy has perhaps never been so cynical and malicious.

Apart from all this, the film is not all that remarkable: it has a distant air and the actors don’t seem fully engaged in their characters. That may have been intentional on Fassbinder’s part – the film is as much critical of its period as it is a celebration of the style of film associated with it. Fassbinder must have recognised the propaganda value of Hollywood musicals and musicals made in other countries that sought to emulate the grand American style and in “Lili Marleen” spoofs it and its associated elements.

 

 

The Manchurian Candidate: a layered and intense film on the abuse of power

John Frankenheimer, “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962)

At some point during the Korean War in 1952, a platoon of American soldiers is betrayed by their Korean interpreter who delivers them to their Communist enemy. The enemy sends the soldiers to Manchuria where the Yanks are subjected to various mind control experiments and treatments by unknown scientists. After several months, they are exhibited before an audience of sceptical Soviet and Chinese bureaucrats. One man, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is shown off by his doctor (Khigh Dhiegh) who demonstrates his victim’s absolute submission by forcing him to kill two of his comrades. The other men in the unit which includes one Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra) are all heavily drugged and can only stare at Shaw as he calmly executes their companions.

This is the horrifying introduction – told in a series of fragmented flashbacks – to the plot of “The Manchurian Candidate”, a gripping and intelligent thriller exploring psychological and political manipulation, the misuse of power and the repression of individuals within institutions of society. Superficially an anti-Communist film, “The Manchurian Candidate” probes and questions the nature of loyalty and patriotism and of political power itself.

Some years after their training, Shaw returns to the US to a hero’s welcome and is delivered back to his mother Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury) and his step-father (James Gregory), an ambitious Presidential candidate. The other men in the platoon also return safely but two of them, Marco included, suffer recurring nightmares in which a garden party attended by elderly women is mixed in with that chilling demonstration. Marco overcomes the effects of his manipulation with the help of his commanding officer and a military psychologist and, through a series of peculiar incidents involving himself and Shaw, begins to suspect that Shaw is still under mind control and has been tasked with carrying out an important political assassination.

The intense and highly absorbing plot moves surely but not too quickly and depends heavily on the cast to carry off the story which at the time of the film’s release must have seemed fantastic to its audiences. Happily the cast rises to the occasion: Angela Lansbury is formidable as the bullying, stridently anti-Communist Eleanor who dominates both her son and her husband; Frank Sinatra performs capably as a nervy Marco, hesitant at times but determined to confront his fears and nightmares; and Laurence Harvey as Shaw cuts a complex and piteous figure at the mercy of competing forces in his mother and his controllers. Some complex relationships are revealed in the portrayals of Shaw and Eleanor and their interactions: incest is hinted at, Eleanor may be a frustrated puppet-master of sorts and her motivations in planning a false flag event (the assassination of a US Presidential candidate) so that her ineffectual husband may assume power and create a dictatorship in the US to fight the Soviets are deep and, while initially contradictory, actually make some sense of a crazed sort. The minor characters perform their roles capably though a sub-plot involving Marco and a new girlfriend Rosie (Janet Leigh) dissipates quickly and Leigh’s talent goes begging. The sub-plot hinted that Rosie may also be Marco’s controller and might have a connection with the young woman Shaw marries and his father-in-law, a Senator who opposes Iselin and who is a deeply ethical and principled man. A parallel between Marco and Shaw in their relationships with women is hinted at but is not developed.

Cinematography is excellent with some unusual points of view used in a few scenes. The film’s major highlights are the scenes of the demonstration in which Shaw kills two of his men as dreamt by Marco and another man in the platoon who happens to be black: in Marco’s dream, the women attending the hydrangea party are all white and in his companion’s dream, the women are all black – this surely demonstrates how their controllers cleverly drew upon the men’s past memories of garden parties and moulded them to fit their plans!

Skilfully written so as to push both action and character development constantly, the script manages to layer its story with enough contemporary political and social issues of its time and Freudian psychology to boot that even over fifty years after its making, the film still appears fresh and relevant to modern audiences. Eleanor’s character may strike a chord with women who are still frustrated with the slow advance of women’s rights to the level where a woman may run for the highest political position in the land on her own merit alone. Political science students will marvel at how prescient the film is in suggesting that future presidential and vice-presidential candidates may become the puppets of unseen power-brokers and even foreign intelligence agencies. There is a suggestion in the film that Shaw’s controllers may be using Communist governments to advance their own interests and agendas in accumulating power for themselves. Philosophers and psychologists may see in Shaw a symbol of the individual’s never-ending struggle in achieving free will and becoming his/her own person, gaining insight into his/her mind and mental processes, and breaking free from the social conditioning that would otherwise keep him/her an automaton. There is also an insinuation that with Shaw’s killing of his wife and father-in-law, both of whom represent innocence and integrity respectively, the US is losing its own political innocence and soundness.

The film’s rather wobbly and watery conclusion contains some rich irony in that by taking charge of his destiny, Shaw becomes a hero and a real human.

 

 

Half of a Yellow Sun: a moving story sunk beneath soap opera antics, character stereotypes and sketchy history

Biyi Bandele, “Half of a Yellow Sun” (2013)

Adapted from the eponymous novel, written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, by playwright / director Biyi Bandele, this film is a melodrama against the backdrop of the first decade of Nigeria’s independence from 1960 to 1970. The film centres around twin sisters Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose) who at the beginning of the film are bubbly 20-somethings fresh from postgraduate studies and eager to break away from their parents who are members of Nigeria’s political / economic elite. Olanna shocks her parents by moving in with her university professor boyfriend Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in Nsukka and Kainene goes to Port Harcourt in southeast Nigeria to oversee Dad’s business interests.

Much of the first half of the film busies itself with Olanna’s tempestuous relationship with Odenigbo due in part to his mother’s interference which results in Odenigbo fathering a child with a servant. Olanna then sleeps with Richard (Joseph Mawle), Kainene’s fiancé, an act that is later to cause a rift between the sisters. In the meantime, Nigeria lurches from one political crisis to another, one military government after another, until the southeast province of Biafra declares its independence in 1967. Nigerian forces invade Biafra where the sisters are based and Olanna, Odenigbo, his daughter and faithful man-servant Ugwu (John Boyega) are forced to flee Nsukka. The four temporarily stay with Odenigbo’s mother but are forced to move again after Olanna and Odenigbo’s wedding is cut short by an air raid that kills one of their wedding guests. The four then go on to a refugee camp. Ugwu is called up to serve with Biafran forces and for a time is feared to be dead. Eventually Kainene and Richard, now her husband, rescue the four but further tragedy awaits them all.

The film tries to condense ten tumultuous years into just under 120 minutes and the result is a very patchy plot in which a few episodes of how the sisters and their men cope with ongoing war and the disruption it causes to them all. It’s best seen as a sort of Upstairs / Downstairs character study: the acting performances of the main characters are strong but the surprise performance is that of Boyega, whose character Ugwu has very little to say but proves to be the rock of stability for the sisters and their husbands. The couples tend to faff about and achieve little; if a message is to be taken away from the film, it might well be one about how the middle class and the intelligentsia as represented by the two couples were helpless during the civil war as they were targeted for killing by the military. For all his “revolutionary” (read: Marxist-socialist) ideas and debates, Odenigbo has no idea as to how to resist the military (much less his mum) and loses himself in drink. Richard is an ineffectual man who is dominated by Kainene but who finds deep reserves of love and courage when she goes missing.

The history lesson is very superficial and is portrayed mainly through insertions of actual newsreels of significant events in Nigeria. One has the feeling that the main characters are somehow disconnected from what’s happening around them during the early 1960s and as a result are caught like wide-eyed frightened rabbits looking into a car’s headlights as it bears down on them when war arrives in Biafra. Viewers need to have a good knowledge of the Nigerian civil war and its causes to make sense of the film. There is a chilling newsreel scene in which young boys are recruited as soldiers by the Biafran government and Ugwu himself is called to bear arms. A few scenes hint at the extreme level of violence and atrocities that occurred during the war: army officers cold-bloodedly shoot airport passengers for being of the wrong ethnicity and a gang of men with machetes menace Olanna as she tries to find her aunt.

The film might have worked better if it had been more loosely based on the novel and taken the viewpoint of Ugwu who initially arrives as a naif country-lad with hardly any education to serve Odenigbo and emerges from the film as a quietly loyal, brave and studious man who observes and remembers all. Unfortunately Ugwu is very sketchily developed and it is to Boyega’s credit that Ugwu comes out of the film as a real human being and not moving wall-paper. We would have seen through Ugwu’s eyes how ordinary working people were affected by the war and how they helped to rebuild the country after hostilities ended in 1970. The film’s end titles go on to say that Ugwu became a writer: well, there was just one tiny scene in the movie that intimated that Ugwu was continuing his education! Through Ugwu’s experiences, we might have seen a real character development through which current issues such as the use of child soldiers and the psychological effects of war on children and society generally are explored. We might also have seen how the civil war benefited the British ex-rulers and British companies extracting oil from Nigeria’s coastal regions and how the conflict and its consequences still affect the nation today.

I did feel that there was some stereotyping in the film – Olanna’s aunt is a fount of worldly wisdom and Odenigbo’s mother (Onyeka Onwenu) is bossy and manipulative but humorous all the same – and a trope of strong women / ineffective all-talk-little-action men was evident throughout.

A very moving story lurks in the film but unfortunately it goes to waste beneath the soap opera antics and the feather-light plot.

Beatriz’s War: Timor-Leste’s first film is a story of hope, determination and perseverance

Bety Reis and Luigi Acquisto, “A Guerra da Beatriz / Beatriz’s War” (2013)

A major first in the post-independence culture of Timor-Leste, “Beatriz’s War” is a moving testament to the triumph of hope, determination and perseverance in the face of unrelenting despair, suffering, heartbreak and sacrifice. The movie is expansive in its temporal scope, beginning with the Timorese’s bolt for independence from Portugal followed by the Indonesian invasion and colonial occupation in 1975 and continuing (rather patchily) all the way to the independence referendum in 1999 that led to a vicious reprisal by the occupation forces.

In 1975 Beatriz is an 11-year-old child bride to equally young groom Tomas: the union cements an agreement between two noble Tetum families to unite to pool their wealth together. As soon as the marriage takes place, the youngsters and the wedding party witness the Indonesian army’s takeover of their village. The villagers submit sullenly to the capricious rule of Captain Sumitro but quietly plot their revenge. Several years later, when Tomas is fully grown, the male villagers revolt and kill their occupiers but Sumitro manages to escape. He brings back more soldiers who separate the male and female villagers and who then proceed to massacre all the men. Tomas is not among those killed. Beatriz (Irim Tolentino), her son by Tomas, and her sister-in-law Teresa (Augusta Soares) are bundled off by Sumitro’s troops along with all the other women and children into a gulag.

Years pass, the women manage in very difficult conditions to grow crops and raise pigs, and rear children fathered by guerrilla fighters. Teresa is forced to become Sumitro’s mistress and bears him a daughter. After the 1999 referendum, Sumitro and his troops burn down the crops, kill the animals and depart abruptly, taking Teresa’s daughter with them after Teresa is forced to give her up. While the women take stock of their misfortune, a strange man enters the village: he claims to be Tomas, Beatriz’s long-lost husband. Teresa, having suffered too much over the years, welcomes him with open arms but Beatriz is not so sure. The stranger befriends Beatriz’s son and worms his way into Beatriz’s affections – but is he as genuine as he claims to be, and what is his connection to a massacre of Christian nuns and priests that occurred just before his arrival in the village?

The film falls into two distinct parts: the first part is basically expositional, laying out the background, the history and developing the main characters of Beatriz, Teresa and Tomas, and their relationships to one another. Captain Sumitro is the major villain in this section and a significant character though his appearances are few. Characters who appear in this part are both fictional and real: Teresa and Tomas’s father Celestino was an actual East Timorese freedom fighter who assisted Australian soldiers during World War II and who was killed by the Indonesian army in 1983. The second part which focuses on Beatriz and the stranger, and how his presence strains her friendship with Teresa, is based on the plot of a French film and in microcosm portrays conflicts and issues arising from the Indonesian occupation that Timorese society must now deal with: questions of forgiveness, reconciliation, social justice and reciprocal vengeance, whether it is right to avenge other people’s murders with more blood-letting, are broached in a way that is unflinching, forthright and yet subtle and graceful.

Acting is well-done though characters are more stoic than emotional. They betray their feelings through changes of facial expression and subtle body language. Local Tetum customs and traditions are showcased with good effect in the scripting and drama and this viewer had the impression that Beatriz uses the cult of ancestor worship and respect for the dead to stave off the stranger’s advances and to justify her suspicions that he is not what he seems.

Inevitably there are loose ends but on the whole the film moves steadily and quietly, skilfully weaving in an old soap opera plot into the script to develop a complex and moving story that tests Beatriz’s capacity for forgiveness and desire for justice. Hope, rebirth, reconciliation and the need to go forward in spite of all that has happened and all the old ghosts that will haunt you forever – if only because continuing to strive for freedom and hope is what keeps us alive – are a strong subtext in the film.

Irim Tolentino wrote the script as well as playing the part of Beatriz and many of the actors and extras in the film actually lived through several of the events the film refers to.

The Wind Rises: a dishonest, cowardly film that supports current Japanese militarism

Hayao Miyazaki, “The Wind Rises / Kaze tachinu” (2013)

Miyazaki’s swansong film is a fictional biography of  aeroplane designer and engineer Jiro Horikoshi, creator of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter plane that bombed Pearl Harbour in 1941 and which was used in other aerial including kamikaze campaigns by Japan in World War II. The film is curiously devoid of the historical context from which it arises and I suspect the director is not fully aware of how much the central character of Horikoshi and his career are a banal reflection of his own. There’s also an underlying theme which has been present throughout Miyazaki’s work since “Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind” and that is a spiritual one: the impermanence of life, the thin line between physical reality and the world of dreams, of transcendence beyond the physical, which also turns out to be the world of death.

Horikoshi might be an odd choice for a subject of a farewell piece. The film though manages to reference a number of other Miyazaki / Studio Ghibli films in several scenes and motifs that are threaded throughout: one can find very subtle reminders of flicks like “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, “Laputa: Island in the Sky” and even more nature-themed films like “Nausicaa …” and “Princess Mononoke”. The Italian plane designer Giovanni Battista Caproni who inspires Horikoshi and is the object of the Japanese man’s hero-worship might have stepped straight out of the Studio Ghibli classic “Porcorosso”. There’s not much here that Miyazaki hasn’t done before in style of animation – if anything, his depiction of human beings is still as cartoonish as it was nearly 30 years ago in “Nausicaa …” – and in some ways he’s even gone backward in the way he has placed female characters in positions of passivity and subservience to men. The film also has some personal resonance for Miyazaki as his father once ran a factory that produced parts for Horikoshi’s planes.

The film starts with Horikoshi as a young boy dreaming of being a pilot; unfortunately he wears glasses, and his dream goes awry. In a second dream, he meets Caproni who is surprised that a young Japanese boy has intruded into his dream but then realises that they both share a love of aeroplanes. Caproni tells Horikoshi that designing and building planes are better than flying them and Horikoshi, waking up, resolves that he will become an aeronautical engineer. To that end, he applies himself zealously to his studies. In the meantime, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the ensuing conflagration that all but consumes Tokyo pass him by but not before he unexpectedly meets a very young girl and her mother whom he helps to safety.

Time flies and Horikoshi, after a rough start with a plane design company that crashes during the Great Depression, ends up working for a company that makes planes for the Japanese military. He designs a military plane for a naval competition but it fails to pass and his employer sends him away on holiday. During this rest, Horikoshi is reunited with Naoko, whom he helped years ago, and they fall in love and become engaged in spite of the fact that she is suffering from terminal tuberculosis. A German tourist warns Horikoshi of the perils of working for an authoritarian and militaristic government.

Horikoshi enjoys renown for designing a fighter plane that surpasses current German technology and is the pride and joy of Japan. However this renown is short-lived as is also his marriage to Naoko. Horikoshi lives to regret the destruction that his invention, with all the work and sacrifice that have gone into it, has brought to the world. That he continues to live is due to the hopes and trust Naoko has invested in him and to the message that Caproni brings to him in a dream: that though he (Horikoshi) has invested and exhausted his creativity in a being that was beautiful but which brought hell to humanity, nonetheless he lived to see his dreams come true.

The historical setting and Horikoshi’s career provide opportunities to question Japan’s militaristic ambitions then (1920s – 1940s) and now but Miyazaki adopts a very peculiarly ahistorical stance in the way he deals with episodes in Horikoshi’s early life and career. The depiction of the Great Kanto earthquake and the fire that destroyed Tokyo in the quake’s immediate aftermath are bloodless and matter-of-fact; there is no sense of the panic that must have swept through the fleeing crowds – in fact everyone treats the catastrophe with calm and leaves the devastation in an orderly fashion! Perhaps this treatment is deliberate to illustrate the all-consuming nature of Horikoshi’s obsession; episodes in the film dealing with his friendships with fellow work colleague Honjo and his superiors suggest that Horikoshi is indeed oblivious to insidious changes in society around him. However there can be no such excuse for the film’s jump from the time of Naoko’s death (which must have been some time during the late 1930s) to the period just after 1945, when Horikoshi walks through a field of destroyed Japanese military planes and gazes down on Tokyo once again destroyed, this time by Allied war planes visiting total destruction as revenge for the Pearl Harbour attacks. An entire war spanning half the world in which tens of millions died in battle, suffered poverty and starvation, and were subjected to torture, rape, mutilation and hideous medical experimentation at the hands of the Japanese, and still undergo anguish because of Japan’s reluctance to apologise for war crimes, has been overlooked.

The character of Jiro is poorly developed and not likely to appeal to a wide audience. This could have been the film’s strength: Jiro’s colourless personality may be taken to represent the everyday worker bee in Japanese society who does as s/he is told, keeps his/her head down and rarely complains or speaks out. His/her life is spent in work and diligent obedience and is curiously detached from society even though his/her concerns revolve around the group and maintaining the correct relations with others. Apathy and lack of involvement in political, social and economic concerns are hallmarks of such worker bees. If anything, such people tend to be political / social / economic conservatives. The relationship with Naoko is a stereotyped one that might have sprung out of a 19th century Italian opera. Even so, when Jiro is forced to see the consequences that his work and creations have brought to Japan, and to know that there is not much he can do to atone for the damage done, his reaction is bloodless; he is unable to bring himself to express contrition. His god Caproni can no longer help or inspire him and the spirit of Naoko, superficially comforting, drifts away to leave Jiro in an existential hole.

“The Wind Rises” could have been a great film that treats seriously the responsibility of all individuals to question their roles in society, how the work they do may or may not be advancing human society, and how they might be blinded by personal ambition and egotism and be subject to manipulation by others or government into pathways that lead to destruction. Instead Miyazaki has avoided asking hard questions of himself and others in depicting his characters as robots and the way they proceed through their lives as cut off from the currents flowing through Japanese politics, society and economy.

I feel quite bad at having been taken in by the film’s beauty and the pathos of Naoko’s suffering and death; I now believe that this is a dishonest and cowardly film that insults the millions of victims of Japan’s rise to power and crushing defeat in the 1930s and World War II. What makes it worse is that as I write, Japan under Shinzo Abe’s government and with the approval and push of an incompetent US government, itself not content with paying and funding fascists in Ukraine to oust President Yanukovych or arming jihadi fighters in Syria against President Assad, has adopted a more militaristic and aggressive approach and is quietly pursuing more nuclear energy production, with a view perhaps to manufacturing weapons-grade nuclear power, even after the meltdown disaster at Fukushima in 2011. “The Wind Rises” could have served as a warning to Japan not to pursue such militarism ever again.