Review: BURNT (2015)

NOTE: Publication of this review is possible in part through contributions to The MovieBob Patreon.

Yeesh. What a bucket of suck this thing is.

I’m sorry. I try as best I’m able to save the more colorful witticisms for the video reviews, but some bad movies are exactly bad enough in such a particular way that it feels unjust to approach them with more civilized verbiage. BURNT, featuring one of current Hollywood’s most overexposed performers inhabiting the apotheosis of his own most tiresome stock-persona in one of the most annoying recurring narratives of the last decade or so (the mercurial ultra-driven muy-macho auteur-badass who really is so damn good at his vocation that world is just going to have to learn to deal with it, bro!), is practically the Platonic ideal of this very type; with Bradley Cooper mugging, shouting and hard-staring his way through an “I’m a troubled genius, give me an Oscar!!!” turn that asks its audience: “Sure, you loved RATATOUILLE – but wouldn’t you love it more with an abusive, too-cool-for-school douchebag whose talent justifies his every flaw?”

90% of what you need to know about BURNT is that it was originally titled simply “ADAM JONES,” the name of Cooper’s self-consciously cocky master chef who alternately stomps or strides through every scene like a nightmare-offspring of House M.D. and Bobby Flay. The story is ostensibly about Jones rebuilding his reputation as a world-class chef by retooling the upscale London restaurant of an old pal (Daniel Bruhl) and chasing an elusive Third Star from the Michelin Guide; but it’s immediately apparent that the only story it has any real interest in telling is “Adam Jones is the coolest motherfucker walking the Earth, and Bradley Cooper totally deserves a Best Actor nomination for informing you of this fact.”

Yes, Jones strut the streets (except for scenes where he drives them on a “borrowed” motorcycle), stalk back-alleys and stride through brushed-metal kitchens of London in a leather jacket and daytime-sunglasses like a mid-90s Zucker Bros parody of an early Tom Cruise role; but that’s just for openers. He also flips tables in fits of artistic torment, shakes and shoves his underlings like a drill sergeant (which only makes them respect him more, naturally), flamed-out in glorious rock star fashion (he did all the drugs, you guys) because even he couldn’t handle his own awesomeness yet has only become more ruggedly-handsome as a result. He righteously eschews fancy modern cooking devices in favor of classical techniques (no namby-pamby test-tube nerdery here, yo!), dodges/absorbs-blows-from the henchmen of an angry druglord, and returns from self-imposed exile only after completing a perfectly Hemmingway-esque blue collar self-flagellation ritual of shucking exactly one million oysters in a New Orleans steam-shack (no, really.)

It’s the sort of “hero’s journey” pastiche where nearly every character, friend or foe, is built with what they’re words and actions can reinforce to us about Adam Jones as their sole and sufficient foundation. Sienna Miller’s put-upon single mom and sou chef repays his bullying her (physical-assault included) into becoming her best possible self by falling in love with him. His arch-nemesis (Matthew Rhys) rescues him from a post-all-is-lost-moment bender and nurses him back to health because (I am not making this up) he needs a rival as potent as Adam Jones to make his life worth living. Uma Thurman’s cameo as a food critic lasts exactly long enough for her to inform us that she set her lesbianism aside for at least one night to bed him, while Daniel Bruhl’s quietly-reserved maitre’d is revealed as gay midway through the story exclusively so we can be assured that he, too, is along for the ride because he’s desperately in love with Adam Jones.

I’ll be honest: All this self-sustaining hero worship (the goddamn AVENGERS movies don’t spend this much time establishing the awesomeness of their protagonists, and one of those guys is a literal god) had me longing for the (relative) subtlety of CHEF; which I’ll remind you was about how Jon Favreau was such a transcendently great director chef that his post-Marvel movies cuban sandwiches were so scrumptious as to turn film food critics into business partners and no less than Scarlet Johansson and Sofia Vergara into salivating coital supplicants. At this rate the next “kitchen-skills-as-cock-size” vanity piece will be about an ex-Navy SEAL black-belt whose artisanal tilapia dumplings are capable of putting an entire stadium’s worth of Victoria’s Secret Angels into immediate post-multiorgasmic comas by their aroma alone.

Some of this might be forgivable if BURNT was at least stylish or had a modicum of humor about itself, but neither is the case. The proceedings are flatly directed John Wells, also responsible for the not-bad COMPANY MAN and the frankly embarassing AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY. Wells is mainly known as a celebrated TV producer, and there are spots where one can see where BURNT might have worked as a series where the peripheral characters could have more going on than reassuring us of what an incredible guy Adam Jones is. But even then, the casting is likely an impossible hurdle: Adam Jones is so perfectly a Bradley Cooper Role that Bradley Cooper should never have gone near it.

Cooper isn’t a bad actor (he’s pretty good, in fact) but his seemingly-natural cocksure persona has made him the latest actor thrust into the role of replacing “lovable asshole” titans in the vein of Bill Murray (or Harrison Ford) and he just doesn’t have the sense of gravity (or mileage) about him to make it work. There’s never enough “natural” depth to his turns in this vein to make him tolerable without some extra layer of mitigating distance (i.e. being the “Chaotic Neutral” member of THE HANGOVER or being a space raccoon in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY) to let us regard him beyond the surface. Maybe an actor with a more authentically rough-feeling edge (Ryan Gosling, maybe?) or a built-in “opposite” persona to put us off guard (a teddy bear like Kevin James?) could’ve turned Adam Jones into someone sort-of worth following around for 100 minutes or so.

But as for Cooper, this isn’t the one that’s going to get him “there;” and should probably stop saying “yes” to screenplays that sound written with his headshot from THE HANGOVER taped to the wall.

This review was possible in part through contributions to The MovieBob Patreon. If you would like see more like it, please consider becoming a Patron.

Review: SPOTLIGHT (2015)

NOTE: Publication of this review is possible in part through contributions to The MovieBob Patreon.

I’d like to say that being from Boston, growing up Catholic, serving as an Altar Boy in my early teens and having met the (now) infamous Cardinal Bernard Law in person on several occasions, I’d have some kind of special insight on SPOTLIGHT; which relates the true of the team of Boston Globe journalists who broke the damning story of the Catholic Church conspiring to cover up decades of sexual abuse by priests… but I don’t.

Maybe I would if SPOTLIGHT were a different sort of a movie, something more melodramatic and emotion-driven like TRUTH, I would. I certainly have emotional memories of that moment in time, bound up in the fact (dramatized to subtle but potent effect in the film) that the story felt like a double gut-punch breaking in the long shadow of 9/11, but SPOTLIGHT isn’t interested in that end of the story. Instead, there’s a conscious effort at play (in both the filmmaking and the motivations of characters within the plot) to stick to procedural-protocol in order to expose the full truth underneath a story that can’t help but be lurid, sensational and emotionally wrenching. It recognizes that the story The Globe’s famous “Spotlight” team found itself having to tell was ultimately less “explosive-expose” and more like a sombre, quietly-horrifying autopsy – not only of corruption, but also failure, complicity and willful ignorance.

The result, in reality, was one of the most important published stories in the history of modern journalism, seen by many as one of the last great moments in the fading tradition of old-school newspaper reporting. The result, onscreen, is one of the best films of the year.

It’s an ensemble piece by design, but the nominal hero is Michael Keaton (so much more worthy of accolades here than for the self-referential “tee-hee!” turn in BIRDMAN) as Walter “Robby” Robertson, the old-time stalwart running “Spotlight,” a self-contained investigate-reporting team operating largely independent of broader Globe infrastructure doing in-depth local-interest pieces. Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian D’Arcy are his foot-soldier field reporters, with John Slattery as their conduit to the higher-ups.

As the story opens (following a mood-setting interlude showing how easy and matter-of-fact abuse-coverups went down in the pre-2000s in reflexively-Catholic Boston), the Globe is rocked by the arrival of Liev Schrieber as a new Editor in Chief. He’s an outsider in every conceivable way one can be in a Boston old-boys club – Jewish, hails from Miami, never been to the city before, not even a baseball fan – and he makes an outsider’s call right off the bat: He wants Spotlight to look into the hot-button story of an accused pedophile priest and see if there’s something else there – as you know from history, there sure was; and soon Spotlight finds itself poised to deliver a story that will shake their city (and the world) to it’s foundations.

It’d be easy to sensationalize this kind of material, and indeed there are moments where the back-and-forth between dogged reporters, devastated victims (one traumatized tough-guy does, indeed, solemnly tell the heroes to “Get tha’ bastahds.”), scheming city power-players and secretive Church officials briefly take on the air of a crime thriller. At one point, Keaton’s Robertson is visibly shaken by the realization that one of the potential predators Spotlight unearths was a football coach he remembers from school, preying on victims that were his own contemporaries. There’s a chilling moment where, after learning that the Church quietly maintains its own “treatment centers” to house abusive priests awaiting transfers as part of the coverups, is horrified to discover one such center in an anonymous-looking house around the corner from his own. The main “B-story” even follows Ruffalo’s Mark Rezendes coaxing info out of a crusading attorney (Stanley Tucci) Deep Throat-style.

But SPOTLIGHT turns out to have sins on it’s mind beyond the showy villainy of “men of God” covering for one another’s evil: Despite a certain amount of cloak-and-dagger involving “buried” records and “missing” evidence, the true outrage of the story (at least as far as the screenplay by writer/director Tom McCarthy is concerned) is how much of it wasn’t hidden: Ultimately, the Spotlight teams discovers the breadth and scope of the conspiracy not through some singularly-damning smoking gun… but in dozens upon dozens of small stories, questionable reports and slivers of evidence spread out over decades in the Globe archives and even their own memories.

Powerful men hiding misdeeds behind black robes and ancient institutions is scary, the film argues, but an unwillingness to connect the obvious dots born of a city’s generational, ethnic and neighborhood ties to those same institutions is scarier; and SPOTLIGHT is finally more about the drive to exorcise personal guilt (“Why didn’t we see this sooner and stop it?”) than avenging journalistic righteousness. In fact, the film occasionally functions as an argument against avenging righteousness as a tool of reporting, makind a kind of serendipitous counter-argument to TRUTH, which contrives to argue that the (possible) lapses in newsroom due-diligence on the part of a 60 Minutes team were worthwhile because they might possibly have spared us a second George W. Bush term. SPOTLIGHT’s trailers prominently feature Ruffalo (who should rightfully score a Supporting Actor nod out of this) as Rezendes making impassioned pleas that they publish the report immediately before the conspirators “get away with it!,” but the film’s sympathies lie squarely with Keaton’s Robertson, who sternly insists that they cross every T and dot every I if their work is to stand up to the inevitable backlash.

Appropriately, the McCarthy’s camera (lensed by in-demand DP Manasobu Takanagi) resists showy visual flourishes with the same restraint as his script avoids dramatic histrionics; favoring matter-of-fact compositions to capture the homey banality of the Globe’s offices or the unique florescent-sepia glow of suburban Boston. What aesthetic “pops” do crop up do so with subtlety (what cinematographer worth their light-meter can resist lavishing at least a little love on New England at Christmastime, after all), particularly the presence of Boston’s intimidating fortress-like Catholic churches looming like the Eye of Sauron over exterior wide-shots as reporters, lawyers, abusers and victims scurry from scene to scene (only one beat, where a story-telling abuse victim stops to point out to McAdams their proximity to a Church – and a playground – feels overly on the nose.)

Keaton and Ruffalo will likely be the performances that stand out in a movie that’s nearly all performance (along with Tucci, whose abuse-victim attorney Mitchell Garabedian seems like a grump and a blowhard until we come to realize the full extent of what he’s dealing with); but SPOTLIGHT turns out to be one of those ensembles where everyone, without exaggeration, is turning in top-tier work. McAdams sells the weight of being “the girl” among old men in an older business so effortlessly that the movie doesn’t even need to point it out. Slattery operates as a stone-faced human mood ring, registering barely-spoken horror as evil comes to light all around him. Len Cariou finds an affably sinister current of menace in Cardinal Law – particularly in an early scene where he attempts to quietly intimidate Schreiber, who gamely sells the cunning of a man whose dry, “boring” personality is his secret weapon. And what a treat to see Boston’s own Paul Guilfoyle (“Brass” from CSI) turn up as a gently-menacing Church “enforcer.”

This is the sort of Fall Movie that it’s easy to cynical and suspicious of, particularly when the critical accolades roll in. A “topical” scandal-saga a decade after the fact is an Awards Season subgenre if ever there was one, and just try to get established film critics to not love any movie about the romance of bygone newspaper days and the heroism of oldschool shoe-leather reporting. But SPOTLIGHT, for a change, actually deserves the tidal wave of praise it’s about to receive. Here’s recent-history narrative done the right way, an acting showcase that feels like a complete film instead of a bare stage for the performers to show-off from – a procedural drama that thrills without having to twist itself into a “thriller.”

It’s obligatory, at this point, that any movie set in or around a newsroom get’s mentioned alongside ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN and ZODIAC; the gold standards of the genre. SPOTLIGHT is the first one in a long time to actually belong there.

This review was possible in part through contributions to The MovieBob Patreon. If you would like see more like it, please consider becoming a Patron.

TV RECAP: Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D Season 3 – Episode 6: "Among Us Hide…"

Hey! Turns out this was Episode 50! For those of you playing at home, that means AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D now has approximately 30-50 more episodes to go before it hits “syndication ready” numbers and Disney/Marvel even considers taking it off the schedule – ratings or no ratings.

Also: Called it.

SPOILERS FOLLOW:


So! Andrew Gardner – Agent May’s ex-husband, top S.H.I.E.L.D advisor and counselor of newly-turned Inhumans – is also Lash, the musclebound monster whose been hunting and killing Inhumans since the start of the season. That’s a good, well-managed “gotcha” on the series’ part. Yeah, I figured it out, but the way it makes perfect sense in the context of what we already knew (on a series that too often executes surprises in the form of: “Surprise! And now here’s some stuff from the comics and movies to make it look like this actually makes sense!”)

But it’s also fun because of the downright devious wrench it throws into the good-team/bad-team dynamic regarding the Inhumans situation: So far, the tension in S.H.I.E.L.D’s uneasy alliance with the ATCU has been (in most of the Agents and especially Daisy’s view) that S.H.I.E.L.D is looking to counsel, aid and show new purpose (via Coulson’s “Secret Warriors” project) to newly-turned Inhumans while the ATCU seems to regard them as a threat and has been spiriting those they find off to… somewhere. This is classical X-Men stuff (which is the point – The Inhumans are filling in for Mutants until Marvel can wrestle the rights back from Fox) and it was really easy to but into it as the “obvious” pattern for the show…

…but now it turns out to be a lot more complicated: While May was busy learning that her ex is basically an alien-werewolf; Daisy, Mack and a temporarily-grounded Hunter wound up surreptitiously spying on Coulson finally getting his tour of ATCU’s holding-facility – where it turns out they haven’t been hurting Inhumans, but they have been putting (supposedly) dangerous to self/others examples into a version of cryo-freeze while they work on a “cure” for Terrigenesis. Now, that’s bad… but it’s more misguided than “evil” and Rosalind (Price, ATCU’s head) at least seems to have her heart sort-of close to the right place i.e. wanting to help people she sees as afflicted. Meanwhile, S.H.I.E.L.D – whose first instinct will likely be to get self-righteous about this – are the ones with a murderous Inhuman-hating monster on their payroll. Awkward.

Otherwise (read: before all those final-act twists) the episode was largely concerned with May and Bobbi tracking down Werner Von Strucker – the old-HYDRA heir who went AWOL after failing to kill Andrew because… well, Lash. Some of this is classic AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D misdirection (Werner is the one who reveals Andrew’s nature to May), but it also serves to intro a new heavy to the proceedings: Powers Boothe, stepping out from the shadows as one of the nameless Security Council members from THE AVENGERS to reveal himself as… somebody bad. It’s not exactly clear yet, though his dialogue with Ward is meant to suggest he’s either HYDRA or HYDRA-affiliated. They don’t even say his name (it’s Gideon Malick) yet.

Almost as surprising as the Big Reveal, though, it’s how much the “boss-to-boss-crush” dynamic with Coulson and Price actually works once it gets room to breathe. The “aww, Coulson is human after all” stuff has really only ever worked in small drops seeping through the slick-operator routine in the past, but the gag is endearing (they’re both working a middle-aged middle-manager version of 007-style seducing-for-intel, but also both kind of “into” it for real) and you could feel the writers having a good time with the kind of low-key stuff that you’d use to lull Coulson into a false sense of security (take-out burgers and a vintage autographed baseball bat as opposed to champagne and lingerie.) I’m not really on the “Mr. & Mrs. S.H.I.E.L.D” bandwagon yet by any means, but it was fun for an episode.

BULLET POINTS:

  • Well, that takes care of the “what” and the “who” for Andrew/Lash. Presumably next up will be the “how,” “when” and “why.” Has he been Inhuman this entire time or did he go through Terrigenesis recently? Does he want to kill other Inhumans because he doesn’t find those unwittingly-changed “worthy” like in the comics, or is it something else? Since I’m pretty sure AGENTS is not going to get to set the “rules” for the broader INHUMANS franchise this far ahead of the movies, I’m guessing “something else.”
  • Who is Gideon Malick? So far, I’m hoping the clue is in the name: In the Comics Universe, Albert Malik was the name of the second man to call himself The Red Skull. 
  • Regarding said Red Skull, keep in mind: The Marvel movie AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D will eventually be intersecting with this season is CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. Part of the fallout from the comics’ version of that story (over in the Cap books) was that a high-placed official turned out to be “possessed” (long story) by The Red Skull.


NEXT WEEK:
Andrew has some explaining to do in “Chaos Theory.” Won’t be surprised if they have May try to get it out of him first in lieu of letting the whole team in on the secret in order to keep the tension up.

Review: STEVE JOBS (2015)

Alright! Alright! Enough with the damn Steve Jobs Movies! I get it, you’re all broken up that the guy who paid people to design your trendy PHONE died! You have my sympathies but – Christ Almighty – this is the third one of these goddamn things I’ve had to watch in about 2 ½ years – if they make one more I’m pretty sure he gets to join THE AVENGERS! I’m sorry but for all this hyperbolic elevation you’d think the guy had fucking cured ca…

Um. Eh… Okay, so, probably should’ve picked a different reference there.

ANYWAY! This one isn’t so bad.

So, here’s the thing kiddos: I am consistently at a disadvantage when approaching movies, books, articles, whatever about Steve Jobs. See, all these projects – whether they’re bullshit corpse-fellating hagiography like that Ashton Kutcher thing or meditative documentaries like Alex Gibney’s or this new Danny Boyle/Aaron Sorkin joint (that’s as close to a “takedown” as anyone will probably make) – all start from the presumption that Jobs is just so fucking complex and interesting… and I’ve just never been onboard with that. Not every camera-friendly rich guy whose name you know is Charles Foster Kane. Sorry.

True, I never have been and never will be an Apple Guy, but I’m also not a Yankees fan and I can still acknowledge that Joe Torre had an interesting life. But Steve Jobs? Sorry, there was never mystery wrapped in an enigma inside a turtleneck there for me. I know plenty of entitled, too-clever-by-half self-righteous pricks who think they’re God’s gift to their chosen field because they’re good showmen (we can sense our own, after all) so The iCult never really had a chance at grabbing me.

As far as I’ve always been concerned, Steve Jobs (the man and myth) mostly struck me as a micro-managing hype-man whose main contribution to technological history was proving that with enough curvy edges, slick advertising, cutsie-poo naming schemes and retro-Boomer form-over-function aesthetic pandering even a computer could become a trendy hipster status-symbol and cultivating a “cool” hyperconfident “genius bro” persona that all-but singlehandedly birthed a generation of smart-alecky Silicon Valley shitheads so smug and obnoxious that even I kind of want to beat the shit out of nerds these days.

What’s interesting about this particular Steve Jobs movie, then, is that it seems to (mostly) agree with me on those points. I stress mostly – Hollywood does so love it’s Great Man biopics, after all, even when the unwelcome pest of reality forces them to spend 90% of the screentime on “but he was also kind of an asshole.”

The movie is sort of a comeback vehicle for director Danny Boyle, after the compulsively-watchable yet unavoidably terrible TRANCE turned out to be a colossal disaster and after enough time had passed for people to start admitting that no amount of positive vibes about seeing a movie entirely about brown people win Oscars could mitigate SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE being just so much schmaltzy middlebrow pablum. Here, he’s tasked with adding visual flourish to another zinger-filled Aaron Sorkin chatterbox screenplay that aims to build a thematic arc about Jobs’ alleged genius and undisputed personality failings out of the backstage melodrama at the launch events for the Macintosh, the Next Cube and finally the iMac.

The structure is a fun conceit, maybe a little too clever (and proud of it’s cleverness) by half, but you can see where it makes sense: The general public’s conception of Steve Jobs was shaped almost-entirely by his carefully cultivated stage persona at various product unveilings and corporate events, so in a way pulling back the curtain on his activities there probably feels more authentic than trying to dramatize what went on in his life otherwise – the only place where the gimmick stumbles is that, once we’ve seen it play out twice we not only know how all the beats are going to go… we’ve also already figured out where the beats are going to start skipping in order to provide closure and the semblance of a character arc – the full title might as well be “STEVE JOBS: I WAS A FUCKING DOUCHEBAG FOR YEARS BUT THEN ONE DAY I GOT A LITTLE BETTER BECAUSE REASONS.”

Sorkin’s screenplay (which feels shockingly naturalistic, as though in the tech sector inner-circles he’s at last found a world where it’s almost plausible that EVERYONE talks like Aaron Sorkin) has basically two thematic “big ideas” about Jobs and/or digital age “Great Men” in general, expressed through his relationship with two recurring characters: His obvious affection but arms-length care for his daughter Lisa (all while spending decades denying her paternity) here stands-in for his dueling obsession with control and inability to take responsibility, while Seth Rogen’s Steve Wozniak pops up once per-segment to voice the concerns of old-school computing devotees whom the film posits Jobs’ actively-hostile alienation of as a metaphor for his “my way or the highway” approach to life in general.

Meanwhile, Kate Winslet does the heavy lifting as Jobs’ just-human-enough personal assistant, putting her formidable emoting skills to use at instructing the audience when we’re supposed to find Steve endearing versus when we’re supposed to follow a more organic inclination to slap a variety of smug looks off his fucking face. Surprising absolutely no one, she turns out to be the secret weapon in terms of making both the story (it’s hard to ignore otherwise that the only “stakes” here are whether or not an unfathomably wealthy bastard will become more wealthy) and Jobs himself relatable to us mere mortals.

The Lisa material is set up to form the “heart” of the film, in as much as she gets the climactic resolution that’s supposed to indicate her father’s revealed humanity and form an ironic mirror to his paternal-surrogate relationship with Jeff Daniels’ Apple CEO John Sculley (what would a Great Man Biopic be, after all, without a lot of Bad Dad psychoanalysis?); but the back-and-forth with Wozniak honestly feels like it has more thematic meat to it – not in the least because Jobs’ chief sin in Woz’s eyes – callously refusing to even glance approvingly in the direction of the hardworking Apple II developer team – feels so much more cut-and-dry in it’s stubborn pettiness. The film slyly posits a kind of “FOX & THE HOUND” relationship between the two, i.e. the cool, trendy hipster and the authentically-dorky workbench-hobbyist being destined to wind up at odds and straining to maintain the mutual loyalty of their earlier friendship anyway.

Sorkin, at least, hands Woz most of the best zingers: While depicting their famous disagreement over whether to provide extra equipment slots on the original Apple in order to allow user-modifications in violation of Jobs’ desire for a closed-system that won’t play well with others, he declares that computers aren’t supposed to have human flaws and that he won’t build Steve’s (human flaws) into this one. I’m gonna assume my biases in that debate are self evident, so obviously yes I wanted to stand up and cheer every time the movie yielded the floor to Rogen unloading a barrage of oldschool nerd grievances straight from the heart of everyone still living who prefers computers to be fucking computers instead of fashion accessories or conversation pieces.

Between Rogen as the showman and Winslet as the far and away MVP, it almost feels like Michael Fassbender gets lost in the noise a bit as Jobs himself. He’s fine, but the movie never actually wants him to stop being largely inscrutable which mutes the range a bit, plus there’s a distracting affectation happening with the accent that kept pulling me out of the moment. Eventually, I couldn’t shake the sense that an overall more interesting movie might have been made by keeping Jobs himself offscreen entirely and just focus on the more compelling characters basking (or wincing) in his glow… but I don’t wanna dwell on that idea lest someone take it and make another of these damn movies.

Still, Boyle’s direction (while not as perfectly matched to Sorkin’s style as David Fincher’s in THE SOCIAL NETWORK) keeps everything moving and visually interesting considering the whole thing pretty much happens across a bunch of hallways and backstage greenrooms – it’s a two hour movie but it breezes by feeling like something only half that long. And, hell… for a whole two hours I was almost sold on the idea of Steve Jobs as an intrinsically interesting figure – and that’s not an insubstantial something.

Review: TRUTH (2015)

NOTE: Publication of this piece was possible in part due to the generosity of contributors to The MovieBob Patreon.

Reviewing TRUTH is an exercise in asking whether or not it your supposed to weigh a film against its own intentions. That’s not necessarily an unusual place for a critic to be in, but it’s usually in a much more extreme context, i.e. whether you should recommend a film for the laughs when it wasn’t mean to be a comedy but rather a drama staged so ineptly that it becomes hilarious. TRUTH is askew in a more subtle fashion: What’s up onscreen is a top-tier example of an earnest political polemic that keeps insisting on (and seems to genuinely believe in) its own neutrality, putting in a herculean (and effective) effort to rehabilitate subjects that it also insists don’t need rehabilitating in the first place.

For those who don’t remember the story: Right in the midst of the 2004 Presidential Election, CBS News’ 60 Minutes ran a story about renewed allegations that then-President George W. Bush had not only received “special treatment” to get into the National Guard during Vietnam, but hadn’t even been able to behave himself while there. This was something that had been widely assumed (or at least “kicked around”) since before Dubya was even a candidate for President the first time, but now the immensely-respected 60 Minutes and venerable newsman Dan Rather were saying they had documents to back the rumors up.

Soon after, however, a consortium of right-wing “new media” bloggers began circulating serious-sounding claims that the documents were easily-proved forgeries. This was all unfolding at the moment when mainstream popularity of the Fox News Channel was at it’s zenith, and the rest of the U.S. news media was living in mortal fear of being called “biased” by a viewership still residually panicked enough by 9/11 to be swallowing wholesale Fox’s pitch that their GOP propaganda-mongering was actually open-minded centrism (“We Report, You Decide”) that only “looked” right-wing because the rest of the media was so profoundly “left.” So it was unsurprising that CBS made no real effort to defend 60 Minutes’ reporting, instead going directly into apology-mode and ultimately hanging segment-producer Mary Mapes and even Rather himself out to dry.

Robert Redford’s turn as Rather is TRUTH’s big Awards Season showpiece, but the actual film is mainly about Mapes (her book, “Truth & Power,” gets the based-on credit.) Played by Cate Blanchett in full-tilt crusader mode, the story casts Mapes as a well-meaning martyr beset on all sides not so much by conspiracy (though it feints a few times in that direction) than by a disastrous confluence of circumstances – all of which seem poised from the get-go to end with her as a sacrifice to the false gods of objectivity-at-any-cost: CBS’ schedule is clogged by tacky reality specials, narrowing 60 Minutes’ production-window. Their main source is a well-meaning but unreliable codger. Important support-sources can’t keep their own stories straight. And then there’s those bloggers – here cast as an unseen army of pajama-pundits whose ability to fire off scattershot accusations with near-absolute impunity is a deeply unfair advantage over professional journalists with standards (and bosses) to answer to.

It’s admirable, at first, to see a film try to take what seems like a difficult stand (“Yeah, we might’ve fumbled the reporting a bit but it’s obvious the story itself was probably true and besides flawed real-journalism is better than rando-blogosphere journalism”) …but that soon turns out not to be the case. TRUTH is less interested in actually making a case for its protagonists (outside of an overriding clarity that Mapes especially did nothing too terribly wrong) than in lionizing the imperiled institution of serious TV journalism that it decides they represent. What happened to Mapes and Rather is unfortunate, it argues, but that it has (or was used to?) damage The News is a tragedy.

None of which is innately a problem, especially in a terms of the filmmaking: Political/ideological mythmaking is a valid a narrative form as any other, and as mythmaking (which is not the same thing as either lying or fabricating, just so we’re clear) TRUTH is a stellar example of the form. Blanchett embodies the film’s take on Mapes splendidly, while Redford’s Rather isn’t so much imitation (he doesn’t look or sound anything like him) as it is a perfect use of iconography, i.e. what better onscreen-shorthand for “this noteworthy Baby Boomer is worthy of your respect” is there than “oh wow, it’s Robert Redford?” James Vanderbilt’s direction, meanwhile, stays within the classical parameters of the modern biopic while also turning a story of news-office minutiae into something that begins to feel like a thriller.

But that might also be part of the problem; or at least the reason why TRUTH feels like an involving, even heart-pounding winner in the watching but leaves a nagging, questionable aftertaste regardless. This story could work as a righteous polemic (“These heroes could’ve saved us from a second Bush term if only the unholy blogger/corporat-media alliance hadn’t conspired to destroy them!”) or a detached meditation (“We’ll never know the real… TRUTH”) but it can’t be both. So why does it too often feel like it’s trying to be? Why is something so sure of it’s own rightness so frequently making defensive gestures?

That’s where the “Thrilling, but should it be?” issue comes in: The film wants us to be assured that it’s dealing in the cold hard facts, but it wants to be more emotionally-involving than a “mere” procedural; and that involves narrative details like subtext, metaphor and allegory that can’t help but be the opposite of clinical fact-relation. Most egregiously, Vanderbilt’s screenplay can’t resist adding topically-relevant pathos and psychoanalysis to Mapes’ relationships both to the story and to Rather; which is a solid approach for the heroine of a drama with a point to make but undercuts her intended position as a moral fixed-point in the final film.

Specifically, we’re informed that her matter-of-fact declaration that her team can’t be “smacked just for asking questions” is a personal reference for her, having grown up being physically abused for her inquisitive nature by a violent, ultra-conservative father; a detail the film stretches not only to unnecessarily “explain” her devotion to Rather (he’s the Good Dad she never had) but also to pump up her victim/hero stature when Bad Dad re-enters the story by bashing her as a “radical feminist” to the right-wing press. The implication here (Fox News, the bloggers and everyone else who attacked the story are basically of-a-kind to Mapes’ abusive father) is functional but unnecessary: If the thrust of your narrative is that your hero was villified for doing nothing wrong, what are you trying to explain away with an “origin story” and pat psychoanalysis that (frankly) could be easily turned around to make the exact opposite point?

But, again, that’s only really a flaw if we’re taking TRUTH at its word (no, the irony is not lost on me) that it’s not meant to be a Hero’s Journey for an idealized version of Mary Mapes with right-wing New Media as the villain. Taken as precisely that (which, all considered, is what’s ended up onscreen) it’s largely a triumph that works both as a newsroom potboiler and a lament for the good old days (Redford swirls a brandy and laments bygone wonders as naturally as most people draw breath); and the fist-pump righteousness Blanchett invests Mapes’ story with should prove particularly restorative for Progressive audiences: However coincidental, its hard not to think of Hillary Clinton (literally) brushing-off the Benghazi paranoiacs as Blanchett finds herself staring down an “ethics panel” of sneering suits. The question is whether it matters that TRUTH clearly doesn’t think it is (and didn’t intend to be) that kind of movie, and that I don’t have an answer for.

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