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Posts Tagged ‘Gavin Hood’

The world being in the state that it is, the temptation to sink into a state of stupefied despair is pretty much ever-present at the moment. One of the reasons I love the cinema is that it does provide the chance to escape into a different kind of headspace, a different way of thinking, and forget about the dismal facts of reality. Oddly enough, this still seems to apply even when the film in question brings one face-to-face with some dolorous truths from the recent past – at least, it does when the film is well-written, directed and played.

(Yes, yet another movie poster with Keira Knightley staring out against a black background while her co-stars peer over her shoulders. Knightley takes some stick for always doing the same kind of thing but the publicity people are at least as bad.)

Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets is set in the early 2000s, in a Britain where huge demonstrations fill the streets, only to be entirely disregarded by the government in power, where a smirking excrescence with no regard for the truth is Prime Minister, and where a comparatively lowly whistleblower has the ability to inflict severe embarrassment on the US administration. How very different things were only a few years ago. The whistleblower in question is Katherine Gun (Keira Knightley), a translator at GCHQ, the government’s intelligence and communications hub. A keen follower of current affairs, Gun is appalled and outraged by what she sees as the lies peddled by Tony Blair in his attempts to win support for an invasion of Iraq.

Then she receives an email, sent to all GCHQ personnel from somewhere within the American NSA – in an attempt to swing a United Nations Security Council vote, an effort is being made to acquire sensitive intelligence on council members in an attempt to acquire leverage – or, to put it more plainly, they are digging dirt on allies in order to blackmail them into supporting the invasion. (Should I stress that this is a true story?) After struggling with her conscience, Gun eventually decides to leak the top-secret email.

It ends up on the desk of Observer journalist Martin Bright (Matt Smith), who quickly realises just exactly what he’s come into possession of. The situation is complex, however – he doesn’t know the source of the document, and has no way of being certain it is genuine. There is also the fact that, prior to this moment, his paper has been in favour of the war. Can the leak be verified? Can the editors be persuaded of the value of the story? And what will the consequences be for Gun if they do decide to publish?

I’ve seen all of Gavin Hood’s last few films – from Wolverine: Origins onwards – and it does seem like his dalliance with superheroes was rather uncharacteristic: he generally seems to make serious films about significant real-world issues. All right, he did make the (possibly under-rated) YA sci-fi film Ender’s Game, which got tangled up in political issues of a different kind, but even there the film quietly explored the issue of using child soldiers (through an SF metaphor, of course). His last film, Eye in the Sky, was a very powerful thriller about the ethics of drone strikes as an instrument of foreign policy.

And, needless to say, Official Secrets is also concerned with international relations, the difference here being that the film is based on actual events. You might think the film already has two strikes against it as a result – firstly, does the world really want to see another film complaining about a war which is now a matter of historical record? And, secondly, the film doesn’t shy away from the fact that Gun and the Observer journalists ultimately failed in their objective, which was to stop an arguably illegal war. Wouldn’t it just be better to accept things and move on?

Well, maybe, but the film has a couple of powerful things in its favour. Firstly, it deals with what are still arguably very live issues: the opaque nature of dealings within and between governments, the issue of trust, the extent to which a government is constrained by the rule of law, and so on. For a long time I was always slightly dubious about many high-profile whistleblowing cases – there is a case to be made that governments have a responsibility to keep certain information from becoming general knowledge, which means there has to be a mechanism to ensure secrecy. But the film questions just what the limits of this can and should be – the British Official Secrets Act apparently operates on the principle that there are no circumstances in which the release of sensitive information can be justified, regardless of the legality of what is disclosed. From here it is just a short step to the assumption that the government is necessarily right in whatever it does, simply because it’s the government (one of the notions toyed with in Vice, earlier this year). It is surely worth exploring the consequences of this, even if only through a film.

And this is a very well-made and entertaining film: it may tackle some legal and political chewy bits, but it does so with the pace and excitement of a proper thriller, particular in the sequences where Bright and his colleagues try to verify the truth of the leak. Nor is it entirely sombre: there’s a great moment of black comedy when overzealous use of spellchecker threatens to discredit the Observer’s big scoop. There is a great ensemble performance from the actors playing the journalists – Matt Smith’s performance does a good job of reminding you what a charismatic actor he can be, but he is well-supported by Matthew Goode and (in what’s basically a cameo) Rhys Ifans. The film’s other major supporting performance comes from Ralph Fiennes as Gun’s lawyer, Ben Emmerson, and he likewise makes the most of a strong script. (Most of the characters in this film are real people, but – perhaps fortunately – none of them are especially familiar faces. The only possible exception is Shami Chakrabarti, who appears in the film played by Indira Varma, but as a relatively minor figure.)

This is, of course, a Keira Knightley film – it’s her face which is most prominent on that poster, after all. I think it is fair to say she is one of those performers I have never entirely warmed to, possibly because she seems to specialise in a certain type of tastefully inert costume drama, possibly to the extent where she seems vaguely out of place appearing in anything else (I can’t recall Knightley’s Kiwi accent from Everest without having an involuntary tremor). Here she is, well, good enough to carry most of the movie, although I think it is very possible she is slightly overcooking her performance. There are a lot of tics I seem to recall from other performances, anyway. But, as I say, good enough.

This is a film which may be hampered by a slightly boring title, the sense it is raking over yesterday’s issues, and the fact that it has a poster which is largely interchangeable with that of most other Keira Knightley movies. However, this doesn’t stop it being an intelligent, involving, and very well-made film that manages to deal with serious issues without becoming heavy or slow. Certainly one of the better films of recent months; it gets my recommendation.

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When an issue becomes grist to the mill of popcorn action movies, you know it’s achieved a certain critical mass when it comes to public awareness. So when you consider that the director of the remake of Robocop announced the film was ‘actually’ about the use of drones in combat situations, the last Gerard Butler action movie was bookended by a couple of drone bombings, the signs are clear – this topic is up for grabs as far as film makers are concerned. (You can perhaps discern this from the way that Robocop attempted to discuss the ethical implications – in an admittedly cackhanded sort of way – while London Has Fallen just used it in a specious and un-thought-through attempt to give the film verisimilitude and sophistication.)

For me, the whole issue of drone strikes, drone bombings, call it what you will – it’s one of those things that happens, and which is clearly significant in the world, but which I have no personal influence over whatsoever. As a result I sometimes feel as though I’ve recused myself from having to have an opinion about it. One almost gets the sense that this is an attitude many governments would like to foster. Hoping to achieve exactly the opposite effect is Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky.

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The use of drone strikes to eliminate terrorist suspects is an enormously big and complex issue, which Eye in the Sky humanises by starting with one very simple situation and letting the audience wonder what they would do if they had their finger on the trigger, figuratively speaking: a mixed group of American, British, and Kenyan terrorists are meeting in a house on the outskirts of Nairobi. They are being monitored by a mixture of British and American military figures, a group of UK politicians, courtesy of a Kenyan intelligence operative in the vicinity. It suddenly becomes apparent that the group are in the final stages of preparing for a suicide bombing attack. The house is in a neighbourhood controlled by the radical Al-Shabab militia, making the use of conventional forces impossible. The only way to stop the attack is to blow up the house using a drone – but a young girl is sitting directly outside it, selling bread, and she will most likely be killed in the blast. What would you do?

Helen Mirren plays the officer in operational command of the mission, and Alan Rickman is her superior, liaising with a group of government ministers overseeing the operation (Jeremy Northam is one of them). Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox are the operators of the drone, and the ones who will actually have to pull the trigger. Barkhad Abdi is the Kenya intelligence agent on the scene. One of the distinctive features of Eye in the Sky is that most of these people don’t share any screen time together, their various interactions taking place entirely via electronic media – Mirren is in a bunker somewhere, Rickman is in Whitehall, Paul and Fox are in a US airbase near Las Vegas, Abdi is in Nairobi. The interconnectedness of the modern world is one of the themes of the film.

Most of the time this is a positive thing, as I’m sure most of us would agree, but it also means that a decision that once upon a time would have been left to soldiers on the scene is now open to scrutiny by higher-ups and politicians, as happens here. The situation in this film is perhaps a little contrived to achieve maximum complexity – there’s a change of mission objective, plus the fact that American citizens are targets, and the complication that it’s technically a drone strike against a friendly country – but not excessively so, and the tense wrangling between the various involved parties that ensues is utterly plausible and gripping. (Even if real-world politicians don’t worry about and discuss issues in quite this way, you would still like to believe that they do.)

The issues involved are of several different kinds – legal, political, and ultimately moral. But even then it’s not as clean-cut as that sounds – the decision as to whether a strike is legal is made by a politician, after all, while even ethical concerns seem to be getting warped by other considerations, such as whether a successful suicide bombing or excessive collateral damage from a drone strike would have the greater impact as a piece of negative publicity. Time and again the film returns to the fact that everyone, except those actually at risk of bodily harm in Kenya, is concerned about covering their own backside – the military need to be sure they are not legally culpable for any wrongdoing, the politicians need to ensure they are authorised by their superiors, and so on. (Here again the modern world intrudes – characters worry aloud about what will happen if footage from the drone ends up on YouTube, and so on.)

This may make it sound like the film is quite talky, and to some extent that’s true, but it never feels less than grounded and real. Partly this is because of the way Hood employs little details to sell the story to the audience – the fact the little girl’s parents have no ties to Al-Shabab and are surreptitiously giving her an education, the way that the drone operators have no idea about the arguments over how to proceed going on above their heads, and many others.

At one point it looks like this is going to be a film about how brave and dedicated soldiers are let down by self-serving political types – lions led by donkeys, again – but once more the film does not take the easy route – there’s a very uncomfortable scene in which Mirren basically bullies one of her own men (he is black, with an Arabic surname, and surely neither of these things is accidental) into manipulating his calculations of collateral damage down to an acceptably low percentage. Is she crossing the line, or simply doing what’s necessary to save dozens of lives? The film permits us to make up our own minds.

I personally did not feel this was a film with an axe to grind as to whether drone bombings are justified or not, but I can imagine how some people might find it a bit too sympathetic to the military-political establishment, who are presented as flawed but human. The film seems to me to simply conclude that this is a complex, complex issue entirely bereft of easy answers. We want our society to be safe, and yet we also want it to be just, and our elected officials and soldiers to be accountable, while still being able to do their jobs. If anything, the film suggests that we can’t reasonably expect all of those things. The final word goes to Rickman, whose final on-screen appearance this is, and he delivers it with all the subtlety and power you would expect from a performer of his calibre, aided by the script, which has been consistently thoughtful and precise throughout: technology may make warfare cleaner and safer (for some people at least), but it doesn’t make it easier. Eye in the Sky grips like a vice, while still managing to be moving and thought-provoking. One of the best two or three films I have seen so far this year.

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A few months ago I had a curious and somewhat exasperating experience on one of the world’s premier social networking websites (you know – the one which had the thing about the thing). Someone who I used to know quite well made a rather grave announcement along the lines of ‘For anyone planning to see Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card has announced he will donate some of his profits to anti-gay marriage lobby groups‘ (or words to that effect), the unspoken assumption being that no humane person could now possibly consider going anywhere near the film.

Well, I happily go and see movies by all the big studios (as you may have noticed) which means that some of my cash ends up in the profits of people like Rupert Murdoch, who no doubt have views to which I would take exception. Bearing this in mind I suggested to my friend he was being a bit naive and over-reacting by singling out Card for this sort of boycott (Ender’s Game alone has seven other producers). I didn’t really mind the days of wrangling which followed, just the fact that after having repeatedly criticised Orson Scott Card for refusing to respect the rights of others, my friend concluded by casually mentioning he was going to illegally download the movie anyway. Sigh. Is this what counts as the moral high ground nowadays?

I don’t agree with Card’s socially conservative personal beliefs, but I don’t think that having such beliefs automatically makes one a homophobe, and I don’t think that this necessarily makes anything he’s associated with a valid target for picketing and criticism. Nevertheless, this seems to have been the case with the movie adaptation of Ender’s Game, certainly earlier in the year, and this may be why the film’s release feels to me to have a faint sense of lack of commitment. This is a big old lavish SF blockbuster, which could surely hold its head up amongst the typical crop of summer films, or the slightly-more-critically-respectable bunch showing up around Christmas every year. And yet it has been snuck out at the beginning of November, and at a time when it is likely going to get hammered by the latest Thor.

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I find this a bit of a shame. Written and directed by Gavin Hood, this is the story of Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a child prodigy attending military academy at some point in the future. To begin with we are in Backstory Voiceover Mode, as we learn how the world was devastated by an assault by insectoid aliens (in the book these are known as Buggers, but for fairly obvious reasons the movie has opted to change this to Formics). The aliens were driven off, but the threat of another invasion continues to loom. As a result, the government of Earth is training its young people to lead battle fleets should hostilities resume.

Senior military figure Graff (Harrison Ford) identifies Ender as a tactical genius, and potentially the one great leader Earth’s navy has been waiting for. So he gets shipped off to an orbital training facility, which is basically a very stern version of Hogwarts but with ray guns, where he is forced to participate in all manner of zero-G battle simulations and other training scenarios. But does Ender have it in him to do all that the high command require…?

Okay, so on one level it is a bit like Harry Potter in space – there are competing houses, various fraught relationships between the pupils, strict teachers, and so on – but I found it rather more reminiscent of something else. The incipient threat from alien arthropods, the authoritarian global culture, the militarisation of the young – very soon I was thinking ‘this is like the movie version of Starship Troopers, but played straight’ (so rather more like Heinlein’s original novel, then).

Having said that, where the novel of Starship Troopers is an unapologetic manifesto for a certain kind of muscular libertarianism, the movie of Ender’s Game always seems aware of the implied morality of its characters and story – indeed, it’s central to the film. This is, I think, a film with an undeniable awareness of its own morality, and that morality is by and large a laudable one. And it’s sophisticated, for a lavish SF movie – this is a movie about child soldiers, and the morality of conflict, but it doesn’t deal in terms of moral absolutes. It’s quite ironic, then, that this film has been subject to a boycott on ethical grounds when rather more dubious, brainless ones have sailed onto the screen unopposed.

Technically it’s proficiently done too. The visual effects have that immaculate, heftless quality we’ve come to expect from big productions, but it’s well performed by a strong cast – Butterfield is very good indeed, and Ford is pretty good value too. Hailee Steinfeld doesn’t quite get the material she perhaps deserves, though. Popping up in the closing stages is Ben Kingsley as a tattooed veteran warrior. Kingsley has a bit of a reputation for being, perhaps, self-regarding and pretentious, but regardless of this the fact remains that he is simply a very, very fine actor and all that is on display here as usual.

Throughout the film one gets a sense of a big book being hacked down for the screen, but what emerges is a film with a coherent storyline that is pretty involving throughout. I haven’t read Ender’s Game, and I must confess I don’t plan to, but simply judged as a film I think this works rather well.

One of the annoying things that happens to you as a hack critic now and then is coming up with a snappy line in advance of seeing a film and then having to discard it because it doesn’t fit the facts. In this case I was all set to go with ‘You shouldn’t avoid Ender’s Game because of Orson Scott Card’s political beliefs. You should avoid it because it’s a lousy film’, but obviously that’s not going to work now. Okay: whether or not you boycott Ender’s Game because of Orson Scott Card’s political beliefs is between you and your conscience. But if you do, you’ll be missing out on a quietly superior SF movie.

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