[Editor's Note: The article below appears in its entirety today at The Atlantic.]
Putin’s Kiss, Khodorkovsky, and Target question tyranny, capitalism, and their country’s future.
By Govindini Murty & Jason Apuzzo. As Russians head toward their presidential elections on March 4th, a trio of new films sheds light on a contemporary Russia veering between hope and cynicism, democracy and authoritarianism. The documentary Putin’s Kiss depicts a young Russian woman who becomes disillusioned with her role as a leader in Vladimir Putin’s nationalistic youth group Nashi in the wake of a brutal beating of a journalist. The chilling documentary Khodorkovsky examines the fate of the jailed Russian billionaire turned democracy activist Mikhail Khodorkovsky. And the science-fiction epic Target depicts the moral collapse of a wealthy elite in an authoritarian, near-future Russia.
On the brink of what may be another six years under Putin’s rule, these three films reveal a deep anxiety about Russia’s future—and a faint glimmer of hope for more genuine democratic freedom.
Masha Drokova is the young heroine of Danish director Lise Birk Pedersen’s documentary Putin’s Kiss (2012), a selection of the 2012 Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals and currently playing in limited release. Born in 1989, Masha is part of the first generation to grow up in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the age of 16, Masha joins Putin’s nationalistic youth group Nashi; by age 19, she is already a spokesperson and leading commissar of the youth group, and Putin himself awards her a medal of honor. By age 21, the bright, ambitious Masha has everything thanks to Nashi: a prestigious spot in a top Moscow university, a new car, an apartment, her own TV talk show, and access to the highest echelons of Russia’s power elite.
As briefly mentioned in the film, Nashi itself was founded in 2005 by Putin supporters to counter the rise of pro-democracy youth groups in the wake of the Ukrainian Orange revolution. Although purportedly “democratic and anti-fascist,” Nashi bears a striking resemblance to the Soviet youth group Komsomol. Like Komsomol, the well-funded Nashi provides a route for many young people into official advancement.
In Putin’s Kiss, Nashi founder Vasily Yakemenko is shown exercising a Svengali-like control over his young charges, exhorting them to discipline and promising them a new life if they will dedicate themselves to Putin and the Russian motherland. As Yakemenko says to the Nashi faithful: “I want everybody to understand: There is no authority for the movement except for the policy of Putin and Medvedev … Being part of the movement means going out into the streets. It means to tell a villain he’s a villain.” As depicted in the film, a major part of Nashi’s efforts are directed toward vilifying Putin’s opponents as “enemies of Russia.” By way of example, the film shows some particularly crude attacks directed at opposition figures Boris Nemtsov, Ilya Yashin, and Garry Kasparov.
Masha is initially drawn to Nashi out of patriotism and ambition. She sees Nashi as a way for young people to get involved in helping advance Russia, and she considers Putin a force for strength and stability. Masha is such a fan of Putin that she becomes known as “the girl who kissed Putin” for impetuously pecking him on the cheek when he presented her with a medal.
Yet Masha’s curiosity about the larger world leads her to make friends with a group of opposition journalists. Masha’s chief friend in the group is the gregarious Oleg Kashin, a liberal journalist who writes for the Kommersant newspaper.
Things take a dark turn one night in 2010 when assailants brutally beat Oleg Kashin …
[For the remainder of this article, please visit The Atlantic.]
Posted on February 29th, 2012 at 11:29am.
By Jason Apuzzo. The Cold War is back – at least at the movies.
This weekend moviegoers can watch Meryl Streep portray ardent Cold Warrior Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, Gary Oldman root out a dangerous Soviet mole from the British intelligence service in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and Tom Cruise race to prevent a Cold War-style nuclear exchange between America and Russia in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.
These films form part of a major Hollywood trend toward reawakening memories of the Cold War – an era that is suddenly returning with a vengeance on the big screen, with long-term implications for our popular culture.
Currently in the midst of an awards-season run, for example, Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar tells the story of legendary FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s decades’-long confrontation with Soviet infiltration of America. Also in the midst of an awards-season run is the ominous new documentary Khodorkovsky, which depicts how little Russia’s authoritarian governing style has changed since the dark days of the old Soviet Union.
And the trend doesn’t stop there. If Santa slipped new Blu-rays of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, X-Men: First Class, Apollo 18 or The Kennedys into your Christmas stocking, you just got another healthy dose of Cold War nostalgia from those films – because 2011 was a watershed year in Hollywood for reviving America’s long-standing rivalry with all things Russian and/or communist.
So, what’s going on here? Why is Hollywood suddenly reviving Russian communists, spies and autocrats as the go-to villains of choice?
The simplest answer may be that the old Soviet Union is gradually replacing Nazi Germany, Imperial Rome and space aliens as Hollywood’s favorite antagonists. In an industry still hesitant to make films about today’s War on Terror, and with memories of World War II fading, Russian authoritarians – including those of the present day variety – are on their way to becoming Hollywood’s safe, consensus villains of the moment.
This trend began in 2008, with of all things an Indiana Jones film. Set in 1957 at the height of the Cold War, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull featured Soviet communists as the villains, and despite grumbling from critics and internet fanboys the film played well in middle America – taking in over $317 million domestically (a figure even Ghost Protocol seems unlikely to match) and $786 worldwide. Perhaps just as significantly, the fact that the film had been made by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas seemingly gave the green light to other left-of-center filmmakers that depicting Reds as the villains was OK again.
Soon Angelina Jolie was hunting sleeper Soviet agents in Salt (2010), Ed Harris and Colin Farrell were escaping a brutal Soviet gulag in Peter Weir’s extraordinary The Way Back (2010), and even Richard Gere and Martin Sheen were getting in on the act – smoking out a Russian mole in The Double (2011). Released here in the U.S. in 2010, Fred Ward played Ronald Reagan in the French Cold War spy thriller Farewell, and Renny Harlin’s action-drama 5 Days of War (2011) depicted the brutality of Russia’s recent invasion of Georgia.
To be fair, Russians haven’t been the only villains in this trend. MGM’s forthcoming remake of Red Dawn (read a review of an early cut of the film here) depicts a communist invasion of America by the North Koreans and Chinese, similar to the invasion of Australia depicted in Stuart Beattie’s recent thriller Tomorrow, When the War Began (2010). Bruce Beresford’s touching Mao’s Last Dancer (2009) recreated in heartbreaking detail the restrictions in Chinese communist society on artists. And perhaps no recent film captured communist tyranny more vividly than Mads Brügger’s gonzo documentary from 2009 on North Korea, The Red Chapel.
This movie revival of the Cold War – in its many Russian, Chinese and North Korean variations – has intriguing implications. For the past generation, many left-of-center filmmakers have been deeply invested in the notion that the Cold War was a kind of paranoid mirage, a tragicomic figment of Ronald Reagan and Whittaker Chambers’ imaginations. With few exceptions, the basic image created by these filmmakers of the Cold War – codified in films like Dr. Strangelove (1964), or more recently in Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) – has been one of an artificial conflict fueled by American militarism and bourgeois small-mindedness. The sardonic The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966) serves as perhaps the sine qua non of this genre.
This vision of the Cold War appears to be changing, however, among younger, less ideologically driven filmmakers. These filmmakers view the Cold War simply as a fertile field of storytelling possibilities about the struggle for freedom, in much the same way an older generation viewed World War II. Filmmakers today seem more eager to tell such stories about the Cold War, unearthing the past and depicting the sharp political divisions between East and West, perhaps because these filmmakers detect a continuity between communist tyrannies of the 20th century and similarly repressive regimes today.
After all, Brezhnev and Mao may be gone – but an ex-KGB man still runs Russia, and communists still run repressive regimes in China and North Korea. And America’s relationship with these nations sometimes seems no better than it was before.
Today’s Hollywood seems alive to these realities as never before, as reflected in a slate of new projects in the development pipeline that channel Cold War themes. Along with sequels to Salt, X-Men: First Class, Die Hard (with Die Hard 5 set to take place in Russia), and even Top Gun, work is also underway to re-boot the Jack Ryan franchise with Chris Pine in a new thriller called Moscow. Remakes of famous Cold War properties like Ice Station Zebra, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and even Colossus: The Forbin Project are also in development – along with adaptations of the books Londongrad, The Reluctant Communist, and the Red Star comic book.
On TV, HBO and FX are working on competing series about ’80s-era Soviet spies in the U.S., and HBO reportedly has another series in development about Cold War spies in Berlin.
As if that were not enough, Gerard Butler and Ed Harris will soon be trying to stop rogue Russian generals and KGB agents from starting World War III in Hunter Killer and Phantom, respectively. Or if your sensibilities run toward the art house, Andrzej Wajda is currently directing a biopic of Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa.
Granted, it shouldn’t be assumed that these films will express a uniformity of opinion about the Cold War, or about current international tensions. Indeed, several recent films like The Iron Lady, J. Edgar, and X-Men: First Class express a pronounced ambivalence about the Cold Warriors they depict.
Watching The Iron Lady, for example, you would hardly know why the Soviet Red Army newspaper labelled Margaret Thatcher “the Iron Lady” in the first place. The film is weirdly evasive of Thatcher’s vital role in ending the Cold War – barely alluding to it except in brief moments of Thatcher with Reagan and Gorbachev, or attending an event commemorating the end of the Cold War. The Iron Lady seems more concerned with Thatcher’s current state of physical fragility than in her momentous alliances with Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and Lech Walesa in hastening the collapse of the Soviet state.
Still, the fascination that films like The Iron Lady or J. Edgar have with Cold Warriors of the past is obvious. And certainly none of these recent films bothers to romanticize the communist cause. Indeed, the days in Hollywood of dueling Che Guevara biopics (Che, The Motorcycle Diaries) – or of Katherine Hepburn wearing a frayed Mao jacket to the Oscars – seem long gone.
The Cold War is back in Hollywood, but this time the idea seems to be to support the winning side.
Posted on January 13th, 2012 at 5:24pm.
By Jason Apuzzo. THE PITCH: Director Clint Eastwood and star Leonardo DiCaprio bring the colorful and controversial life of legendary FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to the big screen, in a sprawling and complex biopic covering some 50+ years of American domestic history.
THE SKINNY: Eastwood’s relaxed, naturalistic directing style combines with a charismatic performance from DiCaprio to create a mostly sympathetic portrait of Hoover, albeit one that traffics in shopworn clichés of ‘50s anti-communist ‘paranoia’ and Kinsey-style sexual repression. J. Edgar bites off far more history than it can chew in 2 1/2 hours, however, and suffers mightily from its slow pace.
WHAT WORKS: • Leonardo DiCaprio has finally begun to hit his stride as an actor, delivering a voluble, eccentric take on Hoover – treating him as a dapper, genial workaholic with an occasional tendency to overstep his bounds. DiCaprio’s enthusiasm for the character is palpable, however, and mitigates the film’s sporadic tendency to belittle Hoover’s accomplishments.
• Eastwood’s direction softens some of the sharp edges in Dustin Lance Black’s script, keeping the focus on the characters rather than on Oliver Stone-style political showboating. Ideologues of both the left and right will not get out of J. Edgar what they want; the film is much more a Citizen Kane-style character study (complete with flashback structure) than a referendum on the anti-communist cause or the legacy of the FBI and its methods. The film is far too fond of Hoover to be considered left wing, yet too ambivalent toward Hoover’s politics to be considered right wing.
• The question of Hoover’s sexuality is broached tastefully, basically depicting him as too tightly wound for relationships of any kind. In fact, throughout the entire film he receives a grand total of one kiss – forced on him awkwardly by his friend, Clyde Tolson. As presented in the film, Hoover’s greatest passion is quite obviously his work.
• J. Edgar otherwise features strong supporting performances by Armie Hammer as Hoover’s colleague and companion Clyde Tolson, Naomi Watts as Hoover’s long-suffering secretary Helen Gandy, and Judi Dench as Hoover’s mother – the steel in J. Edgar’s spine.
By Jason Apuzzo. • The big news from yesterday – the 50th anniversary of Sean Connery’s original casting as James Bond – was that after endless turmoil at MGM the new 007 film Skyfall, the 23rd film in the series, has finally begun shooting. The production team held a press conference (see here and here) to mark the occasion, rolling out new Bond director Sam Mendes along with Daniel Craig and some of Skyfall’s impressive cast, which currently includes: Javier Bardem as the villain, Albert Finney, Judi Dench as M, French actress Bérénice Marlohe as the new Bond girl, Naomi Harris as a ‘field agent’ (not as Moneypenny, as some websites are erroneously reporting) and Ralph Fiennes – who, if rumors prove true, might be making an appearance as Blofeld (a great idea, if it happens).
Not much that wasn’t already rumored about the film was confirmed in the press conference, except that Mendes threw cold water on rumors that he’s somehow taking the emphasis off action in this new Bond film. Frankly, I didn’t believe those rumors in the first place, due to the tight control that the Broccoli family has always kept on the Bond series. There was no way the Broccolis were going to suddenly change their formula just for the sake of Mendes, no matter what kind of august cast he brought with him. Bond producer Michael G. Wilson (stepson to legendary Bond producer Albert Broccoli, and half-brother to Barbara Broccoli) has literally been on the set of the Bond films since Goldfinger, and has seen Bond directors come and (mostly) go, so I never believed that he was all of a sudden going to be endorsing a George Smiley-style version of Bond out of Mendes.
So with all of this talent floating around Skyfall (a good name, by the way) – and there is a lot of talent floating around this production – why am I not feeling more excited? Regular Libertas readers already know the answer to that question: my sense is that the Bond series is, once again, adrift.
As a case in point, as excited as I was about yesterday’s press conference, and about the new film’s impressive cast and great list of locations (Shanghai, Istanbul, Scotland, et al) and about seeing Bérénice Marlohe trotted out in a red dress, etc., I was distinctly bored by the official description of the storyline:
In SKYFALL, Bond’s loyalty to M is tested as her past comes back to haunt her. As MI6 comes under attack, 007 must track down and destroy the threat, no matter how personal the cost.
Does any of that sound very interesting? It certainly doesn’t to me – making the usual allowances for the producers trying to keep the description spoiler-free. But the description really should’ve read something like this:
In SKYFALL, an insane billionaire Russian video game designer, who lives in a levitating palace surrounded by genetically designed Thai supermodels, devises a first-person shooter game that mesmerizes the world’s youth into attacking Western bankers. 007 must be hauled away from a secret mission in Cozumel investigating fraud in the international lingerie market to fight this terrifying menace.
That, my friends, would be a Bond film to remember. In the very least, it’s the type of Bond film they would’ve had the good sense to make in the 1960s or 1970s, during the series’ heyday.
Aside from the one-dimensionality of Daniel Craig, part of the problem with the Bond series of late is that it just doesn’t seem very fun or cathartic anymore. The series has lost all of its cracked humor, warped characters and vaguely campy sensibility. It’s become earnest and ‘serious’ when it should be fun.
And when I think of ‘fun,’ the name ‘Sam Mendes’ – alas – isn’t the first name that comes to mind.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll repeat here what I’ve been saying for some time: the Bond series should be handed over to Michael Bay and Michael Fassbender, or some combination of talent that can approximate what Bay and Fassbender would bring to the series: i.e., a director who can bring spectacle, sexiness and humor back to the series, and a leading man actually suited to the part, who doesn’t look and act like a baked cauliflower (i.e., Daniel Craig).
So is there anything to look forward to with respect to Skyfall? Sure. There are rumors that Ernst Stavro Blofeld may be appearing in the film (likely as the super-villain pulling Javier Bardem’s strings), which would make sense as the role Ralph Fiennes would play. I think this is the one bold stroke that might help the series a great deal, assuming Blofeld became a recurring character again.
Frankly, Blofeld has always been a much better character in the novels than in the films – with only Donald Pleasance in You Only Live Twice bringing the humor and psychotic intensity to the role that it demands. As much as I love Telly Savalas, he was horribly miscast in the role, playing Blofeld like a Long Island mafia don in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; and Charles Gray was much too smooth and genial for the role in Diamonds are Forever. Fiennes, by contrast, has basically already been playing a variation on Blofeld in Harry Potter for years. Shave his head and put a scar on his face, and I think he’d be perfect. Here’s hoping that’s more or less what they have planned …
In the meantime, I’ll hope for the best, re: Skyfall, while other spy series (like Mission: Impossible, the Jack Ryan reboot or the forthcoming Man from U.N.C.L.E.) compete for my attention. You can watch the entire Skyfall press conference here, and you can see some good photos from the event here.
By Jason Apuzzo. The first trailer for the Clint Eastwood-Leonardo DiCaprio J. Edgar was released yesterday, and I wanted to say a few words about it.
Regular LFM readers know that back in July I did an in-depth script review of J. Edgar, and for the time being I’d rather not recapitulate what was said then in terms of the film’s basic storyline and themes; suffice it to say that if you read this site routinely, you already know in great detail what J. Edgar is going to be about. What I’d like to comment on instead, because for the first time in the trailer we’re get an extended look at it, is DiCaprio’s performance as Hoover. And based on what I’m seeing in the trailer, I’m not terribly impressed.
Here is how I evaluate DiCaprio: over the years he’s evolved into a stylish leading man, best suited to films like Catch Me If You Can, The Aviator or even Inception (a film I otherwise disliked) in which he can trade off his smooth good looks and impish disposition to nice effect. Truth be told, DiCaprio at this point is more of a European, Alain Delon-type lothario than a gritty, James Cagney-style brawler, which is really what the J. Edgar Hoover story needs. DiCaprio temperamentally belongs in sophisticated, Transatlantic fare like Delon’s Once a Thief (1965) or The Leopard (1963), rather than in a big, sprawling, boisterous biopic about America’s top cop.
In the J. Edgar trailer, DiCaprio is still coming across to me as too youthful and soft to carry a picture like this. This film needed someone like a Jack Nicholson (think Hoffa), a young Robert De Niro (a la Raging Bull) or even a younger Clint Eastwood himself (circa Heartbreak Ridge) to pull off a character of this scale – to make the character feel truly grand, fearsome, just and tragic. As things stand, this is looking a little bit like high school drama hour.
Posted on September 20th, 2011 at 2:59pm.
By Jason Apuzzo. • If you needed any more evidence that the 80s are back in a big way, word comes this week that Top Gun is being retrofit into 3D and should hit theaters in 2012. This is big news because so far as I’m aware it represents the first time a ‘library’ film title not made by James Cameron (Titanic) or George Lucas (the Star Wars saga) is being converted into 3D for theatrical release. If Top Gun 3D performs well, expect more such conversions down the line and a lot of classic film titles coming back to your local theaters – a very welcome development, in my opinion. It’s certainly better than paying $15 to watch a stereoscopic version of Green Lantern.
But lets talk Maverick. Regular LFM readers know how highly I think of Top Gun, a signature film from my youth – not to mention a watershed moment in my relationship with aviator sunglasses. Why did people of my generation love that film so much? Was it the appeal of being a hot-shot jet pilot? Was it the beach volleyball? The Kawasakis? The girls? Sunsets in San Diego? Maybe it was Iceman’s sweet flat-top haircut. Or Tom Skerritt chewing out Tom Cruise, slyly motiving him by implying he wasn’t as committed as his father. Maybe it was Cruise’s great line about flying “inverted,” or the angry bald guy in the flight-ops center barking, “Damnit, Maverick!” every five minutes.
Whatever it was, Top Gun was the movie from the 80s that romanticized American military life – and did so without having to demonize any particular enemy nation. It was a film that hit the sweet spot, made a dull teenage summer exciting, and incidentally launched Tom Cruise’s career. How good was Top Gun? I personally have a friend whom I strongly suspect was pulled into a career in Naval aviation – not to mention beach volleyball – at least in part due to this film. And who could blame him? Top Gun paints an appealing, glamorous picture of serving your country. I’ll definitely be first in line when Top Gun 3D arrives next year. [Btw, whatever happened to Berlin?]
• A slew of Cold War-related films are suddenly in development right now. One of the ones I’m most excited about is something called Hunter Killer, which may end up starring Gerard Butler and was originally supposed be directed by Phillip Noyce (Salt). Here’s how JoBlo describes it:
HUNTER KILLER, based on the book “Firing Point,” follows an untested submarine captain who must work with a Navy SEAL team to rescue the Russian president, who has been taken prisoner during a military coup, in an effort to stop a rogue Russian General from igniting World War III.
There seem to be a lot of ‘rogue Russian generals’ in the movies these days, all trying to re-ignite the Cold War. Wasn’t there one in X-Men: First Class? And Salt? If Putin’s the Alpha Dog he pretends to be, he really should put the kabosh on these people. In any case, even without a director or star, Hunter Killer is apparently hot enough to have a release date of Dec. 21st, 2012.
• Even though it doesn’t open until Dec. 9th, a major marketing push is being made for the new adaptation of John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I’m not a Le Carré fan (as for espionage novels, I’m more of an Eric Ambler man), but a dark, cerebral little Cold War spy thriller? With a superb British cast? After a summer of idiotic, deafening comic book movies, that’s sounding quite appealing. Besides, now that Gary Oldman is more or less done taking checks for Harry Potter and the Batman films, perhaps he can return to actual acting. Read about Tinker here, see new posters for the film (here and here) and a new featurette; John Le Carré will be making a cameo in the film; the film also has three new trailers (here, here and here), and here’s a clip from the film.
• Another project I’m excited about is something called Red Star that was picked up this summer by Warner Brothers for producer Neil Moritz (Battle: Los Angeles). The project is based on a comic series by Christian Gossett, and according to THR the story is “set in an alternate USSR where futuristic technology and magical elements co-exist. The main character is a soldier in the Red Fleet and his wife, who become keys to defeating a former brutal ruler and his minions.”
This would certainly have to be an alternate USSR, if ‘futuristic technology’ is involved. I still remember driving in a Russian Lada sedan on a trip to Moscow as a teenager, and my spine still hasn’t recovered. In any case, Timur Bekmambetov was previously attached to this project when it was at Universal – we’ll see if he stays with it at Warners …
• Some other promising new projects on the horizon include a $100 million Korean war-era epic called 1950, to be directed by Rob Cohen (The Fast and the Furious). The story follows a journalist who travels across the Korean peninsula with a platoon of Marines in the midst of a mass, Christmas Eve evacuation of 200,000 South Koreans escaping the oncoming Chinese communist and North Korean armies. Also: a new anti-communist drama called Closer to the Moon is being made starring Game of Thrones’ Harry Lloyd; the Cold War sci-fi classic Colossus: The Forbin Project is getting a remake … but the best news by far is that we may get a Danger Girl movie starring Milla Jovovich, Sofia Vergara and Kate Beckinsale! Do I believe these rumors? I’m not sure I do, but I can’t begin to describe what a great idea this would be. If you’re not familiar with Danger Girl, it’s a comic book series about a trio of impossibly curvaceous female spies sent on missions to retrieve mystic relics also sought after by a powerful international crime syndicate. Think Charlie’s Angels by way of Indiana Jones and James Bond. The stories are a lot of fun, inventive, playfully sexy, and it’s easy to imagine something like this working much better than even Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider films did. And since Sofia Vergara’s name is being thrown around, here’s hoping they do it in 3D.
• Speaking of Tom Cruise, Mission-Impossible: Ghost Protocol is rattling its way down the tracks. The film is now set to debut on Dec. 21st, there is a new poster out, along with new promo images (see here and here), and producer J.J. Abrams has been talking up the film’s stunts and the scale of the film in IMAX. I think MI4 actually had the best trailer of the summer, and the film opens with no less than the destruction of Red Square – not a bad way to grab your attention. I’m looking forward to this one, although this series hasn’t always worked before …
By Jason Apuzzo. • I had the opportunity recently to read Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay for the new Clint Eastwood-Leonardo DiCaprio film J. Edgar, set for release this October. Even though the film covers a fair bit of Cold War history, in terms of the FBI’s handling of communist infiltration, due to the fact that J. Edgar covers Hoover’s full professional story – from his rise in the late 1910s all the way through to the Nixon years – I’ve decided to talk about the screenplay outside the context of one of our regular Cold War Updates!. I would love to give the screenplay an even more exhaustive write-up, frankly, but due to my own time constraints I’ll have to keep things brief – and focus primarily on what the film will be saying about the anti-communist struggle.
I’ve decided to write about this screenplay publicly because it’s covering extremely important areas of history – 50+ years of it, in fact, dwelling on issues of law enforcement and privacy that still resonate with us today – and also because we’re dealing here with an actual historical figure, with a very public record. (I’ll also try to keep things here as spoiler-free as possible – with the understanding, again, that we’re dealing with Hoover’s long public record.) People should know, frankly, how the man who founded the FBI and shaped a large part of 20th century American domestic history is going to be portrayed.
There’s a lot to like about J. Edgar in its first act. Hoover’s colorful rise is set against the struggle over communist infiltration of American society during the late teens and early ‘20s – a struggle rarely covered in cinema, as most people assume (mistakenly) that Soviet agents only first hit our shores during the 1930s. The screenplay actually begins with the bombing of Attorney General Mitchell Palmer’s home by communist/anarchist saboteurs in 1919, and we see famous figures like the young FDR and Dwight Eisenhower pour out onto the street in the aftermath – as a peppy, ambitious young Hoover arrives on a bicycle and begins piecing together clues over the bombing. In fact, if you’ve seen early set photos of DiCaprio as Hoover on a bicycle (see right), those images are likely from this opening sequence of the film – a sequence that sets the tone and mood of the film with America under a constant sate of siege (first from communist agents in the 1920s, then from criminal mobs in the 1930s, and finally from Soviet agents again from the late 1930s forward). We see Hoover and his maverick team take down Emma Goldman and a violent gang of communist-anarchist saboteurs, and Hoover begins to put the policies and procedures of modern criminal investigation in place.
The communist/anarchist saboteurs in this section of the film, incidentally, are not depicted as terribly pretty people. They’re made to look dangerous and deceptive – not as victims of a witch hunt, or martyrs. In fact, with their bomb-making factories, and attempted gamesmanship of the legal system, obvious parallels will be drawn with today’s Islamic terrorists. The message here couldn’t be more plain: a robust federal investigative force is needed to face down this threat, and ensure domestic security.
By Jason Apuzzo. • Libertas is about to break some major news regarding one very big, forthcoming movie related to the history of the Cold War, so stay tuned …
• .. although of course, the biggest Cold War-related news of late is the whopping debut of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, a film steeped in the lore and romance of the U.S.-Russia space race (see my review of the film here). Dark of the Moon had its huge, worldwide premiere just over two weeks ago in Moscow, and as of the writing of this post is already approaching the $500 million mark at the worldwide box office.
I’m liking this film even more as I ruminate over it – and over the entire Transformers series, which snuck up on me unexpectedly, in so far as I only ever saw the first two films on DVD. Some of you might ask, is it possible – or even healthy – to ‘ruminate’ on a Michael Bay film about giant toy robots? I’d say ‘hell yes’ it is, when the films are as well-crafted, warm and human as these are – not to mention freedom-loving. And although Dark of the Moon to some extent surrenders to its (admittedly fantastic) technology in the third act, it only feels that way because – once again – Bay does such a nice job setting up his characters in the film’s early sequences. This is the aspect of Bay’s work that is so consistently underestimated by critics: his ability to create sympathetic characters, who bring a human dimension to the mayhem that otherwise transpires in his films. Believe me, f this were an easy thing to do, more directors would do it.
Incidentally, it looks like Bay may actually complete the trifecta here. Both previous Transformers films were the top grossing films in their year (in part due to Avatar straddling 2009-10), and it looks like Dark of the Moon may complete the hat trick. I don’t think anybody’s done anything like this since the Lucas-Spielberg heyday. Dark of the Moon is also is tracking young, which has suddenly – and mysteriously – become Hollywood’s big problem this summer; plus, the film is also blowing up all of those silly, premature burials of 3D – most of which were based on bad 3D conversions.
In related news, Michael Bay talks-up the native 3D aspect of the film to The New York Times, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley talks about working with Bay, and Shia LaBeouf does this extremely colorful interview with Details. He apparently landed both Megan Fox and Isabel Lucas while making these films. That’s heroic. They’re not paying this kid enough.
By Jason Apuzzo. • So the fantastic news from yesterday is that the Angelina Jolie anti-communist thriller Salt, which we loved here at LFM, is likely to get a sequel. Deadline broke the story yesterday that Sony is moving forward on the project, with Jolie returning to star and Kurt Wimmer returing to write the screenplay. It’s not clear at the moment whether Phillip Noyce will be returning to direct, which is a key issue in my opinion – as Noyce is an old pro who really guides such projects masterfully. But nonetheless this is fabulous news, as Hollywood currently now has its own full-fledged communist-hunting franchise up and running. What could be better?
As LFM readers will recall, we were very enthusiastic over this film last year, not because the film was a masterpiece, but because it represented a return to the classic, Cold War anti-communist ethos that has been missing not only from mainstream Hollywood cinema – but also from the broader culture. Salt as much as any film was the reason we began doing Cold War Updates! – although other projects like MGM’s new Red Dawn (which we’d privately seen, way in advance) or Mao’s Last Dancer contributed to this Cold War Update! series being created, as well.
As we know, the communist threat has very much shifted from West to East, with China and North Korea emerging as potent threats to America – but Salt dwells on what has always been a great subject for spy cinema, which is the threat of communist infiltration here at home. (Specifically, Salt deals with Russian communist sleeper agents here in America left over from the Cold War, who are ultimately intent on returning Russia to its Soviet past.) Nowadays one might well ask whether communists need to even bother hiding themselves, anymore … incidentally, have I ever mentioned to Libertas readers that Van Jones is an old acquaintance of mine, and of Libertas contributor David Ross? … but perhaps that’s a story for another day.
What’s even more remarkable about the Salt ‘franchise’ – if we can call it that now – is that it’s emerging without the help of Fox News, talk radio, or the conservative blogosphere, all of whom appear curiously unaware of this film – even though Jolie is easily the biggest female star in the world, besides being daughter to Jon Voight. What gives? I often hear conservatives complain about ‘films that Hollywood won’t talk about’ or films that Hollywood is somehow trying to ’suppress’ – such as Atlas Shrugged or American Carol, or a seemingly endless parade of conserva-documentaries – but box office hits like Salt (nearly $300 million worldwide) or even superb indie dramas like Mao’s Last Dancer ($22 million worldwide) or Peter Weir’s The Way Back ($20 million worldwide) seem to now be the films conservatives themselves won’t talk about.
Why is that? Is it because they’re not made by the ‘right’ people?
• The next Bond film (James Bond #23) now has a UK release date of October 12th, 2012 (the U.S. release is Nov. 9th), and rumors are swirling that the next Bond girl may be Naomie Harris.
Just for fun, by the way, I’d like to float an idea out there: that with Michael Bay concluding his work on the Transformers series, that the Brocollis consider giving him the Bond franchise … and Michael Fassbender the role of 007. Wouldn’t this be great? Feel free to comment below on the idea. You never know, after all, who might be reading this site.
• A boffo new trailer for the Call of Duty 3: Modern Warfare game is out, a game that will continue the Call of Duty storyline of a Russian invasion of America … this time involving Russian sponsorship of worldwide terror-attacks. The trailer is really something – absolutely epic in the scope of the villains’ all-out assault on the Western world – so be sure to check it out above.
You can also read this highly spoilerific summary of the game’s storyline, and you can catch some great footage of gameplay. This thing just looks superb, and quite intense.
By Jason Apuzzo. I tend to approach comic book movies like someone working on a bomb-disposal squad: I dutifully suit up, say a fond farewell to my wife, head to the theater and pray nothing explodes in my face.
So for several months I’ve been eyeing X-Men: First Class, the latest entry in a franchise I’ve not generally liked, in hopes that this stylish-looking film – which mixes 60s spy chic, Cold War nostalgia and January Jones in a gravity-defying bustier – in hopes that the film would revive or at least agitate my interest in comic book fare.
Alas, it didn’t.
That’s not to say that X-Men: First Class doesn’t have its moments, or that the film isn’t entertaining. A film that riffs so freely and enthusiastically off James Bond films (of the Connery vintage), 60s go-go/mod culture, The Avengers, Cold War military thrillers like Ice Station Zebra, and even Dean Martin’s cheeky Matt Helm movies can’t be all bad, right? No, it certainly can’t – and X-Men: First Class is a diverting, two-hour plus voyage back into the Kennedy era, a period in which the West seemed a bit more self-confident, stylish and cohesive than it does today.
But First Class is a voyage that carries so much baggage with it – so much 2-cent teen psychology, so many embarrassingly campy characters (Beast, Banshee, and some chick who flies around like Tinkerbell with exploding saliva), and so much equivocating about the relative moral weight of America and the Soviet Union, that I’m unable to say I really enjoyed it.
And that’s a shame. You really have to work to make me not like a film of this kind. You have to do things like: suggest that America’s military establishment (along with the Soviets’) during the Kennedy era was being manipulated by a sadistic ex-Nazi … who likes to quote lines (of the “for us or against us” variety) from George W. Bush. You have to depict the CIA and America’s military high command as bumbling and incompetent at best, corrupt and ruthlessly exploitative of innocent peoples’ lives at worst.
You also have to give Kevin Bacon a major starring role. Do we still need that in 2011? I thought the 1980s had taught us better.
X-Men: First Class is the fifth film to mine the seemingly inexhaustible lore of the original X-Men comic book series, and it’s a film that has taken the unusual step of going all the way back to the series’ origins in the early 1960s – bravely eschewing Hollywood’s fear of losing teen audiences in period detail. It’s so easy to imagine the Fox executives to whom this film was pitched nervously asking, “Will teenagers know who the hell Kennedy was? Will we have to explain to them who the Soviets were, and why they were the bad guys? Does anybody still remember that Nazis fled to Argentina?” We tend to forget that the younger generation nowadays isn’t taught any of this stuff, and so can’t be counted on to have the same emotional response to the sight of, say, a May Day military parade in Moscow. For this reason, I applaud the makers of this film – and Brit director Matthew Vaughn, in particular – for having the ‘courage,’ if that’s the right term, to ignore conventional wisdom and trust that the glamour and romance of early 60s Cold War culture would shine through. It did.
By Jason Apuzzo. • A series of new trailers for X-Men: First Class have been released, the key one (for story purposes) being the international trailer. This trailer really sets the tone for this film being situated in the Kennedy-era of the Cold War, right at the height of the Cuban missile crisis. The X-Men mutants are sent on a top-secret mission related to Cuba, and seem to be depicted as expendable pawns of the CIA in an effort to defeat the Russians, with the X-Men brooding over the general ingratitude of humanity – and, one senses, the American military establishment – toward their contributions.
This type of storyline, which would be annoying under any circumstances, is seeming even more irritating to me after the events of this past weekend, when the CIA proved its tremendous value to America and the entire free world by helping to take out bin Laden. You’d think we could now take a breather from soft-pedaling our intelligence services and military operations … but no. Note the conspiratorial tone taken in the trailer toward the X-Men, as our military people refer to them as “collateral damage” and contemplate the extra-legal measures the government will take in controlling them. It’s the usual anti-military stereotype in play here, with distant cinematic relatives of Colonel Jack D. Ripper contemplating ways to eliminate the Soviet threat and mutant threat in one fell swoop. I was expecting to see Dick Cheney show up and water-board Jennifer Lawrence (preferably in a bikini).
The confluence of events here – between this film, and real-life events in the War on Terror – is quite telling. You really get a sense of how backward and behind the times contemporary Hollywood always is, constantly following yesterday’s Baby Boomer narratives, especially when they concern America’s place in the world. Why make a snarky now movie about the last war – which we won – just as we’re finally gaining ground in the new one?
I have to tell you: although the new X-Men trailers have a smooth, stylish look to them – a Cold War retro-chic that’s quite appealing – I’ve never really liked the X-Men films, and I’m approaching this new one skeptically. Basically I’ve never liked the whiny victimology the X-Men films peddle. The characters in these films are always a little too precious and narcissistic, and not especially heroic. And despite the filmmakers’ intentions, these films never strike me as adequate metaphors for the civil rights struggles of the 1960s – which were very much crusades of the powerless rather than of glamorous, power-enabled superheroes. (Incidentally, star Michael Fassbender – who looks compelling in the trailer – recently told The LA Times that the Magneto-Professor X relationship of the film is based in part on the Malcolm X-Martin Luther King relationship, underlining the film’s civil rights-era subtext.)
We just saw how real military heroes (not the comic book kind) acted in Abbottabad, Pakistan on Sunday: they went in, completed their mission, and moved on to their next task with a maximum of anonymity and a minimum of drama. Had our Navy SEALS completed the bin Laden mission, and then returned to Washington to conduct a rage-filled raid on the Pentagon, followed by a tear-filled recounting of their sad childhood on The View … you’d essentially have this new X-Men trailer. [Sigh.] What a bummer. The people who really fought the Cold War were so much cooler than this.
• Thor is about to open, starring Chris Hemsworth, and based on what I’m hearing the film is likely to make Hemsworth a major star. This is also likely to have major ramifications for MGM’s Red Dawn, which still doesn’t have a distributor.
My sense is that distributors will be very eager to grab Red Dawn post-Thor, and that MGM will have significant leverage at that point … which makes the scrubbing of the Chinese threat from that film seem all the more cowardly now.
• Speaking of MGM and craven market pandering, the studio is apparently raising about $45 million toward the next Bond film – a full third of the film’s budget – by way of product placement. The Bond films have always done a lot of product placement – but that figure is nonetheless raising eyebrows for the epic scale of its cupidity. My personal recommendation is that when Bond is chasing the new villain, he should wear the new Nike Zoom Kobe VI, with its “Black mamba-inspired rubber outsole for excellent traction.” Just a thought.
By Jason Apuzzo. • One of the biggest pieces of Cold War news recently is that Ice Station Zebra may be getting a remake! For those of you not familiar with the film (shame on you!), Ice Station Zebra was one of the greatest Cold War thrillers of them all – a Cinerama spectacular starring Rock Hudson, Ernest Borgnine, Patrick McGoohan and Jim Brown about a race to the Arctic Circle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to recover the secret payload of a Russian spy satellite.
Although everyone shines in the picture, Patrick McGoohan – most famous for his work on The Prisoner TV series – really owns the film, and along with John Sturges’ direction (and the exceptional cinematography and production design) really elevates it to an elite level among thrillers. Among the big three movies adapted from Alistair MacLean’s novels – Ice Station Zebra, Where Eagles Dare and The Guns of Navarone – I probably would have to rate Zebra #3 (due to its somewhat slow pacing), but the film is most certainly a classic, and I’d do anything to see in its original Cinerama format.
What is completely horrifying, however, is that the person writing the screenplay for this remake is apparently writer/director David Gordon Green of Your Highness (?!), the new goofball epic featuring Natalie Portman and James Franco. How does this kind of thing happen?! Why can’t Warner Brothers do something sensible like have John Milius or Vince Flynn or Tom Clancy write it? Bloody hell.
I assume the new film would take place in the present day. Here’s hoping the screenplay goes through a few more hands …
• Communist China’s General Bureau of Radio, Film and Television has apparently decided to ‘discourage’ (i.e., ban) time travel movies! No, this is not a joke.
Their rationale? According to the Bureau, “[t]he time-travel drama is becoming a hot theme for TV and films. But its content and the exaggerated performance style are questionable. Many stories are totally made-up and are made to strain for an effect of novelty. The producers and writers are treating the serious history in a frivolous way, which should by no means be encouraged anymore.” Well! Based on this criteria, they should probably ban everything Hollywood sends them.
The folks over at MGM who are currently scuttling around LA post-production houses scrubbing the Chinese from Red Dawn should definitely take note of this and make sure no time travel films are currently in the MGM pipeline – or that any new time travel subplots are being added to Red Dawn! After all, we’ve learned from a recent interview given by one of Red Dawn’s producers that the greatest minds in the world – geniuses, Bobby Fischer/Ernst Blofeld-types who spend their days working on game theory – have been devising amazing new plot scenarios for that film, even though it’s already in the can. Perhaps the Wolverines are now being sent back to The Battle of the Little Bighorn to fight at General Custer’s side? Who can say?
On the positive side, hopefully this means Source Code won’t make it to China.
• Speaking of Tom Clancy, it looks like the Jack Ryan reboot Moscow starring Chris Pine has been put on hold as Pine gears up for Star Trek 2. In other Cold War spycraft news, the next James Bond film may be shooting in South Africa, for the first time in the series; and check out the new trailer for The Debt, the new Mossad-in-East-Berlin Cold War thriller starring Sam Worthington, Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson. It looks a little standard-issue for me; plus, I sense the film has an agenda, re: the Mossad. [UPDATE: It's just been announced that Sony will be distributing MGM's next Bond film, scheduled for Nov. 9th, 2012.]
• Behold Milla Jovovich to the right, at a special 80th birthday fete for Mikhail Gorbachev – held, for some bizarre reason, at the Royal Albert Hall in London. (Again I ask, what’s the matter with the Brits? It’s like they’re becoming a more expensive version of Lithuania.) I guess if you’re already Russian you can attend these things in good conscience. Or not. It’s funny, though, because I’m not sure Gorbo would’ve encouraged her to wear that dress back in the old Soviet Union. A little too much Western decadence, there.
• A clip of the Clint Eastwood/Leonardo DiCaprio J. Edgar (about J. Edgar Hoover) was recently shown at CinemaCon. In the clip, a young Hoover is testifying before Congress, advocating on behalf of creating a National Fingerprint Database. Here is a transcription of DiCaprio’s speech (as Hoover) to Congress: