Review: Shimmer Lake, The Farthest, Headshot

Another series of short reviews this week, with the latter two viewed during the Audi Dublin International Film Festival earlier this year.

Shimmer Lake

Trailer

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A really weird The Office spin-off.

On Friday a disgraced former public prosecutor Andy Sikes (Rainn Wilson) is shot dead while on the run. On Thursday, Sherriff Zeke Sikes (Benjamin Walker) tracks down Andy, his brother, with the help of the FBI. On Wednesday, Judge Brad Dawkins (John Michael Higgins) is blackmailed over his personal life and takes matters into his own hands. On Tuesday, a bank is robbed. In small town America, people are about to learn that every action has a consequence.

Blake Snyder once wrote that there really isn’t any such thing as a “Whodunnit?”, when it comes to mystery stories: instead, its really “Whydunnit?”, that is, determining why the perpetrator/instigator did what they did. Shimmer Lake was the kind of film that seemed uniquely placed to make good on such an idea, showcasing the ending of its story first, before going back bit by bit, so that we could really get inside the inner motivations of the characters in question. And Shimmer Lake does that to an extent, perhaps better seen as the kind of film that offers a very good look at the true essence of cause and effect in human actions.

But while Shimmer Lake has a good cast – mostly comedic in background, which is interesting – and that fascinating premise, it doesn’t make the most of it at all. I think the general mystery would have to be something truly special to go along with the backwards narrative, and if Shimmer Lake was reversed into a more conventional structure, what we would have would be quite pedestrian. The film hinges on the identity of a killer from the first section, revealed in the last, but the revelation is a bit much, a bit too complicated and tidy at the same time: I can’t say more for fear of spoiling.

The comedy cast – people like Rob Cordry pop up in important roles, to say nothing of Wilson – keep things going, and the narrative does craft some interesting portraits: Wilson’s Andy, for example, is initially portrayed on Friday as somewhat sympathetic, before his murder, and then he is gradually depicted as more and more of a villain by the time we get back to Tuesday. But there’s not enough to it, and director Oren Uziel, working on a budget, can offer little to visual stimulate aside from eerie looks at the titular lake. Notable largely because of its reverse-narrative, Shimmer Lake is worth a look but won’t lodge in your brain like a Memento or Donnie Darko. Partially recommended.

The Farthest

Trailer

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And still going and going…

In 1977, NASA decided to go where no one had gone before with space exploration, initiating the Voyager project: two probes, launched several months apart, designed to investigate the outer planets. Over years of travel and scientific discovery, The Farthest explores the intricacies of the Voyager mission, including the involvement of luminaries like Carl Sagan, the “golden record”, and the fact that the probes will, for a very long time, be the most far-flung achievement of the human race.

A very straightforward documentary here, but one well worth seeing. It isn’t exactly a time of disrepute for NASA, but it is fair to say that its glory days are gone, replaced by international efforts like the ISS where NASA is only one part of a larger whole. But as late at the 70’s and 80’s, NASA was still wowing people with its efforts to expand human knowledge of the solar system, hence, the Voyager mission.

The Farthest works largely because it jumps from topic to topic quickly. Focusing just on the mundane details of the probes’ construction, launch and voyage would fast get boring, but director Emer Reynolds peppers interesting asides and titbits throughout, most notably a lengthy section discussing the golden record: its genesis, the selection of greetings to be recorded, and then the selection of music. Devoting so much time to this is important, as it turns the Voyager probes from cold scientific machines to bastions of human creativity and art, that maybe, just maybe, might one day be ambassadors for our entire species. The record is what captivated attentions as much as anything else with Voyager, as The Farthest makes clear with carefully cultivated clips, like SNL’s skits on the soundtrack (proof of alien life: a message from the stars declaring “Send more Chuck Berry”).

But then there is the actual mission itself, and the glorious photography that the probes were able to send back of Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus. The grainy black and white stills that turn into colourful depictions of spherical behemoths, dotted with tinier, but all too fascinating moons@ it is impossible not to be swept away in the grandeur that the Voyager probes depicted and continue to represent. The Farthest vividly captures both the beauty of the outer planets and their moons, as well as the rapturous reaction from those back home, literally growing old in front of the camera as the length of the mission traverse’s decades. And at the end of it all, a suitable focus on Carl Sagan’s famous “pale blue dot” picture, taken not for science, but merely so we could get a stark illustration of just how small we really are in the great cosmic blackness.

While The Farthest is excessively lengthy and, perhaps, refrains from any kind of criticism of the NASA program to the point that it is largely a love-letter, it is still a very worthy documentation of a very important part of human exploration, an exploration that now marks us as having taken the first minor steps into interstellar travel. Recommended.

Headshot

Trailer

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This picture can sub in for a significant part of the film.

Ishmael (Iko Uwais) wakes up on a beach with a serious headwound, and no memory of how he got it, or of his past life. Nursed back to health by Ailin (Chelsea Islan), Ishmael is ready to embark upon a new life, but soon finds the dangerous parts of his forgotten past, through crime boss Lee (Sunny Pang) catching up with him.

The Raid series have certainly made Uwais more well-known, albeit maybe not at a superstar level just yet, and Headshot is, by and large, more of the same kind of fair. If Uwais wants to be a sort of neo-Jackie Chan, an eastern martial arts star looking to embed himself in the western consciousness, he’s certainly going about it right.

But whether that makes for a good film is something else entirely. Much like The Raid and its sequel, Headshot suffers from problems of story and length: lacking in the former, and incredibly excessive in the latter. Headshot’s tale is as basic and formulaic as they come, as the amnesiac falls in love with his doctor and then has to literally fight the demons in his past, one by one in this case. And it goes on and on and on, as the main point of Headshot rapidly becomes whether directors Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto, with cinematographer Yunus Pasolang, can outdo themselves within five minutes of the last lengthy fight scene.

And if that’s what floats your boat, all well and good. Headshot does showcase a number of diverse and interesting scenarios for its protagonist to go toe-to-toe with an assortment of toughs: a bloody showdown at an ambushed bus; a shotgun duel in a wrecked police station, a seaside clash with a female associate; and a last visceral fracas with his demented father figure, inside a subterranean bunker. The principals screech, the kicks and punches land with a thud, and the blood flows freely. Headshot isn’t one for the faint of heart, with the amount of red on display rapidly desensitising you to the carnage being portrayed, a failure of imagination as much as anything else.

In the end, Headshot would be better viewed as a continuing series of fight scenes with some very shallow bits of plot in-between, that sort of stop by the time we, mercifully, hit the final act, at which point the blood and kicks take over completely. This sort of marathon of violence needs a certain something to get it over – like the visual premise behind Hardcore Henry, a similar film in the ratio of action to story – and even then you’re treading water after a while. Partially recommended.

(All images are copyright of Netflix, The Irsh Film Board and Vertical Entertainment).

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Ireland’s Wars: The 1913 Lockout And The Irish Citizen Army

Hey, we’ve hit 250 main entries. As always, all views, comments and subscriptions are appreciated. – NFB

The socialist element to the Irish revolutionary period is one that has been oft neglected and ignored in subsequent historical study of the era, and as we continue on the road to 1916, it is important that we take time to look at the more hard-left elements that had such a pivotal part to play in the Easter Rising. And while revolutionary socialism had established itself in Ireland long before, the year 1913 is still taken as the moment when this ideology first broke into the larger national consciousness, through one of the most famous instances of industrial dispute in western history.

Dublin in 1913 was not a pleasant place to live, if you happened to be one of the city’s unskilled poor. Tenements were jammed with people living in unsanitary conditions: disease, especially TB, was rife, and the infant mortality rate was abnormally high by “civilized” standards. For the labourer class, a livelihood was a difficult thing to find and then a difficult thing to maintain: getting hired was often only possible on a day-to-day basis, and maybe only if you were willing to work for a little cheaper than another guy. Employers held almost all of the power in industrial relations, with the possibility of blacklisting anyone who expressed support for the idea of worker representation and trade unions.

One man trying to alter this was James Larkin, a docker and union organiser originally from Liverpool. A member of the British National Union Of Dock Labourers, Larkin had been involved in somewhat successful strike actions in Belfast and elsewhere, where the relatively new idea of the sympathy strike had been used to great effect, but his aggressive tactics and hardline ideology made him unpopular within the NDLU, so eventually Larkin was obliged to found his own union, the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, or ITGWU. He also found time around this period to form a partnership with James Connolly, the two helping to found the National Labour Party in 1912.

Their greatest challenge came about in the famous year of 1913. Membership of the ITGWU had risen quickly since its founding, and employers organized a response, driven especially by wealthy business owner William Martin Murphy. A former IPP MP, Murphy was the owner of the Imperial Hotel, Cleary’s Department Store and had controlling interests in a multitude of newspapers, and while conditions for his workers may not have been the worst in Dublin, Murphy was still adamantly anti-trade union. He, and 300 other employers in Dublin, resolved to bring the ITGWU to its knees by orchestrating a lockout: only those employees who renounced the ITGWU would be allowed to work, and the doors would be closed to anyone else. A notable exception was Guinness, then Dublin’s biggest employer, who enjoyed relatively harmonious relations with the ITGWU, but clamped down on any sympathy strikes quickly.

The 1913 Lockout rapidly escalated, eventually involving over 20’000 employees who found themselves out of work and unable to make any kind of living. For Larkin, Connolly and others, the event was a crucial test of their ideology’s staying power and resolve, and in such a highly-charged atmosphere, where the ability to fed families was under threat, violence was practically inevitable. The employment of “blackleg” or “scab” labour by employers produced ferocious counter-responses from striking workers, which in turn got the authorities involved.

As you would expect, Irish police were largely unsympathetic to the striking workers, and clashes between the DMP and strikers occurred regularly. A number of deaths are attributed to the Lockout and the violence that took place during, usually when police would baton charge workers holding assemblies and protests. The most famous was “Bloody Sunday” on August 31st, when two people were killed in a melee that erupted on Sackville Street (modern day  O’Connell Street), the source of one of the most famous photographs of the era, a grainy still that vividly depicts the chaos of fleeing workers and baton-flailing police. Larkin went into hiding that day, having attempted to give a speech from a balcony of the Imperial Hotel, and was eventually compelled to flee to the US.

The attacks by police were the inspiration for the formation of a workers militia, the idea being that they would be trained and armed to defend workers from further attacks. Such entities were a mainstay of Larkin’s revolutionary ideology (though he tried to make the Lockout as non-violent as possible), and Connolly was involved from the start, although initially the main player was an ex British Army Captain named Jack White, who agreed to train the militia. The start of what was dubbed the “Irish Citizen Army” was inauspicious, little more than 40 men assembling in a field to learn very basic drill, with almost no organisation beyond that. The ICA generally were armed only with hurleys, and in the larger context of the Lockout could do little to stem the onslaught of the authorities.

By 1914, the Lockout was essentially over, as the combination of police brutality, a vicious press campaign, clerical opposition and simple starvation prompted the majority of the strikers to give up ITGWU membership and go back to work, on the employers’ terms. The failure to convince British unions to go out on sympathy strikes was the last straw. While support, both financial and moral, flooded in from different parts of the globe, it wasn’t enough.

Murphy and others could rightly claim victory, and the incident fostered an even deeper disillusion in the government and labour systems that Connolly and Larkin were already heavily opposed to. Lasting grudges were also made with the DMP, and the ICA would not be shy about revisiting such things three years later. The ICA survived too, with Connolly becoming its leader after the departure of White, with the Scot altering the ICA’s raison d’etre from being a purely defensive militia designed to protect workers to being a revolutionary force in training, with a new constitution, written by playwright Sean O’Casey, foreshadowing the kind of language that would be used in the Proclamation of 1916. Its numbers would remain relatively small however, and for the next few years its existence was often overlooked, in the wake of the larger drama being played out between the Irish and Ulster Volunteers.

In a larger sense though, the Lockout was not quite the disaster for labour that it seemed at the time. The employers had suffered too, in their own way, and never again would such a large-scale lockout be attempted by management of Dublin’s businesses. The cause of labour was centre-stage for a time, and the ITGWU would recover over the rest of the decade, having a higher membership in 1919 than it had in 1913. Industrial relations and workers rights would gradually evolve to the point that trade unions and strikes became enshrined in laws as entities and actions with legal protection, though it would be naïve to say that we have reached a point of true enlightenment on such matters, even over a hundred years later. But still, the point was made in 1913, and would again in 1916.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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The Villain Checklist: Justification

In most kinds of stories, we know who the hero is. We know this because the hero is generally the main character, and is generally easy to spot relative to the bad guy. The hero is trying to stop nefarious things from happening because nefarious things are bad. In most stories – not all, but most – we have no problem thinking “Yes, this is the hero”. And the hero should have no problem thinking it too. They should absolutely be the kind of character that can say “I am on the side of good in this conflict”, whatever the conflict is.

But here’s the thing: every character, good, bad, indifferent, should be thinking the exact same thing. Indeed, I think it is more important for the villain to be of this line of thinking than the hero. And so:

Justification – The antagonist should believe that he/she is not the villain of the story.

Unless you’re dealing with the kind of villain who is clad in black armour, likes to eat babies and may or may not be a flaming eyeball on top of a tower – which does happen occasionally – it is important that the villain does not actually think they are the villain in the story. The antagonist should always be able, even if it’s in a shallow and unconvincing way, to justify what they are doing. Indeed, it can be vitally important to their character that their justification is shallow and unconvincing, because that can tell us something very important about them and their way of thinking.

Your low-scale villain, like the con-man trying to scam the old lady, might be thinking “Hey, the old lady is loaded, she’s not going to miss the cash. Plus I need it to pay for my medical bills/my daughters special school/my alimony for that bitch of an ex” etc etc. The guy trying to take over the world might well be thinking “The earths a mess, between overpopulation, democratic deficiencies, corruption, illness, etc. I’m the only one who can actually get it on the right path. If only everyone could see!”. And the planet-destroying galactic overlord might be thinking “Well, I had to blow up that planet, to send a message to everyone else. Now they won’t dare rise up against me, and I won’t have to blow up any more planets! It’s a win-win!”

A common thread through all of this is the much vaunted “greater good” sentiment, namely that a relatively small villainous act now will prevent worse villainy later, therefore the minor villainy is fine, maybe even heroic really. Whether the villain is aware of their hypocrisy – or hell, even if they are actually correct, though that is presumably all up to personal interpretation – it’s important that the justification be readily understandable by the audience, that we can imagine the antagonist firmly believing in their own moral righteousness. In that, it is important that the justification be connected to the motivation of the character, clearly and succinctly. You don’t blow up a planet just for the hell of it.

Let’s have a look at some examples then.

I’m going to break from my usual habit of opening with Darth Vader in A New Hope – his justification in that film alone is actually a bit murky really, as his efforts to track down the Death Star plans are to protect a WMD he openly derides in one scene – and instead look at Anakin Skywalker in Revenge Of The Sith. I consider Sith to be the weakest of the seven films by a wide margin, and Anakin’s justification for his murderous actions in the film are one of the reasons why. It isn’t just that the love plot between him and Padme is executed so badly – you could theoretically buy that a man in Anakin’s position would be pushed to make a deal with the devil to save the woman he loves and their unborn children – it’s that Anakin’s actions surrounding this fly in the face of logic. Anakin simply believes that Palpatine, of all people, is capable of saving Padme from death, and that his purge of the Jedi and destruction of the Republic is, in the face of all the people who have taught him and loved him thus far – like Obi-Wan and Padme – an acceptable price to pay. It might be a better justification if Sith did a better job of showcasing Anakin’s fragile mental state, but the film doesn’t do that, so instead Anakin comes off as a foolish gullible maniac, who thinks the creepy man in black who likes to murder his fellow Jedi is totally the guy to trust.

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Flawless victory.

In comparison, let’s look at Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens, and welcome to the series. Ren is very similar to Anakin in Sith – deliberately so, I would assume – but the execution of this character is so much better. Ren is following the dark side from a childish and immature need to live up to his grandfather’s legacy, and The Force Awakens does a much better job at making this clear to the audience, that Ren is emotionally stunted and a bit of a weakling in many respects, and the only way he can make-up for this is to act like Darth Vader. In a world where his parents are galactic saviours, he justifies himself by thinking this must be the only way to stand out, to reach back into the past to finish what Vader started, and that the continuation of this legacy is a justification in itself.

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Creepy…

On the Bond side of things, let’s go back and look at Silva in Skyfall. His motivation is to kill M, and the justification, revealed past the half-way point, is that she left him for dead when she was previously a bureau chief, wherein he was captured and tortured by the Chinese, left physically and mentally broken. While Bond villains, especially in the more recent films, always tend to have “REVENGE” in big letters as their justification, Silva’s works rather well, if only on a primal, visceral level. Once we see the scars that he received, we totally buy both his general instability and how he feels that killing M is the only thing worth anything in his life anymore. The haze of insanity that covers what he does is not all encompassing.

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Now that’s some justification.

Then look at Greene in Quantum Of Solace. What is his motivation? To grab some land in Bolivia that will give him control of the country’s water supplies. His justification? …Power? Greed? A general assholishness? I think, especially in a Bond villain, you need a little bit more than that. Greene is essentially evil-Bill Gates in many ways, and doing all of the things that he does – murder, mayhem, political coups – needs a bit more than the almighty dollar to work in a franchise like this. At the end of the story, Greene is going hand-to-hand with James Bond for God’s sake: why!? The film fails to adequality tell you this, and so the villain is a failure.

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“I don’t know why I’m doing thisssss!

The Dark Knight’s Joker is, as always, an interesting case, wherein his justification is deliberately clouded by his dialogue and actions. The Joker wants to sow chaos and make everyone else as ugly as he is, outside and in, but why does he want to do this? There is a quiet but irrepressible anger inside the Joker character, which is understandable if one or any of his proposed origins is true, and I think that Joker’s justification for his actions stems directly from that: the fickle hand of fate – or chaos – picked him out for suffering, so why should everyone else get of scot free? To take some ideas from an inspiration for The Dark Knight’s version of the character, the Joker sees himself as the only one who truly gets the world, with all of its pain, misery and façade of civilization, and feels a need to wake people up to their own hypocrisy, insofar as they fail, wilfully or not, to see things from his point of view. In other words, the world is a bad joke, and the Joker justifies himself by insisting that he can’t be the only person made to laugh at it. That comes through in The Dark Knight, without ever being said explicitly.

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“Do I really look like a guy with a justification?” Well, sort of.

Let’s take a bit of a swerve and look at a more intangible concept, within another Christopher Nolan film. Inception doesn’t really have an all-out villain, just “the Shade”, the subconscious remnant of Mal Cobb, that remains inside Dom’s head and haunts his efforts to continue extracting, and later incepting. The Shade is a villain all of its own though, with motivations and justifications for its actions, it’s just you have to remember that it’s really Dom, or just a part of him. The Shade wants Dom to come back to Limbo and live there with his wife, as he did for decades in the dreamworld, justifying itself by insisting that it is what Dom has always wanted – partially true – and that Dom needs to atone for his “betrayal”, when he incepted his own wife. Further, there is still an element, ever-present, that the Shade is carrying on the real Mal’s suicidal mission, to convince Dom that what he thinks is the “real” world is, in fact, a dream: and it may not actually be wrong. The Shade’s actions tie into the higher metaphysical point of Dom’s journey, to accept that he is responsible for his wife’s death, and to be capable of moving past the guilt, lest it destroy him from the inside.

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And she has that nice tussled hair look.

Two of the more recent films that I have seen provide a decent contrast on this score. Take Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2, and the character of Ego. I liked Ego’s motivation – using the power of his offspring to essentially remake half the universe – but the justification for it was weak, to the point of almost being non-existent. When queried as to why he feels to need to undertake the “Expansion” he remarks merely that, on his previous travels throughout the universe he was “disappointed” with the life that he found. Ego never says why he was disappointed, what is was exactly that he was looking for and what he is planning to do once his “Expansion” begins, but this is what it comes down to: he’s disappointed, he’s a God, lets do this. You need more than that.

Justification_Ego

Who wouldn’t trust that face?

And it doesn’t have to be especially detailed or intricate to work, as we can see with Ares in the very recent Wonder Woman, a similar villain but much better executed. Ares operates on a fairly boiler-plate Paradise Lost analogy, having grown jealous and resentful of humanity and the love that they received from Zeus, which prompts him to rebel, which leads to his failure and exile, which leads to ever greater resentment towards humanity. Nothing too inventive here, but it works because it’s understandable, it ties into Ares’ motivation (causing humanity’s destruction through more destructive weaponry) and it taps into a basic emotion like jealously (whereas Ego’s was comparatively difficult to get engaged with: boredom). We don’t have to side with Ares to believe that he could easily be jealous of the love, affection and preference that his elders gave to humanity, and we don’t have to disbelieve him when he says that his plan is to return the earth to an Eden-like state one humanity is gone. For Ares, the greater good sentiment is alive and kicking, and it works in Wonder Woman without the antagonist ever really threatening to become iconic.

Justification_Ares

There are no screenshots of Ares yet.

So that’s justification, and the end of us covering the villains’ character. But we’re only halfway there. Now we have to look at the villain a little bit closer, at actions and traits, to really get into the nitty-gritty of what makes them effective, and what doesn’t. The very first thing on that score, will be, in the eyes of the audience, the strength of the villain’s capability.

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Ireland’s Wars: Home Rule And Volunteers

We are now truly entering an era of Irish history commonly identified with the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War. The events we will be discussing were the final steps on the road to those conflicts, and while it will still be a while before we cover them in detail – the larger conflagration on the continent is going to be taking up a good deal of my attention before then – there are several notable events between the years of 1910 and 1914 that bear closer examination.

The Irish Parliamentary Party, after the fall of Parnell and for several years afterward, was a fractured thing, but it was gradually able to clobber itself back together, thanks largely to the unifying issue of opposition to the Boer War. In 1900 leadership of the re-united party had passed to Waterford MP John Redmond, a “Parnellite” who found himself in the position largely as a compromise choice between different factions. The IPP was strengthened further by the activities of the “Ancient Order Of Hibernians”, a Catholic society on a par with the Orange Order, that advocated a strongly sectarian kind of Irish nationalism, and violently opposed “Orangism” and other opposing political factions through Ireland (it too would split between American and Irish factions).

That kind of factionalism was still an issue – an offshoot from the IPP, the largely Cork based “All-For-Ireland League” under William O’Brien, would hold many Parliamentary seats and oppose the IPP on its Home Rule strategy – but the IPP was able to shoe a remarkably united front in the face of immense political opportunities that fell their way.

In 1906, the Liberals under Henry Campbell-Bannerman swept to power in Westminster following a bout of Conservative infighting and unpopularity. The IPP took 82 seats in the same vote, but with an overwhelming majority the Liberals had no need to kowtow to the idea of Home Rule as previous leaders had needed to. The Liberals radical social changes and efforts to increase taxation on the rich brought considerable political turmoil, and two elections in 1910 were required, first to get support for a budget and then for support to reduce the power of the largely Conservative House of Lords. On these occasions things worked out much to the benefit of the IPP, as the Liberals, now under H.H Asquith lacked a majority of their own and were forced to look west for support to form a government. The price of that was nothing less than Home Rule. The passing of the Parliament Act in 1911, that meant that the House of Lords could only delay, and not reject, bills from the Commons, essentially made the passing of Home Rule a legislative inevitability.

This changed reality – Home Rule moving from a shot in the dark to political certainty – was the tinder that started the revolutionary fire in Ireland, though it would take numerous other steps for things to blaze out of control. The passing of the Home Rule Bill in April 1912 – rejected by the Lords, but thus only delayed until 1914 – led to a harsh and unrelenting opposition from those of a Protestant Unionist persuasion, centred largely in the north-eastern part of the country.

Men like Lord Edward Carson, a Unionist MP andf barrister, and the previously discussed James Craig, were horrified at the prospect of “Rome Rule”, rejecting even the limited self-government powers that Home Rule involved, convinced that a clear union between Britain and Ireland made the best social, political and economic sense. If they could not stop Home Rule, they favoured a partition of the country so that the north could remain a part of the Union, though there was inevitable division over to what extent such a partition should be made. Thousands of fellow Protestants felt much the same, and long before the Third Home Rule Bill was first introduced, Carson and others were addressing gigantic crowds in the north of Ireland, opposing the political elements of Irish nationalism and using increasingly violent rhetoric.

The combination of Home Rule’s future legislative triumph and Unionist opposition reintroduced the idea of volunteer militias to Ireland, starting with Protestant Unionists, who began organising such entities in early 1912, many of the first ones based around the lodges of the Orange Order. The rapid growth of such organisations is impressive: by April, Unionist leaders were able to oversee parades of nearly 100’000 men, though the amount of arms they were extremely limited. These militia would meet, be instructed in rudimentary drill and generally try and look as impressive as possible, something they would accomplish through sheer numbers if nothing else. While events like 1798 and 1641 were so long before that they were as much legend at that stage, they still gave Protestant Unionists enough motivation to fear what would inevitably have been a Catholic Nationalist dominated government in Dublin.

By September, Carson, Craig and others unveiled a formal declaration, the “Ulster Covenant” for those opposed to Home Rule to sign, which was unequivocal in its ideals of resisting Home Rule by any means necessary. The document describes Home Rule as “destructive”, “perilous” and a “conspiracy” that the undersigned would use “all means” to destroy. Nearly 500’000 men and women would sign it or similar documents. This was no flash in the pan in terms of political anger: this was a deadly serious threat to the established political, social and military order. A few months after the mass signing, the Ulster Volunteer Force, more commonly known as just the Ulster Volunteers, was formed to regularise the militias that had sprung up throughout the previous year.

The Ulster Volunteers would number over 100’000, consisting of men who had signed the Covenant between the ages of 17 and 65. Led by ex-members of the British Army, and with open support from the Conservative Party, the Ulster Volunteers flourished between its founding in January 1913 and the outbreak of World War One over a year and a half later.

It would take nearly a year for Irish nationalists to respond, but respond they did. An offshoot of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Hibernian Rifles, already existed as a pro-Irish nationalism militia, but they were small in number and regarded by many as an overly militant right-wing organisation. After the Home Rule Bill was passed by the Commons, then rejected by the Lords, a second and last time in 1913, men of widely varying revolutionary sentiment realised that something had to be done to oppose the Unionists. Chief among them was Bulmer Hobson of the IRB, who thought that the actions of the Ulster Volunteers was the perfect opportunity to expand IRB operations and establish the kind of open military force that had been impossible for decades. Using UCD Professor Eoin MacNeill, a nationalist, but in no way similar to Hobson in much of his ideology, as a centre-piece, Hobson and the IRB went about organising their own militia. A famous MacNeill article in a Gaelic League publication, “The North Began”, is commonly seen as the first major step, but it is likely that the true genesis of the Irish Volunteers was found in Tom Clarke’s tobacconist shop as much as anywhere else.

The ”Irish Volunteers” were official launched on the 25th November 1913, at an event with men like Padraig Pearse speaking at the Rotunda. 7’000 attended the meeting, and, in the days and months that followed, Volunteer membership in Dublin and beyond grew quickly. Its initial proclamations were far more conciliatory than those of the Ulster Volunteers, claiming to be open to all creeds and religions, and dedicating the Irish Volunteers to be a defensive force only, one that would only come to blows if forced to.

Right from the start, the IRB was embedded within the Irish Volunteers, and would, as they had with other organisations, use their influence to increase recruitment to their own brotherhood and to nudge Volunteer direction in the way that best suited them. The confluence of the Unionist Ulster Volunteers, the Home Rule defending Irish Volunteers and the IRB still angling for a intendent Irish republic would dominate Irish political and military affairs for the next few years.

And there was another force at play too, but they deserve their own entry in this series. Blood was being shed in Dublin the same year that the Irish Volunteers were founded, but it was workers’ rights and the cause of labour that was at the heart of it, not nationalist politics. And a new army would rise from that conflict.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

 

Posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman

Trailer

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Bwah da bwah bwah bawah bawahhhhh

I could, in this introduction, talk about how DC and its “DCEU” is treading water, critically at least, with Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman in the unenviable position of needing to right the ship. I could talk about how it needs to measure up to the latest offerings from Marvel, and set-up Justice League. But that would all just be deflection and missing the point. Wonder Woman has more important things riding on its success.

This is about women, in the superhero genre, in Hollywood, in films in general. That’s what Wonder Woman needs to accomplish: critically and commercially, it needs to be good enough to show clearly to those that control the purse strings that there is a place for women-led movies in the realm of capes and in the realm of blockbusters. It’s a heavy burden, and it isn’t fair, but here we are. It has a good director, a good cast, a decent introduction in Batman V Superman. But does it all come together? Does it pave the way? Is it what the genre, the medium, the gender, needs it to be?

The ancient and immortal Amazons reside on the hidden island of Themyscira, ruled by Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielson) who raises her daughter, Diana (Gal Gadot), to respect their traditions and be mindful of the inevitable return of the God of War, Ares, whom the Amazons were instrumental in defeating eons ago. In 1918 American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) washes up on Themyscira pursued by German agents: soon, Diana and he depart on a vital mission to bring an end to the “War To End All Wars”, a task that sees them come against the megalomaniacal German General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston).

Midway or so through Wonder Woman, the titular heroine is told by a straight-faced Steve Trevor that “You can’t save everyone”. Diana turns around, and decides she’s going to try and do just that anyway, and damn anyone who thinks that she can’t. And in an instant, Wonder Woman shows you the kind of film it wants to be, and the kind of hero it wants to showcase: a woman who isn’t going to take being told what to do, or to accept restrictions, anymore. And that is exactly what you need, in a film that is engaging, entertaining and altogether appropriate for the character on the cover.

And it would be nothing without that strong well-presented character journey at the heart, propped up by Gal Gadot’s stirring performance. A former Israeli soldier with the looks to match what you would expect of Diana Prince: pretty much hitting the nail on the head as it were. We see the young Wonder Woman grow up on screen, moving from a rebellious child to a would-be saviour. We see her take a mix of charming naivete and untested knowledge into the world of man. We see her as an outsider intent on wrecking a terrible patriarchal, racist system. And we see her as a conflicted person, trying to determine whether brute force is as effective an answer to the problems she faces as it may seem. She doesn’t come off as patronising, overdone or unrelatable, even with the super strength and agility. Instead, she’s just a strong female character, in every sense of the term: magnetic, a suitable role-model for her gender, and an interesting person to watch.

We cannot, and should not, underestimate the importance of Wonder Woman as a female character. The movie takes only a short time to showcase women as warriors of equal or greater skill than men, thanks largely to Robin Wright’s kickass General Antiope character, and it takes little time to showcase woman as serious figures of authority, as in the case of Nielson Hippolyta. And while from there it is largely the Diana Prince show alone in terms of female characters – bar Lucy Davis as Trevor’s assistant in a few brief comedic asides, and Elena Anaya as the secondary villain “Dr Poison” – it can’t be denied that Wonder Woman is the most female friendly and female-positive superhero film ever made. Diana navigates a world where she is not expected to talk in the company of men, let alone go out and fight on the trenches of western Europe. But nothing stops her, not the Allied Command, not a “greater good” sentiment from the otherwise sympathetic Steve Trevor and not German bullets.

There’s something wonderful about seeing a woman be both a leader, an asskicker, relatable and interesting. Wonder Woman accomplishes it all, and in a genre whose lack of representation for women has been a stunning and inexcusable disgrace. And while I don’t want to get too much into the comparative battle, it took DC three films to get to this point, while the MCU will be 0-19 before Captain Marvel makes it to screens in two years’ time. 0-19!

But the strength of Wonder Woman as a female story should not overshadow the masculine dimension, namely Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor, so intricately involved in proceedings that I have seen the joke “Wonder Woman: The Steve Trevor Story” made in several places. It’s an exaggeration, as Trevor never takes over the narrative or side-lines Diana in any scene, but he does have a very effective part to play. He lacks the backstory or the fleshing out of Wonder Woman, but we still get an interesting man nonetheless: committed to stopping the war, even if he isn’t completely sure that humanity at large is worth all the trouble. You can see a deeper side to Trevor, through the excellent script and through Pine’s performance: Captain Kirk is better suited for a role like this than he was in one of the last things I saw him in. Trevor is a classic masculine action hero, a Boys Own adventurer, but he has a very obvious despair in him that properly undercuts this.

Combining the two narratives produces a romantic angle that could easily sink Wonder Woman, and I was dreading it to be fair, but the film manages to not get too bogged down in the inevitability. The romance plot takes over here and there, and builds to a suitable moment near the end of the second act, but never derails or overshadows the central drama too much, and indeed is one of the better executed love plots of this particular genre. It helps that Gadot and Pine commit totally to the premise and to the relationship, in an effort that oozes just the right amount of sentimentality. As the viewer will know right from the start – the film opening with Diana in the modern day, sometime after Batman V Superman – Wonder Woman is obviously making it through her first standalone adventure, but the tension then comes from whether Steve’s reckless mission to ensure the end of World War One will mean the end of him.

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Chris Pine and Gal Gadot are great in this.

I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss Wonder Woman as a war movie. I’ll admit, when I first heard of the setting I was a bit taken aback, worried we were about to see a lame attempt to cash in on German bad guys under the pretence of an original setting. But those fears were allayed. While it is the Germans shooting at Wonder Woman, it’s made clear that the real enemy is the larger intangible concept of war and man’s inhumanity to man: the Germans just happen to be the ones in Diana’s way on this occasion, and Wonder Woman goes to no special pains to show any foot soldiers of World War One in an heroic or evil light. The depiction of the Western Front is visceral and horrific, capturing well the mud-filled conditions and shattered psyches’ of those engaged in trench warfare, and contrasting this brilliantly with the cathartic breakthrough that Diana offers. In many respects, Wonder Woman takes a few cues from Captain America: The First Avenger in terms of very loose structure – there is a bit of the Howling Commandos in the ragtag group of mercenaries Diana and Trevor lead around – only with the First World War subbing for the Second. Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, and Eugene Brave Rock provide a multi-racial/national back-up crew, and actual manage to have a bit of character in the process while politicians back home – most notably the ever-excellent David Thewlis – barter over peace terms. A variety of different war-related points are touched on: PTSD, collateral civilian casualties, American hypocrisy over race and out of touch commanding officers are just some examples.

But still German accents on the bad guys. Huston plays a very fictionalised version of General Erich Ludendorff – indeed, I think they just took the name and slapped it on an original character – who is very much a cackling villain, and I mean that literally. Next to him is the understated in speech but rather creepy Anaya, the two impersonating a sort of Golden Age antagonist in every maniacal utterance and grand scheme for mass destruction. The true villain of the piece is the shadowy Ares, the God of War, whose identity remains a mystery until towards the end, but he too strays into almost comical territory with his writing: he literally screams “I WILL DESTROY YOU!” at one point. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having some over the top villains, and at least these are colourful and memorable, unlike, say the Enchantress of Suicide Squad. They also have the benefit of being understandable and buyable, unlike Lex Luthor of Batman V Superman. But they are still rather cartoonish, and sometimes presented in a silly fashion: without spoiling, the revealing of facial hair for one villain in a flashback is a laughable moment.

But moving beyond that, what would a superhero film be without its action, and here Wonder Woman has a bit to overcome in a saturated market. We get a random mix of stuff, going from horses, arrows and swords against Mauser rifles, to hand-to-hand fisticuffs in the back alleys of London. Jenkins and her cinematographer Matthew Jensen play around a bit with perspectives and cuts – some nice overhead stuff offers great glimpses of kinetic sequences, but do delve a bit too much into the rapid slow/rapid speed up in other moments. Jenkins doesn’t have much action chops when it comes to her filmography but certainly gets the character, thankfully Jensen does have the experience with action– Chronicle, Game Of Thrones and Fantastic Four are in his back catalogue – so it’s a good combination. A sequence involving Diana crossing No Man’s Land (very pointedly named as such here) on her own is probably the best of the film, as we exhilarate to her shielding herself from three German machine gun nests at once, holding firm amid a sea of lead, but the action generally is quite good.

The exception is easily the finale itself, which is a somewhat disappointing step back into CGI-based carnage, where the great hand-to-hand of earlier is replaced with tanks and tracks and bits of rubble being thrown willy-nilly between two deadly and powerful adversaries. The surrounds thankfully preclude a passing of the carnage threshold, as Man Of Steel did and as Batman V Superman came close to doing, but there is something a bit deflating about an otherwise great and personal superhero film turning into a slightly edgier looking version of Dumbledore vs Voldemort in Order Of The Phoenix.

The direction generally outside of that is top-notch. While Wonder Woman keeps one toe firmly planted in the realm of Zach Snyder’s grimdark visuals at times – especially in expository sections detailing the far past and the fall of Ares, which are 300-esque – it never lets it dominate: instead, Jenkins wants to show you a world worth fighting for, it the dreamy depictions of paradise on Themyscira, or in the occasional looks at a Europe not totally wrecked from the fighting. When it is time for the mud and the blood to take centre stage, Jenkins pans back to let us take the full atrocity that is the Western Front, but leaves plenty of space for the more intimate moments, when the faces of Diana and Steve are magnified to a dreamlike state. Jenkins has a thing about faces really: Diana stern beauty, Steve’s quiet determination, Ludendorff’s barely concealed insanity, Maru’s hidden deformities.

Allan Heinburg’s script is a fast-moving and engaging thing. The narration never seems plodding and the interactions are crisp and meaningful, especially between Diana and Steve: playful quasi-flirting on the nature of sex quickly and effectively turns to deeper discussion on the nature of man’s capacity for destroying other men. Even minor characters, like General Antiope, Scottish sniper Charlie and “Chief” stand-out well because of the way they are written, with plenty of care for what would be throwaway characters in other productions. The film is also edited and paced with care, in a manner that Zach Snyder would do well to take note of: despite being near two and a half hours, Wonder Woman is a breeze to sit through, with the requisite beats of comedy (that never takes over things or ruins the drama, cough Marvel cough) story-advancement and action, even limiting its finale blow-out to an acceptable duration.

There may be some disappointment over Rupert Gregson-Williams score. Zimmer’s wonderful Wonder Woman theme from Batman V Superman may have been an outlier, it only rarely popping up here with its infectiously memorable cello arrangement. Beyond that, we’re in the realm of passable but forgettable strings and horns, not out of line with any number of recent blockbusters, that fail to really make Wonder Woman stand-out musically.

So, Wonder Woman is, overall a great success, and on its own merits bodes well for what’s to come with the DCEU. Or, maybe not. The Justice League adaptation was getting much the same pre-opening treatment as Batman V Superman did from the nerd commentariat, ahead of the tragic revealing of Zach and Deborah Snyder’s terrible bereavement earlier this year, that leaves the film in the hands of Joss Whedon for the closing stages of its production. Such news, rightly or wrongly, will likely temper some of what I am confident is pre-prepared criticism for the latest superhero team-up, but it would not be an unsafe bet to place that Justice League will not be well-loved, it being grimdark as all hell based on the trailers. I liked Batman V Superman, and I’ve been a defender of Snyder’s visual choices, but even I was struck by how mundane and oppressive Justice League looks. But the involvement of Wonder Woman, now a beloved movie character, gives me hope that the film might rise above its visuals, and if DC’s standalone characters follow in the same vein, then the Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg might all elevate it too, before we get to their own productions.

But I digress. Wonder Woman is, well, a wonderful picture. Its cast is doing great work, the story is strong, the visual direction is solid. Sure, the music could be better and the finale fails to pop like it should, but let’s be clear here: Wonder Woman does just what it needs to do, and that’s be a great superhero movie with a woman in the lead. It’s the best superhero film I have seen a long time. You should see it too. Twice preferably. Highly recommended.

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Roll on Justice League

 

(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).

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Ireland’s Wars: The Gaelic Revival And The IRB

In this series, I make it a point to prioritize military affairs when it comes to Irish history, but battles and armies and generals don’t exist in a vacuum. They are a product of their cultural, social and political environments, and so any battle study or analysis of war must, by necessity, also look at the surrounding issues of the day, and the kind of world that creates, encourages or is a cause of conflict. We are now rapidly approaching a section of Irish history dubbed the “Irish revolutionary period”, but that revolution did not spring into existence from nothing. That’s why we have to take a moment to look at a significant cultural event, that still had a serious, and oft underappreciated, military side, namely the Gaelic revival.

The Gaelic revival is generally characterized as a period, starting around the 1840s and continuing on into the 20th century, when a general interest in the older parts of Irish culture – the Irish language, Irish myth, Irish music and Irish sports – expanded greatly among the Irish population, in direct opposition to the Anglicization of the country that had been happening for centuries. It can be said to have begun with new translations of the “Ossianic Cycle” stories, that include the tales of the “Fianna” warrior band and their heroic leader, Fionn mac Cumhaill, myths that would now inspire whole new generations of Irish soldiery.

A Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language was founded in 1877, then an off-shoot, the Gaelic Union, in 1880. The Gaelic Athletic Association, formed to promote and codify sports like hurling and gaelic football, at a time when the codification of other sports was rampant in Great Britain, was founded in 1884. It would soon explode in popularity. And in 1893, the Gaelic League was founded, with the express motivation of “de-anglicizing Ireland.

The people behind the Gaelic League included future Irish President Douglas Hyde and future Irish Volunteers founder Eoin McNeill. It’s influence and popularity spread rapidly, with 400 branches recorded within a decade of its founding. The League encouraged discussions of matters relating to the Irish language and Irish culture, the performing of Irish music and published its own weekly newspaper, that by 1903 was being edited by a young Dublin-born barrister named Padraig Pearse. An Irish literary revival was occurring at the same time, but as it wrote and catered primarily for an English-speaking audience, it and its formal institutions were often on poor terms with the Gaelic League.

The GAA and the Gaelic League, as you would well expect, appealed especially, although not uniformly, to Irish nationalists, of many different political backgrounds. And that included those of the more hard-line militant variety, signified by the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

There had been difficult years for the IRB since the debacle that was 1867 . Offshoots had grabbed the headlines and men in America had won some success, but then things went quiet: the American adventures turned to embarrassments and the political side of Irish nationalism grabbed the spotlight back home. But the IRB did continue, reduced in number and in effectiveness, but existent nonetheless, still organised in small cells based around “centres”. Organisations like the those popping up during the Gaelic revival provided ample opportunities for recruitment.

Look through the first-hand accounts of the period, most notably those collected by the Irish Bureau of Military History, and you will find, again and again, men and woman discuss how nationalistic fervour in them was first awaken by membership of organisations like the Gaelic League, before they were approached by members of the IRB. Sometimes the contact would be subtle, involving idle conversations about politics, the sharing of militant newsletters, the seeking of opinion on the same. Then the name of the targeted person would be brought up at an IRB meeting, to see if there were any objections to the person being offered the chance to be inducted. That part of the process navigated, the target was then offered the chance to become a sworn member of “the Organisation”, something carried out in secret if the person was agreeable.

The IRB needed the new blood. Many of those sworn in during the 1890’s and 1900’s make note of how shambolic individual cells had become, run by older men long past the point of actually carrying out any plans to kick the British out of Ireland. Things soon were changing, as the old guard were retired out, replaced by a newer generation of more fervently devout republicans. While there were many vital figures involved in the IRB at this time, four in particular stand out: Dennis McCullough, whose distaste for the status of the IRB stemmed from being sworn-in at the a pub side door by an inebriated Fenian; Tom Clarke, the former Dynamite Campaigner, who had spent time in British prison and then a quasi-exile in American before returning to Ireland in 1907; Sean Mac Diarmada, Clarke’s protégé and radical newspaper editor; and Bulmer Hobson, a Belfast-born Quaker, perhaps the most forgotten man in Irish military history. The four, among others, were at the heart of the efforts to make the IRB relevant again.

There were still challenges, not least continuing efforts to counter the IRB by the RIC and DMP, clerical opposition to the IRB’s existence and continuing factionalism: the Boer War had helped heal the split in the Irish Parliamentary Party, but not so much in the IRB. But despite this, the IRB endured, holding meetings in secret whenever it could, in pubs, at sporting events, at dances, anytime they could get away with doing so. By 1911, Hobson believed somewhere between 1’000 and 1’500 Irishmen were members of the IRB, a testament to the secrecy the organisation was able to maintain.

The general strategy of the IRB in this time is vague and difficult to pinpoint exactly, owing to its decentralisation and necessary lack of communication between units. In a general sense, the IRB focused on recruitment and expansion: the memories of the largely aborted rising in 1867, killed as much by lack of numbers as anything else, must still have resonated. Other than that, there was a clear effort to get members of the IRB into positions of power in other organisations, like the GAA and the Gaelic League, so these entities could be turned more fully to the cause of Irish freedom. Trade unions were also targeted in this semi-formal policy of “peaceful penetration”. The IRB also engaged in anti-enlistment campaigns against the British Army and land agitation efforts.

The IRB did not ignore the political side of things either. Under the cover of commemorating the Volunteers of the 18th century and their efforts to get Ireland’s own Parliament back in existence, Hobson and McCullough founded the Dungannon Clubs: in reality, they were fronts for the IRB. In 1907, the Dungannon Clubs were given the chance to merge with two other organisations, with Arthur Griffith at their core: Cumann na nGaedhael (not to be confused with later political party) and the National Council. The first had been set up by Griffith as a means of attempting to unite nationalist/separate organisations in Ireland, the second by Griffith and others to oppose Royal visits to Ireland. Griffith was becoming ever more controversial at the time: his The Resurrection of Hungary advocated the creation of a dual monarchy system between Britain and Ireland, somewhat in line with that undertaken by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an idea that never got major traction.

The merge between the three took their from a phrase that had been used here and there since the 1880’s in relation to Irish nationalism, variously translated as “ourselves” or “ourselves alone”: Sinn Fein. While it would take some time for the party to become truly relevant nationally – in their first campaign (run by Mac Diarmada), a by-election in North Leitrim in 1908, their candidate was mauled by the IPP in a near 50 point defeat – it was a pivotal moment in Irish history.

But still, it was the IPP that were in the ascendency in a political sense. By 1910, they were in a position to deliver the Holy Grail of the more conciliatory side of Irish nationalism: Home Rule.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Review: War Machine

War Machine

Trailer

 

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Look at that chiseled jaw.

 

Two weeks on, and we’re back with Netflix’ second Middle-eastern war based offerings. Unlike Sand Castle however, War Machine is very much looking at the big picture, and what could be bigger, when it came to the war in Afghanistan, than the rise and fall of one Stanley McChrystal? The “Runaway General”, whose efforts to prosecute the war ended in such ignominy, would seem to be rich fodder for a biopic, and quite the lead in Brad Pitt. But Sand Castle wasn’t all that it could be, and War Machine has to walk that tight dividing line between being a suitable adaptation of Michael Hastings expose and addressing the really critical issues in Afghanistan. Was it able to do this, or did it err too much to one side or another, neglecting either McChrystal’s demise or the tragedy he was briefly responsible for?

General Glen McMahon (Pitt) is appointed as the head of ISAF, tasked with handling the quagmire that the war in Afghanistan has turned into.  The “Glenimal” quickly turns heads with his requests for additional troop deployments and insistence that the war can still be won, but problems arise also: the ineffective President Karzai (Sir Ben Kingsley), the drunken antics of his personal team of “Operators”, a sceptical government and the attention of a Rolling Stone writer.

War Machine sort of sets itself up in its opening shots, as films tend to do. General McMahon, the titular conflict mechanism, uses the toilet facilities at an airport bathroom on his way to Afghanistan. The proud war hero looks comparatively awkward and humbled carrying out a human function as regular and necessary as breathing, before going right back to looking every inch the commanding leader of men. Almost immediately, director David Michôd sets up the crux of War Machine, which is whether McMahon is as much the hero as he likes to think he is, and as many of the people around him like to think he is.

However, having established that, War Machine then decides to take a lengthy detour into familiar territory, familiar enough to the viewers of Sand Castle: the ins, outs and inherent contradictions of counter-insurgency, only this time it’s spelled out even more obviously than it was in the first film, with a Scott McNary narration telling you exactly why “you can’t build a nation a gun point”. Poor General McMahon and, some, of his underlings, are men of action and bravado, trained for a different war that ended only a short time after it began back in 2001. Nearly a decade later, the same men are being asked to end an insurgency war while winning over the people of Afghanistan, and find that they simply can’t do it.

The glaring inadequacies of the American position is laid out starkly. The politicians don’t trust Karzai, who is probably guilty of election fraud, while McMahon recognises that Afghanistan just needs a leader. The government want the commitment in Afghanistan to start being drawn down, while McMahon is going public about his desire for more troops to be committed to the fight. The government wants McMahon to be the leader of a coalition of willing, friendly allies, but the allies are too busy bickering with each other, and undermining the mission, for McMahon to really care about them at all.

This could rapidly turn into an anti-government, pro-military “grab em by the balls” type exercise, but War Machine does, eventually exercise some restraint, though it slings plenty of barbs at a distant Barack Obama, portrayed as uncaring about the reality of Afghanistan, and more concerned with the optics of meeting his generals. McChrystal’s titanic error in being party to criticism of the administration is not really excused at any point, and the foibles and idiocy of “the operators” is well showcased, most notably in an extended sequence concerning McMahon’s visit to European allies.

 

War Machine

Kingsley makes the most of what amounts to a two scene cameo.

 

The inherent problem of a man like McMahon being but in charge of such an operation, where he would rather be pro-actively doing something rather than just killing time till the deployment is over, really takes over in the latter half of War Machine, which is the best portion of the movie. We see McMahon go from being a man with a boundless sort of enthusiasm for the task at hand – criticising the “burger huts” of his own soldiers and willing to get into the nitty gritty of the fight – to sincerely doubting himself, his intentions, and his capacity to get the job. A scene featuring a German politician – Tilda Swinton in an extended cameo – is probably the films best, as Pitt’s McMahon, nearly wordlessly, sees the metaphorical pro-COIN façade he is trying to build crumble before him.

It is Pitt making the role. The kind of intentionally wooden, understated and underemotional performance being pulled here is quite strange for Pitt, who has graduated into a sort of post-leading man existence in recent times, with probably his most commercially successful years behind him but plenty of opportunity for fine acting still to come. The trick is letting those crucial little glimpses of the real man eke through at the right times, when he loses his cool, when he struggles to relate to the wife he is frequently absent from, when the inevitable end comes. This is certainly one of Pitt’s most unique performances, and it is one of his best too.

All that being said, War Machine fails to really reach out and grab you, and many of its component parts aren’t entirely up to scratch. There are some great scenes here and there: McMahon stumbling over his attempts to explain what the plan is to the rankers of his army; a British general gingerly pointing out that the province they are being asked to kill and die for is worth nothing strategically; President Karzai’s surprising focus on his DVD player; and a wonderful deadpan punchline to McMahon’s anger at not having a single Afghan at the table of a dinner about gathering support for the Afghan war. But there are only fleeting moments, in a production whose focus keeps jumping and that seems edited and paced without enough care.

The supporting cast, including fairly notable names like Topher Grace (remember him?) and Anthony Michael Hall do a very good job at portraying a characterless mob of yes-men, but they lack any real, crucial impact on the story and even their bickering towards the end lacks bite. Meg Tilly as McMahon’s long neglected wife is so-so, a late addition to proceedings that distracts rather than enhances. And Will Poulter (grown up fast since The Revenant) and Lakeith Stanfield (almost unrecognizable from his turn in Get Out) as US jarheads caught in the hurly-burly of McMahon’s surge of troops seem rather trite, an effort to inject some traditional action into a film that doesn’t really need it. The other real stand-out of the cast is easily Kingsley as Karzai, in what amounts to a two-scene extended cameo. Kingsley is great as the unconcerned Afghan President, who is unwilling to really present any kind of regal façade to McMahon or his plans.

The cinematography is tight and unexceptional for the most part, as is Michod’s script, which never really pops the way it should. As an adaptation of Hasting’s account, I suppose its faithful, but that wasn’t really enough here: when the Hastings surrogate narrates the impossibility of COIN and the craziness of “the operators”, it always seems a bit too much like a jaded lecture, as opposed to an authoritative denunciation. It feels like War Machine’s script wants to cross the line and move over into satirical territory, but its general approach just isn’t up to the task.

That’s a disappointing way to finish up my assessment, but the truth, much like the reality of the US’ continuing failure in Afghanistan, hurts. That said, while War Machine is not a great war movie, it does still stick in the mind a little: an expose of a man representing the kind of can-do American bluster of World War Two, trapped fighting an unwinnable war in the 21st century. But there’s only so much more treading over this well-trod-over territory, in this manner at least, that the Middle-Eastern wars can take. Pitt saves War Machine a lot, but the supporting cast is lacking and the pacing problems really drag it down by the end. Best when viewed as a character study of McMahon, War Machine might be worth watching some rainy day, maybe a few decades from now when we have some distance. Partially recommended.

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

War Machine

Trailer

Two weeks on, and we’re back with Netflix’ second Middle-eastern war based offerings. Unlike Sand Castle however, War Machine is very much looking at the big picture, and what could be bigger, when it came to the war in Afghanistan, than the rise and fall of one Stanley McChrystal? The “Runaway General”, whose efforts to prosecute the war ended in such ignominy, would seem to be rich fodder for a biopic, and quite the lead in Brad Pitt. But Sand Castle wasn’t all that it could be, and War Machine has to walk that tight dividing line between being a suitable adaptation of Michael Hastings expose and addressing the really critical issues in Afghanistan. Was it able to do this, or did it err too much to one side or another, neglecting either McChrystal’s demise or the tragedy he was briefly responsible for?

General Glen McMahon (Pitt) is appointed as the head of ISAF, tasked with handling the quagmire that the war in Afghanistan has turned into.  The “Glenimal” quickly turns heads with his requests for additional troop deployments and insistence that the war can still be won, but problems arise also: the ineffective President Karzai (Sir Ben Kingsley), the drunken antics of his personal team of “Operators”, a sceptical government and the attention of a Rolling Stone writer.

War Machine sort of sets itself up in its opening shots, as films tend to do. General McMahon, the titular conflict mechanism, uses the toilet facilities at an airport bathroom on his way to Afghanistan. The proud war hero looks comparatively awkward and humbled carrying out a human function as regular and necessary as breathing, before going right back to looking every inch the commanding leader of men. Almost immediately, director David Michôd sets up the crux of War Machine, which is whether McMahon is as much the hero as he likes to think he is, and as many of the people around him like to think he is.

However, having established that, War Machine then decides to take a lengthy detour into familiar territory, familiar enough to the viewers of Sand Castle: the ins, outs and inherent contradictions of counter-insurgency, only this time it’s spelled out even more obviously than it was in the first film, with a Scott McNary narration telling you exactly why “you can’t build a nation a gun point”. Poor General McMahon and, some, of his underlings, are men of action and bravado, trained for a different war that ended only a short time after it began back in 2001. Nearly a decade later, the same men are being asked to end an insurgency war while winning over the people of Afghanistan, and find that they simply can’t do it.

The glaring inadequacies of the American position is laid out starkly. The politicians don’t trust Karzai, who is probably guilty of election fraud, while McMahon recognises that Afghanistan just needs a leader. The government want the commitment in Afghanistan to start being drawn down, while McMahon is going public about his desire for more troops to be committed to the fight. The government wants McMahon to be the leader of a coalition of willing, friendly allies, but the allies are too busy bickering with each other, and undermining the mission, for McMahon to really care about them at all.

This could rapidly turn into an anti-government, pro-military “grab em by the balls” type exercise, but War Machine does, eventually exercise some restraint, though it slings plenty of barbs at a distant Barack Obama, portrayed as uncaring about the reality of Afghanistan, and more concerned with the optics of meeting his generals. McChrystal’s titanic error in being party to criticism of the administration is not really excused at any point, and the foibles and idiocy of “the operators” is well showcased, most notably in an extended sequence concerning McMahon’s visit to European allies.

The inherent problem of a man like McMahon being but in charge of such an operation, where he would rather be pro-actively doing something rather than just killing time till the deployment is over, really takes over in the latter half of War Machine, which is the best portion of the movie. We see McMahon go from being a man with a boundless sort of enthusiasm for the task at hand – criticising the “burger huts” of his own soldiers and willing to get into the nitty gritty of the fight – to sincerely doubting himself, his intentions, and his capacity to get the job. A scene featuring a German politician – Tilda Swinton in an extended cameo – is probably the films best, as Pitt’s McMahon, nearly wordlessly, sees the metaphorical pro-COIN façade he is trying to build crumble before him.

It is Pitt making the role. The kind of intentionally wooden, understated and underemotional performance being pulled here is quite strange for Pitt, who has graduated into a sort of post-leading man existence in recent times, with probably his most commercially successful years behind him but plenty of opportunity for fine acting still to come. The trick is letting those crucial little glimpses of the real man eke through at the right times, when he loses his cool, when he struggles to relate to the wife he is frequently absent from, when the inevitable end comes. This is certainly one of Pitt’s most unique performances, and it is one of his best too.

All that being said, War Machine fails to really reach out and grab you, and many of its component parts aren’t entirely up to scratch. There are some great scenes here and there: McMahon stumbling over his attempts to explain what the plan is to the rankers of his army; a British general gingerly pointing out that the province they are being asked to kill and die for is worth nothing strategically; President Karzai’s surprising focus on his DVD player; and a wonderful deadpan punchline to McMahon’s anger at not having a single Afghan at the table of a dinner about gathering support for the Afghan war. But there are only fleeting moments, in a production whose focus keeps jumping and that seems edited and paced without enough care.

The supporting cast, including fairly notable names like Topher Grace (remember him?) and Anthony Michael Hall do a very good job at portraying a characterless mob of yes-men, but they lack any real, crucial impact on the story and even their bickering towards the end lacks bite. Meg Tilly as McMahon’s long neglected wife is so-so, a late addition to proceedings that distracts rather than enhances. And Will Poulter (grown up fast since The Revenant) and Lakeith Stanfield (almost unrecognizable from his turn in Get Out) as US jarheads caught in the hurly-burly of McMahon’s surge of troops seem rather trite, an effort to inject some traditional action into a film that doesn’t really need it. The other real stand-out of the cast is easily Kingsley as Karzai, in what amounts to a two-scene extended cameo. Kingsley is great as the unconcerned Afghan President, who is unwilling to really present any kind of regal façade to McMahon or his plans.

The cinematography is tight and unexceptional for the most part, as is Michod’s script, which never really pops the way it should. As an adaptation of Hasting’s account, I suppose its faithful, but that wasn’t really enough here: when the Hastings surrogate narrates the impossibility of COIN and the craziness of “the operators”, it always seems a bit too much like a jaded lecture, as opposed to an authoritative denunciation. It feels like War Machine’s script wants to cross the line and move over into satirical territory, but its general approach just isn’t up to the task.

That’s a disappointing way to finish up my assessment, but the truth, much like the reality of the US’ continuing failure in Afghanistan, hurts. That said, while War Machine is not a great war movie, it does still stick in the mind a little: an expose of a man representing the kind of can-do American bluster of World War Two, trapped fighting an unwinnable war in the 21st century. But there’s only so much more treading over this well-trod-over territory, in this manner at least, that the Middle-Eastern wars can take. Pitt saves War Machine a lot, but the supporting cast is lacking and the pacing problems really drag it down by the end. Best when viewed as a character study of McMahon, War Machine might be worth watching some rainy day, maybe a few decades from now when we have some distance. Partially recommended.

 

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Only alright.

 

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

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