Reviews by Ken Burke
I know that in my last posting (about Steve Jobs [Danny Boyle]) I wore myself into the ground in compiling/ publishing it (maybe you too, in reading through all of it with its numerous links) so even though I’m exploring 3 new films this time (all of which are quite worthy of extensive analysis) I’m going to try to keep it shorter for all of our sakes. I’m also going to offer you a true multi-modal experience with this posting if you’re interested; given the topics we have under consideration here, if you’d like an ongoing musical commentary (prior to my actual Musical Metaphor at the end of the reviews) that relates to them just copy this URL, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=01-2pNCZ iNk for the song, “War” (from the 1970 Edwin Starr album War & Peace, presented here in the inconsequential-images-original-music-video-version so that you don’t lose anything by just listening to it rather than watching also [“War … What is it good for? Absolutely nothing”]), paste it onto another Web browser, then play it there at reduced volume as background audio while you read my reviews here (occasionally using part of your multi-modal-mind to substitute “rape” for “war” in the lyrics to bring in Room, with the understanding that Truth’s references to war include both the actual Vietnam conflict of the 1960-‘70s, the ratings wars of TV newscasts, and the political wars that surface during election campaigns). Of course, it runs for only 3:25 so you’ll have to repeat it several times if you want it to accompany the entire review (I said I was aiming for shorter this week, not short! After all, whom do you think you’re dealing with here?).
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews. Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up. Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
Beasts of No Nation (Cary Fukunaga)
An African nation is in turmoil as government soldiers kill villagers they assume to be rebels, including the father and older brother of young Agu who escapes but is soon captured by/recruited into the actual rebel army where he becomes viciously bloodthirsty also, but his Commandant has a break with their Supreme Commander leaving Agu in a quandary.
What Happens: In a unnamed West African nation (although shot in Ghana) with events seemingly set in present time, a village is caught in impending crossfire between the junta army (the NRC) and the rebels of the NDF (Native Defense Force), although this film’s events begin on a lighter note as young Agu (Abraham Attah) and his friends try to raise some cash by selling their “Imagination TV shows" to local soldiers by playing out scenes behind a TV frame missing its picture tube (which still sits in Agu’s home, much to the surprise of his Dad [Kobina Amissa-Sam], a former teacher, now unemployed because of the civil war, devoting his time to helping refugees). This light opening mood quickly darkens, though, when an army attack team roars in, killing every male in sight (the women and youngest children had already been sent away for their protection)—including Agu’s father, grandfather (Emmary Brown), and older brother (Francis Weddey)—because they wrongly assume that the villagers are helping the rebels. The boy runs off into the bush, only to be captured by the NDF where the all-powerful Commandant (Idris Elba) takes a father-like-interest in Agu but only if he can prove himself by killing one of their captives. Stirred on by his war-chant-training (and belief that these insurgents truly want to restore a government focused on the people’s needs), Agu hacks away on his victim with a machete, then becomes a trusted bodyguard of the Commandant (also a shocked sex partner, if I’m properly reading a pair of vaguely-implicating-scenes) armed with a submachine gun as the NDF rolls on to victory (including in a skirmish with another rebel group, the PPP)—often fired up on drugs (one scene indicates this as the green foliage around them in an attack is shown as red to us—probably implying the blood to be shed for their cause). However, pragmatic politics of public image to the larger world get in the way of ideology when NDF Supreme Commander Dada Goodblood (Jude Akuwudike) reneges on promoting Commandant to general and allowing him to lead a long-planned-attack on the capitol.
This causes Commandant to break away from the NDF, leading his troops on a mission of securing land for themselves, a failing action that results in the men's complete abandonment of their angry leader, surrender to the United Nations forces trying to bring stability to the country, and Agu’s resettlement to a rehab camp for such traumatized-child-soldiers as they try to put their lives back together after being brainwashed into becoming vicious mercenaries. We’ve left with hope for these kids as the final shots show them playing together in the ocean that borders their camp.
So What? Not only is Beasts of No Nation a grimly-effective-indictment of how children like Agu are callously, forcibly conscripted into local wars in developing countries but also it’s a sobering look at the difficulty of believing the motives of warring factions in these battles for national control as we can at first believe that the Commandant is sincere in his mission to help bring down a repressive government (with at least the possibility of some justification behind his recruiting methods—he tells Agu that he wants to help the boy take revenge against the kind of men who killed his father—in that a truly-democratically-inspired-military-rebellion [as we should remember that our American Revolution was, those couple of centuries ago] needs all of the manpower/ firepower it can muster against a superiorly-armed-antagonist); however, when Commandant’s conquests allow brutal butchering of any opposition by his underlings along with rape of any convenient women in “liberated” territory we find him to be no harbinger of enlightenment. To make matters worse, though, he finds that his own revered superior makes a mockery of Commandant’s gains in the field first by forcing his fighters to wait hours before they’re received by Goodblood, then telling this loyal soldier he’s essentially being demoted to Head of Security rather than continuing in his battlefield-primed-obsessions. In these actions we see both the manipulative aspects of this would-be-President’s strategies as well as the collapse of any pretense of honor by the Commandant as he orders his battalion to seize what they can of the country’s resources for their own gain, possibly trying to establish himself as future-opposition to Goodblood’s future-rule.
Everything about this story is a grim reminder of how easily corruption works its way into the minds and activities of those who’re struggling through necessarily-violent-means to rid themselves of past oppression but can’t resist the lure of power for themselves when circumstances allow principle to be replaced with new-found-authority (we see this with Agu—and his mentor, Srika [Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye], a cruel boy whose fierce-looks could almost kill as effectively as his weapons—how even this kid, growing older in a misshapen-emotional-fashion before his time, is caught up in the fervor of his now-embraced-mission, allowing him to become a trigger-happy-tyrant within his own small circle of command simply because he now has access to the trigger).
Bottom Line Final Comments: Beasts of No Nation is a horrible story to watch—only because of its grotesque content, not its first-rate-despite-low-budget-production-values—but one worth seeking out, if you can even find it. (It’s not among Box Office Mojo’s top 95 from last weekend, while the weekend before it was at #41 but with only about $84,000 in domestic grosses after 2 weeks in release [I’m sure its off-putting-content didn’t help much, nor did implications from the trailers that the dialogue’s subtitled, although not much of it is, yet you might still have to struggle a bit with the heavy-African-accents when English is in use]; sorry I didn’t get to it sooner to offer a recommendation, but there probably weren’t many theaters still showing it by the time I got there in week 3 anyway—if BOM is correct then the couple of folks who were there with Nina [she read the book—of the same name, by Uzodinma Iweala (2005)—therefore was my prime motivation for seeing the film] and me at the California Theatre in Berkeley didn’t generate enough cash to top the $50 taken in one screen somewhere by Sex, Death and Bowling [Ally Walker]—no joke!). Although your best hope of finding it is with on-demand-video (which is responsible for Beasts …’s poor placement in moviehouses because it came out via Netflix at the same time it opened theatrically [there’s usually supposed to be a 90-day-buffer] so 4 of the largest chains refused to show it) if some of that critical praise for Elba does translate into a possible Best-Actor-Oscar-watch. (Attah was impactful as well, but not only is the Hollywood establishment reticent to nominate children for acting awards [Tatum O’Neal’s Best Supporting Actress win, at age 10 (youngest ever in any competitive Oscar category), for Paper Moon (Peter Bogdanovich, 1973) notwithstanding] they’re also not likely to turn such a supportive-eye toward a poorly-performing-independent-offering [dampening Elba‘s chances as well, no matter how much chatter there may be about drafting him to be the next James Bond whenever Daniel Craig’s truly out of the picture rather than just blowing off steam about the rigors of such a production].)
Of course, none of my subjects of analysis this week are very uplifting to watch for most of their screen time (although they all do end with hopeful codas), but Beasts of No Nations’ content is likely the most-overall-grotesque in its implications, depending on how you feel about kidnapping/ rape or the ongoing clash between journalism and politics, any of which might win your personal Nausea-Bucket-of-the-Year-Award so read on and see what reviles you the most—in content that is—but hopefully likewise impresses you with its cinematic rendering in all of these well-crafted-films.
Room (Lenny Abrahamson)
Joy, a 17-year-old, was abducted 7 years ago by a grouchy rapist known only as Old Nick, but now she has a 5-year-old son, Jack, as the result of his “visits,” with herself and the boy living in a small (but minimally-furnished) garden shed as she plots some strategy for escape, which she finally does but it’s a dangerous plan that could backfire against little Jack.
What Happens: Here’s another film that Nina has better insight into than me because she’s also read the source novel for it (same name; Little, Brown and Company ; written by Room’s screenwriter, Emma Donoghue), although, like Beasts of No Nation, the plot's perspective via the young-boy-protagonist is retained through just a bit of voice-over-narration rather than the whole story being told on screen just from the understandings of either of these troubled kids. In this nerve-wracking-story we begin with Joy (“Ma”) Newsome (Brie Larson) and her 5-year-old-son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), imprisoned in a reconverted-garden-shed, which provides them with a bathtub, a sink, a refrigerator, a poorly-working TV set, a bed, and a few other basic necessities in a confined 10’ x 10’ space. Through steady revelations through the first half of this film we learn that a man known only as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) kidnapped Joy 7 years ago when she was 17 so that he’d have a sex-prisoner for his frequent visits, which ultimately resulted in Jack. Entrance to what Jack knows as Room (his only conception of a planetary existence, with everything he sees on the TV as being from outer space, Ma having given him this explanation in order for his young brain to not become traumatized by their seemingly-inescapable-confinement)
is controlled by a code-enabled-keypad so Joy’s never been able to plot an escape (after 7 years you’d assume she’d try every combination she could envision, but Nick could well be changing it periodically so for whatever reason she and her son are still horribly cooped up; she did try to knock Nick out with the toilet lid once but wasn't successful, so he’s always better on guard now), forcing mother and son to just get through each day as best they can (with their only awareness of seasons’ changing coming from what they can see through their small skylight). She’s a loving mother, but being locked up that way with such a young child often results in his screaming fits, her need to block him out with sleep, and her constant awareness that Nick will be back for more (miserable for her) sex. Jack’s kept in a little closet when Nick intrudes so he either sleeps or sees little through the door slats; however, when Nick attempts to interact with Jack Ma goes ballistic, resulting in the considerably-older-man storming off, then cutting off their power so that they have no heaters during a cold night.
This situation gives Joy an idea, though, so she uses hot water to help Jack fake a high fever (caught from the frigid environment) in order to encourage Nick to rush Jack to a hospital where he can tell people what’s going on with him (as Jack’s just turned 5 at the beginning of the film, she’s finally starting explaining to her son the reality of their situation, which is a bit hard for him to comprehend just yet). Nick just says he’ll come back the next day with antibiotics, though, so Joy modifies the plan to tell Nick that Jack died, after which she rolled him up in rug with the assumption that her captor will drive the body (in his pickup truck) somewhere for burial, with Jack taught to roll out, jump from the truck, and cry for help. The plan almost works, then almost doesn’t as Nick catches up with Jack soon after his escape but a passerby interferes with Nick’s angry rejections of help for the distressed boy (mistaken for a girl because his hair’s probably never been cut—happens to me a lot too when waiters approach from behind until they see my beard, then stumble around their previous “Hello, ladies” greeting to me and Nina) which leads to Nick rushing off, traumatized Jack finally able to help the cops find Ma, then both of them taken for medical care before being released to Joy’s mother, Nancy (Joan Allen), and her new beau, Leo (Tom McCamus); ex-husband Robert (William H. Macy) flies in from wherever also but soon leaves because he can’t even look at Jack, based on the boy’s conception-by-rape. Tensions rise and fall between Joy and Nancy, with Joy finally attempting suicide; however, Leo and his dog are great calming influences for generally-bewildered-Jack, so eventually everything begins to smooth over, Jack asks Grandma to cut his hair, then the film concludes as Jack asks to see Room again—which Joy haltingly agrees to—only to quickly ask to leave as it no longer holds any sense of familiarity or stability for him.
So What? Even though Room is just as directly-fictional as Beasts of No Nation, it’s also based on horrid realities of how the grotesque-abusers of the young—in this case a self-absorbed-kidnapper, rather than a Third World-warlord—somehow feel they have the right to deny young women their freedom simply for sick pleasure even though no part of Joy's years-long-constrained-life brings her any “joy” except for the daily (and nightly, after Nick leaves) bonding with her beloved son. (The same sort of sordid event happened in my area when 11-year-old Jaycee Lee Dugard was taken in South Lake Tahoe, CA in 1991 by convicted-sex-offender Philip Craig Garrido of Antioch, CA, who kept her in similar-secured-tent-“Rooms” behind the house he shared with his wife, Nancy—an active participant in all of this atrocity—until 2009, during which time Jaycee bore 2 daughters with him; he was finally caught when visiting the UC Berkeley campus with the girls, as the result of an investigation sparked by their odd behavior [in the film, Joy refuses to refer to Old Nick as Jack’s father, not because she was raped by anyone else but just to keep her situation with her abductor as removed as her mind would allow]. Garrido and his wife were arrested, tried, and locked away for good—a brief TV newscast in Room implies the same justice for Nick but that’s not an aspect of the film’s second act; if you want more on the Dugard case there’s both a short version and a longer one available). Also, like Beasts … the impact of Room is devastating to watch, although the depicted horror of Nick’s sexual satisfaction is kept to a minimum, just as the occasional tensions between very-young-son and constantly-overwhelmed-mother are kept to a minimum (although he throws a whale of a tantrum when she has no candles for his birthday cake; he can’t even conceive of the planning needed on a daily basis for the provisions that Joy requests from Old Nick in an attempt to keep herself and her son eating healthy and staying clean during their long captivity).
And, while the post-escape-scenes have their own level of ongoing-trauma, at least we don’t have to suffer through an entire 2 hours of Ma and Jack's confinement, constantly dreading that Old Nick, laid off from work for 6 months therefore running out of money to support his prisoners, might just kill them or let them die in miserable depravation. This is a minor consolation, but if you’ve gone in having read the book or seen the trailer you at least know that rescue from their immediate nightmare is a reality. Even when they’re in Room, though, mother and son are presented in constantly-varied closeups that mirror their confinement but also give us a more intimate connection with these prisoners, reminiscent of old photo class assignments to shoot an entire roll of film (or, now, a prescribed number of digital shots) in a small space to reveal all that it has to offer.
Bottom Line Final Comments: Now that autumn and the beginnings of Oscar-consideration-season are upon us it becomes tempting to start offering up awards-contender-possibilities as I’ve done with a few films already (Pawn Sacrifice [Edward Zwick; review in our October 3, 2015 posting], Bridge of Spies [Steven Spielberg; review in our October 15, 2015 posting], and Steve Jobs [Danny Boyle; review in our October 30, 2015 posting] being my strongest recent contenders) so Larson’s certainly a consideration for Best Actress, although you can’t completely discount Tremblay whose screen presence never seems confused or forced despite his young age of 8, although as I opined above about Abraham Attah (15 but looks younger to me) I think that a nomination is unlikely given the adult competition he’d be up against because he’d have to be contending for Best Actor, a category sure to be overflowing with the usual collection of seasoned pros. However, it’s very possible that Joan Allen’s short scenes might resonate with Academy Voters for Best Supporting Actress as she provides powerful exchanges with a damaged-daughter that she hardly knows anymore, a not-as-young-as-she-used-to-be-young-woman whose years of traumas aren’t helped by having to go through the challenge of a TV interview (to raise money to help support herself and her son as work skills will likely be slow to emerge after all that time locked away from normal development out of adolescence; her recovery is shattered, though, when the interviewer asks if she ever tried to get Nick to drop the boy off at a hospital so that he could be adopted, raised with a normal life; this shakes her enough to lead to the suicide attempt). As Joy’s mother, Allen is supportive and accepting (emotions that her ex-husband just can’t find after the damage that’s been done to his daughter) but not willing to be pushed around, even by an offspring who’s having a difficult time adjusting to a daily life of options and exploration rather than the confining-dictates of Old Nick.
Despite the current critical embrace (Rotten Tomatoes 95% positive reviews, Metacritic 85%), Room's building very slowly (only 49 theaters after 3 weeks in release, with less than $800,000 in receipts) so it stands a chance of being forgotten after the heavier-hitters come rolling in during the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas-onslaught. That would be a shame because there’s a lot of worthwhile themes and performances to experience here, but the nominations lists are as strict and confining as Room was for Joy and Jack, so we’ll just have to see what endurance this spellbinding-story has in a couple of months; assuming it's heading for a bigger rollout though, I hope you can both bring yourself to see it and bring yourself to a theater offering it before Spectre (Sam Mendes) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams) suck all of the air out of everyone else’s rooms.
Truth (James Vanderbilt)
This is about former CBS 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes’ involvement (based on her book) with the infamous “Rathergate” report during the 2004 Presidential election period dealing with supposed AWOL actions by then-Lt. George W. Bush while in the National Guard in 1972-’73, with his supposed transgressions based largely on controversial documents.
What Happens: In the spring of 2004 one of the CBS 60 Minutes II (also referred to as 60 Minutes Wednesday to differentiate it from the original Sunday night broadcast) producers, Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), is riding high with professional praise, especially for her ghastly story about U.S. military abuses of Iraqi prisoners at the dreaded Abu Ghraib detention center. As the Presidential election campaign moves into the heated time of the summer, though, there is awareness at the Black Rock (CBS midtown-Manhattan-headquarters) news dept. of the controversy facing Democratic candidate John Kerry because of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth group airing ads questioning the accuracy of his decorated-valor during the Vietnam War; in the midst of this context, Mapes is contacted by former Texas Army National Guard Lt. Col. Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach), who claims to have explosive documents showing that then-President George W. Bush (now running for re-election) was essentially AWOL during much the 1972-1973 years of his required part-time-duty with the Texas Air National Guard (TexANG—although at that time he’d been transferred by request to the Alabama Nation Guard, ANG). Problems immediately arise because what Burkett can provide are photocopies, not originals, nor will he divulge his source. Mapes, a frequent collaborator with Dan Rather, 60 Minutes reporter and long-time-anchor for the CBS Nightly News (after taking over in 1981 from Walter Cronkite, often known during his career as “the most trusted man in America,” thereby setting up the expectation that Rather would continue that tradition), wants to pursue what seems to be not only a relevant concern but also one that she’d been investigating during the 2000 elections yet had to put on hold when her mother was dying of cancer (the film implies that had this Bush story gained traction in either of those years that he might not have been elected/re-elected). Trying to avoid the charges of springing an “October surprise” just before Election Day, Mapes tries her best to verify the story for a late-September broadcast but because of scheduling conflicts in upcoming weeks her superiors push it to air on Sept. 8, giving her just 5 more days to nail it down.
Backed by some handwriting experts and others close to Bush’s former Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian (deceased by then, so unavailable to verify the documents with his signature), Mapes and Rather go forward with the story, proud of what they accomplished on tight deadline but then shocked at the heated response beginning the next day with all sorts of questions about the authenticity of the “Killian papers” (based on typewriter fonts, text formatting, references within the statements, etc.). At first, Rather offers vigorous defenses of the story, including a difficult interview with a sickly Burkett in which he admits he lied when first forced to name a source of these papers, then saying he burned the originals so that only photocopies remain, making it nearly-impossible to fully authenticate what he’s claimed—with the further complications that Mapes admits she erred in answering Burkett's request to be put in contact with the Kerry campaign, implicating CBS in charges of partisan-journalism, even though those involved denied such and kept trying to reset the original focus on favoritism in Bush getting into the TexANG (seemingly helped, joined by other Texan “fortunate sons,” with this desirable-alternative by Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes [Philip Quast], at least according to his remorseful-on-air-testimony) instead of serving in the field in Vietnam, AWOL charges, etc. rather than possible discrepancies with the documents, even as the news team (including Mike Smith [Topher Grace], Lucy Scott [Elizabeth Moss], and Col. Roger Charles [Dennis Quaid]) found justifiable responses to each of the charges brought against them. Most of this is told in flashback by Mapes to her lawyer, Dick Hibey (Andrew McFarlane), in preparation for her grilling by a CBS-hired-investigative panel chaired by Richard Thornburgh (Helmut Bakaitis)—former U.S. Attorney General under Bush’s father—and Lou Boccardi (Lewis Fitz-Gerald)—former president of the Associated Press. Mapes stands up well to her inquisition (I wonder if current Presidential-candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton saw a private screening of these scenes prior to her 11-hour-appearance before the House committee investigating the Benghazi debacle), but finally gets testy at the end, demanding to know what the panel assumes about her political motivations as to whether her intentions are biased against Bush.
While no accusations of ideological-impropriety emerge in the report, there are plenty of faults found with the procedures that led to the “Rathergate” broadcast and its defenses, resulting in Mapes being fired (along with 60 Minutes Wednesday Executive Producer Josh Howard [David Lyons], Senior Broadcast Producer Mary Murphy [Natalie Saleeba], and Senior Vice President [for prime-time-newscasts] Betsy West [Rachel Blake] being forced to resign), then in early 2005 Rather stepped down as newscast anchor (released completely from CBS in 2006). Although not the final shot of Truth, there’s a great one that sums it all up as Mapes watches Bush’s 2004 election-victory-speech on TV (about a month before she’s scheduled for her final round of testimony) with her wine glass in the foreground; the more he talks, the fuller the pour, in anticipation of the misery to come for all involved with the 60 Minutes II botched-attempt at a significant exposé of the President.
So What? You could wear yourself out (as I almost did) looking into various supportive and objectionable responses to what’s portrayed in Truth, although you have to remember that this script is primarily based on Mapes’ book, Truth and Duty: The Press, The President, and The Privilege of Power (St. Martin’s Press, 2005) so it’s not intended to recruit viewpoints from the CBS hierarchy, those who vigorously deny the authenticity of the “Killian documents,” nor a wide range of possible testifiers beyond the fictionalized versions of the actual players in this drama who are included in the cast. If you want negative responses to Truth based on its content (rather than its impact as a film) you could start with this article from Scott W. Johnson in the Minneapolis StarTribune (he says that Mapes has a “responsibility for perpetuating a shocking journalistic fraud” and cites Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News in 2004, criticizing the film because it “takes people responsible for the worst embarrassment in the history of CBS News, and what was at the time a grievous blow to the credibility of a proud news organization, and turns them into martyrs and heroes. Only Hollywood could come up with that.”), then move on, if you want more of this, to William Campenni in The Daily Signal (a member of the TexANG 1970-’74, who claims to have access to “indisputable facts backed up by evidence” to refute the disputed “Killian documents” [Although after years of reading a wide variety of publications as well as being in academia, participating in countless meetings about budgets, growth projections, etc. I’ve found that “indisputable facts,” even those “backed up by evidence,” usually occur in the realm of the natural sciences—not in journalism, politics, or the military—and even with the sciences you can rig experiments (either foolishly or intentionally) to yield the results you desire, so I think it’s hard to be conclusive about much of anything, although the resulting doubt from that stance does make the concept of “trust” as hard to come by (for me, at least) as is “truth.”]). Also, I’ll note that unlike Johnson, who blasts Truth because of the findings of the Thornburg-Boccardi panel, Campenni also takes that group to task for not coming down harder on Rather, Mapes, and CBS in general.
From there you could move on to this 6:40 video interview with Dan Rather (took awhile to download for me, audio’s a little low), where he still defends the underlying importance of the report—the serious questions raised regarding then-Lt. Bush’s seeming dereliction of duty as a legitimate concern about the character of a sitting President—despite errors that may have occurred in relying too heavily upon the specific content of the “Killian documents” (which I keep putting in quotes to acknowledge that it’s still not conclusively known if the late Lt. Col. wrote them or not—even with Johnson’s strident, although second-hand, denial of their authenticity which even the CBS-investigative-panel declined to resolve) as well as asserting that CBS was “trying to protect their own corporate interests” throughout the investigations. Then, there are other greatly-detailed-accounts of the Killian controversy (this one has extensive links to actual documents including the “Killian” ones, Bush military records, a transcript of the 60 Minutes II broadcast, statements from the CBS-hired-documents-examiners, along with the full Thornburgh-Boccardi Report, etc.) and the Bush military service controversy (with a wealth of info about the G.W. Bush TexANG years, which fail to show rebuttal of the claims that he didn’t perform his required National Guard duties from roughly spring 1972 to spring 1973 although he was honorably discharged from the TexANG in October 1973 and from the Air Force Reserve in November 1974) if you’d really like to expand your reading list in regard to whether all of this (often-conflicting) data is relevant to the film’s impact as a viewing experience (and, regarding these last 2 links, I realize that some put little faith in Wikipedia entries but I think you’ll find both of these to be extensively referenced—although I can’t vouch for whether the Thornburgh-Boccardi panel would accept the validity of those references; further, if you’d like even more access to quotes and links about this Rathergate situation you can email me at email@example.com so that I can reply with an attachment which is the press kit for Truth from Sony Pictures Classics, a document I have only in pdf form [and can’t figure out a way to save in any other format that I could link to this posting]).
Lest we forget, though, this film is about the ambiguity of what we try to know, or at least examine, as “truth,” along with the difficulty of proving that concept even when working with what we understand to be acceptable evidence (in that whatever exists can always be refuted with further testimonies from those “who ought to know” or the emergence of previously-unavailable-materials that call into question the veracity of what was once had been considered “irrefutable”; what would help in this case would be direct testimony of Lt. Col. Killian—if he were still alive—and Lt. G.W. Bush—who is alive but hasn’t seen fit to shed any definitive-clarity on his 1972-’73 actions that I’m aware of from reading a lot of what I’ve cited above, but even testimony from those involved often leaves us unresolved as we’ve seen in Truth where both Burkett lied about how he got the “Killian papers” and Rather lied, under corporate pressure, when he apologized for using those challenged documents). Given the bifurcation of most of the current U.S. populace into oppositional-right-and-left-wing-camps (me included; see below) it may be difficult for many of us to assess Truth as an examination of the difficulties of journalistic practice when conducted within the pressure-cookers of maintaining public faith in the reliability of the process, blowback from politicians whose careers are threatened by disruptive revelations about their activities, and—not least in this quagmire—the needs of huge multinational corporations that run most of our mainstream news services to protect themselves, both from lawsuits from aggrieved parties and loss of profits from declining audiences for their material products. So, as an experience on celluloid, what do we have with Truth?
For me, it’s a compelling story, well-told even against the temptation to get lost in a flurry of backstory details, well-acted by all involved (especially Blanchett displaying her usual screen-dominating-presence, but also Redford who’s at first distracting for someone like me who’s watched Rather for decades [again, see the next section of this review] but then establishes his own impact, not in an attempted-impersonation but as a manifestation of what Rather represents, just as Michael Fassbender does with his crafted-on-more-than-literal-reality-portrayal in Steve Jobs), and gripping when Mapes watches Rather’s last anchoring of the CBS Evening News (March 9, 2005) to hear him say (as if directly to her): “Thanks you to the thousands of wonderful professionals at CBS News, past and present, with whom it’s been my honor to work over these years … to my fellow journalists in places where reporting the truth means risking all; and to each of you, Courage.”
Bottom Line Final Comments: OK, faithful readers, it should certainly be clear by now that with my “reporting” on Truth that this is where my sincerely-intended-shorter-than-last-posting-length goes asunder because (just like the previous screed, with extra [extraneous?] paragraphs inspired by 2 of my favorite topics, Citizen Kane [Orson Welles, 1941] and Bob Dylan songs) this time the nerves struck in my keyboard-ready-fingers are based on my feelings about Dan Rather and George W. Bush, so I did what I could to keep it concise but if you’re still listening to “War” you might want to look for a way to activate an auto-repeat-button. I’ll begin the rest of this ramble by noting that in regard to Truth this is where I deviate the most this week from the rest of the surveyed critical community, matching my high-praise-4-stars against Rotten Tomatoes’ 57% positive reviews, Metacritics’ only-slightly-better 66% (more details in the links below); I make no apologies for being moved by both the content and approach of this film, but to put that praise in proper perspective requires some admissions on my part. In light of Truth’s focus on full disclosure, here are some items that I must acknowledge which hinder me from approaching this film from even a sincere-attempt at objective coverage (just like how, in my last review, I had certain biases about the content of Steve Jobs because of the shared-situation of both of us being adopted, each with some notable issues about that). For one thing, I’ve been watching Dan Rather (first on KHOU-TV, the Houston CBS affiliate) since I was in grade school so I saw his reports on Hurricane Carla in 1961 even as it was pounding the area where I lived, then his rise to fame during President Kennedy’s assassination, followed by his White House-reporter-confrontations with President Nixon, his Watergate-scandal-coverage, his reports on 60 Minutes, etc., culminating in 1981 with his ongoing-anchoring of the CBS Evening News (which I used to watch regularly until my job's schedule resulted in my never getting home early enough; in retirement I’ve just fallen out of practice with that so I mostly depend on radio [CBS primarily], newspapers, and magazines now).
Thus, I come to this review with almost a lifetime of confidence in Rather as a trusted journalist so it’s difficult for me to believe that the Bush-AWOL-story was the result of any political smear attempt or carelessly-shoddy-journalism in 2004 (although I also admit that I’m cynical—and ultra-left-wing—enough to consider the oft-raised-speculation by some Democrat honchos that those “Killian documents” were created and smuggled to Burkett by some GOP “dirty tricks” operative—the kind that Republicans are now known to have used during the Nixon years especially—in order to provide this false story to CBS in an attempt to then discredit their coverage as a tactic helping Bush as his support was waning somewhat when the 2004 election approached; yes, I know there’s no proof of this, I’m just sayin’…). Further, I can understand how a news team, even a celebrated one such as the Mapes-Rather collective, would be intrigued by the possibility of a story that inherently carried scandal-proportions (about a President so gung-ho on invading Iraq because of those non-existent WMDs yet who seemingly had neglected his own Vietnam-avoiding-service-commitment), especially at a time (August 2004) when the Swift Boat vets were running their malicious ads against Kerry, an actual decorated Vietnam vet who’d apparently angered the Swift Boaters because of his stance against that war after he returned to stateside. Conversely, I’ve never had much respect for my fellow Texan, G.W., before, during, or after his Presidency (except immediately after the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks, when he did act like a mature national leader, at least until he got into his “Bring it on!” revenge-mode). Therefore, condemn me—along with Kerry—if you will for my rejection of the Vietnam War (but not the soldiers conscripted or volunteered to fight in it) and Bush’s failed attempt to remake the Middle East in America’s image, but I still don’t think it’s unpatriotic to oppose an action by my own government that I find to be strategically-unjustified or morally-repulsive (including in its horrific impact upon our own military, with their still-ongoing-decades of PTSD, inadequate treatment by the VA, etc.), nor do I think that investigating what still has never been explained about the lack of evidence of Lt. G.W. Bush actually performing his required National Guard service in 1972-1973, is inappropriate reporting, as long as the newspeople involved truly think that they have legitimate evidence of inappropriate military (in)action by a man later functioning as Commander-in-Chief. CBS failed to prove that he did anything wrong but no one, including G.W. himself, has yet—as far as I know—proven that his National Guard actions during this period were completely legitimate.
Certainly neither Dubya nor I rushed to volunteer to fight in Vietnam during those years (when there was easy access to plenty of Infantry recruiting stations), both of us using legitimate means to avoid such combat (him in the TexANG, later the ANG; me with an undergrad student deferment, followed by the very lucky draw of #304 in the December 1969 Draft Lottery), so I fault him not for finding (however he did so) an acceptable strategy to avoid combat, but his choice required continuing-part-time-duty after his initial 2 years of active Guard flight-training which remains in question as to whether it was fulfilled and, for that matter, why he was discharged (honorably) from the TexANG in 1973 (a year earlier than what he signed up for) just to attend Harvard Law School. With all of my admitted bias directing my stance here, I still see reason to believe Mapes and Rather that a lot of fishy stuff was going on regarding how POTUS Bush II in 2004 deserved to be viewed regarding his unaccounted-for-actions at a time in the early 1970s when the U.S. was still involved in Vietnam War battles, although it is clear that Lt. G.W. Bush failed to take a required physical during this time, resulting in the loss of his pilot's authorization (there’s a lot of other interesting info at this site if you want to look it over; please note that it may take a little while to fully load). I think that reasonable questions about that needed to be asked then and now, with clear answers made available to all of us, clearer than Truth or any of its detractors has yet been able to provide to my satisfaction. As I reach toward conclusion of my confessions of non-objectivity, though, I must admit that I’m saddened that the gleaming reputation of Rather has been so tarnished by this debacle (Mapes as well, now that I understand more about her likewise-long-honored-career), just as I remain angry that another-connected-person in this whole mess, John Kerry (former Senator, now Secretary of State) got such a raw deal so close to the 2004 election, with the blatantly-false-Swift Boat-accusations likely doing damage to his campaign (despite his actual honorable record during the Vietnam War) while the allegations against Bush were all but overlooked (as Mapes argues in her final, fiery statements to the CBS-investigative-panel) because of the focus, by both Republicans and other media outlets (ABC in the film), on the veracity of the “Killian papers” (however they were produced, however they came to Burkett, however they may have reflected on the “truth” of Lt. Bush’s National Guard service) as being the “real story” rather than what our 2004 President had been doing back in 1972-73, working on a political campaign in Alabama while also required to report for his National Guard duties.
The President came out of this smelling like a “rose Bush” while the newspeople involved were tarnished, still dismissed today by the current CBS brass as a lot of bad blood was let over this incident, then and now. On a real human level, though, the harm done to these media pros (most of whom may have continued to keep working in the biz somewhere—except Mapes) pales compared to the ongoing cruel destruction of children’s lives in war-torn-countries or the personal devastation caused to the victims of kidnapping and/or rape that we see in the other films under review here, but, still, harm was done to decent people in all aspects of the “Rathergate” controversy, as shown by Burkett’s wife, Nicki (Noni Hazlehurst), lambasting Mapes and company for the ordeal they put her sick husband through in getting his video testimony of how he initially lied to them about his acquisition of the Killian papers in order to protect his source (although he may have been the source, not just the recipient of those controversial statements, so who really knows who was “decent” in this whole mess?). It was a horrible episode for all involved, one that Truth does the best job it can in attempting to untangle this controversy, especially when this script is based primarily on Mapes’ book so all this film can do is showcase her perspective, although the knocks on her own ole in this fiasco are certainly made clear, showing her to be as flawed as we all are when events take on a life of their own despite our best attempts at the kind of control that my last cinematic subject tried desperately to command (see that aforementioned Steve Jobs review of October 30, 2015 for more details).
In actual conclusion (!!!),
I further admit that my attempt to keep things briefer in this posting than in the Gone with the Wind-length-one I did last week on Steve Jobs didn’t pan out as I planned, but in partial-compensation to you I’m offering just 1 Musical Metaphor this time to relate to all 3 of these films, Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game” (from her marvelous 1970 Ladies of the Canyon album) at https://www.youtube. com/watch?v=iyHMPR 3dBY8 (this live version from her 1974 Miles of Aisles album where she encourages us to sing along, so please do) in that I think the circles of life, with their inevitable changes for each of us, that she sings about relate to our cinematic subjects this week in the following manner: In Beasts of No Nation Agu (and the many other boys put into his horrible situation in many developing-yet-civil-war-torn-countries) must find his way into a future that will challenge him in his early days ahead as well as when he moves another “ten times round the seasons” to find some strategy for coming to terms with his combat experiences that included killing some of his countrymen at his tender age; Room offers us 2 children, one, Jack, who’s just now “come out to wonder” along with his mother, Joy, who never got the chance to fully experience “[c]artwheels turn to car wheels thru the town” because of the perverted-maniac who held them both captive during her young adulthood, yet now they need to move past where they were “captive on the carousel of time,” a past where they don’t want to “return [they] can only look Behind from where [they] came” in attempting to find a future that will liberate them as much as possible from those nightmare years; then in Truth we have much older “children” but still living in the shadow of powerful parents, with the result of how their “dreams have lost some grandeur coming through,” Mary with her horrid memories of an abusive father whom she’s still trying to banish from her life (we learn that she refused to beg off from his beatings when she was a girl which just fueled him to hit her more, yet when he starts offering TV interviews criticizing her attacks on G.W. from her “radical feminist” perspective she finally submits to him in a phone call, asking him to “Please stop,” which he smugly agrees to do) and President Bush II (although he’s just the reference point of this narrative, not a direct character in it), trying to emulate his more-esteemed-wartime-and-political-father (in the minds of many—certainly not all, but even then there of those of us [yes, me for sure] who don’t care too much for either Bush but would chose—if required—G.H.W.B. over his eldest son*), wanting to establish a distinguished heritage of his own in both military and government service but put in a harsh spotlight about the first part of that equation by Mapes’ investigation (failed as it was in finding clear conclusions).
* 11/6/2015 I can now say this more emphatically, given the just-about-to-be-released elder Bush biography (Jon Meacham, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush [Random House]) in which the father criticizes G.W.’s “iron-ass” Vice President, Dick Cheney, and Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, while the son continues to defend them.
* 11/6/2015 I can now say this more emphatically, given the just-about-to-be-released elder Bush biography (Jon Meacham, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush [Random House]) in which the father criticizes G.W.’s “iron-ass” Vice President, Dick Cheney, and Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, while the son continues to defend them.
All of these characters, fictional or not (Well, maybe not G.W.; I saw a press conference during one of his terms where he was asked something along the line of “Are there things you think you should have done differently so far during your Presidency?” to which he replied [in my paraphrase] “I can’t think of any offhand but if I do I’ll get back to you.”), are looking for “new dreams maybe better dreams and plenty Before the last revolving year is through,” which we can only hope will be available to them despite the horrors they’ve endured in what we’ve seen of their lives (my hopes apply to Mary Mapes as well, whom we’re told in Truth’s closing-graphics hasn’t worked in broadcast journalism since 2004 despite CBS winning a journalism-excellence-Peabody Award for her report on the Abu Ghraib scandal after she was fired; from what little I hear about former-President Bush-the-younger [or “Shrub,” as the great political-analyst Molly Ivins referred to him], though, I don’t think he feels he has any needs for “better dreams” so I’ll leave that to his conscience and the future-weight-of-history because I know what I think). With that, I’ll continue my own journey “round and round and round In the circle game,” returning to you soon with further reviews of our ongoing-autumn-releases. But after all of the word-spewing of the last couple of postings, though, what I need is something simple, you know, like a James Bond movie … well, hello, 007! (Next week, it’ll be Spectre, without any “truth,” not even the Russians or Middle Eastern terrorists as our most dangerous enemies compared to Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s international collection of villains—hail escapism!—although I hate to see other potential cinematic opportunities bombing at the box-office [thanks to regular-correspondent Richard Parker, another fellow Texan, for providing this link, even though, sadly, Steve Jobs and Truth are among the bomb-ers you can read about].)
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts. Other overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage. If you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!
Here’s more information about Beasts of No Nation:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KcU-38G8GIo (21:02 interview with director Cary Fukunaga)
Here’s more information about Room:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cOIfp-U47gU (2:02 featurette on the film, along with a couple of short clips, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CXxc6H8sbyg—a post-escape-clash between Joy [Brie Larson] and her mother [Joan Allen]) and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fL_Z6y5P 34U—another post-escape short conversation, this one between Jack [Jacob Tremblay] and his grandparents)
Here’s more information about Truth:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jUEwmmcYOvI (2:27 featurette on the film, along with a couple of short clips, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0v5-jVhksGM—Rather leaves a party in his honor to do an important interview—and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RKPSj1db7WM—Rather reminiscing about “Courage” at the end of each nightly newscast and why he stopped saying it)
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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.
WE DO OUR VERY BEST TO PRESENT THESE TWO GUYS POSTINGS IN A VISUALLY-CONSIDERED GRAPHIC LAYOUT, BUT EXTENSIVE TRIAL-AND-ERROR HAS SHOWN US THAT UNLESS YOU’RE READING OUR REVIEWS ON A MACINTOSH COMPUTER USING MAC OS X 10.10.5 AND SAFARI 9.0.1 YOU’LL LIKELY SEE A SLOPPIER PRESENTATION THAN WHAT WE INTENDED (but Google Chrome 46.0.2490.80 usually comes fairly close to our intentions). OUR APOLOGIES FOR ANY INADVERTENT SLOP THAT WE CAN’T CONTROL.