Last week, everybody got a big chuckle (some more than others) out of The Hollywood Reporter’s scoop that Michael Bay — best known for making movies about cars transforming into giant robots and blowing shit up — is in talks to helm 13 Hours, a political drama about the 2012 attack on the US embassy in Benghazi. And while most of those titters come from the participation of meathead entertainment maker and short-short connoisseur Bay (and from speculating on the various ways in which he could fumble the attack’s narrative, in light of its subsequent status as a political football), there’s also some rightful skepticism about the ability of anyone in Hollywood to make this particular “political drama,” since that’s a subgenre the movie industry seems so inclined to fuck up. So on this most political of days, let’s take a quick walk down that hall of shame, shall we?
The bulk of the giggling over Michael Bay’s Benghazi movie can probably be attributed to the last time he tried to tackle a major political event/attack on America: his woefully misbegotten 2001 “dramatization” of December 7, 1941, transforming the Day That Will Live in Infamy to the Movie That Hangs Out There Too. Clearly and painfully inspired by the success of Titanic, Bay and screenwriter Randall Wallace (Braveheart) decided that the real events of Pearl Harbor weren’t quite dramatic enough, so they grafted on a fictional love triangle with all the depth and emotion of the animal crackers scene in Armageddon. It made money, but sent critics and viewers sprinting from theaters making gagging noises, so Bay retreated to the safety of Bad Boys II and spent the next ten-plus years mostly doing Transformers movies. We’ll see how this attempt to go “legit” turns out.
Brian De Palma’s 2007 Iraq War drama was loosely based on the 2006 gang rape and murder of 14-year-old Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi by American soldiers stationed in Al-Mahmudiyah. It’s an infuriating story rendered all but impotent by the ineptitude of De Palma’s screenplay, which reworks his vastly more effective 1989 Vietnam drama Casualties of War, and his direction, which adopts a found-footage approach that’s stunningly unconvincing. His cast of bad actors bloviates sledgehammer-subtle dialogue in poorly staged surveillance-camera and home-movie scenes; when those don’t get the themes across clearly enough, he’ll go to emo teens shrieking them on YouTube. It’s unfortunate enough when an important subject is clobbered by a clumsy amateur director, but it’s even more upsetting when a cinematic craftsman of De Palma’s skill stumbles this loudly and embarrassingly.
Lions for Lambs
Right around the same time Redacted was tanking in art houses, Robert Redford’s similarly unsubtle Very Important War Movie was doing the same at the multiplexes. Matthew Michael Carnahan’s plodding screenplay, which amounts to a series of conversations — between a professor (Redford) and his students, and a reporter (Meryl Streep) and a Republican senator (Tom Cruise) — about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, is remarkably short on actual drama or conflict; it’s like listening to a particularly dull antiwar lecture for 88 minutes, with opportunities for a genuine dialectic short-circuited by Carnahan and Redford’s stacked deck. The near-simultaneous critical and commercial failures of Redacted, Lambs, and (the far better) Rendition pretty much ended any non-documentary cinematic engagements with the “War on Terror” for years; what analysts and studio heads didn’t seem to realize was that it wasn’t the topic but the terrible movies that were taking it on.
The Tiger and the Snow
After the (rather inexplicable) critical, commercial, and awards success of Life Is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni ate it badly with his widely drubbed, spectacularly misbegotten 2002 adaptation of Pinocchio. So when you take a hit like that, whaddaya do? You go back to what everyone liked. And that bring us to The Tiger and the Snow, his 2005 attempt to do for Iraq what Life Is Beautiful did for WWII. This time, however, he couldn’t pull off his attempt to merge fantasy treacle with real-life conflict (perhaps due to the proximity of those real events); audiences stayed far away, and critics weren’t buying. Asked The Village Voice’s Ed Halter, “Haven’t the people of Iraq suffered enough?”
There is a thrilling, smart, funny, endlessly upsetting movie to be made about the scandals of corrupt lobbyist and political dealmaker Jack Abramoff — and documentarian Alex Gibney made it, in 2010. And then, later that same year, we got Casino Jack, director George Hickenlooper’s dramatized version, with Kevin Spacey as Mr. Abramoff. Alas, it plays like an overwritten TV movie, with screenwriter Norman Snider’s dialogue clunky to a fault, knotted up in names and places, empty sloganeering and laughable exposition (full of proclamations like, “Look around, it’s post-9/11!”), while Hickelooper’s direction is lumpy and leaden. Fans of Spacey in political mover-and-shaker mode are advised to stick with House of Cards.
But the political biopic is always a tricky business, with the tropes of the genre particularly ill-suited to the complexities of real-life world conflict and governmental machinations. Most of those nuances tend to get ironed out in the pursuit of Oscar gold, which was certainly the case with Clint Eastwood’s 2011 portrait of longtime FBI head J. Edgar Hoover; his political activities are handled with such subtle touches as a scene of Hoover listening to Martin Luther King’s sex tapes at the exact moment he’s informed of JFK’s assassination. Instead, the picture gets bogged down in a lean mixture of mommy issues, sexual speculation, and really bad old-age make-up.
Darrell Roodt’s biography of Ms. Mandela debuted at Toronto in the fall of 2011 and went unreleased in the US for a full two years — until last fall, when it was presumably offloaded to take advantage of the press surrounding Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Critics were ruthless, and for good reason; simply put, the complex politics of South Africa’s history demand more than the shallow romantic drama/biopic treatment. And it didn’t even do that part well; its subject made enough noise about her lack of participation in the production that it all but disappeared following its belated release.
Actor-turned-writer/director Emilio Estevez reached for the stars, assembling a big-name ensemble cast for his attempt to give the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. the Nashville treatment. What he came up with was closer to Crash: an unwieldy, tonally disparate, and amateurishly clumsy bit of faux-Altman fumbling. It’s a failure from the conception forward; put simply, grafting a fictional ensemble comedy/drama onto a real-life assassination is a terrible idea, since if we all know the day ends with RFK getting shot, who gives a shit about, say, an affair between the hotel manager and the switchboard girl? More to the point, if this event is a turning point in American history, then maybe we could spend a bit more time with the assassin (who gets all of one line) and bit less with hotel’s wacky drug dealer? He’s played by Ashton Kutcher, whose presence underlines the film’s only real value: any cast that pairs the likes of Kutcher, Lindsay Lohan, Shia LaBeouf, and Nick Cannon with Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Fishburne, William H. Macy, and Harry Belafonte is invaluable for “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” games.
Kevin Bacon’s scenes in JFK
That game was aided greatly by Oliver Stone’s all-star 1991 investigation/dramatization of the various theories, conspiracies, and figures connected with the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. No matter what you think of the credibility of Stone’s theories (and that of his protagonist, Jim Garrison), there’s no denying the power of the filmmaking and the righteous indignation of the project. But then there are those Bacon scenes, which rather alarmingly use Bacon’s gay hustler character to impose a seamy, ugly “otherness” to the homosexuality of the film’s key villain, Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones). Twenty-plus years on, JFK still feels years ahead of its time — with the exception of those scenes, which have a sniggering “ew, gay dudes, gross” quality that was already out of fashion when it was made.
Thandie Newton’s scenes in W.
Similarly, Stone’s 2009 biography of George W. Bush is surprisingly thoughtful, dramatically compelling, and well acted — with one huge, glaring exception. In sharp contrast to the fully realized performances of Brolin’s W., Jeffrey Wright’s Colin Powell, Toby Jones’ Karl Rove, and (especially) Richard Dreyfuss’s Dick Chaney, Thandie Newton seems to think she’s doing Condi Rice in an SNL sketch, all funny makeup and broad gestures, imitation rather than acting. She (and Stone, who apparently just let her do it) drives pretty much all of her scenes into the ditch — a real problem for a character of her importance. But hey, how about Rob Corddry as Ari Fleischer, eh?