Film: Live Bait for Oscar Night

Every winter, Hollywood releases its annual quota of films for grown-ups, just in time for the Oscar nominations. It’s never more than a dribble, and it never lasts for long—the dumb stuff is always back in the theaters by late January. But for those adults who still go to the movies from time to time, longing to see something slightly smarter than the umpteenth iteration of American Pie, false hope is better than no hope at all.

Having survived what will doubtless be remembered in the annals of cinema as the Year of Fathomless Stupidity, I wasn’t expecting much out of the winter season just past. A not-insignificant number of people who are no more than normally pessimistic about the state of American culture have lately concluded that the film industry has undergone a fundamental transformation. To put it briefly, they believe Hollywood is no longer institutionally capable of producing serious films for an adult audience. I’m not that hopeless, but I no longer go to the movies expecting to be impressed: Mere amusement is enough to keep me in my seat.

Still, I keep looking for something better, and this year I actually found it, albeit in the unlikely form of a combat movie directed by Ridley Scott and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, who between them are responsible for such edifying exercises in light entertainment as Hannibal, Pearl Harbor, and Gone in Sixty Seconds. Don’t ask me what possessed them to make a serious movie—I haven’t a clue. The big surprise, though, isn’t that they tried, but that they succeeded: Black Hawk Down is easily one of the half-dozen best war films ever made, and beyond question the frankest and most unsparing portrayal of modern combat I have ever seen. The script and direction are unobtrusively, unfailingly right; the ensemble cast is collectively exemplary; the cinematography jarringly vivid. Except for a brief, over-obvious epilogue, I can’t think of one wrong thing about this film.

Be forewarned, though: Black Hawk Down is sickeningly violent, enough to give you nightmares if you’re inclined that way. That’s the whole point. This is what war looks like, and once you see Black Hawk Down, you’ll know what the history books can only suggest. (I happened to see it with a veteran of Operation Desert Storm, who assured me that except for the incorrect spelling of “Blackhawk,” nearly everything looked and sounded authentic.)

This unswerving honesty is no small part of what makes Black Hawk Down a truly adult movie, and it goes beyond showing us bright-red snapshots of the horrors of war. By devoting the bulk of the film’s 143-minute running time to an uninterrupted recreation of an actual battle, Scott suggests something of what it feels like to find yourself caught in the midst of the paralyzing confusion known as “the fog of war.” Unlike Saving Private Ryan, whose comparably realistic opening combat sequence is followed by an hour or so of sentimental drivel, Black Hawk Down holds your face to the grindstone: Once the action starts, it never lets up until the fighting is over. It’s as if the battle of Mogadishu were unfolding in real time, and the illusion is so comprehensive that you leave the theater feeling as though you’d just run a mile.

Needless to say, Black Hawk Down also has political implications that seem to have made a number of critics more than a little bit squirmy. Ken Nolan’s screenplay seems intended to leave attentive viewers with the impression that the 1993 debacle in Somalia that left 18 Americans dead was Bill Clinton’s fault. It’s an arguable point, but it’s not the main point of Black Hawk Down, which is above all a tough-minded, wholly disillusioned movie about why soldiers fight—and what it costs.

Robert Altman’s Gosford Park is another impeccably cast, longer-than-usual genre movie that purports to be aimed at grown-ups. With that, the similarities end. Here, the genre of choice is the oh-so-British drawing-room murder mystery, onto which Altman has grafted a tale of class conflict…or perhaps it’s the other way around. Contrary to the TV commercials, which blithely misrepresented the film’s content, Gosford Park is less a fizzy who-stabbed-the-duke romp than a multilayered character study of loyal servants and their uncaring masters. What’s more, it’s explicitly modeled after Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game—though most reviewers, among them Roger Ebert, either overlooked or were unaware of Altman’s deliberate borrowings.

Would that Gosford Park were half so good as its unforgettably poignant model, but Altman, unlike Renoir, is content to reshuffle the well-worn clichés of the upstairs-downstairs genre. It doesn’t help that the film’s tone teeters between farce and tragedy (unlike The Rules of the Game, in which the two extremes are inseparably interwoven). On the credit side, Altman has put together a solid-gold cast, mostly British and wholly classy; Maggie Smith, Emily Watson, and Helen Mirren take top honors, but there are plenty of other big guns bringing up the rear. The theatrical candlepower is so high, in fact, that it could almost fool you into thinking that Gosford Park is a serious work of art, though it’s only a carbon copy of the real thing.

The Shipping News is a copy of a different sort, a film version of a popular and much-admired novel that I haven’t read. Fans of E. Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer-winning book will thus have to go elsewhere to find out how faithful Lasse Hallstrom’s movie is to the original. All I can tell you is that while it has many strengths, including lustrous cinematography by Oliver Stapleton and a fabulous pair of performances by Cate Blanchett (as a slut) and Judi Dench (as a tough old biddy with a terrible secret), they are placed in the service of a hackneyed plot—the one about the middle-aged, quietly desperate nobody who is uprooted by cruel circumstance, whereupon he moves to Newfoundland (get it?) and finds (a) himself and (b) love.

This time around, the nobody in question is Kevin Spacey, a striking but limited actor who here tries very hard to break out of his L.A. Confidential–American Beauty mold without ever quite succeeding in making us believe that he is who the script says he is. Granted, every actor has his limits (though I’m starting to wonder about the chameleon-like Cate Blanchett, who seems to have an endless capacity for self-transformation). Spacey’s, however, appear to be narrower than most, and The Shipping News proves it. Never for a moment do you forget that he is acting against type: You keep expecting him to curl his lip and say something supercilious, but he remains hapless and dumb from beginning to end, even though you know he’s nothing of the kind.

Quite a few people have told me that The Shipping News was a first-rate book, and I have no reason not to believe them. Hollywood, after all, specializes in turning silk purses into sow’s ears. But whatever the merits of Proulx’s novel, Hallstrom and screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs have transformed it into an artsy-looking, feel-good weeper, the kind in which beleaguered but basically nice people surmount implausibly overwhelming obstacles, in the course of which they always, always fall in love and live happily ever after. I don’t discount the possibility of happy endings, but if you expect them to be taken seriously, you have to earn them. That’s the trouble with Hollywood: It gives happiness a bad name.

Terry Teachout

By

Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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