Anyone looking for an escape from the issues of the day in the movie theaters may be out of luck. Shun Fahrenheit 9/11 or any of its coterie of left-leaning documentaries for the cheap laughs of Anchorman and you get an indictment of the lackadaisical news media. The special effects of Spider-Man 2 barely conceal its anxiety about the unholy collusion between science and corporate power. And as much as you might try to forget, the slapdash action of The Bourne Supremacy (and the upcoming The Manchurian Candidate remake) will remind you of those lines blacked out of the official history of the recent past.
Bourne, though, might be the most escapist of the lot. Which is odd, given that its predecessor, The Bourne Identity, drew more from the politically and existentially charged secret-agent tradition of The Third Man than from the fantasy fulfillments of James Bond. Not to mention that director Peter Greengrass's previous film, Bloody Sunday, outraged Tories with its depiction of British brutality in Northern Ireland, or that star Matt Damon is a pal of Howard Zinn.
Nonetheless, Bourne's prime directive is to escape. First from the bloated Robert Ludlum novel, to which it fortunately bears no resemblance. Then from any distracting topical relevance or entangling human relationships. After that, escaping from the agents of the secret and amoral organizations that rule the world is a snap. One moment, Jason Bourne (Damon) is pondering his fate in idyllic Goa, a man tormented by nightmares and comforted by a good woman (Franka Potente, returning as Marie). The next, he's in the first of many car chases, the prey of a sniper whose shot misses its target but triggers the terminator. Bourne goes into the familiar routine of ransacking the man's lodgings for caches of handguns, cash, and fake passports, and the chase, basically a matter of physics at this point, begins.
Too bad about the relationships, though. As in life, you don't realize how important they are till they're gone. In the first film, devoid of memory and identity but possessed of invincible killer instincts, Bourne was appealing in his emotional tabula rasa, his initially feral attachment to Potente's frazzled Marie. He even bonded with the killers out to get him. Not so this time. The closest he gets to a potentially sympathetic person is gazing through the lens of a sniper scope or exchanging clipped threats on a cell phone. It's creepy, perhaps, but wasteful of the talents of Joan Allen as Pamela Landy, a CIA chief who tries to out-macho the boys by pushing a risky operation in Berlin investigating a Russian oil oligarch involved with missing CIA money (how hot a political button is that?). An assassin murders two of the agents, and a fingerprint links the killer to the nefarious Jason Bourne, the missing and presumed dead super hitman for the now defunct, renegade "Treadstone" project. But Landy is no shrinking violet; she gathers together the sputtering, mostly male, agency crew and heads for Berlin to track down Bourne.
"Berlin, Germany," that is, as a subtitle makes clear for those who thought this might be taking place in New Hampshire. The film also takes place in "Naples, Italy," "Paris, France," "Amsterdam, Holland," and other locations here more reminiscent of an airport gift shop than of an atmospheric and savvy thriller. I would have expected more from Greengrass, whose pseudo-verite Bloody Sunday captured 1972 Belfast on the eve of the Troubles with almost unbearable authenticity. All that remains of the sensibility of that film is the director's penchant for hand-held close-ups and quick cutting, which is a shame because one of the greatest treats of this film (and the first) is watching the wit and precision with which Bourne demolishes his adversaries, the same kind of kinetic magic that graces silent comedies and kung fu movies. And since this is nominally a film about memory and identity, jagged flashbacks interrupt Bourne's programmed rampage.
To its credit, Supremacy passes on the glib vigilante scenario and aspires, fitfully, to something more ambitious and ambiguous, something involving conscience, responsibility, and humility. Had it remained true to that impulse, it might have achieved more than mere escapism. Unfortunately, as cynical old agency crony Ward Abbott (Brian Cox, one of the best things in the movie) might say, "You're walking in a deep puddle of shit, and you're wearing the wrong shoes."
In 1993, with the first Iraq War supposedly put behind us, the subject of D.A. Pennebaker & Chris Hegedus's The War Room was spin. With devilish ingenuity, James Carville and George Stephanopoulos maneuvered images and sound bites in the battle between Bill Clinton and the elder George Bush for the presidency. The combat was rhetorical, the carnage abstract, the battleground political.
Eleven years later, Jehane Noujaim, a protégée of Hegedus and Pennebaker (they produced her first film, Startup.com, a look at that distant bubble, the dot-com boom), ponders how spin operates in a war that is as painfully literal as the president waging it. In Control Room, she investigates the news station that is "the most controversial . . . in the Arab world." Banned by several Arab governments because of its criticism of their regimes, denounced by the Bush administration as a "mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden," it is also, of course, the most popular in the region, with 40 million viewers. It is how Arabs see the world.
Is it any more or less distorted than our own network news? And why should we believe this movie? Any film looking at the mechanics of spin, the nature of truth and objectivity, calls into question its own veracity. Some of the same criticisms leveled at both Al-Jazeera and Centcom (the US military's central command in the Middle East, also the central conduit for information about the war for all networks) can be leveled at Control Room. It has an agenda, it lacks context, and it can supersede logic and clarity with incendiary, sometimes gratuitous images. And it is propaganda. What it promotes, however, isn't Al-Jazeera but the value of truth and information. It indirectly denounces abuses of distortion and manipulation. And rather than cajoling audiences with fear and prejudice, it provokes them into reflection and debate.
Not always successfully. One of the biggest problems with the film is its lack of clarity, its failure to answer the basic questions of journalism. It starts out with one subtitled date: "March, 2003" After that, you're pretty much on your own. Fortunately, the "who" is one of Control Room's strengths. If there are obvious villains, there are also sympathetic characters with depth and complexity, such as Lieutenant Josh Rushing ("If I were a woman" an Arab journalist gushes, "I would marry you!"), a blue-eyed, John Agar type of Marine working as a press officer. His ideas -- that the war is being fought to free Iraq and to eliminate an immediate threat to the world; that his role is to deliver the truth without distortion -- are genuine. And contradictory, as he freely admits in moments of reflection. He recognizes that he has trouble seeing things from the Arab point of view. When Al-Jazeera outrages the coalition by showing footage of dead Americans and terrified POWs, Rushing muses on how when he saw the images he felt nauseated and enraged. But when he saw similar images of dead Iraqis, he had no such feelings. "That upset me profoundly," he says.
He has a job to do, however; he is, like so many others in this film, just following orders. One of his duties is to wrangle with the likes of Hassan Ibrahim, a large, jolly Al-Jazeera journalist whose deep suspicion of US motives is balanced by his "absolute faith in the American Constitution and the American people." Another shrewd Al-Jazeera personality is Samir Khader, a senior producer who states early on in the film that any commander who doesn't put the media and propaganda at the top of his agenda is a poor military planner. As a journalist, though, he has different values. When an assistant hooks him up with an American "political analyst" who recites an anti-Bush screed, Khader berates the subordinate and tells him they're looking for someone who's balanced. At another point, exhausted after a 19-hour day, he says that he'd gladly work for Fox News and trade "the Arab nightmare for the American Dream."
The discussions between these opponents are civil, even cordial. On the battlefield, it's a different story. In a still unresolved episode, US forces attack the clearly demarcated Al-Jazeera office in Baghdad, killing one journalist. "We got the message," says Khader. Al-Jazeera withdraws from the front line, watching the fall of Baghdad from its offices in Doha, Qatar, 700 miles away. "With victory," Khader, concludes, "no one cares about justifications." But with the Bush administration's victory proving as dodgy as its justifications, maybe there's still a chance for truth to prevail.
Peter Keough is a film critic for the Boston Phoenix.
So, what's in the box? The glowing MacGuffin from Pulp Fiction? The plutonium from Kiss Me Deadly? Gwyneth Paltrow's head? Or maybe a suitcase bomb left over from the Cold War? That's the least of the enigmas posed by Andrei Zvyagintsev's first feature, The Return, a huge festival hit and a limpidly accessible excursion into the murky realm of visionary Russian film of such directors as Andrei Tarkovsky and Aleksandr Sokurov.
To the mystic rhapsodies of archetypes, history, family dynamics, and personal history composed by that pair of geniuses, Zvyagintsev adds formal tightness and down-to-earth detail. The questions the film raises may be unanswerable, its meaning irresolvable, but its depictions of the pathology and the desperate love of that basic political and social unit, the family, are wrenchingly acute and familiar.
Sibling rivalry, for example. On top of a dismal lighthouse at the end of a long pier stretching into the Gulf of Finland, 13-year-old Vanya (Ivan Dobronravov), taunted by his pals as a pig and a coward, is too afraid of heights to jump into the water. His older brother, Andrei (Vladimir Garin), at first encourages him, then abandons him in disgust, and Vanya remains weeping and shivering on his perch until his mother (Natalia Vdovina) comes to rescue him. The next day, Andrei grudgingly joins the others in ragging Vanya about his disgrace. The brothers fight and run home.
It's just kids squabbling, of course, but it's also Cain and Abel, or maybe it's the struggle between the fledgling forces vying for control of post-Soviet Russia. Such religious and political subtexts inevitably underlie Russian films, and Zvyagintsev shows no reluctance to indulge in that tendency. Once home, the boys are shocked to learn from their mother that their father (Konstantin Lavronenko, who looks like an evil George Clooney) has returned from a long absence -- 12 years, or since the fall of the Soviet system.
The brothers rush to the bedroom, where dad lays inert under a sheet in a pose reminiscent of some Renaissance painting of Jesus (Andrea Mantegna's Lamentation over the Dead Christ, as it turns out). The boys then troop to the attic to find an old family photo to confirm his identity: The photo is stuck in a Bible next to an illustration of the sacrifice of Isaac. The next morning, after a meal in which the father shares wine (!) with his sons (Andrew and John!), he invites them on a fishing (!) trip.
That's more allusions than you'll find in the average Matrix movie, with many more overlooked and to come. And no special effects. Instead, what follows is an authentic lousy family road trip that takes father and sons to an eerie island in Lake Ladoga where dad digs up the mystery box and things get really strange. But never ungainly or implausible -- all is meticulously detailed and superbly acted and played out against the decrepit Baltic beauty familiar from such filmmakers as Aki Kaurismäki and Sarunas Bartas.
Vanya, played by Dobronravov in a depiction of bullheaded pre-adolescence rivaling that of Jean-Pierre Léaud in Les quatre cents coups/The 400 Blows, is at first the stronger-willed of the boys. He suspects the father and resents his encroachment, and his sullen, passive resistance (refusing to call his father "dad," not eating his soup, constantly complaining) brings increasingly blunt and even brutal reprimands. Andrei is more ambivalent; he wants dad's approval but also needs Vanya's companionship. Vanya calls Andrei a suck-up and imitates his sycophancy. Dad calls Andrei a blockhead and bounces his head against the car door. Both use him as a pawn in their Machiavellian power struggle. Until Andrei discovers his own power, that is, and the circular nature of the story implied by the title begins to emerge.
To what point? Why, for example, is the submerged boat shown in the opening images empty? Why is the father shot in the same pose in the boat at the end as he was in the bed in the beginning? Why does his image vanish from the family photos? Why is he in none of the photos Andrei has taken of the trip? (Marin, who resembles an adolescent David Hemmings in Blow-Up, drowned in Lake Ladoga shortly after the film was finished.) Any answers lead to more questions; for me they're all rendered moot when the two sons look out at the water and shout, in recognition and in despair, "Dad!"
Every ardent moviemaker gets the Jesus he deserves. To imitate Christ's life on celluloid takes hubris, and the image created often reflects the director, his audience, and the times more than the elusive subject. The latest case in point may be Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. I haven't seen the film yet, but reports suggest it takes to heart Jesus's assertion that he came to bring not peace to the world but a sword (an appropriate sentiment for the star of Lethal Weapon). Does this Passion foment anti-Semitism and preach intolerance? As someone once said, by their fruits you shall know them.
Most films about Jesus, though, offer reconciliation, not provocation. In contrast with Gibson's renunciation of Vatican II, Pier Paolo Pasolini dedicates his masterpiece Il Vangelo secondo Matteo/The Gospel According to Matthew (1964) to Pope John XXIII, who convoked that ecumenical council (which declared tolerance for all religions) in 1962. A Marxist, Pasolini gives us a Jesus who looks like a leftist Spanish economics student, which is indeed what Enrique Arazoqui, the non-professional actor who played him, was. Otherwise, the director intrudes little ideology into his version of the Gospel; it is perhaps the purest on film. His images are as austere as the stones that Jesus refuses to turn into bread when tempted by Satan in the desert. Pasolini is true to the letter of the text; the viewer provides the spirit.
The bread/word dichotomy for Pasolini, however, is crucial. Men do not live by bread alone, as Christ says in response to Satan's goading in the desert, but by the word of God. Material consumption doesn't satisfy the soul; despite his dialectical materialism, Pasolini reveals his own and the times' spiritual hunger. The film does include the infamous "Let his blood be on our children!" In this context, though, it's unlikely to spawn any hate crimes. Those who kill Jesus in Matthew are not "the Jews"; they're the entitled, the greedy, and the hypocritical, all those whose vanity and power he threatens.
Such is also the case in Franco Zeffirelli's mammoth 371-minute mini-series Jesus of Nazareth (1977), which he made in the aftermath of the 1973 Christ-as-hippie celebrations Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar. Robert Powell's Jesus possesses a porcelain British reserve. Sure, he has moments of doubt, but the audience never does, and overall He's as unflappable as Ian McKellen's Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. Jesus of Nazareth, moreover, compares with Jackson's trilogy in theme and narrative structure as well as in length; it's The Lord of the Kings. Jesus gathers his motley fellowship of disciples -- comic and quarreling but good of heart -- and descends into Mordor, or Roman-occupied Jerusalem. There he must submit to authority and death -- his destruction of the Ring of Power -- to save the world.
The bad guys, once again, are political, not religious. They include the hypocrite establishment, of course (led by a scribe played by Ian Holm, who would later play Bilbo in The Lord of the Rings), but also the rebellious Zealots. The conflict is not between revolution and reaction but between the purity of the spirit and the defilement of the world.
Zeffirelli and Powell present a Christ who is a model of detachment. Willem Dafoe's Jesus in Martin Scorsese's 1988 adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis's 1955 novel The Last Temptation of Christ is a mess. The film opens with a quote from Kazantzakis stating that in his book he wanted to explore the age-old conflict between the flesh and the spirit. Scorsese, no stranger to that theme, takes him at his word. Tormented by dreams of a demanding God, this Jesus tries to drive them away by flagellating himself and making crosses for the Romans. But at last he submits to his father's will, and shadowed by his doppelganger Judas (Harvey Keitel), who seeks peace by the sword of insurrection, Jesus stumbles his way to Calvary.
The Last Temptation of Christ is a conflict in style as well as philosophy: between exoticism and banality (Paul Schrader's dialogue and the American accents add little to King James), between sublimity and kitsch. I thought it sophomoric when I first saw it; seeing it again, to paraphrase Mark Twain, I'm astonished at how much the film has learned in 16 years. Despite the protests and marches and the bomb threats when it was released (this Jesus was not an anti-Semite, but he did dream about women), The Last Temptation didn't make a dime.
Gibson, though, is a lot savvier in the ways of the movie world. He's gotten endorsements (the pope! -- maybe) and spun the controversy to his advantage, and he plans a 2000-screen opening targeted at specific markets (the South, black neighborhoods) on Ash Wednesday. It should be the biggest-grossing movie about Christ ever made. But ask yourself this: Which movie would Jesus watch?