Monday, November 22, 2010

Childhood's End

Arthur C. Clarke is best known as the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which served as the basis of the Stanley Kubrick film of the same name. Childhood's End (1953), while never made into a movie, bears many hallmarks of that classic piece of science fiction: deep philosophical questions about mankind's destiny and evolution, a detached, almost impersonal tone, mysterious but benevolent aliens, and an examination of man's relationship with science and technology. While I can't say it's the most exciting book I've ever read, it's a serious piece of hard sci-fi that poses some fascinating ideas and questions.

The Cold War is at its peak. American and Soviet scientists pour their efforts into a nationalistic, competitive space race. All that changes when the Overlords arrive. Lead by the "supervisor" of the earth, Karellan, this race of beings positions ships all over the world and puts an and to war, famine, poverty, disease, and the petty concerns that have overtaken human society. This leads to a golden age for humanity, no more war, and no more suffering. But the Overlords are preparing the human race for something. They answer to a higher power.

Clarke writes his novel almost like it was a news report or scholarly essay (minus text citations). He tells rather than shows. The result is a very cerebral book. To Clarke, sci-fi is not a gimmick for adventure or satire; it's an examination of a point and a serious argument. There are characters, but they exist symbolically to reflect a certain part of the Clarke's thesis. That does make for dry reading, and it takes a while to get used to, but the book feels a historical account rather than a piece of pulp fiction. It's strangely plausible, thought-provoking and at times, frightening.

Human knowledge has its limits. The Overlords have long mastered mankind's achievements, and they could destroy everything if permitted. Their appearance is built up, and while it is inevitable the reveal would somewhat be anticlimactic, it's still pretty effective. They could be anything, even something completely beyond human comprehension. Humans are essentially the children of the universe, in need of guidance before they can fully mature. What that level of maturation is is unsettling.

Clarke's greatest asset is strict logic and utter seriousness to his subject. He has a hypothesis and sees it through to its final destination. He did that in 2001 with a computer on a trip to Jupiter with astronauts, and he does it here with the human race on earth and its benefactors. It's not Star Wars, that's for sure.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Born on the Fourth of July

If you're looking for an entire movie about how things were in Vietnam for the infantry, I recommend Oliver Stone's Platoon, based on his own experiences. If you're looking for a film illustrating how an individual soldier and the nation were scarred and forever changed by the war, look no further than Stone's Born on the Fourth of July (1989).

Based on his autobiography, the movie follows Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise), a young, idealist whose heart always sings a patriotic hymn. As a child, he became inspired John F. Kennedy's inauguration, and when the fighting breaks out in Vietnam, he feels it's his duty to do join. He enlists in the Marines, but overseas, he finds the war confusing and disheartening. Soon, he's injured in a firefight and paralyzed from the chest down. Back in the States, he tries to recover, and we see his progression from bitter, angry reclusive to a leading anti-war protester.

Casting Cruise was a wise choice. Early on, he has those pretty-boy, youthful Hollywood looks and a fresh, open, naive face, and as the film progresses, we see him harden and transform, for the better and worse. The story is essentially how a generation of veterans felt betrayed by the country they defended: lied to about why they went, what they were doing, and how they'd be treated and hurt by the reception they got back home from families and friends who didn't understand their pain and the protesters who called them "baby killers." To take one of Hollywood's most recognizable stars and reduce him to such a level captures some of that.

The film around Cruise convincingly changes as well. One thing I've always admired about Stone is his sense of history. The set designs of his films always feel like they're straight from the time periods they're set in. This one goes from the 1950s nostalgic suburbia to the sweltering beaches of Vietnam to the chaotic college campuses of the sixties.

While the combat is not featured as much as it was in Platoon, aspects of the film are just as disturbing and shocking. When he's brought back to the States after his injury, Ron stays for months in a dank, rundown veteran's hospital in Brooklyn that is underfunded, scummy, filthy, and run by people who don't care. It's enough to make your stomach twist. The film is also painful when Ron lashes out at those around him or confronts his actions in the war.

Stone has always been a bold, visionary director. He does not make quiet, small motion pictures, and he's not afraid to take chances. Sure, he strikes a out a few times, but he always swings for the fences, and when he's on, he's makes stellar films. Born on the Fourth of July is one of his classics.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Messenger

With Johnny Got His Gun, I could console myself with the fact the condition of the main character is highly unlikely. While many young men are killed and crippled in war, the notion of a mind trapped in such a reduced body feels improbable, and Dalton Trumbo was not so much sketching a real medical condition so much as being symbolic. Even if such a thing were to happen today, medical technology would offer hope of some recovery (I hope).

But with The Messenger (2009), the situation hits close to home. With two wars in the past nine years, more than 5,000 American soldiers have come home from Iraq and Afghanistan in flag-draped coffins. Someone has the job of informing their families.

Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is a decorated Iraq War veteran with three months left in the service when he is assigned the task of telling the next of kin when their sons, daughters, and spouses are killed overseas. Montgomery doesn't feel he's up to it, but he's paired with Captain Tony Stone (an Oscar-nominated Woody Harrelson), an officer who's been doing this job for a long time and rigorously sticks to procedure and protocol: keep on script, say "killed" or "died," park a distance from the residence, and never make physical contact. You're telling them the worst news of their lives, Stone says, not there to be a new best friend. Needless to say, no one takes the news well.

I considered turning the film off after about 20 minutes. Not because it's bad; it's very good, but the sadness and loss is palpable and almost overwhelming. We see Montgomery and Stone inform several people over the course of the movie, and it's impossible to say which one has the most impact. Nothing feels like a throw-away scene or exploitative. Director Oren Moverman relies on a hand-held camera and unbroken takes for these scenes, and the viewer is forced to confront a lot of raw pain: tears, anger, threats, shock. Each one is heartbreaking in its own way.

So do I recommend the film? Absolutely, but be warned, it's hard to sit through at times. It addresses an issue that's hardly discussed when the nation goes to war. After all, it's always someone else's kid who gets killed, and it's always someone else who has the duty to notify the family. Until it's you. That's the truth of The Messenger.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

Now here's an anti-war movie. When I found out Dalton Trumbo made a film in 1971 out of his own novel, my first thought was how the hell did he pull that off. Not only is this one of the most disturbing, sobering, and saddest stories ever written, there are the built-in limitations of the setup that make me wonder how does any filmmaker pull it off. Well, Trumbo did.

Joe Bonham (Timothy Bottoms), a young, idealistic soldier in World War I, somehow survives a direct explosion from a mortar shell, but his limbs, eyes, mouth, and face are gone. The doctors, believing him brain dead and keep him alive to learn what they can. With only dreams and memories to sustain him through the years, Joe struggles to hold on to his sanity and find a way to reach out to the hospital staff.

What is there I can add? Forget all the ideologies, politics, and reasons cooked up to justify conflict. Here's a character who embodies on the most extreme personal level the cost of war. Even though he survived the blast, Joe's life is completely destroyed, as were the lives of countless other young men. The fact he's aware of his condition and conscious makes Joe, to paraphrase him, the army's dirty little secret. Dead men piled in the mud tell no tales, but an armless, legless survivor can reveal the ugly face on war, even though he himself doesn't have one anymore.

The flashbacks, memories, and dreams are in color while the present reality is stark black-and-white. I'm normally opposed to so many flashbacks in a movie, but given there's not much a narrative drive to begin with and how overwhelming the movie would be if it was entirely in the hospital, it works. The greatest accomplishment of the film is how Joe manages to come off as a fully rounded character through the voice over and flashbacks. You feel awful for him but root for him to find some way out of it even though you know he's doomed.

While there are brief moments of hope and memories of happier times, the tone of Johnny Got His Gun is overwhelmingly grim and despairing. Even in his dreams, Joe is haunted by freaky and disturbing images. His conversations with Jesus (Donald Sutherland) offer no reprieve, he feels he abandoned the girl back home, and his conversations with his father (Jason Robards) are filled with regret.

Make no mistake, Johnny Got His Gun is not a pleasant movie-going experience, but a more accurate and disturbing picture of the horrific cost of war you will not find.

I tried to find the music video of the Metallica song "One," which is inspired by the book and features clips of the movie. But you'll have to accept just the song.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Big Red One

In honor of Veteran's Day, this will be the first in a series of reviews of different war movies. We kick off with Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One (1980), based on his own experience in the army's first infantry division in World War II. For clarification, I'm discussing the reconstructed version, which is 158 minutes long (the theatrical version is 113 minutes, and I haven't seen it).

There's no real overarching plot. We follow a squad of G.I.s from the 1942 landings in North Africa to the campaigns in Sicily and Normandy through the drive across Europe and finally the liberation of a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia at the end of the war. The central character is the sergeant whose name we never learn (Lee Marvin), and he commands a faithful foursome: Zab (Robert Carradine), Griff (Mark Hamill), Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco), and Johnson (Kelly Ward). No one else survives long.

So what separates this from being a feature length version of the TV show Combat? For starters, Lee Marvin. He's always in action. I don't mean running around and shooting all the time, but nothing about the performance suggests he is merely playing sergeant. All the little details ring true. To see Marvin in the role is to be entirely sold on the idea this is a man who leads others in combat (the fact Marvin was a marine in the South Pacific adds to the authenticity).

The other distinction of the movie is how much variety in tone Fuller manages to include. Many scenes display the camaraderie of the unit, like when they pick off German troops one at a time while hiding in a cave. Others are rather sweet. After liberating a Sicilian village and celebrating with the villagers, the squad moves out but not before Marvin accepts a flower decoration on his helmet from a little girl. Still, others are haunting and dark, particularly the liberation of the death camp. Marvin finds a young boy still alive and shares his rations with him. Outside, he lets the kid ride on his shoulders, but after a while, the boy slumps dead across his neck. As Zab narrates, the sergeant carries him for 20 minutes before having the heart to take him down.

The plot can be described as episodic, but really, it feels more like a collection of a soldier's memories and the different emotions he feels: the fear, the anger, the joy, the despair, the friendship, the elation, the relief, the humor, and more. Fuller has no real message or agenda to push. The movie's not really pro or anti-war. It's just how Fuller remembers it.

Fuller also captures the weirdness and absurdity of war. By absurdity, I don't mean Dr. Strangelove-esque satire showing the futility of war; I mean the ridiculous stuff that goes on: the soldier who wades ashore with a roll of toilet held above his head, the German doctor that hits on a captured Marvin, delivering a Frenchwoman's baby inside a tank, and others. Some people find these aspects of the film campy or dated, but really, a lot of things when you think about them are pretty silly, even in a war.

Fuller's working on a low budget for such a scaled war movie, but it hardly shows. It's impressive. The settings look like the countries they're set in, and the battle scenes, though limited in scope, pack a punch in energy and intensity. Even though we're focused on one small squad, it feels like they're part of a much larger campaign. Even though Marvin is the standout, the others do fine (hard to believe there's a good film outside of Star Wars with Mark Hamill in it).

The Big Red One is not often mentioned in lists of the greatest war movies, but it should be. Fuller covers a lot of ground and depicts the life of a first division infantryman in World War II. You won't find John Wayne theatrics, but then again, you shouldn't.