Tag Archives: alan j pakula

Route Irish (2010)

10 Sep

Ken Loach has doggedly ploughed his own furrow since ‘Cathy Come Home’ (1966) shamed a nation; though he continues to be more highly regarded amongst cineastes in the rest of Europe than on his home soil. Whether you agree with his ideological leanings or not, the sheer breadth of Loach’s oeuvre has to be admired: his work encompasses subjects as diffuse as the Irish war of independence – ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’ (2006) – the present-day troubles – ‘Hidden Agenda’ (1990) – the machinations of rail privatisation – ‘The Navigators’ (2001) – and the plight of undocumented workers – ‘Bread and Roses’ (2000) – as well as raft of films that deal with the struggles of everyday people. For better or worse, there is a political bent to everything Loach does.

Which makes it all the more surprising that ‘Route Irish’ is Loach’s first feature to address the ‘War on Terror’ – he provided the British segment for the film ‘11’09’’01 September 11’ (2002) – though he comes at the subject from an oblique angle here, delving into the murky world of ‘private security contractors’ and their role in the Great Game.

Fergus (Mark Womack) is one such contractor; he returns home for the funeral of his old friend and fellow contractor, Frankie (John Bishop), with whom he was as close as a brother. Frankie was killed in Iraq on the infamous Route Irish – the ‘most dangerous road in the world’ from Baghdad airport to the heavily fortified Green Zone – in the employ of a contractor who lauds him and his kind as ‘unsung heroes of our time’, ‘patriots’ and ‘soldiers of peace’. Fergus, who recruited Frankie, isn’t convinced by the contractor’s explanation of how Frankie met his death. He comes into possession of Frankie’s mobile, which unearths a video that contradicts the official story and forces him to investigate further.

‘Route Irish’ is shot with the subtle, egalitarian élan for which Loach is rightly lauded, pulled off with the easy assurance of a master. Once again working with cinematographer Chris Menges and writer Paul Laverty, Loach has fashioned a gritty conspiracy thriller that lies somewhere between Alan J. Pakula and Roberto Rossellini. Loach’s camera hovers in the middle distance throughout, this unfussy approach ceding centre stage to the story and its message.

Actual footage of the carnage in Iraq is used to ground events in reality: bodies dragged from buildings and pulled from rubble, ripped apart by gunfire from above and brutalized on the street. Menges’ photography brings home the horror of the mercenaries’ activities and strips the violence of its rhetorical power, while Laverty’s screenplay is typically well crafted, strenuously researched and brimming with angry insight; the dialogue has a firm grasp of the argot but lays down an informal pitch, the narrative pregnant with cumulative presentiment.

Loach has never had much use for stars – unless you count Eric Cantona – preferring instead to cast actors who fit the roles. Womack is a familiar face to British TV viewers, appearing in many long-running series, and his gutsy performance here hints at greater things to come. Fergus was the facilitator of Frankie’s happiness and pain, and Womack devastatingly conveys the weight of remorse and recrimination Fergus must carry; living in a sparse, unfurnished apartment that is a perfect metaphor for his desolation. Stand-up comedy’s current flavour-of-the-month Bishop brings his everyman charm, and surprising intensity, to a brief role, and Andrea Lowe provides impressive support as his widow, her grief quickly transitioning to anger.

‘Route Irish’ articulates the toll of PTSD on military personnel, and the difficulty its sufferers have in readjusting to civilian society, with greater lucidity than ‘The Hurt Locker’ (2009); which, for all its acclaim, veers towards bathos at times. There is a danger of the Iraq/Afghanistan paradigm being reduced to a handful of hackneyed tropes, its survivors reduced to sitcom stereotypes like the ‘Vietnam Vet’: there are a lot of essentially good men trapped in impossible situations, their sense of duty exploited, which makes this and the ever-dwindling number of films like it crucial to our understanding.

‘Route Irish’ is an important story, well told; something in increasingly short supply, positing that our kneejerk, strong-arm strategies to curtail extremism are guaranteed to lose hearts and minds, mutually assured destruction. Iraq is shown to be a Wild West where cowboys of all stripes operate with impunity, blinded by the spoils of occupation; the Cradle of Civilisation debased by an efficient, quotidian death machine. Much to the chagrin of his detractors, Loach has lost none of his fire, and long may he continue to hold power to account.


Route Irish Premiere, Cannes, 2010


The Conversation (1974)

13 Jan

Before his epochal sequel to ‘The Godfather’ and setting off into the heart of darkness, Francis Ford Coppola had the financial clout to get this self-penned labour of love to the screen. Rewarding their New Hollywood wunderkinds for a string of monster hits, Paramount arranged a distribution deal with Coppola, William Friedkin and Peter Bogdanovich under the name ‘The Directors Company’ – which proved to be a disaster; read Peter Biskind’s book ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’ for the full story.

Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a guarded surveillance expert whose absorption in his work comes at the expense of his personal life; he is unable to have a proper relationship with his nominal girlfriend, Amy (Terri Garr), and lives alone in a sparsely decorated apartment. Caul is employed by the Director (Robert Duvall) to track two of his employees, Ann (Cindy Williams) and Mark (Frederic Forrest). In the course of what appears to be just another job, Caul unearths a murky plot with dire implications. He is faced with a moral quandary; to maintain a professional distance and hand over the tape of Ann and Mark’s conversation to the Director as scheduled, or heed his conscience and intervene.

The complexity of Coppola’s taut screenplay is brought to life by Bill Butler’s chilly, clinical photography; matching the austerity of Caul’s demeanour. David Shire’s plaintive, foreboding score is equally effective in this regard, its haunting piano spirals reverberating through the empty spaces that Caul haunts. Walter Murch’s dense, overlapping sound editing is put to splendid use in the scenes where Caul slowly assembles the tape, expertly mimicking the alchemy of his craft. Coppola’s direction has a focus and restraint that is absent from much of his subsequent work, his shot selections completely in keeping with the tenor of the piece. Caul is seldom seen in the foreground; a conscious decision is made to shoot him in an array of medium and longs shots, to underline his anonymity by submerging him in his surroundings – as well as remind us that we are voyeurs by choice, not profession.

Hackman is the film’s lynchpin, turning in a compelling, nuanced performance as far away from the foul-mouthed swagger of ‘Popeye’ Doyle as it’s possible to get; an important stage in his development that dispelled once and for all the nagging suspicion he was little more than a brawny everyman. While propagating the image of a coldly rational loner who ‘doesn’t know anything about human nature’, Caul is in fact an emotionally fraught, short-tempered, thin-skinned man beset by self-loathing, envy and guilt. Hackman perfectly captures this dichotomy, depicting the flawed, tortured Caul’s inner turmoil and transformation with a subtlety that is so often absent from the trite Hollywood third-act ‘epiphany’. ‘The Conversation’ features a glut of adept supporting performances from some of the finest character actors of their generation: John Cazale as the uncouth, lackadaisical Stan, Allan Garfield as Bernie, Caul’s cocksure, combative rival; typically accomplished turns from Coppola regulars Duvall and Forrest and even a brief appearance by a pre-Han Solo Harrison Ford as the Director’s arrogant underling.

Coppola’s fascination with Catholic ritual is in evidence throughout; but where those sacraments were used in ‘The Godfather’ as a trope to juxtapose virtuous words with murderous deeds, they are invoked in ‘The Conversation’ to grapple with notions of culpability and absolution. Caul’s outward piety is central to his self-perception; the last vestige of a humanity that has been stripped away by years of subservience to his career. He sees saving Ann and Mark from the nefarious designs of the Director as the ultimate act of expiation, the only thing that can atone for his past misdeeds, and sets about doing so with a recklessness that goes against his instincts. But as with every assignment he takes, he is only privy to one side of the story, lending an uncharacteristic degree of credence to what is captured in the recordings.

Metaphor abounds in ‘The Conversation’. The saxophone Caul plays on his own each evening hints at a side that is hidden from the exterior world; a more expansive, emotional self he has been forced to suppress in order to survive in his chosen field, a thwarted ambition he can never fully abandon. The empty warehouse where Caul works symbolises the single-minded, ascetic shell of an existence he leads; the bus where the lights begin to flicker then plunge him into darkness indicative of a life lived in the shadows. Caul’s intrinsic nature is defined in the scene where the Director’s underling leaves him alone in his office and he immediately makes for the telescope by the window; he is someone who is empowered by watching life from a comfortable distance.

‘The Conversation’ remains an enigmatic, uncompromising highlight of Coppola’s oeuvre; an enduring work of maturity and intricacy; as much a study of spiritual redemption as an exploration of post-Watergate paranoia in the vein of Alan J. Pakula. The film was conceived as the Watergate scandal was raging and released just months before Richard Nixon’s resignation. Of course, it is informed by this unfolding national infamy, but only in an abstract sense, embodying the feelings of cynicism and dread that characterized the Zeitgeist. We can only speculate what could have been if Coppola hadn’t squandered a fortune and succumbed to madness in the wilds of the Philippines shooting ‘Apocalypse Now’; he may have still had the means and the desire to produce films of this calibre on a regular basis.

Just another quiet night in for Harry Caul.