Tag Archives: george w. bush

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


Waiting for ‘Superman’ (2010)

6 May

‘An Inconvenient Truth’ director Davis Guggenheim and ‘Simpsons’ writer Billy Kimball collaborate for this investigation of America’s troubled education system. In 1999, Guggenheim made ‘The First Year’, a documentary about five young teachers struggling to adjust to life in an inner city public school. Ten years later, he is a father who drives past three public schools on his way to the private school where he has chosen to place his kids. This served as the impetus for Guggenheim and Kimball to explore the lives behind the statistics, interviewing notable figures and following children from across the economic spectrum to get some sense of the tangled, imbalanced nature of the situation.

Despite years of ‘lip service and political bickering’, the ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act of 2001 was intended to curb the gradual decline of America’s public schools, which had been amongst the best in the world until the ‘70s. Of the top thirty developed countries, America is 25th in maths and 21st in science. Eight years later, and the achievement gap continues to widen; the rate of child literacy and numeracy in certain parts of the country is as low as 12%. Certain inner city schools have been branded ‘dropout factories’ with a consequent rise in the prison population, costing the state $33,000 per year, per inmate – enough to pay for private schooling, with $24,000 left over for college.

Like ‘Sicko’, ‘Waiting for Superman’ addresses a domestic issue with global implications; the American model, for better or worse, is still looked upon by certain ideologues as an ideal to which they must strive – when America sneezes the world invariably catches a cold. For international viewers, the film is a chilling window into a world where opportunity goes hand in hand with inequality. Education is indicative of a wider trend where a child’s prospects are largely determined by the economic stability of their upbringing, the drivers of social mobility cease to function and the cycle of deprivation is reinforced. It is a tragedy to see the plight of children like Daisy, a precocious girl who wants to be a vet, and Bianca, who can’t graduate because her mother has fallen behind on the tuition fees.

Bill Gates sounds a note of caution on behalf of the business community, outlining that high-tech industries require a highly-skilled, well-educated workforce, and that demand is rapidly outstripping supply in this regard. But the picture is not entirely grim; there are those who are trying to prevent schools from failing the communities they serve. Geoffrey Canada’s story is an inspiring one; an educator with a vision for ‘education in the nation’, he established the Success Academy in Harlem, an area with twice the unemployment rate of the rest of New York. Canada is an expansive, charismatic figure who refuses to give up on kids who have been given ‘the short end of the stick’ by a ‘cold, heartless world’, and the results he has garnered for his pupils speak for themselves.

Michelle Rhee, on the other hand, is a somewhat more divisive figure. The chancellor of DC public schools – an area that provides a microcosm for the system as a whole – Rhee admits that the majority of kids in her district are getting a ‘crappy education’. However, her reform plans – firing thirty principles, cutting four-hundred jobs, closing twenty-three schools – are met with suspicion by the public and anger by the unions. One of the film’s major failings is its refusal to take Rhee to task on how her closure plans would affect the already poor communities in which these failing schools are located, and to simply paint her as a victim whose bold vision is crushed by a pact between organized labour and the political elite.

Unfortunately, the minuses outweigh the pluses, both stylistically and ideologically. ‘Waiting for Superman’ belabours its often obvious points; documentaries work best when they are succinct, and losing ten minutes from the running time would have helped – clips from ‘School of Rock’ and ‘the Simpsons’ only serve to trivialize its argument. There are some conspicuously staged moments, dramatic inserts and overly composed tracking shots that remove one from the reality of what is being depicted, while the animation used to present statistics has an air of condescension about it, as if the viewer cannot be trusted to assimilate the information without a jaunty graphic.

‘Waiting for Superman’s’ broad, glossy emotive sweep fails to take into account a number of pertinent issues, such as the rise of corporate sponsorship in public schools and the role of faith schools. Whether or not these omissions are part of a concerted pattern of obfuscation is unclear, but any authoritative study of the issue cannot fail to take these factors into account. The film presents a jaundiced view of unions, suggesting that their campaign contributions are aberrant, rather than standard practice for any corporation or organization, and implies that teaches are ‘disincentivized’ by job security and need inducements in order to perform better. The assertion that funding is not a problem is one of the film’s most ludicrous contentions, given the dire conditions captured in the ‘academic sinkholes’ they visit. Its intentions may be honourable, but for whatever reason, ‘Waiting for Superman’ shies away from some of the more contentious root causes and incipient problems of this increasingly unfair, arbitrary state of affairs.

Guggenheim and Gates on 'Oprah'.

‘South of the Border’ Review Link

21 Dec

South of the Border (2009).

Unthinkable (2010)

28 Oct

…Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Torture.

Hollywood’s attempts to address its nation’s quixotic ‘war on terror’ have met with lopsided results – for every ‘The Hurt Locker’ there is a rash of ‘Renditions ’, ‘Brothers’ or ‘Lions for Lambs’. In an industry that seems congenitally incapable of sincerity at times, its forays into a real world with real consequences have often been spectacularly crass. A good case in point is this straight-to-DVD offering, which fancies itself a ‘psychological thriller’ addressing ‘contemporary concerns’.

H (Samuel L. Jackson) is a black-ops interrogator indentured to the shadier elements of the intelligence community – possibly because he has committed war crimes. He gruesomely tortures a home-grown terror suspect (Michael Sheen) who claims to have planted nuclear bombs in three American cities. By-the-book FBI agent Brody (Carrie-Anne Moss) is appalled by what she sees and indulges in a protracted bout of hand-wringing over this flagrant breach of international law. Brody and H argue over the efficacy of using torture, with Brody maintaining that any information gained under such conditions is inherently unreliable and H insisting that it is a necessary evil to protect American citizens.

This ‘brave, uncompromising’ look at the murky world of national security is in reality a TV movie with pretensions, a plodding ‘race against time’ thriller dressed up in esoteric terminology and cutting-edge finery. Jackson’s character is a mixture of Jack Bauer and Axel Foley, a wise-cracking psychopath we’re encouraged to sympathize with and root for. The contrast with Moss’s character couldn’t be starker. While H is a family man, Brody is a childless, unmarried career woman with a chilly demeanour – although we’re told that, like every career woman, her biological imperatives will win out in the end. Brody is portrayed as an uptight obstruction for her insistence on invoking the Geneva Convention at every turn while the maverick H is taking care of business. This dynamic essentially plays like a mismatched pairing in a cop movie, which would be fine if it wasn’t being used in such a grave context. It seriously undermines the film’s already shaky credibility that the characters fall into this archetypal ‘good cop, bad cop’ double act. Sheen bleeds and screams his way through the film as the ‘all-American’ Jihadist, but no attempt is made to provide any dimension to his character, to explain his motivation beyond the usual ideological bluster. This would have been a more interesting film than the one presented, a character study to which the gifted Sheen would have been better suited.

A noteworthy feature of ‘Unthinkable’ is the relative absence of middle-eastern characters. It shies away from making the connection between Islamic fundamentalism and young, disenchanted Muslim men. If they really had been committed to dealing with the issue in a frank, realistic way, the filmmakers surely wouldn’t have baulked at the idea of featuring such a character. Their bravery obviously only extended so far. ‘Unthinkable’ may believe it is a dispassionate attempt to encourage debate and address the issues in an even-handed manner, but it is nothing of the sort; the narrative arc leaves little doubt as to where its sympathies lie. Brody is there to present the illusion of balance, but its opinions are so firmly fixed and the dialogue so perfunctory that it feels like a 1950s propaganda piece. I kept waiting for it to pull back and reveal some deeper insight, but no such revelation occurred.

‘Unthinkable’ is blind to the intricacies of its subject matter, peddling easy answers and presenting a worldview as hopelessly atavistic as the zealots it sets out to decry, plumbing new depths of apologia and chauvinism. Its ultimate message is that torture works, that the ends justify the means, long-term consequences be damned. H is depicted as a man of action hamstrung by politically correct Quislings, a true patriot desperate to save his countrymen by any means. This is a shameful glorification of American Exceptionalism; a concession to those who believe that global treaties are an obstacle to domestic security, that the checks and balances preventing the abuse of executive power can be overridden on a whim. It’s sad when issues as pressing and complex as this are reduced to fodder for formulaic, ham-fisted thrillers. I have no doubt that Donald Rumsfeld would heartily approve.

Coming Soon - Blair: The Breakdown Years