Tag Archives: terrorism

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 Molly Maguires (1970)

14 Nov

In the world of the movies, distinct cultural locales have historically been rendered with such staggering ineptitude by Hollywood that one has to wonder whether those responsible for recreating these milieus had ever set foot outside the confines of Burbank, California. With a few notable exceptions, they ended up coming across like a gaudy Vegas resort or theme park attraction, co-opting a few key cultural signifiers to present a cost-effective approximation of authenticity. Even with the advent of the runaway production, the blight that is CGI has served to restore this factitious veneer to everything from Ancient Rome to the depths of space. Though it was shot entirely on location, the makers of ‘The Molly Maguires’ kindly imbued their production with all the folksy charm one has come to expect from anything with a whiff of ‘Irishness’ about it, in case anyone were confused as to its provenance. But despite its lack of historical verisimilitude, ‘The Molly Maguires’ is a superior piece of entertainment that kicks against its limitations to address some serious issues.

It is 1876 and life is tough, to say the least, for the denizens of a Pennsylvania mining town. A society of militant coal miners known as the Order of Hibernians has begun committing acts of sabotage on collieries under the name the Molly Maguires, in an attempt to bring about better working conditions. Enter James McParlan, an ambitious police detective and fellow Irish immigrant who, under the auspices of the Pinkertons, must infiltrate the Molly Maguires and prevent the next attack. Working down the mines and seeing firsthand the gruelling conditions under which the miners work, McParlan begins to sympathise with the Hibernians’ cause and falls under the spell of its inspirational leader, Jack Kehoe (Sean Connery). McParlan must decide whether to hand over Kehoe and his associates to the Pinkertons and work his way up the career ladder, or follow his conscience and take up the cause of workers’ rights.

One of the standout moments of ‘The Molly Macquires’ is its bravura pre-title sequence – lasting fourteen minutes and completely without dialogue, it compares favourably to the way in which Sergio Leone used silence to establish tone in ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’. Unlike Leone, however, Ritt refuses to exult in beautified gore. Ritt brings a degree of reality to the film’s action sequences, an approach which forces the viewer to confront the consequences of conflict, something the merchants of stylised violence would recoil from. A deft and underrated director with an impressive body of work, Ritt could always be relied upon to provide assiduously composed shots packed with detail and subtle psychological pointers. The pace is deliberately slow, lingering on shots in a way that would terrify a less assured director – the average shot length is ten seconds. James Wong Howe’s cinematography captures the stifling atmosphere of this blighted landscape, breathing life into the autumnal palette of Eckley, Pennsylvania. Sadly, his good work is undermined by a production design that has a tendency to stray into cloying parody and an incongruous score from Henry Mancini, which adds unneeded grandiloquence to such a downbeat work.

Ritt was a master at getting the best out of his cast – evidenced by the fact that he directed thirteen actors to Academy nominations. Though ‘The Molly Maquires’ don’t quite live up to this pedigree, the two leads turn in performances that stand up surprisingly well to contemporary standards, unlike the majority of their best remembered roles. To me, Sean Connery has always been one of the great overrated British actors, an inert, one-tone performer whose legacy is being continued by the likes of Sean Bean and Clive Owen. But Connery’s lack of emotional dynamism is a perfect fit for the aloof Jack Kehoe, despite his conspicuously well-tanned frame – fresh from a golf course on the Bahamas, no doubt. Richard Harris, on the other hand, was always a captivating figure; few actors were, or are, as comfortable before the camera. He brings much needed credibility to the role of James McParlan, inhabiting the role in a way that goes beyond the brutal technicality and affectation of the Method, his dolorous eyes and beleaguered mien constantly dramatizing the character’s dilemma. Frank Finlay as Pinkerton officer Davis and Samantha Eggar as Mary Raines embody the forces pulling McParlan in opposing directions, with Davis encouraging McParlan to act in the interests of personal advancement and Raines exhorting him to accede to the dictates of his heart.

Beneath its mawkish exterior, ‘The Molly Maguires’ has some interesting points to make about the holy trinity of church, state and commerce that rules America. A telling moment is when McParlan, on seeing a wealthy industrialist called Gowan after a football game, comments that Gowan didn’t mind who won as he owns both teams, the game itself providing a metaphor for the way the system is rigged in favour of wealthy elites, a de facto class system. It is small moments like this that makes Walter Bernstein’s screenplay so interesting. ‘The Molly Maguires’ explores the dark side of America’s ‘land of opportunity’ mythology, positing that a life away from thankless toil is beyond the reach of most of its citizens, that the country’s prosperity is built on the backs of countless millions of anonymous drones. McParlan comments that he is ‘tired of looking up and wants to look down’, and it is this mood of duplicity that ultimately prevails. The film confounds expectations by refusing to wallow in phony heroism, notions of guilt and absolution being usurped by the idea that greed makes cowards of us all.

My moustache is better than yours!

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

Four Lions (2010)

15 Sep

If you’d witnessed the media furor surrounding ‘Four Lions’ and were sufficiently credulous, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the film is an exercise in bad taste akin to Pasolini’s ‘120 Days of Sodom’. In reality, the opprobrium heaped on the film came from those sections of the media that have had it in for Morris since his infamous ‘Brass Eye Special’ and were going to condemn it as a matter of course. Ironically, they did significantly less fact checking than Morris chose to in preparation for the film before writing their histrionic headlines.

‘Four Lions’ tells the story of a group of Muslim men in a Northern English town whose disenchantment fuels violent dreams of Jihad, but whose romantic notions of Holy War are disabused in a series of hopelessly botched plots and misadventures. Omar (Riz Ahmed) and Waj (Kayvan Novak) travel to Pakistan to prepare for the imminent Clash of Civilizations, much to the consternation of Barry (Nigel Lindsay) who, left to his own devices, hatches his own schemes and recruits wannabe rapper Hassan (Arsher Ali) to their ‘cell’. Meanwhile, Fessel (Adheel Akhtar) stockpiles peroxide in the garage of the house he shares with his unhinged father. It transpires that it was all bought from the same shop, but Fessel used a variety of ‘voices’ and ‘disguises’ to protect his identity. Fessel refuses to blow himself up, as it would upset his father, but instead trains crows strapped with explosives to fly at selected targets. With their training excursion to Pakistan ending calamitously, Omar and Waj return to the UK to put their most ambitious plan into action; to attack the London marathon.

‘Four Lions’ features a host of credible, understated performances from an able ensemble cast. Nigel Lindsay is spectacular as the truculent recent convert whose belligerence belies his piety. Riz Ahmed is the heart of the film, embodying the forces pulling young Muslims in opposing directions, the dichotomy of a generation born into Western liberalism but confronted by a burgeoning militancy in their midst. Kayvan Novak and Adheel Akhtar provide much of levity; their characters are not required to be much more than dim-witted and deluded, but they invest their roles with enough tragedy to prevent them from slipping into caricature.

Aesthetically, the film has a downbeat, unvarnished quality to it, mirroring the grimness of the characters’ surroundings, but also serving to ground them in reality and not allow the viewer to take what they see too lightly by piling on the usual facile trappings of the film comedy.

Nobody can claim that ‘Four Lions’ isn’t meticulously researched; Morris spent three years travelling across Britain, interviewing Imams, experts and ordinary Muslims to fully understand the subject he was about to tackle. Morris’s commitment to neutrality and authenticity is evident throughout; neither setting out to portray the central characters as helpless victims or a monolithic bunch of shrieking fanatics.

This approach is typified by the portrayal of Omar’s brother, who considers himself a moderate and decries violence, yet follows many of the less progressive edicts of Islam pertaining to the treatment of women. This refusal to either lionize or condemn, to coldly observe what transpires; adds extra resonance to the humour and makes the final moments all the more potent. By giving the lead characters an inner life and a diversity of reasons for acting as they do, Morris turns something that could have been crass and exploitative – Carry on Caliphate, if you will – into a thoughtful, uproarious and strangely touching take on the absurdities of faith and friendship.

Morris has made a career of going where other comedians fear to tread, an agent provocateur incurring the wrath of our ‘moral guardians’ for holding a mirror up to their hubris and hypocrisy. His latest offering is so special because it takes a difficult subject and broadens our understanding of it without ever becoming didactic.

In the same way that Morris’s ‘Brass Eye’ special wasn’t ‘making fun of paedophilia’, but was in fact a clever dissection of media hysteria and political opportunism, ‘Four Lions’ is more about provincial malaise than suicide bombers. It succeeds where so many ‘serious’ films about terrorism have failed because it understands its subject and has a firm grasp of what it wants to say about them, getting under the skin of people who hold such abhorrent views to such an extent that it goes a long way to demystifying them.

Not sure where Morris is here.