Posts Tagged political film

Unplanned

Year of release: 2019              Directed by Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon.   Starring Ashley Bratcher, Brooks Ryan, Jared Lotz, Emma Elle Roberts, Andee Grace Burton, and Robia Scott.

Orson Welles famously said that the two things he always found laughably fake when depicted on screen were sex and prayer. Unplanned, being a Pure Flix production, obviously has no scenes of realistic or unrealistic sex. However, it does feature several scenes of prayer, which in my opinion showcase the wisdom of Welles’ statement.

The most preposterous prayer scene comes at the film’s climax, when members of 40 Days for Life pray over a container of aborted fetus parts about to be disposed, which is crosscut with Planned Parenthood clinic director Abby Johnson having her breakdown after witnessing an abortion firsthand, which ultimately led to her becoming a leader in the pro-life movement. It is such a neat and tidy culmination to the story threads that it feels more contrived than anything else, and the actors’ delivery of the lines with their hands outstretched makes the prayer seem like a sort of incantation, which is proved to work by the crosscutting to Abby.

That moment isn’t any less on the nose than the rest of the movie, but it probably best summarizes the weaknesses of the latest film from the makers of God’s Not Dead. Unplanned isn’t nearly as atrocious as the former movie from writers Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon, who also direct this time, but a similar preaching to the choir and lack of subtlety significantly undermines this film as well.

Unplanned tells the story of Abby Johnson (Ashley Bratcher) who went from being Planned Parenthood’s employee of the year and director of their clinic in Bryan, Texas to pro-life activist after she witnessed an ultrasound guided abortion. After an opening scene celebrating Abby’s picturesque family life with her husband and daughter—setting an unmistakable tone that this is a pro-life Christian film—the next scene is a depiction of that turning point in Abby’s life. Then the film flashes back eight years to show how she got there.

As a woman who undergoes a drastic conversion, Bratcher gives a fine, mostly believable performance. The conversion narrative is substantially weakened not only by opening the film with the catalyst for it, but also by the incessant voiceovers, reminding us roughly every five minutes that the conversion is going to happen. It is clear that Konzelman and Solomon do not trust their audience or their material and feel obligated to tell the easiest story for their target audience to hear, despite Abby’s voiceover to the contrary.

The movie is not completely devoid of merit. The lighting and cinematography are well above the average faith-based production. Two scenes stand out in particular for landing the dramatic punch that the filmmakers blatantly wanted the entire film to have. One is a flashback to Abby’s first abortion in college where the disorientation of the procedure to the recovery room is conveyed through skilled lens, lighting, and editing choices. The other is a scene when Abby lies about the blood on her sneakers to her daughter Grace (Andee Grace Burton) to the disapproval of her pro-life husband Doug (Brooks Ryan). The shot reverse-shot confrontation punctuated with the sound effects of Abby removing said sneakers is undeniably well crafted and underscores the moral seriousness the rest of the film could have had.

The flashback structure does not work on a purely dramatic level, because it gives away the denouement of the story from the beginning. When the movie attempts a flashback within a flashback, presumably before Abby started volunteering for Planned Parenthood her junior year of college, the timeline quickly becomes muddled, and it is not clear whether she had two abortions, a one-year marriage, and a divorce while in college before she started working at Planned Parenthood or after that time.

Dramatic license is obviously going to be taken in any adaptation of a true story, and I do not begrudge the filmmakers for streamlining events or choosing more dramatically exciting alternatives (such as taking the injunction Planned Parenthood filed against Abby all the way to a trial). However, enough events seriously stretch credibility (e.g. there is hardly any conflict between Abby and her staunchly pro-life parents over working at Planned Parenthood, Abby picks at a dissembled fetus seeing its human form but later is traumatized by the human-like features of an ultrasound picture of a fetus) that I several times questioned the reliability of Abby’s narration.

One thing I am truly surprised to read in praise of the film from pro-life circles is the “sympathetic” portrayal of Planned Parenthood employees. They are all either sneering, predatory, malevolent witches (such as Abby’s boss Cheryl, played by Robia Scott) or well-meaning, but naïve and moronic enablers of said witches. The best comparison I can think of would be to imagine a film about the sex abuse scandal that portrayed all Catholics as falling into one of those two categories. Would anyone say such a portrayal is respectful or sympathetic?

The movie is very slightly more successful in its challenge to the pro-life movement, depicting two instances of violence and harassment from pro-lifers. However, it immediately suggests that such antics are from fringe lunatics who are in no way a natural extension of the rhetoric of the movement as a whole, while simultaneously trotting out right-wing talking points (George Soros! Liberals only say they want to reduce the number of abortions) that were used by pro-life leaders to elect a sex predator who dehumanizes women, immigrants, and refugees much in the same way abortion dehumanizes the unborn.

I’ve heard accounts of pro-choice viewers watching Unplanned and changing their mind on abortion. Not to belittle those claims, but this movie so relentlessly preaches to the choir that I would be shocked if it changed anyone’s mind regarding abortion, unless they were already on the fence about it. I’ve seen more than one pro-choice viewer say it inspired them to donate to Planned Parenthood.

If one believes abortion is the termination of a human life, then the movie’s depiction of that will probably be a powerful and horrific reminder of the value of all human life. If not, those scenes will probably come across as cheesy CGI. Given how contrived the rest of the film is, it would be hard to argue with anyone who feels that way.

 

Personal Recommendation: C

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Eye in the Sky

Directed by Gavin Hood.         Starring Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Aaron Paul, Phoebe Fox, and Aisha Takow.

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The principle of double effect, as proposed by St. Thomas Aquinas,  is frequently discussed both in freshman philosophy classes and in Catholic theology classes. The classic hypothetical which is used in these discussions is when the train is rushing down the tracks and about to go off the rails unless you pull the lever to redirect the train onto the intact tracks. The catch is that there is one guy standing on the intact tracks, and there is a high probability that redirecting the train, and thus saving the lives of all the people on it, will regrettably kill him.

The problem with hypotheticals is that they do not take into account practical, real life scenarios when one has to make the best decision possible within a short time frame under intense duress. While a fictitious film is still a hypothetical, Eye in the Sky plays out in an intensely realistic fashion which gives credence to both sides of the argument and constructs a scenario in which the difficulties of either course of action are vividly realized. Even more remarkably, after making a strong case for one course of action, the film turns around and makes an equally strong case for the opposite.

The hypothetical in question in Eye in the Sky was made clear in the trailer. British intelligence has numbers 2, 4, and 5 on the most wanted list in their sight; through a hidden camera they can see those terrorists assembling two vests for suicide bombings; they have the ability to launch a drone strike eliminating that threat; however, a young girl is in the street next to the house, well within the fatality zone of the missile.

For a scenario which sounds like it could become riddled with clichés and a moralizing sermon regarding the War on Terror and the US drone program, Eye in the Sky avoids both. It explicitly acknowledges the danger that terrorists pose to the world, and it makes what might be the most compelling argument in favor of the drone assassination program. At the same time, the cost of that program on families, nations, and individuals is powerfully realized, so much that even if the principle of double effect justified the proposed strike, one could still question its prudence or legitimacy.

It is rare to see a film that refuses to take sides in an argument and maneuvers through both sides of that argument as skillfully as Eye in the Sky does. In doing so director Gavin Hood tells his story and leaves the conclusion with the viewer. It is easy to understand the reasoning which says drones are the best way to minimize the violence of terrorists, yet the concept that violence begets violence is always juxtaposed with any arguments in favor of using military force.

Hood’s decision to cast himself as an American colonel who calmly weighs all the options, but has no qualms about following orders, however unpleasant those orders may be, carries that balanced storytelling approach to the cast as well. The other cast members are the typical characters one would expect in such a wartime story. There are two green American drone pilots (Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox) who have never had to fire a missile before, one of whom is starting her first day as a soldier as the titular “eye in the sky.” An on the ground agent in Kenya (Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips) is trying to get as close to the target as possible to gather information without blowing the cover of the mission. There are various officials, all of whom wish to refer the decision up to their authorities so that they do not have to take responsibility. Finally, Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman portray a colonel and general respectively who wish to avoid as many casualties as they can, yet are both pragmatic enough to dread wasting this opportunity.

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The film’s ensemble of characters is admittedly large, but Megan Gill’s sharply focused editing makes it easy to keep track of all the characters and maintains a taut pacing which does not relent. One of the most effective moments is when the British intelligence loses one of their cameras; the cut to black symbolizes the dread and mounting tension perfectly. Similarly, the use of silence in place of music for some of the most harrowing moments makes the tragedy and tension all the more palpable. The commitment of both Mirren and Rickman turns their functionally written characters into complex conflicted human beings torn between two bad alternatives.

Finally, the portrayal of the young girl Alia (Aisha Takow) who will be endangered by a missile strike and her family is a beautiful portrait of the world as it should function and how war destroys that. The opening title card states that truth is the first thing lost in war, and while the film depicts rationalizations replacing the truth, nothing is as tragic as those rationalizations being applied to the potential loss of innocent lives.

The desire to minimize the casualties of war is a moral and necessary impulse. However, the way in which we achieve that is every bit as important. That importance is at the center of the moral conundrum in Eye in the Sky, and the film’s choice to eschew both easy answers and demonizing of different opinions makes the cost of war heavily felt as Eye in the Sky relentlessly accelerates toward the end of its mission.

 

Content Advisory: Gruesome shots of the aftermath of violence, a few utterances of harsh expletives under duress.                MPAA rating: R

Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment

Personal Recommendation: A

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Closed Circuit

Year of Release: 2013     Directed by John Crowley.           Starring Eric Bana, Rebecca Hall, Ciaran Hinds, and Julia Stiles.

Perhaps I am overly lenient when it comes to mysteries and thrillers, but I thought Closed Circuit had just enough strengths to overcome its copious flaws and make for a diverting and mostly enjoyable hour and a half mystery.

The premise is fascinating.  Defense barrister Martin Rose (Eric Bana) has been assigned to a high profile case in which a suspected terrorist is being tried for a bombing which resulted in the deaths of one hundred twenty people.  After the previous defense barrister committed suicide, Martin is selected to pick up the case.  An unusual aspect of the case involves classified information pertinent to the defense that is being withheld from the public, the accused, and the defense on the grounds of national security.  Before the public trial on the bombing, there will be a special closed circuit case in which another defense barrister, Claudia Simmons-Howe, (Rebecca Hall) will defend the right of the accused to have access to all the information being used against him.

However, Claudia and Martin have had a past affair, which compromises their ability to work together on the same case, but they withhold that information from their superiors, because this case is too important for their careers for them to decline it.  As both of them investigate the case, they discover that officials from British intelligence agency MI5 are spying on them and have reason to want this case dealt with as clandestinely as possible.

The biggest flaw with the film is that the plot is rather predictable, primarily regarding the identity of the corrupt government officials and the nature of the mystery.  There are also way too many cuts to the security camera point of view, constantly reminding the audience that someone is watching and spying on the actions of Martin, Claudia, the accused, and his family.  Those cuts give away too much of the plot too far in advance, undermining some of the suspense of the mystery.

As an intelligent barrister, it does not really make sense that it took Martin as long as it did to figure out who was spying on him and Claudia.  He told only one person about the same cab repeatedly picking him up, and then the next cab mysteriously (as he noted) had a different identification number.  That same person is also the only one who knew that he and Claudia had an illicit affair, which MI5 uses to threaten them.  But it takes a couple more slips from the character before Martin figures it out.  The audience is then supposed to be surprised when this spy is seen meeting with the head of the corrupt agency.

Julia Stiles essentially has a glorified cameo as a New York Times reporter that serve two purposes.  She asks the obvious questions that any alert audience member would already be asking, and she makes the semi-obvious parallels to the recent controversies regarding government spying with Snowden and Greenwald.  Her questions are topical, yet the film’s presentation of them is not particularly new or insightful.

All that said, I did enjoy it overall.  The entire cast gives strong performances, and the pace moves along briskly, just fast enough to stay engaging and not so fast as to be overwhelming.

I should add that I thought Closed Circuit had one of the stronger scores I have heard this year (not that I have actually heard any really noteworthy film scores this year.)  The quiet rhythmic piano music had a less is more approach which added to the atmosphere of the film without distracting from it.

As an entertaining mystery Closed Circuit mostly succeeds due to its cast, good pacing, and interesting concept.  Better camera use and fewer early revelations would have helped the film tremendously by creating a stronger aura of suspense.  While the questions it raises about government surveillance are relevant to many recent news stories, the film could also have explored the consequences of such procedures in greater depth rather than abandoning them to the generic mystery.  Nevertheless, a well acted generic mystery with a decent premise is not a bad film.

Content Advisory: Some rough language, a non-graphic murder, two attempted stranglings, and references to an affair.                 MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.

Overall Recommendation: B-

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The Manchurian Candidate

Year of Release: 1962     Directed by John Frankenheimer.  Starring Laurence Harvey, Frank Sinatra, Janet Leigh, James Gregory, and Angela Lansbury

Just when you think politicians could not become more corrupt, The Manchurian Candidate provides a new low, which hopefully most people would not have imagined on their own.

Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) has been decorated by the President himself with a medal of bravery on returning from the Korean War.  His fellow officers love him, and he is all set to take a well-paying newspaper job in New York.  His only problem is his mother Eleanor (Angela Lansbury) wants to use him to further the political career of her husband, Raymond’s step-father.

However, two of Raymond’s fellow officers begin to have strange nightmares, in which Raymond, under hypnosis, kills his fellow soldiers.  The similarity between their dreams disturbs them and even arouses suspicion among some of their superiors.  Major Bennet Marco (Frank Sinatra) is concerned enough that he begins investigating the matter, in order to resolve whatever is bothering him.  Marco’s efforts to help his country and his friend do have merit, but not in the way that he expected or wanted.

As the film unfolds, Marco and the viewer gradually learn more about Raymond’s troubled past, why he joined the army, and the sinister affairs underfoot to help the career of certain politicians.  Each turn is kept hidden for quite awhile, and one will not see them coming until shortly before the revelation.  With each shocking development, the film descends further into the evil that accompanies an unbridled lust for power.  The actor who plays the arch-villain here turned down another infamous movie villain on the grounds that the role was too evil.  This makes one wonder, because a villain cannot be that much more evil than the antagonist in The Manchurian Candidate.

The conclusion of the film properly trumps all the previous surprises and previous evil that has transpired.  It is shocking and sorrowful.  It portrays the realistic despair of someone who has been at the mercy of ruthless politicians his entire life.  And it climaxes a story of corruption and greed, in which ruthless people disregard and stereotype anyone that disagrees with them.

Content Advisory: Several shootings and implied murders, a dramatic suicide, and some mildly suggestive content.                         MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: B+

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