21 October 2013
You can’t expose the world’s secrets without exposing your own.
That’s the tagline for the new film The Fifth Estate. Directed by Bill Condon, this is the story of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks — especially Assange, up close and personal, warts and all.
Expectations for the film were high, especially with star Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange, and packaged in a fast-paced global thriller that traces the relationship between Assange and his early collaborator, Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl).
But the film crashed and burned. It opened in a whopping 1769 theaters across the USA a few days ago, but earned only $1.7 million over the weeked — a truly awful number. This was the worst box office debut for any film opening in at least 1500 theaters this year. What went wrong?
Film blogger JustMeMike and I sat down to try to figure it out.
JMM: I was one of just two people who saw this movie at the 10:45 AM showing today. How many people were in attendance at the screening you attended?
Didion: There were four of us at the 1:40 showing, but hey —- it’s mid-afternoon on a Monday … I’m not sure the weak audience numbers necessarily reflect anything. And the two guys next to me loved the film.
I’m still processing, to be honest. JMM, do you think this film was written for a broad audience, or for people with particular views of WikiLeaks?
JMM: Great question. The film looked like it was marketed as a thriller. Proponents of transparency in government and media would be the standard bearers. But it played out much differently. I failed to detect any thrills, and I failed to learn anything about the process. What I came away with was that WikiLeaks was a good idea, but that Assange himself turned it into being more about himself, than what he was trying to accomplish.
Which leads to the question (for which I have no answer) was the film fair to Assange?
Didion: It’s hard for me to answer that because I keep asking, would this film look any different if Assange had made it? Isn’t it very much to his advantage to be at its center, the way he is here? Isn’t it to his advantage to be portrayed as a complicated figure? Perhaps Assange would have portrayed himself as more heroic than he appears here, but I think he’s enough of a publicity savant to know that an ambivalent character is more interesting than a purely heroic one. (The one thing about the film that’d be different is the absence of the Daniel character, as the two men have had a devastating fallout.)
So in that regard, the film is more than fair; it lets Assange be the main character. Moreover, it wants us to believe that WikiLeaks truly is a fifth estate, a new guerrilla means of exposing the truth behind our institutions — also very much Assange’s message.
JMM: Well that certainly fits. A guerrilla means of bringing the truth out into the light. However it is also true that his methodology could be called something like Egotistical Anarchy. Or we might call him an Informational Insurgent. Maybe that’s the problem with the film — people would prefer to have learned more about the process and less about the guy behind the curtain.
Which leads me to another point. I really didn’t care for the first hour — at least once the opening montage concluded, we had no place to go but down. Did you see the film as two distinct and separate halves?
Didion: Hm. I’m not sure I can answer that. You’re right that it presents a gradually more problematic view of Assange in the second half. But I thought the biggest drama in the film — the leadup to the dump of the 90,000 documents on the websites of the Guardian, the NY Times, Der Spiegel, and other publications — was nicely handled. That is, those scenes portrayed nicely all the competing interests, motives, and worries, including by two US State Department heads (Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci). It was good, I thought, because it forced everyone in the theater to consider all sides of the question about this form of exposure — not only the question of whether the dump of documents might lead to blood being spilled, but also whether it’s more honest to dump documents unredacted. It was fascinating. You’ll have to tell me your opinion of this too, JMM.
But in addition, there’s another question I find important: does this film ultimately send the message that WikiLeaks would have been a fine and dandy new mode of communication but for its egomaniacal leader?
Assange stressed again and again that he was primarily concerned with protecting the whistleblowers, the so-called sources. Anonymity was crucial, otherwise no one would leak anything to them. And that was an honest and accurate appraisal of the process. But as you said, he was totally dishonest about everything else. Even Daniel was deceived.
So the question of his character is something that none of us, not even Josh Singer the writer, or Bill Condon, the director, can answer.
Actually, I couldn’t believe that Assange was so gung-ho to publish the docs without any redacting. Did that send Assange’s credibility out the window for you?
Didion: Honestly, I’m still on the fence about how I feel about the film being a referendum on Assange’s character, especially as it’s been told by a former associate. On the fence, because I’m more interested in the establishment of WikiLeaks as an institution with the potential to achieve a greater degree of transparency than our profit-driven fourth estate has managed recently. All the attention to Assange seems like a red herring; shouldn’t we be asking harder questions about the institution rather than its colorful central figure?
But maybe that’s the problem — it’s hard for me to think of this simply as a film with its own internal logic, rather than as a comment on real-life institutions and people.
I must say that the way the film portrays Assange’s growing sense of urgency and paranoia — his eagerness to publish the documents so hastily — was badly handled. The film played it as a sign of his recklessness; but is it so wrong to argue that censoring any part of the docs, even a person’s name or the location of a battle, might limit the documents’ usefulness? In other words, even though the film played it as part of Assange’s messianism, I found his point worthy of a conversation.
JMM: Sure. It is an interesting question. That could have been the whole point of the film. But I’ll ask you about the usefulness. Who would benefit from the knowledge that Agency X, in Country Z, did this or that? It would all be after the fact of the events, and could precipitate following events. I’m saying that it is a slippery slope — and the real life stuff that followed now has Assange living sequestered in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. So who benefited? — the usefulness can’t really be quantified.
On the other hand, I really do like that you were able to leap from the cinema that we saw and take that information and apply it to the real world. I’m still more grounded to the film itself than the worldly aftermath.
Didion: that’s what makes you such a good reviewer! that’s what we’re supposed to do!
It occurs to me that my refusal to see this merely as a thriller, but also as a film with real-life implications, springs from some essential disappointments. I don’t mean to suggest the film is bad; far from it. But as you can see, I’m disappointed that it was so much about Assange, even though I recognize what a compelling character he is.
On that note, I must say that Cumberbatch did a fabulous job — I had to google the real Assange afterward to remind myself what he actually looked like. Cumberbatch not only got the charm and the deceiving back stories right; he also got Assange’s methodical manner of speaking, his tics…those beady eyes, darting around a room, over–thinking everything. It was a terrific performance. What did you think of the acting overall?
JMM: Sorry Didion, I’m not much of a Cumberbatch fan at all. He wore wigs and false teeth to look the part, and he just doesn’t impress me. Which is not to say he wasn’t good in the role. Personally, I enjoyed Brühl more. Maybe it was the deceptiveness by Assange that kept me from either liking him, or being partial to him. Bruhl, on the other hand, was a far more open character, one that was infinitely more accessible. I liked Linney and Tucci better. But I just couldn’t get my arms around Cumberbatch.
Didion: I wonder — was it the acting or the character?
I liked Brühl too (and had only seen him in The Fall, the Gillian Anderson series, before now), but for the most part, he just didn’t do a lot with the character except function as a nice window through which to see Assange.
Linney and Tucci were great! Taking on smaller roles like these must be such a treat for seasoned actors like them. I swear I’d pay to watch Stanley Tucci read the phone book.
We probably can’t answer the question of why the film hasn’t succeeded at the box office, but I’m curious: do you think the film should have done well? is it worth the big budget, the big advertising campaign?
JMM: Another great question, Didion. I’m thinking that the film is disappointing in so many ways. I’m also thinking that Assange is not particularly important at the moment, even though Wikileaks still exists. I’m also thinking that Dreamworks made a mistake with Cumberbatch. I just don’t see him selling tickets. Granted, Redford and Hoffman are now in their 70s, but when you think of All The President’s Men — a great film about revealing the truth — you can say that that film was a great film with great stars who sold tickets on their names.
We can’t say that about the actors here in The Fifth Estate can we?
The story had all the relevance and importance — yet — no one wants to see it.
Didion: And All the President’s Men was such an uncomplicated story in contrast, wasn’t it? Crusading journalists uncovering increasingly fraught information that leads them farther up the chain of command. Whereas it’s hard for anyone but the most zealous to find WikiLeaks to be straightforwardly heroic. These two films would made fascinating counterpoints in a college class about the public’s views about the media, actually!
Cumberbatch might not be your cup of tea, but you frame the problem exactly: focusing the story on Assange is going to turn people away from the film. Tell me, purely on the subject of the film as a thriller, you’ve mentioned that you were disappointed. Do you think this is the fault of the storytelling, the filming, or something more pervasive about the film?
JMM: As I said earlier — the first half of the film was kind of tedious. Guys at keyboards, typing furiously isn’t scintillating film making. Then factor in the fact that what we saw on their screens wasn’t the least bit accessible to a standard viewer. So even if we give them the first hour to establish the characters and the narrative — it left me cold. It gains some traction in the second half, but by then the two main characters were going in opposite directions.
Condon handled his cameras quite well, and Singer did manage to make the film have some excellent pace — but only in the second half.
Didion: The fact that all of us spend all our time in front of screens these days is going to make modern thrillers incredibly boring, isn’t it? I don’t feel as negatively about the online screen time the characters engaged in; I actually thought about whether there’s a way to make that stuff riveting for future audiences. (Actually, the series Sherlock did some interesting work with graphics onscreen representing texting.) But it’s not the same as Robert Redford walking into creepy parking garages, or Dustin Hoffman on the phone and frantically taking notes on his interviews, is it?
In the end I think Hollywood hasn’t quite figured out how to make real–time computer/internet exchange exciting. And in the end, isn’t that really what films like The Social Network and The Fifth Estate are all about? and they’re a sign of things to come.
JMM: Smart phones, tablets, and the like get more and more intricate and evolve every month. But filmmaking? Not so much. At least not in this one.
Didion: Exactly! I wonder if they’ll find a more elaborate kind of personal viewing experience — high tech 3D glasses that interact with the film’s story, for example — to enhance our sense of what’s going on onscreen? A sort of Google Glass experience for the theater.
Meanwhile, back here in October 2013, I have to pronounce myself slightly disappointed overall. If pressed, I’d give the film something like 3 stars out of 5 — a perfectly watchable thriller, but one that doesn’t do anything very interesting or new. That’s ultimately what gets me about this film. On the one hand, it does a nice job of convincing me that WikiLeaks is a thoroughly new institution worthy of a moniker like The Fifth Estate. On the other hand, it’s an old-fashioned story about a follower who grows disillusioned with his cult of personality leader. Neither the story nor the filmmaking are innovative or particularly thought-provoking, even as the film raises some good questions about WikiLeaks’ central aims and motives.
JMM: Nice summary Didion. I’ll agree to a 3.0 out of five as well. There’s nothing wrong with old stories if told well, And we don’t need a whole lot of innovative technical wizardy if told well.
What was it that Berg’s girlfriend Anke called Assange — an asshole? Well, you can make a good story about one of those too.
Didion: Okay, one final question for you, JMM. At the very end of the film — and I promise, this doesn’t spoil anything — Cumberbatch appears neatly coiffed, sitting in a chair, as if for a televised interview. He’s answering questions, including about “the WikiLeaks movie,” and he frankly dismisses the project. In other words, the film allows Assange to have the last word. What did you think of that filmmaking choice?
JMM: You mean the coda at the end when Assange disavows the film? I have two thoughts on that — it seemed tacked on as an after thought. At that point — or should I say before that — the film was over. It wasn’t necessary.
Didion: Honestly, I kind of liked it. It seemed so … oddly eager to have Assange weigh in, even if he disavowed it.
JMM: Would you have liked it better if they used the real Assange who was interviewed by Stephen Colbert?
Didion: No, I liked it that Cumberbatch remained our version of Assange… and he was just as ambivalent a character in those scenes as he’d been earlier in the film. I think I found it so weird because on some level Condon wanted to show Assange’s opposition to the film as a film. I thought that brief scene really did add something oddly self–conscious about this being a film.
JMM: Yes, in that context, as a directorial choice by Bill Condon, it did add a dimension. But it didn’t increase my appreciation on the overall film.
Didion: So, we weren’t entranced … and the film left us with some fairly damning evidence about Assange’s character. But as always, talking with you about the film — particularly so soon after seeing it — has been both highly enjoyable and useful in debriefing about its qualities. Thanks, JMM, as always for the pleasure of a happy-hour movie chat!
JMM: I’m happy to have the opportunity to discuss film with you at any time. And it was a particular pleasure this time as neither of us was gushing with praise. Until next time…
In the future according to Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, LA looks like the favelas outside Rio — a vast, dusty, treeless series of shantytowns covering those coastal hills as far as the eye can see. It’s overwhelmingly Latino — everyone speaks Spanish, or Spanglish — and we learn that the rest of Earth is similarly dark-skinned and downtrodden. A title card tells us that the world is diseased, overpopulated, and broken, and that the wealthiest have decamped from Earth altogether for a kind of space station called Elysium that looks like Bel Air on steroids, where they sip champagne, swim in glamorous pools, and speak French.
It’s a great premise, fully in keeping with the brilliant work Blomkamp did with his earlier District 9 (2009) — a believable dystopia that reflects the worst tendencies of today’s world, the ways that the wealthy can hoard the best resources for themselves. In a brief flashback, a little boy called Max (who grows up to be Matt Damon) gets taught to read by a little girl called Frey (who grows up to be Alice Braga) as they pour over a book describing the wonders of Elysium. He gazes up at her with love, and promises to take her there someday.
We know he will. But how? and what will the consequences be? By the time we find the adult Max, he’s an ex-con on parole working in a factory making the robo-cops that terrorize the populace, and he and Frey have lost touch.
Add to this story a sharp-edged, power-hungry Elysium defense chief named Delacourt (Jodie Foster) with a sort of South African accent; Delacourt’s designated mercenary named Kruger, who solves problems for her with murderous glee (an unrecognizable Sharlto Copley, who played the hapless lead in District 9); and a crime kingpin on Earth named Spider (Wagner Moura), who sends shuttles full of illegal immigrants up to Elysium on the off-chance they’ll make it past Delacourt’s defenses. Those who don’t make it … well, what do the inhabitants of Elysium care?
Don’t worry: we’ll warn you in advance about spoilers.
Film blogger JustMeMike and I sat down to have an extended conversation about this film as we have many times — most recently about The Great Gatsby. So, JMM, let me start by asking: were you as intrigued as I was by the film’s premise?
JustMeMike: I hadn’t seen District 9, so I may not have the same entry point as many did. But who could resist Matt Damon as a Mad Max type wearing an exo-skeleton suit rather than leather. I was also eager to see Foster as a villain. I loved Moura from his two Brazilian cop movies that I’d seen. But those are just the actors.
As for the premise, sure, with a dystopian/utopian combo it seemed like a can’t miss. And with Blomkamp at the helm of a 100 million dollar production, it seemed that he has been anointed as the new boy-wonder of the film world. So yes, I was eager to see it. Show me a tasty premise and A-list actors? Where do I sign up?
Didion: I loved loved loved District 9. Really: a stunner. It might have made me a bit overly optimistic for Elysium. But I have to say, the opening scenes of this film, with those miserable favelas and all the Spanish (Matt Damon does some good language work here) — well, I can’t remember a more believable dystopia, nor a summer blockbuster with so much Spanish being spoken. I was all in for the film’s setup.
JMM: We can agree, that when you add the imagery to the intellectual side of the premise — then you have created an immediate hook for the viewers with or without the language medley of English and Spanish.
Which leads to a question — why the Francais up on Elysium – or was that just for that particular cocktail party?
Didion: I’m not sure we’re supposed to know, but I loved the contrast between the gritty, almost apocalyptic world of LA and the jolting scene of Jodie Foster, with her chiseled calves and perfect hair, schmoozing en francais with the hoi polloi. It was so jolting, in fact, that I wondered how much Blomkamp wanted his viewers to get angry about the impossible social divides that exist in our own world. District 9 was ultimately a story about race; perhaps Elysium is his commentary on class?
JMM: Of course it was. And that feeling is what has occurred to so many who have seen the film. I mean that he started with a premise of class issues (and the obvious divide created by money) — separated the two between Earth and Elysium, then switched away from that and made the film into an action/adventure yarn. I still enjoyed myself — but I wanted more thoughtful concepts than explosions.
Didion: I’m with you there. I found myself oddly ambivalent at the end of the film — feeling as if some other director had arrived mid-stream and transformed the film into something more safe by distracting us with explosions and bad bad guys, away from the class issues.
I’ll say this: of the summer blockbusters I’ve seen, this seems like the most original and substantial — that is, particularly compared to the superheroes and sequels — but I’m ultimately disappointed by Blomkamp’s ultimate privileging of action over ideas. Tell me, JMM, would you ultimately recommend this film — and why?
JMM: Sure I will and am recommending the film. Despite the flaws it is still a first class entertainment. Why? The execution of the technical side of the film is just perfect. I’ll say nothing bad about what we see. It is only when we start to think about it – and this is in the latter parts of the film, that we detect issues.
The hardware, the robot-cops, the expansive factory setting – all of the was done superbly. So, I think it was a visual treat. Unfortunately, the visuals have to get the highest marks, which means other areas, key areas, like acting and writing suffer in comparison. Since we’ve already mentioned the conceptual change from a theme-based story to an action film, let’s talk actors. Tell me about Foster as Delacourt.
Didion: I’m usually of the opinion that the more Jodie Foster, the better. She’s certainly got the look of the icy, powerful bureaucrat down; think of her as the fixer in Inside Man (2006). She slinks through this film as the cat-like reason why Elysium’s days are numbered — the rot at the heart of the apple. When she speaks in her effortless French in those early scenes, you believe every single bit of her ruthlessness.
But maybe it was her (weak) South African accent, or a big jump in the narrative in the second act, or the fact that we’ve seen this character before — I found her character to be too stereotypical and .. well, kind of boring. How about you?
JMM: Bingo! Hard to believe that Foster disappoints but she does. But at least half of that can be laid at the feet of Blomkamp. He wrote a one dimensional character and Foster gave him just that.
If I may make a more pointed and cynical observation. I think Foster was cast to sell tickets. As narrow as the role was, anyone could have played Delacourt. In fact I was somewhat surprised by the large number of women who attended the screening I did. Did you have a similar audience?
Didion: Now I’m laughing because I realize my complaint is just like in the old joke that I repeat all the time, in which two little old ladies go out for lunch and one says, “This food is terrible!” and the other says, “And there’s so little of it!” I wanted a different Jodie, and I wanted more of her.
But if you don’t mind, I’d also like to issue a larger complaint: the gender stuff in Elysium is bad and boring, too. We have two women: a perfect mother/angel in Frey, and the evil ice queen in Delacourt. The men are similarly stereotyped: Max is our hunky, tattooed superhero (with a nicely gratuitous shirtless scene early on) who wants to just live up to his promises; he hasn’t got much else to offer. And then there’s the ill-fated best buddy (Diego Luna); the dark-skinned crime boss (Moura), whose main original characteristic is his cane; the super-baddy (Copley), and the evil capitalist (William Fichtner). Isn’t the real problem that there’s not an interesting character in the bunch?
JMM: Actually there are three women that are important. The third is Frey’s sick daughter. I think once Max gets a look at her, the whole story changes.
Spider was a surprise for me. Moura, in his cop films, is a strong character, a tough guy that any guy would admire; but here he plays a geek crime lord. They could have dispensed with the cane and shambling gait entirely. But Copley as Kruger steals the film away from Damon.
Damon was driven — not so much by his idealism, but more practically to stay alive. Once he makes a deal with Spider to stay alive, Delacourt brings Kruger into the picture — the type of guy we’ve not seen the likes of before.
Did you like Kruger as a monstrous force?
Didion: Now that I think about it, you’re exactly right: Kruger steals the picture, with his mountain-man cloak and mondo-weapons and can’t-die resurrections. I’m not saying he’s got much three-dimensionality, but I could have spent another few hours creeped out by his capacity for violence.
I’ll say one more thing to agree with a point you made above: the look of the film, most of which takes place in this hell-Earth, is utterly believable — the visuals of Max’s job at the factory, getting harassed by the robo-cops — Blomkamp is a genius at creating and capturing a full world.
But let me return to your last note about Matt Damon. Do you think he lets the film get stolen out from under him, or was it a problem with the writing?
JMM: Great question. It wasn’t Damon as Max. I think once Blomkamp brought Max and Frey’s daughter together, Max’s direction was set in stone. Max was an everyman, likeable because we all could identify with him. Hard working at his dull/dangerous job. Plus his demeanor to the cops — he was just below the rage phase with the street cops and his parole officer — but he kept himself in check as best he could.
But it didn’t quite work for Max. Enter Kruger with his helo, his goons, his weapons, and his Afrikaner accent. And his near deadly efficiency. We feared him and were attracted to his strengths, yet we abhorred the thought of this guy getting his mitts on Frey. So I think it was no surprise that he stole the film away from Damon’s Max.
Didion: Sigh. It’s too bad, because I have a theory that no one can do complex, ambivalent characters better than Matt Damon (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Bourne, etc). The problem with this one was that his character was set: even if he descended to do something illegal, it was because he was trying to do the right thing in the end.
Maybe now is the time to issue a ***SPOILER ALERT***. Because I have some questions about the ultimate direction of the story.
JMM, my biggest disappointment came at about the ⅔ mark, when two disappointing things happen: Delacourt dies, and the whole story narrows down to become a question about whether everyone ought to have access to Elysium’s fantastic medical machines, which cure everything. That is, whereas the first part of the film heightens your awareness of a whole universe of class problems — endemic poverty, miserable jobs, tyrannical police, a failed health care system — the second half collapses them into the fantasy that if everyone had access to great health care, all problems would be solved.
JMM: Well I’m not sure all problems would be solved. The idea of making everyone a citizen (for health care or other reasons) was admirable, but I thought wouldn’t it be much easier to bring the med machines down to earth rather than bring the multitudes up to Elysium. But that was the inevitable happy ending — post Max and post Delacourt.
Which leads to some questions I can ask as we’ve posted the spoiler alert.
You know that Blomkamp’s Elysium was a utopia with Earth a dystopia, so how was it that Spider not only had the means of transporting to Elysium, how was it that Spider had enough power to run his hardware? Seems like Elysium’s eye in the sky would have noticed this on the power grid. How did Spider’s transport which was called an Unidentified Shuttle get through Elysium’s sky-net defenses? Especially after we saw other ships get shot down.
Did any of this trouble you?
Didion: Will it solve anything to permit everyone the chance to come to Elysium? Or is that access only going to allow people medical care, so they can live longer in that hell? Will inhabitants of Earth still pay exorbitant prices for transport? Will Elysium simply find a new way to ban that traffic? The ending is just a mess of unanswered questions.
I was left with an overriding sense that Blomkamp had created a dystopia so believable that it ruined his capacity to find a happy ending. I couldn’t believe some computer hacking and some luck against Elysium’s defenses would create any real change to the pervasive problems. Narrative problems like the one you mention — about Spider’s illegal transport system — paled in comparison to larger problems with the film’s conclusion.
JMM: Yup. You got that right. Out of time and out of ideas — was that Blomkamp’s fault, or the suits who financed the film? Whatever the reason, it did highlight the fact that the the last ⅓ paled in comparison to the first ⅔.
But even if the film ended badly, which it did, should this result in a negative for the overall worthiness of the film. Above, you used the term “overriding sense of failure”, I mean, I didn’t leave the theater angry. As you walked out, what was your state of mind?
Didion: We can’t know who ultimately started chopping the ideas out of the third act. But we can comment on the effect, can’t we? My ultimate takeaway was the feeling that either our culture won’t put up with a film that imagines a real change to fundamental inequality, or that our culture is willing to raise the topic and then pastes an implausibly happy ending on it.
Ultimately I’d give this film a solid three stars out of five, but I must say that I hope Blomkamp gets more work, and that perhaps he doesn’t get saddled with $100m projects like this one, but rather smaller and more thoughtful projects.
JMM: I’ll go to three point five, as I did call it a flawed first class entertainment. Speaking of smaller budgets as well as thoughtful projects, I guess I will move District 9 up to the top spot in my queue. Any last comments, gripes, favorite parts, least favorite parts?
Didion: I can hardly wait to hear what you’ve got to say about District 9. LOVE that film.
I always forget that you love to ask about favorite/worst parts of the film, and I always forget to think about that while I’m watching! But there’s a teeny moment I loved which follows Matt Damon getting flooded with radiation poisoning at work. He’s lying on a hospital bed, and a mechanized robo-doctor is examining him, telling him exactly (brutally) how dire his condition is. And then it drops a paltry little bottle of pills on the bed. It’s possibly the most miserable and lowest Damon’s character gets during the film. In other words, with no gross-out operations, spectacular violence, or super-CGI, the scene pulls off a nice trick of making you feel his pain. A good example of what Blomkamp can do with a small scene. How about you?
JMM: That was marvelous. I don’t think I had that in mind at all — but wow. On the other end of the spectrum – with Max’s parole officer, they really went cheap. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a worse representation of a non-human interacting with a human in terms of visual and technological expertise.
But speaking of a small scene, that had significant impact. At the cocktail party, the robo-butler offers Delacourt a drink, and she dismisses him with a flick of the wrist. I noticed that and hated her for it.
Didion: In the end, JMM, I’m sorry to see that our August movie doldrums weren’t relieved by Elysium as much as I’d hoped. But the fall has lots of good stuff lined up. I’m hoping that our next convo will cover a different kind of film — perhaps a comedy? — that we can dig into. Looking forward to it, as always!
JMM: Thanks Didion. I am in full agreement about the doldrums. I’m calling it a summer-long down-turn. Elysium did brighten the summer while in the anticipation stage, and yes it might have been a lot better. Fall’s schedule does look delicious. See you then.
American teenagers still get marched through F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) early in their high school careers, told that it’s a classic. I hadn’t read it since then, so it was a revelation during the past few weeks to find how much I remembered its contemplative mood. Gatsby is still as inscrutable, and Daisy as shadowy as I remember. It’s a beautiful, evasive book punctuated with moments of the most beautiful prose and clarity of insight — all the better for being so slim and accessible to high school kids.
Told through the eyes of Nick Carraway, a well-to-do Midwesterner whose job selling bonds has landed him a house out on the shores of Long Island Sound, the story fixates on Carraway’s fantastically wealthy neighbor, Jay Gatsby. Rumors fly about him: he might be an Oxford man, or a murderer, or perhaps just a liar. As if to cultivate those tales, Gatsby throws lavish parties and uses oddly unpopular expressions like “old sport.” But as we learn early on, part of this is a show for the benefit of Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan, who lives with her lout of a husband across a small bay. Daisy and Gatsby had a short romance years ago when he was a poor serviceman stationed in her hometown of St. Louis. Famously — memorably — Gatsby stands at the edge of his property in the evenings, gazing out across the water to the green light at the end of the Buchanans’ pier, longing for her and hoping that his new wealth and status might be enough to win her back.
Jack Clayton’s 1974 film with Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, and Sam Waterston emphasized the gauzy, sun-lit aspects of the tale, and the grandeur of Gatsby’s house, but critics generally felt the film was better at conveying the surface appearance of the tale than the book’s melancholy soul. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby famously complained that “the sets and costumes and most of the performances are exceptionally good, but the movie itself is as lifeless as a body that’s been too long at the bottom of a swimming pool.” It may have got the 1920s/ Jazz Age look right, but it failed to capture the classic Americanness of this story.
All the more reason for a new interpretation. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, and Tobey Maguire in the three core roles, does Baz Luhrmann’s much-anticipated film achieve what Clayton’s could not? I sat down for a chat about the film with film critic and blogger JustMeMike, with whom I’ve analyzed films in the past — most recently Zero Dark Thirty.
JMM: Great question, Didion. Upon publication in 1925, the book sales were tepid: about 20,000 copies sold in the 1st year following publication. In contrast, the book has sold about 405,000 copies in the first three months of this year. And that number would not include the copy I bought late in April, after not being able to acquire one from my nearest public library.
But before we launch into a discussion of the film, I’d like to point out that the cost of this film was in the West Eggish neighborhood of $127 million. One would have to be quite creative to spend that much money on a movie. And just think of the clothing and accessories tie-ins with Prada, Tiffany & Co, and Brooks Brothers. I don’t think I’ll be trotting off to Brooks Brothers to pick up a straw boater at $198 a pop. How about you? Will you be going in for the 1920s look?
Didion: As long as I can score a new tiara, I’ll be all set. You know how us professors get paid so lavishly that a visit to Tiffany is, like, yawn.
So I’m curious, JMM — tell me your thoughts about the relationship between book and film. Obviously, literary adaptations are always tricky; directors want to make films that anyone can see, from big fans of the book to those who’ve never read it. Do you think Luhrmann succeeds?
JMM: Yes, he succeeds. As you said above, Gatsby is inscrutable which to me means that it is subject to many interpretations — almost as many as the number of bits of confetti and streamers that fell during the Gatsby soirees.
I think the transfer of the literary to the screen was well done. Especially if you consider that the charm of the book is less the story, and more the excellence of the writing.
Didion: I agree with you in part. I felt Luhrmann succeeded with the overall look and the vividness of the characters — no one is going to say, as Canby did about the previous version, that this is lifeless — but I disliked the hyperactive melodrama of the film. It missed, to me, the book’s soul: its narrator’s desire for something real behind all that glitz.
JMM: Yeah. In the film, the Carraway character was either in awe or watching with stunned amazement — or twirling a glass in his hand — but isn’t that what makes the book so difficult to film? The charms of Nick are all his internal discoveries rather than something he actually does?
Didion: That’s exactly right. Nick wants to believe that Gatsby really is “worth the whole damn bunch altogether,” as he shouts to Gatsby across the lawn. But the film doesn’t quite show us that Gatsby is anything more than an imperfect invention. Luhrmann couldn’t quite commit: are we supposed to attach to Gatsby? or are we supposed to see through him, and thus become aware of Nick’s naivete?
JMM: That’s a tough question. The story opens with Gatsby as a mythic person; no one knew his reality. Including Nick who befriends him. Didn’t Lurhmann (and Fitzgerald) go out of their way to make Gatsby mysterious as well as the subject of gossip? If so, can we call Carraway naive?
Didion: I suppose this is what makes the book so endlessly appealing to high school English classrooms! It allows kids to scrutinize the difference between surface appearance and the person within.
One of the things I loved about the book was Nick’s voice throughout: his eagerness to believe that Gatsby and Daisy really felt a true love for one another. Nick is the only character who wants to reveal his true self, and to believe that Gatsby is truly good on the inside, even when the whole crowd lies, hides things, and/or reveals their untrustworthiness. So I’m disappointed by the over-the-top emotional melodrama that Luhrmann laid on top of everything. Luhrmann’s style worked so well for me in capturing the excesses of the 1920s, but just fell down utterly when making me care about the characters — Tobey Maguire’s Nick included.
JMM: Well I will certainly agree about Gatsby being good. His problem was that he was a dreamer who couldn’t let go of the past. Daisy — not so good. Tom Buchanan not good at all. But Maguire’s Carraway is more of a Greek chorus, a chronicler, a reality mirror to Jay Gatsby’s unreality. Was it Maguire’s dull characterization of Carraway, or was it the script, or simply the way that Lurhmann directed? I can’t say for sure.
What I can say for sure is that I was quite involved with the melodramatic last two-thirds of the film, much more so than during the razzle-dazzle first third.
Didion: Really?!? Well, this might be our most substantial disagreement! I loved the film’s big middle — its second act — but the final act had me rolling my eyes.
You clearly didn’t like Maguire as Nick. I’m more on the fence. What better actor alive could capture that innocence, and the pleasure of entering into the excesses of the super-rich of the 1920s? I was less interested in the way that Luhrmann created a frame for the film — Nick, months later, installed in an asylum for nervous exhaustion and alcoholism, trying to capture the causes of his illness for a psychologist. Maguire was neither very good in those scenes, nor did the director use them in a way to compel the audience’s connection to the character.
I will say that Luhrmann’s casting was great. Every single character looked the part — I mean, damn, Carey Mulligan! Elizabeth Debicki as the golfer/socialite Jordan Baker! and even that shiny, tanned, and slightly creepy face of DiCaprio’s as Gatsby — it all looked exactly right.
JMM: Loved the casting myself. Except that I didn’t buy that Tom Buchanan and Carraway were classmates. Meaning Edgerton and Maguire looked about 10 years different. Maybe it is less about Maguire’s performance that gave me cause for concern. I’ll refer back to the statement I made earlier about Carraway’s charms being internal.
The framing device worked for me because it gave them a way of getting the words on the screen. Whether the sanatorium aspect was good or bad isn’t a major point for me.
But back to the casting. Many have said that Leo was a bit too old for the role. Maybe. But his tan and his weathered look come from his lifestyle and stress. I liked the way Leo brought out Gatsby’s loss of confidence when he first meets (re-unites) with Daisy in the Carraway cottage. And her fluttered look perfectly matched his.
Didion: Argh! I hated that scene! It didn’t work for me AT ALL. It was all so overdone … like a kabuki version of anxiety. And all the extended leadup to the actual meeting between Gatsby and Daisy — it went on forever — took away from what the scene should have done, which is to cement in Nick’s mind that these two share perfect, long-lost love.
JMM: Well I’ll agree to disagree. But that came from the book didn’t it? Gatsby leaving, going outside and standing in the rain until he was drenched. Beyond that, that scene had the one laugh-out-loud moment in the whole film. When Gatsby asks, Is everything okay, You have all you need for the tea? And Nick replies, “Well maybe more flowers….”
I also wonder about the “cementing”. Is it is Nick’s mind or ours?
Didion: Certainly in Nick’s mind, but isn’t that anchored to our minds as viewers? Don’t we need to believe, even for a moment, that Gatsby and Daisy aren’t just glossy pretty people, but truly in love — even if the film later throws some of that open to question?
That’s why I found the scene so needlessly goofy. I wanted it to show another side of Gatsby; to show that he wasn’t all self-assurance and polish. But this scene went for cheap laughs rather than more depth to his character. It made me think that Luhrmann is, above all, just a ham-handed director who can’t manage a single minute of emotional subtlety.
JMM: About Lurhmann, I won’t disagree with ham-handed. I won’t disagree with lacks subtlety — but I must give him props for showmanship, hype, and marketing — care to venture down that road for a bit?
Didion: I’m completely down with you there. Which brings up another topic: the soundtrack, and especially the confluence of musical genres in the film (dotted with hip hop by Jay-Z, who also served as executive producer for the soundtrack).
The scenes of crazy parties are just awesome. No subtlety needed. And although I was a little taken aback when the Jay-Z’s song “100$ Bill” blasted underneath those scenes — because I love 1920s music and hoped to hear more of it — I ultimately loved the whole thing. The music also includes new interpretations of 1920s songs as well as covers of Amy Winehouse, Beyoncé, and others, altogether creating the most lush soundtrack I’ve heard in years. Loved it. And I was so glad to see those great party scenes on the big screen.
JMM: Yes the music worked for me too. I think the press has made far too much of the inclusion of hip hop, but coming out of the theater I only remembered two pieces of music — Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” which was Daisy’s theme, and the famed Gershwin opus “Rhapsody in Blue.”
The party music was great — and would have been pleasurable no matter what.
Didion: Can I ask you about Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of Daisy for a moment, and in general the film’s view of women? I thought she was wonderful, of course — but we never learn much more about her. She functions more as a figment of Gatsby’s imagination than as a real, three-dimensional person. Let’s not forget how utterly absent her daughter is from the story. One of the things that affected me was Daisy’s comment that she hopes her daughter grows up to be “a beautiful little fool,” because a fool is “the best thing a girl can be in this world.”
JMM: Great thinking Didion. I’m with you completely. It is a scary part of the story. It is one thing for Daisy to be like that, and she was, and another thing for her to wish that for her little girl. Realistically, I think all the female characters came off badly in the book — even Jordan. But as we can see from both the book and the film, there are no likeable characters. Daisy was all surface, she not only hadn’t any depth, but I think we were supposed to see that immediately.
When we first meet Daisy and Jordan, Fitzgerald describes them like having the weight and substance of balloons. They flutter and quiver and so forth. Fitzgerald made it a point to make them lacking substance.
“They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house.”
Didion: Oh, JMM, I love that catch — I’d forgotten that beautiful description in the book. Fitzgerald had little interest in giving them much weight. In fact, that line of Daisy’s about her daughter being a fool is the only glimpse we have of her dissatisfaction with her lot; otherwise she appears committed to being a fool, mostly at least.
Jordan is a bit more interesting; the book suggests that she might not be such an honest sportswoman. And in the film Elizabeth Debicki’s huge eyes and tall dancer’s frame make her tower over Tobey Maguire in a way that was always mysterious and evocative. But this isn’t really a film about female characters except as love objects for the men in the story.
JMM: True. Let’s move to another smaller venue — the underground club behind the barbershop door where they went for lunch. Did you like Amitabh Bachchan as Wolfsheim, or did you feel this was a role incorrectly cast?
Didion: Loved the speakeasy scene, and Bachchan was perfectly cast as Wolfsheim — but (and this is a big but) Lurhmann cut out most of what made Wolfsheim such a crucial character.
Now, there are good reasons to cut it out: the book is unapologetically anti-Semitic, and racist in ways that only get a slight gloss in the film. On reflection, I’m not sorry that Luhrmann decided to cut down the book’s nasty white supremacy and the cartoonish portrayal of Wolfsheim as Gatsby’s main man.
So Bachchan doesn’t get much of a chance here, but his whole appearance — his unnervingly sparkling eyes — was ideal for the part. How about you?
JMM: I’ve seen many films with Bachchan and I knew what I was going to get from him. I think Lurhmann cast him as Wolfsheim because it would help market the film internationally — and also because who else might have been considered — Mandy Patinkin?
As for the racist and anti-Semitic remarks — I thought there were plenty of them included in the film to make the point, so even if Lurhmann cut back volume wise — he didn’t soft-pedal those topics in any way.
Another point — didn’t they include enough mysterious phone calls to have us consider that Gatsby was indeed involved in shady doings. And then once they’ve done this, who do we meet at the parties but NY celebs, senators, congressmen, and even the police commissioner was at the speakeasy — so I don’t think Wolfsheim needed any more depth on screen for us to see.
Didion: So this brings me to my last question: about the film’s use of 3D. Even though I’d sworn to myself that I’d skip seeing the 3D versions of film (after Tintin, which was meh), I nevertheless forked out the extra few bucks this time. And… big disappointment.
Now, I get it that Luhrmann’s filming ethos is summed up with, “why not?” But I think the 3D not only failed to add anything, particularly during the lush party scenes, but it detracted for me from the attractiveness of the set and costumes overall. I’d strongly recommend that people see it in 2D.
JMM: The 3D was added in not because of “why not” but because of the revenue stream. This was strictly a marketing decision and a gimmick. As you said if anything it was unnecessary at best, and a distraction at worst. The difference between the 2D ticket and the 3D at my theater was $5. So I think that was behind it.
As was the music. As was Bachchan.
I’ve a question: Do you have a favorite quote from the book/film?
Didion: I’ve been thinking about that. And honestly, I must admit that it’s not the beautiful famous final line of the novel, which Lurhmann uses here (to his credit): “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” A gorgeous line, but so self-conscious.
I had a whole pile of lines I loved in the book — they appear only occasionally in the midst of Fitzgerald’s generally sparse prose. But I think my favorite might be, “In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”
JMM: That is a line filled with beautiful imagery. The one I liked best came on the next to last page. “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
Of course that is why we love the book. About the book and the film version — a thematic question — Lurhmann’s showed this at least three times. — workers with pick-axes working on the mounds of ashes. Is this indicative of a heaven (the palaces and mansions and the party-life) and indicative of a hellish existence — real life with work and sweat? I mean is this at the core of the story, or is it the more surfacey — the old money versus the new money that is one of the base themes? Any thoughts on that?
Didion: Loved the way he created the old optician’s billboard, of a god/death watching over this hellish middle place of sweat and hard work. But the scenes of workmen toiling just seemed, again, like a cartoonish Broadway set.
Your broader question still troubles me. Does the film do enough to satisfy me in capturing the snobbery of old-money types like Tom Buchanan? And the striving desire of new-money types like Gatsby for a glamorous object like old-money Daisy, whose voice “sounds like money”? No, but then our culture is much less concerned about old money than theirs was. I was also a little disappointed that the film didn’t make much of the divide between East Coast society and the Midwesterners (Nick, Daisy, Gatsby) who have arrived there — that is, arrived from a more innocent place.
JMM: Maybe because in the 20s there was so little new money, and the old money wasn’t that old. Tom was a Midwestern guy too. I also recall that Daisy’s mother, at the party, told Daisy about all the “eligible” soldiers attending — rather than the number of good looking men. So even though that party wasn’t an East Coast affair — it still had its own version of snobbery.
I believe that Lurhmann could not do too much with the old money vs. new money because there weren’t any characters (except Tom and Daisy) to represent it with any kind if depth.
Didion: One of my Facebook friends said recently, with a bit of self-deprecation, that she loves anything Luhrmann does because it’s so pretty and shiny. “It’s art, not history!” she proclaimed to haters like me.
If I were to sum up my feelings about the film, I’d say that Luhrmann’s gift for creating shiny, pretty things is prodigious but ultimately I want more emotional depth. I’m glad I saw it on the big screen for those amazing party sequences, but I will never see it again.
JMM: Strong words, Didion! I want to ask for a one word description of how you felt when leaving the theater.
Didion: Honestly, I felt a bit alienated by the film. Part of this is appropriate — that is, we’re supposed to be appalled by Tom and Daisy’s carelessness toward everyone around them. But neither did I feel especially upset by Gatsby’s end; I just hadn’t learned to care about him the way I ought to have. Although I appreciated Lurhmann’s eagerness to show us Fitzgerald’s fine prose — appearing as actual words on the screen — that final line about “boats against the current” remains opaque enough to me that I’m still not sure I know how to feel about it. So yeah, “alienated.”
How about you?
JMM: For me, I think a phrase rather than one word — and it goes back to Gatsby’s delusional behavior. Despite his lack of a reality — I still loved him — hated the Buchanans. Gatsby was a mystery — the Buchanan’s weren’t. So it is far easier for me to admire Gatsby than them. But having said that, I won’t call him heroic or anything like that. And yes, his ending isn’t anything that creates despair in me either. When I left the theater, I was positive about the film.
Didion: Can I ask whether you like Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001)? Because I’m wondering whether this film will appeal more broadly than to the longtime Luhrmann fans who love his “shiny, pretty” things.
JMM: Thought you’d never ask. As for Moulin Rouge, I could only get 30 minutes into it before shutting down my DVD player. Gatsby wasn’t like that for me because I had just read the book. Moulin Rouge had no history for me — other than my travels to Paris. But I never finished it. I’m not a fan of Luhrmann’s but I do appreciate his skills. Or maybe I’ll say that Luhrmann can certainly spend money and make a fabulous looking recreation of another era.
I have Luhrmann’s Australia still unwatched. Guess I’ll be getting to that one soon.
But you know, The Great Gatsby is still an iconic American novel — so I do expect another film version down the road.
Didion: That made me laugh, because I watched maybe 20 minutes of Moulin Rouge before quitting, too! All that overwrought singing and Ewan MacGregor and Nicole Kidman looking at one another like speed freaks … not for me. I will say that this film is just not nearly that spastic.
It’s been a million years since I saw his Romeo + Juliet, which I liked at the time. I will never, ever, ever watch Australia, however.
JMM: And I’ll probably never watch Romeo + Juliet.
Didion: JMM, this has been a pleasure as ever. Even more so because I got to comb over some of the best prose in the book, and engage in the back-and-forth with such a worthy collaborator. Even though I’m more negative about the film than you are, I’m still glad I saw Luhrmann’s version of the Jazz Age onscreen. And I’m looking forward to planning another conversation with you sometime this summer!
JMM: Thank you Didion: It is always fun to work with you. I can safely guarantee that our next viewing won’t be a Luhrmann film. Until the next time — thanks!
When film blogger JustMeMike and I agreed back in November to have a conversation about Zero Dark Thirty (which we’ll abbreviate to ZD30 for ease – and which is, of course, the dramatic tale of the CIA’s pursuit of Osama Bin Laden), I had no idea that it would receive as many raves, nor so many political criticisms.
My main concern (which I voiced to JMM beforehand): that I’d be disappointed by Kathryn Bigelow’s much-anticipated follow-up to The Hurt Locker, for which she won Best Picture and Best Director prizes at the 2009 Academy Awards.
High expectations, attacks from both sides of the political spectrum (from the left over the film’s depiction of torture; from the right over whether the filmmakers gained access to state secrets), and then the Academy failed to nominate Bigelow for Best Director this year – how does one watch a film fairly given all this chatter?
No worries about spoilers for the first half of this long conversation – we’ll warn you when we switch over to spoiling big plot points.
JMM: Hi Didion. I’ve been really looking forward to this just as you have. So let’s get this thing going. You mentioned that you were afraid that your expectations for ZD30 were high. Now that we’ve both seen the film, I’ll lay my cards on the table first to say that I was not disappointed at all. Just the opposite — I felt the film was great. What about you?
Didion: I so agree with you. I left the theater in tears, due to a rush of conflicting emotions. I can’t quite believe Bigelow was able to convey these so effectively. I think it’s a really major film — better than anything I’ve seen this year.
Yes: fear of high expectations due to the threat of disappointment. But I’d also read relatively little about the film itself beforehand, so I didn’t realize quite where it would take me.
Can I just start by saying that the opening 1-2 minutes of the film were possibly the most amazing way to get a film started?
JMM: You mean the WTC audio?
JMM: The WTC voices over a blank screen led to a CIA black site was a seriously affecting jump. Especially since we have no idea of what we will see. Were you amazed because of the unexpected transition or just the impact of the voices taking us back to 9/11?
Didion: Yes: what was so amazing for me made me relive a bit of 9/11. The voices we hear are not ones we heard that day. But you find yourself lost in thought, remembering where you were. And, hence (in my case at least), realizing the extent to which that one day caused a cultural trauma for so many of us. It put me in mind of sitting in a room at school where someone had set up a TV from the A/V room so we could gather and watch the events unfolding. Surrounded by my colleagues and students, all helplessly watching something unthinkable. And then I went home and didn’t stop crying for, what, 24 hours? 48 hours? a week? two weeks?
Now, I don’t quite know how Bigelow knew to do this, or knew how it might affect people in theaters. Or how she chose the voices she did. But it was an amazing way to frame this film, because I think ultimately its tense action scenes are subsumed under its attempt to tell us something about the big wound we’ve all had for the last 11+ years.
JMM: Some have questioned the legitimacy of using those voices — after all, someone could recognize them. I’ll leave that for others to decide. For me the framing was totally unexpected. I even wondered if this was a malfunction in the theater. You know — a gray screen — but I moved past it. As for me, I was crossing the Hudson River from Manhattan to New Jersey, and we were able to see the smoke and flames while on board the ferry. Later we watched on TV and from our own office windows. Yes, we were helpless as well.
JMM: I find the comment you make about the wound we’ve lived with these many years interesting. It will never leave us — either as individuals or as a nation….
Didion: Can I ask you something about the film as a whole that’s been debated publicly? Torture. I was prepared to arrive here today and dismiss the charge that the film advocates for torture as a means of getting information. I could certainly develop an argument that falls in line with what Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have said: that it represents the perspectives of CIA figures without endorsing those views.
But honestly, I believe the film gets as close as possible to arguing that torture leads to information — even as it also says that torture helps to procure a bunch of misleading, incorrect, and distracting information as well. And I’m not sure how I feel about that.
JMM: I think the crux of the matter about the film’s position on torture in indeed ambivalent. Those who have decried the film claim that film glorifies torture and that the film misleads by implying that torture led directly to discovery of enough information to mount the Seal Team operation. I don’t agree with that at all, and here’s why.
The first torture scene is two years after 9/11. Not much was gleaned from this particular detainee. The film hardly glorified torture because both Dan and Maya were shown to suffer from being participants, and finally the reality of the process was that it was a combination of dogged detective work which included the sifting through mountains of paperwork, intercepted phone calls, and the development of information provided by informers. That’s why the mission wasn’t mounted until 2011.
So yes, torture was a part of it — but not the only part nor the most important part.
Didion: Really nicely put, JMM. I agree with everything you’ve said; indeed, this is a film that celebrates the dogged pursuit of reasoned, intelligent analysis of masses of information. Too right.
This film also makes it clear that this work is hard on its analysts. Not just because they’re in danger while they live abroad, but because they are so determined, so single-minded, that they lose track of other things in their lives.
In saying that, I don’t want you to think this is one of those films that pathologizes Maya’s determination, or suggests she’s a pathetic example of a woman with no love interest, no family back home (a tired movie trope if ever there was one). Those things are true, but I thought the film was good at saying thank god she threw herself into her work.
JMM: She certainly did throw herself into her work. By the way, have you any reactions to the way she was perceived first by Dan, then by the CIA Station Chief Joseph Bradley, and finally by the CIA Director?
Didion: Right you are to note that I am sometimes prickly about these portrayals!
The film doesn’t milk it, but it shows that her male colleagues call Maya “the girl.” They do so perhaps in part because, as played by Jessica Chastain — with her tiny frame and enormous blue eyes — she doesn’t look nearly as focused/steely as she really is. At an early point, some of her male colleagues have a conversation about her in which they wonder whether she can take it (witnessing the torture, living in hot zones like Pakistan, etc) — and the scene goes like this:
Dan: Don’t you think she’s a little young for the hard stuff?
Bradley: Washington says she’s a killer.
What does all this mean? I think Bigelow chose a frail-looking, wide-eyed actor like Chastain precisely because she’s capable of provoking conflicted emotions in people. The jolt of realizing that someone as innocent-looking as she could be relentlessly single-minded is brilliant.
Does this jibe with you? And what did you think of Chastain more broadly in the role?
JMM: It wasn’t her physical stature — the other woman analyst, Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), was a bigger woman — it was the fact that they chose this work and lived it 24/7 with such an amazing devotion to it. Some have said Maya was obsessed to the point of being psychotic, I don’t agree with that. But yes — the choice of Chastain as the focal point was not something you might have foreseen. It was a great decision, and I’ll give Boal the credit for writing the screenplay that way. From another perspective — I read that Rooney Mara was also considered — but then we would have had the same physical type (tiny woman, big eyes) anyway.
So using Chastain was definitely a major plus. Which leads to another question. Which male character did you think had the biggest impact on you?
Didion: I’d like to say one quick thing about Chastain: she didn’t always work for me. I almost feel like a traitor for saying it, because by the end of the film I saw so clearly why she was a perfect choice for the filmmakers. I believe it’s because there’s something just so jarring about her waves of great hair, no matter where she’s stationed. And there are a couple of scenes early on when I had to fight to believe she really was a CIA analyst. But as I say, by the end of the film it all worked for me.
I love your question about the most effective male character, and it’s hard for me to answer. I think it was Patrick, the squadron leader played by Joel Edgerton — from late in the film when the team finally gets permission to go ahead with the capture/kill plan. He’s the member of the squad who seems most anxious about the plan. His trepidation is so beautifully portrayed.
How about you?
JMM: Let’s back up a bit — you held Chastain’s looks against her earlier in the film? I wouldn’t have expected that from you. This very fact that she wasn’t a plain Jane with dull clothes and whatever to play down her looks seems to me that you would have objected to that….
Didion: Not held her looks against her — that’s too strong. We’re all used to having gorgeous people in Hollywood films. But her hair was so perfect in every single scene — it stretches credulity for a woman as single-minded as she was. Especially because that particular ‘do of hers takes time. It’s a problem less with Chastain than with the hair & makeup people. (Dan’s hair, in contrast, was absolutely believable.)
In retrospect I think Bigelow made choices early in the film to create doubts from the audience about Maya. Can she handle a suspect being tortured? Can she get the higher-ups to buy her theories? All of this is important to see Maya’s development over the course of the film (and the many years intervening).
But as I watched those early scenes (the first hour, even?) I wasn’t sure Chastain was the right choice. This is what I meant to say.
JMM: Okay. I have it in focus now. Staying with Chastain’s development — I think very early in the initial torture scene, Dan and Maya go out, then return but before they return, he asks her if she wants the black balaclava mask, and she says no. That established her toughness for me right then and there. But that’s not the actress — that’s the script.
Back to the male actors. Just so I know we are talking about. There’s the scene with one guy sitting on a couch and the other tossing the horseshoes. The one tossing them says, “You really believe this story? Osama Bin Laden? Which part convinced you?” The other indicates Maya and says, “Her confidence.” Which one of those was Edgerton?
Didion: The non-horseshoe throwing guy with the trust in Maya. The horseshoe guy is Chris Pratt, who plays a real moron on Parks and Recreation — so much so, in fact, that I just couldn’t buy him as a serious character in this film. My reaction against him was so profound simply because he’s so good as a goober on TV. (He is excellent on TV, BTW.)
One other very tiny complaint: Bigelow stacked this film with recognizable actors. Here I kept thinking, “Oh, there’s Mark Duplass and Édgar Ramírez!”
And: “Oh, I’d forgotten James Gandolfini would be in this! Hey, that’s Elizabeth Bennet from the 1995 Pride and Prejudice!” Very tiny complaints, but it did distract me a bit. Especially because I found the discoveries of no-name actors like Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie from The Hurt Locker to be so wonderful.
JMM: I recognized Mark Strong, and Duplass, Gandolfini of course — but I didn’t have a problem with them. They were identifiable actors in roles we didn’t have names for. Gandolfini was the CIA director — but I don’t think he brought anything to the role — so yes — you’re right to take Bigelow’s to task for the use of those actors.
Didion: A couple more questions before we cut to the latter part of the film (and warn people about spoilers). First, was there anything about the early part of the film that didn’t work for you?
JMM: Not really. I went in knowing how the story would end, but not the film. Likewise I didn’t know how the film would begin — but I thought it would be a slow start and gain speed as it went on. So I won’t say that the early part didn’t work — instead I’ll say that I liked the latter parts better. Do you have something in mind that didn’t work for you early on?
Didion: Not at all. In fact, I realized after about an hour: that Bigelow has done something truly wonderful in showcasing the work of all these lower-level, on-the-ground individuals working so hard to figure out problems. To focus on them rather than the politicians or the generals isn’t just refreshing; I actually want to say it’s democratic.
Another question: which male character proved most vivid/important for you?
JMM: That’s an easy one. Has to be Jason Clark as Dan, the enhanced interrogation expert which was nothing like what he might have been doing in Langley, Second was that he ultimately decided to return to Langley, as he put it — to a “normal job.” It was good to see him make that career change. It was so difficult watching him do those things to detainees:
Can I be honest with you? I am bad news. I am not your friend. I am not going to help you. I’m going to break you.
Didion: He was great. A very appealing person — you can see how he was able to play the good guy during his interrogations but also capable of jarring brutality. I also liked the fact that you saw him age by the near-end of the film. It showed what this work does to people.
Okay, shall we switch to the film’s last hour or so? SPOILERS AHEAD!
Once Maya gets her suspicions confirmed and the CIA commits to an operation to attack the compound in Abbottabad, the film shifts into overdrive. And I don’t mean it becomes a Tom Cruise-like action film. I thought the methodical, terrifying, and nerve-wracking preparation and detail of the compound scenes were some of the most amazing sequences I’ve ever seen on film. What do you think, JMM — did that work as well for you as it did for me?
JMM: Did it work for me? Absolutely. In fact, this was easily the highlight of the film. Since we all knew the outcome of the mission, could Bigelow and Boal still make it exciting, and scary, and filled with tension and even fear? I think they easily hit a homerun with that. The fact that nearly all of the mission was viewed through the night vision goggles — gave the scene an otherworldly feel to it. The creeping around corners, or up the stairs…. We were placed in their shoes and we didn’t know who or what would behind the next doorway — this was just a brilliantly planned, conceived and executed piece of film.
What was it that you felt about it. Was it the feelings the scene created for you, or was it the technical visuals that made it work for you?
Didion: Exactly. The night vision goggles, interspersed with shots from the helicopter — absolutely gripping. But not in a typical action movie way — for maybe three big reasons, as I see it.
First, there’s a moment before the operation when one of the squadron figures (is it Patrick?) warns her that he has lost men in previous missions. I don’t know how to emphasize this enough: the film somehow manages to emphasize the real risk of the operation in a way that seems both gentle and devastating.
Second, the scenes of the entire mission are lengthy and fraught, almost as if it was done in real time. If there’s one thing Bigelow is a true master of, it’s developing a highly detailed and realistic military scenario that doesn’t glorify its characters, but rather emphasizes the true danger. Is there any other director who can do this?
And finally, when was the last time you saw a film that relegated its star to the sidelines for such a crucial sequence? I’m blown away by the fact that this entire part of the film hardly shows much of Maya at all. There’s something about the fact that she, like us, had to experience it vicariously.
JMM: Great point: the star is absent from the encounter. I thought so at the time but hadn’t thought of it since. Marvelous way of setting her aside and relegating her to watching it as we did.
The second point is also quite telling — in most previous Bigelow films, I also thought that action was handled not only masterfully, but also in a way that marked it as quite different that the kinds we were used to seeing..
Your first remark — about reinforcing the elements of danger and high risk — Bigelow outfoxed me on that one too. I expected a shooting casualty — not that a whole chopper would go down.
I wondered about the final accounting of the body. We knew from the news reports and Pentagon briefings that the body had been disposed of at sea. How did you react about the fact that Boal and Bigelow decided to NOT include this?
Didion: Isn’t it strange — I didn’t think about the issue of the body at all. But I was so moved by the fact that they showed very little of the body. Again: what kind of Hollywood film doesn’t show a bloodied body? We saw more of the other bodies in the house than we did of OBL’s.
JMM: I figured since we never saw an actor portraying Bin Laden — there was no need to show any material views of the corpse.
Didion: And let me say I think this was an extraordinary choice to make. There is no grandstanding. I loved the moment when one of the SEALs says to the shooter, “You killed the 3rd-deck person” in a way that seemed incredulous. None of them can quite absorb the moment. The fact that it’s surreal for them makes it all the more surreal for us.
JMM: I’m with you on that. No grandstanding or flag waving. No one could use the term jingoistic to describe it.
There was one scene that caught me completely by surprise. In the sense of I didn’t see it coming: the hotel in Islamabad blown up by a car bomb down on the street. That really shocked me. And it solidified for us exactly how dangerous being in country really was.
Didion: Too right! NO idea that was coming. No wonder I was such a nervous wreck by the end.
The scene that really floored me — and the one that wound up presenting me with so many conflicting emotions: when Maya gets on the aircraft carrier. JMM, tell me why you think that scene is so powerful.
JMM: I didn’t quite leave in tears but I thought the last few moments with Maya on the big air transport plane, totally alone — with nothing to do — no place to go — and no one to see was a supremely difficult moment for all of us. I think that particular image was deeply affecting.
It spoke of the desolation one might have facing the unknown, or the sense of completion of a difficult task which means you are now facing an emptiness There was no other way to convey the moment — it was Bigelow’s point to temper the success of the mission by showing us that for Maya it might be the forerunner of hollowness or depression.
If people want to talk about torture in the negative sense, then when you look at this — what Maya is left with — this is really horrifying to contemplate.
Didion: I’m so with you. What that scene conveys is that the killing of OBL is almost an anti-climax. The best analogy I can think of is that this must be what it’s like to have a family member murdered, and one dedicates all one’s emotional energy toward catching, convicting, and imprisoning the murderer — only to realize that one still has a lot of grieving to do afterward. We place a lot of emphasis on retribution, but ultimately this film shows that Maya still just has a big hole in her soul the way the rest of us do. It amounts to a film that is greater than the sum of its parts. An amazing achievement.
JMM: Early on I said that the film has been controversial and polarizing. I’d like to talk about a part of that now. A few members of the Actors community have expressed negative perspectives. Chief among those was that they believe Bigelow and Boal were all too comfortable in portraying the torture. While they may have been comfortable about it — I don’t think there was too much of it or too much emphasis placed on the role of torture by the filmmakers. Obviously Ed Asner, Martin Sheen, and David Clennon have the right to express their opinions, but do you believe they are making a fair judgment about Bigelow and Boal’s intent?
Didion: Like I said earlier, this is a tough one for me. If I were the judge in this case, I’d insist that we look at the entire film — and the film as a whole emphasizes such humanity that I would be forced to argue the scenes of torture do not constitute an endorsement. But it’s tricky because the film takes for granted — and does not editorialize about — the fact that agents used torture on detainees, and that it helped them get information. I think Asner, Sheen et al are wrong in emphasis but perhaps close to being right about the slippery nature of those early scenes.
JMM: Before I answer, I really don’t want to throw the actors under the bus — but I do think it is interesting that none of them spoke up after President Obama announced that Bin Laden had been killed. Was there anyone, anywhere, that rose up and asked how did you get this info. Was torture involved? I don’t think a small Pakistani child called up and said you might be interested to know who lives across the street.
Didion: I think you’ve nailed something important: this film is agonizingly clear about the fact that one cannot trust the information you gain by torture. It simply amounts to yet more information, much of which might be false. Rather, this film advocates for the trained analysts whose job it is to think intelligently and in educated ways about the masses of conflicting information — indeed, about the sheer vast bulk of information.
JMM: I want to ask about a particular scene that did trouble me. And this might have been a bit of the Hollywood in the film — or make that a small bit of overriding luck. They are able to get their hands on a phone — clone it, and then with their sophisticated tools — somehow they end up driving right NEXT to the car with the courier. Did you find that believable? Talk about your needles in a haystack….
Didion: In such a long, methodical film it DID seem improbable (and quite fuzzy on the details), didn’t it?
JMM: I’ll give them time compression — it might have been many long months — but how did they get the phone — I’m a bit unclear on that.
Didion: So one of the things I said at the beginning of this conversation — a big, sloppy, grand statement — is that it’s the best thing I’ve seen all year. Is that too grand for you, JMM? You’ve seen a lot more films than I have — and have written about them wonderfully, so I imagine you have a strong opinion on this subject.
JMM: I’ll go you one better. I think this was the best film of the year and I think that I have to go all the way back to All the President’s Men to find a film based on real events that I liked as much as ZD30.
I think I measure a film by a number of standards but ultimately always ask whether I was engrossed by the film. Did it captivate me to the extent that I wasn’t bothered by the folks chomping popcorn a few seats away. I was fully and totally invested in this one — and for me, that’s a prime indicator of its excellence.
Didion: Let’s keep slathering on the superlatives, shall we?
As an academic I often find myself squirming when I think real-life events are portrayed in ways that don’t fly. So even though I have no idea what torture looks like, how a black site works, or how CIA operatives figure stuff out, I do know that absolutely none of those depictions onscreen felt phony or Hollywood-ized. For examples, see virtually every Hollywood film made about a historic event.
But I’ll go ya one further: this film is somehow also about us, about we who experienced 9/11 and have not learned to grieve. It leads us through a process of killing the architect of that attack and mass murder, but it does so such that we can get someplace beyond the drive for retribution.
I don’t know what to say beyond the fact that this is an amazing film — I’ve never seen anything like it. Even All the President’s Men didn’t deal with such subjects like the importance of figuring out who we are once our primary bad guy is dead. Or the fact that once he was dead, he just looked like an ordinary old man.
I’m not sure how far I’m willing to go with superlatives. But I’m tempted to say it’s the most amazing film achievement of the last ten years.
JMM: Well if that isn’t the grandaddy of superlatives than I don’t know what is. But I very much liked the reference you made about “who we are”. We are the ones who created the terms Enhanced Interrogation. I’m reminded of Hannah Arendt’s The Banality of Evil (which ties in with your remark about OBL being “like an ordinary old man”). In the Bourne film, David Straithairn says that the CIA is now ‘‘the sharp end of the stick”.
Didion: Tell me, JMM, have you seen anything else since watching ZD30, and are you now ruined for the rest of the films available in theaters at this time of year?
JMM: Like the detective said to Jack Nicholson at the end of Chinatown: “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”
Forget it Didion — it’s January — there won’t be anything good coming out for a while. Or at least until April.
Didion: Sigh. I have a long list of things to see in the theater, but I just can’t imagine I’ll be able to see them without being disappointed. How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen ZD30?
JMM: You got that right Professor! —
Didion: Many, many thanks, JMM — what a pleasure to talk about this film. Such a stunning piece of work. [Tips her glass in the air]
JMM: My pleasure to have had the opportunity to work with you once more. I’ll raise my glass to that too!
11 June 2012
It’s a Big Summer Blockbuster, people! It’s a prequel to Alien! And it asks the most fundamental philosophical questions known to man: who are we? where did we come from? why are we here?
As a result, one cannot discuss a film like Ridley Scott’s Prometheus alone — so one again I sit down with blogger extraordinaire JustMeMike of The Arts. Beginning last spring, we’ve discussed a number of films in depth beginning with White Material, Miral, Larry Crowne, David Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Whistleblower, and The Hunger Games.
To recap the film’s plot setup: it follows archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) who discover a series of primitive cave paintings and ancient art portraying early humans flanked by giant figures who point to a specific star configuration in the heavens. Believing this to be a star map, and believing further that those giant figures represent aliens who may be the creators of humankind, Shaw and Holloway set off with a scientific team on the starship Prometheus, funded by the Weyland Corporations, for the outer reaches of space to locate the aliens (whom they term “The Engineers”). The plan: to get those fundamental questions answered.
The ship is staffed with what, to Alien fans, will be a familiar group: the creepy robot David (Michael Fassbender); Meredith Vickers, the forbidding head of the expedition who’s got secrets (Charlize Theron); Janek, the ship’s captain qua cowboy (Idris Elba); and a ragtag/ unpredictable group of other crew and scientists whose motives remain to be uncovered. When they land and find a planet seemingly empty of creatures, they begin to explore an enormous ancient building complex … only to discover that perhaps it’s not empty after all.
In classical myth, the god Prometheus created man out of clay, and later gave him the technology of fire after stealing it from the other gods. Will the latter-day crew of the Prometheus find a similarly benevolent race of creators? Or will they meet a nightmarish fate similar to that in the Greek myth: punished by being chained to a rock, destined to have his liver eaten by an eagle every day, only to have the liver grow back overnight?
More important: if this is a prequel to Alien, how exactly will it set the stage?
Here’s my prediction: wherever Ridley Scott decides to take us, it’ll probably be interesting.
NOTE: We’ve decided to start with general conversation about the film and only about midway, when we’ll warn you when you need to stop.
JustMeMike: Watching Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley race against time, as well as the implacable killing machine/ alien, was a searing, visceral experience. So I brought that thought with me to a packed theater and settled in to watch Prometheus. Before we break down the film, what were your thoughts as you settled into your seat?
Didion: I’ve been trying to keep myself ignorant of films before going in, so that I have fewer expectations — you know how high expectations can ruin your experience of a film. But it was hard to escape the enticing notion of an Alien prequel, not to mention that the script was co-written by Damon Lindelof, one of the co-creators of the TV series Lost.
So I have to say, I enjoyed this movie! On the whole I walked out thinking it was worth the $11 to see this super-duper spectacle on the big screen, especially for the creepy anticipation and the horror elements. How about you, Mike: if someone trapped you in a corner at a cocktail party and asked, “Should I see Prometheus?” what would you say?
JMM: I believe one can recommend it despite the flaws, problems, issues, errors, and vague disappointment I had AFTERWARDS. Make any sense? Like it was two films. The one that played before my eyes, and the one that played in my head ever since.
Didion: I know exactly what you mean. So maybe we can try to figure out first why it seems to work so well going down, only to settle uneasily afterward. I had the same experience as you: I was completely absorbed by the progression of the tale — and I must say, by the spectacularly audacious question of whether these humans might discover their creators. Tell me: why does this film feel so well-constructed at least as you’re experiencing it?
JMM: The Ridley Scott DNA! The man is skilled in filling a cinematic canvas — of this there’s no doubt. I mean, if he’s the “engineer” of the film — wait, that’s not correct either — he’s the pilot — then it will look, sound and feel great. But it was relatively short — just a bit over two hours — and the questions are so big that the film really needed more time and depth.
Didion: I love the characterization that Scott “knows how to fill a canvas.” The film’s whole first half, the setup, is so terrifically creepy and methodically paced, and we have no idea where it’s going … fantastic. Sci-fi is so rich as a genre because unlike so many other narratives, the theme of exploring new worlds is one that can go anywhere — and Scott’s a master of vivid visual imagery.
Let me also say that Michael Fassbender is the real star of this film, even though he’s not the hero. As David, the ramrod-straight robot with a fixation for Peter O’Toole’s character in Lawrence of Arabia, he even dyes his hair blonde to replicate O’Toole’s and recites some of the best lines from that film, as if to practice being more cocksure and independent than he was intended to be. His character evokes the creepy robot from Alien (and maybe every other creepy robot in film), ultimately bringing up the film’s essential questions: why were we made? I’d like to offer that Fassbender’s acting goes far to make this film so creepy and watchable.
JMM: Fassbender’s performance was nothing short of amazing. Clearly I agree: he’s the real star of the film. However, I’d go further and say that he’s the only star in the film. There’s a fascination with him — he runs the ship without a soul to talk to for the two or three years it takes to get there — so he’s not bothered by the isolation. But yet he seems to relish the contact with the humans. So you feel he’s creepy and watchable. Interesting. Which of those two terms is more apt?
Didion: I couldn’t choose — he’s one of the best antagonists I’ve seen in film for a long time. He’s both creepy and watchable because despite being created to work for humans, and despite having no feelings, he has motives that most of the Prometheus’s crew doesn’t know about.
Here’s a problem I’m having: even just in our brief conversation so far, I can’t help but think about all the ways this film seems to be an apotheosis of Ridley Scott. David the robot reminds us of the robot in Alien, but it also reminds us of the ones in Blade Runner. Did I enjoy this film partly because I kept seeing mystic chords of connection to those earlier films? Did you think about this?
JMM: Actually, I kept thinking about Alien and not Blade Runner — maybe because Blade Runner was set on earth. But when I made comparisons with Alien they were negative or less enjoyable — because I invariably thought Alien was better.
Didion: Maybe it’s just been so long since I’ve seen Alien that I compared the two films less — and maybe as a result I found the parallels to be evocative rather than disappointing. Maybe it’s also because the questions he uses to frame the film are so large, so audacious. It felt like a film made by an old genius who can’t stop returning to the same themes.
I’ll confess my biggest disappointment: Noomi Rapace is fine, but not enough so. She actually received top billing for this role — a stunning achievement considering her relatively thin English-language career — but in the end she doesn’t have the charisma to take the bare bones of this character and flesh it out to take charge of this film as its protagonist.
JMM: Wow! You just dropped a couple of bombs on me. So here goes: I think this shouldn’t be thought of as Scott’s career capper. I think a sequel is in the future. A sequel to the prequel. I think that I do like the the concept of the old man returning to his favorite themes. I’ll hold off on Noomi for a moment. Let’s talk about the themes. Have you considered whether Christianity is a large theme in this film? First we have the opening (a form of sacrifice) then we have Shaw wanting to know of David where her cross is …. Am I looking for something that’s not there, or do you see something similar?
Didion: To be precise: the opening shot in the film shows a strange, human-like, highly muscled figure (an Engineer) drinking a mysterious black liquid, which destroys his body — and as he collapses into a massive waterfall, his body seems to seed the earth with DNA as a massive star ship leaves him behind. It’s a fascinating scene because we have no idea why it’s taking place. Meanwhile, several dozen millennia later, Elizabeth Shaw finds no conflict between her Christianity and her scientific pursuits. Even if she manages to prove that the Engineers created mankind, she points out that we will still not know who engineered them.
I think Scott inserted these themes to ask whether that initial sacrifice by the Engineer was a noble one or motivated by other darker reasons — and I didn’t find the quasi-Christian themes terribly overt. Maybe the most fundamentalist will complain about the film’s setup, but overall the film’s basic themes are more general than religious.
JMM: It could be a sacrifice or it could be something else. It could be the Prometheus of Greek mythology: cast out and punished. The figure seemed to be alone, left behind … why does he drink the fluid? These questions aren’t answered.
Then there’s Shaw’s attachment to the cross.
Didion: It felt to me as if Scott felt he could not avoid questions of God and/or the ultimate creator if he were going to make a film that asked questions about where we come from. Yet despite touching on those themes, and turning Elizabeth Shaw into a believer (a fact the robot David finds odd and fascinating, to the point of wanting to toy with it), the film seems primarily concerned with humans’ relationship to their more immediate creators, the Engineers. I wasn’t sure exactly what to make of Shaw’s faith — her attachment to the cross is as much evidence of her love for her father as for her religion, right? The cross becomes an almost superstitious symbol rather than what most Christians would believe: that the material symbol itself is less important than the faith behind it.
JMM: Yes, we can’t really make too much of the cross. It could be as easy as a family heirloom, or it could be more.
Back to Noomi as Shaw — you mentioned that she was fine, and she received top billing despite being less well-known for English-language viewers, but that she didn’t do more with the role. On this I disagree. I think she did as much as she could — meaning the problem wasn’t her performance but lack of character development. She starts as a scientist and ends up taking on a heroic role more like Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, yet we aren’t given enough information about her to care more the way we care about Weaver.
Did you notice in the opening on the ship, when the crew is gathered for Shaw and Charlie to explain the mission: Shaw describes finding the star constellations on early cave paintings, and a crew member asks, “Like a map?” and Shaw looks at Charlie first, then says, “No, more like an invitation.” I wondered why she looked at Charlie first. That’s what I meant that character wasn’t developed — seems like she could have answered directly. This was just the first flaw in the character rather than the actress.
Didion: You’ve put your finger on it: she’s portrayed relationally. For the first part of the film she’s quite oriented to her partner/ love interest, Charlie; we also learn how attached she was to her beloved father when she was a child, only to lose him to disease. We learn that she can’t bear children, and that this is a source of pain to her. She looks to Charlie during that scene because we need to see her as a character who is, perhaps, very smart but not possessed of the inner strength to face what’s coming.
Maybe my problem was that between the director’s and editor’s choices about later scenes, I never quite cathected to Shaw the way I did to all of Ridley Scott’s prior heroes, especially Ripley. Now, that’s a tall order, I realize — but despite watching Noomi undergo some spectacular feats later in the film, I just … well, didn’t care so much about her, as if she were always one of the secondary characters. A more masterful actor would have taken the reins and given the audience someone to cheer for.
Talk me down from the ledge, JMM! Am I being too harsh?
JMM: Sorry you’re out on that ledge — but there you will stay. At least about Rapace. I still contend that she was limited by the script. As you put it — she’s a secondary character. Also slotted into secondary roles are Janek and Vickers — the ship’s Captain, and the Weyland Corporation’s watchdog Vickers (Charlize Theron) — now there’s a one-note character we grow to hate quickly.
So in the end re: Noomi’s performance, I’ll leave you in your position, and I take the contra — I wasn’t disappointed.
*** Spoilers to follow! ***
*** The following is best for those who’ve already seen the film! ***
Didion: So, JMM, is it time to enter into the spoilers section of our conversation? Is it time to address some of those WTF? issues the film raises?
JMM: Thought you’d never ask!
I found myself disappointed by the fact that the film started with great questions but then degenerated into an action movie. So they land on that planet and head for that huge structure. Right away we begin to feel a sense of dread. I don’t think that this feeling was unexpected — in fact we were eager for it. Am I right? Did you grip your arm rests a little tighter as they headed out and we and the characters were facing the unknown?
Didion: Those scenes of exploring the planet’s mysterious structure — with its weird holographic ghosts and strange locked rooms that David seems to know how to open — it was all great, at least at first.
But then as the mysteries keep snowballing, they become convoluted. You’ve already put your finger on three of the film’s most serious limitations:
- The film is too short to do justice to the plot
- The film becomes an action film too abruptly
- The film ultimately becomes simply a placeholder for the sequel, which means that a lot of its mysteries get postponed till the next film
I hate to sound as if I’m jerking our readers around on my attitude toward the film, but this is the truth: I both enjoyed the whole thing, and walked out saying, “Wait a second, WTF?” about all those weird incomplete plot points. I want a film that can just stand alone! I don’t like seeing films that spend the whole last reel setting up a franchise!
JMM: Bingo! You’ve got that right. Amen.
We have a plethora of inexplicable items that we could toss out there. I’ll start with one of minor importance yet which made no sense at all. Why did they mislead us about Weyland? We meet him early on via a holograph — and he says something like “As you watch this I’m long since dead” — only then he turns out to be alive — but only for a short period! That’s a real WTF for me.
Didion: Okay, I’m going to beg that you indulge me for a moment in waxing on a theme. Because this is the part of the film I found absolutely crazy:
This film isn’t just about the question of who made us, or why we are here. It ultimately seems to say that our creators had ambivalent or even hostile motives in creating us, and that they are working against us. And that means that the relationship between those “parents” and “children” becomes hostile, and they try to kill one another.
I’ve never seen so much patricide/ infanticide in a film. It’s crazy!
Which brings me back to your Weyland question: Weyland is the exemplar of the ambivalent creator. He’s David’s creator — and thus when he suddenly appears halfway through, it might help to explain some of the robot’s motives (is David messing around with all those mystery fluids in order to find an elixir of life for Weyland?). But he is also Meredith Vickers’ father — a fact that makes neither of them very happy and explains her icy coldness and antipathy for the whole venture. “A king has his reign, and then he dies. It’s inevitable,” she tells her father, with iciness in her eyes.
Okay, Mike, you’ve indulged me in my thematic wandering — are you willing to go there with me, or am I being a classic academic over-reader?
JMM: No, I’m not going there, and no, you’re not being a classic over-reader. Yes the killing of parents is a theme, and yes the killing of the children is also a theme.
These could be outshoots from Scott’s personal life. A falling out with his children or earlier with his own parents. Or it could be stuff tossed in without rhyme or reason. What does it amount to? So Weyland is Vickers’ father. So what? I thought it was totally unnecessary, and didn’t shock. I think that was the intent to shock, but it failed.
Second, David and the elixirs. If David wanted to extend Weyland’s life, why does he discuss (abstractly) the killing of parents? And on another level, why do the Engineers want to create a map/ invitation leading humans to their location? To come and be destroyed? Or to bring back to earth the very items that would lead to the destruction of humanity?
Maybe there are good Engineers and bad Engineers. The one living (in stasis) Engineer that they find, and resuscitate — what does he do after the brief conversation with David? rips off David’s head, then kills old man Weyland. At this point I was completely puzzled. These events came out of nowhere — and make little or no sense.
Yet the theme of patricide/ infanticide is so prevalent — between David and Weyland, Weyland and Vickers, Shaw and her long-dead mother, Shaw and her evil monster spawn baby. When was the last time an abortion — a self-administered abortion! — became so prominent a plot point in a summer blockbuster? Damn! It’s crazily fascinating, though … especially if part of your appreciation for the film comes from its subtheme of Ridley Scott as a creator. This film evokes at least subtly so many of Scott’s other films that it seems to position him in one of those father roles — and yet with this manic plot it’s as if he’s creating the conditions for his own doom.
Let me ask about something far more specific: we find early on in the exploration of the planet’s big structure a whole lot of dead bodies of Engineers — bodies decapitated, as if undergoing a battle with other forces. Immediately nearby are the tanks full of an eery, oozing substance, as if that substance is itself an unbeatable foe for the Engineers. Yet it later turns out the Engineers were planning to take armories full of that ooze to Earth to kill off the very humans they created all those eons ago. Please explain.
JMM: Good Engineers and bad Engineers. That’s my guess. An internecine battle or disagreement amongst the Engineers themselves. I’ve no basis for that other than the bodies being piled up. Beyond that — who might the opponent be?
Backing up for a moment — you mentioned the self-administered abortion. Of course it was an abortion, yet when Shaw entered the facility, she asked for a Caesarean. That’s peculiar. Also peculiar was Shaw’s recovery from surgery — but we’ll leave that on the side for the moment.
Wasn’t Scott going around in circles in one sense — from the birth of humankind to the birth of the Alien at the end — and from who or what did that birth come from — was that the result of the snake like monster killing the Engineer — or was that a rape? The snake tentacle goes into the mouth of the Engineer which takes all the fight out of him. Does the Alien birth stem from that?
Didion: Exactly! if we think of Prometheus as an origins tale, it is the nastiest, meanest, most morally ambivalent tale of origins ever!
The genealogy for the alien at the end was half ooze, half Charlie — impregnated into Shaw. Then Shaw’s aborted evil monster spawn baby mates with one of the Engineers, resulting in: Alien! Remember that creepy egg on the original poster for Alien? No eggs at all along the line here.
I’m convinced you’re right: perhaps a intra-Engineer war that took place many centuries earlier. But I’ve got one more WTF question: aren’t we supposed to think that the planet was left in the condition it was in order that humans — the Engineers’ “children” — ultimately return and set off that chain of dominoes that would lead to the destruction of humanity? Otherwise why the trail of clues — the cave paintings, the mysteriously locked rooms, the sole body trapped in stasis the same way Weyland’s body (and the rest of the crew) had been preserved for the long interstellar voyage?
This is why I find the open-endedness of the film’s conclusion so aggravating — I don’t want to have to wait another year or more to have the film’s most basic questions answered!
JMM: I’m betting that the sequel won’t answer the questions — there are too many of them. Think about the the timelines of the film: when Earth was just a planet without humans, the Engineers cast off one of their own to seed the planet. His DNA in the ocean would have evolved into humans over millennia. Then eons and eons later, when we humans were still in our caveman era, the Engineers came back (?) to visit the earliest human collectives in various places on Earth to issue the invitations.
Then millennia later humans attain the power to understand the invitations and reach the Engineers — how come there were no intervening visits? If the engineers on the planet were killed by aliens how come we didn’t meet any? The engineers have to have been killed by other engineers. Have to be.
But you are right that the open-endedness is frustrating and aggravating. I think also sloppy filmmaking — unless as you said — the purpose it to hype the sequel.
Didion: Argh! exactly. That whole two-visit question bothered me for hours afterward. (And by the way, JMM, you’ve now helped to raise my hackles all over again: if you’re right and the sequel has no answers, I’ll be furious! On the other hand, if it’s nothing but explanations I’ll also be annoyed, because I love the opaque themes and crazy action of a Ridley Scott film!)
I mentioned before it seems strange that the film’s kooky/ nonsensical plotting and ugly, patricidal origins story didn’t detract from my enjoyment of it as I watched — it only started to bug me as we walked out (and later, obviously). And I think it’s because the film’s CGI is so good. Know what I liked the best? David’s little computerized airborne probes that create a 3D architectural plan of the structure remotely. I just geeked out during those scenes.
JMM: The technical aspects of the film were superb. That’s why we liked the film as we watched — the visuals precluded thinking about its problems — or postponed them. But even those probes were just Scott’s homage to The Matrix, just as he paid tribute to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In The Matrix, there were the probes — but they were mechanical. In 2001 we had the transition — the ape throws the bone in the air, and it becomes a space ship. Here we had the Engineers’ DNA launched into the ocean which leads us to Shaw in the caves. Even the old man Weyland connoted the aged Keir Dullea character from 2001. Paying homage to excellent films of the past just added to the allure of this film. Speaking of exceptional — what else did you like?
Didion: This film brought together two of my favorite things to watch in film: the “don’t go into the haunted house!” kind of storyline, as they enter the structure and encounter the ghostlike apparitions of the now-dead Engineers; and the “last man standing” theme that was so obvious in Alien but also in various westerns and other sci-fi movies. Those earliest scenes of exploring the labyrinthian structure are so vivid and wonderful. And from the very beginning you meet the ship’s crew and start to wonder in what order will they fall — will the characters engage in battle against one another? which ones will turn out to be cowards? LOVE the creepy anticipation of those dual themes.
How about you, JMM? What else worked for you — or, conversely, didn’t work?
JMM: I loved the heroic captain who knew what he had to do. Janek was at once stereotypical and yet he wasn’t just another good guy who gave up his life to save the world. I liked Charlize Theron’s work in the film but detested the character.
But you know what? I wanted to be terrified way more than we actually were. Alien was unsurpassed in terms of terror when it was released, and still is. Prometheus isn’t terrifying at all. We get a sense of dread and we know that bad stuff will happen. But it really isn’t that scary is it? Wriggling worms on the floor of the rooms with the storage containers. Sticky substances? Even at the end, the birth of the xenomorph which was the beginning of the Alien monster we saw thirty three years ago for the first time seemed not as terrifying as we knew what it would become.
But here is the one thing that was truly terrifying. We knew David would poison Charlie. And we had to watch it happen without knowing why, since David’s motives were still somewhat unknown at the time — this was very scary. With that move he became a character to fear, but we didn’t know the reason? What is your take on that?
Didion: You’re probably right that in terms of terror, we got more mileage out of anticipation than we did in scary battle scenes. The film had more gross-out horror than thrills — I mean, that abortion scene! Which is entirely appropriate given what we know about these monsters and their eagerness to kill humans in order to implant their creepy monster babies.
That’s perhaps why David becomes such a pivotal character in the film. Why does he do it? It’s an impossible question to answer if we can believe him that he feels no human emotions. I read it as an issue of his being loyal to his creator, Weyland: David needs someone to experiment on as he searches for a means of keeping Weyland alive, and Charlie is convenient (and also not crucial to the crew of the ship). David’s utter moral ambivalence is riveting.
I love it that you brought up Janek, played nicely by the charismatic British actor Idris Elba. At some point early on I paused in watching the film and thought, every single one of these major actors is affecting a false accent!
Charlize Theron (South African) affects American accent
Noomi Rapace (Swedish) affects British accent
Michael Fassbender (Irish) affects very clipped British accent
Idris Elba (British) affects Southern US accent
Guy Pearce (Australian) affects American accent
Which, to be honest, gives the whole thing a very ersatz vibe!
But now that I’m making comments like this, I’m wondering whether it’s time to wrap up. JMM, do you have any final thoughts, quips, nifty conclusions? You’re clearly better-versed in the Ridley Scott/ sci-fi genre than I am!
JMM: Gee thanks. Now I have to be nifty? You do a great job of discussing the impact of the characters, and you’ve covered a lot of territory in examining the film’s strengths and weaknesses.
Okay back to nifty — hmm — I think I’ll reference my early remark about Ridley Scott being an artiste in the sense of filling up a cinematic canvas. However the downside of this is the craziness of the story. It takes me back to something I mentioned earlier — that this felt like two films in one, the one that unfolded as we watched, and the one we thought about afterward. I believe we could spend hours more picking the film apart, and I also believe that we could spend hours more discussing the things we liked in the film.
But we won’t. I’m ending my part of this talk by thanking you, and by thanking AMC for letting me see the film for six bucks on Friday morning. My final thought is that the film disappointed me as well as gave me two hours of fun.
Didion: I agree! many thanks, JMM. This chat reminds me that Ridley Scott’s biggest questions — which I can sum up glibly as, who’s your daddy? and why are we here? — may not be answered by Prometheus, but they’re always going to be interesting. And no one is left chained to a rock to have his liver eaten by an eagle — so hey, why not spend two hours enjoying the thrill ride?
I was getting a haircut the other day, and the woman sitting next to me spoke about her reluctance to see The Hunger Games. “I just hate gorey movies,” she explained. “And the idea of children eating other children grosses me out.”
“They don’t eat one another!” I objected. “They’re forced to kill one another as part of a state-run reality TV show in a dystopian future!”
Okay, this is kind of a big difference, eating vs. merely killing one another — and for squeamish readers I can assure you that the gore factor is fairly low considering the subject matter. It’s strangely difficult to explain what made the books so compelling. Yet compelling they are: I’m pretty sure my set of books ricocheted amongst 9 different friends over the course of a 4-month period, each time resulting in late-night emails from those friends that said, “OMG The Hunger Games!”
Chalk it up in part to a powerful, driving narrative and a terrific central character in Katniss Everdeen. To quickly sum up the plot, Katniss has grown up in one of the nation’s poorest districts — so poor, in fact, that she and her best friend Gael have taught themselves to poach animals from the off-limits woods near home. Without her skills with a bow and arrow, setting traps, and scavenging for berries and other foods, her family would have starved long ago.
But then the annual Hunger Games begins. Long ago the nation’s 12 districts rebelled against the capital and when the federal government regained control, it instituted these “games.” Two children, a boy and girl, are chosen randomly from each district to compete against each other in a fantasy wilderness arena until only one is left alive. That battle is projected to every TV with the notion that it will somehow bring the nation together as they root for and celebrate the winner. But it also demands that the “tributes” make themselves TV-ready and appealing even as they kill one another or simply fight to survive — because the richest or most charismatic can get special gifts throughout the course of the games from sponsors who might tilt the balance between life and death with a packet of medicine, matches, or food. When Katniss is chosen alongside a baker’s son named Peeta, she is forced out of her “anything to survive” mentality, and must decide how much she’s willing to play the TV game.
Spoilers ahoy as you proceed!
As the blogger JustMeMike and I sat down to discuss the film, my first question to him is, have you read the books? and does the film seem to be the compelling document that I’ve described about the books?
JustMeMike: Thanks for the brief intro and plot outline. I only bought the book this past Thursday and did my utmost to keep it closed. I brought it with me on my trip to New York, but I should have left it home, as I never opened it on either flight. I will admit to reading the first three pages before I left. So at most, I went in with scant knowledge. So go right ahead, and call me a noob.
Now that I’ve seen the film, I will readily agree that it is compelling, and that I’m 100% certain that I will go through the rest of the books that follow in the series — asap.
Since you’ve read the book, and I haven’t — can you give me a sense of how the film and book compare?
Didion: That might wind up being the most talked-about subject of the day! And that’s too bad, since I’d theoretically like to think of this solely as a film, but let’s face it: I can’t.
I’d say two main things. First, I walked out feeling impressed that the film had done such a great job of covering a lot of ground in the books — my partner and I were really happy about the film overall. I especially thought Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss was just amazing — and I’d been skeptical, as she’s clearly a curvy 22-year-old, whereas Katniss is a skinny, half-starved 15-year-old.
I do have one criticism comparing the two (and this is my second point). For me, the most moving thing about the books was that Katniss agonizes about appealing to TV viewers; she’s spent her whole life feeling defensive and protective of her family, so she hates smiling and pretending to like Peeta in order to gain TV fans. I felt the film gave short shrift to that storyline. Yet again, I still feel satisfied with the movie overall.
JustMeMike: Ok — my question was really too broad for a short answer or even a longish one. But I was lost about the coal mining aspect of the Seam. The Capital seemed so advanced and Katniss’s area seemed so deprived. How does the Capital have super technology and yet there are still functioning coal mines?
Didion: The future imagined in the book is one in which many of the “districts” (states) are poor and conduct basic services on behalf of the few richest districts and the Capital. Her district mines coal; other raise wheat or whatever and are just about as poor.
So part of what the book does is to juxtapose the super-rich, superficial people in the capital of Panem (there’s a Latin phrase, panem et circenses, that means “bread and circuses”; capturing its superficiality and its likeness to Rome before the fall) with the incredibly poor, manipulated citizens of faraway districts like Katniss’s. When she gets to the capital and sees everyone with their elaborate clothes and makeup and plastic surgeries, it’s like a freak show to someone who couldn’t afford to buy bread.JMM: Okay, I’d like to talk about Katniss. What impressed me most was her strength before the games or even before the Reaping. She was the protector, the provider, and at the core of her family. Yet as the Hunger Games process begins she seems a bit weak at first but it’s only temporary. She is simply a rock going forward. I simply loved that part of her.
Didion: Doesn’t she make a terrific heroine? Especially in our age of Iron Man and Spider-Man and so on — without a single super-hero skill or supernatural gift, Katniss has been forced by circumstance into obtaining precisely some of the skills she’d need to succeed at the games.
Lawrence does a great job with this role. There were a couple of strange moments that perhaps make best sense vis-à-vis the book, but she made me cry. Fantastic. Did you think she managed to be her own person?JMM: I thought she went beyond gender. I think that if you think of the sister Prim, who was weak and timid from the beginning — then Katniss seemed even stronger. But what I meant was that it was her youth and the strength of her will and determination that was so impressive. My point is that if Katniss had been a boy with those same qualities, the film would have worked just as well. Yet, I was most glad that Katniss wasn’t a boy.
In fact, I didn’t much care for Peeta at the beginning, and I had no sense of what he would reveal later on.
Didion: Oh, that’s interesting — “beyond gender.” I’m not sure I’d go that far. I think there’s a part of me who sees a female form with a bow and arrow and it’s such a direct reference to Diana that I can’t help but think about all those classical myths. But you’re so right that she embodies a kind of strength that goes beyond typical representations of women in film.
Obviously the book takes a lot longer in telling the story of the Games, and during that time Katniss wrestles with the job of killing other kids. You see a lot less of that here. Ultimately she kills, what, one kid? the one who kills Rue? I wonder if perhaps her reluctance to kill also makes her seem more humane/feminine in the books.
Argh, I hate to keep making reference to the books, but Peeta was quite hate-able at first and then becomes a total mensch. Didn’t quite play out fully satisfactorily here, but oh well.
JMM: Of course he turned himself into something to be admired. But backing up a bit — the reference to Diana from mythology is correct but it might not fit all the viewers of the film. I watched the film and didn’t go there myself.
I think that since I hadn’t read the book, and came to the film without that background — I didn’t have the sense of her unwillingness to kill. In fact I thought that she bought into Haymitch’s strategy right away. He told her to run the other way — don’t go near the Cornucopia — so she was in a defensive mode from the jump. Sure enough, half of the Game’s participants were seemingly slaughtered immediately. When she did kill it was also an act of self defense — someone rushed her position. Didion: So I’m curious, JMM, since you hadn’t read the books, did you see important themes coming through in the film? Or does it just seem like a really great action film?
I ask because the book lends itself easily to metaphorical readings. I have now referred many times to the tenure process for young academics as The Hunger Games. And grad school. But when I watched the film I was so nervous about it doing something “wrong,” that I’m not sure I have the wherewithal to tell whether the film throws itself open to multiple readings like that.
JMM: Of course it is an action film, but it’s clearly more. It is a cautionary tale, a tale of how consumption and inequalities could lead to rebellion, and I don’t believe that it was submerged or clouded over in the film. The President made it clear that the games were both a reality show as well as a way of keeping social control. By televising the Games, and by making the 24 tributes look and act their best (to attract sponsor support as well as fan interest) made everyone a participant. By having a rooting interest or a favorite — that meant tacit support of the system which really means that the Games were just another way to control the people. Didion: That’s a relief — because I think the broader meanings of the story are one of the reasons so many people refer to this as a phenomenon, something broader than just a film.
When I first read it, the deep fears and distrust of the government at Panem almost made me wonder whether this book was going to be a Tea Party or Libertarian favorite. But as the Games progress there’s a fascinating progressive tale — all those viewers in other districts get so attached to a couple of the tributes, like Katniss, that they start riots when the Games seem to tilt against them. Fascinating during an election year, eh?
So I’ve got another question for you: apparently the filmmaker did a lot of work to ensure a PG-13 rating (by not putting much gory detail into the killing scenes, for example) — even the scenes of hand-to-hand combat are quite fuzzy and oblique — such that kids might attend in greater numbers. But the fact is, this is a pretty dark tale even if you don’t see guts spraying all over the screen. Is this one of those cases in which parents should be wary of taking their kids to see it, even if their kids loved the books? (I’m remembering our conversation about the rape scene in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo here.)
JMM: No I don’t see parental concern arising at all. I’m an adult, and I just bought the book 4 days ago. Which means that 25 million books were sold before I bought mine. I think that in most family situations, the parents became aware of the books after their children did.
As for the lack of gore — I rather liked that. I don’t think the film needed a drop of blood except after the fact. We didn’t see the spear hit Rue, but instead saw what had happened only after the fact — and that worked fine for me.
But getting to the last part of the your reply — for sure it is a dark tale. What surprised me most was that a few of the characters like Rue and a few smaller boys seemingly had no chance at all. They were slaughtered seconds into Games. How was it that there were no volunteers to protect them?
Didion: That’s one of the most brutal and depressing parts of the book — who in his/her right mind would volunteer for something that means you’ve got a 1 in 24 chance of surviving? Some of the previous Games were particularly sadistic; one was set in a desert where no one could find any water and virtually everyone died of thirst within 24 hours. So if you’re poor and skinny and all your peer-age kids are skinny too, who’s going to volunteer?
But then there are the richer districts (as the film teaches us) who train their children from the earliest ages to be ridiculously powerful and skilled so they might win — and thereby bring back food and a certain degree of riches to their districts. No volunteers needed from districts where everyone looks like Cato.
Katniss’s love for her sister is the one true passion she feels for another human. It’s that love that makes her sacrifice herself.
JMM: Yet we heard in both Effie’s speech in District 12 as well as the President’s speech at the Games, talk of their “sacrifice.” So Katniss was the only one who would change places and enter the Games as a volunteer tribute. None of the other random selectees had that happen. I’m not objecting to Katniss being the heroic girl who protects her weaker and younger sister — I just thought other districts might have had similar events. From the author’s perspective, Is it possible that Katniss volunteered as a way or reason than to make her more ideal and heroic. On the other hand, maybe the sacrifice of the young and the weak would not be as significant as when a vibrant 17 year-old was the one to go…
Didion: Oh, I see what you’re saying. I think it’s just a function of Katniss living in District 12, and they choose the tributes from that District last.
So I’ve got another question for you. I sat next to a couple of very, very over-caffeinated girls (or were they just high on too much sugar?) who had an enormous debate before the film about whether Peeta or Gael was best. In fact, my 12-year-old TX neighbor had a t-shirt that read TEAM GAEL. After the film, these girls walked out surrounding themselves with a cloud of “OH MY GAAAWWWDD”s and “HE WAS SOOOO GORGEOUS”s. (Indeed, the dude who played Gael seems to have been created in a test tube by scientists from Tiger Beat magazine.)
But I liked the fact that the film scaled back on the lovey-dovey stuff — as the book did, I thought. Did you feel that the story was going to devolve into a story of “torn between two lovers”? Or was the love interest stuff less significant? You mentioned that you liked the way the Peeta character developed; does he seem like romantic hero material for the long haul (aka, 4 projected films altogether)?
JMM: I don’t even want to think about Peeta in 4 more films (at least right now). Not having read the book, I was shocked when right at the outset (after the mass killings at the Cornucopia) that Peeta had aligned himself with the biggest and strongest kids. Not that he joined them, but that they took him in.
As far as the crowd of 12 year olds who were gaga over the male leads — I had the opposite experience. I sat next to some older guy who got up and headed for parts unknown (but easily guessed at) three times during the show.
Now I have a question for you: For about the first twenty minutes or so, I watched and I wasn’t moved by anything — but when when the clock announced thirty seconds to go, and Katniss stepped onto the pedestal — at that precise moment I felt my pulse quicken, and my heart raced. It was so electric a moment for me physically that I could not fail to notice it. Did you have a precise moment which gave you a strong kickstart?
Didion: I probably started getting jittery when they started training while in the capital. I quite liked the way the film handled the way each of the kids tries to adjudge the others, show them up, etc. I quite liked the way they showed Katniss and Peeta arriving in the stadium with their costumes on fire (even though, honestly, that fire looked like pretty cheap CGI).
But yeah, the beginning of the Games ratchets everything up when everyone’s life is on the line. That initial slaughter at the Cornucopia is pretty gritty. So are the fireballs that send Katniss back into the area where the other tributes are.
The film is also full of prominent character actors — from Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, the designer; Woody Harrelson as Haymitch; Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, and so on — what did you think of them?
JMM: When we first meet Woody’s Haymitch, he seems dissolute, like a man who cannot escape a terrible past — much like the Tom Cruise character Nathan Algren in The Last Samurai. Yet, seemingly, that was abandoned rather quickly. He took his role of advisor quite seriously. So why was he presented initially like a guy who didn’t care much about anything except where was his next drink coming from?
Didion: In the 75-year history of the Games, Katniss’s district has only had one winner — Haymitch. And now he’s a drunken, mean-spirited lout. You’re right that he’s a difficult character to fathom, and even more so in the books. You sort of intuit that the Games did this to him; he’s like a soldier with PTSD.
How about any of the other characters — Donald Sutherland as the very scary President, or that guy with the flame-like facial hair who did the behind-the-scenes work on creating the Arena?
JMM: Thought you’d never ask. Strangely enough Sutherland’s scariness wasn’t on his surface — it was his attitudes below his grandfatherly looking exterior. I didn’t care for Seneca but his role was pivotal no matter what kind of fancy beard he sported. In fact I was distressed when I realized that he and his staff were doing more than just monitoring and tracking — I was so surprised when he and the staff woman decided to send in the dogs. I thought that made the whole aspect of the games a bit false. I literally wanted Katniss to win a fair game. But the game was anything but fair. Seneca and company were actively participating in the creation of circumstances to alter the outcome. And that’s not even mentioning the rules changes.
I did rather like Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman character. He was so manipulative. That blue hair — those teeth — quite scary to me.
Didion: You have usefully fallen straight into what I was leading up to: the wonder that is Stanley Tucci. I suspect that his role is unusually generous vis-a-vis the roles of Haymitch, Cinna et als — but every time he appeared on-screen I just grinned and thought, ahh, I could look at that man hamming it up all day! There are a couple of scenes in which he’s framed by multiple screens, each of which is projecting his face with a slightly different self-serving and/or grinning expressions, and it was all good. He also has an eerily insidious quality, as if he’s got his own agenda beyond his state-appointed role. Fabulous!
JMM: Maybe he was just thrilled by being paid to talk about the Games. Not bad work if you can get it.
Interesting comment — you can answer by referencing the book — was the character the ham, or the actor doing the hamming?
Didion: No, this seemed accurate to the way the book characterized him — it just seems we got a lot more Stanley than Haymitch, who was a much more crucial character in the book.
Okay, I have a confession (and this allows me to take one big step backward to look at the big picture here): it’s making me slightly depressed that you’ve got so many questions about the storyline, because I fear this returns me to one of my initial questions about whether this film is for True Believers (readers) like me and not newbies. The film version glosses over so much detail/context — and thank god, right? it would’ve been two times longer otherwise — that one feels a little lost in the shuffle.
You’re the perfect viewer in this respect: tell me, how would you ultimately rate the film on its own terms? Because as a reader (and using your own 5-star ranking system), I would give it a solid 4 stars; if I were grading it as an undergraduate paper, I’d give it a solid 86%. Of course, I can be a tough grader.
JMM: Great question. We approached this film from 180 degrees of difference. You read all three books, and I read none. So you have built-in reference points that I don’t. My questions about the film are not just about storylines or plot points. I gather that you’re saying you liked the film but won’t give it top marks.
I’d likely rate it similarly. But I think I have more gripes about the technical side than the gaps in the story. For example I hated the jittery, handheld effects whenever director Gary Ross showed the crowds.
Do you have any gripes about how they showed us the story?
Didion: I tried to avoid listening to any reviews of the film before seeing it, but the one I did catch called Ross a “hack” for the hand-held camerawork. So perhaps I went in fretting that it would look sloppy — and you know how going in with low expectations can lead you to like a film more than you’d expected.
Maybe I’m being unimaginative here, but the fact that Ross was trying very hard to maintain his PG-13 rating was always on my mind. The hand-held camera and the blurred, kinetic fight scenes were disorienting, but they conveyed the hellishness of those fights and those killings without showing explicit blood & guts. I don’t want to defend this as an artistic triumph by any means, but I wonder if maybe the real enemy is the US’s ratings system that forced Ross into making such choices in order to make sure that the book’s most loyal teen readers could see the film without their parents along. Or is there a better way of doing it?
JMM: I agree that he had to help sell the tickets – and that meant making sure the 13 and ups could go by themselves. And I’m okay with it because I understand it. Yeah, I would have like it better if there had been more explicit violence…but I don’t think that was the reason for giving this a 4 instead of a 5, or giving it a B+ rather than an A.
The story is really about Katniss’s heroic and brave character. We knew she would emerge victorious. But how she got there was not the key feature of the film. In fact when she first took to the high ground (up in a tree) I knew she’d wait for the action to come to her. And I was fine with it: more chances to have quality time with her. Even when she did nothing, her mind was still so alert. She was so admirable, and positive. That’s why the books sold so well, and why the film will also sell.
Think about it. We got no blood and yet I would have not missed this film for anything. I would have crawled to the theater if necessary. So basically, the flaws can be laid at the feet of the director and editor. That’s where I’m placing my blame for an 86 or a B+, or a 4.0 rating.
Didion: This is a perfect opportunity for me to ask my two final questions — but not before teasing you for your great line: “Think about it. We got no blood and yet I would not have missed this film for anything.” I like the way you sound like a horror film aficionado here, when in fact I know for certain that you have a wide appetite for many kinds of film, including the sweet and bloodless!
First question: setting aside the possibility that David Fincher would pick up this franchise and make a couple of brilliant films a la Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is Ross’s problem inherent to the struggle of bringing a rich and dynamic book to the screen? Or do you think his directing choices and the editor’s cuts made the film look amateurish?
And last, you say you would have crawled to the theater (cheers to that, as I saw it on opening day): this film made a record $155 million on opening weekend. That set a new all-time record for a non-sequel, and marked it as the 3rd most lucrative opening weekend of all time. Meanwhile, it also made the most money on opening day ever for a non-sequel and the most money for a midnight premiere of a non-sequel (it ranks 5th and 7th overall, respectively, in those categories amongst films that are sequels). This film made money.
First, as you said, I like many kinds of films but there is one exception – and that would be horror films. I don’t think Ross’s work in this film was amateurish, but yes certainly, some directorial choices were weak.
As to whether it’ll make money down the line, or in the long haul. Yup. I think I see a Potterish future for The Hunger Games and its sequels.
My last question: the way the story played out, and the the way that the film was designed that by film’s end, there only two likeable characters. Katniss and Peeta. Obviously this is the work of the author, Suzanne Collins. But do you think this was fair? Did you feel manipulated?
Didion: Quick Q: do you mean that other likeable characters like Rue are all dead?
JMM: I didn’t mean it that way. To rephrase: excepting Cinna and Rue, who else was likable and was that fair to the readers/viewers?
Didion: I kind of loved Rue, and I would have liked even a teensy bit more of some of the other Hunger Games tributes whom Katniss fears but respects (like Cato).
But you know what? I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your question — because it points out to me how much this is really the tale of a girl whose early life has already been hard, and who gets put into the most terrifying situation possible. We can’t help but root for someone who’s so determined to survive — but the book being told in Katniss’s voice also makes it a somewhat self-centered tale. And when I say self-centered I don’t mean to sound dismissive in the least — any tale told in the first person would be focused on one’s own emotional responses to horrible situations.
So ultimately the film rests on who they got to play Katniss. And here we come back to the fact that Lawrence nails the role. Peeta comes through as a very strong secondary character by the end; perhaps even more so because he has an almost feminine set of weaknesses when it comes to survival (I mean, he makes his cake-decorating skills work for him!) but he has a stronger sense of self, particularly in the books.
So in the end, this is a film that really is all about Katniss — and to a lesser degree about developing a Peeta who’ll get stronger as the films unfold.
Does that answer your question, or just raise new ones?
JMM: I’m satisfied with the answer. This is just the first film. As for the perspective of Katniss telling the story so it would carry the first person construct – I believe I read that Collins intended this to be a 3rd person narrative in the outlining and planning, but when her fingers met the keyboard it came out differently. I forgot one thing I meant to say – I said I would have crawled to the theater – want to know why? Because I wanted to be able to have this discussion – and that required me to see the film!
Didion: Aw, man — you mean you weren’t as excited as I was in anticipation?
JMM: Sure I wanted to see it – but I’ll bet, if it could be quantified in any way – that I couldn’t have matched you anticipatory-wise. I’ll let you have the honor of the final words.
Didion: Here’s my final thought: I’m so intrigued by your idea that the director is the reason for my giving the film a B+ that I hope this franchise takes a cue from the Potter empire: those films got infinitely better when they hired Alfonso Cuarón to do the third film. So I hope the producers hire someone more visionary to do the next one.
But speaking as a major fan of the books, I was IMPRESSED with the film, and particularly with Lawrence’s Katniss. My only hope is that Jennifer Lawrence continues to get Winter’s Bone-style art-house roles as well. I can hardly wait to see the next installment of The Hunger Games.
JMM, I can’t tell you what fun it is to chat about these movies with you! Let’s keep our eyes on the summer schedule as it becomes clear, and plan another one of these conversations. And I look forward to hearing what other viewers think of The Hunger Games.
JMM: Thank you so much. I do love this chatting about films with you.
Didion: One more thought: don’t you think it would be fun to review a film that we both hate? I’d love to do a pile-on.
JMM: Now that would be a novel idea. A pile-on. We’ll see. Cheers.