The Imitation Game (2014)

The Imitation Game

More than one person I know felt that the Academy Award for best acting should have gone to Benedict Cumberbatch for his role as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game and not to Eddie Redmayne. But even without such praise I would have been keen on watching The Imitation Game as I think code breaking is such a fascinating topic, and, after having watched it, I’d like to visit Bletchley Park.

The Imitation Game is hard to review. Movies based on true stories are a bit like classic novels. Many people know the story and you can’t spoil it for them, but those who don’t might get a little upset if you are too explicit. On the other hand you can hardly say anything meaningful without spoiling it. Quite the dilemma.

The Imitation Game tells the story of Alan Turing, an eminent young mathematician, who was hired by Bletchley Park to help decoding the famous German Enigma machine, which was said to be unbreakable. Not only did it have an almost infinite possibility of codes but the machine was reprogrammed daily.

Turing soon understood that humans wouldn’t be able to decipher the workings of such an advanced machine. Only another machine could do it. In order to get carte blanche and the necessary founding for his project, he needed approval from high command and the assistance of his fellow code breakers. Unfortunately, Turing was a difficult man. In his youth he had a best friend but later he was never capable of having real relationships and friendships. I was wondering at times if he wasn’t autistic. Judging from the movie, he certainly had some form of OCD. In any case, he wasn’t capable of empathy and took everything people said so literally it must have been a true burden to communicate with him. Still, he was a genius and as soon as he had people’s trust he was capable of extraordinary things.

If Alan Turing had only been the man who broke Enigma, this would have been an exciting movie about a genius, but since the movie also focusses on his homosexuality, it was also extremely tragic.

I knew, of course, that homosexuality was illegal, but I tend to forget how dire the consequences were when someone was found out. I must admit I ignored that Alan Turing was gay, and, so, the end really got to me.

****************************Spoiler************************

It’s hard to believe that the man who helped save millions of lives was forced to take hormones to “cure” his homosexuality and finally killed himself in 1954. This might be one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard. Not that I would have found it any less tragic if someone who was not famous would have been forced to take such heavy medication. Sixty years don’t even seem all that long ago. It’s hard to imagine things like that were legal. But then again, so was lobotomy and electroshock therapy, and many other dreadful things.

***************************Spoiler End*********************

Cumberbacth is a great actor and in this movie, he’s surpassed himself. He’s very convincing and subtle. It’s a role in which many actors would have been tempted to overact, but he doesn’t. Too bad Eddie Redmayne was nominated this year as well. Any other year, Cumberbatch would have won.

I didn’t say anything about the pseudo-love story with Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley, although it’s an important role insofar as it shows that the society was just as hard on women as on gay men. They still were not considered capable of the same as men and not taken seriously. I wished they had chosen another actress. I thought she was rather dreadful in this film.

I really liked The Imitation Game. The cinematography is beautiful. The pictures are very crisp, very defined. The acting is great and the story is amazing and tragic. Don’t miss it.

 

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American Sniper (2014)

American-Sniper

Clint Eastwood’s latest movie American Sniper  is based on the true story of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle who was called “the most lethal sniper in the U.S.”.

Every time I watch a movie based on a true story I find it difficult to write about because ultimately I have to write about two things: the movie as such and the story it’s based on. Very often I like the movie a great deal but I’m highly critical of the story. Like in this case. I admire Eastwood for the way he tells Chris Kyle’s story but I’m not sure I can admire someone who killed so many people, although I admire his skills.

The movie starts in Iraq. We get to witness two of Kyle’s most problematic kills. A boy and a woman. There is never a doubt— they are not collateral damage. Kyle takes them out on purpose. With good reason as they were about to blow up a tank. Nonetheless these two kills are problematic for him as we can easily deduce.

After these initial scenes, the movie switches back and we see a few scenes from Kyle’s childhood. How he was a great shot as a small boy already, taking out a deer. This seems to be a typical sniper movie feature. I can’t remember one in which we don’t see a small boy killing an animal, which already shows he’ll be a gifted sniper.

Kyle first works as a cowboy but it doesn’t work out for him and, being a patriot, he finally joins the Navy SEALs and becomes a sniper. One evening he meets his future wife Taya; shortly after their marriage, right after 9/11, he’s sent on his first tour to Iraq.

The movie then tells us chronologically all the important things that happened during the tours and the growing unease when he’s back home. Kyle is quickly turning into a legend. The most deadly sniper the US ever had and he’s also a wanted man. The Iraqis will pay a great deal of money to the person who can kill him.

Back home, Kyle tries to “return” but he fails. He never seems to leave the war zone. He keeps on hearing gunfire; he almost kills his own dog, thinking he’s attacking his kid; he’s withdrawn and distracted. His wife suffers but stands by him. In the movie we’re led to belive she has no idea her husband has taken so many lives. There’s even a scene in which she asks him if he’s ever killed someone.

The parts in Iraq are gripping. Especially since we have a “Enemy at the Gates”-situation. There’s an Iraqi sniper who is almost as good as Chris Kyle and the two try to take each other out. I’m not sure whether it’s based on a true story as well or whether this was added/embellished for dramatic purposes. In any case, it works because it gives the movie a plotline that is suspenseful.

As I said, I admire Eastwood for the way he told this story because it never felt manipulative. I didn’t think he was glorifying Chris Kyle or condemning him and whoever watches this will be able to make up his/her own mind.

Since I’m not American I wasn’t all that familiar with his story. I knew the name and that he wrote an autobiography called “American Sniper”. While watching the movie I had no idea how it would end, that’s why I’m not mentioning it here. If you don’t know yet, let me just tell you that it’s a pretty ironic and surprising ending.

One aspect that I found extremely interesting is what the film says about killing. Or rather – how we get to experience different ways of killing. If you shoot randomly in a battle and kill people, it’s clearly not the same as when you aim carefully and see them fall. A sniper’s kills are much more personal. I could image they weigh more heavily on the conscience than when you’re not exactly sure whether or not you killed someone. In a war like the war in Iraq there’s also the huge problem of civilians taking part. No matter how hardened a sniper is, it will be difficult for him to shoot a kid.

While I find that Chris Kyle is a highly problematic figure – his patriotism is more than a little annoying – and I really can’t glorify or applaud someone who shot so many people (160 confirmed kills, 250 probable kills) – I thought this was a terrific movie. Well done, thought-provoking and the acting is surprisingly good. I’m not exactly a Bradley Cooper fan so I was wondering whether he was a good choice, but I have to admit, he did a great job. And Sienna Miller works extremely well as his wife. I highly recommend the movie. 4.5/5

 

The Great Raid (2005)

The Great Raid

The Great Raid, starring James Franco, Benjamin Bratt, Joseph Fiennes and Connie Nielsen, tells the story of the raid at Cabanatuan, on the island of Luzon, Philippines, in January 1945. The story is based on a true story.

The movie begins with original footage and a voice telling us what had happened before. In 1944 when the US closed in on Japanese-occupied Philippines, there were 500 prisoners of war held at a POW camp at Cabanatuan. They were some of the survivors of the notorious Bataan Death March, in 1942. The Japanese made 80,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war after the Battle of Bataan. Forcing them to move, caused the death of over 10,000 people. The men died of abuse or because they were shot when they tried to escape.

Since the Japanese had the order to fight to the last and not leave any POWs behind, they killed many before the arrival of the US in 1944.

The movie follows three different plot lines. One line focusses on the men of the 6th Rangers Battalion, assisted by Filipino guerilla, who were assigned to free the soldiers held captive at Cabanatuan, the second line tells the story of the prisoners around major Briggs, and the third follows the Filipino resistance headed by nurse Margaret Utinsky.

The Filipino resistance’s main concern was to smuggle medicine to the men in the camp. Most of them had malaria or suffered from various injuries because they were beaten and tortured.

I wasn’t familiar with the story and I think it was well worth telling. It was the biggest US rescue mission ever and took great courage and careful planning, both of which are illustrated in the movie.

The camp scenes were not very original. They had a small-scale Bridge of the River Kwai feel but were, of course, not as good. I didn’t think Joseph Fiennes was the best choice for the major but that’s because I have a bit of a personal aversion. I find the way he plays often melodramatic. It certainly was in this movie.

The resistance scenes were quite typical as well. What made the movie worthwhile in spite of a lack of originality were the actors who played the soldiers of the 6th Rangers and the combination of the three plot lines.

There’s a love story between Margaret and Major Briggs but it’s not corny. It adds another dimension and since it’s supposedly a true story it’s rather tragic.

I wasn’t too keen on the music. It sounded very 40s and was used like in the 40s, meaning—never ending background music. At first I thought the movie was a remake, but I don’t think it was.

It’s a watchable movie but it’s not great. If it had been cut and condensed it would have been better. Nonetheless, thanks to the long intro and because it’s a true story, I found it interesting. I’m surprised that as many as 500 survived the three years of captivity under these conditions.

One last word: if you’re looking for a movie that paints a positive or balanced picture of the Japanese, this isn’t one of them. All the Japanese we see in this movie are cruel and violent.

 

Flags of Our Fathers (2006)

Flags of Our Fathers

 “The right picture can win or lose a war.”

I remember watching Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers shortly after it was in the cinemas and feeling less than enthusiastic about it. I’d been watching my way through the best infantry combat movies at the time, so, obviously, Flags of Our Fathers fell short. After re-watching it yesterday I must say, it’s not bad at all. Quite the contrary. Sure, it has some corny Hollywood moments, but overall it’s a very interesting movie about topics that are still relevant today: the power of images and the making of heroes.

Flags of our Fathers tells the story of the iconic picture that rekindled the American war effort. Looking at the photo below I would say it’s extremely powerful. I’m not surprised it had such an effect.

APTOPIX OBIT ROSENTHAL

The movie starts with two elderly men reminiscing and telling their story to the son of one of them. The son knows his father took part in the battle of Iwo Jima and that he’s on the famous picture but he doesn’t know much more. His father never spoke about the war. From this initial moment the movie is composed mostly of flash back sections, some of which showing what happened on Iwo Jima, some telling about what came after the picture was shot.

Iwo Jima – or Sulfur Island – was a strategic point. Taking the hill meant that the US might after all have a chance to win the war. When the troops land, the island looks bleak, dark, forlorn and empty. It’s quite a creepy moment, which is enhanced through a change in point of view. We first see the troops land and slowly walk towards the hill, scanning the landscape and then we get the point of view of the hidden Japanese who observe the troops from their fox holes. Needless to say that this first wave of US soldiers is quickly heavily decimated. Still, many make it to the top and that’s when they plant the flag. A senior officer later demands this flag and the commanding officer decides to exchange it and to let him have another one. Both flag raisings are photographed but it’s the second, which is the better picture, that makes it into the newspapers.

Three of the men who raise the flag survive. However, inadvertently, one of the first six is named as the sixth of the second group, which will cause a lot of heartbreak.

The three survivors are sent back to the States where they are touring the country and trying to convince people to help the war effort and buy bonds.

The three men who haven’t done anything more heroic than holding a heavy pole, feel uncomfortable about being called heroes. One of them, an American Indian, is especially uncomfortable. He feels like a cheat. Not only because he doesn’t feel heroic but because they were not even part of the initial flag raising. It feels like he’s deceiving people. The mix up of the sixth soldier makes it even worse.

The movie is sleek and visually compelling. The combat scenes on the island are shot in gritty almost black and white pictures, which form a contrast to the colorful home front scenes.

The actors, notably Adam Beach and Ryan Philippe, are very good. The score is discreet and well-chosen. It stays mostly in the background.

I thought Flags of Our Fathers was really watchable. More than that actually. It’s very good. It shouldn’t be seen as a combat movie but more as a movie about the impact of pictures, an exploration of the true nature of heroism and the way society treats heroes when they aren’t needed anymore. It was sobering to see their treatment. At no point were they seen as soldiers and men but merely as a possibility for propaganda. This became even clearer after the war when people lost all interest in them.

Lone Survivor (2013)

Lone Survivor

I decided to watch Lone Survivor after having read a positive review on The War Movie Buff’s blog (here). I did not regret it, although I have some reservations.

Talk about a doomed operation. Lone Survivor is based on a true story – Operation Red Wing – which went horribly wrong. Given how the movie starts and its title, it’s not a spoiler to mention that the operation only had one survivor played by Mark Wahlberg. 

The movie is set in Afghanistan in 2005. Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) and three other Navy Seals are sent on a mission to capture or kill al Qaeda leader Ahmad Shahd. While hiding in the mountains goatherds literally stumble over them. The four men have a heated discussion about what they should do with them. Two want them dead, one wants to tie them and only Luttrell wants to let them go. Unfortunately their communication systems don’t work and they cannot reach their commander (Eric Bana) and ask for advice. Finally they let them go as that is in line with their rules of engagement. It’s clear that while this is the right thing to do, nothing good can come of it. And indeed, one of the herders runs down to the village and alerts the men surrounding Ahmad Shadh. What follows is an intense two hours of flight and fight.

First I’d like to say that the movie is well done. The pacing is good, there is some nice cinematography (stunning sunsets), the music works well, the action scenes are extremely realistic. The characters aren’t fully rounded, but that would be absurd in a movie like this. Last, but not least it’s very suspenseful, although we know there’s only one survivor.

I thought that in choosing this title and beginning of the film, which clearly shows that only Wahlberg’s character survived, the director stayed away from sentimentality and melodrama, which is so often annoying in movies of this type.

I’ve seen this compared to Black Hawk Down but I can’t see any similarity. I was reminded of Bravo Two Zero, in which the failing communication also played a major role. Lone Survivor has elements of both Act of Valor and the French Forces Spécilales, but I would say it’s better.

I’ve seen a lot of very harsh reviews of this movie. I think it’s not as bad as some say, but as is often the case with movies, which also find the approval of the military, there’s a mix up in the reception. One thing is the movie as such, and one can really not find a lot of flaws in that, the other thing is the reason that this movie was made in the first place. It depicts a true story and if you are against the way the US handle their war against terrorism, then you are probably inclined to be against this film. But that’s really mixing up two things. I thought that this movie stayed away from a lot of the glorifying we usually see in movies like this. It depicts  highly trained men on a mission that goes wrong. Sure, the characters want to kill as many Afghanis as they can, and they don’t try to apply a lot of empathy, but I’d like to see what all the liberal thinkers who criticized this film would do in a similar situation. Would they still try to understand and speak in a politically correct way about people who are trying to kill them?

I liked this film and the way it was done. I’m not keen on the US strategies against terrorism, but there is no denying that they exist. And there is no denying that the US military has some admirably well-trained soldiers who would do anything for each other.

Watch it if you like watching an action-driven movie inspired by a true story, leave it out if you expect criticism of the US military.

The Desert Fox (1951) Biopic on Field Marshal Rommel’s Final Years

The Desert Fox

The Desert Fox, starring James Mason as Field Marshal Rommel, is based on the biography of Rommel by Desmond Young. The movie opens with British commandos trying to assassinate Rommel in 1941 and then forwards to 1943 showing Rommel at El Alamein.  Rommel, who is of poor health, is just back on the front line and faces a pretty desperate situation. The German troops are far outnumbered and any reasonable commander would give the order to withdraw. Not so Hitler whose consultants all encourage him to give orders to either win or die. For the first time, the movie tells us, Rommel starts to doubt the Führer’s sanity. It will not be the last time. On the very contrary. The movie tries to show a Rommel who goes from doubt to open criticism and even knows the group around von Stauffenberg will attempt to assassinate Hitler. While not tied to the assassination he’s still found guilty of treason and given a chance to either get a fake trial or to commit suicide in order to assure the future of his wife and son.

I must admit I expected this movie to be far better than it was. The story is interesting, of course, but the way this was filmed was not much better than a B-movie. Mason is good, I wouldn’t say he’s great but he’s good. There is just one problem. He doesn’t look like Rommel. What didn’t work is that most of the movie is either composed of real footage or scenes filmed in the studio which makes the whole movie look like a theater play broken up by documentary material.

The other problem is that we don’t really get to know Rommel. Given that the title of the movie is The Desert Fox and not “Rommel’s Downfall” or some such thing, I expected that we will learn why Rommel was considered to be such a great general. Although he was their enemy, the Allies admired and feared him. The movie only shows us a Rommel who is very realistic, who knows when a battle can’t be won, who makes great suggestions, but isn’t heard. The movie also fals in showing Rommels’ humanity. It seems he was never accused of war crimes. He refused to kill Jewish soldiers, civilians and prisoners.

The best part is that the movie shows how Rommel first doubts the people who consult Hitler before he doubts the man himself. Once he’s understood that his Führer is nothing but a maniac, he speaks his mind openly and confronts him.

I watched the movie Patton two years ago and thought it was outstanding. If anyone knows of a biopic of Rommel which is equally good, please let me know.

I didn’t mind watching The Desert Fox, but it’s certainly not the ultimate movie on Rommel.

Rommel’s son Manfred died last month. It’s interesting to know that he formed a friendship with Patton’s and Montgomer’y sons.

Here’s one of the best scenes in which Rommel confronts Hitler

They Were Not Divided (1950)

THEY WERE NOT DIVIDED

I’m usually quite lucky in my choices of older British movies. Some I’ve watched in the past make my extended best of list. However, They Were Not Divided will not be on that list. It’s not a bad movie but it felt at times as if the director had intended to make a war movie – based on true events (!) – which is suitable for the whole family. The result is a bit too cute for my taste.

At the core of the movie is the friendship between a British, an American and an Irish soldier. Especially the Englishman Philip Hamilton and the American David Morgan are very close. After having undergone intense training which we are shown in a long boot camp sequence, which reminded me a bit of Full Metal Jacket, the three men are promoted and assigned to serve in the tank company of the Welsh Guards.  Two thirds of the film are taken up by the boot camp and further tank training episodes, occasionally interrupted by leaves which they spend at Philip’s home. During one of those leaves, David meets an English girl and falls in love with her.

There is a lot of emphasis on the relationships in the movie. The marriage between Philip and his wife is explored as well as the relationship between David and his future fiancée.

The last part of the film, could finally be called the real war movie part. The three main characters land at Normandy weeks after D-Day as part of the Welsh Guard’s Armoured Division. They quickly see combat and have to cope with fighting a war in another country, far from their wives and girl friends. The film then picks up speed and we see many of the crucial moments of WWII: Operation Market Garden, The Battle of the Bulge. We see how the Welsh Guards join American paratroopers at the Grave bridge before moving to Nijmegen during Operation Market Garden. The film ends with the Ardennes Offensive and the Guards’ unknown operations around the east side of the river Meuse. I suppose it isn’t spoiling the movie too much if I mention that not everyone survives.

I think They Were Not Divided isn’t exactly a must see but I’ve seen far worse. It’s an ok movie, it just doesn’t really have anything that stands out with the exception of some quite humorous scenes during the boot camp sequence. It’s safe to say that even the very squeamish can watch this. If you’re looking for a WWII film to watch with the whole family, this could be your choice.

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