Connect with us

TV

Review: Five Came Back

Five Came Back has a dizzying power that testifies to film’s advantages over prose as a medium.

3.0

Published

on

Five Came Back
Photo: Netflix

Mark Harris’s 2014 nonfiction bestseller Five Came Back concerns the origin or revision of many complacently accepted ideologies. Harris details how Hollywood and the American government teamed up during World War II to construct the public narrative of the war, while forging the classic notion of Baby Boomer life and its promise of self-actualization and subsequently inventing or updating various film genres. Reality is a construction rooted in malleable sounds, images, and language, and so cinema is partially the story of our collective lives, offering daydreams that fashion and inform fact. Hollywood’s best filmmakers are expert molders of these dreams, and so a logical bargain was struck during WWII: The government would legitimize the young West Coast movie industry, protecting it from censorious bigots who thought of it as a nest of subversive Jewish immigrants, while Hollywood provided the government with its mythology.

In the book, Harris follows five iconic American filmmakers—John Ford, Frank Capra, George Stevens, William Wyler, and John Huston—as they served America’s war effort. The men navigated Washington D.C.‘s political bureaucracy, which paralleled the cutthroat machinations of their studio turf, and traveled the world and created documentaries that were often intended as art but sold to the government as propaganda. Eventually, the men witnessed the carnage of battle, which alienated them from the empowering fantasies they manufactured before the war and once bought into themselves on a primordial level. The spirit of adventure that cinema often associates with war—of becoming a real man and patriot, of belonging unambiguously to an American culture to which these artists didn’t entirely feel connected—was discovered by these men to be a silk screen obscuring a nightmare.

Netflix’s three-part adaptation of Five Came Back, scripted by Harris and directed by Laurent Bouzereau, is gripped by a fascinating irony: It’s a propagandistic examination of propaganda. The book contrasts the macro of the U.S.‘s efforts to win WWII with the micro of each filmmaker’s military experience, offering surgically precise, engagingly empathetic portraits of soldiers as well as significant artists. The series loses much of the book’s micro texture by necessity of form. Capra’s sketchy political indecisiveness, namely his sporadic attraction to authoritarian figures, has been downplayed in the series, acknowledged passingly by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who says that Capra, politically, was “very confused, but the need to be loved, the need to be saved, was true inside him.”

The documentary also disappointingly elides much of the U.S.‘s internal struggle over WWII prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, which Harris resonantly dramatized in his book. Instead, Harris and Bouzereau mount an inspiring story of doubt conquered and peace restored, though they also acknowledge the hypocrisy of a country that speaks of ending fascism while embracing the subjugation of its own black soldiers and dehumanizing the entire Japanese population, likening them to ants and dogs.

Advertisement


Five Came Back is somewhat at war with itself, then, as it recognizes these disparities while formally mirroring the sorts of films that Capra produced while in the War Department, emphasizing—with exciting battle footage and fawning celebrity-filmmaker testimonials—how a distracted and torn America woke up and reconciled itself to confront a looming threat to Western civilization. However, Bouzereau also inserts brief, jarring images of horror, such as a shot of D-Day, captured by Ford, of men reduced to hamburger.

As many studio films of the late 1930s and 1940s were conceived with interventionist undertones, Five Came Back has been produced with an eye on the contemporary global scene, as it’s impossible to watch the Netflix series and not think of Europe and America’s present embrace of hard-right isolationism and the hopelessness that fuels this movement. Throughout, Harris and Bouzereau are trying to sell a notion of teamwork and camaraderie without totally, glibly ignoring past atrocity, which is a tricky balancing act. The documentary even ends with a Capra quotation that suggests a plea to present-day audiences: “There’s good in the world. And it’s wonderful.”

Though somewhat simplified, Five Came Back has a dizzying power that testifies to film’s advantages over prose as a medium—namely, the visceral dimensions of sound and composition. Harris’s book discusses the films the five men produced at length, while the documentary can show us their actual work, providing the proof of the directors’ artistry in the pudding. Ford’s The Battle of Midway remains chillingly direct and beautiful, mixing the filmmaker’s formal precision with the spontaneously captured chaos of battle, dramatizing the violation of war and the authentic bravery of defense. Harris and Bouzereau shrewdly include passages and images from that film that speak volumes of the terror of World War II (especially a shot of dark smoke plumes in the sky) while elucidating Ford’s own poignant coming of age as a man enthralled with the military who comes to see both the price and duty of war. Similarly, footage of Wyler’s The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress offers bracing testament to the director’s sense of humanity while serving as a simultaneously haunting and thrilling document of adventure and carnage—particularly when men are seen to be counting the parachuted survivors of a shot-down enemy plane, rooting for their escape.

While references to Capra’s troubled identity have been streamlined in the series, he remains the narrative’s most moving figure. Part of this emotional piquancy has to do with context: Capra’s legacy hasn’t survived as well as those of the other men profiled. Huston and Ford are looming heroes of cinephilia, certifiable man’s men of cinema who left behind filmographies that, like wine, improve with age. Stevens and Wyler are less celebrated now, but they made films that are revisited and respected, most notably the former’s overpraised A Place in the Sun and the latter’s sweeping postwar masterpiece, The Best Years of Our Lives. By contrast, many of Capra’s films are hopelessly cheesy, and his greatest, most daring, and most personal work, It’s a Wonderful Life, nearly ruined his career and wouldn’t be embraced until years later, in mainstream rather than critical circles.

Advertisement


Huston, Ford, Wyler, and Stevens made war propaganda films that are authentically great movies, while Capra’s grand achievement was the construction of the unglamorous factory within Washington that made the production of much of this art possible. (Capra’s own visionary yet jingoistic propaganda films also defined postwar American culture, though they’ve aged poorly.) It would have been easy for Harris and Bouzereau to coast on the coattails of the more respected directors, affirming canonical presumptions, but instead they locate a deeper cultural fragility. Capra was heroic, insecure, and capable of monstrous sympathies all at once; he was a transcendent, indispensable, irreconcilable dork who suggests the sort of Great Man as Everyman that frequently populated his films, namely James Stewart’s character from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Harris and Bouzereau’s sympathy for Capra is perceptive as well as gallant (del Toro memorably describes Capra’s films as having an “existential quality”). And this nuance speaks to Harris’s ongoing project as a journalist, not only as the writer of both incarnations of Five Came Back, but as a columnist who homes in on pop filmmaking that the critical elite may not deign to take seriously. It’s easy as a critic to give up on the public and leave them to their Marvel films and write for oneself, and this resignation obviously has its parallel in the cultural chasms of the political realm. Harris insists on reaching the public, or trying to, daring to retain hopefulness, and he adopts Capra’s career as a signifier of both the rewards and perils of his own ambitions. Harris has the intuition to recognize that Capra, the tragically square populist, embodies everything that’s right and wrong with America.

M2760o93H7pQ09L8X1t49cHY01Z5j4TT91fGfr

Cast: Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Greengrass, Lawrence Kasdan, Meryl Streep Airtime: Netflix

Advertisement
Comments

TV

Review: Black Monday: Season One

Black Monday dabbles in farce, social commentary, and character study, without managing to establish a coherent point of view.

2.0

Published

on

Black Monday: Season One
Photo: Erin Simkin/Showtime

The first episode of Showtime’s Black Monday begins with sobering title cards which promise that the series will eventually reveal the reason for the disastrous 1987 stock market crash. But while it might eventually offer real insight into Wall Street malfeasance (only the first three episodes were made available for review), Black Monday quickly establishes a set of alternate priorities: comic caricatures of excess, an unceasing cavalcade of references to 1980s popular culture, and occasional poignant character portraits that, in such a farcical context, appear jarringly out of place.

Black Monday revolves around a small, roguish, and fictional investment firm headed by an insatiable hustler, Maurice (Don Cheadle), who outsmarts rival traders and whose confidence can seem intoxicating. He’s a ruthlessly efficient carnival barker, lording over a kingdom populated by strippers, misogynists, and homophobes, where cocaine and finance crimes are abundant. Indeed, his behavior and milieu are so exaggerated that attempts by creators David Caspe and Jordan Cahan to engender sympathy for Maurice—by revealing his deep emotional vulnerability, or giving him a humble backstory—lack emotional resonance. Black Monday mines humor from its Wall Street cesspool and Maurice’s extravagance, but those two components eventually undermine whatever goodwill the character might inspire.

Black Monday dabbles in farce, simplistic social commentary, and character study, without managing to establish a coherent point of view toward its subjects or their universe. With its eye toward greed and materialism, the series recalls The Wolf of Wall Street, while its breezy pace and comedic flourishes bring to mind The Big Short. Ultimately, it lacks the well-honed moral perspective of either of those films, but it doesn’t commit to the nihilistic reverence of a series such as HBO’s Veep either. Stranded between earnestness and cynicism, Black Monday seems to exist merely to remind us of events that once occurred, and people who once existed.

A screenwriter who appears in the second episode to see if Maurice’s story might be worthy of Hollywood provides a clue for how the series might eventually focus itself: The writer decides that Dawn (Regina Hall), the top broker at Maurice’s firm, is a more fitting figure for adaptation. Indeed, Dawn, as a black woman attempting to crack into an industry which is largely white, male, and insular, is the most plainly sympathetic character in Black Monday. Hall excels as the feisty and competent broker, whose barbed repartee with Maurice provides some of the show’s most heady dialogue. And in the brief moments when the series illustrates the daily indecencies and biases Dawn suffers, even in a humorous light, it manages to derive some actual pathos, and a sense of stakes.

Advertisement


The humor in Black Monday is super-concentrated, laden with witty wordplay and quick retorts. One typical punchline comes when a broker (Horatio Sanz) realizes that the Nintendo game Duck Hunt is not, as he had assumed, titled Da Cunt. Dick jokes abound, and large swaths of an entire episode are devoted to a cartoonish cocaine bender; very little of the show’s humor is original, but even the most simplistic jokes are elevated by familiar, funny performers like Sanz and Paul Scheer, who deliver reliably well-timed line readings.

Such comedy, even when immaterial to Black Monday‘s specific Wall Street milieu, is consistently effective, and the series succeeds as an absurdist reminder of the excesses of the ‘80s. Yet results vary when the writers endeavor to expand on their cartoonish portrayal of Wall Street. By attempting to ground the characters of Dawn and Maurice, and ostensibly working toward some insight into a historical event, the series does occasionally adopt a patina of gravity, or hint at some crystallizing perspective. Mostly, though, such gestures toward a coherent point of view or clear direction are underdeveloped, as the series rushes for another joke or reference, and in the process comes to resemble Maurice himself: exciting and articulate, with little but fool’s gold and hollow promises to sell.

Cast: Don Cheadle, Regina Hall, Andrew Rannells, Paul Scheer, Casey Wilson, Kadeem Hardison, Eugene Cordero, Horatio Sanz Airtime: Showtime, Sundays, 10 p.m.

Continue Reading

TV

Review: True Detective: Season Three

Season three of True Detective plays to the first season’s strengths, but it also feels like an admission of defeat.

2.0

Published

on

True Detective: Season Three
Photo: Warrick Page/HBO

In the third installment of HBO’s anthology series True Detective, creator Nic Pizzolatto opts to play to the first season’s strengths: multiple timelines, occult undertones, partnered detectives shooting the philosophical shit while they drive down the road. Even the backwoods setting—this time, the Ozarks—evokes the desolation of the Louisiana bayou that was so evocative in the show’s debut. Viewers might have figured these trappings for series hallmarks had the second season not so consciously distanced itself from them, so it’s hard not to view this return as an admission of defeat, a resignation to the limits of Pizzolatto’s personal storytelling toolbox.

But the familiar elements don’t totally dull the crime show’s construction as a character piece. This season’s protagonist, Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali), is haunted at every stage of his life. In 1980, it’s by the Vietnam War reconnaissance detail that got him the nickname “Purple Hays” and the tracker skillset he now channels into his job as a police detective. In 1990, it’s the reopening of the case at the center of the season: the disappearance of two young children. And in 2015, while grappling with dementia, he’s haunted by the life he’s lived, as it all seems to slip through his fingers. What’s left of the unhappy memories has become his strongest connection to the life he once had. He’s looked inside himself and come out disturbed by how much his insides are tangled around this one case—this fixed point in history.

Hays is a little bit gone a lot of the time, his emotions as bottled up as most of his thoughts. His eyes come alive when his mind is working through something, and they go dead when he’s angry. He’s too buttoned up for the showy soliloquys of a character like Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle from True Detective‘s first season, yet he’s no less conflicted; the three-timeline setup shows the evolution of Hays’s thought process, as he goes from shunning the past to desperately clinging to what he has left.

Despite the occasional line like “I’ve got the soul of a whore,” Pizzolatto has reined in most of his worst instincts as a writer. He gives (some) space to the development of a female character in schoolteacher Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo), but he never strays too far from Hays and the mystery that comes to define the man’s life. The initially welcome focus on Hays, however, continues much longer than the character—or even Ali’s nuanced performance—can ultimately sustain. Large swaths of the season drag as a result, seemingly begging for a more engaging mystery or some other character to latch onto in an equal capacity, or even the pulpy excess of True Detective‘s second season. Dementia quickly begins to feel like a cheap ploy to ensure that certain plot revelations deliver maximum dramatic impact, as well as an excuse to dabble in hacky hallucinations like a room filled with Vietnamese soldiers or an obnoxiously cryptic vision of Hays’s dead wife.

Advertisement


Beyond the preoccupation with time and memory, Pizzolatto does seem to be grasping at something larger than Hays’s personal journey. He just never, at least in the five episodes of the new season made available to critics, seems to find it. The true-crime book that Reardon wrote about the case, for example, promises a look at the crime’s social impact, but True Detective‘s grasp of those broader implications is tenuous at best. In the first two episodes, director Jeremy Saulnier seems to abide with a pleasingly detailed look at the town. People take down Halloween decorations, kids ride bikes and shoot firecrackers near the ranger’s tower, a man hoards trash in a cart. Saulnier has an eye for the Arkansas scenery, as his sedate camera movements frame characters within doorframes and trap them between people’s shoulders. Hay bales sit like behemoths in the mist.

Once Saulnier departs, however, he takes that initially captivating sense of place with him. The things that seemed, at first, like flavor for small-town life end up as mere pieces slotted neatly into the mystery. Pizzolatto relegates the crime’s repercussions to broad portrayals of angry mobs. He makes sporadic, go-nowhere stabs at addressing poverty and race while the series begins to coast through familiar territory. Perhaps Hays will come to terms with the ghosts of his past by the show’s end, but the third season doesn’t suggest True Detective will ever quite reckon with its own.

Cast: Mahershala Ali, Carmen Ejogo, Stephen Dorff, Scoot McNairy, Ray Fisher, Mamie Gummer, Josh Hopkins, Scoot McNairy Airtime: HBO, Sundays, 9 p.m.

Continue Reading

TV

Review: Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

Whatever assemblage of parts make up an individual viewer’s experience of Bandersnatch, it represents the best and worst of Black Mirror.

2.5

Published

on

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
Photo: Netflix

The opening shot of the Black Mirror interactive film Bandersnatch informs us that the story takes place in 1984, the dystopian resonance of which is a bit on the nose. But this is Black Mirror, after all. The show’s formula has relied on various immediately recognizable cultural reference points placed in the context of a speculative high concept. What if Gamergate types could use MMORPGs to replicate consciousness? What if those military robots from Boston Dynamics go rogue and kill everyone? What if streaming and gaming technologies constitute a surveillance network that offers the illusion of choice in a society of creeping totalitarianism?

That last question drives at least parts of Bandersnatch. The film flashes back to the personal-computing and home-gaming revolution to offer a critique of Netflix, its own streaming platform, as a kind of dissimulating game. The ostensibly innocent everyman at the center of the story is Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), an aspiring programmer working on a computer game adaptation of the choose-your-own-adventure novel Bandersnatch by the fictional author Jerome F. Davies. Like Philip K. Dick, Davies saw his interest in free will, technology, and psychedelia notoriously slide into paranoia, dissociation, and delusion—and in ways that, of course, will have import for the film’s plot.

The viewer makes choices for Stefan as he prepares to pitch a local game developer, Tuckersoft. The first choice presented to the viewer, for example, is whether Stefan eats Sugar Puffs or Frosties for breakfast. The inconsequentiality of such initial choices recalls the tired “butterfly effect” trope, as clearly these banal decisions determine our initial path toward the story to an unknown degree. It’s not the only place in which Bandersnatch edges toward the simplistic, but these early choices function like a video game tutorial, which corresponds more interestingly with the film’s themes.

Gradually, Stefan transitions from unaware main character to unwilling avatar of the viewer’s decisions. Tuckersoft offers to publish his game, and as he copes with the months-long process of writing it, we’re asked to decide how he handles the stress: whether he wrecks his computer, pounds his desk, opens up to his therapist (Alice Lowe), or takes his frustration out on his meek father (Craig Parkinson). Stefan begins to suspect that he isn’t in total control of such actions, and this suspicion is encouraged by his new acquaintance, Colin Rockman (Will Poulter), Tuckersoft’s legendary bad-boy game designer.

Advertisement


The wiry, bleached-blond Colin represents the unlikely prophet archetype created by cyberpunk and hacker culture, his transcendent coolness coded in the terms of ‘80s cultural capital: Whereas Stefan listens to mainstream pop like the Thompson Twins, Colin listens to Depeche Mode and Tangerine Dream. Colin also appears to be tapped into a higher reality, as in the film’s most memorable scene, in which he explains to Stefan during an acid trip his Daviesian/Dickian theory that reality is actually made up of the sum of several different branches of reality. His and Stefan’s world, his theory suggests, is little more than a game, a repeatable simulation dependent on a system of rules outside of their control. Depending on the story path the viewer chooses from this point, this system is run by a demon called pAX, a government program called P.A.C.S., or a computer program called Netflix.

Netflix, Bandersnatch reflexively proposes, is one big choose-your-own-adventure story, in which we are presented with a bounty of options construed as our own idea (“Because you liked…”). A streaming service like Netflix, a medium of proscribed choices, offers an experience that’s more like a game than a narrative, and games offer only the illusion of free agency. It’s a fitting point to make with Netflix’s first truly interactive film, but as with many episodes of Black Mirror, there’s also something fairly obvious and one-dimensional about it—or perhaps the problem is in the presentation.

Writer Charlie Booker and director David Slade attempt to manage the potential tediousness of Bandersnatch‘s metatextuality by making the film about metatextuality itself, but in many branches of the story they lapse into using self-reflexivity as a facile punchline. For one, trying to confront Stefan with the reality of his situation leads to a dead-end joke of a conclusion concerning Netflix viewers’ demands for action. Whenever viewers access such a concluding scene, they’re presented with the option of returning to a pivotal decision and pursuing a different path, but each of the five main endpoints feel more like a metatextual short circuit than a completed pathway.

It’s not so much its pat technophobia, then, that makes Bandersnatch unsatisfying. In the tradition of great sci-fi anthology shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, Black Mirror‘s stories are often effective without being subtle. At their worst, they merely recapitulate omnipresent popular anxieties, but at their best they compel critical reflection on the technologies that structure our lives. Whatever assemblage of parts make up an individual viewer’s experience of Bandersnatch, it will likely be a mixture of both.

Advertisement


Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Will Poulter, Alice Lowe, Craig Parkinson, Asim Choudhry, Tallulah Haddon, Jonathan Aris, Suzanne Burden, Jeff Minter Airtime: Netflix

Continue Reading
Advertisement

Donate

Slant is reaching more readers than ever, but as online advertising continues to evolve, independently operated publications like ours have struggled to adapt. We're committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a Slant patron:

Patreon

You can also make a donation via PayPal.

Newsletter

Giveaways

Advertisement

Trending