In The Loop: In Whose Name?

It’s usually a bad idea to take a successful TV comedy act and transfer it to the cinema. For a start, and to state an obvious fact that is all to often overlooked, TV and cinema are different media. Why do so few people seem to realise that it takes a different set of gifts to arrange a 90 minute film as opposed to a 30 minute TV show? They are, of course, not necessarily mutually exclusive, but it should be obvious that they are different. Many fine careers have lost their luster too soon on the alter of a quick cinematic buck.

All praise, then, to Armando Iannucci. He’s long been a treasure of the British comic/satirical scene on television and the radio. His career has been a long way short of perfect, but then he’s never failed for want of trying. When he gets it right, though, he gets it very right. Exhibit One: The Thick Of It – a political satire with the documentary approach of The Office, tucked away on the BBC’s least popular digital channel. It’s a merciless, brilliant but strangely compassionate deconstruction of politics in the era of spin. The key figure is the utterly foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker, a spin doctor and political manipulator who in no way resembles anyone you may have heard of. The swearing was, of course, never the point. It was too convoluted to ever be truly offensive, and over time built up a character of utter believability.

Brilliant as the programme is, to take it to the cinema was a big step – even bigger was to do what so many British programmes do in maniacal desire to make it big, and go to America. That’s what happens here, as we go behind the scenes of UN and trans-Atlantic diplomacy in the run-up to a war in the Middle East.

Over the running time of a film, there is perhaps inevitably the occasional slow patch. But that this is one of the best comedies in many years is down, as ever to performances and writing. The cast from the television do a fine job; the American guests are outstanding, especially James Galdofini in his best cinema role. His is a performance of outstanding depth and complexity, with so much suggested in a lowering of the eyes that it simply seems impossible.

The film’s other great strength is to treat the characters as real people. It’s an angry film, to be sure – as one would hope. But in showing us people in positions of power who find themselves unable or unwilling to follow through on their own integrity, you’re left with the overwhelming sense of ‘Would I really have done any differently?’. The dilemmas they face are real; that’s no excuse, it’s clear – but it allows us no easy rush to judgement, no simplistic ‘Not in my name’. The film’s brilliance is to make us laugh as much at our own moral weakness as at the weakness of those in power. It undercuts our anger and asks questions of ourselves, putting the viewer in the court of public opinion.

This is a daring thing to do, but surely it’s the right, sane thing to do. It makes me think about a man who spoke about logs, specks and eyes. The Bible tells us that God will hold leaders to a higher standard. That, though, is His job; not mine, as much as I would love it to be. I have the ballot box; but I also need to examine my own willingness to take a stand when it really matters, when it will really cost me, personally. Dare I be so quick to rush to judgement now?

The Damned United: Universal Truth

Some films are damned by their subject matter. People think it’s too niche, not for them. A few years ago in London’s Leicester Square, I passed a man standing outside one of the many cinemas there, looking at the film times and talking on his mobile to the person who going to join him. They were trying to decide what they would see.

There were a couple of so-so blockbusters around, and showing in a few minutes was the magnificent documentary Touching The Void. Admittedly it’s a hard sell. It’s a mountaineering story of people assumed dead, of mistakes and severe injury. But its also utterly thrilling and inspiring; one of those universal human stories that will grip and connect with anyone who sees it. I’m no climber, I have no real love for it, but I’d recommend that film to anyone.

Back to the man on the phone. Here’s what I remember hearing him say:

‘You want to see Touching The Void? What’s it about……[silence]. Your idea of a good night out is a story about a cold climb going wrong? A documentary? Get out of town! Let’s just go for a beer”

Their loss. There will be similar reactions to the prospect of The Damned United. It’s a story about football, and while of course this has a wider appeal than does climbing, it’s about football in England in the 1970s. In the muddy, grimy north of England, where top level sport was considerably less glamorous than it was now. Although it’s central character (the great manager Brian Clough) was by any standards a charismatic and colourful man, this is film based on a book by the author David Peace. He’s a masterful writer, but in his hands just about every story and character is dark and disturbing.

So yes, this film is a tough sell. If you were a marketing person you would of course sell it by saying that it’s not really about football – you’d want to say that it’s about love or friendship or something like that. The causal viewer, however, with no interest in the subject matter, would roll their eyes and go to find a comedy.

If you do that, you miss out. Because this is a universal story, and it is about friendship and ambition; football’s just the context, and really there’s precious little of it on screen (which is good, as it’s a very difficult sport to film well). It’s about the hopes, fears and doubts that drive us and what happens when we let them get out of control. It’s about friendship as a hard but worthwhile journey. Anyone who’s ever said something they regret to someone they value; anyone who has ever tried to prove themselves bigger than someone who has slighted them, and fallen flat doing so; anyone who has been consumed by a job or a vision or an idea; anyone, in short, who has lived will find something of value, challenge and comfort here.

What’s more, this film has changed the tone of the book – it’s funny, warm, engaging and a little exciting. It should go without saying that Michael Sheen is brilliant in it, but we need to keep saying it until he gets the awards he so richly deserves. There other fine performances too – I particularly liked the affected distance of Colm Meaney as Clough’s nemesis.

Really this a story about what happens when we give into Macbeth’s vaulting ambition, when let ourselves be broken by the desire to dominate and gain revenge. This film isn’t perfect, but then neither are the people it tells us about. Which makes it all the more accessible for the rest of us.

If you’re a person with hopes and fears and ambitions, then this is for you. Don’t miss the wood for the trees.

The Boat That [didn’t really] Rock

There are some films that for some reason one gets the impression that you shouldn’t enjoy. Some people think that they are somehow ‘beneath’ you. Some people think that of a film like Love, Actually. It’s just not a film that you’re supposed to like.

Now no-one’s pretending that it’s a masterpiece, but there’s some fine moments in it. It’s problem is that there are just too many characters and overlapping sub-plots. Richard Curtis, who both wrote and directed that film, really needed someone to sit down with him and take a pair of scissors to the script and to the finished film. If that had been done, it would have been a fine romantic comedy.

It’s the same with The Boat That Rocked, with added 60s nostalgia. It all feels a little forced, a little artificial. Some of the jokes are too obvious and repeated too many times. But they’re still funny. I can watch and enjoy just about any films which features one of Philip Seymour Hoffman or Kenneth Branagh; so to have them both is a real treat. There are actors who just exude presence, people you just can’t help but watch.

But the can’t save this one; it’s no Notting Hill. Too repetitive, too long, too any characters….it feels like Piraate Radio For Dummies. It’s by no means the worst film of the year, but really….could have been so much more.

Gran Torino: A Life

There’s a view in some circles that knowing too much about an author’s personal history is  unhelpful. The argument goes that it can obscure us from what’s really going on in the film/book/play; we are too prone to put two and two together, before even making sure that the sum should be done at all in the first place. There may be some wisdom in that at time, but Gran Torino really gives the lie to it; and as such, that’s what I’m drawn to in this film. Another time I could explore the role of faith in this story or the issue of urban integration or male identity. Or so much else. For now, though, let’s allow the star and director to shape reflections.

It’s widely presumed that this is to be Clint Eastwood’s final film in front of the camera, though it’s likely he’ll continue as director (it’s not like he doesn’t keep himself busy – with this and Changling, he doesn’t hang around). If this is his last performance, it’s almost impossible not to hear the echoes and see the shadows of his career all over this. Thematically, it reminds me of No Country For Old Men; a story about growing old, feeling that the world is changing for the worse and we’re not able to do anything about it. In the case of the Coen brothers’ film, though, you’re naturally sympathetic to the character approaching retirement – he is, after all, trying to deal with serial killer. Here, though, the lines are more blurred. Clint’s character is am aging combat veteran, whose wife has died,  in suburban Detroit, the sort of neighbourhood that seems to be only just down the road from seriously run down areas. This impinges materially and socially. He’s next door to a Hmong family, a people from Laos & Vietnam, historically persecuted and finally allowed to settle in the USA due to support given to America during the Vietnam war.

Walt (Clint), though, fought in Korea and sees his neigbours and one and the same with those he fought against. He doesn’t like them, doesn’t understand them and doesn’t want them on his lawn. It’s here that you fear the film is going to drift into ‘life-lesson of the week’ territory – Walt intervenes to protect his lawn and saves one of them, a teenage boy. The boy’s family see him as indebted to Walt, and insist he works for Walt. There the film could go so wrong.

It doesn’t because at times it’s very funny, leavening the uncomfortable issues of social change, multiculturalism and what tolerance really is with brilliant moments of humour. Not least, for example, in seeing the ex-Dirty Harry get so riled over a patch of grass and the fantastic, all too believable rite of passage in the hairdressers.

This is where we can’t get Clint’s career out of our mind. As the story gathers momentum and events take a darker tone, director and performer Eastwood skillfully play with our expectations, and the teenage boy becomes our represantative in that. From the music thorough to words, implications, preparations, [I’m trying hard to avoid a spoiler here], right up to the crucial moment, we all know what Dirty Harry, and so many other characters would have done. We’re expecting the same.

What we get may not be that surprising if we think about for a moment. That makes it no less the powerful. If Clint’s last few years of film making, perhaps from as far back as Unforgiven on, are seen by some as an attempt at atonement for the sins of a violent or amoral back-catalogue, then this is the pinnacle of that. Did he need to make such public amends? That is another debate, not least because we’re the ones who consumed the early films and encouraged their making.

Here, though, we have the most powerful and pertinent act of vengeance and grace possible. Walt gets justice for another in the same breath as he seeks atonement for himself. A picture speaks a thousand words.