03 December 2018 3369 Views

ROBIN HOOD! PETERLOO! FAHRENHEIT 11/9: What do These Films have in Common? And What Sets Them Apart? Political Cinema vs Cinematic Politics..

by James Murphy

Three Movies. All Very Different. Or ARE they? Let’s Take a Closer Look..

How does one ‘do’ politics on film? I think George Clooney once put it nicely: ‘I want the audience to ask questions’. IE: You don’t answer anything; never dictate, didactically, the messages that an audience ought to take away. A movie is not a lecture; it must, by its nature, regardless of the agenda driving or inspiring it, exist as an entertainment, a work of art, either high or low. Some movies pull that off, nicely. And some..don’t. And then there are rare unpolished gems that have moments of clarity and balance, only to lose that because they lack some indefinable cinematic magic or maybe they make the mistake of overdoing the gloss over grit? Let’s meet some recent case studies. 

ROBIN HOOD is a flop. No question. Terrible opening weekend. Awful reviews. Is that fair? No. It’s actually a fine and entertaining movie. The action is immersive, visceral, atmospheric. Its pace is pitch perfect. There is a fantastic music score from Joseph Trapanese and some breathtakingly beautiful, well edited landscape shots; both in day and night scenes. You get romance, adventure, heart, soul, warmth, wonder. The problem is there nothing NEW here. The idea of deconstructing the myth was taken on by better hands in Ridley Scott /Russell Crowe’s version of same name, a decade earlier. Plus: we still have not yet seen the un-filmed ‘NOTTINGHAM‘ script that would truly have subverted things by making the Sheriff a good guy via a kind of medieval CSI:Sherwood; with Sienna Miller as Maid Marian!

And, for all its flaws (the overpraised panto villainy of Alan Rickman who was far better in understated roles, Die Hard exempted; an under-stretched Kevin Costner; comic book notions of England; excessive violence, length and desire to be Indiana Jones..)..Robin Hood:Prince of Thieves (1991) remains a high benchmark of action/adventure cinema and as close to a definitive Hollywood take post Errol Flynn as is possible. Without harnessing, bettering or radically reinventing the legends presented by Costner/Crowe? This latest version is simply redundant. It says nothing new and therefore has no reason to exist. It’s all been done before and better. There are attempts to clearly set up a franchise and the basic beats at work owe a LOT to BATMAN BEGINS. Fine and rousing and FUN. Just forgets to be an actual story about..well..Robin Hood?

Jamie Foxx is cast, inexplicably, as the mentor and by extension, architect of the man and his myth (once again: why not just cast Costner/Crowe and literally have ‘the legend continues’ as they pass the mantle to a new kid?). Taron Egerton is among my favourite actors working today and he IS a film star. But he’s NOT Robin Hood; too young, too fresh, too something not quite deployed correctly. This is not Kingsman, yet they play to similar motifs (class, nobility, birthright vs rites of passage).

One is reminded of certain early Tom Cruise projects that tried harnessing the Top Gun formula (Cocktail; Days of Thunder) that were fine but just not quite ‘there’ in matching leading man to the right property before he found A Few Good Men/the Firm/Mission:Impossible. Egerton will have a great year next year (he plays Elton John in Rocketman); but this is a necessary lesson/setback in the fact that a project HAS to match your talents properly. Matters not helped by a rather sympathetic Sheriff (Ben Mendelsohn) and Jamie Dornan cast, inexplicably, as Will Scarlet when he is the perfect age to play Robin and has a slightly edgier, older yet still vital charisma relative to Taron’s youth.

The politics are largely implicit and mercifully so; thereby enabling one to simply enjoy the heists and the fights and the preparation montages. That said? They do everything except hint at Brexit, Trump and all the present and correct, on message political media beats. There is a sense here that Catholic Church = bad; Muslims = nice? I am over-simplifying there, perhaps, as to be fair there are clearly elements of factional warfare at work. But in an era whereby an insidiously extremist right and left wing are on the rise and with their own mistaken personality worship of Sheriff of Nottinghams posing as Robin Hoods..I think one should either tread more subtly or stick to escapist fights in the forest and spectacular goody v baddie heist scenes. In any event: the movie flopped so lacks influence of note. But if you do see it? You WILL enjoy a solid and adequate if uninspired night at the movies. And DO use the soundtrack on Spotify et al: a GREAT running / workout companion!

Moving  on..

..PETERLOO is an earnest history lesson, posing as movie. One cannot and indeed MUST not be flippant about the issues represented onscreen or indeed, the hard graft that has gone into making the film. It’s all too easy to take voting and worker rights for granted. We see, here, how that struggle was born and won, from regions in Britain that were isolated, neglected, effectively starved of the most basic amenities. And you cannot fail to be moved by that.

This is a vivid and raw portrayal of poverty; you FEEL the deprivation and yet also the inspiration to strive harder and fight for more. But it’s heavy stuff: 2 hours and 40 minutes of dialogue, punctuated by one scene of brutal violenceSo, let’s hope you are close to a ‘porta-loo’ if watching..Peterloo? A truly taxing, challenging watch, though worthily rewarding in its way. Do NOT expect a comfortable piece of entertainment here and that is in some senses a shame. Director Mike Leigh is all about realism but one longs in places for a more romantic love of the landscape and a music score to match.

In short? I’d love to see a new version of Robin Hood from Mike Leigh; but I think a Ridley Scott, Kevin Costner or Mel Gibson could have come in handy to lend some cinematic scope and romanticism to the punctuating shots in Peterloo! The titular struggle was a name given to a gathering in the North of people campaigning for democracy and it comes in the wake of the Waterloo battle, hence the play on words. The military were deployed by an overzealous and opportunistic, perniciously self aggrandising local law enforcement body. Cue mass panic, injury and sadly, death. It’s an abject lesson and all too timeless to be forgotten; a reminder of how crowd control can go wrong but also how a minor breakdown in communication or a muddle within groupings can be manipulated by malignant power bases without a care for the common man.

You will feel every beat of that harsh world, in every conversation and deprivation depicted. The performances here are excellent, uniformly. Rory Kinnear (Tanner in the Daniel Craig era 007 movies) is a standout as a third way style orator who starts the film as a seemingly vain and precious celebrity politician; only to reveal true grit and substance as he asserts himself and the rights of a forgotten people by the film’s close. Look out for Tim McInnerny as the Prince Regent: interesting, as it’s a part he turned down for Blackadder the Third (the role went to Hugh Laurie instead and comedic history was made) and this is quite a sinister, creepy caricature of a character yet a brilliant cameo, nonetheless. Alistair Mackenzie also very impressive in his balanced, studied portrayal of a distinguished military man.

..Leading neatly into..our final film here:

FAHRENHEIT 11/9 should be done under trade description laws. It LOOKS like a movie about the rise of Trump. It isn’t. Donald barely features. And when he does, his unintentionally funny presence is most welcome. As this is dark stuff from filmmaker Michael Moore. Indeed, the leaders that come off far worse are Obama /Clinton. The majority of the movie focuses on the Flint Water scandal (where an entire district was stricken by the impact of lead poisoning).

That injustice is the basis for a film in itself; and whether as documentary or a more dramatised piece (think Erin Brokovich /A Civil Action), certainly requires far more attention. Those responsible, be it negligently or otherwise, have much to answer for. And it is truly shocking that more radical methods of solution and salvation were not deployed, far sooner, especially by President Obama. And therein lies the problem with Moore’s movie. It’s over-reaching, over-ambitious and he thereby fails to truly sell the case for Trump as personification of American ills, from environmental abuse to gun control.

Whilst it’s fair to say that Trump has not alleviated the problems cited; it is also deeply UN-fair of Moore to somehow pin ALL he sees as ‘wrong’ on Trump era worldviews.

I’d go so far as saying that many a voter may even see Trump as an antidote TO the very difficulties depicted in the movie, such that Moore ends up, albeit unwittingly, as a recruiting agent for #TRUMP2020. People are tired of an empty rhetoric that shouts about its own compassion yet lacks either figurehead or factory-floor of new leadership to truly reinvent the moral /political wheel. The liberal left are in my experience, every bit as prone to nasty name calling as their sometimes scary right wing counterparts and both sides can also be complacent and unwelcoming, fighting among themselves (something, yet again, that Moore depicts; venerating the Bernie Sanders camp and its perceived alternative to corrupted voting procedures and compromised leadership in the Democrat Party).

What Moore does offer, to his credit, is a platform to the power of youth, notably in a meditation on gun control. And whilst he berates the lack of union representation in some sectors, he is just as quick to cite the failures of teaching bodies to truly protect their charge from corporatism by stealth. This is an entertaining and informative film; fusing pace to purpose and audio-visual allure to intellectual substance. You see the American dream smashed but are fed some small sliver of hope for its resurrection and development in the generations to come.

It is therefore a terrible shame that Moore felt a need to frame it all with the Trump legend, concluding with an analogy to Nazism that to my mind, verges on the legally actionable. That act of immaturity undermines and devalues the rest of the movie, leaving one with a bitter taste as credits roll on what could have been a far finer film without any reference to the current administration. Even worse are the disgusting close-ups of the lovely Ivanka Trump being hugged by her Dad; manipulated to imply something insidiously creepier than mere paternal love.

Above all? The film is arguably outdated, already. Moore sings the praises of the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Coretz, whilst portraying the Trump regime as undermining democracy. Well: I have some news, just in. Cortez won a seat in the mid-terms. The peoples’ voices ARE being heard and President Trump will either take note and modify his rhetoric or face potential defeat in 2020. The power to VOTE: a privilege on which America was founded and which the poor souls at ‘Peterloo’ never enjoyed.

So: what do these 3 movies have in common?

None will break box office records. Moore’s Trump film will probably earn the most cash relative to budget (AKA: ‘profit’). Don’t hold me to that; it’s just a hunch. One of life’s little ironies; the movie that shouts loudest about the failings of capitalism is ultimately the one with the best marketing package.

The movie about Robin Hood will LOSE money for the rich, without getting anything for the ‘poor’? And the PETERLOO movie will probably have the most lasting legacy as both historical document and timely reminder to avoid complacency about workers’ rights, to prevent mass panic and ensure that we all question, to the last, the aims and methods of those in power.

And yet: ALL these movies also share a sense of region vs nation and the absolute need for greater unity both within groups and between them, in service of a greater good. We must, both in ‘reel’ and ‘real’ world set the highest of bars for those leading us into perceived progress, without ever losing hope or judging those too harshly who fail to meet our impossible ideals.

ROBIN HOOD, PETERLOO, FAHRENHEIT 11/9: By no means ‘unmissable’ movies yet each worthy in their way. Provocative, stimulating, entertaining. Prescient and pertinent to possibilities for progress facing the world ; whilst paradoxically reminding viewers that we face a precipice of political despair and chronic lack of inspired ‘feel good’ factor as an antidote. Cinema might not always have the answers but it can still inspire us to ask the right sort of questions, briefly rescuing one from painful realities or forcing their head on confrontation through visceral visuals. This trinity of movies models that power at various stages and that is to be commended



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