Downed Submarine —
Cold War Picture Sinks in the Deep
The cinematic offenses committed by the filmmakers of “Phantom” are varied and many. Whoever thought it was a good idea to have Russian characters speak without a Russian accent has some fundamental lessons to learn about filmic storytelling. You might imagine that a drama set inside the creaking hull of a relic submarine during the Cold War would be suspenseful if not downright claustrophobic. Not this time. Writer-director Todd Robinson (“Lonely Hearts”) has made a movie that suffers from attention deficit disorder.
Ed Harris gets our attention as Demi, a Soviet naval commander, circa 1968, assigned to helm the B67 submarine he served on for most of his military career for one last voyage. Inferring a Russian identity on the Ed Harris’s American accent and gestures is a non starter. The obsolete sub is being sold to the Chinese Navy. It’s up to Demi to deliver it. With his protégé second-in-command officer Alex (William Fichtner) at his side, Demi finds his authority challenged by a team of questionably affiliated spies — led by David Duchovny’s Bruni — on a mission to do global harm. Plot coupons appear and vanish at regular intervals. A cloaking device, which can sonically make the submarine appear to other vessels as a variety of much larger ships, is momentarily presented as a significant plot point before being discarded like so many other narrative details.
The radical spies’ plan involves the sub (disguised as a Chinese submarine) attacking a barely observed U.S. vessel. Blame will be assigned to the Chinese, and the proverbial poop will hit the fan. It doesn’t help matters that the story never expands to show activities on the target ship. The movie exists in an airtight vacuum where the benefit of context is regarded as an unnecessary luxury. The filmmakers rely on a kneejerk crutch of military lingo to falsely energize the action. Characters repeat phrases about things like “sonar con” and “acoustic signatures” with requisite seriousness, but the overall effect is unconvincing before turning into an utter annoyance.
The characters are so poorly drawn that you’re never sure what they're supposed to represent as human beings. Even their objectives are murky. Harris’s Demi initially comes across as an ethically solid Commander. But as he allows himself and his crew to be intimidated by the demands of spies, intent on setting off World War III, it becomes difficult for the audience to know where to place their trust.
The poorly constructed story goes through plenty of obfuscating gyrations before spinning out of control in a melodramatic puddle that takes the cake for soap opera cheesiness. You’d never guess that the story was based on an actual event that pales the Cuban Missile Crisis by comparison. Clearly, there is a fascinating and suspenseful story buried somewhere in the impetus for “Phantom.” However, you don’t see much evidence of it on the screen. Even you happen to be huge fan of submarine movies, “Phantom” is not worth your time.
Rated R. 97 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Too Little Too Late
Paul Greengrass Switches Teams, But to What End?
By Cole Smithey
Director Paul Greengrass attempts to overcompensate for his unthinkably flat 2006 propaganda piece United 93 with a shaky-cam Iraq war picture. Carrying the moldy message that nonexistent "weapons of mass destruction" were a manufactured excuse for the war, Greengrass misses no opportunity to rattle his camera so that the story never has a chance to breathe. Without scratching the surface of the Bush administration's intended purpose of permanently robbing Iraq its oil resources, the Baghdad-set action (circa 2003) hits the ground running as one very long and overplayed chase sequence. Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon) is fed up with leading his team of Army inspectors on fruitless missions to uncover WMD due to faulty intel. Greg Kinnear plays Pentagon baddie intelligence operative Clark Poundstone, whose shite-eating-grin matches George Bush Junior's smug expression when he announces "mission accomplished" on a Republican Palace (a.k.a. Green Zone) cafeteria television. Back-slapping soldiers approve of Bush's brief victory lap from the safety of their cushy protected Iraq home. If they only knew then what we know now. Oh wait, they did know then.
The Green Zone's title has nothing to do with the story, but that's of little consequence in a film, whose message could be written on the tip of Dick Cheney's cruel nose with a felt tip Magic Marker. Self-righteous Officer Miller is so offended by the lie he naively signed on for that he covertly teams up with seasoned CIA good guy Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson). Brown is presented as a Robert Baer type of veteran intel man whose years of on-the-ground experience in Iraq and the Middle East should make his opinions and ideas essential to any military operation there. Instead, Brown is viewed by the likes of Poundstone as a rogue agent, good only for what intel can be stripped away from him to protect Bush's illegitimate war. One message that comes across loud and clear from Gleeson's character is that the U.S. military's decision to abandon the Iraqi Army, rather than include them in their "peace-keeping" operations, polarized the group of armed and trained soldiers against U.S. forces in a dynamically lasting way.
Miller lucks into a helpful Iraqi called "Freddy" (Khalid Abdalla), who leads Miller and a few of his soldiers to raid a meeting house where General Al Rawi (Yigal Naor), one of the hate-mongers in Bush's infamous "deck-of-cards," is making anti-American plans. Iraqi blood is shed during the assault, and Miller snatches a coded book (read MacGuffin) that both Poundstone and Brown have primary use for. In the first of several ghost-in-the-machine moments, a Special Forces squad--led by Jason Issacs in badass mode--immediately descend out of nowhere from helicopters to steal the journal away from Miller, who wisely passes it off in the heat of the moment to Freddy for provisional safe keeping.
Screenwriter Brian Helgeland (Mystic River) slips into so many plot holes that a return to Robert McKee's screenplay workshop might be a worthy consideration. A Wall Street Journal columnist named Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan) hits the screen as such a dubious plot device that you half expect to hear a sad trombone go wah-wahh-wahhh whenever she comes into frame.
One of many other such glaring flaws is the utter lack of kinship between Officer Miller and his men, or between any of the characters for that matter. Everybody seems to be acting in their own private story. It's fine to envision Matt Damon working in an extension of his Jason Bourne loner spy character, but then why not just make another Bourne action movie and set it in Iraq? It seems odd that the same cinematographer (Barry Ackroyd) that shot "The Hurt Locker" is the man behind the camera here. So unrelentingly spastic are the non-stop camera movements that you feel shaken-not-stirred when the closing credits finally roll. Green Zone is clearly intended as an agitprop movie in love with itself for transmitting a dated message about the several trillions of dollars the U.S. Government has squandered over the past seven years to "create democracy in Iraq," as founded on a purely artificial premise. The film is so far behind the times as to be comical. If it had come out in 2004, it might have had some bite. But then if there were even a spot of humor in any of this, perhaps it might ease our global heartache and headache--if only by a degree. If only. If only.
(Universal Pictures) Rated R for violence and language. 115 mins. (C-) (Two Stars)
Dirty Oscar Fodder
Tarantino Pulls Out All the Stops--Again, and Better
By Cole Smithey
Quentin Tarantino has matured as an auteur even if he's as prone as ever to creating funny-ha-ha sequences of joyous cinematic revelry just for the sport of it. Tarantino deploys virtuosic use of character, dialogue, suspense, and surprise in each of this film's five chapters. A tense opening sequence titled "Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France" sets the filmmaker's darkly comic yet heavily dramatic tone with Nazi Colonel Hans Landa's (diabolically played by the incomparable Christoph Waltz who won Best Actor at Cannes for his performance)—and his small group of soldiers— visit to a remote farmhouse inhabited by dairy farmer Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet) and his three daughters. The objective, naturally, is to search for Jews whom LaPadite may be hiding. A polite battle of wits and willpower between the two adversaries plays out with a savory drama that is astounding for its layers of subtext, precise execution, and originality. The following chapter introduces Tennessee-born Lt. Aldo Raine (played with gusto by Brad Pitt), who indoctrinates his elite squad of Nazi scalpers (Aldo is part Apache Indian) with a speech spun of richly-humored narrative gold. The remaining chapters--each reflecting a different film genre-- build on one another toward a new kind of World War II fantasy climax that is cathartic as it is bittersweet for its inevitable collateral damage.
Loosely inspired by Enzo G. Castellari's 1978 B-movie of the same title--that was itself modeled on Robert Aldrich's "The Dirty Dozen," "Inglourious Basterds" (purposely misspelled to foreshadow the film's tenor as a foreign war fantasy complete with subtitles) is a project Tarantino has kept simmering on a back burner for years. The movie is full of gentle nods to a collection of styles ranging from Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns (there's more than a little Ennio Morricone music on hand) to the fetishistic WWII films of Tinto Brass ("Salon Kitty"). Nonetheless, these embellishing elements of stylistic filigree are contained in an exceptionally disciplined manner that serve to pressurize every scene with a dynamic cinematic energy that is intoxicating as it is evocative. When David Bowie's "Putting Out Fire With Gasoline" (from "Cat People") comes up over an especially appropriate scene, the song turbo charges the movie with a rock 'n' roll aesthetic that feels so good it hurts.
Next to Martin Scorsese, there isn't another filmmaker as eloquent and passionate about cinema as Tarantino. Like Scorsese, Tarantino involves himself with his audience on a journey about how to enjoy it in the same way he does. If, as with Sight & Sound magazine's film critic Kim Newman, you reject Tarantino's gift for sharing his filmic inspiration on the grounds that it is in some way degrading, offensive, or irresponsible (because this film "refuses to deal with the long-term consequences of the war"), then I would say you're missing the point. Cinema is our most interactive and vibrant art form. Its intrinsic nature is a collaborative ensemble experience where, as with jazz music, each player brings a distinctive vocabulary and approach that melds to form a particular palate that is then interpreted differently by each audience member. Tarantino's brilliant use of stylistic anachronisms is an active ingredient that defines how such material can be played with in an appropriate context, such as with a war fantasy genre film, to squeeze out the still congealed historic furor of WWII in an internationally communal forum.
"Inglourious Basterds" is a five-course meal created by one of the world's finest chefs. Not since Scorsese's "The Departed" has anyone made a film that's as much fun. Tarantino masterfully employs an economy of action, thought, and movement that takes you on a wartime movie excursion you never want to end. Every film that Quentin Tarantino makes is a cinematic event of mammoth proportions, and this one is no different. It lives up to the director's brilliant international reputation, and accordingly so does he. "Inglourious Basterds" is Tarantino's best work yet.
Rated R. 152 mins. (A+) (Five Stars)
Saving Private Ryan
Spielberg Loses Head - Saves Ryan
Where’s an "NC17" rating when you need one?
By Cole Smithey
We all know that Steven Spielberg is the real "King of the World," Tom Hanks is the Pope and Matt Damon is the prince--except not really. Together they form Spielberg’s latest formula for profit after rallying Jewish audiences for "Schindler’s List." Now it’s time to hit up the white Catholics and Protestants, so you know it has got to be BLOODY. "Saving Private Ryan" is way beyond revisionist history; it’s absolutely implausible. No group of soldiers were ever sent to search after one guy because his brothers were killed and some Sergeant wanted to assuage the mom back home. But issues like plausibility, the trauma of war, or believable characters aren’t the point anyway. It’s only about how realistic and cool Spielberg can show guys getting limbs blown off, heads blown off, guts hanging out, and thousands of bullets going ping, whistle, and zip into human flesh. There’s a great shot of a soldier picking up his own arm to take with him, there’s Captain Miller (Hanks) dragging a wounded soldier while the poor fellow gets his lower half blown off, and there’s the blood-red tide beating up on the French shoreline. Violent, harrowing, and horrific; you bet. This is not a movie to take your children to see, or even a date. And it’s definitely not worth seeing alone. How the ratings board gave this movie an "R" rating is a mystery. Well, maybe not.
The wickedness in "Saving Private Ryan's" publicity campaign has become the stuff of legend in the past week, from Spielberg’s personal manner of "warning" parents, teachers, and kids that anyone under 15 should not see this movie. It is a transparent approach to gain audience members through reverse psychology. If I tell you not to do something, I know you’ll want to go out and do it. Months after the oblique trailer for the film started running- where no indication of the film's extremely graphic violence is hinted at - Spielberg is suddenly alerting the world to what a carnage fest his movie is. If he had really been interested in this issue, he would have requested an NC-17 rating from the start and approved a more telling trailer to promote the movie. Me thinks he doth protest too much.
The problem is much more insidious though. There will be plenty of people (who haven’t seen Bertolucci’s "1900" or never heard of Elem Klimov’s "Come and See," or Visconti’s "The Damned," or have forgotten Kubrick’s "Full Metal Jacket") raving about this being the greatest war movie ever made. Well it’s not. It doesn’t even rate. Any director with Spielberg’s money and clout can hire the bloody look and feel of real battle. Yes, the actors are good. Save for Hanks (Whoopi Goldberg’s evil twin); so humane, so Hanks, so what. Matt Damon (as private Ryan) breezes through his oh-so-perfect monologue about the last night he spent with his now deceased brothers. The effects and make-up are terrific. There’s even the signature Spielberg graveside scene with all the tombstones commanding respect (like "Schindler’s List). But when you look deeper at the opening and closing scenes, and notice that there are no tears on the grandfather’s face, or that his busty grand-daughters are scene-stealing in the background, you realize that something is rotten in Denmark. And that’s the guile of a pompous, self-congratulatory filmmaker who has bankrupted his soul in the name of profit and ego.
There’s a very unnerving scene in which a German soldier slowly drives his knife into an American’s heart while almost kissing him. It’s the exact kind of sadistic pleasure that we imagine a Nazi taking in an act of murder. The problem is that Spielberg gives no context for the venomous behavior. When Donald Sutherland, as an Italian fascist in "1900," murders a young boy during a sex act, it’s all the more horrific because you know exactly where his evil comes from and how deep it runs. In "Saving Private Ryan" Spielberg merely takes pornographic glee in hand-held cameras running amok, neck deep in gore, with a cast of worthy actors surrounded by great technicians.
Military strategists agree that the two day battle called "D-Day" was a huge mistake. The military sent out a lot of U.S. soldiers to absorb German ammunition resulting in the highest number of causalities for any battle in history. The U.S. could have made an evasive thrust by sending soldiers directly to Berlin. And without all that hot, wet, spewing blood Spielberg would have no movie. Damn it all to hell.
Rated R for intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence. 170 mins. (C-) Two Stars) 7/15/98
Miracle at St. Anna
Spike’s Bologna Sandwich Spike Lee boxes outside of his directorial weight-class with a war story bogged down by ham-handed smacks of magical realism and over-pronounced examples of racial prejudice. Lee’s muddle of inappropriate camera angles, overemphasized exposition, and overall inability to get beyond the scope of his source material makes the cinematic garment seem like it was made with a shortage of fabric. James McBride’s script, based on his own novel, proves problematic in its attempt to create a believable fictionalized account of the experiences of a group of four Buffalo Soldiers fighting in the 92nd Infantry Division in Tuscany, Italy between August 1944 and November of 1945. The troops survive crossing a shallow river into enemy territory where they remain trapped with a group of Italian locals, unaided by their unit’s white commander who refuses to send in reinforcements because he doesn’t believe their reported location. The group’s largest soldier Sam (Omar Benson Miller) has a knack for lugging around heavy things, like a decapitated statue head from a destroyed Italian bridge, and a lost little Italian boy who Sam believes will keep his squad safe from harm. This is a war movie that’s all over the place. Its performances range from disappointing to mediocre in an overlong film that’s more likely to give you a headache than any sense of thematic resolve. Spike Lee is not a natural storyteller, or even mindful of tapping naturalist qualities. His is a clinical cinema derived of misappropriated camera angles and lighting schemes, where the audience awaits its series of narrative faceslaps that come here in the form of racism from the U.S. commanders and an incongruous flashback sequence that permanently disfigures the movie. We know we’re in trouble when a low camera shot tracks down a long hallway toward a closed apartment door. It’s a Scorsese camera move that, in Lee’s hand, pushes toward horror-movie conventions. Brutal violence does arrive in the form of a career-veteran postal worker who pulls a military gun on a patron and kills the man on the spot. An annoying cameo by Joseph Gordon Levitt as a newbie reporter assigned to the case distracts more than it adds to the story. John Leguizamo does a similar one-off cameo as a horndog American living in modern Italy with his equally enthusiastic Italian girlfriend. Neither of the scenes move the story forward, as serve as mere deposits of exposition. This isn’t Shakespeare. So, we shift from horror to mystery within a few beats before being plunged in with an infantry of Buffalo Soldiers slogging through enemy territory to the strains of Axis Sally (Alexandra Maria Lara) telling the troops their country doesn’t care about them but that Germany does. It’s a slick bit of wartime propaganda that rings truer as the black battalion are thinned out from fierce shelling by Nazi soldiers overlooking a river the soldiers attempt to cross. The movie takes a hard right turn in developing an unlikely buddy story between the oversized American soldier Sam with a seven-year-old Italian boy named Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi). Lee flirts with an "Amelie" brand of quirkiness in early scenes between the religiously committed Sam and the boy he views as a savior. Thankfully Lee abandons starry-eyed magic dust stuff, even if it’s only to overplay a silly romantic rivalry between Second Staff Sergeant Aubrey Banks (Derek Luke) and Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy) for the attention of Italian beauty Renata (Valentina Cerri) in the medieval town of Colognora where they are surrounded by Nazis. The crude subplot intrudes as an afterthought editorial decision to get some sex into the movie—at least that’s how it reads in the movie. Some blame must be attributed to screenwriter/novelist James McBride for a bologna sandwich of a story, as well as to Terence Blanchard for an overtly bombastic musical score that’s akin to hearing a little boy cry wolf a few too many times. However it’s Spike Lee who must assess his failure and do the right thing--retire. Rated R. 145 mins. (C-) (Two Stars)
War Isn’t the Genre for Spike Lee
By Cole Smithey
Spike’s Bologna Sandwich
Spike Lee boxes outside of his directorial weight-class with a war story bogged down by ham-handed smacks of magical realism and over-pronounced examples of racial prejudice. Lee’s muddle of inappropriate camera angles, overemphasized exposition, and overall inability to get beyond the scope of his source material makes the cinematic garment seem like it was made with a shortage of fabric. James McBride’s script, based on his own novel, proves problematic in its attempt to create a believable fictionalized account of the experiences of a group of four Buffalo Soldiers fighting in the 92nd Infantry Division in Tuscany, Italy between August 1944 and November of 1945. The troops survive crossing a shallow river into enemy territory where they remain trapped with a group of Italian locals, unaided by their unit’s white commander who refuses to send in reinforcements because he doesn’t believe their reported location. The group’s largest soldier Sam (Omar Benson Miller) has a knack for lugging around heavy things, like a decapitated statue head from a destroyed Italian bridge, and a lost little Italian boy who Sam believes will keep his squad safe from harm. This is a war movie that’s all over the place. Its performances range from disappointing to mediocre in an overlong film that’s more likely to give you a headache than any sense of thematic resolve.
Spike Lee is not a natural storyteller, or even mindful of tapping naturalist qualities. His is a clinical cinema derived of misappropriated camera angles and lighting schemes, where the audience awaits its series of narrative faceslaps that come here in the form of racism from the U.S. commanders and an incongruous flashback sequence that permanently disfigures the movie.
We know we’re in trouble when a low camera shot tracks down a long hallway toward a closed apartment door. It’s a Scorsese camera move that, in Lee’s hand, pushes toward horror-movie conventions. Brutal violence does arrive in the form of a career-veteran postal worker who pulls a military gun on a patron and kills the man on the spot. An annoying cameo by Joseph Gordon Levitt as a newbie reporter assigned to the case distracts more than it adds to the story. John Leguizamo does a similar one-off cameo as a horndog American living in modern Italy with his equally enthusiastic Italian girlfriend. Neither of the scenes move the story forward, as serve as mere deposits of exposition. This isn’t Shakespeare.
So, we shift from horror to mystery within a few beats before being plunged in with an infantry of Buffalo Soldiers slogging through enemy territory to the strains of Axis Sally (Alexandra Maria Lara) telling the troops their country doesn’t care about them but that Germany does. It’s a slick bit of wartime propaganda that rings truer as the black battalion are thinned out from fierce shelling by Nazi soldiers overlooking a river the soldiers attempt to cross.
The movie takes a hard right turn in developing an unlikely buddy story between the oversized American soldier Sam with a seven-year-old Italian boy named Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi). Lee flirts with an "Amelie" brand of quirkiness in early scenes between the religiously committed Sam and the boy he views as a savior. Thankfully Lee abandons starry-eyed magic dust stuff, even if it’s only to overplay a silly romantic rivalry between Second Staff Sergeant Aubrey Banks (Derek Luke) and Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy) for the attention of Italian beauty Renata (Valentina Cerri) in the medieval town of Colognora where they are surrounded by Nazis. The crude subplot intrudes as an afterthought editorial decision to get some sex into the movie—at least that’s how it reads in the movie.
Some blame must be attributed to screenwriter/novelist James McBride for a bologna sandwich of a story, as well as to Terence Blanchard for an overtly bombastic musical score that’s akin to hearing a little boy cry wolf a few too many times. However it’s Spike Lee who must assess his failure and do the right thing--retire.
Rated R. 145 mins. (C-) (Two Stars)
"Boys Don’t Cry" Director Returns With Soldiers’ Untold Story
By Cole Smithey
Co-writer/ director Kimberly Peirce returns after her impressive 1999 drama "Boys Don’t Cry" with an equally empathetic film. "Stop-Loss" is centered around the U.S. military’s current backdoor-draft policy, responsible for forcing 81,000 soldiers—at the time of this writing—back into war after multiple tours of duty.
Squad leader Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), his best friend Sgt. Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), and fellow soldier Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) return to their Brazos, Texas hometown after spending five blood-soaked years in Afghanistan and Iraq. Following a welcome home ceremony, where Brandon receives a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star from a U.S. Senator, he tries to help Steve and Tommy adjust to civilian life in spite of their violence riddled psyches. Brandon’s own effort to reacclimate to home life is challenged when he is ordered, under the Stop-Loss policy, to return to Iraq. "With all due respect, F#*k the President," is Brandon’s vehement reply to the Commanding Officer who ineffectively attempts to jail Brandon. What follows is an honest patriotic soldier’s desperate attempt to find a way out of a malicious bureaucratic booby trap.
With the help of Steve’s fiancée Michele (Abbie Cornish), Brandon goes AWOL. The pair they head for Washington D.C. to seek assistance from the Senator who called Brandon King a hero just a few days earlier. On the run, the American streets that Brandon dreamed of returning to take on a similar war zone quality to Iraq’s unpredictable alleys. Steve gets in touch with Brandon to tell him that "Boot" (a term applied to all U.S. military authority) has contacted the Senator. No reprieve will be possible. Starting a new life from scratch in Canada or Mexico becomes the topic of discussion as the road trip meets with a seireis of dead ends.
Kimberly Peirce, whose own younger brother recently returned from duty in Iraq, doesn’t push the story for ultimate dramatic effect. She doesn’t track the sensual tension between Brandon and Michele. Their off-limits relationship is understood and respected. Certain subplots could have been heightened to extract audience sentiment, but this is a movie about people, soldiers, and their families being forcefully submerged into tragedy with no less coercion than that used to torture a war prisoner.
"Stop-Loss a movie full of anger and heartbreak that sticks with you. Maddening, upsetting, and articulate, it’s a story that dares to address a systematic tentacle of Government expediency connected to a larger monster. The term Stop-Loss comes from an economic definition. "A ‘Stop-Loss Order’ is an order placed with a stock broker to sell a security when it reaches a certain price. It is designed to limit an investor's loss on a security position."
The U.S. media has kept hidden the breadth of affliction that Americans are suffering from two wars that we are told will never end. "Stop-Loss" elegantly poses the question, when is enough, enough? It’s a question that every thinking person on the planet is asking about America’s radical necon movement that is propigating endless wars in the name of democracy. It's a question you might be closer to answering after seeing the film.
Kimberly Peirce interviewed many soldiers and their families in researching the film. She continues to field feedback, questions, and ideas. Ms. Peirce invites correspondence at http://www.stoplossmovie.com/SoundOff/.
Rated R. 112 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Black Book - Classic Film Pick
Paul Verhoeven Probes Both Sides of Dutch WWII Resistance
By Cole Smithey
"Black Book" is Paul Verhoeven's first film created in his native born Netherlands since 1985. The highly energetic director brings to it valuable lessons he learned working for 20-years in Hollywood (see "Robocop," "Starship Troopers") to forge an unprecedented World War II-era masterpiece. The film’s iconic title comes from a secret list of Dutch collaborators. Much of its success emanates from the nimble performance of its leading lady Carice van Houten. In the role of a once wealthy Jewish singer, who joins a Dutch resistance group after barely escaping a massacre that claims the lives of her family, van Houten plays Rachel Stein with a naive blitheness that registers as a tour de force portrayal of grace under enormous pressure. Stein represents a quietly contained moral code wherein romantic loyalty is as much a part of her physiology as her determination to exact retribution from those responsible for her family’s death. At once the most expensive and successful Dutch film ever made, Verhoeven created the fast-paced script with his well-aquatinted screenwriter Gerard Soeteman (co-writer on "Soldier of Orange"). "Black Book" is based on historical events researched from the Dutch War Museum and from scholarly publications over a period of more than 20 years.
The story is bookended by scenes, circa 1956, on a Kibbutz near the Sea of Galilee where Rachel resides behind guarded barbed wire fences. A bus full of tourists momentarily reunites Rachel with a woman from her past that sends her into a reverie about an astonishing tale of survival. In September of 1944, a younger Rachel reads a bible while hiding inside a secret room in the rural safe-house of a Christian Dutch family. The gruff patriarch sets the tone for mealtime discussion when he announces, "If the Jews had listened to Jesus, we wouldn't be in the state we're in now." Rachel’s poker face at the remark divulges her innate ability to disconnect emotions that might otherwise impugn her safety. Christian, Jew, Freedom Fighter, Nazi collaborator, traitor, avenging angel; Rachel will eventually take on all of these reputations while still maintaining her individuality as she shifts identities. At one point, a close associate calls her a "real Mati Hari" (the famous WWI Dutch spy). Verhoeven revels in exploring this image by building up and shattering Rachel’s many layers of personality.
An allied bombing raid kills the Christian family, and sends Rachel into hiding with Rob (Michel Huisman) a young man she has only just met. Rob takes Rachel to meet a lawyer who secretly helps Jews escape into allied territory. He hesitantly agrees to help them if they will to gather all of their belongings and money for safe passage on a barge with other Jews. Rachel is briefly reunited with her family, but German forces attack the boat and she is left as its lone survivor after diving into the night water.
After being rescued by a Dutch resistance leader, Rachel is smuggled as a coffin-enclosed corpse to relative safety. Intent on avenging the murder of her family, Rachel dies her hair blonde, changes her name to Ellis de Vries, and proves her adaptive skills under pressure during an endangered gun smuggling mission that introduces her to Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch) the head of the Dutch SD (sicherheitsdienst - the Nazi intelligence service).
Her brief connection with Muntze gives rise to Rachel being assigned to seduce the Nazi officer, stationed inside the Hague, after another gun running mission leads to the capture of several resistance leaders. Rachel dies her pubic hair blonde, and the scene allows for some signature Verhoeven sexual levity while detailing her carnal commitment to the resistance. It also prefaces glimpses of Nazi debauchery that Verhoeven accurately includes throughout. The assignment goes better than expected when Muntze takes Rachel’s tender bait and goes so far as to give her a clerk job under his command. Muntze admires the degree of her deception when he notices the dark roots in her hair, and continues with their affair knowing that she is Jewish. Herein lies the romantic twist that links a Jewish war orphan with a good German.
Rachel and Muntze are very different from the heroes and heroines of war-era and postwar propaganda movies. Their relationship exists in a pressurized bubble of ambiguity beyond each of their stated political goals. Stylistically, Verhoeven’s trademark Hitchcockian influence comes through in suspense scenes that put a lump in your throat. When Rachel bugs Muntze’s office so the resistance can plan their mission to release their comrade prisoners, Verhoeven takes full advantage of the highly charged situation.
Nothing is black and white. Verhoeven told Sight & Sound magazine that "the whole story is revisionism," so he had to "revise the revisionism to tell the reality." The triumph of the Dutch resistance turns the victors into brutes as vile as the Nazis that they depose. Rachel’s quest for revenge turns back on itself after she’s branded a traitor by the guerrilla movement, and she realizes that the people she trusted most were also guilty of insidious atrocities. The film explodes the reality of war profiteers that lurk in the blind spots of both sides of the conflict. The immense amount of cunning that Rachel exhibits to undo her oppressors is nothing compared to the maze of artifice put in her way by the people to whom she remained loyal. The film is far more judgmental than it seems. When a resistance leader rescues Rachel after having 40 gallons of feces dumped on her by a gaggle of fellow prisoners, it’s only so he can get her alone to inflict a worse punishment. Only her lightness of spirit keeps Rachel alive, but when she finally exacts her long-delayed retribution, she no hero, no martyr, merely a lonely Jewish woman who will never be free.
At 68, Paul Verhoeven is an artistic and intelligent director on a scale with Bernardo Bertolucci ("1900"). “Black Book” is the most dynamic achievement of the 25 films he’s made. For detractors unable to see beyond Verhoeven’s grand-scale failure "Showgirls," or acknowledge the brilliant satire of "Starship Troopers," "Black Book" might seem a bombastic flexing of narrative muscle. From composer Anne Dudley’s thundering musical score to cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub’s sensational camerawork,"Black Book" is a wartime movie that embraces irony, action, sex and tragedy as equal parts of a significant human struggle. Verhoeven uses theatricality to simultaneously balance the suffering without giving into sentimentality or preachy posturing. The Dutch director has learned from Hollywood how to better shape and pace a film, while still giving his characters room to breathe. The question is; what will Hollywood learn from Verhoeven.
Rated R. 145 mins. (A+) (Five Stars)