Pablo Larrain’s Pinochet Trilogy Loses Substance
Gael Garcia Bernal’s television adman-turned-political-commercial-creator Rene Saavedra is such an ethically ambiguous and passive protagonist that “No” falls flat as a piece of wannabe agitprop cinema. Director Pablo Larrain continues his ongoing study of Pinochet-ruled '70s-era Chile — behind “Tony Manero” (2008) and “Post Mortem” (2010) with an airy statement about the power of the television commercial formula. This lackluster film is based on a stage play, “Referendum” by Antonio Skarmeta.
Rene is the fence-sitting son of a famous Chilean dissident exiled after the C.I.A. assassinates democratically elected President Salvador Allende in a coup, leading to the rise of Augusto Pinochet, a brutal despot. The terrible treatment his father endured has cowed Rene into utter submission under a corrupt system he can barely begin to fathom.
Dictatorial governance begets dictatorial interpersonal relations. After leaving his job making television soft drink commercials, Rene takes on the personality of mini-tyrant over his creative team, which is assigned to design and produce a 15-minute political segment capable of convincing the public to vote “no” against Pinochet in an upcoming referendum.
Pinochet's goons deploy various intimidation tactics against Rene and his staff. Even Rene’s separated wife and son come under attack from the dictator's relentless crew of thugs. Still, nothing polarizes the cowardly Rene into any action beyond the immediate demands of his job. He’s a corporate shill married more to keeping his weekly paycheck than to standing up and fighting when the situation demands it.
While the film’s production standards are high, the narrative is as unsatisfying as they come. It’s impossible to empathize with a protagonist who lacks balls. Rene Saavedra is one of the most impotent examples of a freedom fighter you'll find anywhere in cinema. With friends like this, leftists don’t need more enemies.
Rated R. 110 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
The illicit sex-trafficking actions of NATO peacekeepers -- both privatized and not -- is the subject of this incendiary film that falls prey to predictable dramatic conventions. It comes as no surprise that "The Whistleblower" is based on actual events. Financial opportunity in '90s era postwar Bosnia entices Lincoln, Nebraska police officer Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz) to go there on a one-year assignment that pays $100,000. Kathryn hopes to finance moving nearer to her displaced daughter, whose father won custody of the girl. Insufficient backstory is provided about the reasons Kathryn lost the custody battle, save for an allusion to police work taking priority over her parental duties.
On the ground in Sarajevo, Kathryn gets a crash course in the way local justice favors male oppression over its female populace. Abuse of women is an ingrained part of the culture. Legal justice is just another business transaction conducted by a cabal of smirking indigenous men who make no attempt to hide their contempt for anything beyond their black-market boys' club lifestyle. Sudden violence goes with the territory.
Private peacekeeping employees of companies ala Blackwater are presented as opportunistic war tourists. The diplomatically-immune foreign capitalists show little intention of doing anything to actually help the desperate local populace, whose women suffer considerably more than its men.
Surprisingly, Kathryn wins a precedent-setting court case for a domestically abused wife in Sarajevo court. No small feat, her accomplishment earns her a superior title overseeing the United Nation's Gender Office under Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave), the head of the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Redgrave's signature credibility is in fine form. Her character comes to represent a singular thread of integrity that Kathryn Bolkovac holds onto for all she's worth.
Wiesz's nimble character slips into a necessary romantic liaison with fellow foreign aid agent Jan Van Der Velde (Nikolaj Lie Kaas). Their sexual union provides her with a much-needed ally even if his potential for tangible results are less than either imagine.
Sarajevo bars serve a multitude of purposes, not the least of which is supplying a steady stream of nubile Eastern European sex slaves for locals and NATO agents alike to feast on with reckless abandon. Damning photographic evidence reveals to Kathryn the complicity of her diplomatically-immune co-workers in the area's rampant sex trafficking trade. As she investigates further, Kathryn discovers the greater extent of NATO/U.N./United States Government involvement in the trafficking of underage girls into Bosnia where they work as sex slaves to by back a freedom that will never be granted.
The movie goes astray in attempting to personalize the story of its female victims. Ukrainian teen Raya (Roxana Condurache) takes the brunt of a torture scene that contributes more as a planted piece of exploitation cinema than it does in moving the story toward an emotionally grounded place for the audience.
Debut co-writer/director Larysa Kondracki is ill-equipped to handle the story's most delicate and important aspect. You get the sense that had she worked with a more experienced script collaborator than newcomer Eilis Kirwan, Kondracki might have been able to craft the film into the call-to-arms she aspires to create.
Most distracting is David Strathairn's turn as U.N. agent Jan Van Der Velde who Madeleine Rees advises Kathryn to place her complete trust in after Kathryn discloses her findings. The filmmakers go several plot-twists too far in a protracted suspense sequence that has Kathryn sneaking into her evidence-loaded office to extract materials that logically would have already been removed by officials who fired her after being alerted to her whistle-blowing activities.
It's difficult to escape Rachel Wiesz's connection to the far more effective social activist movie "The Constant Gardener" in which the gifted actress played an equally daring agent of exposing systematic corruption on an epic level. Activist social dramas such as these remind us the limitations of laws and policies to thwart the dastardly deeds of greedy nihilistic men who hide in plain sight and in the twisting florescent-lit corridors of power. Such corruption is rampant. No amount of "whistle-blowing" will do anything to change it. The big lesson for the audience here is, no matter how cynical you think you are, you still have a long way to go.
Rated R. 105 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
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Rod Lurie Makes a Political Thriller for Our Times
Clearly inspired by Judith Miller's role in the Valerie Plame case, writer/director Rod Lurie ("The Contender") takes dramatic liberties to allow for a provocative treatment of an ongoing battle for civil liberties exacted in the name of national security. Rachel Armstrong (Kate Beckinsale) is a newspaper journalist working on a story that will expose her soccer mom neighbor Erica Van Doren (Vera Farmiga) as a covert C.I.A. agent. After the story runs, the Government assigns special prosecutor Patton Dubois (Matt Dillon) to induce Rachel to hand over her source or face a prison sentence that she is fully prepared to serve. Lurie balances the tragic repercussions of two women drawn into a swirling riptide of political neglect, judicial irresponsibility, and sudden violence. Lurie's pitch-perfect dialogue keeps the thriller humming with expressive tension and biting satire.
Peeking out through the straight-forward thriller is a question about the evaporation of government accountability and its inability to police itself. The government's hollow-tipped spear of "national security" taking precedence over Rachel's First Amendment rights, serves as the theme line that Lurie suspends his multi-dimensional characters from.
Rachel and Erica are painted as likable but fiercely committed women, poised as polar rivals in their professional lives. Lurie eloquently connects a specifically female logic that comes home to roost in a third-act stroke of thematic and narrative wit that beautifully answers a fundamental narrative question.
We are drawn to Beckinsale's spunky journalist whose team of editors at the Capitol Sun Times support her decision to out Erica Van Doren's classified identity after an assassination attempt on the U.S. President, allegedly by the leader of Venezuela. That Van Doren's husband recently abandoned his role as ambassador to Venezuela due to conflicts with the White House administration doesn't connect as an editorial clue that perhaps the paper is being manipulated by the Administration in its run up to a war with Venezuela.
The movie suffers from two minor flaws — Erica's non-present husband, and her un-spy-like behavior at a critical moment in the driveway of her home. These narrative ruts in the road are overshadowed by the sheer force of the tightly-turning plot and the psychological drama at hand. Rachel is tossed in jail while her husband (David Schwimmer) publicly pursues other women, and she loses touch with her young son. Behind-the-scene courtroom battles bristle between Rachel's skillful high-stakes attorney Albert Burnside (wonderfully played by Alan Alda) and Matt Dillon's brutally determined prosecutor Dubois.
As much as there are similarities to the Valerie Plame/Judith Miller case, "Noting But the Truth" makes no bones about using a piece of that complex chronicle as a dramatic stepping-off point to construct a polemical representation of ethical questions facing America. The film comes alive in several priceless scenes brimming with emotion and conscious resolve. Vera Farmiga explodes from the screen in a particularly thorny cemetery conversation with her C.I.A. officers, and she nails a scene with a Barbara Walters-styled television interviewer trapped in her own web. The powerful performances that Lurie extracts across-the-board from his actors is commendable. Angela Bassett and Noah Wyle give strong supporting roles in a solid political thriller that is equal parts brain and heart.
(Yari Film Group) Rated R. 107 mins. (B+)
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