Category: Journalism film

Under Fire (1983)

Under Fire (1983)

Well-filmed but politically naive Nicaraguan revolution film that pulls its punches and settles for melodrama

Director: Roger Spottiswoode

Cast: Nick Nolte (Russell Price), Gene Hackman (Alex Grazier), Joanna Cassidy (Claire Stryder), Ed Harris (Oates), Jean-Louis Trintignant (Marcel Jazy), Richard Masur (Hub Kittle), René Enríquez (President Anastasio Somoza Debayle), Hamilton Camp (Regis)

In 1979 Nicaragua was torn apart by revolution as the regime of right-wing President Somaza was challenged – and eventually overthrown – by the Sandinata National Liberation Front (FSLN), a coalition of left-wing revolutionaries. The US largely threw in its lot with the Somaza government until its appalling human rights record – and the outrage at the murder of journalist Bill Stewart, which was caught on camera – led to it withdrawing aid and the collapse of the regime. Not that it led to peace in the country, as Raegan’s government promptly began supporting the right-wing Contra rebels (but that’s another story).

A version of this is bought to the screen in Roger Spottiswoode’s earnest but slightly naïve film which tries to walk the walk but largely pulls its punches. Here Bill Stewart is translated into Alex Grazier (Gene Hackman) whose journalist ex-wife Claire Stryder (Joanna Cassidy) is in love with his best friend war photographer Russell Price (Nick Nolte). Price and Stryder are embedded in Nicaragua and find their sympathies growing for the left-wing revolutionaries – and their hackles rising at some of the actions of their country.

That “some” is the key here. For all Under Fire would like to be a firebrand political film – a sort of Battle of Algiers by way of All the President’s Men – it’s a film that continually pulls its punches. When compared to the brutal honesty Missing (a year earlier) looked at America’s bungled, self-serving and short-sighted foreign policy in Latin America, bashing any communist leaning revolutionary, even if meant propping up blood-soaked dictators, Under Fire looks very tame indeed.

Only the barest information and context is given to American policy. The only two villainous representatives of American policy we see are carefully distanced from the government. Oates, played with empathy-free gusto by Ed Harris, is a mercenary as happy driving trucks as he is executing POWs. The CIA’s man-on-the-ground is not even American – instead he’s a supercilious, lecherous Frenchman played with awkwardness by Jean-Louis Trintignant. Trintignant gets the closest anyone gets to a political speech, pointing out today’s sympathetic left-wing revolutionaries are tomorrow’s Stalinist purgers. But he’s always a degree separate from official American policy.

Instead, America remains the innocent here. The implication is the true decision makers don’t realise what’s going on, on the ground. It’s only the murder of Alex – and the smuggling out of Russell’s photos showing his execution – that leads to America having its eyes opened and withdrawing its support. This neatly lets everyone off the hook. Neither does the film dare suggest the hypocrisy of a country pouring money and arms into the bloody Somaza regime for years, only stirring when one innocent American journalist is killed. Not once does the film challenge the unpleasant truths that lie behind a statement made by a Nicaraguan: “if we had killed an American journalist years ago perhaps you might have done something”.

Instead, the film settles for a slightly naïve romance of the largely decent, young and sympathetic rebels vs brutish Government soldiers. The rebels are all plucky kids – like the young man and would-be baseball player Russell and Claire follow through a street battle in Leon (naturally, he’s shot by Oates, in the back of all places). Either that or decent, wise figures who would never consider sullying their hands the way the government forces do. It all feels a long way from the mutual brutalities of Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers or the (admittedly spittle-mouthed) fury of Oliver Stone’s Salvador.

After a while you start to feel Nicaragua is really a backdrop for a half-hearted romance between two journalists who re-discover their idealism under fire. The sense that the film could be set anywhere really is backed up by it’s opening in the Chad civil war, which is explored in fifteen minutes in the same cursory depth as the Nicaragua revolution. It’s all exotic backdrop for a drama about whether Russell and Claire can get over the guilt of sort-of betraying Alex (although Claire and Alex are already separated by the time they get it-on) and convert their affair into something more meaningful.

Truth be told all three journalists are thin characters, invested with more depth than they deserve by three very strong actors. Nolte is at his gravelly best, scruffy but impassioned, righteous anger bubbling not far under the surface. Cassidy turns a character that could have easily been “the woman” into a dedicated, intelligent and inspiring professional. Hackman finds beats of self-doubt and sadness in an anchorman worried he’s left what he’s loved (personally and professionally) behind.

Spottiswoode films with sweep and energy – helped by a very good score by Jerry Goldsmith and some impressive recreations (sanitised as they are) of street clashes in Nicaragua. But the story never takes flight and its political edge gets far too blunted. Even the murder of Alex is turned into melodrama, the focus quickly shifting to a wild chase for Russell to smuggle his film out of the country to end the Somaza government claims that the killers were the rebels not his soldiers.

It’s where the film goes wrong, settling for melodrama and romance where it should be angry. In the end it’s a romantic film, where American policy is misguided for the right reason and good triumphs. The cheering crowds that end the film ring especially hollow considering the continued violence that plagued the country throughout most of the 80s. It’s a solid thriller, but a flawed film.

She Said (2022)

She Said (2022)

Earnest, well-meaning but not entirely dramatic recounting of the New York Times investigation into Weinstein

Director: Maria Schrader

Cast: Carey Mulligan (Megan Twohey), Zoe Kazan (Jodi Kantor), Patricia Clarkson (Rebecca Corbett), Andre Braugher (Dean Baquet), Jennifer Ehle (Laura Madden), Samantha Morton (Zelda Perkins), Ashley Judd (Herself), Zach Grenier (Irwn Reiter), Peter Friedman (Lanny Davis), Angela Yeoh (Rowena Chiu)

In 2017, the New York Times published revelations about Miramax kingpin Harvey Weinstein that shocked the world. Weinstein had used his position to force his sexual attentions on anyone from aspiring actresses to employees, with a rap sheet of crimes ranging from gropes to rape. It shook Hollywood to its core. She Said is the dramatization of the investigation carried out by reporters Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) who sought out the victims, won their trust and pushed the story through despite threats of legal action.

She Said is a worthy, well-meaning film. It has moments of genuine power and its recreation of the testimony of the victims is tragic and heart-rending. But yet… I didn’t find it dramatic. I was left wondering, why did this true story of journalistic tenacity not carry the same impact as Spotlight or All the President’s Men?

Perhaps it’s because the film doesn’t really cover this story as an investigation. There isn’t the sense of facts slowly emerging to form a horrifying picture, or one small incident ballooning into an earth-shattering scandal. Instead, Twohey and Kantor are certain they have the basic facts from the start, with the film being instead a reveal of how many cases there are, rather than an expose of a wrong. While this is still important, it isn’t necessarily always dramatic and, eventually, She Said starts to feel every minute of its two-hour-plus run time.

The real focus of the film probably should have been the journalists’ determined work to win the trust of the principal witnesses – in particular Jennifer Ehle’s Laura Madden, whose whole life has been partially in the shadow of Weinstein’s assault in the 90s. Kantor – played with an empathetic richness by Zoe Kazan – worked night and day to encourage these women to bring their stories to the public. Instead, the film gets distracted with trying to cover too much, both the famous and the unknown victims, and the peripheral presence of Rose McGowan, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ashley Judd (playing herself) unbalance the movie away from the difficult, challenging – but more dramatically rewarding – work exploring office workers called into meetings to “massage” their gross boss.

It’s a shame the focus gets pulled away from these unknown women, who were little more than teenagers when Weinstein abused them in the 90s, since the sequences where they tell their stories are the ones that carry the most impact. There are superb cameo appearances from a trio of great actors. Ehle is superb as a woman resigned to trying to put things behind her, Morton brilliant as another prickling with rage and resentment, and Yeoh very good as a woman who never really managed to process her trauma. The careful, respectful, but deeply sad recounting of these women’s experiences by this trio are the film’s highlights.

Too much of the rest of the film gets bogged down in editorial procedure and the flat collecting of facts. It’s a bad sign when the film has to continuously state the “danger” the characters are facing while investigating and how every wall has ears. While Weinstein was a horrible man, terrifyingly powerful within his industry, I find it a stretch when (unchallenged) a character fears Weinstein will have him killed. I can’t see Weinstein hiring a hitman or utilising the sort of espionage techniques that would make the FBI jealous.

The film also struggles to get to grips with the depressing limits to any struggle for justice in the field of sexual harassment and assault. It starts by depicting Twohey’s investigation into Trump’s “locker room” pussy-grabbing “banter”, which peters out into a total failure to have any real impact at all. While the film suggests this as a motivating factor for the journalists to “get it right” this time, it doesn’t seem to acknowledge the limits of #metoo. It’s clearly very different to get Hollywood to clean out its house, compared to taking on someone with real power. Equally, the film gives no space to attempting to understand why Lisa Bloom, who represented victims of Bill O’Reilly and Trump, went to town defending Weinstein. There are interesting topics to explore here, but She Said wants to simplify its narrative down to goodies and baddies.

Time is also given over to the journalist’s home lives, none of which adds much to the overall narrative. Kantor’s relationship with a 10-year-old daughter just beginning to understand words like “rape” never quite solidifies into a thematic motivator. Twohey’s struggles with post-natal depression are bravely raised, but effectively disappear from the film (which makes me feel even a feminist film is squeamish about saying anything except motherhood is the dream for all women).

The final arc gets equally slightly bogged down in the fact-checking procedure. At times, the film has a little too much of a documentary feel, as if drama might have got in the way of the message. Despite this, there are some very good performances, with Kazan and Mulligan concealing mounting outrage under professional, dispassionate cool (Mulligan gets an outburst at a harassing bar patron, which does feel like too much of a “for your consideration” moment), even if we get little sense of who they are as people.

She Said is a very worthy look at a seismic news story, which never quite translates its coverage of impactful events into a truly compelling narrative.

Zodiac (2007)

Zodiac (2007)

A chilling chronicle of the hunt for a serial killer told with a superb mix of journalism and filmic flair

Director: David Fincher

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal (Robert Graysmith), Mark Ruffalo (Inspector Dave Toschi), Robert Downey Jnr (Paul Avery), Anthony Edwards (Inspector Bill Armstrong), Brian Cox (Melvin Belli), Elias Koteas (Sergeant Jack Mulanax), Donal Logue (Captain Ken Narlow), John Carroll Lynch (Arthur Leigh Allen), Dermot Mulroney (Captain Marty Lee), Chloë Sevingy (Melanie Graysmith), John Terry (Charles Thieriot), Philip Baker Hall (Sherwood Morrill), Zach Grenier (Mel Nicolai)

It’s one of the great unsolved mysteries of American history, like San Francisco’s version of Jack the Ripper. For a large chunk of the late 60s and early 70s, a serial killer known only as “the Zodiac killer” murdered at least five (and claimed 37) innocent people, all while sending mysterious, cipher-filled letters to San Francisco newspapers, taunting police and journalists for failing to catch him and threatening further violent acts. The investigation sifted through mountains of tips and half clues but only produced one possible suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen: though no fingerprint or handwriting match could conclude a case.

The story of the hunt for this elusive killer, stretching into the 1980s and concluding with another dead-end coda in 1992, is bought to the screen in a film from David Fincher that expertly mixes cinematic flair with journalistic observation. Channelling All the President’s Men and 70s conspiracy thrillers as much as it does the dark obsession of Fincher’s Seven, Zodiac is a master-class not only in the bewildering detail of large-scale investigations (in the days before computer records and DNA evidence) but also the grinding, destructive qualities of obsession, as those hunting the Zodiac killer struggle to escape the shadow of a case that grows to dominate their lives.

Zodiac focuses on three men, all of whom find their lives irretrievably damaged by their investigation. At first, it seems the drive will come from Robert Downey Jnr’s Paul Avery. Avery is the hard-drinking, charismatic, old-school crime correspondent on the San Francisco Chronicle. In a performance exactly the right-side of flamboyant narcissism, Downey Jnr’s Avery is a man who likes to appear like he takes nothing seriously, even while the burden of the case (and a threat to his life from the Zodiac killer) tips him even further into a drink habit that is going to leave him living in a derelict houseboat, in a permanent state of vodka-induced intoxication.

The second is Inspector Dave Tosci, a performance of dogged, focused professionalism from Mark Ruffalo. He’s confident he’ll find his man, and will go to any lengths to do it, staying on call night and day, and hoarding facts about the case like a miser. He relies more than he knows on level-headed, decent partner Bill Armstrong (played with real warmth by Anthony Edwards). Tosci’s self-image and belief slowly crumble as every lead turns dead end, every gut instinct refuses to be backed by the evidence. The killing spree becomes his personal responsibility, a cross he bears alone for so long that when a belated letter from Zodiac surfaces in 1978, his own superiors believe Tosci sent it in some vain attempt to keep a cooling case alive.

Our third protagonist, present from the arrival of the very first Zodiac letter at the door of the Chronicle, is Jake Gyllenhaal’s Robert Graysmith. A quiet, studious, teetotal political cartoonist who is literally a boy scout, Graysmith spent a huge chunk of the 70s and 80s trying to crack the case, eventually turning his investigation into a best-selling book. It’s Graysmith who becomes the focus of Fincher’s investigation of obsession. The glow of monomania is in Gyllenhaal’s eyes from the very start, as the cipher and its deadly message spark a mix of curiosity and moral duty in him. He feels compelled to solve the crime, but it’s a compulsion that will overwhelm his life. The Zodiac is his Moby Dick, the all-powerful monster he must slay to save the city. (“Bobby, you almost look disappointed” Avery tells him, when Avery suggests some of the Zodiac’s murderous claims are false, as if reducing the wickedness of the Zodiac also reduces the power of Graysmith’s quest.)

The real Graysmith commented when he saw the film, “I understand why my wife left me”. It’s a superb performance of school-boy doggedness, mixed with quietly fanatical, all-consuming obsession from Gyllenhaal, as the film makes clear how close he came (closer than almost anyone else) to cracking the case, but nearly at the cost of his own sanity. Graysmith pop quizzes his pre-teen children on the case over their breakfast (a far cry from, at first, his instinct to shield his son from the press coverage) and as he becomes increasingly unkempt, so his house more and more becomes a mountain of boxes and case notes.

It’s the secondary theme of Zodiac: how obsession doesn’t dim, even when events and evidence drop off. The second half of the film features very little new in the case (which peaked in the early 70s) but focuses on the lingering impact of the ever more desperate and lonely attempts to solve it. Armstrong, the most well-adjusted of the characters, perhaps knew it was a hopeless crusade when he threw his cards in and left the table after a few years to spend time with his children while they grew up. Avery cashes out as well – even if his health never recovers. Tosci is cashiered from the game, and even Graysmith finally realises the impact on him.

That second half of the film is long. Too long. It also, naturally, leaves us with no ending – a sad coda that hints at the guilt of primary (only) suspect Arthur Leigh Allen, but gives us (just like the surviving victims) no closure. It’s fitting, and deliberate, but still the only real flaw of Zodiac is that, at 150 minutes, it’s too long. The deliberate draining of life from the case, like a deflating balloon, also impacts the narrative, which consciously drops in intensity (and, to a degree, interest – despite Gyllenhaal’s subtle and complex work as Graysmith). It’s even more noticeable considering the compelling flair with which Fincher delivers the first half of his scrupulously researched film.

Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt spent almost 18 months interviewing everyone involved with the case. Nothing was included in the film unless it could be verified by witnesses. That included the crimes of the Zodiac: only attacks where there were survivors are shown, the only minor exception being Zodiac’s murder of a taxi driver (where only distant eye-witnesses were available) – even then, every event is confirmed by ballistics and no dialogue is placed into the mouth of the victim. The film also acknowledges the unknown nature of the Zodiac killer: each time the masked killer appears in recreations of his crime he is played by a different (masked) actor, subtle differences in build, tone of voice and manner reflecting the contradictory eye-witness statements. These chilling scenes are shot with a sensitivity that sits alongside their horrifying brutality. Fincher felt a genuine responsibility to reflect the horror of what happened, but with no sensationalism.

Instead, he keeps his virtuoso brilliance for the investigation. The newspaper room filling with the super-imposed scrawl of the Zodiac killer, while the actors read out the words. Restrained but hypnotic editing, carefully grimed photography, camera angles that present everyday items in alarming new ways, a mounting sense of grim tension at several moments that makes the film hard to watch. A superb sequence surrounding the Zodiac’s demand to speak to celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli (a gorgeous cameo from Brian Cox), first on a live TV call-in show, then in person (a “secret meeting” swamped by armed police, which Zodiac, of course, doesn’t turn up to). This is direction – aided by masterful photography (Harris Savides) and editing (Angus Wall) – that immerses us in a world (like drowning in a non-fiction bestseller), while never letting its flair draw attention to itself.

Zodiac was a box-office disappointment and roundly forgotten in 2007. It’s too long and loses energy, but that’s bizarrely the point. It implies, heavily, that Allen (played with a smug blankness by John Carroll Lynch) was indeed the killer, but doesn’t stack the deck – every single piece of counter evidence is exhaustingly shown. In fact, that’s what the film is: exhaustive in every sense. It leaves you reeling and tired. It might well have worked better, in many ways, as a mini-series. But it’s still a masterclass from Fincher and one of the most honest, studiously researched and respectful true-life crime dramas ever made. And just like life, it offers neither easy answers, obvious heroes or clean-cut resolutions, only doubts and lingering regrets.

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

The importance of journalism is loudly praised in this engaging but faultlessly liberal Clooney film

Director: George Clooney

Cast: David Strathairn (Edward R Murrow), George Clooney (Fred Friendly), Robert Downey Jnr (Joseph Wershba), Patricia Clarkson (Shirley Wershba), Frank Langella (William Paley), Jeff Daniels (Sig Mickelson), Tate Donovan (Jesse Zousmer), Ray Wise (Don Hollenbeck), Helen Slayton-Hughes (Mary), Alex Borstein (Natalie), Thomas McCarthy (Palmer Williams)

In the early 1950s America seemed to be in the paranoid grip of one man. Senator Joseph McCarthy was the tip of a spear of anti-Communism, targeting every part of American life. To have even had thoughts that might be seen as socialist or communist, was enough for you to be considered an Anti-American and potential enemy of the state. McCarthy led a campaign to unearth Communist spies and sympathisers in the government, military, business, academia and the media. Blacklists and persecution were rife, and the slightest past association could condemn you. It took many years before anyone took a stand against this.

One of the leaders of this stand was renowned journalist Edward R Murrow (David Straithairn). Famous for his broadcasts from London during the Blitz, Murrow hosted an investigative journalist programme See It Now. A passionate believer in the power of television to educate and inform, Murrow and his producer Fred Friendly (George Clooney) are appalled when Air Force officer Milo Radulovich is condemned to be discharged, based on members of his family being communists and a sealed envelope of charges he was never allowed to see. Despite the worries of network CBS, Murrow, Friendly and their team run an episode of the show that exposes McCarthyism and its injustice, the first of several investigating McCarthy. But what price will they pay?

Clooney’s well-made, heartfelt film, is an impeccably liberal piece of film-making that is a very sincere tribute to the potential of television to be more than just an idiot’s lantern. Clooney frames the film with Murrow accepting a lifetime achievement award in 1958: he uses the opportunity to make a speech rebuking the room full of executives and journalists for squandering the potential of television to inform rather than just entertain. Murrow would of course be horrified by what TV became. Good Night, and Good Luck is a rose-tinted view of television journalism at its pioneering best: just as the end result of See It Now being gutted by cuts is a realistic look at where the scales will fall if entertainment and money are balanced with principles and education.

Clooney’s father was a TV journalist, while Clooney himself majored in journalism. The cut-and-thrust of the newsroom is as intrinsic to him, as is a desire to investigate and inform as part of a healthy political debate. Good Night, and Good Luck captures the mood of a newsroom with a convincing confidence. Journalists debate the fine point of stories, editors rush to assemble films and executives balance the pros and cons. It’s all shot in a beautiful monochrome, that exquisitely captures the haze of cigarette smoke all this takes place in. It’s a shot with a handheld urgency, sharply cut, that puts us into this world of cut-and-thrust media decisions.

And it makes clear what TV news can be. Not agenda led, but facts led. Not kowtowing to power, but challenging it to justify itself. Looking into matters that are important, not sensational. Wanting to inform people and expand their understanding, rather than pander to the lowest common denominator. Murrow’s shows are scrupulously fact-checked, and allow full rebuttal from their subject. He comes at story not with a pre-supposed position, but based on where the facts and his editorial judgement leads him.

It all takes place in a TV set that’s really striking in its humbleness, compared to the operatic news sets we see today. The 1950s studio is small, cramped and simple – and by contrast the ideas are large, expansive and complex. Murrow’s set is little more than a chair with a TV monitor. His producer Fred Friendly, literally sits at his feet to hand him notes and cue him in with announcements and VT. The See It Now set contrasts vividly with the more grandiose sets for Murrow’s other show, a series of puff piece interviews with popular stars like Liberace. (While Murrow learns his scripts by heart for See it Now, he professionally reads through a series of cue cards for these for-the-money interviews).

Murrow and Friendly also won’t compromise. They defend their right to make the show to CBS President William Paley (a brilliant performance from Frank Langella), who prides himself on no direct intervention on the news but pushes for a less controversial line. The entire team is consulted on every issue. The newsroom is a place where our better angels can come out.

But it’s still happening in an America where people are careful about what they say and do. A subplot concerns reporters played by Robert Downey Jnr and Patricia Clarkson: secretly married – contrary to CBS policy – like those suffering from McCarthyism, they must live a lie in order to protect what they have. See It Now is in danger of criticism, cancellation and attack. Another CBS anchor, Don Hollenbeck – perfectly played by Ray Wise (and few actors are better at suppressed desperation than Wise) – is dealing with constant media persecution for his perceived communist sympathy. Murrow and Friendly are not perfect: they sometimes dodge the fights they can’t win and Murrow in particular shrugs off or ignores Hollenbeck’s concerns with tragic results.

But, as Clooney makes clear, the good outweighs all the rest. As Murrow, David Straithairn (Oscar-nominated) has never been better. He perfectly captures Murrow’s mannerisms, but mixes it with wonderful measure of honesty and decency, mixed with a degree of pride and self-righteous certainty. He dominates the film (with Clooney as a generous foil) and carries much of the film’s liberal message that smart, intelligent, dedicated men can change the world.

Good Night, and Good Luck might be the most soft-left liberal film made in Hollywood in the last fifteen years. But it is a fine example of film-making craft and the earnest honesty with which it is made in its own way inspiring. It’s Clooney’s finest film and it’s grounded in his strengths: fine actors and writing carrying a sincerely told message.

His Girl Friday (1940)

His Girl Friday header
Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant bicker and spar in His Girl Friday, one of the all-time classics I’ve never quite clicked with

Director: Howard Hawks

Cast: Cary Grant (Walter Burns), Rosalind Russell (Hildy Johnson), Ralph Bellamy (Bruce Baldwin), Gene Lockhart (Sheriff Hartwell), Porter Hall (Murphy), Ernest Truex (Bensinger), Cliff Edwards (Endicott), Clarence Kolb (The Mayor), Roscoe Karns (McCue), Frank Jenks (Wilson), Regis Toomey (Sanders), Abner Biberman (Louie), Frank Orth (Duffy), John Qualen (Earl Williams), Helen Mack (Mollie Mallot)

There’s always one film classic that the world and his dog love to bits, but every time you watch it you just don’t get it. That classic for me is His Girl Friday. I’m not sure many films have appeared more than this one on film buffs’ lists of Top Ten Movies of All Time, but while I admire its many, many qualities, every time I’ve watched it – and it’s at least three now – I just don’t love it. More to the point I don’t find it funny (I know, I know I can practically hear your jaws hitting the floor), neither do I engage with or root for its lead characters (please don’t hit me).  I admire a lot of things about this film and how it is made. And I chuckle from time to time when I watch it. But for some reason even I’m not sure of, I’ve got no click with this film. Compared to The Awful Truth or The Lady Eve or The Philadelphia Story (all films this bears a lot of comparison with) I just don’t feel it.

It’s an adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s play The Front Page. In quite a modern touch, one of its lead characters is gender flipped. In the play, a newspaper editor tries to persuade his star reporter not to quit the game: in His Girl Friday the star reporter not only becomes a woman but, don’t you know it, the ex-wife of the editor, about to walk out (in more ways than one) to marry her dull fiancé. Cary Grant (who else?) is the fast-talking editor Walter Burns, Rosalind Russell the fast-talking star reporter Hildy Johnson. In fact, everyone is fast-talking, in the film that holds the world record for dialogue speed. Can Burns persuade Hildy to hold off leaving with fiancée Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy – sportingly playing up to his dull reputation) for one more day so she can cover the story of strangely naïve convict Earl Williams (John Qualen)? Let the madness ensue.

Let’s focus on all the good stuff first. Not least because my general lack of connection to a film loved by all and sundry is so personal, it almost defies analysis. Hawks was, rumour has it, won round to the idea of gender-swapping Hildy by hosting a read-through of the play at a dinner party with a shortage of people, meaning Hildy was read by a woman. That opened up a host of ideas around combining this with the classic re-marriage genre and bang away we go. It is, needless to say, a brilliant idea and adds such a spark to every single interaction between the two characters that it distinctly improves the play (later productions have often carried the idea – and the dialogue – across from this film).

On top of this, Hawks wanted to make this the fastest talking comedy film ever made. And boy does he succeed at that. The dialogue of this film is delivered with such rat-a-tat speed that clock watchers report it hits a rate of over 300 words a minute (try reading that many words out in one minute to see how fast that is). It gives the film a ferocious manic energy and thunder-cracker momentum and keeps the punchlines coming fast. It also needs gifted actors, which it sure-as-hell gets here. Grant possibly hits his comedic peak here, managing to still remain suave, cool and collected, even as he’s ripping through words and shifting verbal goalposts at dazzling speed. This is also Russell’s career highlight, embodying the image of the sort of spunky, arch and no-nonsense professional woman of screwball comedy that all others (even Hepburn) are measured against.

They race through a film that makes excellent use of long-takes, intelligent single-shot camera moves and careful, intelligent editing to highlight the electric speed of the zany dialogue. In particular, Hawks makes a brilliant motif of telephones (those old candlestick phones), which characters are forever hurling instructions down, using as escape tools from awkward moments and juggling conversations with (either from multiple phones or between the phone and people in the room). They are used for short, sharp, punchy lines – and it fits a film that is all momentum and short-hand. The ultra-smart, quotable banter, littered with one-liners, is the ultimate epitome of the popular style of dialogue at the time, which favoured this style over the speeches and deeper content that was seen as more of the preserve of theatre.

Walter and Hildy in this version also become the epitome of “the screwball couple”. The divorced partners who of course still love each other, largely because they recognise that no-one else will share their insane energy and obsession. Not to mention that fighting and feuding with their intellectual equal is a million times sexier (and better foreplay) than a thousand dinners at home with someone average will ever be. Ralph Bellamy does good work here (essentially, like Grant, repeating his role from The Awful Truth) as that dull, trusting man – the only one in the film who vaguely resembles a human being and therefore, obviously, the character the audience likes the least (who goes to the cinema to see someone like themselves on the screen, eh?)

There is so much right about His Girl Friday. The actors are sublime, the dialogue delivered perfectly, Hawks’ direction is pin-point in its mix of old-Hollywood classicism, and it’s very well shot. So why don’t I like it more? It’s that most personal feeling: I just don’t find it funny enough. Maybe that’s because I need to connect with characters more – and I don’t connect with Hildy and Walter. In some ways I don’t even like them. His Girl Friday is frequently an unapologetically cruel film: Hildy and Walter treat several people like crap, largely for their own amusement or as collateral damage in their own war of foreplay. At one point a desperate, lonely woman attempts suicide (she jumps out of a damn window falling a couple of floors) – Hildy and Walter are joking about it in seconds. They are cold, self-obsessed people and for all their superficial charm, there isn’t any touch of warmth to them at all. They are very artificial people in an artificial world. In all, I don’t really like them and I find it hard to careor want them back together (other than recognising that they deserve each other).

Believe me, I understand some comedy is cruel, I don’t have a problem with that. But I don’t think His Girl Friday realises it’s that kind of film. The Awful Truth has a very similar plot – but that had its characters recognise their own faults and also gave us reasons to care for them as human beings. His Girl Friday doesn’t do either of those things, meaning I laughed a lot in The Awful Truth and not so much in His Girl Friday.

Can you still bear to read on after such blasphemy? But there you go. Everyone has that stone-cold classic that they just can’t get on board with. This film is mine. I respect so much about it, but it neither tickles my funny bone nor makes me feel welcomed. I find it a cold and cruelly minded film, that looks down on people with scorn – from Bruce to criminal Earl Williams and most especially to his distraught girlfriend Molly – and invites us to do the same. It wants us to love the popular kids in the class and join them in spitting paper balls at the losers. This doesn’t do it for me. I know everyone loves it. Hell, I know I’m probably wrong. But I just don’t love His Girl Friday.

All the King's Men (1949)

Broderick Crawford is a corrupt politician in All the King’s Men

Director: Robert Rossen

Cast: Broderick Crawford (Willie Stark), John Ireland (Jack Burden), Joanna Dru (Anne Stanton), John Derek (Tom Stark), Mercedes McCambridge (Sadie Burke), Shepperd Strudwick (Adam Stanton), Ralph Dumke (Tiny Duffy), Anne Seymour (Lucy Stark), Katherine Warren (Mrs Burden), Raymond Greenleaf (Judge Monte Stanton), Walter Burke (Sugar Boy)

We only need to look at recent elections to see populist demagogues are far from being consigned to history. So, there will always be a touch of relevance to Robert Rossen’s Oscar-winning film All the King’s Men. Based on Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, which was itself a fictionalised version of the life of Huey P Long, the Louisiana Governor who championed the working man but also turned the State into his own personal fiefdom, until his assassination. Rossen’s film looks at the dangers of populist politicians, but at times it’s a blunted, simplistic look and is too quick to colour shades of grey into more digestible black and white.

Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford) is a hick with a dream of running from office. His first campaign for county treasurer is impassioned but naïve, and he stands no chance against the ruthless (Democratic – although it’s not named) party system ranged against him. He loses but gains the attention of idealistic journalist Jack Burden (John Ireland), dissatisfied scion of a rich family. Stark teaches himself law and runs for Governor – but is manipulated by the party machine to split the ‘hick’ vote and allow their own candidate in. However, Stark rediscovers his fire and later runs again and wins. Stark promises a state run for the little people: but his pockets are lined by big-business and the man who started as a sober Christian becomes a drinker juggling two mistresses: his secretary and advisor Sadie (Mercedes McCambridge) and (proving power is an aphrodisiac) Jack’s girlfriend Anne Stanton (Joanna Dru). But can proof of his growing corruption bring him down?

All the King’s Men is a film that would be far more effective if it allowed more scope to seeing the good in Stark, not just the bad. This is after all, a self-made man (teaching himself law at home), who builds roads, hospitals and schools. He’s not a Trump, interested only in himself and damn the consequences. Many of his policies are solid Roosevelt New Deal fare. Sure, he becomes grasping, lascivious and a terrible father – but how did this happen? Was it that Stark realised that corruption was the game and he needed to play it if he wanted to win? Were there deep lying flaws already in his character? We just don’t really know.

Instead this film sets out its stall very cleanly: populist working-class politicians are much worse than tortured wealthy liberals. The characters the film admires all hail from the same gated island community of the rich. Any hypocrisy or corruption on their part is a tragic character flaw. Stark comes from poor farm land – but any corruption makes him a monster. Really is Stark all that bad? The film stresses its moral disgust at his drinking and womanising, but in office he produces the sort of modern infrastructure the State will need. Sure a newsreel questions if the state needs a modern highway (in a patronising “they are just country folk” way) and maybe it didn’t immediately – but ask how they feel ten or fifteen years down the line.

The real problem with politics in this era is not demagogues like Stark. It’s the corrupt machine style politics that settles the elections in advance, shuts the doors against anyone they don’t like and uses muscle (metaphorical and literal) to enforce its will. This is an institutional fault line in American politics of the era: and you could argue Stark’s tragedy is not that he’s corrupt, but rather that he has to fashion himself into exactly the sort of corrupt, machine-style politics boss that the system can accept in order to win. The film isn’t really astute enough to recognise this. Instead it settles for the standard “Great Man” approach, where we can point at a single man and say “yup, he’s the problem. Get rid of him and problem solved”.

Rossen’s film takes an easy soft-left approach. The poor people love Stark, because the media tell them to (although the film has its cake and eats it by only really showing the liberal press attacking him). Stark raising campaign contributions to run from office is an unpardonable sign of tar coating his hand – never mind that we’ve seen his personally funded campaign for a minor office didn’t stand a chance. Working for the people, its argued, doesn’t cancel out the evils of trousering some cash for yourself – never mind that the wealthy liberals Rossen sympathises with, living in their large country houses, have clearly been doing so for decades.

Instead All the King’s Men is a simple film that only scratches the surface of demagoguery. Stark makes great speeches, but we never find how far it’s a show and how far it’s empty rhetoric. We never find out enough either about what he has done or hasn’t done in office to make our own minds up. Rossen’s film fixes the tables and places all the blame not on the system but on a single man – and even suggests that getting rid of that man by violence and murder is in fact justified if the liberal elite decide it is. It’s not a good look for a film.

It bungles it’s politically and personally commentary, but you can’t argue that it’s not a well-made film. Inspired by neo-Realism, much of the film was shot on location (including effectively running a mock Governor campaign in parts of California) and its shot with an edgy immediacy, in places using non-professional actors. That’s a feeling helped by its sharp, jagged editing. Rumour has it that, with the first cut running long, Rossen asked the editor to find the narrative centre of every scene and then cut a hundred feet of film either side of it. The cleaned-up result of this is a edgy film that has the air of genuine reportage and effectively uses montage.

Broderick Crawford won the Oscar as Stark, and he plays the role with a sweetness that turns into brilliant bombastic swagger. The film uses his hulking physicality to marvellous effect, and while his character often feels simplistic, Crawford nails the speeches and Stark’s Lyndon B. Johnson like powers of physical intimidation. John Ireland (Oscar-nominated) does a decent if uninspired job as the weak-willed Burden, and Joanna Dru is a little too theatrical as Anne Stanton.

The most fascinating character though might well be political fixer/secretary Sadie Burke, played by fellow Oscar-winner Mercedes McCambridge. A radio actress making her film debut, McCambridge’s performance frequently avoids the obvious choices. Sadie is a hard-edged woman, unreadable, who has sharpened her personality to survive in a man’s world. Rossen’s film subtly codes that she is Stark’s mistress, but her relationship with him seems conflicted. She’s both vulnerable, but also bitter and cold to him – moments when you expect her voice to break, she’s hard, where you expect her to be sharp she’s brittle. She’s a bitterly cynical character who has given up hope. It’s a fascinating performance.

Rossen’s film is well made and is always going to have some relevance. But you feel it could have delved far deeper into its themes. But bluntly as a portrait of corruption, it’s not a patch on Citizen Kane and in Stark it sets up a monster we can have uncomplicated fun knocking over and then patting ourselves on the back once it’s done. For all its edgy, reportive feel, it’s a fantasy film.

Frost/Nixon (2008)

Frost Nixon header
Frank Langella and Michael Sheen face-off in famous interviews in Frost/Nixon

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Frank Langella (Richard M Nixon), Michael Sheen (David Frost), Kevin Bacon (Jack Brennan), Rebecca Hall (Caroline Cushing), Toby Jones (Irving “Swifty” Lazar), Matthew MacFadyen (John Birt), Oliver Platt (Bob Zelnick), Sam Rockwell (James Reston Jnr), Clint Howard (Lloyd Davis)

If there is a bogeyman in American politics, it will always be disgraced President Richard Nixon. Because, however divisive Donald Trump is, Nixon will always be the king who was toppled, the man some consider a crook and a war criminal, others a gifted politician and negotiator. The truth is somewhere, as always, in the middle – but what seems inarguable is that Nixon was a man of deep personal flaws, which contributed considerably to his fall. Peter Morgan’s play explored the complexities of Nixon’s character through his famous TV interviews with British talk show host David Frost, a man with a few chips of his own. Ron Howard takes what was already a fairly cinematic script by Morgan, and produces a smoothly professional, entertaining and very well acted film.

After Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) has been forced into resigning, he is in the political wilderness. Watergate engrossed the world, with hundreds of millions of people tuning in to follow every detail. Who in television could resist those numbers? Certainly not David Frost (Michael Sheen), who believes if he can secure an exclusive interview with Nixon he could have a television package that could pull in millions of viewers, make Frost a fortune, and catapult him into the front ranks of TV interviewers. Slowly the project comes together. But both participants have a lot to prove: for Nixon this could be a chance of redemption; for Frost to prove he is more than a chat show host better suited to grilling the Bee Gees than the President. With both men underestimating each other, who will emerge on top in the interviews?

One of Ron Howard’s greatest strengths as a director is his ability to elicit fine performances from good actors. This is the real bonus he brings to this faithful adaptation of Morgan’s award-winning play. He presents it with a highly skilled professionalism and a refreshing lack of distraction that allows the audience to focus on the acting and the dialogue, its real strengths. Frost/Nixon is sharply written – with Peter Morgan’s expected mix of careful research and dramatic licence (most especially in a late-night phone call between the two men before the final day’s filming) – crammed with fine lines, well drawn characters and fascinating insights into both politics and television.

Perhaps Howard’s finest decision was to ensure the two stars of the play (in both the West End and Broadway) were retained for the film. Langella and Sheen’s performances – already brilliant in the stage version, which I was lucky enough to see – are outstanding here, both of them completely inhabiting their characters. The comfort and familiarity between the two performers are crucial – and ensure that the vital scenes between the two characters carry an electric charge.

Langella brilliantly captures the physicality and voice of Nixon, but also finds deep insights into the President’s tortured soul. He communicates Nixon’s sense of inadequacy and bitterness, his resentment at having to fight all his life for things others have been gifted. He balances this with Nixon’s pride and paranoia that constantly leads him to cheat others first. Langella’s Nixon, lost and bored in retirement, is desperate to regain his statue, but also tortured by a guilt and regret he can hardly bring himself to name. Under his robustness and confidence, lies deep shame and sorrow. It’s a brilliant capturing of perhaps the most psychologically complex leader America ever had.

Sheen is just as superb as Frost. As you would expect from an accomplished mimic, the voice is almost alarmingly accurate (he makes a better Frost than Frost did!). But just as insightful is his understanding of Frost’s psychology. Just like Nixon, Frost is a hard-working lad from a poorer background who has had to fight for everything he has. Sheen’s Frost is a phenomenal hard worker – producer, financier and star of his own career – who works hardest of all to appear an effortlessly confident dilettante. Sheen’s Frost balances immense pressures – facing personal and financial ruin – with an assured smile, keeping every plate spinning by never allowing a moment of doubt.

It leads into fascinatingly different attitudes to the interviews themselves. Nixon prepares in detail – and determines his best strategy is long winded answers that present his case and prevent attack. Frost is so focused on delivering the interviews that he sacrifices his actual interview preparation (certainly more so than he did in real life). Morgan uses the conventions of boxing dramas – corners, breaks between ‘rounds’, advice from their trainers – to capture a sense of gladiatorial combat.

However, the play is more complex than this. The reason why Frost struggles to land a glove on Nixon in earlier interviews on his domestic and foreign policies is that Nixon genuinely believes he is in the right – but (perhaps as Frost understood) the final interviews based on Watergate will see a more vulnerable Nixon as on that subject he knows he’s in the wrong. I suspect the real Frost knew that to get to Nixon on that final topic, he needed to be ‘softened up’ first to feel comfortable and produce a revelation.

Because the film is refreshingly positive in its view of television. A medium that films often attack for being trivial and boiling things down to soundbites and snippets, here acknowledges the strengths that can bring. A single snippet of an apologetic and crushed Nixon is worth thousands of words – and small moments can turn a TV programme from a failure to an event. Howard uses the power of the close-up at these moments to demonstrate how TV can zero in with a merciless gaze on a single moment. It’s a defence of the power of TV and its ability to reduce things down to moments.

Howard’s understanding of the strengths that lie at the heart of the play – and to tell the story simply – is what makes an already cinematic play translate wonderfully to the screen. With Langella and Sheen outstanding (with the supporting cast all equally excellent), the film entertainingly demonstrates the preparation and delivery of the interviews, while offering shrewd psychological insights into two men who had a lot more at a stake – and in common – than at first appeared. Professional, handsome and captivating, this is Hollywood movie making at its best.

Spotlight (2015)

SPotlight header
Ruffalo, McAdams, Keaton and James head up the investigation into the church in Spotlight

Director: Tom McCarthy

Cast: Michael Keaton (Walter “Robby” Robinson), Mark Ruffalo (Michael Rezendes), Rachel McAdams (Sacha Pfeiffer), Brian d’Arcy James (Matt Carroll), Liev Schreiber (Marty Baron), John Slattery (Ben Bradlee Jnr), Stanley Tucci (Mitchell Garabedian), Billy Crudup (Eric MacLeish), Jamey Sheridan (Jim Sullivan), Paul Guilfoyle (Peter Conley), Len Cariou (Cardinal Bernard Law), Neal Huff (Phil Saviano)

True villains are hard to spot: those clothed in good deeds are particularly well hidden. Few clothe themselves in good deeds more effectively than priests – and the small minority who use their positions of trust and power to abuse vulnerable children. It’s an unforgiveable, abominable betrayal that has ruined the lives of thousands of victims around the world. This century, the Catholic Church was rocked by a scandal: many in the church hierarchy were all too aware of these appalling acts, but protected priests from exposure rather than submitting them to well-deserved punishment. It took the work of crusading journalists to lift this veil and force the Church to begin to change its policy from protecting priests to protecting children.

The story was bought to wider attention by the dedicated work of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team – the US’s finest investigative journalist team, a small team of reporters who work for months at one story. Boston is a firmly Catholic city, where the Church still holds a huge influence over the lives of its population. For years, faint suspicions of misconduct from any of the nearly 1,500 priests in the city was hushed up. It takes the arrival of an outsider at the Boston Globe – the paper’s unassuming new Jewish, Floridian editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) – to push the Spotlight team to delve deeper into this story. He finds plenty of support from the team – respected editor “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), the passionate Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), dedicated and empathetic Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and increasingly disgusted Matt Caroll (Brian d’Arcy James). Using tried-and-trusted journalistic methods, passionate investigation, archival work and winning the confidence of survivors, the team piece together a systematic cover-up by the Catholic Church that extends all the way to the Vatican.

Spotlight scooped the Oscar for Best Picture (along with an Oscar for its brilliantly researched screenplay). It feels like a late Oscar partly awarded in memory of All the President’s Men, the film that Spotlight bears the most relation to. But, even more so than Pakula’s film, this is a low-key, reserved but strikingly effective and engrossing film that takes an almost documentary approach to the patient work required to uncover a story (no Deep Throat here) and the grinding shoe leather needed to get there. Fittingly, given the tragic story the team were reporting on, Spotlight is almost totally devoid of histrionics (there is at best one scene where a member of the team gets angry – only to be met with a quiet “are you done?”), instead being a tribute to the professionalism and integrity of journalists powered, but never overwhelmed by, their anger.

McCarthy’s film is refreshingly free of flourish or over-emphasis. It’s brave enough to let the story speak for itself, and trusts the viewer to understand both the emotional weight of abuse and the feelings of those involved without resorting to dramatic speeches or tearful dialogue. The details dominate – searching through archives for old newspaper clippings, waiting for access to court papers, days spent reading over a decade of parish records. Nothing is earned cheaply: every revelation the result of patient leg-work and following where the story leads without agenda or bias.

Agenda is something these journalists are deeply aware of. All of the team were raised in the faith to one degree or another, with strong roots in a community. The team’s leader, Robby, is an esteemed alumnus of a Catholic school one of the guilty priests worked at when he was a child – a revelation that quietly leads him to question both his implicit turning of a blind eye, but also how only a single man’s choices prevented him from becoming a victim. There is discomfort throughout the Boston Globe at the story – assistant Editor Ben Bradlee Jnr (a fine performance from John Slattery), while supportive of the team, is prickly at revelations that the Globe had previously not followed up reports of abuse and is deeply unhappy at the thought of accusing the Church itself.

The power of the Church in communities like this is subtly, but brilliantly, depicted. The film opens in the 70s with a paedophile priest having his actions being quietly hushed up by the police after the intervention of an ADA. Virtually every important person in the city is a Catholic and, like Robby, has been bought up and schooled in the Church. In exterior shots, McCarthy’s camera constantly frames churches on the edges of shot, their spires visible over residential blocks. The scale of the power of this institution – its reach and influence – is constantly demonstrated. It’s a big challenge for the team to take on – and one which they are not even sure their readers are ready to read about.

But McCarthy’s film isn’t crude. It’s made clear that these priests are a minority – 6% – and the anger is not with faith itself, but with the flawed and wrong decisions taken by men (the psychologist the team consults, an ex-priest, makes clear his faith is not shaken by his discoveries, only his trust in the institution). Equal care is given to the victims themselves. Their stories are reported by two characters in the film, each time with a careful lack of over-emphasis and a quiet, yet emotional, honesty. No attempt is made to sensationalise any of this.

And the film also makes clear that everyone is in some way complicit in this. The Globe has failed to report it. The police and government have covered it up. People might whisper about it – or say a particular priest is “dodgy” – but no one has made an effort to rock the boat and find out about it. Instead, victims are paid off, priests are moved to new parishes and everyone tries to carry on as normal. It’s a grimy and quiet conspiracy – miles away from the Grisham-esque danger the film’s trailer suggested – rather a collective failure of moral responsibility.

The film’s low-key approach, professionalism and absorption in how people do their jobs is deeply engrossing. Few things, after all, are as involving as watching highly professional people execute their jobs flawlessly. The performances are superb. Michael Keaton gives possibly the finest performance of his career – surely connected to it being his most restrained – as the team’s leader, whose sense of personal guilt and regret quietly build along with determination. Ruffalo (Oscar-nominated) is fantastic as his passionate, committed colleague (he gets the one shouting scene). McAdams delivers quiet empathy and powerful intelligence. Schreiber confounds expectations as the numbers man who emerges as a dedicated searcher for the truth.

The truth is exposed – but it’s just a tip of the iceberg. The story might be out there, but as the film shows in its coda, the struggle goes on. Crusading maverick lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci, very good) can’t celebrate the story’s publication – he’s got two child victims he needs to talk to. Cardinal Law (a fine performance of assured, misguided, certainty from Len Cariou) is promoted to the Vatican. Similar scandals emerge across the world. But the problem doesn’t go away. Just as the story needs time and work, the same qualities are needed to reform the Church.

Spotlight is quiet, engrossing and finely moving and triumphant film-making. It focuses brilliantly on professionalism and dedication producing results and shows that hyperbole and embellishment are not needed for outstanding drama. Told with documentary realism, acted with reserved grace and skill, McCarthy’s film is a call-back to 1970s film-making in the best possible way. A deserved winner and a small triumph.

City of God (2003)

Violence is a way of life in Fernando Meirelles calling card sensation City of God

Director: Fernando Meirelles, Katia Lund (co-director)

Cast: Alexandre Rodrigues (Rocket), Leandro Firmino (Li’l Zé), Phellipe Haagensen (Benny), Douglas Silva (Li’l Dice), Jonathan Haagensen (Shaggy), Matheus Nachtergaele (Carrot), Seu Jorge (Knockout Ned), Jefechander Suplino (Clipper), Alice Braga (Angélica), Emerson Gomes (Stringy), Edson Oliveira (Older Stringy)

After Parasite’s win for Best Picture, it’s easy to remember the last foreign language film that made such a comparative impact at the Oscars – and it didn’t even win anything! Capturing the public imagination, City of God is that most American of things: a gangster film. Chronicling the life and death danger of the lawless slums of Rio de Janerio in the 1960s and 1970s, the film is an electric mixture of Latin and US film-making, a compelling shot of adrenalin that captured the imagination of the film-going public and made many Hollywood films look staid and dull. 

Shot on location with a largely non-professional cast, the film uses as our window into this world aspirant photographer Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), who has a front-row seat for an emerging (true life) gang war that erupts in the slumps between unstable psychopath Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino) and his rival Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele) and bereaved former sniper turned bus conductor and killer Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge). Starting at the end, the film rewinds through time and moves from perspective to perspective in a series of dynamic short stories that slowly merge and meld together to complete the film’s whole.

The film is directed by Meirelles (who got an Oscar nomination) and Katia Lund (who didn’t). Meirelles invited Lund to collaborate with him on the project, and is generally credited with the film’s look, editing style, frenetic pace and distinctive style of sharply exposed Latin colours mixed with the look of a rock video, all dynamic angles and immersive action. Lund bought her documentary realism to the film, as well as working closely with the actors and helping to shape their parts of the story. Agreeing to take a specific “co-director” credit probably cost Lund the nomination, and it feels inexplicable she was unrecognised today, even more so since Lund has pioneered several successful TV series based around the world of the film.

Controversy aside, it’s a high water-mark certainly for Meirelles who has never quite managed to match it since (The Constant Gardener remains his best work since, marrying the dynamism here with one of Le Carré’s most emotional and strongest stories). With its lashings of Scorsese, Tarantino and De Palma (among others), City of God remains a hugely engaging and engrossing gangster flick that really feels like it captures the threat and grimy reality of the streets of Brazil. Each section of the city we see feels like a lawless wild west, where guns rule, the police have no say and a whole population of ordinary people keep their heads down and just try to avoid getting caught (literally) in the crossfire. 

In this world violence is endemic, life is a short and brutish cycle of slaughter where danger leads inevitably to death, short-termism is the norm and a series of essentially childish young men see the excitement of crime turn into the brutality of a life of violence. None more so than the film’s vicious dark heart, Li’l Zé a young man with a flickering temper, a love of violence and death, barely able to relate to other people, unanchored in the world whose life is a self-destructive quest to be the biggest fish in his pond. Played with a swaggering panache by Leandro Firmino (and a chilling coldness as a child by Douglas Silva), the self-named Li’l Zé dominates the film as the sort of life-wire threat Joe Pesci used to be for Scorsese, never certain whether he will laugh or shoot.

Which makes him perfect for the unpredictability of the slums, where everyone wants to be a hood, drugs are rife and crime and murder is a legitimate way of living. The film splices together several short story narratives to illustrated this with Altmanesque confidence. Each section of the film is introduced as “the story of X”, all of them expanding from the starting story based around three wanna-be-hoodlums whose mixed fates reference everything from The Third Man to A Bout de Souffle. From this the film organically expands, using Li’l Zé as the fulcrum who hinges every other story around him towards disaster. It’s neatly cross-cut as well, starting the end before rewinding through a neat transition shot into the past to explain how we got where we are.

There seems to be no good deeds in the city. The most likeable character, Benny, is himself a gangster (and Li’l Zé’s only friend and restraining influence) who is fun-loving and cool while not adverse to theft and murder when needed. Kingpin Knockout Ned starts out as a man of good intentions, determined to clean up the town that has left him bereaved and hurt, but becomes consumed by the dark impact of violence. All the time, many of these gangsters are in love with their public image both the awe and fear they inspire in those around them as the most powerful people in the neighbourhood, and from their growing coverage in the press.

It’s a cycle that seems doomed to repeat itself, not least through the film’s introduction of “The Runts” a group of trigger happy pre-teen would-by gangsters, who roam through the streets waiting their chance to turn small stick-ups into a criminal empire. They are no more than following in the footsteps of Li’l Zé, shooting his gun and experiencing murder at their age and now zeroing on owning the whole slum. It’s the dark ambition of capitalism playing out on the streets.

The film works however as framing it around the jaunty, relaxed narrative of Rocket gives it the feeling of a series of shaggy dog stories and coming-of-age tales (and the film carefully mixes in among the gangsters plenty of reminiscences from Rocket around his teenager upbringing, his first love and his passion for photography). With someone as easy-going as Rocket as our guide, the film never becomes overbearing or depressing but instead as entertaining and engrossing. In a way it’s a shock to remember it features as much killing (including of a child) and mayhem as it does, as well as a world-weary nihilism too it that the odd person may escape the streets, but the general world there will never change. 

A staggeringly confident piece of film-making, City of God remains an exciting and compelling piece of cinema.

Philomena (2013)

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan go on a road trip into the past in Philomena

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Judi Dench (Philomena Lee), Steve Coogan (Martin Sixsmith), Michelle Fairley (Sally Mitchell), Barbara Jefford (Sister Hildegarde), Anna Maxwell Martin (Jane), Mare Winningham (Mare), Sophie Kennedy Clarke (Young Philomena), Kate Fleetwood (Young Sister Hildegarde), Sean Mahon (Michael Hess), Peter Hermann (Pete Olsen)

Describing Philomena as a sort of odd-couple buddy road movie with a heart seems like exactly the sort of trite journalistic spin that Coogan’s Martin Sixsmith spends most of the film deriding. But it’s a pretty accurate label, in this heartfelt and entertaining film that mixes looking at Irish church scandals, with both the shallowness and promise of journalism and a heartfelt meditation on the virtues of forgiveness.

Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a former government spin doctor, dismissed from his position is struggling to find a new purpose for himself in writing and journalism. After a chance meeting with waitress Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) at his editor’s New Year party, he is introduced to her mother Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) an Irish woman whose son was given up for adoption by the convent Philomena had been sent to over 50 years ago. She has spent years trying to find him, but made no progress. At first Sixsmith is dismissive of this human interest story, but slowly begins to invest in the story, as he and Philomena travel to the US to try and find her lost son.

Philomena is a film that doesn’t pull punches in its moral outrage at the decisions made by convents in Ireland in the 1950s to separate ‘sinful’ mothers from their children and find them new homes. The distress of the young Philomena is clear, and the steps the church took to put barriers in the path of helping these children and their parents reuniting (from burning records to bare-faced lies) are as infuriating as their moral superiority is outrageous in its hypocritical cruelty. But it’s not a film that wants to make a simple or political point. 

If the film has a problem with religion, it’s with the institutions that run it, not the faith itself. For all her ill-treatment, Philomena’s faith has been unshaken by all that has happened to her, and she like the film can separate the flaws of individuals from the principle of faith. The film may take aim at the Catholic church for making people feel sex is something dirty and shameful, but it won’t turn its guns on God himself. Near the film’s conclusion, Philomena even rebukes Martin for his rage (on her behalf) against the nuns who treated her wrongly, pointing out that she is the victim not him and that how she chooses to respond to it is her business – and if she chooses reconciliation and forgiveness that is her choice.

It’s a part of the films light and shade, very well drawn out in Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s script that mixes serious reflections on such matters as truth, faith and forgiveness with some good jokes and entertaining banter. The film deviates considerably from the true story it was based on – Philomena in real life never went to America – but in doing so it unlocks the story as a filmic narrative. The odd mother-son type relationship that the distant and cynical Sixsmith and the warm and engaging Philomena develop as they travel America gives the film heart, not least as Philomena constantly surprises Sixsmith with her worldliness and socially moderate views. The two characters end up bonding in a way that is straight out of a Movie-101 but it stills very real and touching.

A lot of that works so well because of the chemistry between the two leads. Judi Dench is just about perfect as Philomena. Dench expertly mixes the twinkle and charm of Philomena’s incessant Irish patter and capacity for small-talk (and fascination with everything from Mills and Boon to hotel toiletry) with a devastating emotional vulnerability and aching pain at the loss of her child, which has clearly been part of her life for so long she has learned to a certain degree to live with it. In one of her greatest screen performances, Dench will have you laughing one minute then spin on a sixpence with genuine emotional devastation or a capacity for forgiveness and reconciliation that seems impossible after what she has been through. The film builds real affection for both her old-world politeness charm and Irish loquaciousness and her emotional strength of character.

She’s well matched with Coogan, who uses his deadpan archness to excellent effect as Sixsmith. Although the film is called Philomena, it’s Sixsmith who represents the audience, and it’s his expectation of being emotionally manipulated by the story that we share at the start – and his growing investment in it that we also share. Coogan keeps the details very small, but along with a skill at delivering deadpan one-lines, he also has a considerable capacity for moral outrage and genuineness (well hidden) that serves the film very well. Sixsmith starts the story as self-pitying, supercilious and interested only in selling the story – the fact he ends it so bound up in rage at the treatment of Philomena, is a testament to Coogan’s skills for subtle character development.

Frears’ directs with a small-scale sharpness of camera and lack of flash that has been at the foreground of so many of his films, letting the focus lie on story and character. The road movie sequences that this film highlights so much are little triumphs of small-scale character story-telling, and while the jokes they feature – and even the emotional points they make – are familiar they are delivered with such grace and feeling they nearly all land.

Perhaps reflecting Coogan’s experience with the British media, it’s Fleet Street that emerges as the most 2D here, with Michelle Fairley playing a tabloid editor interested only in the story, delighting in tragic twists as they will make for even better headlines. It’s the film’s only real crudeness, but packaged within such a well-acted and richly entertaining whole, that makes a strong case for forgiveness not vindication being the true path to inner peace, it doesn’t seem to matter.