Tag: Ed Harris

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.

Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

You’ll feel the need for speed in this triumphant better-than-the-original sequel

Director: Joseph Kosinski

Cast: Tom Cruise (Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell), Miles Teller (Lt Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw), Jennifer Connelly (Penny Benjamin), Jon Hamm (Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson), Glen Powell (Lt Jack “Hangman” Seresin), Monica Barbaro (Lt Natasha “Phoenix” Trace), Lewis Pullman (Lt Robert “Bob” Floyd), Ed Harris (Rear Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain), Val Kilmer (Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky), Charles Parnell (Rear Admiral Solomon “Warlock” Bates)

It’s been 38 years since Tom Cruise last felt that need for speed. Top Gun is a sentimental favourite, partially because its the ultimate brash, loud, Reaganite 1980s Hollywood film. But (whisper it), it’s not actually – and never has been – a very good film. Perhaps though that’s all for the best: Top Gun has so little of merit in it, it offers an almost completely blank canvas for a sequel. It helps the team create Top Gun: Maverick, a film so insanely entertaining it should carry some sort of health warning.

Decades have passed and Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is pretty much the greatest pilot in the world, deliriously skilled at everything in the cockpit and pretty much hopeless at anything outside it. He’s distrusted by all his superiors except his old wingman Iceman (Val Kilmer). Thanks to Iceman he is selected to train the next generation of pilots at TOP GUN for an impossible mission to take out a nuclear plant in a “hostile nation” (clearly Iran). One of that next generation is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), son of Maverick’s late best friend “Goose”, the guilt for whose death Maverick never recovered from. After Maverick tried to prevent Rooster from following in his father’s footsteps – not able to stand the thought of being responsible for the deaths of both his surrogate brother and son – can the two overcome their problems?

Top Gun: Maverick was delayed from hitting cinema screens for nearly two years thanks to Covid. Cruise resisted all opportunities to sell it to streaming: a decision vindicated by the supreme big-screen entertainment it offers. This one you really do need to see on the big screen. Its aerial footage is so stunning it makes the original look like tricycles on training wheels. Combined with that though, and unlike the original, Maverick has a thoughtful and engaging emotional storyline, with characters who change through well thought out emotional arcs.

But I’ll be honest, the staggering, visceral enjoyment of these plane sequences is probably the principal thing you’ll immediately take out of the film. Working from a training programme partly devised by Cruise, the film shows the impact of punishing G-forces by… actually putting the actors in planes travelling at these huge speeds. Unlike Top Gun, with its blue-screen cockpit shots, there is no doubt Cruise, Teller et al are actually in the planes as they bank at impossible speeds. Partially shot by the actors themselves – sitting the camera up in their cockpits – the film literally shows you the scenery flashing by. It’s Cruise’s mantra of doing it for real taken to a stunning degree. It’s the simple old-fashioned joy of knowing almost everything you see is real.

The mission this time is far more detailed: effectively it’s a steal from Star Wars, our heroes required to fly through a narrow ravine (below the radars of surface to air missiles) before climbing a steep bank and using their laser targeting to successfully blast a small access port. (It won’t surprise you to hear that on the final mission one character has to “use the force” when their targeting laser fails). Maverick’s training programme pushes the pilots to the limit, while his extraordinary flight skills quickly win their awe (in the first session he challenges all the pilots to take him down in a simulated dogfight, with everyone shot down doing 200 press-ups – Maverick does zero, everyone else 200+). Kosinski shoots with a cool clarity that makes you feel you are being punched by G-force.

But Top Gun: Maverick would just be a showcase for cool planes without its emotional heart. And it’s the intelligent and involving story that makes it work. Cruise is at his charismatic movie star best as Maverick – he knows exactly how to win the audience over – but his cocksure confidence is underpinned by a growing sense of fear at the risks he puts others through. Unlike the navy, his main concern is to get the pilots back alive and his guilt-ridden treasured memory of Goose is the hallmark of a man who never managed to put ends before means. He’ll take any risk himself, but balks at taking chances with anyone else’s life.

It’s what drives his troubled relationship with Rooster. The two have a surrogate father-son relationship, fractured by Maverick’s attempt to keep Rooster safe out of the cockpit. (Pleasingly, Rooster does not hold Maverick responsible for his father’s death, only for derailing his career.) The relationship between these two – Cruise’s Maverick quietly desperate to rebuild some sort of familial connection and Rooster shouldering resentment for a father-figure he clearly still loves – is handled with a great deal of tact and honesty. It really works to carry a wallop.

It’s also part of how Maverick’s place in the world, and decisions in life, are being questioned. As made clear in a prologue where he thumbs his nose at a sceptical Admiral (no one scowls like Ed Harris) by taking a prototype jet out for test run, he’s both a relic and a guy who doesn’t know when to stop (he wrecks the jet by pushing past the target of 10 Mach by trying to go another .2 faster). Unlike Iceman – a touching cameo from a very ill Val Kilmer that leaves a lump in the throat – Maverick never fit in within a military organisation (“They’re called orders Maverick”). He’s lonely, his past failed relationship with Jennifer Connelly’s Penny just one of many roads-not-taken. (There is no mention of Kelly McGillis’ character.) In a world of digital drones, he’s an analogue pilot flying by instinct: his days are numbered.

This is proper, meaty, thematic stuff explored in a series of involving personal arcs which by the end not only leaves you gripped because of the aerial drama, but also genuinely concerned about the characters. I can’t say that about the original. Top Gun: Maverick is not only a thematically and emotionally richer story – carried with super-star charisma by Cruise – than the original, it’s also more exciting and more punch-the-air feelgood. This sort of thing really is what the big screen is for.

The Lost Daughter (2021)

The Lost Daughter (2021)

Motherhood, loss and guilt are at the heart of this over-extended drama that doesn’t feel like it focuses on the right things

Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal

Cast: Olivia Colman (Leda Caruso), Jessie Buckley (Young Leda Caruso), Dakota Johnson (Nina), Ed Harris (Lyle), Dagmara Dominczyk (Callie), Paul Mescal (Will), Peter Sarsgaard (Professor Hardy), Jack Farthing (Joe), Oliver Jackson-Cohen (Toni), Athena Martin (Elena), Robyn Elwell (Bianca), Ellie Blake (Martha)

Leda (Olivia Colman), a professor of Italian Literature, holidays in Greece. That holiday is disturbed by the arrival of a noisy, aggressive family from Queens. A member of that family, unhappy young mother Nina (Dakota Johnson) loses her daughter on a beach. Leda finds her, but it triggers her own unhappy memories of motherhood (Jessie Buckley plays the young Leda). She impulsively steals the child’s beloved doll, as her paranoia and mournful reflections grow.

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut is a confident, assured piece of film-making, but I found it a cold and slightly unsatisfying film. There is a fascinating subject here, that the film fails to really tackle. One of life’s great unspoken expectations is that everyone should find being a parent – especially being a mother – hugely rewarding. This film studies a woman who didn’t, but still wants to reassure us of the love and happiness found in the bond with a child, no matter your mistakes as a parent. In doing so, it marginally ducks an important societal issue and reaches conclusions that feel predictable, for all the ambiguity the film ends with.

Colman’s expressive face and ability to suggest acres of unhappiness in a forced smile or gallons of frustration with a single intake of breath, are used to maximum effect. Leda is a woman comfortable with her own company, forced and uncomfortable in conversation, her eyes flicking away as if looking for an exit. She seems confused about how to respond to the quiet advances of handyman Lyle (a gentle Ed Harris) and increasingly resents the intrusion into her holiday of outsiders.

How much is this slightly misanthropic, isolated view of the world her natural personality, and how much has it grown from her choices in the past? Flashbacks reveal her struggles as a mother – and the strained relationship with her children today – and it’s clear Leda is a bubble of confused emotions, uncertain about what she thinks and feels.

That past, to me, is the real area of interest, rather than the distant, cold woman those choices have created. I’d argue a stronger film – and one that would feel like it was really making a unique point – would have focused on the younger Leda. Expertly played by an Oscar-nominated Jessie Buckley –brittle and growing in claustrophobic depression – she loves her two girls. But, most of the time, finds them overbearing, all-consuming and more than a little irritating. She’ll laugh at their jokes and be terrified when one of them gets lost, while still resenting their domineering impact on her life.

When she wants to work, they demand attention. When her daughter has a small cut on her finger, Leda is repeatedly asked to kiss it better like a broken record. Leda gives her other daughter her own childhood doll – and then throws it out of a window in fit of hurt fury when the daughter covers it in crayon and says she doesn’t like it. The kids get in the way of everything: be it work (she retreats behind headphones to focus), holidays, sex with her husband or even masturbation.

Her feelings go beyond post-natal depression. She is someone who genuinely loves her children, but can’t bear the idea of mothering them. This is the meat of the film, far more than the present-day narrative. Gyllenhaal sensitively tackles a rarely discussed topic: what can we do if we find parenthood was a mistake? Knuckle down or give up and run away? A film exploring this could have been compelling: but it only takes up a quarter of an over-extended film.

Instead, by focusing on the maladjusted present-day Leda, the film presents her motherhood difficulties as the root cause of her problems. Leda sees a potential kindred spirit in young mother Nina – a brash and exhausted Dakota Fanning – who seems equally frustrated by parenting. But Leda is so insular and self-obsessed, is she only seeing what she wants to see? If she thinks Nina is also failing as a mother, will that make her feel better about her own failures?

The Lost Daughter is an unreliable narrator film – and Gyllenhaal expertly suggests much of what we see are Leda’s perceptions rather than necessarily the truth. The menace from Nina’s loud and aggressive extended family is a constant presence: but is it real, or just Lena’s paranoia. Does the family really cover every tree with a missing poster for a child’s lost doll, or does it just that way to Leda? Does Nina share Leda’s own resentments with motherhood, or does Leda just want her to?

It’s a subtle ambiguity that continues until the film’s close. It leaves many questions unanswered and open to the viewers interpretation. Different viewers will take very different messages from it. But for me, the film wasn’t quite interesting enough – and shied away from exploring the questions of guilt and doubt about parenthood. At no point does Leda even voice the possibility that she regrets having kids – for all that she surely does – which feels odd. For me the film takes a long time to not quite say as much as I feel it could have done.

The Way Back (2010)

Harris, Sturgess and Farrell cross a great distance in Peter Weir’s The Way Back

Director: Peter Weir

Cast: Jim Sturgess (Janusz Wierszczek), Ed Harris (Mr Smith), Saoirse Ronan (Irena Zielinska), Colin Farrell (Valka), Dragos Bucor (Zoran), Alexandru Potocean (Tomasz), Gustaf Skarsgard (Andrejs), Sebastian Urzendowsky (Kazik), Mark Strong (Andrei Khabarov)

During the Second World War, Stalin spent almost as much time rounding up potential enemies of the state as he did fighting the Nazis. This was also his exclusive focus during the early years of the war when, in league with Nazi Germany, Russia invaded half of Poland. Polish officers were rounded up – many were massacred but Katyn, but some were sent to the gulags of Siberia. Among that number is Janusz (Jim Sturgess). But he is desperate to get home – so, with a collection of fellow prisoners, including American Mr Smith (Ed Harris) and hardened criminal (and pro-Stalinist) Valka (Colin Farrell) he escapes. Trouble is freedom is over 4000 miles away – through Siberia, Mongolia, the Gobi Desert and the Himalayas. To even contemplate the walk is staggering.

Which is more than you can say about the film. I never thought I would see a Peter Weir film that left me cold, but I now I have. How did Weir manage to make a compelling survival story into a film at times so unengaging you feel you have done the walk in real time? The real problem is the lack of characters. Halfway through the film the group encounters a young woman (played by Saoirse Ronan). She asks them what their background is – and they tell her (off-camera). And she tells them to Ed Harris. And he tells her his backstory off camera – and she tells it to Jim Sturgess. And there is the problem in a nutshell.

We’ve spent nearly an hour with this lot by then – and in that hour you’d struggle to know their names and certainly don’t know anything personal about them. We have no idea where they came from, what they lost or what they are yearning to return to. An hour during which it was hard to tell them apart (except for the more famous actors) but the film still wants me to invest in them fighting against the elements. Now, I know for many people, this isn’t be a problem. But for me it was an insurmountable obstacle.

I can admire the work that has gone into location shooting, make-up and costumes that show the ravages of this impossible journey. But, at the end of the day, if I know nothing about these characters and have no reason to invest in their fate, all the skill in the world won’t make this into a film I can invest in. Look at the great survival films – from The Flight of the Phoenix to another true-life (more of that later) story Apollo 13 – what makes them work is the dread that something awful might happen to the characters we care about. Without that feeling, it’s just pictures, nothing more. Weir’s mistake is to focus so much on how the Gulag crushes personalities and creates alliances of convenience, that he gives us no reason to bond with the characters.

The wispy, thin script gives very little for the actors to work with. Colin Farrell has the best part as a blackly comedic man of violence (and he drops out well before the end of the film). Mark Strong makes a big impact from a few short scenes as a prisoner who is all talk but no trousers. The others make little impression. Ed Harris does his trademark gravel, Saoirse Ronan adds much needed warmth (and provides a hugely needed audience surrogate figure – again far too late) but Jim Sturgess lacks the presence or force of character to carry the film. Force of character is missing throughout – you don’t get the sense of the strength of will needed to even undertake this, not to mention the psychological impact of this level of hardship.

It’s also oddly paced – you really lose track of how far or how long they have been travelling. Big time jumps take us from the first day of the escape to a cave in the forest which (we assume) they have spent weeks travelling to, reaching the edge of starvation. Then, before we know it they are at the border, then Mongolia. The film gets lost in a huge sequence in the Gobi Desert (for some reasons the characters always walk in the day and rest at night, the exact opposite of what anyone would do) – emerging with 12 minutes to go, bounding over the Himalayas in about 30 seconds (was it too difficult to film there?). The film caps with a bizarre “he walked forever” sequence, with superimposed walking feet over newsreel footage – a failed attempt to hammer home that Janusz needed to wait until the end of the Cold War before he could get home.

It’s nominally based on a true story. The author of the book it is based on is believed to have either invented or stolen the story from someone else and there is huge debate about whether it happened or not and if so who did it. This should have given Weir some freedom – but instead it seems to have given him too little to build on. Most damning in it I can’t find any reason in it to care whether they make it to freedom or not, instead the time dragging as much as the characters swollen feet. A terrible missed opportunity – and a rare misfire from a great director.

The Firm (1993)

“He can’t handle the truth!” Tom Cruise takes on The Firm. We lose.

Director: Sydney Pollack

Cast: Tom Cruise (Mitch McDeere), Jeanne Tripplehorn (Abby McDeere), Gene Hackman (Avery Tolar), Holly Hunter (Tammy Hemphill), Ed Harris (FBI Agent Wayne Tarrance), Hal Holbrook (Oliver Lambert), Jerry Hardin (Royce McKnight), David Strathairn (Ray McDeere), Terry Kinney (Lamar Quinn), Wilfrid Brimley (Bill DeVasher), Gary Busey (Eddie Lomax), Paul Sorvino (Tony Morolto)

Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise) is graduating top-of-his-class from Harvard Law. A plucky kid who’s worked for everything he has – and who wants to provide the best he can for wife Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn) – Mitch has lots of offers but is seduced by a perk-filled offer from a law firm in Memphis. Everything goes wonderfully at first. But then associates at the firm start to die under suspicious circumstances and Mitch discovers no-one everleaves the firm except in a wooden box. Maybe all that off-shore tax-dodging isn’t quite as innocent as it seems – and those big-city clients with Italian-sounding names aren’t so friendly after all…

Adapted from a best-selling novel by John Grisham at the height of his airport-novel flogging days, The Firm is bought to the screen by Sydney Pollack. And what a complete dog’s dinner he makes of it. The Firm is a dreadful film: long, slow and dull with a plot that stretches right through elaborate and comes out the other side as confusing. By the time Mitch is tearing through Memphis, briefcase flapping behind him, you’ll have long-since ceased caring about anything involved in the film at all. Because for a film of such great length, very little seems to happen in it – and what little does happen is wrapped up in a mixture of legalese and curiously flat chase sequences.

Cruise plays Mitch at his most gung-ho, cocky, shit-eating grinnish. He’s preppy, super-smart, arrogant but also loyal, brave and principled. Aside from a brief temptation by money – and that because he wants the best for his family! – and of course a dalliance with a honey-trap on a beach (but it was a set-up, so not his fault!), he’s practically perfect in every way. He’s even a decent athlete, playfully taking part in back-flipping competitions with a break-dancing pre-teen busker (one of the most clumsy and bizarre introductions of a Chekov’s skill in the movies).

To put it bluntly, Mitch is an irritating character and watching him (very slowly) decide to do the right thing doesn’t make gripping viewing. Around him a host of experienced character actors do their thing, none of them stretching themselves. Tripplehorn does her best with the thankless part of “wife”, though she does at least get to do something a little proactive at the end. Hackman grins and coasts as Cruise’s mentor with the lost conscience. Hunter pouts and wisecracks (Oscar-nominated) as Grisham’s twist on an Eve-Ardenish secretary. Holbrook and Brimley scowl behind smiles as high-ups at the Firm. Harris shouts a lot as a permanently angry FBI agent with a heart of gold. Sorvino breaks out his Mob Boss 101.

Pollack marshals all these forces together with minimal effort and then ticks the boxes of all Grisham-cliches. The only thing missing are some courtroom dynamics, but we get the next best thing with wee-Tommy playing the FBI, the Mafia and the Firm off against each other in a desperate attempt to stay one step ahead of the game. I can’t stress enough how turgid and dull this film is. However scintillating you feel the set-up you might be, as the film clocks into the second hour (with 30 minutes still to go), you’ll be amazed how little sense of peril or threat there is.

There is nothing sharp, pointed or pacey about this film. “It has to happen fast” Tom announces at one point, as he kicks his impenetrable plan into gear. “Good luck in this film” my wife commented. She’s spot-on. Pollack fails to bring any sense of pace or peril to the film. For all we are repeatedly told Cruise’s life is at risk, it never really feels like it.

A big part of this massive failure is the terrible musical score that covers every single second of the film. Provided by an Oscar-nominated Dave Grusin (beating out Michael Nyman’s score for The Piano from even being nominated, one of the most inexplicable oversights at the Oscars from the 90s), every single second of the film is overlaid with a plinky-plonky piano score that would not sound out of place in a second-rate jazz bar or a hotel lift. Rather than bring you to edge of your seat, the score actually makes you feel like you should be resting back in it with a large cocktail in hand and a fuzzy sense of upcoming sleepiness clouding your brain. Which to be honest might work: pissed and half-asleep is probably the only way to get anything from the movie.

The Truman Show (1998)

Jim Carrey starts to wonder if there is more to his life than meets the eye in The Truman Show

Director: Peter Weir

Cast: Jim Carrey (Truman Burbank), Ed Harris (Christof), Laura Linney (Hannah Gill/Meryl Burbank), Noah Emmerich (Louis Coltrane/Marlon), Natascha McElhone (Sylvia/Lauren Garland), Holland Taylor (Alanis Montclair/Angela Burbank), Brian Delate (Walter Moore/Kirk Burbank), Paul Giamatti (Simeon), Peter Krause (Truman’s boss), Harry Shearer (Mike Michaelson), Philip Baker Hall (Network executive), John Pleshette (Network executive)

Have you ever fantasised that your whole life was a movie? It would be great wouldn’t it? You’re the star of every scene, the story lines always have a happy ending and you always emerge as the hero. But what if your life really was a massive TV series? What if everyone you had ever met was an actor playing a role? What if every experience in your life had been carefully scripted? What if nothing you knew was a real or even remotely true? That’s no-where near as fun.

Of course the odd thing today is that I suspect there are more than a few people out there who would still consider that a decent pay-off – even if they couldn’t know that they were on television, at least they would be on it. The Truman Show predated much of the surge of reality TV that was to come in the 00s, when shows like Big Brother made putting everyday (at least at first) people into situations and simply watching what happens became TV gold. Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) is approaching his 30th birthday. Little does he know that his entire life he’s been at the centre of an elaborate TV show and that the hometown he has never left is a giant self-contained film studio. But as incidents begin to pile up, Truman suddenly questions his reality – while the show’s cast and production team work to keep him in ignorance. After all, we can’t let this ratings cash cow die!

With a precise, sharp and intelligent script by Andrew Niccol, Peter Weir’s film is a triumph. It’s partway between drama and satire, but never lets the one compromise another. It could have become a lumpen message film about the intrusion of media into our lives. Instead it’s an acute satire of TV gone mad, with a very real, sympathetic character who we invest in. Effectively the movie works on the same premise as the fictional TV show: the viewers know the world they are seeing is larger than life, but they know the character of Truman is grounded and true. It works as it bases its satirical attacks around a heartfelt story of a man (unwittingly at first) on a quest for freedom.

It’s two horses the film rides extraordinarily well – and even effectively comments on. Throughout the action we cut to the same regular joes watching the show: people in a bar, security cops, a pair of old ladies on a sofa. These people are aware they are watching a show – and watching a man effectively imprisoned – but have their emotions manipulated with ease, first by the producers then by the excitement of Truman’s very real quest. As they gasp and cheer as Truman works his way out of his prison, there is not a shred of acknowledgement to them that buy ‘booing’ the TV network they should also be booing themselves for watching in the first place. Instead they treat it just as another episode of their favourite show, the celebrations as transient and hollow as their tears of joy as the producers reintroducing Truman’s long-lost father in an attempt to ‘explain’ the strange circumstances he’s seen.

The Truman Show itself takes place in a perfect, unintimidating slice of 50’s inspired nostalgia. It’s a perfect picture of Americana – and its conservatism is itself a satire. Of course the producers set the show in the most cosy, comforting setting they could imagine. The rose-tinted past is always something we turn to for comfort viewing (take a look at the success of Downton Abbey). Alongside that, it’s a world run by advertising: Truman’s wife frequently stops to deliver scripted adverts, singing the praises of household products; a pair of old buffers have the job of pushing Truman up against a different advert hoarding every day; Truman’s friend Marlon praises their beer with every sip.

And in the sky: we have the studio itself, run by the shows creator Christof. Superbly played by Ed Harris, as part hipster artist, part messianic genius (“I am the creator” he tells Truman near the end, his voice coming through a beam of skylight, adding after a half-beat “of a television show”), Christof has carefully plotted Truman’s entire life from birth. He partly sees himself as Truman’s father – but he as much sees Truman as a tool he can manipulate for his own ends. A hands-on show-runner, Christof believes himself a genius whose will cannot be questioned. This softly-spoken dictator is a terrifying insight into what happens when self-appointed artistic geniuses can explore their ideas with no regard for morality and no restraints.

Truman himself is a charming, sweet, decent fellow – I suppose if nothing else Christof has done a superb job of bringing him up. But his entire life is a manipulated lie. The whole town is full of subconscious messages encouraging him to stay – as is the advice from his wife and best friend. Most cruelly of all, he has been deliberately traumatised into a terror of water by being made to feel responsible as a boy for the drowning of his father. Christof even boasts of his ingenuity in this “plot line” to help insure Truman would be too scared to ever consider leaving his home.

Jim Carrey was a revelation as Truman – Weir was the first director to refocus his comic mania into something more intimate and true. The part still makes a lot of hay from Carrey’s rubbery comedic chops – its part of Truman’s charm – but he matches it with a Jimmy Stewartish decency and earnestness. As the illusion begins to crack, his bemusement turns to something between disbelief and anger, but never compromises his humanity. You can see why billions of people watched him – and also understand why a man so accommodating and decent has not questioned his life before. Witty, gentle and human it’s a great performance.

But perhaps the film’s greatest strength is Weir’s sharp, clear-eyed, largely unobtrusive direction. The film makes nifty use of all the thousands of cameras contained in Truman’s world – with shots taken from button cams, CCTV, dashboards and all sorts. Its intermixed with normal camera angles, but gives us a beautiful sense of Truman’s world, and the TV world coming together throughout. The pace of the film is perfect and its slow reveal of information delicately done. Weir’s intercutting between ‘fictional’ and real world is superbly judged and the film wears its satire very lightly as well superbly mixing what could have been a dark film of imprisonment and abuse with a lightness and charm. Above all, it manages to both be a compelling story with a sympathetic hero and a sharp-pronged criticism of the shallowness of media and its viewing public.

It might well have been far too ahead of its time when it was released. It looks smarter and smarter each passing year. Truman’s world is an Instagram paradise, and with social media we’ve got even more used to spending our leisure time looking through other people’s lives rather than our own. It’s all part of what helps make Niccol’s script so sharp and prescient. Directed superbly by Weir and wonderfully acted – perhaps most of all by Harris’ Warhol turned dictator – it keeps you entertained, invested and leaves you cheering. Just like the viewers watching Truman being manipulated. Which makes you realise: is the film attacking its audience as much as anyone else? After all, we’d all watch this stuff in real life: look at how we rubberneck at accidents. What’s wrong with us eh?

Apollo 13 (1995)

Bill Paxon, Kevin Bacon and Tom Hanks are stranded in space in Apollo 13

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Tom Hanks (Jim Lovell), Kevin Bacon (Jack Swigert), Bill Paxton (Fred Haise), Gary Sinise (Ken Mattingly), Ed Harris (Gene Kranz), Kathleen Quinlan (Marilyn Lovell), Chris Ellis (Deke Slayton), Joe Spano (NASA Director) Xander Berkeley (Henry Hunt), Marc McClure (Glenn Lunney), Clint Howard (Sy Libergot), Ray McKinnon (Jerry Bostwick), David Andrews (Pete Conrad), Christian Clemenson (Dr Charles Berry), Brett Cullen (CAPCOM1)

“Houston we have a problem”. Those calmly spoken words coat an ocean of disaster in Ron Howard’s brilliant reconstruction of the disaster-that-very-nearly-was, Apollo 13. Without a shadow of a doubt Howard’s finest film, this is brilliantly tense and hugely engaging that builds an edge-of-the-seat tension around a true story. You can’t watch it without being filled with breathless admiration for the ingenuity of those in mission control and the courage of those in space as they worked together to bring the mission home. Truly “Failure is not an option”.

On a mission to the moon, Mission Commander Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) and crew Fred Haize (Bill Paxton) and late replacement Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) are left desperately trying to salvage their ship after an accident strikes. Meanwhile back in Houston, Flight Director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) and replaced crewman Ken Mattingley (Gary Sinise) lead a dedicated team juggling every inch of mathematical, scientific and practical knowledge they have to bring the ship home.

Apollo 13 is a masterpiece of reconstruction. Every inch of the NASA space programme is reassembled in perfect detail. Every nut and bolt, from procedures to the interplay between the astronauts and Ground Control. There isn’t a single false note, and every single element of the production, photography and editing is carefully placed to support this total immersion in period. Howard’s technical direction is brilliantly done, intercutting with a fabulous sense of pacing between the crew in space and Ground Control back here on Earth. It becomes one of the most engrossing and involving true-life stories you can imagine.

I love this film. I love every second of it. Every single time I see it – and I must have watched it at least once a year since 1996 – I get wrapped up in the tension and, perhaps even more than that, the inventiveness needed to solve problems in space. The film throws conundrums at us time and time again. The command module needs to be restarted to land the ship – but only has enough power to keep a coffee machine running for a few hours. A vital course correction, that a computer could calculate and perform, needs to be carried out by hand. The weight of moon rocks needs to be replicated in the landing module. And, most brilliant of all, the NASA boffins need to work out literallyhow to fit a round peg into a square hole in order to replace a CO2 filter – using nothing but the pile of equipment on the spaceship.

These problems all need to be solved by people low on sleep, high on stress and – in three obvious cases – stranded, cold and alone in space, and each one is carefully explained by the film’s very natural but highly detailed script and then relayed into nail-biting efforts to solve them. (James Horner’s score also works wonders here, communicating the awe of space and our vulnerability in that black void expertly.) In no other film can the tearing of a plastic bag have you gasping at the impact it could have on life or death.

Added to the impact of this, is the engrossing excitement of watching brilliantly trained professionals tackle the sort of situations that would reduce you or I to sweaty panic. Other than a brief moment of recrimination between Haise and Swigert (authoritatively quashed by Lovell’s “Gentlemen, we are not doing this”), everyone stays more cool, calm and collected than you could possibly expect. This also means that flashes of urgency or emotion carry huge impact in communicating stress: when Libergot stresses powering down the ship is the only way for the crew to survive or Lovell is caught on radio ranting he is “well aware of the Goddamn gimbels” while trying to pilot a ship leaking oxygen through a barrage of debris to a soundtrack of alarms, the pressures they are trying to cope with come thundering home to us.

The extraordinary work of the actors also goes a long way towards the film’s success. If any film cemented Tom Hanks’ everyman quality, it was this one. His Jim Lovell is calm, controlled and extremely grounded, a professional with a realistic outlet, a devoted family man and overwhelmingly ordinary for all the extraordinary things he’s done. Hanks brings the role a huge authority and acres of empathy and relatability. He seems both vulnerable, human and professionally assured. I’d trade both his Oscar-winning performances for this one.

The whole cast follows his lead. Bacon and Paxton are very good as the rest of the crew, juggling moments of fear, frustration and black humour. Ed Harris became a star character actor overnight with his brilliant performance as Kranz, another committed professional who refuses to countenance failure and guides the ground team through super-human efforts, while keeping his own emotions carefully under control. Kathleen Quinlan is impressive as Lovell’s wife, keeping the morale of those left behind as high as she can while barely controlling her own fear. Gary Sinise’s Ken Mattingley channels his resentment at being benched from the mission into a Herculean commitment to bringing them home.

It’s that commitment on the ground that Howard’s film so brilliantly understands. A lesser film would have focused overwhelmingly on the courage of the astronauts alone, and heightened their struggles to pilot the spacecraft and survive. Apollo 13 understands above all that this was a team effort – and the casting and scripting feeds brilliantly into this. No one is the “hero”, no one “saves the day”. Every character focuses on their own small piece of the puzzle and has to trust all the others worked out. The film gives huge amounts of time over to the boffins and geniuses of Mission Control – all brilliantly played by a host of character actors – and its respect for these unsung heroes is as great as it is for Lovell and his crew.

Howard also understands exactly when to up the music, editing and effects and when to slow the film down and let events quietly play out. Moments in space where the actors have to quietly reflect, or when we check in on the fears and concerns of the families back home, contrast perfectly (and carry even more impact) when they sit alongside the scenes of failures and rushes to save lives. As for that re-entry scene… is there any more tense scene in a true story film than that long, long wait to see if Apollo 13 will return from space? There are certainly fewer moments that will get those specks of dust irritating your eyes – I get a lump in my throat just thinking about it.

Everything in Apollo 13 is spot on. I would go further and say I’m not sure there is a single wrong beat in it. It’s Howard’s masterpiece – his infamous snubbing for an Oscar nomination is inexplicable, his direction here is vastly superior to winner Mel Gibson’s work on Braveheart. It turns a true-life story into an impossibly tense, deeply involving, hugely emotional story. The actors – some of whom shot for weeks in a “vomit comet” plane to replicate weightlessness, an effect that works superbly – are outstanding. Every single technical aspect of the film is spot on. Its emotional impact is as absolute as the admiration and respect you’ll feel for the real NASA crews that guided this mission home. Apollo 13 is a classic. I can’t imagine anyone not finding something in it to like – not many films you can say that about.

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Russell Crowe struggles with reality as Math’s genius John Nash in A Beautiful Mind

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Russell Crowe (John Nash), Ed Harris (William Parcher), Jennifer Connelly (Alicia Nash), Christopher Plummer (Dr Rosen), Paul Bettany (Charles Herman), Adam Goldberg (Richard Sol), Josh Lucas (Martin Hansen), Anthony Rapp (Bender), Judd Hirsch (Professor Helinger)

There is nothing Hollywood likes more than a man overcoming adversity. Make him a troubled genius and that’s even better. Throw in a supportive wife who bends over backwards to help him and you’ve got the dream Hollywood scenario. You can bet Oscars will follow – and they certainly did for Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, which hoovered up Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (it probably would have also nabbed Best Actor if Russell Crowe’s personal behaviour hadn’t turned him from idol to Hollywood’s most unpopular actor).

The film is a romantically repackaged biography of John Nash (Russell Crowe), a pioneering mathematician whose life was turned upside down by his diagnosis with schizophrenia in the 1960s. Even before then, Nash had become increasingly preoccupied by delusions and fantasies, many of them revolving around “secret government code-breaking work” for a bullying CIA Agent (Ed Harris). Slowly coming to terms with his diagnosis, with the help of his loving wife Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), Nash must learn to put aside the things he knows he are not real, while trying to rebuild his life.

Ron Howard’s film is assembled with his usual assured professionalism. It is never anything less than effective, what it never quite manages to be is inspired. Perhaps because it’s a very standard Hollywood biopic. It effectively presents the life of its troubled genius as something very easily digestible, hitting all the beats of suffering, determination and eventual triumph you could expect when the film starts.

This makes for exactly the sort of middle-brow filmmaking made with absolute professionalism that, if you turn your head and squint a bit, can be made to look like Oscar-winning art. That seems incredibly harsh on the film: but there is really nothing particularly “new” about anything here: in many ways, it could have been made almost exactly the same in the 1940s (and it would probably have won an Oscar then as well).

That’s not to say it’s a bad film. Howard’s direction is sharp and exact, and he stages the film very well, drawing very good performances out of the cast. The film is good at immersing us in Nash’s delusions, particularly in the first hour of the film (it’s not until the hour mark that anyone overtly states there is anything wrong with Nash beyond eccentricity and social awkwardness). Howard shoots the fantasies totally straight: in fact if you had managed to avoid knowing what the film is about, you can totally imagine being tricked into thinking it’s a genuine spy thriller.

With that though, the film gives you just enough hints. Take a beat and look at Nash’s CIA actions and they don’t make much sense. A secret code that involves him tearing pages out of thousands of magazines and pinning them up around his office connected with bits of string (standard filmic language for the obsessive nutter)? The CIA injecting a number implant into his arm? A dead drop at a posh house which requires letters to be sealed with wax? The film gives us the hints that Nash is more troubled than just awkward around people, but doesn’t lay it on too thick. And at least one plot reveal that something we have seen was in fact a Nash-delusion the whole time is so skilfully presented that it surprised me (and I know surprised several other people).

The film is also strong on schizophrenia and delusion. Reworking Nash’s real-life auditory hallucinations into visual fantasies (including imagined buildings and people) works really effectively for film. It also really opens up for us the horror of how difficult living with something like this might be. How would you feel if you could never trust the world you saw around you? What if you discovered things that were central to your life turned out to be fantasies? That people you had built relationships with were not real? That’s a traumatic emotional burden, and the film is very strong at building your empathy with Nash.

It’s also helped by Crowe’s very effective performance in the lead. Shy, buttoned-up, physically awkward, his eyes always cast down, body slouched and voice an embarrassed mumble, Crowe brilliantly embodies a nervous outsider whose problems fitting in only magnify his growing dependence on fantasies that place him at the centre of the world. There is a touching vulnerability about Crowe here that so rarely gets seen. A big part of the film’s success is due to his performance.

Jennifer Connelly also makes a great deal of her very traditional role as the supportive wife, bringing just the right level of assurance, spark and warmth to the role. Connelly carefully shifts the character from flirtatious confidence to heartbroken but supportive wife. But she doesn’t lose track of Alicia’s own frustrations at living with a medicated, unresponsive husband – even if, of course, any regrets she may have about the way her life turned out are overcome swiftly.

Which of course is completely different from real life where, for all her support, the couple divorced. Nash also had a baby (which he didn’t acknowledge) with a nurse he had an affair with. But these are real life complexities that have no place in a crowd-pleasing biopic like this. Similarly gone are Nash’s possible flirtations with bisexuality, his experiments with drugs or his flashes of violence. Added in are an entirely invented “pen gifting” Princeton ceremony and Nash’s Nobel prize acceptance speech where he gives thanks to his loving wife (in real life no such speech happened and the couple were separated). But that’s not the story this film wants to tell, so truth can go hang.

Perhaps these, post-diagnosis, difficulties are why the final third of the story – which sees Nash casting aside the invasive treatments to overcome the power his delusions have over him through willpower alone – is the least involving part. After all, they had to drop most of the actual real-life events that happened (see above). But there simply isn’t as much drama in watching someone quietly adjust to rebuilding a career in maths as there is in seeing them struggle.

Perhaps as well, because maths is a pretty difficult to bring to the screen. The film falls back into many accepted visual tropes – you’ll see a lot of writing on windows – and explains Nash’s theory of co-operative dynamics with a bar-and-booze based conversation around pulling girls in bars. That’s about as far as engagement with maths and understanding his theories goes – but we take it as read that Nash is a genius because he acts like one, people tells he is and he writes lots of big equations on boards.

A Beautiful Mind offers few real surprises (except for one) and presents a story that Hollywood has basically been making for decades. Things from real-life that don’t fit the story have been cut out, to make this as conventional a film as possible: the troubled genius and the loving wife behind him. It’s very well played (as well as Crowe and Connelly, Paul Bettany is brilliantly charismatic as Nash’s eccentric college roommate) and directed with a professional skill. But it’s also a very safe and even conservative film that has skill but not inspiration.

A History of Violence (2005)

Viggo Mortensen: Hero or Villain? A History of Violence

Director: David Cronenberg

Cast: Viggo Mortensen (Tom Stall), Maria Bello (Edie Stall), Ed Harris (Carl Fogarty), William Hurt (Richie Cusack), Ashton Holmes (Jack Stall), Peter MacNeill (Sheriff Sam Carney), Stephen McHattie (Leland Jones), Greg Bryk (Billy Orser), Heidi Hayes (Sarah Stall)

Cronenberg’s films redefined ideas around body horror. And one of his most accessible – and perhaps one of his richest and finest – films takes these ideas to another level by looking at the lasting – and damaging – impact of violence. That’s not just the immediate, visceral impact either – and lord knows Cronenberg doesn’t shirk on that here – but also the intense, long-term psychological impact and how it shapes entire lives. A History of Violence is a brilliantly told and superb piece of film-making that mixes thought-provoking content with a gripping, Western-tinged plot. It’s got a claim to being one of the best American films of the Noughties.

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a regular Joe in a very small town in rural America. Running a small café, he lives a blissfully happy life of Americana with his wife Edie (Maria Bello), a lawyer, and their two children Jack (Ashton Holmes) and Sarah (Heidi Hayes). Their world changes forever though when Tom’s diner is held up late at night by two ruthless killers (Stephen McHattie and Billy Orser) and – with an instinctive ruthlessness – Tom ruthlessly dispatches the killers and saves the lives of his co-workers and patrons. His heroism makes him a local hero and brings plenty of excited press attention – but why does Tom seem so uncomfortable with this? Could it be linked to the swift arrival in the town of big-city criminal Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) who claims Tom is none-other than Joey Cusack, psychopathic hoodlum from Philadelphia who gouged out Fogarty’s eye? Are Tom and Joey one and the same? And how will the doubts affect Tom’s family?

Cronenberg’s film brings brilliant tension to this question of identity, setting it in a very modern-feeling Frontier town, which has more than a sense of a classic John Ford western town, complete with disturbance from murderous figures from outside, shattering the peace. But the film adds that distinct Cronenberg touch by suggesting that, behind the quiet diners and picket fences, the real danger may already be at the heart of the town. Is Tom who he claims to be? Or is he a malignant dark force at the centre of the town (and his family) bringing destruction to everything? What other dark truths, you can’t help but think, might be hiding behind those shutters?

But then that’s what you get with violence. It taints and ruins everything it touches. Innocent lives are shattered. Families and loved ones are left mourning. But it also twists and shapes the personalities of its perpetrators. It marks them and changes them, washing out positive qualities and leaving those who use it the most drained, empty and uncaring. The film opens with a chilling long shot as McHattie and Orser check out of a motel. Cronenberg keeps the camera still and holds the camera still to study the casual body language and chilling lack of engagement of its killers (“Why the delay?” “I had a little trouble with the maid”). The scene continues for an agonising length, making us dread the reveal of what these clearly dangerous, amoral men have done in this motel – the reveal eventually shown with a clinical precision, which serves as an entrée to even greater horrors.

The final killing in the motel is the last time the film will shy away from the immediate horrors of violence. Even Tom’s heroic slaughter of the killers to save lives doesn’t shirk from showing us the impact on the bodies of the killers as Tom dispatches them – bodies torn apart by bullets, with McHattie’s killer left with most of his lower jaw destroyed beyond recognition. Later we’ll see the impact not only of bullets, but also the jerking death spasms of those who have had their noses smashed into their faces, necks snapped or bullets pass through their heads. Never is this glorified – and never are we allowed to simply categorise some killings as good or bad. No matter who it is, the human body will still suffer staggering trauma.

But violence’s impact isn’t only physical. As Tom’s increasing comfort with using his natural propensity for brutal killing (“Have you never asked, why is he so good at killing people?” Fogarty asks an Edie still in denial) grows, so violence takes over his family and starts to shape the actions and decisions of those around him. Arguments become more regular and more visceral. Tom’s gentle son brutally beats his bully at school. The loving father Tom suddenly slaps him across the face. Edie and Tom’s blissful life – we see them playfully making love on a date night – degenerates into conflict, distrust, flashes of violence and finally an angry, intense and passionate sex scene on the stairs that is an exact mirror image of their earlier love scene.

Edie is, for all her horror at Tom, partly excited by finding her husband has such a capacity for danger and brutality. That’s the dark attraction of violence in this film: it reveals secrets about ourselves. Tom seems to subtly shift within conversations from the gentle Tom into the chillingly distant Joey. Worst of all, the more that muscle is stretched the more Tom seems to take comfort and enjoyment in it. Taking what we want, with no regards for the consequences, is liberating and makes us feel strong. No wonder it’s so attractive. And no wonder violence has so shaped and defined humanity’s history. It tends to get people what they want and it can feel good. And it looks cool. Because despite the horrors of the impact of the violence, Cronenberg is also honest enough to admit that it’s exciting.

At the film’s centre is a superb performance of cryptic unknowability from Viggo Mortensen, in possibly his finest role. Mortensen uses micro expressions, small beats and body language that moves between casual and chillingly precise to show two personalities in one body. And Mortensen also demonstrates the struggle between these – between the man he wants to be and the man he might well be. He’s equally matched by Bello, wonderful as a woman who finds her whole life destroyed but can’t shake an unnerving attraction to this man of danger who has suddenly emerged.

The entire cast are pretty much faultless. Ed Harris gets a decent role of gruff menace, but the film is almost lifted in a final act cameo by William Hurt. Oscar nominated for (what amounts to) less than five minutes of screen time, Hurt is simply a force of nature as a Philadelphia crime boss kingpin, purring out his lines with all the fury of a caged lion, mixing a readiness for violence with a darkly comic menace. It relaunched Hurt’s career as a leading character actor – and arguably he should have nabbed the Oscar for it.

Cronenberg’s film engages with ideas of identity throughout. What defines us? The things we’ve done? The choices we’ve made? How many years need to pass before we can say that we’ve changed? What makes us better? And can we decide the sort of people we want to be? It’s impossible to say for sure. If your whole family life is founded on a lie, how do you know what about yourself is true or not? These are fascinating questions and the film offers no easy answers at all. Can Tom return to the life before a violent history shook everything up – perhaps he can, perhaps he can’t. But one thing’s for sure (and Cronenberg makes clear) it won’t be a simple overnight fix and a Hollywood ending. For all the hoodlums Tom dispatches, the real damage is on the workings of his family and the real casualty is the life his family thought they had. And those wounds don’t heal.

Gravity (2013)

Sandra Bullock is stranded in space in Gravity

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Cast: Sandra Bullock (Ryan Stone), George Clooney (Matt Kowalski), Ed Harris (Voice of Mission Control)

It’s often been said space is mankind’s final frontier. It’s beautiful and awe-inspiring. But it’s also a terrible place, a void where the normal rules that dictate how our bodies operate are completely suspended. We can only breathe what we carry with us and the lack of any atmosphere or gravity means a few metres might as well be a million miles. It’s in many ways the perfect conditions for a survival film – which, at its heart, is what Gravity is.

On a mission in space to repair the Hubble telescope, a collapsed satellite triggers a chain reaction of space debris hurtling in orbit at extreme velocities. Turned into a vast number of deadly bullets flying completing an orbit once every 90 minutes. This shrapnel destroys the mission, leaving specialist Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) as the only survivors – and left with their only chance of return to Earth being to travel somehow to one of the other space stations in orbit and hitch a ride home on one of their escape pods.

Cuarón’s film is an engrossing and edge-of-the-seat 90 minute thrill ride, combined with a quietly meditative reflection on how our internal pain can make us drift through life. The film is titled Gravity but it’s there to draw attention to what is missing in the film. Not only the obvious – the lack of pull on her body – but also the lack of grounding in Stone herself. In mourning for the loss of a child, Stone has very little ties to earth or indeed anything. She is drifting through her life emotionally, much as she drifts through space itself. When asked why she likes it up in space, she replies “the silence”. She’s a woman untethered from life on earth in more ways than one.

So this is a film that is not just a survival but also a rebirth. We see Stone go through immense, dangerous moments of tension and terror, battling against all the odds to survive and return home. At the same time, the film carries an emotional weight because it’s also about Stone making a conscious decision to survive, to decide to re-engage with and commit to the world – to choose life if you like. Someone suffering from grief and depression as she does at the start of the film, may well have understandably embraced despair. Instead, the film is her coming to terms with the loss of her daughter, and a resolve to live her life for her.

All of this happens of course in the vast majesty of space, a vision beautifully captured by Cuarón. Filmed in an immersive style, with several long takes that don’t draw attention to themselves – a shot length that serves the purpose of the story not vice versa – and Cuarón is happy to use quicker cuts where needed. The camera follows the journey of Stone in epic and intimate detail, with shots exchanged between vast panamas of the astronauts as dots in space, to extreme close ups that bore into Stone’s eyes and capture her emotions from guilt, to hope, to terror. 

The long opening shot, that ducks and weaves around the weighless astronauts in space as they repair the Hubble telescope is of course a technical marvel, but it also brilliantly established the situation and the joy and fear of being an astronaut, of being allowing in the darkness and emptiness of space. It sets the scene perfectly from later shots that throw you into the adrenalin burning terror of spinning wildly in space with no resistance to slow you down or dodging debris moving at thousands of kilometres per second through space.

In fact the film is almost unbelievably tense – probably the most tense space film since Apollo 13 and in that we actually knew they were coming home alive (in a nice nod to that film, Ed Harris ‘reprises’ his role as mission controller in a voice-only cameo). With its brilliant immersive style, and the emotional bond it swiftly builds with the viewer, it means you will find you hardly draw breath along with the heroes. I’ve seen the film three times and each time after the first viewing I was sure it wouldn’t have the impact the first viewing had. But goddamn it, it works every time. The film is quick – at little under 90 mins – but you won’t feel it (in fact if anything you might be relieved).

Cuarón won the Oscar for direction, and the film is not just a load of flash and technical marvel (although it has a lot of both). It’s grounded in a very simple emotional story of survival, matched with an internal story (not overplayed) of resolving and dealing with grief. A lot of that works from the effectively unflashy performance from Sandra Bullock, who is very good in a part that requires not just physical but also emotional commitment. She’s well supported by George Clooney, who is perfect as the charming but calm and controlled mission commander who mentors her through the early stages of survival in space.

The film has a series of breathtaking set pieces – collapsing Hubbles, spinning astronauts in space, desperate space walks trying to grab any inch of objects to stop them drifting into space, collapsing space stations, burning up on re-entry – all of them shot with an elegance that marries technical excellence and dazzling camerawork and vision with a powerful story. A bag of tricks but one that is delivered with real heart.