Tag: Martin Sheen

The Departed (2006)

DiCaprio, Nicholson and Damon runaround in Scorsese’s cartoonish Oscar-winner The Departed

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Billy Costigan), Matt Damon (Colin Sullivan), Jack Nicholson (Frank Costello), Mark Wahlberg (Sean Dignam), Martin Sheen (Captain Queenan), Ray Winstone (Mr French), Vera Farmiga (Dr Madolyn Madden), Alec Baldwin (Captain Ellerby), Anthony Anderson (Trooper Brown), James Badge Dale (Trooper Barrigan), David O’Hara (Fitzy), Mark Rolston (Tim Delahunt)

It’s one of those historical oddities that Scorsese finally won his Oscar for his lightest (comparatively speaking) most out-right entertaining film. I’ll confess I’ve never been a huge fan of The Departed. It won Best Picture in a year without a clear front runner, with the Academy feeling an overwhelming sense that Scorsese was ‘due a win’. The Departed is certainly entertaining, but as a great big, violent cartoon which feels like a different universe from the director’s real gangster masterpieces, such as Goodfellas, Mean Streets and Casino. The Departed also can’t hold a candle to Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and The Aviator (I know that last one is controversial). Still it may be just a bit of fun, but at least it is fun.

Boston is a city where the Irish community is split, between cops and robbers. Crime lord Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) gets a man on the inside by pushing his protégé Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) to train as a police officer so he can get tips from the inside. Simultaneously, Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) recruits officer trainee Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), an honest young man with a dodgy family, to go under cover in Costello’s gang. Both moles feed information on their ‘side’ to the other – but the stakes heighten as they both become aware of the others existence and race to unmask the other’s identity.

Based on a Hong Kong action film, Infernal Affairs (which has the same plot, but tells the story in about half the time). The Departed takes the basic template and ratchets almost everything up to an even more frenzied pitch. Scorsese throws in fast-cutting visual flair, makes effective use of montage and lays The Rolling Stones over the soundtrack (he really does love Gimme Shelter doesn’t he?). It’s hard to tell, watching The Departed, how much Scorsese’s tongue was in his cheek. This could very easily be a parody piss-take of Casino, with its bright-lights, extreme violence, effing and jeffing and toxic masculinity.

What is clear is that The Departed has all the logic of a playground game. Nothing ever feels particularly real, all emotions and personalities are dialled up to eleven. Big name actors have fun with big, chewable dialogue fully of sweary one-liners. There is barely any sense of a wider world, The Departed really being a chamber piece involving a few key characters, played out in a graphic novel style. In real life both Costigan and Sullivan would have been uncovered in seconds (it makes Line of Dutylook like a fly-on-the-wall documentary). If it has links to any Scorsese film, it’s probably Cape Fear, which was a similar heightened pastiche (of Hitchcock). Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of fun in watching Scorsese essentially take himself off, and it’s nice to see him having fun, but the film’s constant resorting to foul-mouthed, cartoonish action means depths are missed.

For starters, the film touches on but never really dives into the complex divided loyalties Costigan and Sullivan feel for their sides. After years (at least I think its years, there is very little sense of timeline in the film) pretending to serve one master while actually serving another, you’d expect an exploration of loyalty being increasingly torn between these two masters. It’s not a sense that comes across in the film. Instead, both of them feel fear of their false master and resentment to the true master. Both want to retire – seemingly to the same (lawful) side. The film spends time on the psychological impact of the constant stress of living a lie – but its analysis of this is skin-deep, trauma exhibiting as a bubbling, unpredictable temper (especially with DiCaprio’s Costigan) rather than really giving us an understanding of the psychological trauma. All the final shots in the world of a rat crawling across a railing in front of the court house, doesn’t translate into insight.

The film also misses the mark in exploring the dangerous masculinity of this world. The intense male attitudes here – with the macho posturing and the constant use of sexual and homophobic slurs – are obviously part and parcel of this world. But you feel a smarter film would have unpacked this more, rather than using it for punchlines and chuckles. There’s only really one woman here – a female psychiatrist who (obviously) becomes involved with both men – and you feel more could have been made of how the destructive bloodshed of this film is at least partly powered by overgrown schoolboys on both sides burning the world down to prove their manliness.

But this film is designed as an entertainment, not the sort of insightful character study Scorsese has delivered in the past. And with its primary colour pallet and shots – like a character falling from a building, and low-angle Dutch angle shots of characters checking phones – that seem inspired by graphic novels, it’s clear that we are not meant to take things too seriously here.

That carries across to the performances, many of which are Grand Guignal in their excess. None more so than Jack Nicholson in a performance of such flamboyant “Jack-ness” that it will either delight you or make you wonder whether Scorsese gave him any limits at all. The cast is roughly split between the OTT and the method. Mark Wahlberg follows Nicholson’s lead as a foul-mouthed, permanently angry cop, with rigid morals (he was Oscar-nominated and gets most of the film’s funniest lines) while Baldwin showboats amusingly on the chewy dialogue. At the other end, Sheen brings a fatherly warmth to Queenan while Winstone mumbles a lot as Costello’s number two.

In the leads, DiCaprio brings an edgy, firecracker intensity to Costigan, a man who seems constantly on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Damon, by contrast, underplays rather effectively as the seemingly straight-laced Sullivan, letting the Boston accent roll around his tongue and riffing effectively off his “boy next door” looks. Vera Farmiga does decent work as the woman caught in the middle – even if she’s not 1% convincing as a trained trauma psychologist.

That doesn’t matter though in the heightened, cartoony posturing, blazing gun battles and operatic shouting that makes up the crazy world of The Departed. Scorsese lifting the Oscar for this is rather like David Hockney winning the Turner Prize for a doodle. I enjoyed it a lot more this time around, but it’s still a big, crude, graphic novel, something that looks and sounds clever., but is only a B-movie imitation of Scorsese’s finest work. The Departed is frothy but misses the mark when it aims for true thematic or character exploration.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2020)

Judas and the black messiah
Daniel Kaluuya excels as the betrayed Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah

Director: Shaka King

Cast: Lakeith Stanfield (Bill O’Neal), Daniel Kaluuya (Fred Hampton), Jesse Plemons (Agent Roy Mitchell), Dominque Fishback (Deborah Johnson), Ashton Saunders (Jimmy Palmer), Algee Smith (Jake Winters), Darrell Britt-Gibson (Bobby Rush), Lil Rel Howery (Judy Harmon), Martin Sheen (J. Edgar Hoover), Amari Cheatom (Rod Collins), Jermaine Fowler (Mark Clark)

In the 1960s, America was in violent turmoil. Simmering racial tensions were exploding, as a younger, politically engaged generation refused to accept the status quo of the past. Facing them was a reactionary, institutionally racist law and order system, determined to take any steps necessary to stop them. Violence was inevitable and the anger and resentments of that time still carry a powerful legacy today. It’s these emotions that Judas and the Black Messiah engages with. Impassioned and ambitious film-making, it often tries to do too much but still leaves a powerful impression.

In Chicago in 1968, Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) is a car thief and conman, who uses a faked FBI badge to steal cars. Arrested (and beaten), he is given a choice by FBI Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) – serve time for his offences or turn informant for the FBI. O’Neal is ordered to join the Black Panther Party – and to get as close as he can to the charismatic leader of the Illinois chapter, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Hampton is radical, but also a visionary leader who is attempting to build a “rainbow coalition” that will unite black, Puerto Rican and white working classes to campaign on a wide range of social issues, from race to healthcare and education: a vision the FBI sees as a nightmare. O’Neal’s information is used to help frame Hampton, as events build inexorably towards his permanent removal.

Judas and the Black Messiah is dynamic and electric film-making. Shaka King’s film hums with righteous fury at the hypocrisy, racism and violence of the law enforcement agencies towards the Chicago black community (effectively the police are an occupying force, perpetrating violence and injustice). While not shying away from the violent response from many of the Black Panthers – including showing one white police officer executed while begging for his life – it paints an unsparing picture of the racism and cruelty of the Chicago police. Innocent black people are bludgeoned and abused. Those in the Black Panthers are framed for crimes, brutalised in prison and murdered in police custody. The outrage and fury of the film is both justified and affecting.

Simultaneously there is a powerful sense of grief at the loss of a golden opportunity – and the inspiration of a visionary leader, who could have grown to become a key figure in American history. King’s film explores the all-too-short life of Hampton before his murder. It delicately paints his charisma but also carefully establishes his vision. His recognition that social, educational and medical improvements are at least as important to ordinary black people as political rights. His attempt to build a coalition of the downtrodden, white and black. His status as the only man who could unite this coalition. His loss an incalculable tragedy for his cause and also for America.

This powerful picture is further framed by Kaluuya’s marvellous performance as Hampton. Kaluuya perfectly captures the charisma and electricity of Hampton’s public speaking, his ability to marshal words and move crowds. With a bulked-up physicality and head-cocking defiance, he wonderfully conveys Hampton’s ability to persuade and inspire, his lack of fear and passion to see justice done. But Kaluuya also makes him wonderfully human. In intimate moments with his girlfriend Deborah (very well played by Dominique Fishback), Kaluuya makes Hampton gentle, shy, even a little nervous – giving him a very real emotional hinterland that sits naturally alongside (and contrasts with) his activist public persona. This is a stunningly good performance.

It also, perhaps, unbalances the film slightly. King’s film is ambitious – but it is attempting to do too much within its two-hour runtime. This is a film that wants to explore the corruption of the law forces, the terrible plight of black Americans, the life of Fred Hampton and the story of his betrayer Bill O’Neal. It’s this final story that actually ends up feeling the least defined – and least engaging – of the film’s plot threads (unfortunate as it’s the one that gives the film its title).

None of this is the fault of Lakeith Stanfield, who gives a marvellous performance of weakness, fear, self-preservation and regretful self-loathing as O’Neal. But his relationship with Hampton never feels close or personal enough. In fact, the two of them feel very distanced from each other. The sense of the personal in the betrayal is lost. The idea of O’Neal struggling between loyalty to Hampton and his FBI handler Mitchell (who encourages O’Neal to see him as a sort of surrogate father) is weak, because we never get a real sense of a very personal link between O’Neal and Hampton, or a real sense that O’Neal is deeply conflicted about his betrayal. (Indeed, the film is reduced to explicitly telling us that O’Neal is struggling between betraying the Black Panthers and a true belief in their cause, which feels like a failure of narrative.)

Fundamentally, you could split the film into two movies. One which focuses on Hampton and in which O’Neal is little more than an extra. And another that zeroes in on O’Neal’s struggle with the FBI and fears of being caught, in which Hampton is a distant, inspirational figure. What King’s film fails to do is effectively is bring these two characters together properly. The personal nature of the relationship (and the betrayal) is lost. This isn’t Jesus betrayed by one of his disciples – more like Jesus being cashed in by someone at the temple. It’s a loss to the film.

It feels at times as if O’Neal was the original “hook” but that King became more interested – perhaps rightly – in Hampton and the tensions in Chicago (and America more widely) at the time. Similarly, the film is fascinated by the corruption of the FBI – Martin Sheen makes a chilling, latex covered, appearance as Hoover – and by questions over how far Mitchell (Plemons, decent bur fatally compromised), a relative liberal, is willing to go. In both plot lines, O’Neal is an entry point but becomes less and less the focus. It partly explains perhaps why Stanfield – clearly the “lead” – ended up joining Kaluuya in the supporting actor category at the Oscars. He may well be the lead but his story is the least compelling of the several threads here.

Judas and the Black Messiah is still hugely effective in many places. Its main weakness is in trying to juggle these various plot threads, and not always succeeding in bringing them together as well as it should. Because the O’Neal plot line needs to take up a good share of the run time – but is the thread the film seems least interested in – it does mean some of these scenes drag more than they should, making the film at times seem longer than it should. You can’t help but a feel a film that focused on Hampton alone would have been stronger. King’s film still makes powerful points – but its ideas are sometimes blunted and crowded out by its attempt to cover so much. Impassioned and ambitious, it doesn’t always completely succeed.

Badlands (1973)

Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek are killers on the run in Terrence Malick’s masterpiece Badlands

Director: Terrence Malick

Cast: Martin Sheen (Kit Carruthers), Sissy Spacek (Holly), Warren Oates (Father), Ramon Bieri (Cato), Alan Vint (Deputy), Gary Littlejohn (Sheriff), John Carter (Rich man)

If American cinema has a poet, it’s Terrence Malick. His career is the most elliptical of any major American filmmaker. Shunning interviews or any discussion of his work, his mystique is built upon Kubrickian isolation (he took a 20-year gap between his second and third films) and the powerful mystique of his first film – and still his masterpiece – Badlands. A luscious, beautifully filmed, profound piece of film-making, perfectly paced and told with a poetic sensibility, it’s  powerful and brilliant. Nothing Malick has done since has reached the same beautiful balance between story, profundity, poetry and realism.

Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) is an aimless young man, recently fired from his job as a garbage collector in South Dakota. His imagination is captured by a teenage girl, Holly (Sissy Spacek), freshly arrived from Texas. He romances the young girl – who is naively swept up in the possibility of Kit’s poetic soul – but her father (Warren Oates) disapproves. So, in a casual confrontation at their home, Kit kills the father, burns down the house and he and Holly head out on the run. Travelling across the country, Kit kills with a casual lack of maliciousness, all the time building in his head his self-image as a James Dean-like hero in his own movie, a poet turned outlaw. Holly narrates the film, her guileless, innocent and often unreliable narrative revealing her own naivety. Sheen is outstanding as Kit, idealistic but empty, while Spacek gives Holly a sublime blankness that makes us never sure how much she understands the situation she is in.

Malick based the film on the killing spree of Charles Starkweather, who carried out a murderous journey across several states in the mid-West with his underage girlfriend in the late 50s. But what Malick found in this story was a fascinating insight into how people can become absorbed by the romanticism of the American pioneer spirit, to try and turn their own lives into something with meaning and depth. So, Kit can be little more than a not particularly bright casual killer, but he builds his own self-image as something part-way between movie star and philosopher poet.

What the film does quite brilliantly is balance the ruthlessness of Kit with this dreamlike poeticism. Much as you shouldn’t, you end up caring a little for Kit and Holly, while deploring their brutality. Perhaps it’s because both of them feel so young. After the murder of her father, they build a cabin in the woods and live off the land, with all the enthusiasm of kids. There is something very vulnerable about both of them, their abilities to really understand the situations they are in and the moral implications of their actions non-existent. In a way they are playing – but with real guns.

Their life has been so filtered through the Hollywood celebrity culture growing around them, that they see their actions like part of a film. Death is as unreal and without impact as it is in Hollywood. Kit twice, early in the film, prods dead animals with nerveless curiosity – the same blankness and lack of reaction that he will later treat dead people with. Holly is briefly shocked by the death of her father, but then builds all Kit’s actions into a narrative of romantic drama.

Kit and Holly build their own narrative the whole time – but with a shallow emptiness that reveals their own pretensions. Both of them are collectors of odds-and-ends – Kit picks up mementos and strange souvenirs from where they have been, treating these as near religious icons that future generations will use to mark his presence. Objects from lamps to paintings to rocks are invested with artistic value by the pair. Kit’s shallowness is clear: early in the film he picks up a large rock from under the tree where they first made love, determined to keep it forever as a memento. After walking a few metres, he drops it and decides to take a lighter rock. Later, when Kit is finally cornered by the police, his main concern is to build a small cairn to mark the location where he was caught.

Kit wants to be more than he is. He is delighted when his physical resemblance to James Dean is noted by the police (his appearance is carefully studied to cultivate this). At a rich man’s house, he decides to record messages for posterity – words so bland, predictable and lacking in depth they reveal the total lack of imagination and original thought in Kit. He is polite, generally kind to his victims (before killing them) and thinks of himself as a sort of poet of the wilderness. Neither he nor Holly understands the horrific finality of death. The couple have a fatally corrupted innocence, a childlike, romantic understanding of the world that becomes a sort of fairy-tale. And you can totally see why a naïve young girl like Holly might see Kit as a romantic figure who can set her free.

Malick’s film wraps this up in a film of dreamlike beauty. In later films, Malick became so obsessed with beautiful images, and increasingly pretentious in his themes, that they became self-important artefacts. But Badlands balances these instincts beautifully with a fascinating and revealing story.

The shooting of the film offers up one beautiful image after another, reflecting the poetic longings of the couple at its heart, while underpinning sharply their blandness. Malick captures the awesome grandness of the Badlands themselves, a dusty stretch of emptiness that goes on forever. Malick shoots moments, like the house-fire, with such grace and perfection that they take on deep psychological meaning (what else is that house fire but the death of Holly’s early life?). Shots of nature – the sort of wildlife photography that would go too far in later films – place the couple in exactly the sort of tranquil independence, free from the burdens of the real world, that they long for. It’s an American dream, the celebration of the pioneer spirit deeply and darkly inverted.

The film is an enigma that avoids ever casting easy judgements on its characters. Their actions may be awful, but how much have they been bent and twisted by the world around them? The film’s eclectic musical choices – Carl Orff to Nat King Cole – bring the film a sense of magic, again a dreamlike mysticism. It’s fitting for a young couple who are living in a dream, with no consequences and no morals. This impressionistic masterpiece, which mixes in moments of shocking realism and casual violence, reflects the inner life of its leads, both yearning to be more than they are, and directing these longings into disastrous ends. Badlands is one of the greatest debut films in history, and still the perfect fusing of Malick’s poetic leanings with narrative film-making.

The American President (1995)

The buck stops with Michael Douglas in Aaron Sorkin’s dress rehearsal for TV, The American President

Director: Rob Reiner

Cast: Michael Douglas (President Andrew Shepherd), Annette Bening (Sydney Ellen Wade), Martin Sheen (AJ MacInerney), Michael J Fox (Lewis Rothschild), Richard Dreyfuss (Seantor Bob Rumson), David Paymer (Leon Kodak), Samantha Mathis (Janie Basdin), John Mahoney (Leo Solomon), Anna Deavere Smith (Robin McCall), Nina Siemaszko (Beth Wade), Wendie Malick (Susan Sloan), Shawna Waldron (Lucy Shepherd), Anne Haney (Mrs Chapil)

Taken solely on its own merits, The American President is a charming, witty romantic comedy which makes some shrewd (liberal-tinged) comments about American politics. But no-one is ever going to take The American President on its own merits. Because this Sorkin-scripted bundle of joy is so clearly a dry-run for The West Wing, it’s hard to watch it without spotting the roots of it here: everything from shared characters to scraps of dialogue. Perhaps only M*A*S*H stands with this film as so dwarfed by its spin-off.

President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) is a widower, raising his daughter Lucy (Shawna Waldron). Heading into the third year of his first term, he’s got a domestic agenda dominated by his new crime bill (although Shepherd won’t risk increasing gun controls). Charming, articulate and passionate – he’s also lonely. But his life changes when he falls for environmental lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), their courtship seeing them fumble through “boy-meets-girl” when boy just happens to be the most powerful man in the world. Will the President’s popularity survive him dating someone outspoken and passionate? Or will it be a tool for his Republican rival Senator Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss) to hit him on everything from family values to patriotism?

It’s impossible not to enjoy The American President. Sorkin’s playful, articulate and smart dialogue is of course an absolute triumph. The cast are extremely well-chosen. Few actors look as damn Presidential as Michael Douglas, not to mention carrying with them an air of impassioned authority and commanding bonhomie. Annette Bening is spot-on as exactly the sort of feisty and intelligent woman that would attract a liberal minded President, but turn off pundits and regular people. Martin Sheen was obviously so comfortable with Sorkin’s dialogue style that promotion to the President seemed inevitable (seriously it’s very odd watching the film and seeing Sheen not being treated like the President!). Michael J Fox’s entire career was revitalised by Sorkin tapping into the frantic, fast-paced comic energy that is the actor’s forte.

Rob Reiner’s direction is fresh, relaxed and perfectly complements the dialogue. We get a few West Wing style walk-and-talks (does this make Reiner the inventor of it?). The film superbly balances romantic comedy with serious political discussion on military intervention and proportional response (“the least Presidential thing I do”), the environment and gun control. It also gets a neat idea of the shady, and dirty, business of generating votes in the House – and the deals that need to be done to secure legislation. Reiner gets great stuff from the actors (Sorkin didn’t question his casting, since so many of them ended up in The West Wing) and keeps the momentum up beautifully.

The film has a lovely Capra-esque feel to it. Sorkin is even witty enough to lean on this by having Sydney discuss Capra openly with a White House security guard – also a lovely moment to establish Sydney’s genuineness and openness, as compared to the jaded I-don’t-care attitude of her colleague. There is a real feel in it – and of course this optimism carries across to The West Wing – that good people in the right place can change the world. That decency and compassion can trump (so to speak) the cynicism of Washington insiders. (The idea appeals to everyone – what is Donald Trump but a nightmare version of a plain-speaking man in Washington who says what he thinks?).

Balanced with some lovely comedy, it works extremely well. Along with the debate, Sorkin has a great feeling for the absurdity of the Leader of the Free World trying to work out how he can behave like a regular Joe and ask a girl out on a date. Simple ideas, from sending flowers to the etiquette of having someone stay over, are laced with difficulties. The film gets a wonderful sense of how the public eye can unjustly tear people apart – all drummed up by Dreyfuss’ eminently hissable villain.

There is some great chemistry between Douglas and Bening. Douglas is at possibly his most charming and authoritative here, effortlessly selling the lightness but also the powerfully effective speeches Sorkin crafts for him (his final press conference speech that effectively closes the film is a barnstormer). Bening, as well as being perfectly cast, walks a neat line between serious professional and girlish crush, that comes across extremely well.

It’s hard though, for all the film’s romantic charm, not to look at it through the filter of The West Wing. It’s both a first pass, and a historical curiosity. Sorkin recycled many of the ideas touched upon here (most noticeably Sheen’s President would spend an entire episode discussing proportional responses) and also expanded several characters. Douglas’ teacher turned President, widely read and with a liberal outlook, is a clear forerunner of Bartlett. Sheen himself plays a character who is all but Leo. Fox plays a character combining elements of Josh and Toby. Anna Deavere Smith is a CJ without those distinctive touches Allison Janney bought to the role. Names, plot developments, concepts are all recycled. Stylistic flourishes in the writing match.

The American President isn’t as good as The West Wing of course – few things are. But as a boiled down, Hollywood version with a romantic twist, it’s still pretty damn good.

Gandhi (1982)

Ben Kingsley excels as Gandhi in Richard Attenborough’s Oscar winning epic

Director: Richard Attenborough

Cast: Ben Kingsley (Mahatma Gandhi), Rohini Hattaggadi (Kasturba Gandhi), Roshan Seth (Jawaharlal Nehru), Pradeep Kumar (VK Krishna Menon), Saeed Jaffrey (Vallabhbhai Patel), Alyque Padamsee (Muhammad Ali Jinnah), Virendra Razdan (Maulana Azad), Candice Bergen (Margaret Bourke-White), Edward Fox (Brigadier General Reginald Dyer), John Gielgud (Lord Irwin), Trevor Howard (Judge Broomfield), John Mills (Lord Chelmsford), Martin Sheen (Vince Walker), Ian Charleson (Reverend Charles Andrews), Arthul Fugard (General Jan Smuts), Geraldine James (Mirabehn), Amrish Puri (Khan), Ian Bannan (Senior Officer Fields), Richard Griffiths (Collins), Nigel Hawthorne (Kinnoch), Michael Hordern (Sir George Hodge), Om Puri (Nahari)

In 1962, Richard Attenborough was approached by Motilal Kothari, an Indian civil servant, who believed Attenborough was the man to bring the life of Mahatma Gandhi to film. All this despite Attenborough having never directed a film. But the life of one of history’s greatest men, and passionate advocate of peace and non-violence, spoke deeply to the socially-engaged Attenborough who dedicated 20 years of his life to bringing the film to the screen, immersing himself in Indian culture along the way and winning the support of Nehru (until his death delayed the project again) and Gandhi’s family. The eventual film was a huge success, cementing the public perception of Gandhi and beautifully capturing both the importance of the story, and its emotional heart.

Opening with Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, the film covers in flashback his life from combatting anti-Indian prejudice in South Africa as a young, British-trained, lawyer to his return to India and long involvement in the campaign to win India its independence from the British Empire, stressing non-co-operation, his eventual success but also his failure to hold the Hindu and Muslim parts of the country together and his attempt as “father of the nation” to put an end to religious violence, a failure that will eventually lead to his assassination. 

Attenborough’s grand, epic film marshals thousands of extras to bring to life pages of history. At times events fly by with speed, but Attenborough never loses sight of the emotional heart of the story – both Gandhi and the status of Indians as not being masters in their own home. Attenborough directs scenes of real power, most strikingly a heart-rending peaceful march on a salt works (the tax on salt use being a major burden on many poor Indians) that culminates in line after line of peaceful Indian protestors walking calmly forward to be beaten down by soldiers. Despite being the grandest and largest of films, it allows questions of pure morality and decency to lie at its heart and, supported by a parade of British acting greats, keeps the Indians at the heart of their own story and the masters of their own destinies.

The film’s impact though may be directly connected to the gloriously transcendent performance of Ben Kingsley in the title role. For years it was believed the film could only work with a British actor in the title role – imagine how it would be received today if Gandhi had been played by (as it nearly was) a browned-up Anthony Hopkins or John Hurt (who famously told Attenborough he looked absurd). Instead half-Indian unknown RSC actor Ben Kingsley took the role. Kingsley so completely and utterly immersed himself in Gandhi – everything, the physicality, the morality, the voice, the intellectualism – that not only has he become so completely associated with the role but it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing it.

Ageing almost 50 years over the course of the film, Kingsley’s Gandhi is above-all moral, softly-spoken, observant and considerate – the very spirit of the original man seems to be up on the screen. Far from the sort of histrionics you might expect from a subject of an epic movie, Kingsley is not afraid to be quiet, gentle even underplayed. He completely understands that the charisma and power in Gandhi laid in his moral authority, not his speech-making, but his careful example-setting of even-handedness, patience and desire for peace. 

But Kingsley is also willing to show Gandhi as shrewd and stubborn, even while mixing it with both a deep pain at the loss of life. Kingsley is superbly good at the smaller quieter moments – he wrings heart-rending force from the loss of his wife (a similarly impressive and quietly authoritative performance from Rohini Hattaggadi), which partly works because the film quietly centres the truth and faith in their marriage. This is extraordinary work from Ben Kingsley, that seems to carry not just the entire film but the sense of a nation.

Attenborough though was a director who was at his best when working with actors, and his ability to coax truthful and heartfelt moments from quiet scenes are what gives the other sequences the emotional force to make them work. Attenborough seemingly called in every favour to assemble the supporting cast that backs up Kingsley, many of them juggling only a few scenes. Among the stand-outs we have a martially certain Edward Fox as General Dyer, an archly arrogant John Gielgud and a frustrated John Mills as viceroys, Trevor Howard representing decent British rule as an honest Judge and Martin Sheen as a reformist minded journalist. That’s to overlook dozens of others in small roles, all of them clearly committed to the intention of the project.

The film though allows the Indians themselves to take centre stage, even if it is easy to criticise some of the simplifications of many of the issues that would eventually culminate in partition. The film has a clear hostility towards the idea of religion, seeing it as the root of much of the violence that erupted in India in the last years of Gandhi’s life. While Roshan Seth is excellent as Nehru, the character is portrayed more as the faithful follower of Gandhi than the shrewd politician in his own right (it’s a role most of the other leading members of congress are also placed in). Alyque Padamsee carries a high level of charisma as Jinnah, founder of Pakistan – but the film can’t quite resist painting him into the corner as a semi-villain, ignoring Gandhi’s desperation to get Jinnah to invest in a united India.

It’s part of what has been seen since as the film’s more hagiographic stance towards Gandhi. Certainly later historiography has outlined a few shades of grey in Gandhi – although I would argue that seeing him as a man and not a saint only heightens (similar to Mandela) the awe at what he went on to achieve. The film’s whistle stop tour of Indian history – taking in every major event and personality, some in a matter of moments – looks particularly old-fashioned now with our current trend being biographical films that focus only on crucial moments, not the whole life. It adds a slight air of schoolboy history to the project, an unfortunate side-effect of the passionate earnestness with which the story is told.

But then even in 1982 – when it lifted 8 Oscars including Best Picture, Director and Actor and most of the technicals – it was seen as slightly old-fashioned. Attenborough has generously repeatedly said that he believed Steven Spielberg was more deserving of Best Director for ET. And it’s true that Attenborough was in many ways a producer at heart with these epics than an inspired director like Lean. His marshalling of crowds, finances and simply forcing the will together to make the picture – and to allow it to focus on Indians rather than Westerners – is a tribute to his organisational skills. His strengths as a director were more in performances, and as with many of his epic films the most memorable moments are smaller, intimate ones. The larger moments are shot with an assured professionalism rather than inspiration, but Attenborough understands how to wring emotion from moments and how to let character drive action.

Gandhi works above all because even today you can see it is a passionate labour of love, that everyone involved in clearly believed in passionately. It may well be that at times it is workmanlike or simplistic – and covers the sweep of history with an earnest completeness, even while it is unafraid to be critical certainly of the British – but it still invests it crucial moments with humanity, life and deep emotion. You can’t help but be moved by it – and you are instantly stunned by the sheer brilliance of Kingsley as Gandhi, one of those performances like George C Scott as Patton which seems more like the man than the real thing. Gandhi may be old fashioned, but that’s not a crime when the quality is still there.

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Martin Sheen heads into insanity in Coppola’s epic pretentious masterpiece Apocalypse Now

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Cast: Martin Sheen (Captain Willard), Marlon Brando (Colonel Kurtz), Robert Duvall (Lt Col Kilgore), Frederic Forrest (Chef), Albert Hall (Chief), Sam Bottoms (Lance), Laurence Fishburne (Mr Clean), Dennis Hopper (Photojournalist), GD Spradlin (Lt General Corman), Harrison Ford (Colonel Lucas), Scott Glenn (Captain Colby), Christian Marquand (Hubert de Marais), Aurore Clément (Roxanna Sarrault), Jerry Ziesmer (Mysterious Man)

During the 1970s, the director was king in Hollywood. Get a reputation as a visionary director, and Tinseltown fell at your feet. You could spare no expense to put together ambitious, thought-provoking, epic films. If you wanted to shoot on location at huge cost, or reconstruct elaborate sets for single shots, for a huge runtime that catered as much to your ideas of being an artist as it did to crowd-pleasing narrative, then Hollywood would give you keys. It didn’t last: several massive bombs (combined with the huge box office take of Star Wars) shattered the mystique of the director as an ego-mad, flawless genius who had to be indulged, and persuaded Hollywood the future was in big-budget, mass-produced action films (welcome to the 1980s, Hollywood’s nadir).

Apocalypse Now wasn’t one of those flops, like (most infamously) Heaven’s Gate. But, by golly gosh, it really could have been. In fact, in many ways it should have been. It has all the hallmarks: a huge runtime, filmed over a colossal period of time in a difficult location, a plot that mixes action, war and thrills with impenetrably pretentious musings on mankind’s dark soul. A maverick director throwing his own very personal vision at the screen, and damn the consequences. It’s a miracle Apocalypse Now wasn’t a career apocalypse for everyone. It escaped because, despite everything, it more or less gets the balance right between plot and character and pretention and faux-philosophy.

The film is famously a transposing of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness into Vietnam. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is ordered to head down the river to “terminate with extreme prejudice” rogue Special Forces Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who is conducting his own vigilante war. On the boat trip down the river, Willard encounters a host of increasingly bizarre and surreal scenes, from war-mad Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) to a seemingly leaderless battle over a bridge, a playboy bunny show and a compound of ex-French colonials. And that’s before he even arrives at Kurtz’s compound and things get really strange.

Apocalypse Now is almost impossible to separate from the bizarre, tortuous route it took to get to the screen. Originally scheduled for a few months, the film took over a year to complete. A typhoon destroyed all the sets in the first two months. Original star Harvey Keitel was dismissed after a week (as his performance wasn’t right): his replacement, Martin Sheen, had a near-fatal heart-attack partway through filming. Marlon Brando not only turned up the size of a buffalo but refused to learn (or even speak) his lines. A year into production, the film had no ending. Coppola put his entire fortune up as collateral to complete the film. It was a nightmare.

But yet somehow what emerged has a sort of force-of-nature quality to it. Even though parts are basically pretentious rubbish, despite the fact I have twice fallen asleep in this film, despite the fact it is far from being a film that trades in complex ideas and offers profound insights, it still has a hypnotic quality about it. It’s done with a real force of commitment, a genuine labour of love, a film that doesn’t leave anything in the locker room but throws it all at the screen. The quality of what lands may sometimes be questionable, but the commitment with which it is thrown is beyond doubt.

And in a world of cookie-cutter films, it’s hard to have anything but respect and regard for a film that is so defiantly its own animal, that tells its story in its unique way. It’s perhaps one of the first “experience” films: no film could of course communicate what it was like to serve in Vietnam, but this film perhaps gets close to the surreal, drug-fuelled madness in that conflict.

Because Apocalypse Now is a very surreal film. Its plot is extremely thin, and each section of its (mammoth) runtime is all about experiencing another element of the American experience. In the commentary, Coppola talks about the river trip being partly a journey from the present into the past, a journey back not only into the history of the conflict (and its different stages) but also the regressing of mankind itself into a more primitive, malleable, basic state. It’s a big lump for a film to bite off – and I’m not sure if the idea really comes across without you knowing it. The real impression you get is of rules of society being left further and further behind.

The arrival at Kurtz’s compound is the fufillment of this increasingly unnerving story. We’ve seen the madness on the journey, the pointlessness, and the bemused, carefree confusion of the crew. But at the camp we get the overblown, decadent lunacy of Kurtz. Brando dominates the final 30 minutes of the film, although his monologues are meaningless drivel, the sort of intellectual point-scoring you could hear in a sixth form debating society. To be honest, iconic as Brando’s appearance is, his performance of mumbling battiness is actually a little awful (like one big practical joke from the actor) and the film’s momentum grinds to a halt while he babbles on. 

In fact, so self-indulgent is Brando that in a way it’s a sort of tribute to Coppola’s mastery of cinema that he makes this pompous character make any sense at all – or that he makes this sort of nonsense even remotely watchable. But again it’s the hypnotic pull of the film: Coppola builds towards a chilling, haunting final sequence of Willard and Kurtz’s final confrontation intercut with The Doors’ The End and the real-life slaughtering of an ox by a crowd of real-life villagers (they were going to kill the animal anyway but offered to do it for the camera). Coppola somehow turns all this into iconic cinema, even though, viewed objectively, it’s overblown, indulgent, pretentious rubbish.

The whole film is a testament to hewing compelling filmmaking out of breathtaking insanity. After the film departs in the boat, most of reason, sense and conventional story-telling depart with it. Information only gets conveyed through rambling monologues from Willard. The crew of the boat get into scraps that reflect heightened versions of the American experience in Vietnam – from a war crime as the crew shoot-up what turns out to be an innocent boat, to an attack from unseen tribesmen with spears from the mists of the shore. Sam Bottoms, as surfer-turned-GI Lance, is our guide of a sort here – as he gets more stoned, so narrative logic departs with his senses. 

What keeps the film going throughout is the masterful film-making. Coppola shoots the bizarreness with brilliant, visionary imagination. As a social theorist he’s pretty basic – man is, by the way, a savage animal and the Americans didn’t know what they were getting themselves into in ‘Nam – but as a film-maker he’s one of the best. Who else could have made three hours of episodic boat journeys so strangely compelling? The film is crammed full of great scenes and moments which rarely feel like they tie together – in fact, they could almost be watched in any order – and there is barely a character in there, but the film feels like its throwing you into the madness of Vietnam. 

Even the sequence with a bit more narrative is still laced with absurdity. Kilgore’s helicopter assault on a village – and its use of Wagner blaring from helicopters to scare the Vietcong – is justly famous. This is a bravura film-making – and as much a tribute to the astoundingly amazing editing and sound work of Walter Murch as it is the photography of Coppola. Like most of the rest of the film it is visually outstanding, but it also has the film’s best writing (in the quotable but also strangely subtle characterisation of Kilgore) and also the film’s most iconic performance in Robert Duvall. Duvall is terrific as the war-loving, but strangely childish Kilgore, obsessed with surfing and with an ability to live totally in the moment. 

This sequence doesn’t hesitate in showing both the brutality of war – and also the insanity of our commanders. Kilgore is genuinely dreading the end of the war, and you can see why he would since he is clearly having a whale of a time bombing places. Kilgore is a lovable, quotable badass doing what needs to be done – but the film doesn’t forgot that he is also an insane soldier with no off-switch. And Apocalypse Now never really glamourises war, for all the excitement and beauty of watching those helicopters come over the horizon.

It’s the artistry in its film-making, and the genuine effort and work that helps make it a demented classic. Walter Murch’s sound design and editing is possibly flawless – this might be the best edited and sound designed movie ever – from the opening moment when the helicopter blade sounds transform into a hotel room fan you know you are seeing something special. Scenes such as Willard’s hotel-room breakdown hum with intensity as they feel genuinely real – that scene in particular feels like Martin Sheen exposing part of his tortured psyche at the time. Sheen is by the way perfect as Willard, a slightly unknowable killer with dead eyes and a dead soul, still aware of the vileness of his world.

Apocalypse Now is a sprawling batty film – and in many ways an intellectually empty one straining at a depth that ain’t there. But somehow, for all that, it still is a masterpiece. Which is in itself a bit of a miracle as it really should be a disaster. It’s pretentious. It’s overlong. It’s very full of its own importance as a work of art (the re-insertion of the long-winded political discussion at the French Plantation into the Redux version doesn’t help). Some of its performances are plain ridiculous, verging in Brando’s case on outright bad. But yet, it’s delivered with such force of conviction, it’s so wonderfully assembled, so hauntingly shot and edited, that it hammers itself into your brain. You literally can’t forget it, for all its many, many flaws. Despite yourself, you find yourself forgiving it an awful lot – a lot more than you might expect. A mess, but also a classic.

Catch Me if You Can (2002)

Leonardo DiCaprio lives out his fantasies in Catch Me if You Can

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Frank Abagnale Jnr), Tom Hanks (Agent Carl Hanratty), Christopher Walken (Frank Abagnale), Nathalie Baye (Paula Abagnale), Amy Adams (Brenda Strong), Martin Sheen (Roger Strong), James Brolin (Jack Barnes), Nancy Lenehan (Carol Strong)

Conmen. You wouldn’t want to meet one but they don’t half make for great stories: largely because tell a great one. Watching cons has the same tension as watching a high-wire artist: will they slip? We all like to think we could fool people if we wanted to – and the movies give us a chance to watch someone else live those fantasies for us.

Frank Abagnale Jnr (Leonardo DiCaprio) was a teenager who was a natural at the arts of the short and long con, as well as an accomplished forger. The film tells the story of his late teens and early twenties when, as well as impersonating a senior paediatrician and a junior district attorney, Abagnale stole almost $3 million from Pan Am by impersonating a pilot and forging checks between 1963 and 1969. Hanks plays Carl Hanratty, the dedicated FBI investigator on the case.

What’s great about this film is that, by and large, it isn’t trying to be a lot more than an entertainment. In fact, Spielberg deliberately shoots the film in a low key, unflashy style that puts the focus on the story and acting. And there is something hugely entertaining about the chutzpah of conmen, particularly those who are only fleecing huge businesses, which this film really understands and taps into. It’s probably Spielberg’s funniest “comedy”.

It’s witty throughout with a sly sense of humour. In his roles as both doctor and lawyer, Abagnale is shown carrying out research by watching TV shows and reading pulp novels – and then repeating their clichés, to the bemusement of those around him (but he delivers it with such confidence it still works). I also enjoyed the fact that his chosen careers (air pilot, doctor, lawyer) are all approached with the same naive understanding a kid would have for what the job involves (and DiCaprio’s look of childish terror slipping past his adult facade watching a plane take off from the cockpit and when asked for his opinion on the treatment of an injured child at a hospital are endearingly genuine). The film is told with a great deal of bounce and lightness, taking on the structure of a Wil-E Coyote/Roadrunner chase cartoon, with Hanratty defeated several times by Abagnale’s confident sleight of hand.

The script does have depth to it, rooting Abagnale’s actions in his trauma from a broken family and witnessing his father’s humiliating fall into poverty after charges of tax evasion. The film suggests this to be the main motive for Abagnale’s actions – a misguided attempt to redeem his father and take back what was taken from him. This theme of a son trying to win his father’s respect gives the film a heft that balances the fluff – especially as it’s clear the son has taken many of the wrong lessons from his father’s life on the edges of legality. It’s helped in this respect by a wonderful performance of twinkly charm and fatherly pride by Christopher Walken, combined with a sly sense of roguishness.

Leonardo DiCaprio is the motor that really makes this film work. His boyish good looks are perfect for this and he has both the confidence to convince as a trickster and the vulnerability to be the young boy underneath. As such he has the lightness of touch that the story needs and the acting chops to convey the inner pain Abagnale is working so hard to soothe. He’s also effortlessly charming and endearing here, surely the perfect traits of a con man.

For the rest of the cast, Tom Hanks very generously plays second banana as the investigator and gives the role a strong sense of the surrogate father. Amy Adams in one of her first roles is wonderfully sweet as Abagnale’s fiancée, totally unaware that he is a 17 year old kid. Martin Sheen and Natalie Baye also give good performances.

The film is a light and frothy confection that shades in just the right amount of nuance and depth to make us care for its lead character. With John Williams’ zippy score and its luscious recreation of the late 1960s, it’s also a film in love with the vibrancy of the era. A terrific unpretentious entertainment, it’s not one of its director’s great works, but it might be one of his most joyful.