Tag: Nick Nolte

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.

The Prince of Tides (1991)

The Prince of Tides (1991)

Past traumas are uncovered and a gentle love story unfolds in Streisand’s extremely effective relationship drama

Director: Barbra Streisand

Cast: Nick Nolte (Tom Wingo), Barbra Streisand (Dr Susan Lowenstein), Blythe Danner (Sally Wingo), Kate Nelligan (Lila Ward Newbury), Jeroen Krabbé (Herbert Woodruff), Melinda Dillon (Savannah Wingo), George Carlin (Eddie Detreville), Jason Gould (Bernard Woodruff)

For many, La Streisand is easy to knock. She developed a reputation as difficult: controlling, demanding and perfectionist. But don’t we praise these qualities in men? Perhaps she has more than a point when she claims complaints against her are grounded in sexism. Her snubbing by the Academy – The Prince of Tides got seven nominations including Best Picture, but none for Streisand bar as Producer – certainly feels like a crusty boys’ club deciding there is no place at their big night for a strong-minded woman. Doubly unfair since Streisand deserves plenty of praise for a film as rich, heartfelt, moving and surprisingly funny as The Prince of Tides.

Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte) is a football coach in South Carolina, where his marriage to Sally (Blythe Danner) is drifting towards the rocks, largely thanks to Tom’s jovial inability to be emotionally open. He’s called to New York when his poet sister Savannah (Melinda Dillon) attempts suicide. To aid her recovery, Tom must talk to her psychiatrist about the traumas of their childhood. But Tom himself is far, far away from putting bottled-up pain behind him. Streisand plays the psychiatrist, Dr Susan Lowenstein, struggling in an unhappy marriage with an arrogant violinist (Jeroen Krabbé, being Euro-smug as only he can) and with a troubled relationship with her son Bernard (played by Streisand’s real-life son Jason Gould). Despite initial uncertainty, will a spark of romance flair up between Wingo and Lowenstein?

Well, if you listen to the luscious score by James Newton Howard for a few seconds, you can be pretty confident the answer will be “yes”. (But it’s fine – Lowenstein’s husband is an arrogant tosser and Wingo’s wife tearfully confesses her own affair; no need to worry about betrayal here.) Officially adapted from his own huge novel by Pat Conroy,working with Becky Johnston (though it was an open secret Conroy frequently confirmed that Streisand wrote the script), it distils a massive novel into a tightly paced, extremely well-made romance that feels, in many ways, a throwback to the “women’s pictures” of the 1940s. (Conroy was thrilled.)

The big difference is that the typical Bette Davis role is here played by Nick Nolte. This is an extraordinarily superb performance by Nolte: never before had I appreciated what a deeply soulful, sensitive performer he is, especially when he is called to play the “gruff” card so frequently. Nolte’s Wingo is a Southern, gentlemanly good-old-boy, a man’s man who laughs off trouble and moves with the physicality of a rough-and-tumble sportsman. But, under the surface, he’s a sensitive, vulnerable a man tortured by past traumas he can barely bring himself to think about and consumed with guilt, self-loathing and the inability to express his feelings.

In nearly every frame of the film, Nolte is sensational: endearing, funny, joyful (his dancing at a house party has a hilarious self-mockery to it) but also stand-offish and self-contained. The film revolves around key meetings between him and Streisand’s Lowenstein, which grow increasingly intense as the taciturn joker Tom, almost against his will, has his carefully mounted defences stripped away. We see nothing, by the way, of Lowenstein’s treatment of Savannah, so tightly focused is the drama on Tom’s story. While narratively sensible, this does mean that Savannah is reduced to little more than a narrative device.

It makes for effective drama, well directed by Streisand. It’s a film that mixes moments of shock – Tom seeing his sister’s bloodstains on her apartment floor or deflate into mumbling incoherence when pushed on his past – with moments of genuine warmth and sweetness. Heck even a heated argument between the two of them segues suddenly into something comic when Lowenstein impulsively throws an Oxford English Dictionary at him, damn near breaking his nose. It should also be noted Streisand unselfishly casts herself in the less showy role – essentially a feed for Nolte – and cedes the finest moments and meat of the film to him.

Perhaps that’s also partly why Streisand’s doctor is the least convincing part of the film. With her diva nails and famous features, no amount of dome-like-glasses ever really makes you forget you are watching one of the world’s icons pretend to be a psychiatrist. (Particularly as the film relies on the magic therapist trope so beloved of Hollywood, where gentle probing and quiet “what do you think” lines lead to huge emotional revelation.) If anything, she’s more convincing and comfortable as the socialite mum struggling with her dreadful husband and resentful son.

Why the son is quite as resentful as he is to his mother, is left a bit of a mystery. Nevertheless, Jason Gould does a decent job as a young man torn between playing the football he loves and fulfilling the musical promise his father expects. (He also has a great father-son chemistry with Nolte, who coaches him in football skills.) Much clearer is why Lowenstein is struggling with her ghastly husband. Jeroen Krabbé is beautifully, smackably, smug and condescending. So much so that I laughed heartedly at the film’s most crowd-pleasing moment, as Tom punishes him for his rudeness over a dinner party by juggling his priceless Stradivarius over the edge of a penthouse balcony.

It makes it easy for us to accept Streisand’s eventual affair – much as Blythe Danner’s Sally regretfully confessing that Tom’s emotional closed-offness has driven her into the arms of another man. Despite the poster’s impression though, this is far from a steamy romance, waiting almost four fifths of its runtime before the two confess their feelings for a cathartic affair. For the bulk of the film, it’s an unspoken mutual affection, driven by Tom’s Southern flirtatious manner and Susan’s half-smiles. Again, it’s a slow-build, carefully paced romance that feels real.

Also because the film’s real build is not towards the two stars converting flirting to grinding, but in uncovering the exact trauma Tom is suppressing and has made him resent his mother (Kate Nelligan very good as an aspirant social-climber, refusing to invest love in her children) almost as much as his violent father (a surly Brad Sullivan). The reveal is, in some ways, expected – but also shockingly unexpected, particularly due to the visceral rawness which Streisand shoots the Nolte-narrated flashback with (Nolte is, needless to say, wonderful in this scene).

It’s part of the surprisingly effectiveness of a film that, in other hands, could have been a sentimental family drama, but is lifted by excellent, committed performances (Streisand is clearly a whizz with actors) and sensitive, patient direction. Streisand resists attention-grabbing flash, carefully letting scenes and emotions build, using subtle but effective camera movements. It comes together into a film that surprised me greatly with its richness. It eventually has a heart-warming message to tell of the power and importance of having the courage to admit your pain and emotions and, in its portrait of a man’s man engaging with his vulnerability, projects a message still powerful today. If Redford or Eastwood had directed it, they would have won an Oscar.

Cape Fear (1991)

Robert De Niro terrorises his lawyer’s family in Cape Fear

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Robert De Niro (Max Cady), Nick Nolte (Sam Bowden), Jessica Lange (Leigh Bowden), Juliette Lewis (Danielle Bowden), Joe Don Baker (Claude Kersek), Robert Mitchum (Lt Elgart), Gregory Peck (Lee Heller), Illeana Douglas (Lori Davis), Fred Dalton Thompson (Tom Broadbent), Martin Balsam (Judge)

Max Cady (Robert De Niro) is out of prison after 14 years. He went in as an ill-educated psychotic bum, sent down for the rape and assault of a young woman after his appalled lawyer Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) buried evidence on her sexual history that might have lightened his sentence. He comes out as a self-educated, articulate and psychotic force of nature, not sorry for one minute and intent on making Sam and his wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) and daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis) pay. 

Scorsese’s remake of J. Lee-Thompson’s deliberately Hitchcock-esque thriller sees the great director go one better by trying to channel Hitchcock’s style as closely as possible. Framing and editing decisions echo Hitchcock, its design apes as much as possible cinematographer Robert Burk’s lensing, Elmer Bernstein remixes the original film’s Bernard Herrmann score into something even more Hitchcockesque than the original. Scorsese throws in several of the master’s favourite themes, with sexual obsession and frustrated, working men forced to defend themselves in extreme situations. Combined with the sort of lavish violence and extreme imagery Hitchcock couldn’t use, we end up with something like an odd film-school experiment, by film students who have watched too many slashers. It’s grim, tasteless, overlong and troubling – and not in a good way.

The film adjusts Nolte’s character from a lawyer and witness against Cady into his corrupt lawyer (no matter that his corruption in this case was well intentioned). The film has a slightly unpleasant concern with modern worries about masculinity, with Bowden now concerned he is not “man enough” to defend his home – the film constantly passes subtle judgement against Bowden’s lack of physical prowess. It also readjusts Bowden into a weasel, corrupt at work and having an affair with a young attorney (whom Cady then beats and rapes later in the film, with a slightly queasy air that she is at least partly culpable by allowing Cady to pick her up in a bar beforehand). To be honest Bowden is hard to sympathise with, and his quest to assert his masculinity rather than rely on the law or hiring others to do his dirty work not really that pleasant. Frankly Nolte was never the actor to engage sympathies in the way original choice Harrison Ford (he wanted to play Cady) would do.

Cady himself is played by Robert De Niro, channelling heavily the original’s star Robert Mitchum (with lashings of The Night of the Hunter) as the sort of articulate psychopath so beloved by film. It’s fun to watch De Niro grandstanding as this sort of violent Tyrannosaur, weaving both psychological and shockingly violent games to unnerve and panic Bowden and his family. The film doesn’t give much scope to make Cady much more than a sort of comic-book monster, but De Niro does at least have moments of reflection in amongst his insanity. And there is a sort of admirable emotional intelligence in Cady’s knack of detecting the underlying tensions in the Bowden’s marriage and family life and exploiting these to torment the family.

The film’s most effective moments are the quieter ones, none more so than Cady’s quiet befriending/seduction of Bowden’s daughter Danielle behind her parents’ back. This culminates in a deeply unsettlingly seduction scene in Danielle’s school hall, where Juliette Lewis (extremely good) fascinatingly and bashfully becomes entranced with Cady’s interest in her teenage reading list and problems with her parents. The sexuality of the scene is possibly even more unnerving today and a highlight of the film – not least, ending as it does, with Danielle sucking Cady’s thumb before kissing him and leaving with the giddy, confused excitement of someone both scared and fascinated. Few other things in the film match this moment for psychological complexity – or the unsettling exploration of teenage sexuality overlapping with rebellion against domineering parents. 

Least of all the film’s overblown and final confrontation between the Bowden family and Cady, in which Cady rises from death no  less than three times and which stretches on forever, jettisoning all the small stock of goodwill the film had built up in its quieter moments. But then this is just part of a film that chooses the graphic and the overblown over calculated and chilling, every chance it gets. It’s a shame as there is a more chilling, psychological terror film – with Cady as a demonically clever opponent – struggling to come out here, but which keeps tripping into slasher territory with Cady as an invulnerable Michael Myers.

Perhaps Scorsese just thought of the whole thing as a sort of cineaste’s private joke? All the Hitchcock references, the careful apeing of styles, even the casting of the original’s leads in small roles (a joke further amplified by casting Mitchum as the police officer, while ultimate straight arrow Gregory Peck plays a lawyer even more corrupt than Bowden). But jokes like this don’t really make for long-term entertaining films, and Cape Fear is so full of basically horrible people doing horrible things to each other (in an increasingly Grand Guignol fashion) that after a while you more than cease caring about it. You start getting actively annoyed by it.

Noah (2014)

Russell Crowe is getting ready for action as the rains come to Noah

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Cast: Russell Crowe (Noah), Jennifer Connelly (Naameh), Emma Watson (Ila), Ray Winstone (Tubal-Cain), Logan Lerman (Ham), Douglas Booth (Shem), Anthony Hopkins (Methuselah), Marton Csorkas (Lamech), Nick Nolte (Samyaza), Frank Langella (Og)

Everyone kind of understands what they are going to get when watching a Biblical epic right? A lot of “thous” and “thees”, sandals and swords, priests with long beards, sweeping musical scores and an actor like Charlton Heston (ideally just Charlton Heston) at the centre, standing tall with the word of God behind him. Obviously Darren Aronofsky must have been unfamiliar with this formula as he put together Noah, without a shadow of a doubt the weirdest Biblical epic you are ever going to see.

Set at a time that could be thousands of years either in the future or the past (with a steam-punk aesthetic and timeless mix of ancient and medieval technology with hints at modern ruins), God has had enough of man wrecking the world. He sends a cryptic vision to Noah (Russell Crowe), last descendent of Abel, telling him that a flood will take out the world. Noah will build an ark to protect the animals – but Noah also becomes convinced that God’s will is that mankind will not survive the flood. After Noah and his children die that’s it. This fanaticism is met with concern by his family, but also with fury from the rest of mankind led by descendant of Cain, Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone). 

And that’s only scratching the surface of the film’s trippy eccentricity. The story of the ark is familiar to generations of children, and the image of Noah as a jolly bearded fella saving the animals like some sort of nautical Doctor Doolittle is one we all share. Aronofsky remixes this into a more adult mood by reminding us that this bloke was also happy to stand by and watch the rest of mankind drown, and followed the word of God with a fanatical monomania. Noah is, for large chunks of this film, not a nice bloke. As he tells son Shem “He chose me because he knew I would finish the job”. No hugs on this boat.

It makes sense that Noah is embodied by Russell Crowe at his most gritty. Going through a series of haircuts that reflect his journey from nature lover to chosen man of God to fanatical cult leader through to reborn family man, Crowe gives the role a blunt determination and earthiness ­– so much so you half expect him to address everyone as “mate”. But it’s essential for Aronofsky’s reimagining of the role as part environmentalist part cult leader. Noah is uncompromising, unshakeable and totally certain that all his decisions come direct from God, ergo they are unquestionable. As he shows time and time again in the film, he is willing to commit actions that are at best morally questionable, at worst down right bad, to do what needs to be done.

He’s the man who is willing to watch his crapsack world burn (or rather drown) and feel that, yes, it is good. Aronofsky’s vision of this wasteland of a world fits this perfectly. Resources are low, mankind has turned (it is heavily implied) partly cannibal, industry has destroyed nature, the law of man has become the law of the strong. There is a clear modern parallel here with environmentalism, and Noah himself is strongly reimagined as a man with a deep respect for nature – and the balance mankind must make with it; and the danger of us burning through our resources with no regard for the future is a major theme throughout the film. 

Evil mankind is represented by Ray Winstone as Tubal-Cain. Greedy, selfish, ambitious and a demagogue, Winstone is at his most physically imposing and dangerous here, a fitting obstacle for this reimagined muscular Noah. Aronofsky does however acknowledge that, for all his faults – and his unashamed embracing of violence – Tubal-Cain does have a point: it’s not fair for all of mankind to be sentenced to oblivion with no chance to save itself, regardless of their personal morality.

This uncomfortable darkness behind the story of Noah – and the destruction of mankind by their creator – is one of many things that made some Christians uncomfortable with the film. The Creator (as he is referred to throughout the film) is noticeable by his silence, speaking only to Noah through dreams and everyone else, not at all. Noah’s hardline interpretation of God’s plans (extinction) is enforced by him with all the obsession of a fanatic (a large chunk of the second half of the film is given over to the danger of an expectant mother sharing a boat with a man who has stated his intention to end the race with his immediate family). Of course the film shows Noah eventually changing his mind (and getting royally pissed in self-disgust at his lack of will), but it’s a way darker tone to take for a story more familiar to people through children’s playsets.

Aronofsky places this film at a hinge point of what sort of race are we. It’s expressed in several scenes that mankind is still fighting the struggle between Cain and Abel. Is it violence and strength that wins out? Or are there better qualities in man that can end the cycle of destruction? What sort of world has man built – and what sort of world does Noah believe could emerge from the floods? Striking imagery accompanies this musing throughout, not least a flashback to Cain killing Abel in silhouette against a blue dappled starry night sky – an image that shifts and changes at one point to replace the brothers with antagonists from our entire history of warfare.

There are miracles and divine power in this film, but its actions seem to be based around inspiring fear and obedience rather than devotion. Forests spring from the ground for Noah to build from. Geysers of water take out mankind. Fires take out armies. There are moments of gentleness – a woman given back her ability to have children, rainbows etc. – but the Creator is a hard taskmaster. Noah is assisted by a gang of fallen angels – the Watchers – who, as punishment for siding with mankind when Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, were thrown to the ground and encased in stone, turning them into freakish, gangly, giant rock monsters. Despite this, they retain their devotion to their creator – and their assistance is essential for the construction of the ark.

The inclusion of Giant Rock Monsters shows you again how far off the Biblical beaten track Aronofsky goes. This same embracing of unconventional oddness is seen throughout the film’s aesthetic – dirty clothes that have been cobbled together from several different eras, hints of metalwork and industrial ruins throughout Tubal-Cain’s kingdom, blasted wastelands – it’s miles away from The Ten Commandments. But it all sort of works because, regardless of his eccentricity, Aronofsky is a unique and intelligent director of visuals and his work is full of striking images and staging that draws inspirations from all over the shop, from old films to classical children’s story book images from Biblical tales.

Noah ain’t perfect. It’s overlong and its genre defying oddness occasionally feels a little too much. It suffers from the fact that the visuals and themes are so overwhelming that they crush most of the characters: Jennifer Connolly has little to do as Noah’s wife, while Emma Watson et al playing various Noah family members are left with just crusts to chew on. But embrace its bizarreness and the points it wants to make and you are left with a film that is quite unlike anything else you are likely to see. Aronofsky has made a Biblical epic unlike any that has ever, or will ever, be made. And that at least is worth some praise.