Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Here's The Problem With Movies Based on Recent History

They don't usually work.   For a variety of reasons.   And there are two movies out right now that fall into the same trap. 

They both are opinion pieces that don't do justice to the facts.  

Take, for instance, Angelina Jolie's "Unbroken."   You may know that this film is about Olympic winner Louie Zamperini who was later captured and tortured by the Japanese while serving in the Pacific during World War II.  It's actually based on a best selling book by Laura Hillenbrand who had plenty of access to Zamperini.  The latter just passed away last August.  

Now I didn't read the book so my sole perception of Zamperini's harrowing tale is on the screen as depicted by newbie director Angelina Jolie.  She puts all the grim details up on the screen, so much that Japan itself has filed complaints against her.  Okay, let's not get into a discussion about this.   The Japanese forces were barbarians during this war.  After blowing them to nuclear bits, the United States then turned around and helped to rebuild what they destroyed.

But, I digress....

So, as written, this is an ugly story and we should honor Zamperini's memory for his grit and determination coming through it all alive.   But, as filmed, it seems like Jolie went overboard.  Perhaps in her efforts to impress us all with her directorial skills, she needed to embellish.  Lots of phony film contrivances are employed as she refuses to let the story simply play out on its own.  Indeed, "Unbroken" would have worked all by itself if the director had simply worked under the guideline that less is more.

In a lot of respects, I would have preferred to have seen "Unbroken" filmed as a documentary.   We could have heard Zamperini's own words tell the story without the fuss and feathers of another bloated Hollywood director straining for an Oscar nomination.  The heavy-handedness utilized by Angelina Jolie actually diminishes the power of the story.  And, as a result, "Unbroken" emerges as just more Tinseltown saga of gratuitous violence.

And, from the South Pacific, we move to Alabama in 1965.  And more history that goes through the meat grinder of an over zealous film director.

Much has already been written about "Selma."  There's a major controversy that the movie was snubbed by Oscar nominators due to racist charges.  Puh-leze!  If the Academy was so prejudiced and biased, how the hell do they reconcile Oscars just one year ago to "12 Years A Slave."   And recent honors to the likes of Halle Berry, Morgan Freeman, Octavia Spencer, Denzel Washington, and Monique.  Hello?   

From what I have heard, the shortage of Oscar attention for "Selma" is more due to snafus at the Paramount marketing department than anything else.   It was a late Christmas season release.   Screeners were late being sent to Academy members.   

And, most importantly, there was some extensive fact checking on the validity of the real story that likely worked to the film's disadvantage.  

The latter is the biggest problem I had with "Selma."   There's a laundry list of time line inconsistencies and liberties taken with the Martin Luther King Jr.- Selma march that happened only fifty years ago.  Most notably, the on-screen depiction of President Lyndon Johnson has been reported by well known historians as being incredibly inaccurate.   But, the filmmakers needed to designate villains to fit a movie narrative and LBJ was the obvious choice for this cheap cinematic device.

The director of "Selma" is Ava DuVernay and she has been unapologetic about what is up on the screen. She has publicly said that she's not a historian or a documentarian so it was okay for her to take some liberties.

The only problem with that is audiences seeing "Selma" don't know that.   They take everything that's thrown up on the screen as gospel.   And that's sad.   At the screening I attended, there was a middle school class on a field trip.   They won't know what's real and what's Memorex.  And their teacher probably doesn't know either.

As a result, we have another movie about recent history that is totally clouded by the prejudiced viewpoint or agenda of a director.  I mean, as a movie, "Selma" is pretty much what I expected.  There are grand liberties taken with logic.  For instance, to get producer Oprah Winfrey's mug up on screen as much as possible, her character becomes an extension of Forrest Gump.   She plays a practical nurse who is denied the right to vote.   But, even though she has a job and works hard, she has plenty of time to attend rallies and marches.  She can't participate in elections, but she sure must have four weeks of vacation time.

Of course, the audience probably thinks she really exists, too.   And, one more time, I come away from the theater wishing that "Selma" had been filmed as a documentary instead.  Just as I did when I left the "Unbroken" screening.

History is a wonderful thing.  It works so beautifully in books and documentaries.   And that's primarily where it should stay for the sake of all those of us who want to make up our own minds on just what happened.

LEN'S RATING FOR UNBROKEN:  Two-and-a-half stars.


Dinner last night:  French dip panini with roast beef and provolone.

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