Around the Clock — Looper

This review contains devastating spoilers!

Review: Time travel functions with unique philosophical efficacy in science fiction and fantasy stories.  By nature, time travel tests mortality, explores sequences of moral cause and effect, and transcends cosmic expansion and collapse.  In other words, time travelers are analogous to storytellers — through their devices, they alter our perceptions, making us painfully aware of our human frailties even as they give us a god’s-eye-view.  Storytelling, like time travel, transcends the space-time continuum to which our bodies are bound.  Through them we revisit past mistakes and explore possible futures.  Therefore, the time travel conceit, as well as storytelling at large, are both permutations of spirituality.

Rian Johnson’s ‘Looper,’ by narrating a conflict between two versions of a self, embraces the mystical side of time travel.  Consequently, its logic is moral, rather than purely temporal.  Johnson’s script invokes temporal logic — namely, the titular loop — as a metaphor for a cosmological concept.  In this way, Johnson stands firmly within the tradition of classic science fiction authors like Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick, who used genre tropes to weave fables.  Young Joe  (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in great make-up) and Old Joe (Bruce Willis, doing great work) constitute a temporal loop that, like Yogic philosophy’s wheel of samsaras, keeps recycling the same bad choices over and over.  In effect, Joe’s loop renders him eternal, as despite his inevitable death his choices lead inexorably from past to future to past and back again.

Now, I’m about to spoil the ending, but it’s necessary to make my point, as to quote FilmCritHulk, “the ending is the conceit.”  Joe’s eventual solution to the horrible cycle first requires a moment of clarity, discerning the loop — an insight analogous to Buddhist enlightenment — followed by redemptive self-destruction.  By death, Joe transcends death, as the destruction of his loop restores harmony to the story world.  Director Johnson’s latent Christianity suggests a Christ parallel, but it’s far more likely, given the thematic significance of cycles, that the Yogic — and by extension, Buddhist — interpretation better fits the film.  Joe’s self-sacrifice is analogous to ego-death, which, in Yogic philosophy, ends the painful cycle and liberates consciousness.  An individual, so liberated, brings balance to his or her surroundings and reduces suffering — exactly like Joe.

It gets better; not only does Johnson’s take on time travel befit mysticism, it speaks to an effective storytelling ethos.  Old Joe, in trying to prevent a tragedy, attempts to rewrite history.  We process time as narrative, splicing memories — like film strips — into logical order.  So Old Joe’s mission is to tell a new story.  However, like his younger self, ego blinds him.  He sees only the historical narrative’s tragic impact on his fortunes.  All other persons and interests become expendable before his ego; he is, therefore, unable to tell a new story.  Young Joe receives enlightenment when he realizes that Old Joe’s selfish (not to mention murderous) rewriting actually ends in the same way that Old Joe tries to prevent — hence the loop.  The only way to write a new story, then, is to wrest the pen away from ego.  Truly inspired, effective storytelling is by nature generous, transcending one person’s interests and harmonizing within the larger human community.

‘Looper’ works because Johnson embraces a thoughtful conceit and lets it structure the film like DNA. Every scene, character and subplot relates obliquely to this DNA strand, even embedding time travel’s mystical dimension into virtuoso sequences of sex and violence.  An all-around brilliantly conceived and executed film, ‘Looper’ vindicates its conceit, genre, performers and director.

Campaign for the Heart — The Ides of March

Review: Politics is warfare without bullets. All war is really about who we identify with, and why, and to what extent we will defend our collective identity and all that it means to us.  It’s been said that the first casualty of war is innocence (or truth), and by extension, we understand the true casualty is the human soul.  George Clooney’s 2011 film ‘The Ides of March’, adapted from the play ‘Farragut North’ by Beau Willimon, is about that terrible moment of spiritual violence as it occurs in two men: Junior campaign manager Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) and Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney).  They are mirror images of each other; idealistic, brilliant, driven, and undercut by their own pride and lust.

In the film’s opening scene, Meyers walks on stage and gives a speech which is effectively an oath of religious loyalty to the United States Constitution.  It turns out he’s simply reading Morris’ lines, doing a sound check on a darkened stage, but we don’t doubt for a minute that he believes it as strongly as Morris.  Stephen Meyers is the ultimate political enthusiast; he ties the very fate of his soul to that of his candidate, and views himself as an extension of the candidate’s identity, as if Meyers was a fragment of Morris that converses with him from outside Morris’ conscious mind.  In war, soldiers wear a uniform to subsume them into the group, and in politics, the fighters wear their candidate, whether in campaign paraphernalia or ideology, and the effect of both strategies is to make the individual’s fate concurrent with the whole.

When the political bond between candidate and supporter is strong enough, all it takes is a single, critical mistake to reverberate through the entire campaign and force the parts of the whole to face each other as individuals.  The first sign of trouble appears when Meyers accepts a meeting with a rival campaign manager (Paul Giamatti,) who offers him a job, and the crucial tip that both campaigns are gunning for the same supporter.  Meyers refuses the job offer, but his rival insists that Morris is like any other politician; prone to corruption and bound to fall.  Because Meyers does not alert his own boss (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to the illicit meeting and its details, he becomes the target of a savvy reporter (Marisa Tomei) and begins to keep secrets, justifying them by his crucial role in Morris’ campaign.  He begins an affair with a beautiful intern (Evan Rachel Wood,) only to discover that Morris has been with her as well, and has impregnated her.

With his own corruption weighing on his soul, and his candidate’s idealistic façade exposed, Meyers chooses a dark path to save the campaign.  The scene in which Meyers make his decision is well-executed on every front.  He sits in his car in the dark under pounding rain, voice mails echoing in his head like accusing spirits, while Gosling plays Meyers as utterly overwhelmed, his tears lost in the reflection of raindrops on his face.

Not only is Clooney’s direction solid, but his portrayal of Morris is subtle and believable.  Like Meyers, Morris is on the defensive, and even before corruption infects the campaign the two men are subtly at odds, vying for control over the message.  Clooney plays Morris as a man who has lied to himself to protect his ideals because he believes that the message is more important than his conscience.  To Morris and Meyers, the war trumps the solider; a little bloodshed is necessary to win the fight, and what does it matter if it’s their own persons that are destroyed in the process?  When the two men finally face each other, instead of letting the campaign go to save themselves, they agree, in effect, to destroy each other’s souls.

Considering how profundity bleeds from the film’s subtext, I have to admit I find it more than a little odd that critical reaction wasn’t more favorable.  This is a great thriller, one fashioned in the mold of ’70s political films like ‘All the President’s Men’, with a kind of cynical clarity of vision.  Its most direct homage to the era is its darkly ambiguous ending, which may be the reason some critics find the film underwhelming.  The film doesn’t tie up everything in a neat little bow, instead cutting to black right before a climatic decision is made, and in doing so Clooney denies us the most obvious form of catharsis.  Instead, we must provide our own, dwelling on the film’s powerful themes until we realize the film isn’t about Stephen Meyers, but what it means to live in a society where political responsibility rests on our shoulders.  The film ends with Gosling’s character breaking the fourth wall, looking us in the eye, in effect asking us, “What decision would you make?”  In the campaign for the heart, you decide who wins.

Hugo

Poster courtesy of impawards.com

Review:   Scorsese’s wonderful, thoughtful film ‘Hugo’ is his tribute to the intimate relationship between cinematic dreams and their dreamers, and how the magic of filmmaking, so easily believed by children, is, in a psychological sense, actually real.  Movies are not primarily about what is seen — the plot, characters, setting, and action — but a way of seeing.  Cinematic vision can transform mundanity into magic, magic into mundanity, violence into beauty, or beauty into violence — and that’s just scratching the surface.  It’s why Kubrick, Malick or Spielberg can hold on one simple image and change it into a microcosm of creation’s majesty, while in another film, through less imaginative eyes, the simple image would be glossed over, and the insight lost.  Great directors like Martin Scorsese stand above their peers because they succeed in creating unified, articulate expressions of their unconscious minds, in essence giving life to their dreams.  We go to the movies, whether we realize it or not, to live in a filmmaker’s mind and to let it shape our own.  This is why recognizing creative forces is such a big part of responsible movie-going; whose dreams have you been having, lately?

Like the source material, Brian Selznick’s gorgeously illustrated book ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’, Scorsese’s film is a fictionalized account of how filmmaking pioneer George Méliès was rediscovered by French cinema enthusiasts in the 1920s and ’30s.  Audiences are given a way in through the title character, an orphan named Hugo, who keeps the clocks running in a Paris train station and tries to fix the mysterious, intricate automaton left by his dead father.  The brilliant thing about letting this talented, intelligent and vulnerable boy shape the narrative is that it helps today’s cynical audiences connect with Méliès’ strange world, while simultaneously providing a sympathetic story that demands resolution.  Scorsese’s love of cinema, and his emulation of it, is mirrored in Hugo.  Hugo takes his friend Isabelle to see silent comedian Harold Lloyd’s ‘Safety Last‘, and the delight on their faces is worth the price of admission.  Though Hugo doesn’t yet suspect it, a filmmaker works in the train station as a toymaker; a sad, elderly man who Hugo observes with fascination.  Hugo, and the audience, do not yet know that the toymaker is in fact Méliès, but we sense the man’s painful loss immediately.  The toymaker/magician is incomplete, because his films — his dreams, in fact — are gone.  It’s up to Hugo to reconnect the filmmaker with his lost work, and in the process to solve the mystery of the automaton.

‘Hugo’ is a film populated by broken characters.  Like the automaton, they are missing the pieces that would allow them to act according to their design, and each of them, incomplete, cannot connect with those they care for.  It’s a simple but beautiful rationalization of life, and rightfully, the film lets young Hugo and Isabelle articulate it for us.  Like many children’s films, ‘Hugo’ expresses its morals through its youngest characters, but unlike a typical genre entry, it carefully shows us not just why, but how these morals are practical.  Each character contributes to the stream of plot, and as the protagonist, Hugo is kind enough to open the dam and let it resolve itself.   Until the final thirty minutes, the film progresses slowly; it takes its time to flesh out the train station and its peculiar denizens, in particular the comically awful Station Inspector, played to perfection by Sacha Baron Cohen.  Lanky, awkward, and by turns pathetic and menacing, the Station Inspector makes a terrifically pitiable villain, a guy we’d like to see get his comeuppance and fall in love at the end of the day.  Méliès, meanwhile, begins as a minor, though sympathetic, villain, and ends as a playful sorcerer and loving father.    Hugo confronts the Station Inspector and the filmmaker, and his actions, like those of a skilled tinkerer, realign their hearts with their dreams.  Méliès’ cinematic magic, in turn, fixes Hugo, demonstrating the truth of cinema and the real power a director has over a willing human soul.

On the technical side of the equation, director of photography Robert Richardson’s 3D cinematography is so rich that it competes with James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’.  While Cameron’s film illuminated the beauty of nature, Scorsese’s collaboration with Richardson renders clockwork machinery glorious.  This makes for a rare occasion in which I will actually recommend that you experience ‘Hugo’ with the third dimension; just make an effort to find a theater with very bright projection to offset those tinted glasses.  Even without 3D, the color palette and composition in ‘Hugo’ is striking, so if you can’t find a showing with bright projection, go 2D.

For more on ‘Hugo’, I recommend the following articles: Kristin Thompson’s historical analysis of the film, which doubles as a review; Matthias Stork’s take; and Richard Brody’s thoughts at the New Yorker. 

Also, you can find many of Méliès’ films on YouTube.  Here’s a good one to start with: A Trip to the Moon. 

Classic Review: Gojira

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

When I reviewed the 1998 remake (or is it reboot?) I mentioned that I was a fairly devout Godzilla fan as a kid.  Still, I admit that I was only really a fan of the sequels.  I loved to watch Godzilla fight other monsters and comically destroy cities.  I didn’t see the original film until much later on and I was initially put off by it.  It was slower paced, there were no other giant monsters for Godzilla to fight, and the whole movie felt too grim.  I dismissed it for many years.  Having recently rewatched it, though, I see what a masterpiece it truly is.

It’s difficult now-a-days to treat giant monster movies seriously.  No one, it seems, not even those who make them, honestly wants to make great films for the genre.  They’re about action.  They’re about special effects.  They’re about how cool the monsters look. They don’t exist for story telling purposes*.  Most are glorified sporting matches, a football game with more monstrous contenders.

Not so with the 1954 Gojira (Godzilla was an American mistranslation that stuck.)  Here is a movie that is about ideas, not merely action.  The grimness that I found so off putting years earlier is quite intentional—this film is about war and nuclear annihilation, albeit through the imagery of a giant destructive dinosaur.

Japan, of course, had experienced the destruction of the atomic bomb less than a decade earlier, and so many scenes in the film allude to it.  A city on fire, countless buildings collapsing, hospitals overflowing with the injured and dying, the military fighting a losing battle against an unstoppable force, a secret weapon (the oxygen destroyer) that could end a war but might fall into the wrong hands.  The imagery is powerful, even overwhelming at times.  One scene shows school children singing a prayer, a desperate cry for salvation, the kind of thing that could very well have happened after Nagasaki or Hiroshima were bombed.  It may be one of the saddest moments ever filmed.

It’s easy to be caught up in moments like this in the film and forget that they were caused by a clumsy man in a rubber suit.  Admittedly, the special effects aren’t great.  At no point does Godzilla look real or believable; he looks like what he is: cheap foreign effects from fifty years ago, and still I find myself involved.  Maybe its because the film takes him so seriously.  A shot of Godzilla standing in the middle of a miniature city in flames should’ve seemed comical, and yet I found myself feeling disheartened over the destruction.  People aren’t supposed to die in vast quantities in a giant monster movie, cities aren’t supposed to be on fire.  This film dares you to care, plain and simple.
I had once said that giant monster movies could never rise above B-movie grade.  I think it’s time I retract that.  The reality in film is that any subject can be made into an A-film, if only it’s done with sincerity and strong ideas.  Too many films aim low and get low returns.  Gojira could’ve easily done that.  It could’ve just been another monster movie.  But instead it aimed higher; it wanted to symbolize something.  And that’s why, fifty-seven years after its release, people like me are still talking about it.

*Cloverfield may be an exception, but I never saw it.

Moneyball

Review: Whatever terrible implications the following confession may have for my masculinity, I feel it must be made.  Let the record show that I do not enjoy sports.  I do not enjoy watching them, playing them, or thinking about how much time other people spend following them.  Pretty much the only sport I could ever get excited about is (legitimately magical) Quidditch.  I only care about them in sympathy with friends, making for a very temporary affinity.  Given this predilection, sports movies tend to leave me cold.  The culture simply does not resonate with me.  If I am to appreciate a sports film, I have to connect with it in some way beyond the outcome of the games, as these formulaic confrontations can thrill in the moment but seem, frankly, pathetically overblown in hindsight.  As with any genre, for a sports film to succeed it must first do so as art rather than dramatization.  There’s a key difference; dramatization inherently lacks authenticity, working from the surface down, while art builds from human nature up.  When a film is sufficiently artistic, whatever genre it grows into is the inevitable result of its underlying human truths.

‘Moneyball’s underlying truth is that people fall short of their dreams, and some fall harder than others.  Brad Pitt, an actor I’m praising more and more often, plays the real-life General Manager of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane, a man who survived a crushing blow to his dream of baseball stardom on the field by changing the game’s behind-the-scenes mechanics for the better.  The two screenwriters, Aaron Sorkin (‘The Social Network’) and Steve Zaillian (‘Schindler’s List’) refuse to baldly state Beane’s subconscious motivations.  Such obvious dialog often appears in sports films, as “I just wanna do X so I can be Y”, or any number of variations thereof, and this sort of thing sucks the suspense right out of every subsequent scene.  In a principle going back to Aristotle’s Poetics, the emotional revelation should only occur in tandem with the climax of the story, and it should do so in a way that it occurs to the audience and the characters at the same moment.  And so it goes in ‘Moneyball’, as the truth that Beane is actually struggling for redemption hounds us and him through every scene, only bubbling up to the surface — but still without a direct statement — at the climax.

The other great character in ‘Moneyball’ is portrayed by, of all people, Jonah Hill, the portly, geeky comedic actor of ‘Superbad’ fame.  He’s the film’s pleasantest surprise, crafting a legitimate spin on his usual archetype that feels stunningly true to life.  Pitt and Hill have a distinct chemistry that recalls Redford and Hoffman in ‘All The President’s Men’, a perfect one-two punch of complimentary personalities.  There’s Billy Beane, athletic, lanky, drawl and confident, and beside him is Peter Brandt, chubby, short, nervous and exploratory.  Beane acts as Brandt’s natural mentor in most ways, but Brandt is actually Beane’s in the most critical areas.  Hill shows incredible range here, and I hope he keeps taking up disparate roles and avoids the comedy pigeonhole that has trapped so many of his cinematic antecedents.

The book on which this film is based bears the title because it is mainly concerned with the economic implications of the story.  The film, on the other hand, is a proper adaptation because it finds something cinematic in the book and expounds on it.  An improper adaptation tries to match, content-for-content, the source material.  This is a common and easily avoidable mistake.  To adapt anything, one must not ask what was said, but rather what was not said or not said enough.  These are the things that lend themselves to extensive permutation and therefore proper adaptation.  Sometimes, a story’s innate greatness is such that it can naturally cross mediums without harm, but this is extraordinarily rare, and even in such cases the adaptors must find a way to channel this greatness in a manner specific to the medium.  A natural adaptation is not necessarily the best adaptation.

Also working in ‘Moneyball’s favor is Wally Pfister’s cinematography.  Cinephiles may recognize him as Christopher Nolan’s most frequent collaborator.  His work here with director Bennett Miller is up to the usual par.  His fragmented, psuedo-documentarian style lends the baseball montages a memorable dreamlike quality.  There’s typically a lot of depth in the compositions as well.  Take my favorite sequence, for example: Beane and Brandt face off in a battle of wills with the Oakland A’s scouts, the confrontation being framed in a conference room at a long table.  Pfister tightens the focus so that each change in speaker — and, due to the strong writing, each dramatic turnabout — is highlighted, and the room’s depth is retained.  It recalls Lumet’s technique in ‘Twelve Angry Men’.  In this way Miller, Pfister and editor Christopher Tellefsen avoid the usual method of cutting from speaker to speaker, only making such cuts to isolate characters or illustrate their relationships to one another when the story calls for it.

‘Moneyball’ just works beautifully.  Its immediate impact may be diminished, depending on the individual, because of how well the story’s emotional core is sublimated, but it is a film that makes you think, and I couldn’t help returning to it and discovering that it continues to pay dividends long after it is over.  The term “forgettable” is often thrown about in critical circles, but what is it that makes a film stick in or slip from the memory?  I would say that a memorable film is one that works powerfully on the subconscious, giving shape to emotions and concepts that otherwise lack definition.  A forgettable film exists only the surface.  ‘Moneyball’ is terrifically memorable, and highly recommended.

For further reading on ‘Moneyball’, I recommend Once Upon A Time In The Cinema’s take.

Contagion

Review:  This is a film about an oft-sensationalized subject — pandemics — that is justifiably sensational in more than one sense of the word.  It’s a highly tactile narrative, with the camera focusing tight and swooping down low to bring our attention to the moment when a virus transfers from person to surface and back again, reminding us how often we touch our faces and each other without a second thought, and making human existence seem fraught with peril.  There are no jump scares or unbearable scenes of gore and violence — not that it is without a bit of the latter two — but it’s terrifying in its implications, because it makes you believe.  ‘Contagion’ wants to convince you of two things: 1) A very nasty pandemic (probably) will happen, and 2) We will survive it.  Fear not; the story is actually quite buoyant, with nobility and self-sacrifice informing the characters’ actions more often than not, and it ends up being as heartwarming as it is frightening.  Each plotline has a subdued but worthy arc, fueled by straightforward performances that capture the human element and eschew traditional Hollywood posing.  There’s only one character that comes off like a caricature — Jude Law’s blogger stereotype that deliberately spreads misinformation about the plague.  It irritated me, and it’s arguably unfair to New Media in general.  Even the blogger threads, however, have some value in the greater tapestry of the film, and by no means do they spoil it.

Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns manage to render layer upon layer of significance that may not be clear on first viewing.  The overall theme is about what it means to be a fragile physical being in a world teeming with hostile invaders that exploit the most fundamental of human instincts — touch.  The first lines of the film are about sex, the ultimate manifestation of human physicality, and in this instance it is transgressive.  Here the screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns, implants the idea that drives the film: touch is sacred.  The first scenes also echo Alfred Hitchcock’s classic ‘Psycho’, where a woman’s sexual misdeeds are punished by its own titular evil — unlike Marion Crane, however, Gwyneth Paltrow’s character is a wife and mother, held up, again, as something central and sacred.  Her death means the death of humanity.  Arguably, the dramatic spindle of the film is her step-daughter, as she sweetly and desperately attempts to romance a neighborhood boy in the midst of the outbreak.  In this way, sex is restored to innocence, and there is hope.  Her father, played by Matt Damon, exists to support this symbol and represent the general human response to the pandemic.  He’s the straight-laced middle class American guy who’s in over his head, just trying to handle the fear and the grief brought on by a situation over which he can exercise no control.  He’s also the chief symbol of the masculine instinct in the story — the desire to fight for and secure one’s loves and property — and how it is so easily undermined by the invisible enemy, one that can’t be stopped by brawn or bullets.

The real glory of ‘Contagion’ is how the government scientists — U.N. and American — are spared the usual suspicion reserved for authority figures.  They make their mistakes and have their conflicts, but ultimately they manifest, in spades, all the heroic instincts that have enabled humans to survive thus far.  Science isn’t presented as esoteric, but as an intricate puzzle, and the filmmakers have enough respect for their audience to actually give us a few of the pieces — not enough to solve it, but to give us a reasonable idea of the challenges that face real scientists.  This is also an example of narrative innovation; meaning, the filmmakers find conflicts in reality that translate well into fiction.  Procedural stories are popular because we expect them to represent sequences of cause and effect that could easily occur in the real world — often, however, procedurals merely copy each other and don’t reflect the truth, but in ‘Contagion’s case, the nitty-gritty is exceptionally well-researched and feels fresh even when it evokes familiar imagery.  The fair portrayal of authority figures and the legitimately plausible challenges they face add up to a high level of believability.  It’s the filmmakers’ appeal to our common sense, and it works.

Not everything is effective, however. One could argue that Jude Law’s character (the Nasty Blogger) is the antagonist; he is, after all, the most despicable human being on display.  It’s better to identify him as the scapegoat, which is why he weakens the narrative.  ‘Contagion’s true antagonist (the virus, obviously) is effective precisely because it is beyond the audience’s thirst for justice.  It is essentially Death incarnate, and all the raging in the world won’t undo it.  ‘Contagion’ requires a reasoned response from its characters and its audience, and the scapegoat character undermines that.  I would not say that the Nasty Blogger is unnecessary or wrong in narrative principal, merely that the filmmakers overplay their hand.  I understand the point they’re trying to make about the viral (get it?) spread of misinformation; but it would have been far more prudent, in my view, to create a sympathetic character that serves this purpose, emphasizing the simple truth that lies are most often spread by people who believe in them.

Every great antagonist deserves a great presentation. The electronic score by Cliff Martinez (who, incidentally, also scored this year’s ‘Drive’) gives the viral menace a dreadful life — invisible, pulsing, insidious and ever-present.  It makes for an intriguing relationship between the visual touchstones that mark the virus’ presence and the sonic atmosphere that communicates its character.  Like the shark in ‘Jaws’, the antagonist floats through our mental space, heralded by music, but is still able to act independently of its herald, a technique that preserves surprise.

I’ve already mentioned the tactile nature of the cinematography, but what makes it so memorable is how well Soderbergh manages the relationship between color, editing, locations and story beats.  When you’re talking cinema, color is of supreme importance — it is not merely the surface sheen, it is where the story happens in cinematic terms.  I’m using the word “color” very broadly, mind, and of course the other elements of visual storytelling — lines, space, contrast, etc. — are equally important, but ‘Contagion’s use of color is particularly striking.  I would like to do a frame-by-frame analysis at some point, but for now suffice it to say that the way the filmmakers use color to indicate mood, place, and story progression is masterful.  It is one thing to use a warm color to mean, for instance, “Home”; it is another to expand that use across all sorts of spaces, times, and moments, constantly riffing on familiar emotions.

In summary, ‘Contagion’ is a crowd-pleaser that’s suspenseful enough for general audiences, smart enough for the high-minded, and deep enough for the most discerning of cinephiles.  I recommend it.

For more on ‘Contagion’, I would suggest a smattering of articles.  For instance, this take on the science behind it that appeared in Slate; this wonderfully academic look at the film from Discours du Cinema; and a slightly more in-depth look from Mr. Gilmore at Once Upon A Time In The Cinema.

Classic Review: Twelve Angry Men

Summary: An absolutely boiling drama that has stood the test of time, and goes to show that great cinema thrives under limitations.

Review: Great films don’t stand only as examples of what films can or should be; they stand also to condemn every film produced with venal intentions for apathetic audiences.  This is not because a great film would attract audiences if it were released instead, but because far too often lesser material is rewarded while exceptional work is ignored.  What matters, however, is the pictures’ enduring memory.  ‘Twelve Angry Men’, the first film directed by Sidney Lumet, was released in April 1957 to critical acclaim but box office disappointment.  I ask you, what else came out on the thirteenth of that month in that year that is as enduring as this film?  Why would a screenplay this electric with a cast this matchless go without popular response?  I have no clue.  The good news is that popular and critical reaction would soon match up.  The bad news, at least for whatever stood in competition for its box office dollars, is that apparently only ‘Twelve Angry Men’ survived.

Some films demand spectacle, action, sexual chemistry and endless stanzas of visual poetry.  They need these things to exist.  What ‘Twelve Angry Men’ proves is that the most essential dramatic element, stakes that create suspense, can thrive in a visual environment as small as a single room.  The story doesn’t demand more, but it puts other stories that have more but lack legitimate tension to shame.  ‘Twelve Angry Men’ is nothing but dialog, but it has more impact than a dozen car crashes in a brainless, gutless action movie.  With actions as simple as frowns and glances, a war wages in this single room that captivates the viewer, with compelling moral, logical arguments and severe emotional consequences.  Every character is challenged, so that everyone in the audience is challenged.  You will question yourself, your prejudices, and your approach to justice.  The screenplay almost guarantees that.

And perhaps this is why it was not a box office success.  We like to pretend that audiences have grown more or less sophisticated over the years, depending on the arguments we are making at the moment, but in fact people have not changed.  By and large, sophisticated stories are ignored, only for word-of-mouth to redeem them at a later time when it is too late to reward the producers for their financial risk.  While it is true that filmmakers are getting their money back from home video sales, producers still view the box office as the measure of a film’s worth.  This is changing, but the push for 3D and IMAX technologies shows that filmmakers want theatrical vindication of their investment.  So many, arguably most, future classics are small features, like ants carrying many times their own weight.  Truly exceptional movies that also make hundreds of millions in box office are rare.  Most hits are, ironically, forgettable.

But I digress.  The reason for my tangents is that it is difficult to say more about ‘Twelve Angry Men’ than has already been said by much sharper analysts.  What I can say is this: the cast and crew worked with a smaller toolbox than are afforded most projects, and they delivered something truly special.  Its intimacy and emphasis on character gives an immersion that 3D technology can never match.  It is so true to life and so damn engaging that there is nothing left to improve, except perhaps removing the superfluous musical score, which intrudes a couple of times and doesn’t add anything of substance.  This makes for an ironic flaw in contrast to other films and their poor use of musical resources; ‘Twelve Angry Men’ had a limited toolbox, and ended up with just one tool too many!  The harmony between Sidney Lumet’s direction and Reginald Rose’s screenplay makes the real music here.

This movie should be required viewing for up-and-coming filmmakers.  If you’re interested in writing screenplays, I urge you to watch this film and study the most insignificant details.  This is a taut, perfectly calibrated symphony of cinema.  If you can do as well, do so, and don’t compromise.  History will vindicate you.