Anyway. Today’s topic. As a matter of personal disposition I’m a humanist, so I tend to enjoy works of art and storytelling that dovetail with that philosophical orientation. I believe that in the long run, for all our foibles and shortcomings, human culture moves in the direction of justice over injustice, cooperation over selfishness, integrity over expediency, wisdom over ignorance.
Art is a wonderful means of reminding us of the enduring power of these values and principles. It should come as no surprise, then, that my favorite films include life-affirming works like Holiday, It’s A Wonderful Life, Casablanca, and Inherit the Wind. Such idealistic fare is perhaps scarcer than it used to be—we live in a cynical age—but it’s not yet extinct; I think the Lord of the Rings trilogy qualifies, for instance.
However, I said all that by way of preface for this: two of the best films I saw this summer were, philosophically speaking, the diametric opposite of life-affirming. They were very different in subject matter, but both were terrific, superbly executed, deeply satisfying movies… and both will leave you with the conviction that “human intelligence” and “human compassion” are oxymorons, and indeed that humanity is a thoroughly despicable species in general. I’m talking about In The Loop and District 9.
[Beware: spoilers ahead!]
In The Loop is a fictionalized account of the ramp-up to the invasion of Iraq, set in the winter of 2003, focused on the rank-and-file of American and British diplomats. Given the material, you might not expect the film to be hilarious, but it is. It’s a very dark comedy, but a very effective one.
We all know the outcome, of course—a disastrous invasion and never-ending occupation, at the cost of scores of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. A happy ending really isn’t in the cards. Thus, the movie is all about the nuts-and-bolts process of getting to that outcome. We also know now that “the intelligence was being fixed around the policy”… and the on-screen details are convincing enough that they seem at most a slightly exaggerated version of what actually happened. The single overwhelming impression we’re left with is that everyone was just making things up as they went along.
Impressively, the story at no point involves or even names any of the actual political players involved. Instead it cements its status as satire—and yet, ironically, achieves a convincing level of verisimilitude—by using fictional government officials a level or two lower than the names and faces we know from TV: the assistant minister of this, the deputy secretary of that. Peter Capaldi is superb as foul-mouthed British functionary Malcolm Tucker, angry in his introductory scene and progressively angrier yet as the movie proceeds. In a professional world where everyone’s sole concern is his or her own career prospects, status in the pecking order, Capaldi’s ability to wield outrageous personal threats makes him supremely competent at his job, to the secret horror of everyone around him. His opposite number on the American side is David Rasch as Asst. Secretary Linton Barwick, who turns in a performance that’s eerily evocative of Donald Rumsfeld—simultaneously incoherent yet supremely self-assured.
The movie strings us along with a sense of hope—the notion that someone might claim at least a pyrhhic victory out of the morass of corruption and disinformation. It does not happen. Among the most principled characters are Gen. George Miller (James Gandolfini, turning in a spot-on performance as a career military man), who bows to no one in his defense of his fellow soldiers, and Liza Weld (Anna Chlumsky, who you may remember as a child actor from ’90s films like That Girl before she took time off to attend the University of Chicago), a policy assistant who unwittingly wrote a report detailing all the intelligence shortcomings undermining the push for war… but in the end, even they succumb to feet of clay.
When all is said and done, In The Loop is almost as joyously dark—and more plausible—than the classic Dr. Strangelove. That’s high praise.
District 9 is the sort of thing you might think would have been a summer “tentpole” movie for a major studio, given its alien-visitation theme and the name “Peter Jackson” in the credits as producer, but instead it was made for $30 million without any major names and released with a “stealth” advertising campaign. And that’s a good thing… because aiming for a studio’s idea of a lowest-common-denominator audience would have drained this film of everything that makes it worthwhile.
The concept: aliens arrived on Earth a generation ago, in a huge but disabled spaceship that parked itself over not New York or Washington, but Johannesburg, South Africa. The survivors have subsequently found themselves corralled into shantytowns and reviled by humanity. Now, as they’re about to be relocated, one government functionary finds himself getting to know them much more closely than he’d intended.
Writer/director Neill Blomkamp has never directed a major release before, but he’s vaulted into the big leagues with this project. Setting it in his native South Africa left no doubt that the overtones of apartheid were intentional, but the film reaches beyond those specifics to evoke oppressed people in all times and places. This is a movie for everyone who rooted for the Indians in all those old cowboy-and-indian westerns.
While the storytelling and filmmaking is effective, skillfully shifting from a pseudo-documentary style to a more intimate personal story to action-movie tropes toward the end, what makes the film work more than anything else is actor Sharlto Copely as Wikus van de Merwe, the hapless bureaucrat at the center of the story. The entire story stands or falls on his performance, and he lives up to its every challenge, as his character goes through transformations variously emotional, moral, and physical. It’s a career-making role, and Copely’s agent has no doubt been working overtime to field the offers since this film opened.
There are other characters in the film. They are all, without exception, either incidental or contemptible, but not in a way that seems contrived or unconvincing. Without getting bogged down in detail, the film provides us enough backstory to find everyone’s behavior totally (if depressingly) plausible. It’s a ruthless exploration of man’s inhumanity toward, not just his fellow man, but all intelligent creatures.
As for the alien “prawns,” they are, no doubt about it, revolting… but mostly in a physical sense, as opposed to the moral revulsion the humans inspire. (They are also entirely convincing; this film proves you don’t need an eight-figure budget to achieve quality special effects.) They are plainly more technologically sophisticated than humanity, despite their dire circumstances, and as events progress it becomes clear that they’re more civilized as well.
What happens to Wikus, after he’s exposed to a sample of alien biotechnology, forces him to discover all of this on a very personal level. In one of the film’s subtle but evocative transpositions, he becomes significantly more humane—in the terms I outlined at the beginning–even as he becomes physically less human.
District 9 is suspenseful, surprising, exciting, and poignant. It’s everything a good movie should be. And by the end, you’re rooting for every human character on screen to be blown away. It’s an odd position to be in.
I don’t think we’re all quite as doomed by our tragic flaws as stories like these might indicate, but they are certainly evocative warning parables. I’m not so jaded as to reject more upbeat movies, should any be forthcoming. Until then, however, I’ll be happy if more films of this quality manage to slip under the big-studio radar and make it to the screen.Tags: District 9, humanism, In The Loop, Iraq, movies, Neill Blomkamp, Peter Jackson, Sharlto Copely