Friday, January 16, 2009
in 25 Movies...
An American original sounding off... and still echoing.
NEXT LOT. I appreciate the comments and I find some of your nominations interesting, but I won't be responding to any of them until I have finished filling in my complete set. It's the whole that's really the point here, and I reiterate my suggestion that those who are intrigued try to come up their own wholes. It forces you out of your usual boundaries and preferences, which can only expand your perspective. It's also a fun challenge. So let's get back to it.
11. Sea Biscuit
There's more than one decent movie about the Great Depression obviously. It's one of our favorite subjects as a nation and one Hollywood is better equipped to exploit than many others. Of the recent set, I'm fond of Cinderella Man, which immerses the audience more deeply into the common experience of the depression than Sea Biscuit does, but the story of the little horse who captured a nation's heart is much more than another clicheed sports movie. And the characters make it more than just a depression movie, too. With Jeff Bridges as the self-made man who dares to tweak the noses of Old Money, Tobey Maguire as the damaged jockey orphaned by the depression, Chris Cooper as the pragmatic horse-whispering westerner, and William H. Macey as the racetrack tout stand-in for the sporting press, Sea Biscuit manages to interweave the lives of a fair swath of 1930s America. Various minor characters also contribute to this breadth, including Michael O'Neill as the jockey's learned but depression-devastated father and Eddy Jones as the haughty owner of Triple Crown winner War Admiral. The David McCullough narration is over the top at times, and there are too many commercials for FDR for my taste, but the economic context in which Sea Biscuit became a national phenomenon is as important as the story's prime players. Most appealing of all about the movie is its refusal to engage in pity for the real tragedies experienced by its two main characters. They're knocked down hard, but they keep getting back up again, which is about as fundamental a part of the traditional American character as there is. And they help one another, also without pity, but with quiet understanding and humor. That's how we got through the depression as a people, and it's why Sea Biscuit works so well on so many levels. (clip) (and a bonus)
[Before the nitpickers point them out, I'll note the movie got a couple things wrong. It's not true that Sea Biscuit drew more mentions in the press in 1938 than FDR did; nobody and nothing could do that. And War Admiral was not nearly as big (18 hands!?) as he was described in the script. Both horses, in fact, were smaller than average for racehorses. They were also blood relations, both descended from thoroughbred royalty, but who says bluebloods can't also be heroes sometimes?]
12. The Aviator
A great production by Martin Scorsese and a truly outstanding performance by Leonardo di Caprio as the legendary Howard Hughes The scope of the man's interests and accomplishments was prodigious, and so is the scope of this movie, covering his public and private life from the late 1920s to the late 1940s. As you watch his innovations as a movie producer (Hell's Angels, 1930), his relentless career as a daredevil pilot, and his near-psychotic perfectionism as an aircraft designer and manufacturer and commercial airline executive -- with time out for romancing the great beauties of his day, and the occasional nervous breakdown -- the refrain that keeps popping into your head is "only in America." That a man so driven by crippling personal demons could also be an astute and visionary businessman is an unusual and much needed affirmation of the importance of individuality in our nation's extraordinary history. We tend to think of tycoons and CEOs as gray, dry calculating machines. Many are that way, of course, but there are no epic film biographies of the bold men who built our biggest industries from scratch: not of Andrew Carnegie, E. I. du Pont, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, or William Durant. Like Hughes, they were all giants, flawed but ferociously determined creators of wealth which has fed and enabled more people than it has abused or oppressed. And Hughes, in this movie, is the only one we're given a chance to observe and assess for ourselves. (clip)
[TIME OUT: There was a war Hollywood has covered voluminously, of course. Get out the long knives; everyone is going to have his favorites here. I'm allowing myself three because World War II has been so central to the lives and subsequent history of Americans as a nation and a people. I'll explain my criteria briefly so at least you'll know why some of your picks aren't mine. I left out the Grand Hotel treatments that try to depict an entire epochal battle because in character terms they tend to be superficial -- to my mind -- and distractingly studded with famous actors playing real people who must always be presented in purely heroic terms. Thus, I've cut Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Longest Day, Midway, A Bridge Too Far, and The Great Escape. Sorry. I've also passed up the great biopics, like John Ford's The Wings of Eagles and the much admired Patton, because the greater story of World War II is that it was fought by an overwhelmingly civilian military. How they did that is the point of understanding a movie should seek to provide.
And before I get to my picks, I also want to acknowledge that, once again, television has made some significant contributions. Most people are probably familiar with Band of Brothers; if you haven't seen it, do so. It's magnificent. Fewer will be aware of a modest movie starring Tom Selleck as Eisenhower (I know, I know, but it's good) during the planning phase of the Normandy invasion. It's called Ike: Countdown to D-Day. Even fewer of you will remember the 26-hour long documentary TV series Victory at Sea, which featured scoring by Richard Rodgers and narration by the inimitable Leonard Graves. It's mesmerizing and poignant and heroic all at once. I promise you won't regret buying it.
All right. Let's get on with the show.]
13. Twelve O'Clock High
I've written about this one before. It's not just a great war movie. It's a great movie period. Its subject is the Eighth Army Air Force stationed in England in the early days of America's entry into the war. They pioneered daylight bombing raids over Germany and suffered casualties so horrendous they rivaled those of the entire Pacific theater. How can they climb into those planes every day knowing that as many as a third of them won't be coming back? Who can order them to do it, day after day and month after month? That's the movie in a nutshell. With a fine performance by Gregory Peck. (clip)
14. Sands of Iwo Jima
Same question. How did they do it? All the U.S. Marines who landed at Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Saipan, and Okinawa. This is the best movie about the WWII marines because it's the closest in time and it doesn't sugarcoat the mean hardness of preparing men for hand-to-hand combat against an implacable enemy. One of John Wayne's few great performances. That's all I'll tell you. If you haven't seen it, git 'er done. (clip)
15. Saving Private Ryan
As you can see, my preference is for the older movies about WWII because despite the limitations on violence and language, they reflect a more intimate understanding of the people of the time. Newer movies have a distressing habit of inserting more modern sensibilities into the past, with frequently troubling discords. (The best example I can think of is the character played by Donald Sutherland in Kelly's Heroes. Funny at one level and just ludicrous at another.) But I'm giving my third spot to Saving Private Ryan because its opening sequence makes you feel as if you really are there on the beach at D-Day. It is incredibly loud, jarring, shocking, brutal, and intense. World War II did not take place on a Hollywood back lot, and the killing and dying did not happen in sanitized soft focus along artfully chosen lines of sight. This movie is the antidote for all that.
I'm posting this clip here because YouTube wants you to prove how old you are,
which could be administratively unacceptable to some of you. So, if you're not 18
don't watch it. And if you recoil from explicit violence, well, you've been warned.
I'll be back with more later.