For family viewing this holiday season, there are a number of attractive options, some of which will make you glad you went to the theater and at least one of which approaches the level of great film-making. There is of course Alvin and the Chipmunks, a film I have not seen but which my kids described as funny if not much of a movie, and Enchanted, a film with a beautiful message marred somewhat by its overly earnest and saccharine delivery. Newly released films include the inevitable sequel, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, the Denzel Washington vehicle, for which he is both director and star, The Great Debaters, and Walden Media’s latest winning fantasy film, The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep.
Continuing the same sort of quest-action plot as the original, Book of Secrets is driven by the desire of Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) and his father Patrick (Jon Voight) to clear the name of one of their ancestors, who has been accused of organizing the plot to assassinate Lincoln. In the film’s opening scenes, a malevolent fame-seeker, Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris), produces a long-lost page from the diary of John Wilkes Booth that purports to implicate Gates’s ancestor. The film ties together the plot to assassinate Lincoln with the quest for the lost City of Gold. The quest sends the treasure hunters — who include Ben’s mother Emily (Helen Mirren), his former girlfriend Abigail (Diane Kruger), and his genially nerdy gadgets expert Riley Poole (Justin Bartha) — in pursuit of clues hidden in Buckingham Palace, the White House, and Mount Rushmore. The holes in the plot are so glaring that my eight year old daughter Sara wondered exactly what evidence cleared Gates’s involvement in the assassination of Lincoln. Moreover, the film is history as pastiche — great monuments and events strung together, a la Dan Brown, not as a way of recovering their original significance, but in an adventure that means something personally to us. In this case at least, the aim is not to deconstruct, but to re-establish reputations. Still, the gushing expressions of patriotism and sentimentality mean that the film feels no burden of accounting for even the strangest of moral conversions, that of the apparently ruthless Wilkinson, who one minute threatens deadly force and in another acts the sacrificial hero. But the action, humor, and good-natured chemistry among the main players render all the objections, in one sense, beside the point. National Treasure entertains and is fun enough if you can put your intellect in neutral and let your imagination enjoy the ride.
The Great Debaters is based loosely, in some scenes very loosely, on the true story of the 1930’s debate team coached by Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington) of Wiley College, a small, all-black institution in East Texas. Scenes of the rural south are gorgeously shot, the action is perfectly paced, and the depiction of the emotional geography of this world — in which blacks are poised between, on the one side, fear and despair and, on the other, hope and aspiration — is compelling. The performances here are stirring, as are the debates themselves. The audience certainly finds the young debaters sympathetic and credible characters: Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), the erudite, agile antinomian; Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), the poised and passionate, first-ever female debater; and James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), the precocious 14-year old trying to impress his reserved scholar father, James Farmer Sr. (Forest Whitaker). As one would expect, Denzel Washington performs ably as the charismatic teacher-coach. But the best performance here is supplied by Forest Whitaker, as a learned and principled man, whose demeanor expresses a wide range of emotions — from dignity in the midst of humiliation before his family at the hands of armed local white trash, to grace under pressure in a scene, also in front of his son, in which he manages to defuse potential violence and to exact a measure of justice from the corrupt local sheriff.
All that said on the film’s behalf, one cannot help but have reservations. The final scene in the film, a debate at Harvard, in fact never took place; the nationally known predominantly white school the team debated was USC, not Harvard. But Harvard in liberal Cambridge, MA better fits the film’s one-sided politics, never more frustratingly evident than in the incredible fact that the Wiley debate team ends up being assigned the defense of the liberal political line in every debate. Although there is much talk about research and logical ability, the debates always end up focusing on the personal as the political. Now, when the personal involves lynching, public segregation, systematic maltreatment, and denial of basic rights, it is certainly a matter for politics. However, had the presentation of the issues had been a bit less emotionally manipulative the film’s message would have been strengthened, not weakened. An example of powerful indirectness occurs in the most chilling scene in the film, when the debate team, driving late one night to a contest, comes unaware upon a just concluded lynching, with fleeting images of a torched corpse, by a group of whites on a remote road. (However subtly handled, scenes such as this, as well as scenes with more than a hint of licentious activity, indicate that this is not a film for the whole family.)
The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep is set in World War II Scotland, in the coastal region of Loch Ness (although much of it was filmed in New Zealand). The central character is Angus (Alex Etel), the young son of Anne MacMorrow (Emily Watson), a housekeeper of an estate whose owner is off in the war. Angus, who is having difficulty coming to terms with the disappearance and likely death of his father in the war, is at the outset reticent, humorless, and timid. Yet, as indicated by the opening scene in which he sits by the shore and imagines entering the water that terrifies him, he has an active imagination. When he finds a curiously shaped shell that in fact contains an odd sea creature, whose body resembles that of an ugly platypus with a head reminiscent of Shrek, real life becomes more dramatic than any fantasy his imagination could construct. Angus names the creature Crusoe and keeps him as a pet, until his rapid growth makes it necessary to return him to the sea. Meanwhile, the British army sets up camp at the estate to watch for German submarines. The army’s fears and tactics put Crusoe right in the middle a battle for control of the Loch.
The entire film is framed as a extended flashback, a tale told in a pub by an old man who invites skeptical teenage tourists to hear the true story behind a fake photograph of the famous Loch Ness monster. Now, as many critics have noted, there is much about the film that seems borrowed. Its mode of presentation calls to mind The Princess Bride, its boy-meets-odd-creature plot echoes E.T., while its ending recalls Free Willy. But the overall effect of the film is hardly derivative; it succeeds remarkably well in transporting viewers to a distinctive time and place. The production design (Tony Burrough), costumes (John Bloomfield), and the soundtrack (James Newton Howard) help to recreate the period and locale. Even the accents and syntax are credible, as is evident in the description of an avaricious tabloid reporter as a “man not to be lightly parted from a pound.” (That line comes in the middle of a very funny scene that explains how the fake photo of the Loch Ness monster came to be.)
Moreover, the film’s best use of the flashback technique is not its overarching structure, but in its more restrained use in moving scenes in which Angus recalls moments with his father. At the center of this film is Alex Etel’s truly marvelous performance as Angus; Etel manages to capture in his facial expressions an array of feelings, from apprehension and doubt, to wonder, joy, and grief. In the story of his coming of age, there are also embedded some nice lessons here about courage, confronting one’s fears, grief, and accepting loss. With this film, Walden Media reminds us once again of what it means to put storytelling at the center of the craft of film-making.
–Thomas Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of the forthcoming book, Arts of Darkness.