When it comes to movies, conservatives can be just like liberals if a film pushes their buttons. This week I saw a former CIA official on TV praise Bridge of Spies as a “great movie” but then go on to cite the continued, unresolved, post–Cold War antipathy between the U.S. and Russia — a contradiction of Bridge of Spies’ insulting, ameliorative message. Many people who consider themselves politically vigilant still look at movies as separate from propaganda — as if only the news media could be partisan. They ignore the fact that the business of contemporary Hollywood is often the business of creating ideological weapons. Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies isn’t simply an entertainment, and neither are four films released this week: Our Brand Is Crisis, Rock the Kasbah, Heart of a Dog, and The Pearl Button.
Sandra Bullock is lucky that Our Brand Is Crisis will flop. She’ll be spared the embarrassment of many people seeing her fumbling venture into George Clooney political snark (Clooney co-produced). In this film, based on Rachel Boynton’s 2005 documentary, Bullock trades in her niceness to portray Jane Bodine, an American political strategist who rebounds from recent career failure to manage the campaign of a presidential candidate in Bolivia. This fact-into-farce gimmick uses a Third World allegory to instruct Americans’ political naïveté. Instead of tackling the U.S. political industry head-on, the film chides the noxious influence of American dogma (and marketing) on global politics. “The truth is what I tell the electorate the truth is,” Jane dictates. This isn’t really political, just another form of media squabbling. Self-destructively ruthless, Jane informs her staff about her “soul-stealing” profession: “Yeah, it’s advertising. Give people something they don’t need, and then you profit from it.”
This quasi-confession isn’t cynical enough. Director David Gordon Green is out of his indie regional-poetry league, showing no rapport with the Bolivian peasants and lacking the slickness to make Jane a Mike Nichols–style culturally superior ideologue. Green has Bullock stumble around like Melissa McCarthy in various slob-revels that recall his Pineapple Express (a frat boy’s idea of dissipation rather than adult political decadence). Peter Straughan’s inexpert script wastes a half-hour of formula comedy set-up before introducing Jane’s m.o.: “Yes, we’re trying to save lives, but this is no longer an election, this is a crisis, and our brand is crisis!” In Clooneyland, crisis is an American symptom addressed with quotes from Warren Beatty, Sun Tzu, and Adam Smith, along with some George Bush–bashing and Tom Jones’s recording of “Puppet Man.”
After Bullock’s bold recalcitrance in the only honest role in Crash and her moving, conservative American benevolence in The Blind Side, this character’s conversion from demagoguery to activism is static and seems fake. Our Brand Is Crisis raises the same question as the media-pardoning film Truth: Does it merely look low-budget, or is it really cheap?
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Bill Murray’s crumpled face not only suits the role of Richie Lanz, a hard-luck entertainment manager in Rock the Kasbah, it’s an authentic look of American weariness. It’s the face President Obama covered up when extending U.S. involvement in Afghanistan this week, and it’s the weariness only an artist like Murray can help our electorate understand. And Murray does it almost single-handedly, because Rock the Kasbah (though based on the Setara Hussainzada incident of an Afghan girl defying the Taliban to appear on a singing-competition TV show) feels insultingly contrived. Western showbiz is used as a metaphor for American foreign policy: Greed and hype rule Lanz’s efforts to make a star of a girl in a hajib who warbles Cat Stevens/Yusuf Salam songs (“Wild World,” “Peace Train”) while mercenaries, including Bruce Willis, supply Afghan rebels with munitions.
Not much of Rock the Kasbah, impersonally directed by Barry Levinson, is amusing or fresh (not even Kate Hudson’s surprisingly good southern accent as a hooker-contractor), but when Lanz, reminded of his personal showbiz creed, compares his own ethics to those of others, his commitment to a “sacred bond” uncannily anticipates a Rose Garden address and is as moving and idiosyncratically sincere as Murray’s memorable speech at the end of Scrooged. Murray prevents all this Hunter Thompson fear and loathing from being self-righteous like Rolling Stone magazine’s political snark. The Afghanistan quagmire is more compelling than anything in Bridge of Spies, and it allows Murray a couple of startling moments of personal assessment rather than disguised policy statement. In Hollywood, as in Washington, such conscientiousness is rare.
Laurie Anderson, the pop-art musician and experimenter, has made a career out of conscientiousness. In Heart of a Dog, her first film since the marvelously staged Home of the Brave (1986), she responds to the loss of Lolabelle, her pet rat terrier (as beloved as Godard’s Roxy in Goodbye to Language and the loss almost as portentous). Her narration slides into meditations on human losses from 9/11 to more-personal grief. Benday-dot self-portraits and drawings change to video essays where rain and snowfall around New York City symbolize emoting. She transitions from her enjoyable Eighties studio albums toward modern convergence media. (“This is my dream body, the one I use to walk around in my dreams.”)
While Anderson ponders philosophy (whether Kierkegaard’s “Life can only be understood backward but it must be lived . . . forward” or Wittgenstein’s “cryptic sentences about logic”), her voice and violin accompaniment are soothing. Her lyrical recitation benefits from a midwestern, middle-class Caucasian lecturer elocution; it gives surprising emotional reassurance about politics, mortality, art, thinking, and love. The last of those, only a pop musician — or a woman filmmaker — would dare. Making Buddhist ruminations seem purely logical is Anderson’s only dodgy risk, but that’s part of her personal, post-9/11 territory, and it’s never a waste of cinema like Guillermo del Toro’s foolish spookiness in Crimson Peak. As a social artist, Anderson always speaks in semicolons; she relates ideas and experiences that might otherwise be isolated, fragmented, polarized.
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Patricio Guzmán, who directed the Marxist documentary The Battle of Chile (1978), about the fall of the Allende government, has come up with an extraordinary ideological weapon in The Pearl Button. The earlier film was over three hours long; the new one is a concise 82 minutes, just long enough to present a poetic rumination on the cosmos, human history, and the politics of colonial genocide. Indulging in anthropology as much as astronomy and geography, Guzmán seems to have become a poet of phenomenology — a documentarian Terrence Malick. He studies the geological and oceanic beauty of Tierra del Fuego, then investigates the lost tribes of the region. A locally produced pearl button, utilizing natural resources, becomes a symbol of both industrialization and plunder.
#related#Midway, Guzmán shifts into an investigation of the Pinochet coup as a modern result of the colonialist impulse (including U.S. involvement), but this isn’t exactly the same Guzmán of the b&w, newsreel-style The Battle of Chile. The Pearl Button is a more humanist document. Guzmán’s emphasis on the physiognomy of Chile’s indigenous people (through drawings, photos, silent footage — all astonishing) transcends mere political message.
Yet, the propaganda is there undeniably — and maybe Guzmán would need more time to explore the class war in which the lost dark tribes were replaced by the light-skinned victims of opposition. But neither Werner Herzog’s nihilist travelogues nor Alain Cavalier’s gnomic collages have wed political disillusionment to such overwhelming beauty. Only Guzmán, visualizing extraterrestrial aspiration, then earthly atrocity, shows a truly existential grasp of man’s inhumanity to man. The Pearl Button is an ideological weapon, but it’s also a masterpiece.
— Armond White, a film critic who writes about movies for National Review Online, received the American Book Awards’ Anti-Censorship Award. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.