Geopolitics and character development: Some thoughts from CA:CW

Captain America Mission Accomplished - Edited 30:5:16Alright, Captain America: Civil War is one of the best analogies for Bush-era post 9/11 American geopolitics I’ve seen in pop-culture in a long time. Seriously mate, it’s so good that I can’t help but wonder if it’s intentional. I mean, not whether the analogies to the great questions facing American and NATO foreign policy over the last fifteen years were intentional or not. They obviously are. But how good it is, well, have you ever met Yanks who are that self-aware? Nah mate, even the smart ones have got blind spots in certain areas. Not they’re fault, it just comes with being the biggest, toughest kid on the playground for so long, helped along by constantly telling yourself about how righteous your causes are. Like Captain America.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the simple analogies. The Avengers as a group are NATO (and its close affiliates) and Captain America is, as you might’ve guessed, the United States of America.

The Avengers exist as an organisation to defend and retaliate against existential threats, both defined (Loki and his army in the first film) and undefined (whatever the fuck Hydra became after Winter Soldier). And let me be very clear, they are happy to retaliate. Tony Stark makes that very clear when he has a chat with Loki The Avengers (“because if we can’t protect the earth, you can be damned sure we’ll avenge it!”) Their intervention in Sokovia at the beginning of Avengers: Age of Ultron seems more like a preemptive strike. While we learn in The Avengers that the ‘Avengers Initiative’ was initially scrapped before the events of the film because of the unreliability of some of the proposed members (*cough*Iron Man*cough*), but its founding members are brought together to fight a powerful foreign threat. Once the enemy is defeated, they more or less go their separate ways. Without having a specific threat that requires a unified front, they drift off and deal with their own problems in their own theatres (huh!) of interest. Awfully similar to NATO when you think about it.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was founded largely to deal with the existential threat posed by the USSR (which maintained an edge in conventional weapons even if it was outgunned nuclear-wise) that no single member could have handled alone. The fall of the Soviet Union at the turn of the nineties saw the Alliance’s continued role in international affairs come into question (and it still does). NATO members have come together over the two and a half decades since to do the odd bit of dirty work (an air campaign against the Serbs in the former Yugoslavia) but even then they’ve often been flying their own individual banners, flying the banners of some other international institution (the UN) or working bilaterally. You could argue that the invasion of Afghanistan was a NATO affair, but you could also argue it wasn’t just as easily. NATO has, however, seen something of a renewed raison d’etre as the world tries to deal with cross-border terrorism, the continued consequences of the Arab Spring, a resurgent Russia and ascendant China. Like the Avengers getting back together to clean up Hydra after the events of CA: The Winter Soldier.

Now, it’s not an exact parallel. I’m not even all that keen on calling it a close parallel. But it is the most easily digestible one, it being the only big, well-known military alliance still floating around. And while memberships comparisons aren’t perfect (because of the number of Avengers and that some are more better compared to countries outside the NATO alliance), it’s still the easiest matchup. Particularly Iron Man and Captain America.

Iron Man is plagued by guilt. Understandably so, but still. Someone give the guy a hug and help him deal with the PTSD. I’m looking at you Sam Wilson. And Pepper. And, y’know what? Tony’s not that big of an arsehole. He’s dealing with some serious emotional baggage and none of you are helping. Anyway, Tony Stark is plagued by PTSD from barely surviving as he saved New York city from the kneejerk reaction of our own leaders and the alien invasion that caused it (forget almost getting stuck in space, Loki threw him out a fucking window). In his desire to protect people he builds Ultron, the killer robot that wants to wipe out humanity, which gets a bunch more people killed in Sokovia. He’s able to see the full consequences of his sins and is continually reminded of them, alongside his own mortality.

A similar… let’s call it a zeitgeist… a similar zeitgeist can be seen in the politics of France, Germany and a part of the UK. That feeling that they barely survived two world wars, and the trauma of what happened during those wars. That guilt that comes from seeing the continued repercussions or colonial ambitions and imperial carelessness. Consider Tony’s guilt over Ultron and then think about Anglo-French guild over Sykes-Picot, English guilt about the partition of India and Germany’s guilt over the Second World War. Both Tony and old Europe then put their faith in higher institutions. Tony’s faith in his own judgement was shaken in Iron Man 2 where his commitment to Randian self belief (seriously America, why is Ayn Rand still a thing?) almost ends in disaster and the death of the person he cares about most, and it’s broken into a million bloody pieces during Age of Ultron when he, y’know, builds the bloke that almost ends the world. What we see with Tony in Civil War is him making a fairly mature, considered and diplomatic choice. Deciding to put his support behind international laws, regulations, institutions and, most importantly, oversight. And this has been a big part of European politics for the past few decades. Franco-German political faith and muscle has been put behind the European Union and United Nations Security Council. They’ve been all about establishing institutions that set boundaries on their own power and that of others, creating an international order and following it. Or at least claiming they do. This is international politics after all. All’s fair and all that. But for the sake of argument let’s claim they always practice what they preach. Point is Tony sees institutional oversight as the best answer to avoid causing collateral damage, same way that France, Germany and the UK do.

Captain America, on the other hand, fears being tied down by UN oversight and their shifting agendas. He sees a threat, he takes it out. Done and dusted. And honestly, who better to do it than Steve Rogers? It’s an interesting case because Captain America in the films (and comic books, but we’re discussing the films here) is not a parallel to what the United States is, but the changing way it’s viewed itself.

To start with let’s consider Steve and the USA in isolation, away from the Avengers proper. In The First Avenger, Steve Rogers is the personification of the very best parts of America the superpower. Standing up to bullies, never backing away from a righteous fight, doing the right thing without thinking of the cost, making the greatest sacrifice for the good of the world. This is the America that won World War Two. Or at least won in all those great old movies about World War Two. The Winter Soldier is, in my mind, more of a 9/11 parable than The Avengers was (yes, in other MCU properties they treat the Chitauri invasion of NYC the same way we treat the attacks of September Eleven – “New York changed everything” – but, well, nah). Past sins coming back to roost (America’s involvement in the Middle East/SHIELD’s particularly shady dealings) and a complete failure by the intelligence community to detect the threat (Al Qaeda cells learning how to pilot planes/HYDRA infiltrating every level of SHIELD) sees the personification of the nation betrayed, and a problem that only America and a handful of its most loyal allies can fix (seriously, why does he not give the rest of the Avengers a call?) Which it does, through shock and awe and a complete dismemberment of the failed system for no other reason than “Because Cap says so.” It’s unsurprising that Captain America distrusts the idea of international oversight. In The Avengers the international Council that runs SHIELD decides to launch a nuclear missile at New York and then in Winter Soldier he discovers that HYDRA are the ones running SHIELD, and even if they weren’t are getting into some really shady shit.

But America does not exist in isolation and neither does the good Captain. In this case Steve Rogers is a personification of how America sees itself in the world. You gotta remember that Captain America isn’t actually the most powerful guy on the Avengers. The Hulk is (arguably) more powerful, who just gets stronger the more you try to kill him. Thor is the fucking warrior God of Thunder. Vision can fry people with his mind and swing Thor’s hammer (giving him access to the powers of the fucking warrior God of Thunder). Iron Man built a power generator that ends the need for fossil fuels while a hostage in a cave, and had gone toe to toe in his various suits with everyone in the first Avengers movie except Black Widow. Shit, I reckon if Natasha really wanted to she could kick Steve’s arse. And yet it is Steve Rogers who is given leadership of the Avengers. Why? Because he’s a better leader? Shit, Thor’s been leading his mates for centuries and learnt enough humility in his own first movie that he probably knows how to run a fight. Because he’s a better soldier? That hardly seems like something that Tony Stark would respect, and something that Black Widow would openly laugh at. Hawkeye too if we’re being perfectly honest. So why’s he in command?

Because he’s Captain America of course. He became what he is and does what he does not in pursuit of power, control or vengeance, but because it was the right thing to do and freedom needs protecting. So because everyone else can of course see this righteous initiative they give him command. Sounds like bullshit, doesn’t it? Thing is, I reckon that’s how Americans see themselves. I mean, sure, they’re not afraid to toot their own horns (“we have the most powerful military in the history of the world!” and all that). American exceptionalism is alive and well. But they don’t like to admit that the main reason everybody listens to them is because they’ve got the biggest guns and the biggest purse-strings. They don’t like admitting that they’re an empire (see: Niall Ferguson, Empire). No, the star spangled banner is a universal symbol of free people and free markets and that is why they run any organisation or alliance they choose to be part of.

I mean it’s not, but you can understand why they might think that way, right?

The analogies get cleaner or messier from there. Black Widow is the UK proper (where Iron Man is just parts of the UK), trying to strike some sort of balance between the two sides of the conflict. The United Kingdom has long tried to position itself as the bridge between the EU and the USA (special relationships? More like open relationships! That’s not nearly as funny as I hoped it would be) and in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 Her Majesty’s government tried hard to convince the Americans to work within the United Nations, rather than unilaterally. Similarly Natasha tries to convince Steve to sign the Sokovia accords and stay out of the fight. In both instances there are feelings of, well betrayal seems too strong a word. Disappointment. There’s feelings of disappointment from the EU when the UK followed the Americans into Iraq and from Iron Man when she lets the Captain and Bucky escape in the quinjet. Hawkeye is probably Australia. Or maybe Falcon is. Maybe they both are. Someone’s Australia, the one country that’s always following the US into a fight. Black Panther is Africa and, well, I’m not opening that can of worms today. Let’s just say your fave is all sorts of problematic and leave it there for now.

Anyway, what does this all come down to? Long and short of it is, Captain America was wrong. Throughout the movie. He’s wrong.

He should’ve signed the Sokovia accords instead of being all about that personal responsibility. Strong institutions with strong regulations and strong oversight make everyone stronger. Tony recognises it. That’s why he signs the Accords without hesitation. But he also recognises the need for Captain America to be part of that. “Sometimes I want to punch you in your perfect teeth. But I don’t want to see you gone.” As angry as they get with the USA, countries like France and Germany don’t want to see them gone. But they understand the importance of convincing the Americans to work within an established order with (let’s be honest) self-imposed boundaries. They understand what happens when major powers are allowed to get away with whatever the fuck they want.

But Steve doesn’t see this. He distrusts anyone’s judgement but his own, believing “the safest hands are still our own.” Understandable considering that Hydra had found ways of controlling both him and his best friend. Understandable that a country which holds freedom and personal responsibility so highly, that everybody should have control over their own destiny, should try to embody this in the superhero that carries its name. And he’s wrong. Steve loses all credibility when he defends Bucky, and then when a legitimate threat is discovered nobody believes him. And at the end of it all? He still thinks he did the right thing.

America folks.

It’s taken most of the MCU to get here folks, but they did it. We’ve seen Captain America turn from a symbol of for the most idealistic version of what America might and could be, to a personification of what America has been for the last decade and a half.

God I love these films.

Next time, I might get into why the characterisation of Black Panther might be a bit racist.

Reviewing the Old School: Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

So the story I heard was that way back when, by which I mean the late nineties-early naughts after their second renaissance (which began with The Little Mermaid), Disney was in the process of shifting all their animation towards CG-3D. They’d bought Pixar but weren’t completely done with the odd bit of 2D fair. So they told their Florida animation studio, whose job had been support up until that point, to go for their life. What we got out of that are some of the most unique animated films to have come out of the House of Mouse, and a real shame that it took them years to get back on the saddle (with Wreck-it Ralph) after they shut that studio in favour of strict 3D animation. One of those films was, as you might have guessed, Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

What made this film so unique? A combination of things. Something you’ve got to remember about Disney’s renaissance in the nineties was that even their weirdest stuff was still pretty cliche (I’m using the word loosely here, bear with me). The Little Mermaid and Sleeping Beauty were based on classic and well known fairy-tales (admittedly with much happier endings) and even The Lion King just takes the skeleton of Hamlet and goes, “but what if… LIONS!” and adds a soundtrack by Elton John. I mean, it’s all good shit, but they’re very basic, very old, very proven stories.

What Atlantis does is take the well-known legend of Plato’s fictionalised city (highly advanced city, destroyed in a day, sunk below the waves, possibly around the Straits of Gibraltar) but ignores the fictional tropes that the rest of us lowly mortals use when making up stories about the place. No, seriously, think about other stories regarding Atlantis. We think of mermaids floating around a still thriving kingdom or a crumbling city beneath the waves of the Atlantic. We don’t normally come up with a living community that is both sophisticated and primitive, intelligent but illiterate, with a culture that is both familiar and strange at the same time. We certainly don’t think about flying tuna fish.

Then there’s the rest of the aesthetic of the film. It’s set in 1914 and everything that the outsiders brings to the city reflects that. The trucks are recognisable for the era, the dress and digger are appropriately steampunk, as is the submarine. Bolt action rifles, belt-fed machines guns, British-style helmets and paper flying machines add a level of class to the action that actually keeps things grounded. And as I said the design of the city and clothes of the Atlanteans is excellent. A good mix of primitive but alien. You don’t have trouble believing this is where our culture came from.

The characters are excellent, both their designs and voices. I love Helga, Kida and Audrey (played by Claudia Christian, Cree Summer and Jacqueline Obradors respectively). Their designs are different to each other (shit, all the speaking characters have got a unique silhouette) and you never have trouble imagining that they were capable of fighting or working an engine. Helga is traditionally attractive but broad shouldered and speaks with an authoritative and deep voice. Audrey dresses practically and looks her age. Even Kida, the most traditionally designed since she’s the heroine and princess of the tale, has a long, triangular face that is both individual and expressive. Amongst the guys Sweet and Mole (Phil Morris and Corey Burton) are fun in different ways. Dr Sweet is both oblivious and empathetic, the Mole is just, well, the Mole. Milo Thatch, our hero excellently played by Michael J Fox, is excellent. He’s skinny and bookish, but not unfit. He’s brave when he has to be, stands up for his principles and his relationship with Kida is fantastic. They fall into friendship instead of falling in love right away (we never see them kiss, which is excellent), making it one of the healthiest romances in Disney as far as I can tell. As for Commander Rourke (James Garner)? Well, that would be spoiling it. My favourite by far would be Vinny, voiced by Don Novello. The flower shop owner turned demolitions expert. He has such a fantastic delivery of his lines and some of the most relaxed and conversational dialogue in the film. Love the guy.

The music is strong and memorable. The lines are great.

So yeah, great movie. Unique and interesting. Different to other fairy-tale fair. If you haven’t, grab someone younger and watch it. It’s good fun.

Reviewing the Old School: The Siege (1998)

I wonder what this film would look like if it was made now. Would the villains be the same? Would the morals be the same? Would the heroes be as black and white? This is a pre-9/11 movie about terrorism after all (set in New York no less), and we live in a post-9/11 world.

Shit, we live in a post-a-lot-of-things world.

Released all the way back in 1998 The Siege stars Denzel Washington as FBI Assistant Special Agent Anthony ‘Hub’ Hubbard, essentially the bloke in charge of counter-terrorism operations in New York, as he and his team (most notably Tony Shalhoub as Lebanese-American FBI agent Frank Haddad) deal with with a series of escalating attacks in throughout New York, reprisals for the kidnapping of a major religious leader by US forces at the beginning of the film. They’re helped and hindered by CIA agent Elise Kraft/Sharon Bridger (starts with the former name, ends with the latter), played by Annette Benning, but as the situation grows worse, the FBI suffers casualties and they are unable to find the other terrorist cells martial law is declared and the army is sent in under the command of Major General William Devereaux.

This is not a perfect movie at all. The acting is solid and most of the characters are sympathetic if not likeable (I fucking love Tony Shalhoub, why doesn’t that guy get more roles?), with the sole exception of Annette Bening as the intruding CIA agent. She’s not bad in the role, and has some great moments, but the character comes off as whiny and annoying for most of the film, sounding for most of the movie like she’s on the verge of tears. Not great for the only female lead, even if it does play to a theme. There are some very action movie moments that are jarring against the realism that the rest of the film is trying to carry. When a bus is blown up at the beginning of the movie it is visceral and realistic. People well outside the blast range are thrown back and windows are shattered. Hub, who is halfway across the no-man’s land to the bus is far enough away that in most movies he’d usually just have to shield his eyes, is tossed around, deafened, blood vessels are ruptured (such as in his eye) and afterwards his nose begins to bleed in the middle of a briefing. It’s a good scene, and it seems weird when compared to moments later in the movie, such as when the army fucking blows up a building where Hub is trying to make an arrest. We’re talking grenades, machine guns and helicopter gunships launching hellfire missiles, and Hub making it out practically unscathed. It’s not a good scene.

Thing is though, The Siege still stands as one of the best examples I can think of when it comes to exploring terrorism and those who try to counter it. As I said, not perfect. I don’t think those of us over here in the relatively safe and peaceful west can possibly make a perfect film, but a decent one. The Islamic terrorists in the film have every right to be a bit miffed at the Americans. They were trained by the CIA to fight Saddam Hussein, then abandoned to be slaughtered. Many of them are from refugee camps and we are given the idea that the only hope many of them see for themselves and their families is through martyrdom. The attacks are triggered by the extrajudicial kidnapping of an important Islamic cleric by US forces. The film admits that the root causes of a great deal of modern terrorism can be traced back to American foreign policy (successes and failures), admits that these guys have the right to be pissed, though it never condones any of their actions. Blowing up innocent people is wrong regardless of the reasons.

It also shows the level of miscommunication and mistrust between the various branches of the American intelligence, counterintelligence and law enforcement services. Part of what makes Elise Kraft so annoying is her refusal to provide information to Hub and his team over the nature of the threat they faced or her sources. Devereaux makes a point of checking in on Hub and his team in the first half of the film, but otherwise is unwilling to share information with the FBI and, when martial law is declared, actively spies on the surviving members of the FBI. Getting information from other agencies is like pulling teeth, as they’re bounced from one organisation to another. Hub and his team still get the job done, but you get the distinct feeling that it could have been so much easier than it was.

The thing that got me about this film, however, is what it got wrong about us. Hub is a good guy. He cares about the law and judicial process. He privately berates a colleague for hitting a suspect. He waits for search warrants before assaulting a probable terrorist safe house. He believes that if you need to follow their rules to win, then you’ve already lost. Devereaux and Kraft disagree with him. They want to go in guns blazing, are willing to torture and fuck their way to the information they need. The film tells us this is bad. The film tells us, quite correctly, that this only makes things worse. The film tells us that polite society would not allow its morals to be eroded in the name of ‘safety and security.’

The film is wrong about that. At the end of the movie the combined multi-denominational might of Jewish, Christian, Muslim and whatever else protesters march upon the army lines chanting “No fear” in opposition to the Army’s detainment of thousands of young Muslim men for the crime of being young Muslim men. Hub is proved right, the law wins.

What happened in the real world? Well, Americans sacrificed many of those freedoms and protections the movie holds so dear to the Patriot Act after the Twin Towers fell. Guantanamo Bay is still open (the failure to close the prison down still stands as one of President Obama’s greatest failures). The Arab Spring seemed great at the time, but the failure of the USA and the rest of the West to follow it up with support and help has left the Middle East even messier than it already was, and ripe for an organisation like IS to become a legitimate power and threat. At home we’ve seen the rise of far-right arseholes and jingoistic nationalists, coming to power by spreading fear and anger. Extrajudicial killings and kidnappings are commonplace (just look at the Drone program or the assassination of Osama Bin Laden). And remember when those American nationals were illegally arrested and sent to countries like Egypt to be tortured? Yeah, that happened.

Pop-culture since then has reflected this. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t even blink at ‘enhanced interrogation’ or assassination, and doesn’t expect the audience to either. James Bond and Jack Bauer are tasked with getting the job done outside the law. A bullet to the head fixes the problems better than due process ever did. Guys like Hub are the weak-willed scrawny pencil pushers who haven’t been through what the heroes have been through and their adherence to the rules just gets in the way.

So would a movie like The Siege be made now? Yeah. Yeah it would. But I can’t say with any certainty that it would end the same way. Be as positive or hopeful. The good guys might not win. The law might not win.

That’s a shame. I wish a few more movies were like this.

Reviewing the Old School: The Dish (2000)

This is a movie that’s worth it for the ending, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

The third film by Working Dog Productions (second if you don’t count documentaries, and honestly why would you?) and biggest box office success, The Dish was released back in 2000 is a comedy that tells the (‘inspired by true events’) story of the Parkes Observatory (a big bloody radio telescope located in the middle of a sheep farm about twenty kilometres from the town of Parkes) and its quirky Australian technicians in the lead up to the Apollo 11 moonlanding. As well as tracking and relaying signals and communications from the travelling spacecraft enroute to and from the moon, it would also act as the primary receiver of the television signals that allowed the whole world to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s first steps upon its dusty surface.

This is a character comedy first and foremost and the characters are, for the most part, great. Unlike Working Dog’s previous film (and previous review fodder) The Castle, which really only included actors who were notable in Australia (it was Eric Bana’s film debut for Christ’s sake), The Dish‘s leads included notable Kiwi Sam ‘I-was-in-Jurassic-Park’ Neil as Cliff Buxton and American Patrick ‘I-have-one-of-the-most-recognised-voices-in-film-and-television’ Warburton as NASA representative Al Burnett. And they’re good. Neil as Cliff is calm and full of authority, puffing on his pipe, in complete control, trying to keep the peace. It means that on the rare occasion that he does tell someone to quit their bitching or loses his cool there genuine emotional impact. Warburton is quiet but obviously concerned as Al, he feels the weight of the world on his shoulders as NASA’s man on site but tries very hard to keep the stress from showing. Tom Long as Glenn is fantastic, playing a socially inept and slow nerd stereotype, but with such sincerity (I use that word way too much in these reviews, but I can’t be bothered grabbing a thesaurus) that you don’t mind. He gets the girl in the end (or at least asks her out) and it’s not some bullshit about her seeing ‘the real him’ behind the shy chitchat (most commonly in movies after the girl breaks up with some jock dickhead and realises that what she really wants is a nice guy who treats her alright). The girl in question, Eliza Szonert as Janine, is obviously attracted from the beginning of the movie to Glenn’s genuine sweetness and kind nature. Roy Billing as Mayor Bob MacIntyre takes the role seriously and has excellent comedic and dramatic timing, as does Genevieve Mooy as his wife. The only main character that I had an issue with was Kevin Harrington as Robert ‘Mitch’ Mitchell. Harrington’s a decent actor, and Mitch decent for the most part, but his character is the one that’s meant to be creating or experiencing conflict with Al, the American outsider, and I just never quite bought it. Lines yelled when they should have been spoken I think. This may have been actor, director, script or some combination of the three, but as a central character conflict I thought it just didn’t work. Having said that Harrington has excellent timing and delivered some of the best lines in the film.

The film has a large cast, possibly a little too large. All due respect to the actor but Billy Mitchell’s character, Cameron the over-zealous army cadet with a crush on the Mayor’s over-zealous (small L) liberal daughter seems superfluous in hindsight. I expect he’d there to represent a view of the Australian military (even with Australia starting to withdraw forces from the Vietnam War), but he doesn’t provide enough laughs to justify as much presence as he has in the film. Yet all the named characters can be justified, and I can’t really think of any that I’d really want culled. It makes for a cluttered cast-page, but doesn’t really make the film any worse for it. Just longer. I also like how they make an effort to give even the minor characters a little depth. Take the above mentioned Janine. She’s not just “girl who drops off lunch that Glenn has a crush on,” she’s also the security guard Rudy’s sister and a really awful driver. It’s not much, but it’s more than a lot of scripts would have given a character like her.

Rob Sitch does a good job directing, and I particularly loved scenes where the titular Dish and the men inside are simply doing their jobs. The choice of music is excellent, using some excellent 60s hits that never distract from what’s going on in the film, but will get you tapping your foot while it’s happening.

The pacing felt a little off. There are two climactic points in the film. The first takes place around the middle when a blackout briefly knocks out the Dish’s power and the backup generators weren’t primed possibly. Because this is the 1960s, this wipes all the data from the computer and for a whole day they ‘lose’ Apollo 11. They then desperately try and figure out where it is, while “bullshitting” NASA (and the American Ambassador who comes to visit). It’s a fun, desperate scene for the various characters but it drains away any tension for the second climax, where high speed winds threaten the broadcast of the actual moonwalk. I’m not sure how this could’ve been improved, but it never really feels like it was quite as dangerous a risk as they say it was.

Is the movie funny? Yes, yes it is. Not in a laugh-your-arse-off kind of way, more like a quiet chuckle and knowing smile. There are some fantastic moments that really sum up the Australian atmosphere of the film, like cricket on the satellite dish, the frequent cups of tea, the omnipresence of sheep and lamb. The Prime Minister (played by Billie Brown and only ever referred to as “Prime Minister” because John Gorton was not our most memorable PM) only appears for a few minutes overall but does a great job of portraying the well-spoken pub-brawl nature of Australian politics for most of the century. (“We’ve got a saying in the party: Don’t fuck up…” “And?” “That’s it.”)

Less of the humour than you’d expect, however, comes from any juxtaposition between the Yanks on site and the local country Aussies. Al is definitely different, is unused to working in professional environments without dress codes, formalities and chains of command, but he’s never anything but polite and is one of the most respectful people in the film. Similarly the US Ambassador, played by John McMartin, is never mocking in his attitude towards the locals and is simply a NASA-enthusiast is just bloody excited to visit Parkes and watch the landing. And that segues nicely into what this film is about.

Y’see, The Dish is not about culture clash, it’s about vindication. There’s the obvious ones. Al’s presence is vindicated in the eyes of Mitch when he helps them bullshit NASA. Mayor Bob McIntyre is vindicated for lobbying to get the Dish built in Parkes in the first place. There’s the less obvious ones. Bob’s daughter Marie (Lenka Kripac) is a teenage feminist spitting out opinions against chauvinism and imperialism without any real idea what she’s talking about (today she’d have a blog on Tumblr), and she’s surprised when Al tells her that it’s been a delight meeting and talking with her. It’s a small thing, but you get the feeling it’s the first time someone has shown any sort of approval for having strong opinions. The second half of The Dish is full of these vindicating moments, culminating right at the end with the moon walk.

The ending is wonderful. Everyone is gathered around television sets watching Neil Armstrong take the first few steps on the moon’s surface. You feel the emotion of the moment, that feeling of witnessing something truly monumental occurring, one of the greatest achievements in human history. The culmination of years of work, expense, stress, terror and hope, broadcast for six hundred million people to see, with that purest of goals: To prove that humanity could do it.

This movie is not perfect. It’s funny and clever, but there’s a list of flaws that I don’t even have time to get into, but it’s worth it for that ending. That feeling of elation and that feeling of achievement. This is a film about the Australian contribution to the television broadcast, not about NASA or the astronauts. The Cold War, the Vietnam War and the Space Race are never mentioned in the film. This is a movie not about an American achievement but a human achievement. In that final few minutes it makes you proud to be a human.

So, yeah, it’s worth it for the ending.

Reviewing the old school: Thank You for Smoking (2005)

Do you remember this film? I didn’t remember this film until quite recently, and I can’t for the life of me think of why. Thinking back to when Thank You for Smoking was released all the way back in 2005, it was a pretty big deal. Not like in a blockbuster, Transformers or The Dark Knight kind of way, but, I mean, I was in fucking high school and I was hearing about what a brilliant film it was. That’s not normal, is it? I don’t think that’s normal. This film though, this film was special. This smart little indie film all about arguments and talking, without any explosions and only a little sex, had us teenage Aussie millennials talking or at least my circle of friends, and for good reason. Because my friends are weird. And it’s a great film. So why’s it so forgettable?

The film, fantastically written and directed by Jason Reitman, stars Aaron Eckhart as Nick Naylor, the chief spokesman for what is essentially big tobacco. Nick is suave, charming, good at what he does and loves his job. Since his job is convincing as many people as possible to smoke cigarettes, in most other films he’d probably be the bad guy. And he sort of is. But he’s so rationally proud of it that you can’t help but cheer for him and his cohorts to win over that bastard senator from Vermont who’s only thinking of the children. The film follows Nick at his highest (getting the film industry involved in making cigarettes cool – cooler – again) and lowest (an article is released revealing all the secrets he’d told to the writer, who he’d been sleeping with… also kidnapping and attempted murder) points while clearly explaining how political argument and debate work, the art of lobbying and the importance of making informed decisions.

The acting is fantastic. Aaron Eckhart owns the role of Nick Naylor, and you never for a moment doubt his sincerity or self-awareness. Katie Holmes as the above mentioned reporter who really shouldn’t be trusted with sensitive information plays her role with a casual, professional glee. JK Simmons and William H Macy carry their roles with skill, as always, as Nick’s boss and sorta nemesis respectively and deliver some of the best lines in the movie, as do Maria Bello and David Koechner as Nick’s best friends Polly Bailey and Bobby Jay Bliss (alcohol and gun lobbies respectively). Smaller roles are perfectly cast, like Robert Duvall as The Captain and Rob Lowe as Hollywood fixer Jeff Megall. Even Cameron Bright, the (at the time) child actor playing Nick’s son Joey does a great job (though there was one or two moments that felt a little flat). Jason Reitman did a fantastic job with this. The dialogue is well written and the editing switches from long, drawn out moments to rabid flashes expertly. The music is excellent, and I loved the song playing over the opening credits.

What’s great about this film is the moral ambiguity of its theme: mainly, to make your own informed choices and come to your own conclusions. Nick Naylor may be working for the ostensible bad guys, a big corporation that cares more about profits than human lives, but he does so with surprising moral conviction and (I think mostly because of his frank narration) far more honesty than what we’d normally expect. He definitely seems more honest than the manipulative Senator Finistirre. But what I love about this film, what I really love about this excellent piece of satire, is that it is incredibly self-aware. The information it is providing is nothing new, and it knows that it’s nothing new. Admits to it cheerfully and wittily. At the end, at the climax of the movie when Nick sits in at a hearing about putting a skull and crossbones on all cigarette packs he acknowledges that he knows cigarettes are bad for you. In fact everybody knows cigarettes are bad for you. Similarly, the audience already knows about what the film is apparently revealing. We know that big corporate powers use films and celebrities to sell their products. We know that they use misleading scientific studies to continue lying to the consumer. We know that they have huge teams of lawyers to tie down opponents in legal red tape. We know that they lie, cheat and bribe. And the film knows we know. Thank You for Smoking is not about revealing the dangers of the world. It treats us more intelligently than that. The film is about the power of argument and persuasion, and whether you’re right or wrong depends on how convincing you are. Nick Naylor is the hero of this film because he is the best at arguing. That’s all. Mind you I’m a fan of arguing (love a good fight), so maybe I’m just reaching my own conclusions (see what I did there?)

So, you remembering this film now? Maybe saying I’d forgotten this film is going a bit too far. I don’t know what made me think of it the other day, but I remembered it immediately, and enough where I was able to start thinking about what I was gonna write down before the rewatch. But it still feels like it should be far better remembered than what it is, up there with other political satires like Wag the Dog or… shit… I can’t think of any similar enough examples at this exact moment. Point is, if you haven’t you should watch this film. If you have, watch it again. It’s an easy film to over-analyse and under-analyse, and it’s a great piece of smart cinema regardless. Funny too.

Reviewing the Old School: The Castle (1997)

It’s not just a house, it’s a home. Just like how this isn’t just any old movie, this is and likely will remain one of the most iconically Aussie movies you can possibly watch. At least that’s the conclusion that one of my best mates and I came to watching it on Tuesday afternoon, hungover from Monday’s Australia Day revels and trying to sufficiently recover for round two in the coming evening.

Released in 1997, The Castle tells the story of the Kerrigan family, led by patriarch Darryl (Michael Caton), and their fight against the corporate powers trying to seize and bulldoze their home in order to build a new runway at the nearby airport (as in literally right next door). Told through the narration of youngest son Dale (Steven Curry) this film both reflected and informed Australian culture. On the one hand, the Kerrigans and their neighbours are a collection of stereotypes of bogan culture in the late nineties (and now). They own five cars, make casually racist remarks without any malice, have generally atrocious hair, have no wish to move outside of their insular little community, gamble, spend more time reading the trading post than the newspaper and think that the only show funnier than Hey, Hey it’s Saturday is The Best of Hey, Hey it’s Saturday.

On the other hand, it’s also informed Australian culture. If an Aussie says you should “tell him he’s dreaming” or remarks upon the “serenity” of a particular location, they’re referencing The Castle. And we reference it a lot. Seriously. Y’know how much I talk about the Borderlands games? There’s a location in the Pre-Sequel called ‘So Much Serenity.’ That’s a reference to The Castle. Shit, while doing HSC English it made up the Australian required viewing on a syllabus that included Nobel Prize winning poets. Few other films have had such a lasting effect on Aussie culture. It makes you ask the question: why has this moderately funny and heartwarming film remained so important in the national consciousness while other moderately funny and heartwarming films fallen out of it?

I think it’s because of the sincerity of the script and cast. I think that while it isn’t exactly the prettiest reflection, we do like what we see. The Kerrigans are working class, unworldly, uneducated, the eldest son is in prison, and all of them are good people without question. The Kerrigans hold to principles of mateship and community that are often pushed as being quintessentially Australian. Darryl’s first thought upon finding out that the airport is seizing homes is to run to their neighbour Jack’s house, the oldest on the block. Their lawyer, Dennis Denuto (played wonderfully by Tiriel Mora) spends much of the film terrified and out of his depth. He knows he can’t win, knows how badly they’ll lose, even remarks that he’s “shitting himself” when they have a fighting chance, but he jumps into the ring anyway because his mate’s in trouble and asked him for help. Even the ending is something sincerely, positively Australian. They don’t Erin Brockovich or Miracle on 34th Street their way to victory, pouring through pages of legal notes themselves until they find a loophole or performing some gesture that warms the heart of the judge that’ll save their homes, like in so many American films. They win because Darryl meets a retired deus ex machina… I mean QC who was an expert in constitutional law named Lawrence Hammill (played also wonderfully by Charles Tingwell) and they bond over shared pride in their children. It falls upon the idea that Australia is an egalitarian society, that mateship crosses boundaries of class, wealth and education, and that when you see a mate down on his luck you do every fucking thing possible to help him. Darryl is a good bloke, and in Australia we help good blokes.

Now, is that necessarily true? Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s part of how we like to think about ourselves. And the film plays it with a perfectly straight face. The acting helps. Everyone puts out a great performance, Michael Caton in particular bringing a lot of emotion to his character. Special props go to Stephen Curry as our narrator, youngest son Dale. Dale is a character who absorbs every detail and is bluntly obvious about things, and Stephen brings a fantastic and positive honesty to the role.

The script is excellent. The editing and camera work are solid. Rob Sitch, the director and one of the writers, know what he’s doing with this kind of comedy. The soundtrack was a bit forgettable. If there’s any flaws with the film, it’s that the few female characters occupy the background a little too much, and that the comparisons between the Kerrigans’ legal battle and the issues of Aboriginal land rights, the Mabo Decision and Terra Nullius varied between hamfisted and a little cringeworthy. They’re not huge flaws, especially when compared to other Australian films, but they’re worth mentioning (and if you think I’m underplaying them right now, drop a comment, the discussion would be great).

Anyway, long story short, great film. Iconically Australian. Definitely worth a watch even if you’re not from the land down under. At the very least it’s worth mentioning as being Eric Bana’s film debut.