The Company You Keep (US-Canada, 2012)

Old school

Robert Redford, Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Terrence Howard, Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Elliott and youngsters Anna Kendrick, Shia LaBeouf and Brit Marling all in one film! It’s an extraordinary cast list and probably a tribute to Producer-Director Redford’s contact book. It’s the last film he’s made as a director and Christie’s last film appearance to date and a sense of retro pervades the film as it deals with politics in a way that harks back to ’70s films, such as Three Days of the Condor (1975). Given the age of the protagonists, Redford was in his mid-’70s, there’s also a valedictory tone as characters reminisce about their radical youth and what happened since.

Lem Dobbs’ screenplay, based on Neil Gordon’s novel, is adept at showing the inevitable disappointment of how the radicalism, of anti-Vietnam War protestors (specifically the Weather Underground – or Weathermen), ended in disappointment even though America eventually withdrew from South East Asia. If Reagan wasn’t enough in 1980s the repressive state of politics post-9/11 made it worse and this has even been topped by the ludicrous Trump. The narrative highlights complication of being a parent whilst trying to oppose the state which, given the bourgeois nature of the nuclear family, gives a reactionary feel to the resolution. However, given the nature of parenthood it is, at the same time, convincing. That’s a pretty neat trick to pull off as the film careers toward a ‘Hollywood’ ending (though the film was independently produced). If this paragraph doesn’t make sense that’s because I don’t want to include spoilers – the film’s available in the UK on BBC iPlayer for another 20 days.

The film is as interesting as much for its use of stars as its narrative. Usually I find cameo roles distracting as there’s disappointment that more isn’t seen of the actor, however here it works as it adds to the valedictory mood of the film. All of the named (LaBeouf aside whose bratty journalist I think is meant to be admired) are superb; Britt Marling even makes an impact when we are introduced to her character as a voice on the phone. Christie, drawing on her own radical past, is as luminous as ever and Sarandon does droll with a ferocity unequaled by any contemporary actor; LaBeouf in his scene with her is annihilated. Cooper, Gleeson and Elliot all exude gravitas; Tucci and Howard both signify professionalism; Jenkins’ conflicted lecturer and Nolte’s roguishness are effortlessly portrayed; Kendrick makes an impact with what little she is given and Redford’s Redford.

Ben Dickerson’s book Hollywood’s New Radicalism (IB Tauris, 2006) featured Sarandon on its cover and showed how films like Bamboozled (2000), Bulworth (1998), The Cradle Will Rock (1999), Erin Brokovich (2000), Bulworth (1998), and Mystic River (2003) all had interesting things to say. Hollywood’s gone pretty much mute now, though, to be fair, Adam McKay does try (The Big Short, 2015, and Vice, 2018); it’s probably that Hollywood rarely had much to say about politics and it’s only through the telescopic lens of history that there appeared to be loads of radical films at the turn of the century and in the New Hollywood era of the 1970s. Hence The Company You Keep is a pretty vital watch.

The Report (US, 2019)

Nearly swamped by ‘intelligence’

Writer-director Scott Z Burns succeeds in The Report where he failed as scriptwriter of The Laundromat (US, 2019), directed by Steven Soderbergh, in presenting complex material in an engaging and dramatic fashion. The Laundromat floundered, despite Soderbergh throwing tricksy set-ups at the viewer and a stellar cast, because the attempt to tell the story of the Panama Papers through an ordinary person didn’t work. The Report tells of the investigation into the CIA’s use of torture in the ‘war on terror’ through the chief investigator, the dogged Dan Jones (the suitably taciturn Adam Driver), and this gives the film a central pillar at the heart of the narrative. It also benefits from a great performance from Annette Bening as Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, who has to negotiate between Jones’ determination to get the report published and Washington political machinations.

Both films are vital contributions to democracy as they attempt to inform the general public about corruption which is something corporate media, in general, fails to do. In the UK, where the BBC used to have a reputation for robust reporting, public service broadcasting fails to convey the complexity of these issues and the malfeasance of our ruling classes (the BBC recently edited out the laughter greeted by Boris Johnson’s statement that truth in politics is important thus saving the man from ridicule). Complexity does not sit well in the 24-hour news cycle (actually the cycle is much shorter these days) and much of the press in the UK is like Fox News in America: propaganda outlets for the powerful. Complexity is not easy for mainstream films either and I doubt The Report will pull up trees at the box office even though it deserves to. It’s not dissimilar to All the President’s Men (US, 1976) which dramatised the investigation into Watergate; the establishing shot of the brutalist concrete of the building Jones works in references the earlier film. It’s a damning sign of the times that Pakula’s ’70s film won Oscars and, despite the fact The Report is better, the new film’s shelf life in cinemas is likely to be short.

The inevitable wordiness is leavened, if that’s the right word, by re-enactments of the torture led by two contractors who convinced the CIA, post-9/11, that they had the ‘sauce’ which would get to the truth in interrogation. I was gobsmacked to learn they received $80m for their troubles. As soon as, in panic and desperation, they were given carte blanche to torture, the institutional momentum ensured they could not be stopped as no one in positions of authority wanted to admit they were wrong to go down that route in the first place. There is some wicked humour in scenes where one of the contractors states that they now know the victim of waterboarding is lying; Feinstein remarks that if one man was waterboarded 183 times, why didn’t they realise the technique doesn’t work?

The film is very good on the realpolitick that meant Obama, who’d portrayed himself as non-partisan when campaigning for the presidency, wanted to suppress the report; the references to drone strikes is also a useful corrective to that president’s saintly image (surely a result of his charm and the contrast with his successor). Zero Dark Thirty is given a justifiable poke as Bigelow’s film shamelessly lied about torture being instrumental in Bin Laden’s assassination.

Driver carries the film brilliantly. As the obstructions increasingly make it difficult for him to finish the report he slowly reaches (almost) boiling point in outrage that the truth is something that should be hidden from the people. It’s a vital film for the 21st century.

Nae Pasaran (UK, 2018)

The people united

The right still excoriates the trade union movement, justifiably because it stands in the way of rampant exploitation of the workers. The propagandistic aspect of this vilification in the 21st century is obvious because the unions have been emasculated by Thatcherite legislation which, shamefully, the Blair government refused to undo. In the 1970s the unions did have power and it’s no coincidence that inequality in British society has been steadily rising since they were defeated. Nae Pasaran is a timely reminder of the importance of international solidarity, even more so now when the insular xenophobes are on the rise, with its story of Scottish workers refusing to repair Hawker Hunter fighter jet engines.

The year was 1973 and on September 11th General Pinochet launched a coup against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. The coup was American backed as corporations were worried about Allende’s policy of nationalisation. Nixon was the president and Henry Kissinger the Secretary of State (unbelievably he won a Nobel Peace Prize): enough said. I remember (as a youngster) thinking Kissinger was some kind of hero as he was repeatedly represented on television news as a peacemaker in the Middle East. That was a lie then propagated by mainstream media; ‘fake news’ isn’t new. The current American government is trying to engineer a coup, shamelessly supported by the EU in recognising the unelected opposition leader as the the man they want in power. One thing that distinguishes the Trump administration from that of Nixon’s is that, amongst all the lies, the truth sometimes appears. National Security Advisor John Bolton admits the attempted coup is about oil; something Bush jr. didn’t say about Iraq.

Hence Nae Pasaran is particularly timely as it reminds us of America’s disastrous interventions in Latin America; Pinochet tortured political prisoners and thousands were killed. It also shows us how powerful international solidarity can be as the consequences of the workers ‘blacking’ the engines included the release into exile some of the political prisoners. These exiles included writer-director Felipe Bustos Sierra’s dad and he tracked down the surviving members of the trade unionists who were instrumental in ‘blacking’ the engines. After the documentary’s title sequence, that fills in the history of Chile 1973, we arrive in Scotland and meet these ageing heroes. If this sequence is a little long, they tell Sierra what they remember of the time, there’s a pay-off at the end when their achievement receives official acknowledgement. The middle parts of the documentary consist of tracking down the fate of the engines and the impact the Scottish boycott had.

I just managed to catch the film on BBC’s iPlayer service (it disappeared yesterday) as it was only broadcast in Scotland; a rather parochial decision as it would have been a public service to ensure the film was broadcast to the nation.

The Ear (Ucho, Czechoslovakia, 1970) – LIFF9

What price freedom?

Like A Squandered Sunday, The Ear wasn’t released until the after end of the Cold War, in 1989, as its portrayal of Czechoslovakian political life, in the ‘Normalisation’ post-’68 period, is damningly satirical. When those in power can’t stand criticism you know you’re in trouble (see Trump). This is another of the Time Frames strand at the Leeds International Film Festival, The Ear narrates the squabbles of a government minister and his wife in the aftermath of an official reception at Prague Castle, which is shown in flashback.

The Ear’s writer, last films as he died of cancer in 1971. Procházka had done well to survive as a filmmaker for so long because he constantly pushed against official censorship. Director Karel Kachyňa continued to have a fruitful career (despite having made several films with the ‘frowned upon’ Procházka). Peter Hames, in The Czechoslovak New Wave, suggests that Kachyňa successfully portrayed Procházka as the ‘ideas man’ whilst he was merely a metteur en scene (he ‘just’ shot the script). Whether this was a betrayal I don’t know; it was just as likely to have been a pragmatic position to take against repression. Whatever the case, Kachyňa’s direction is perfect in its portrayal of Ludvik’s (the minister) growing conviction his days are numbered. 

He and his wife return from the party to find things aren’t as they should be at home. Doors are locked; then unlocked. Things have been moved and there are men in the garden (it is the middle of the night). Ludvik thinks back to the evening, using ‘subjective’ shots (we are Ludvik), trying to find clues that may signify his fall from favour. His wife, Anna, is both pissed (drunk) and pissed off because Ludvik has forgotten their wedding anniversary again. Radoslav Brzobohatý and Jirina Bohdalová are superb as the warring couple and their collapsing marriage mirrors the political paranoia of the time. The political is personal as Ludvik had only married her for convenience and all his actions as a government minister – and by extension true of all government ministers – are about self-survival.

The titular ‘ear’ are bugs the secret police have placed to listen for sedition. The couple even have to have sex in the kitchen to get some privacy. In the absurdist tradition of Czechoslovakian cinema, there are a number of batty scenes, including a toilet that won’t flush and an invasion by goons who want some booze.

The Ear is another example of the brilliant ‘new waves’ of eastern Europe during the ’50s and ’60s.


No Love for Johnnie (UK, 1961)

Unsentimental too

I knew the title but little else when I spied this on Talking Pictures channel and what a discovery it proved to be. Peter Finch plays a careerist Labour politician whose lack of success in government, and disastrous personal life, sets the scene for an unsentimental portrayal of a middle aged man in crisis. I expected the film to be sympathetic to him and feared the worse when he starts an affair, after his wife has left him, with a woman half his age. However, the film went against my expectation and the female characters are portrayed as stronger than he is.

As Roy Stafford outlines, the film doesn’t quite belong to the ‘new wave’ cinema of the time though there are ‘obligatory’ shots of ‘it’s grim up north’ – Halifax standing in for a generic northern town. Because the focus is on Parliamentary politics, and it’s obviously in the know as it’s based on a novel by Labour MP Wilfred Fienburgh, its metropolitan milieux takes it away from the working class world that reinvigorated late ’50s-early ’60s British cinema. Although the costumes of the characters, particularly the women, seem to belong to the ’50s, and the music they bop to is jazz, the mores of the time are more in keeping with the nascent ‘sexual revolution’. The uncredited Oliver Reed plays a drunk at a party and, in retrospect, gives the film a forward-looking feel. There’s no sense that the ingénue Mary (Pauline West) should be censored for sex outside marriage and Billie Whitelaw portrays the neighbour, who holds a flame for Johnnie, as a strong woman; though the scene were he gets violent toward her, with her forgiving response, sits uneasily today.

It was produced by Betty Box, one of the few women of influence in the industry at the time, and she’d made – along with director Ralph Thomas – the successful ‘Doctor’ series, starring Dirk Bogarde. She had a prolific career running from the 1940s to the mid-’70s. It’s difficult enough for women to succeed today so what a person she must have been.

The Post (UK-US, 2017)

The woman in front of the man

The Post, with the award-baiting combination of Hanks-Spielberg-Streep, tells a tale from 1971 that is vital now. Spielberg reportedly ‘rushed’ the production because of the film’s topicality: who will hold governments to account, the role of the fourth estate, if newspapers don’t?

The Pentagon Papers were academic investigations into the Vietnam War commissioned by the Secretary of State for Defence, Robert McNamara, which found that the war was unwinnable. This conclusion was not shared with the American public and hundreds of thousands of people died because the war continued. McNamara, by the way, was the subject of the Errol Morris’ brilliant The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (US, 2003). It wasn’t until the New York Times scoop, they were leaked by Daniel Ellsburg, that the Papers were revealed.

The Post, however, focuses on the Washington Post which also ran the story, having received the Papers after the Times, when the Nixon administration took out an injunction to prevent further publication; this was the first time in US history that the government had gagged a newspaper. I’m not sure why the focus is on the Post though it has a good story to tell; the leader of the Times’ legal team, James C. Goodale, claims the film is good but ‘bad history’. I’ve no reason to disbelieve him.

However, it is as a film about now that The Post excels. Obviously the relationship between news reporting and government, particularly in America where Trump shouts ‘fake news’ at anything he doesn’t agree with, is particularly contentious. The newspaper industry has been declining for nearly 50 years but the rise of Google and Facebook, that suck up advertising, has destroyed the business model for the ‘quality press’ that relied on delivering valuable audiences to advertisers. The film shows the vital role the press has and so raises fears about the future as newspapers’ influence declines. In the UK, it seems that the press have retreated from their role as the ‘fourth estate’ (the other three are government, the courts and the church), which is meant to hold those in power to account, and become even more partial in terms of their political orientation. The Daily Telegraph recently led with the ridiculous claim from defence secretary Gavin Williamson that the Russians can kill thousands of people by interfering with the power supply. Giving credence to Williamson’s attempt to distract from a story that embarrassed him suggests their news standards are wallowing in the gutter.

The other topical aspect of the film is the role of women in the 1970s. The Post’s owner, Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), constantly finds herself in rooms full of male executives who don’t take her seriously. She is shown to rise to the occasion and, in a great shot, when she leaves the Supreme Court, a line of adoring young women watch her. She makes a stand publishing the Papers even though it could have caused problems with the Stock Exchange floatation happening at the time. The film suggests this is to protect the newspaper but Goodale says it was to pay stockholders’ estate taxes. To further tarnish her apparent heroism, she became a print union buster later in the decade – see here.

When the paper finally goes to press, Spielberg ensures we see the whole hot metal process, an incredible technological effort required to produce newspapers in those ‘good old days’. Except, of course, they weren’t really good it’s just that things are worse now.


No (Chile-France-US-Mexico, 2012)

Ad exec takes on military dictatorship

Ad exec takes on military dictatorship

General Pinochet, whose CIA-backed coup overthrew Salvatore Allende’s democratically elected Socialist government on September 11 1973, was almost held accountable for his crimes when he visited the UK in 1998. He was let go on health grounds: the ruling classes certainly look after their own as there was nothing wrong with him! This film recounts how Pinochet was deposed: a Referendum, as to whether he should continue as President, in 1988 imposed on Pinochet by his western backers. They wanted him to have the veneer of democratic respectability but were surprised by the victory of the ‘no’ vote. No recounts how the ‘no’ campaign was successful and uses footage from both the actual campaigns and the brutality of Pinochet’s troops.

From a naive perspective it is surprising that many would vote ‘yes’ for a military dictatorship but that neglects the fact that many, in the middle class, had benefited from Pinochet’s rule. So it’s self-interest over democratic ideals and fairness; a ‘principle’ that goes some way to explain why many voted for the Conservatives in the May UK Election. Democracy is a fig-leaf that is useful to gain consent (‘hegemony’) from the masses and if people dare to misuse their vote – as in the Greek Referendum on the economic destruction of their country – they will be ignored; in the Greek case by the EU and  European Bank (the World Bank at least acknowledges that Greece can never pay back its debt under the terms it’s been given).

It struck me also how Pinochet’s Minister responsible for the ‘yes’ campaign referred to his opponents as ‘fools’; anyone who opposes their ideas must by definition, they think, be idiots. Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign, for the leadership of the Labour Party, have been characterised in similar ways. Corbyn is challenging the status quo and has a high level of support, this the Establishment cannot tolerate (because it means that they aren’t necessarily right) and cognitive dissonance kicks in, so they start ridiculing what is opposing them as they can’t rationally argue against them.

Back to the film: obviously well worth seeing but Larrain’s direction did irritate me. He seemed to delight in shooting into the sun presumably to give the film a documentary feel with its ‘uncomposed’ shots. It was shot on 1983 U-matic video camera (in the 4:3 ratio) which means the image quality is poor; that didn’t bother me. Gael Garcia Bernal, as the ‘heroic’ ad exec (that phrase doesn’t occur very often), is brilliant as usual. His appearance in a film, in itself, seems to guarantee quality.

Citizenfour (Germany-US-UK, 2014)

Citizenfour for as all

Citizenfour for as all

Edward Snowden is a very 21st century hero: whistleblowing on how everyone is being spied upon via compromised networks. Whistleblowers are the heroes of our time and it’s an indictment of our time that they often end up more vilified than the criminals they are revealing. Snowden says, in Laura Poitras’ fabulous film, he hopes that when he is ‘shut up’, like the beheaded Hydra, seven other whistleblowers will appear behind him. They haven’t, testimony to the treatment they know they will receive but also the complicity that those who work for ‘security agencies’ have in the destruction of our ability to have a private life.

Along with Wikileaks, Snowden revealed what many of the left have always suspected: the security services operate beyond the law and legislatures have no desire the rein them in. Although this fact wasn’t a surprise, the breadth of their infiltration of our communications is still shocking. Without people like Snowden, and reporters such as Glenn Greenwald, along with The Guardian newspaper, we would well and truly be screwed. Or would we? We probably are anyway.

It’s unclear to me what affect the revelations have had upon the NSA, in America, and GCHQ in the UK; the latter, Snowden says, has even greater penetration of British communications than the NSA has over American’s. The response of many people seems to be to shrug as if it isn’t important. This might be because they are politically on the right (though it is quite striking that the libertarian right – to which Snowden belongs – has mostly been quiet) or they don’t want to hear such disturbing talk.

Many years ago, when I sold hotdogs at Chester Zoo during the summer, my fellow salesman delighted in regaling me with his belief that the ‘general public is thick’. I still don’t believe this but I think ‘the general public is ignorant’. Part of this is due to consumption of the right-wing media. Take the Daily Mail‘s front page (yesterday) that expressed shock that the charity Cage, which assists people who’ve been ‘targeted’ by the security services, should say that it is possible that ‘Jihadi John’s’ unspeakable behaviour (in beheading victims on behalf of ISIS) was in part caused by harassment by MI5. The Mail, in particular, is like a child who avoids hearing anything contrary to their beliefs by putting their hands over their ears and sings ‘la-la-la…’ It’s obvious that harassment could cause radicalisation but to acknowledge this would lead to questions about the effectiveness of security policy. Toward the end of Citizenfour it’s revealed that the NSA has 1.2 million people on its watch list! Whilst computer surveillance can watch us all, the security services don’t have the resources to directly monitor everyone on the lists. At some point they may decide, in order for us to be safe, internment without trial of suspects is needed.

The ignorance of the public can also be ‘wilful’: they are more interested in celebrity gossip than issues that affect their lives. For example, on Thursday the FCC guaranteed net neutrality, a triumph against the increasing commercialisation of the internet, however the internet was ‘full’ of ‘the dress’.


Like George Romero’s zombies finding shopping malls reassuring, many won’t deal with the issues of our time (until they are the victims).

All this surveillance is done in the name of the bogus ‘war on terror’. Terrorists have no power to threaten nation states so they commit atrocities in the hope that the states will over-react and create a fertile ground for further recruitment of terrorists. I would say ‘stupidly our leaders over-react every time’ except I believe they know exactly what they are doing: terrorist acts become an excuse for more government control. In this way ISIS and governments have a symbiotic relationship: the victims are ordinary people of all cultures.

Well done to the Academy for awarding this documentary an Oscar; it was by far the most important film of the contenders but Radio 4’s Today programme managed to avoid mentioning it. Hopefully the award will raise its profile (it’s not available on DVD in the UK) as will Channel 4’s screening (in a graveyard slot but that matters little these days). Quite simply this is a film that all should see though it will be difficult to use in schools without plenty of background information but it is necessary to fit it into the curriculum!


The Reluctant Fundamentalist (US-UK-Qatar, 2012)


Who Do I Identify With?

I haven’t read Mohsin Hamid’s novel on which the film is based which is an oversight as anything, like Amy Waldman’s excellent The Submission, that tries to get to grips with the ‘war on terror’, which threatens to run as long as the wars in Orwell’s 1984, is important. There was a lot to like about the adaptation, not least Riz Ahmed’s performance in the lead. The subtleties of identity politics are well rendered as Ahmed’s Changez finds himself caught between tradition and rampant capitalism. Kiefer Sutherland, incidentally, excels as the slimy capitalist, a role he may be danger of becoming typecast in – see Melancholia.

The febrile atmosphere of Lahore is thrillingly caught; a fellow member of the audience told me that only a few exteriors were shot in Lahore, not surprisingly given the state of play in Pakistan at the moment. The glass mausoleums of capitalism are also well shot though the problems inherent in using ‘9/11’ footage (that it was far more dramatic than anything cinema can render) were not resolved.

But… While I understood the reasons for the romance narrative, Changez is after all a young man seeking his way in the world, this didn’t ‘come off’ at all. Changez is in his early 20s and while there’s no reason why he wouldn’t fall for a thirty something Kate Hudson (34), she looked far older to me; unlikely as it is, she seemed to have suffered from botox. But that’s probably just me.

Without spoiling the film, I can comment that I admired the way Changez developed convincingly throughout the film but found the final scene, with Liev Schrieber’s journalist, risible. The expression on Schrieber’s character’s face should be mortified and not a wry smile.

Incidentally I saw this at a packed out screening at the close of the Bradford International Film Festival.