Dear Comrades!

Dear Comrades!

There comes a point in every ideological society when reality impinges upon the beliefs held so dearly by the local elite. As complex and totalizing ideologies try to be, some aspect of reality inevitably throws the whole structure of feeling into doubt; Utah got its first Jewish governor in such a moment.

The communist world was prone to these moments. The Soviet Union, among other Marxist-Leninist states, billed itself as a workers’ paradise, free of the parasitic relationship between employer and employee. But, as Lenin dictated, there was a vanguard party that assumed the qualities of the boss not long after the overthrow of the tsar. This led to the unthinkable in the “workers’ state”: strikes.

The 2020 Russian film Dear Comrades!, directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, tackles the violent breaking of a strike by the Soviet government in the industrial town of Novocherkassk, near Rostov, not far from the Black Sea and the Ukrainian border. It is a film about the massive hypocrisy undergirding the Soviet state, and how it constantly betrayed the people it purported to serve.

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Joyeux Noël

Joyeux Noël

The Christmas Truces of the First World War have become the stuff of legend. The actual history is frankly poetic: men of different nationalities seeing each other as human, friends even, in what had been no man’s land, where they had slaughtered each other only the day before. It’s great kindness among great horror, a juxtaposition that has inspired great stories.

One such take is the 2005 multinational film Joyeux Noël, directed by Christian Carion. It is a film that takes its time to be humanist, no small thing in today’s cynical culture. It revolves around six characters — one French, two German, two Scottish (not English, they insist) and one Danish — from a variety of backgrounds, with officers, enlisted and civilians represented. They are representations of how total the war was, and how it affected everyone in those countries, and beyond.

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Mr Jones

Mr Jones

The student of history soon learns that the road to utopia is paved with corpses. The People’s Republic of China starved millions of its own people in pursuit of a classless society. Israel expelled and massacred thousands of Arabs in the war that fashioned the modern state. The United States brutalized its indigenous peoples in an attempt to create an agrarian paradise.

The most infamous example is the original Marxist society-building project, the Soviet Union. In an attempt to bring a country barely out of feudalism into the industrial era, Lenin and Stalin starved their own people, including the Ukrainians in what is remembered as the Holodomor (“death by hunger”).

Before the 2014 invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, few in the West had heard of the Holodomor. The fact that Westerners learned about the tragedy at all is thanks to one man: Gareth Jones, a British journalist. His story is dramatized in the 2019 film Mr Jones, directed by Agneiszka Holland.

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The Great War of Archimedes

The Great War of Archimedes

As a half-white Filipino American, I am not a neutral reviewer of The Great War of Archimedes, a Japanese movie about the construction of the battleship Yamato. I was raised on stories about the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. My grandfather served as a decoy for the resistance and my great-grandfather was a resistance fighter. A 14 year-old girl was married off to a 40 year-old man, so that she would not be taken as a comfort woman; that union produced an entire branch of my family.

Perhaps that is why, at the end of the film, I recalled that Joseph Goebbels is purported to have said that The Battleship Potemkin could turn anyone into a Bolshevik. The Great War of Archimedes might just convince anyone of the benevolence of the Japanese Empire. It is a deeply problematic, frankly jingoistic film, but one that is doubtlessly well-made and resembles, in isolation, a decent message about humanity.

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Beneath Hill 60

Beneath Hill 60

The memory of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps in World War I is all too often focused around a single battle, one ignominious defeat. I refer to the Battle of Gallipoli, a botched attempt to capture Istanbul.

But men from those countries were involved in other fronts, such as Iraq and Palestine. In 2010, Jeremy Sims made a movie about Australians serving in Belgium, at the Battle of Ypres: Beneath Hill 60.

One word describes this film superbly: claustrophobic. Many scenes are set underground, deep within the sprawling trenches that pockmarked the countryside of Belgium and France during the First World War. It is a dark movie, both in content and visuals. What little light there is serves to show you mere glimpses of the people and things that drive the war; you see them only as the trenches have cast them. The effect is dehumanizing. The Australians in Beneath Hill 60 might as well have been ants.

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Lebanon

Lebanon

Not all wars are as quick and decisive as the Six Day War. Some drag on and on and on. Such was the Lebanese Civil War, which ran from 1975 to 1990. In 1982, Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin ordered his army, under General — and future prime minister — Ariel Sharon to enter Lebanon to retaliate against rocket strikes launched by Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization. As Israeli tanks and infantry rolled into that powder keg, they embarked on a long, pitiless savage war of peace.

This is the backdrop to the 2009 film Lebanon: an Israeli example of a war movie told from the perspective of the invaders, who are sent to die in a foreign land where life seems cheap. Americans like to make these films about Vietnam: Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket are classic examples. More recently, American Sniper brought this type of film into the twenty-first century. The Spanish-made 1898: Our Last Men in the Philippines (review here) and Britain’s The Bridge over the River Kwai arguably count as well.

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Jungle Cruise

Jungle Cruise

What do you get when you mix a classic Disney theme-park ride with Indiana Jones and throw in some elements of The Mummy for good measure?

Right: Jungle Cruise.

If you missed it when it was playing in the cinemas, now you have another chance: Disney+ has lifted the movie’s paywall.

The creators took the best of the aforementioned films (and some of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest), stuck them in a blender, glued on the basic concept of the ride and went with it.

And it works.

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Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures

The American space program has been tarred as the home of white scientists who didn’t care for anyone who wasn’t white and male. Certainly there were problems in that regard, as there were in American society generally at the time. You had Gil Scott-Heron’s Whitey on the Moon calling the space program a theft from African Americans. This is a strain that has continued; Scott-Heron’s poem was used in the 2018 film First Man, about Neil Armstrong and the Moon landing.

Enter Hidden Figures, the 2016 film about the African American “computers” (as it was a person’s job in those days) Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Overlooked and forgotten by popular history, this film shines a spotlight on the women who did the math that took John Glenn to space.

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The Courier

The Courier

Benedict Cumberbatch is predictably outstanding in The Courier, a Cold War thriller about an accidental British spy. Rachel Brosnahan, of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel fame, puts in a strong performance as his CIA handler. The production design is gorgeous; the story almost unbelievable, but it’s true.

Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch), a seemingly unremarkable businessman, really was recruited by the British secret service at the height of the Cold War to ferry messages from a Soviet defector in Moscow: Oleg Penkovsky (played aptly by Merab Ninidze), a colonel in the military intelligence GRU.

Penkovsky, the highest-ranking Soviet defector at the time, provided the West with crucial information about the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal and strategy at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s not a stretch to argue, as the movie does, that the Penkovsky intelligence Wynne brought to London helped avert World War III in 1962.

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The Forgotten Battle

De Slag om de Schelde

In war, that which sounds mundane can lead to compelling drama. Such was the Battle of the Scheldt, the fight to control a river route to the port of Antwerp in order to supply the Allied armies as they marched from Normandy through France into Germany. On paper, this may sound like the stuff of wargames or spreadsheets. In reality, it put human beings in a warzone.

Such is The Forgotten Battle, a 2021 Dutch World War II movie about the Battle of the Scheldt. (Antwerp is in Belgium, but the fighting took place in the southwestern Netherlands.) It is a film tinged with the sense that the war will soon be over, that Germany will be defeated, that the Wehrmacht will retreat, and that the Netherlands will soon be free. If you’ve played Company of Heroes, you may notice a similarity to that game’s Panzer Elite campaign (which, incidentally, was also set in the Netherlands).

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