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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The Aviator

The Aviator

Martin Scorsese is a director of many talents. He is best known for the crime films set in the New York of his youth, but he has tackled other themes: a harrowing medical drama in Bringing Out the Dead, a sports drama in Raging Bull, a psychological thriller in Shutter Island, and, of all things, a children’s adventure in Hugo (review here).

This review discusses another non-stereotypical Scorsese venture: his biopic of inventor Howard Hughes, entitled The Aviator.

The Aviator may not be an easy watch. It borders on three hours of runtime. As such, it is something of a marathon through the life of Hughes, a man who very much deserved a biopic. (See The Aviator: The Life and Legend of Howard Hughes) He was an eccentric and troubled genius, one who was all too prone to self-destruction. He was a movie pioneer and an aviation pioneer, and the film shrinks on neither aspect of him.

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Conspiracy

Conspiracy

We think of the most heinous crimes in human history as having being perpetrated by beings other than humans. We call them animals or beasts or a variety of other dehumanizing names to forget that we have a commonality with murderers.

With no other group has this canard been wheeled out more often than the Nazis. It’s almost unfathomable that something so monstrous as the Holocaust could be planned and carried out by people like us.

Countering such a misguided notion is the goal of Conspiracy, a 2011 coproduction between HBO and the BBC, written by Loring Mandel and directed by Frank Pierson. The cast boasts the likes of Kenneth Branagh, Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth. It dramatizes the Wannsee Conference, a meeting held in an elegant mansion overlooking a lake outside Berlin in January 1942.

The agenda of the meeting was how to annihilate the Jews.

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Trench 11

Trench 11

An Internet friend of mine likes to say that the best war movies are essentially horror movies. They thrust you into a living nightmare, one where worms and locusts feast on the shredded cadavers of former comrades. As General Sherman said, “War is cruelty and you cannot refine it.”

It is no wonder then that horror movies will use the setting of such mass slaughters for their supernatural thrills. Recent examples include Overlord and Ghosts of War, both of which I have reviewed here. Leo Scherman’s 2017 film Trench 11 is another entry in the military horror subgenre.

Unlike the World War II setting of the two aforementioned films, Trench 11 takes place during World War I, that allegedly “great” war. It reminded me of a comment I saw on a video of Sabaton’s song Attack of the Dead Men, about the namesake event that defies belief but is true. It was about how strange the innovations of that miserable war must have seemed to the young men who were slaughtered in it; men flying, killing other men with bullets fired at speeds that render them invisible, riding in metallic machines, digging tunnels under the earth, and suffocating of toxic air. In that context, men rising from the dead does not seem that implausible.

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Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy

Romanzo di una strage

It’s the height of the Cold War. Italy’s Communist Party is still a force to be reckoned with. Far-left and far-right groups terrorize Italians in the streets, with the latter pinning their assassinations and bombings on the former in hopes of fomenting a neofascist coup: the so-called strategy of tension.

These are Italy’s Years of Lead.

Romanzo di una strage, released internationally as Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy, deals with one of the opening acts in that twenty-year drama: the December 12, 1969 bombing of the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura in the Piazza Fontana of Milan. Seventeen people were killed, 88 wounded. A prime suspect, anarchist leader Giuseppe Pinelli (played by Pierfrancesco Favino, whom you might recognize from World War Z), died in police custody a few days later. The policeman in charge of the investigation, Luigi Calabresi (Valerio Mastandrea), was himself killed in 1972.

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1898: Our Last Men in the Philippines

1898: Our Last Men in the Philippines

Many of us in the Western world might think of Southeast Asia as a dense jungle where white people go to die. The French and the Americans died in Vietnam. The Dutch died in Indonesia. The British died in Malaya.

The Philippines are often overlooked. Americans may remember the islands played a role in World War II. They will speak of Corregidor (properly with a rolled “r” and a “g” pronounced like an “h” — it’s a Spanish word) and Bataan (a three-syllable word) and Leyte Gulf. What they may not remember is the war that gained Americans the Philippines, and the empire that ruled it before them.

That empire was Spain. Spaniards arrived in the archipelago four centuries before the Americans threw them out by concocting an espionage scandal out of a boiler accident. 1898, Los últimos de Filipinas, released in the English-speaking world as 1898: Our Last Men in the Philippines, is about the end of that war.

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