"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, December 28, 2018

Prince of the City

In a New York Times article about Night Falls on Manhattan (1996), the fourth film in Sidney Lumet’s police corruption quartet, Edward Lewine observes that the central question in these films is can a good person remain good within the system? In Serpico (1973), Frank (Al Pacino) starts off as a clean-cut recruit fresh from the academy and is immediately faced with accepting payoffs from local criminals. In Q & A (1990), Al Reilly (Timothy Hutton) prosecutes his first case knowing that an esteemed cop (Nick Nolte) is dirty. In Night Falls, Sean Casey (Andy Garcia) is an assistant district attorney that must choose between adhering to the law and releasing a cop killer or making a dishonest deal to keep him in prison.

In Lumet’s masterpiece, Prince of the City (1981), corrupt police detective Daniel Ciello (Treat Williams) tries to redeem himself by ratting on his fellow police officers. As Lumet said in an interview, “The picture is also about cops and how pressured they are, what they have to live with day in, day out and how they try to keep some sort of equilibrium, whether it’s staying honest or not becoming cynical.” This is the central thesis for his police corruption quartet, realized so masterfully in this ambitious, sprawling film with its 130 locations, 280 scenes and 126 speaking parts, all of which Lumet handles with the assured hand of a consummate professional.

Danny is the leader of a team of narcotics detectives that work in the Special Investigations Unit of the New York City Police Department. They are a tight crew that work mostly unsupervised and hang out together in their off hours with their families. They are known as “Princes of the City” because of their impressive reputation for busting crooks. They also skim money from said criminals and give informants drugs in exchange for information. These guys live by the credo, “The first thing a cop learns is that he can’t trust anybody but his partners…I sleep with my wife but I live with my partners.”

Lumet has several scenes that show the camaraderie between Danny and his partners. They have a shorthand and joke with each other like life-long friends. There’s an ease and familiarity to these scenes that is believable. The filmmaker knows how cops talk to each other and how to depict it authentically. We often feel like flies on the wall, observing the conversations that only occur behind closed doors. Lumet does just enough to humanize Danny and his crew by showing them at work and with their families in unguarded moments, which demonstrates that, in many respects, they are regular working guys.

Danny and his crew live well off the spoils of their busts and carry themselves with confidence and swagger as typified by Danny’s arrogance. It’s the way he carries himself and the belief that he and his crew are untouchable. Lumet illustrates this in a scene where Danny helps a dope-sick informant in the middle of the night by busting another junkie and giving the stash to his stoolie. He takes the junkie back to his home – a grungy, squalid hovel – and listens to him beat his girlfriend (a young Cynthia Nixon) for shooting up his stash. The look on Danny’s face says it all, as he feels ashamed at what he’s done. The shame is eating him alive, so much so that he spills his guts to Richard Cappalino (Norman Parker) and Brooks Paige (Paul Roebling), federal prosecutors investigating police corruption. It’s interesting that Danny’s junkie brother (Matthew Laurance), who points out that he’s no different than the crooks he busts, initially convinces him to approach Internal Affairs, but it isn’t until he listens to one of his informants beating his girlfriend that he commits to ratting out dirty cops.

The scene where Danny tells them what he knows is a riveting one as Treat Williams starts off cocky, chastising these men for going after cops and then comes apart at the seams as he tells them how it is for cops on the streets. The actor unleashes all of Danny’s anger and frustration as he ends up breaking down by the end of the scene. Guilt-ridden, he decides to work with Internal Affairs and break up his team but with understanding that he’s not going to rat out his partners. The rest of the film plays out the ramifications of his actions.

Lumet goes deep, showing how Danny wears a wire, recording meetings he has with dirty cops and crooks. He loves it, getting off on the adrenaline rush of the risk of being caught. The scene where Danny is almost discovered by a dirty cop and a crook is full of tension as these guys are ready to kill him. They take him at gunpoint for a walk to the place where they’re going to do it. Danny tries to talk his way out of it until a mafia guy (his uncle) vouches for him. The Feds shadowing him are no help as they get lost trying to find him, as they don’t know the city. This scene shows how close to getting killed Danny was and gives us an idea of how much is at stake.

Aside from Hair (1979) and 1941 (1979), Williams hadn’t done much of note when he starred in Prince of the City, but Lumet saw something in the actor that convinced him that he could carry a film of this size…and he does. Williams does a brilliant job of conveying Danny’s arc over the course of the film as he goes from cocky cop to a man that has lost it all.

The deeper Danny gets the more scared he becomes as he not only has to avoid detection by fellow cops that are corrupt and crooks while also dealing with Feds that alter his deal so that he has to rat on cops that he’s friends with – something that he’s not comfortable with doing. He’s torn between saving his own skin and ratting on his friends. Lumet shows how this takes its toll not just on Danny but his wife (Lindsay Crouse) and his two children. It gets so dangerous that the Feds take Danny and his family up to their cabin in the woods under armed guard, scaring his son and finally reducing his wife to tears one night when they’re in bed. These are ordinary people trying to live under extremely trying conditions.

Writer Jay Presson Allen read a review of Robert Daley’s 1978 book Prince of the City: The True Story of a Cop Who Knew Too Much, bought and read it. It was an account of Robert Leuci, an undercover narcotics cop in the Special Investigation Unit in New York City from 1965 to 1972, making busts and cutting deals with fellow cops. Some SIU detectives were the best in the city and had the ability to choose their own targets and make major busts. They had their own distinct style and wore more expensive clothes than other cops because they had more money. In 1972, the Knapp Commission was looking into police corruption. Leuci met with New York prosecutor Nick Scoppetta and couldn’t live with the guilt of what he’d done, confessing his wrongdoings to the man. He said, “I found myself in a place I didn’t want to be. I couldn’t tell the difference between myself, my partners and the people we were investigating.” Scoppetta convinced Leuci to go undercover and tape his friends and co-workers, testifying against them. He went undercover for 16 months and the trials lasted for four years. The end result saw 52 out of 70 members of the Special Investigation Unit, of which he belonged, indicted, one went crazy and two committed suicide.

She knew right away that it was something Sidney Lumet should make into a film. When she inquired about the rights, Allen discovered that Orion Pictures had bought it for $500,000 with Brian De Palma set to direct and David Rabe was going to write the screenplay with the likes of Robert De Niro, John Travolta and Al Pacino considered to play Leuci. She didn’t think they could do it and called studio head John Calley and told him, “If this falls through, I would like to get this for Sidney, and I want to produce it, not write it.” He agreed and she gave Lumet the book. He loved it but they had to wait until De Palma’s attempt did not pan out. When this happened Lumet told Allen that he wouldn’t do the film unless she wrote the script. She was tired and felt it was too big of a job to take on: “It seemed like a hair-raising job to find a line, get a skeleton out of the book, which went back and forth…all over the place.” She agreed to Lumet’s proposal but only if he wrote the outline.

He proceeded to cut the book up into sections starting with the ending. He highlighted the three critical moments in Danny’s life: when he decides to reveal the names to his partner, when the judges meet to decide whether they should indict him for giving false testimony, and the discussion to retry the most crucial case he had to testify. Afterwards, they sat down and went through the book and agreed on what were the most essential scenes and characters.

Over the next two to three weeks, Lumet wrote 100-handwritten pages, which Allen didn’t like but thought that the actual outline was wonderful. It was the first time she had ever written about living people, which she found daunting. She proceeded to interview almost everyone in the book. Only then did she begin writing, completing a 300+ page script in ten days! When it came to filming, she had the book and all of her interviews to draw from if there was ever a question about something in the script. Lumet compared the script to the writings of famed journalist Norman Mailer: “It’s a news story that becomes fiction in the sense that the dramatic situations are so strong.”

After the comedy Why Would I Lie? (1980) received bad reviews and performed poorly at the box office, a frustrated Treat Williams changed professions, getting a job flying planes for a company in Los Angeles. Six months later, Lumet approached him about Prince of the City based on his work in Hair. He didn’t cast him, however, until after they spent three weeks talking and going over the script. Finally, he had Williams read with the rest of the cast and then decided to cast him as Danny. For research, Williams hung out with cops at the 23rd precinct in New York City and went on 3 a.m. busts in Harlem: “I saw junkies pleading to go to the bathroom and vomiting and shaking. You see people of the lowest end of humanity and you know if they had a gun they’d probably try to kill the cops.” He also hung out with Leuci and studied him: “Bob has a lot of tension in his shoulders. His toes go in when his foot lands. His walk is in the movie.”

Prince of the City was one of Lumet’s most ambitious projects and he and his crew had to be prepared: “We had to know the one-way streets, the traffic flows, the various routes we could take to save time.” He had planned a shooting schedule of 70 days and finished in 59 days. Lumet planned every camera movement and angle ahead of time. He did not use normal lenses as he wanted to create an atmosphere of “deceit, and false appearances,” and only used wide angle and zoom lenses. In addition, the first half of the film featured lighting on the background and not on the actors while in the middle of the film he alternated between the foreground and the background, and the end of the film aimed the lighting on the foreground only.

Roger Ebert gave Prince of the City four out of four stars and wrote, “It is about ways in which a corrupt modern city makes it almost impossible for a man to be true to the law, his ideals, and his friends, all at the same time. The movie has no answers. Only horrible alternatives.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Prince of the City begins with the strength and confidence of a great film, and ends merely as a good one. The achievement isn’t what it first promises to be, but it’s exciting and impressive all the same.” Pauline Kael was less impressed with the film: “The film has a super-realistic overall gloom, and the people are so ‘ethnic’ and yell so much that you being to long for the sight of a cool blond in bright sunshine.”

As Prince of the City moves into its second hour, the grind of what Danny is going through – the endless court appearances and the revolving door of handlers – affects the viewer as well, wearing us down as we wonder, like Danny does, when is this all going to end? By the end of the film, the system uses and discards him after he’s served his usefulness. Williams manages to make a sympathetic character but Lumet doesn’t let us forget that Danny was the architect of his own demise. He ratted on fellow cops to save his own skin. He lied in court to protect his ex-partners to avoid jail time.

Is Danny a hero? Did he do the right thing? During filming, Lumet wrestled with his feelings about Danny as an informant: “And I think that ambivalence is in the movie, and I think it makes the movie better. Part of it was that it was very difficult for me to separate political informing from criminal informing – a rat was a rat.” Ultimately, Lumet leaves it up to the audience to decide how they feel about the man and what he did. It’s a complex portrayal not just of the man but also the legal system he works in. There’s no good guys or bad guys – only lots of moral ambiguity.


Ciment, Michel. “A Conversation with Sidney Lumet.” Sidney Lumet: Interviews. Joanna E. Rapf. University Press of Mississippi. 2005.

Cormack, Michael. “From Prisoner to Policeman.” The Globe & Mail. October 12, 1981.

Corry, John. “Prince of the City Explores A Cop’s Anguish.” The New York Times. August 9, 1981.

Cunningham, Frank R. Sidney Lumet: Film and Literary Vision. University Press of Kentucky. 2001.

Harmetez, Aljean. “How Prince of the City is Being ‘Platformed.’” The New York Times. July 18, 1981.

Hogan, Randolph. “At Modern, Lumet’s Love Affair with New York.” The New York Times. December 31, 1981.

Kroll, Jack. “A New Breed of Actor.” Newsweek. December 7, 1981.

Lawson, Carol. “Treat Williams: For the Moment, Prince of the City.” The New York Times. August 18, 1981.

Lewine, Edward. “The Laureate of Police Corruption. The New York Times. “June 8, 1997.

Myers, Scott. “How They Write a Script: Jay Presson Allen.” Go Into the Story. May 31, 2011.

Scott, Jay. “Director Sidney Lumet Fears for the Future of ‘Real’ Films.” The Globe & Mail. August 19, 1981.

Zito, Tom. “The Prince Himself.” Washington Post. October 2, 1981.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story

When it was announced that a movie featuring a young Han Solo was in the works, the Star Wars fanbase took to the Internet to complain, their collective outrage came on two fronts: the casting to Alden Ehrenreich as Han, the role originated and made iconic by Harrison Ford, and the very existence of this movie would ruin the mystique of the character. Much like the other non-saga Star Wars movie, Rogue One (2016), Solo (2018) had a well-documented troubled production with the original directors replaced midway through principal photography by Ron Howard.

While the movie garnered strong reviews, it underperformed at the box office – the lowest of any of the Star Wars movies, which led pundits to speculate that its poor performance was due to it being released too close to Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) and people were sick of Star Wars movies (and yet Marvel doesn’t seem to have this problem). Was it merely a matter of timing, its thunder stolen by superhero movie juggernauts Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Deadpool 2 (2018) or were audiences simply not interested in a Han Solo movie that didn’t have Ford reprising the role? Ultimately, all of this is meaningless in the face of a much bigger question: is Solo any good?

We meet a young Han (Ehrenreich) struggling to survive on the dangerous streets of Corellia with his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). They live by their wits, scamming and scheming a way off this dead-end planet. All Han dreams about is being the best pilot in the galaxy but he has very few options except for the Empire. He enlists in the Imperial Navy and finds that he doesn’t take orders too well and this lands him trouble. It also puts him in contact with two people who will be the important figures in his development as an outlaw – Chewbacca the Wookie (Joonas Suotamo), a prisoner of the Empire, and Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), a veteran criminal who becomes a mentor to Han, schooling him on how to be an outlaw. They introduce the young man to an exciting and dangerous world populated by colorful characters, none of whom he can trust.

Director Ron Howard wastes no time jumping right into it as Han and Qi’ra try to escape local gangsters via an exciting hover vehicle chase that shows off not just his piloting skills but also his willingness to take chances and press his luck. That being said, Solo starts off a little awkwardly with Han and Qi’ra’s downtrodden street urchin beginnings coming off as Charles Dickens by way of Blade Runner (1982). It isn’t all that interesting but from a story point-of-view I understand its purpose. It establishes the unbreakable bond between them. They grew up on the streets together and learned how to survive by sheer cunning and wits. It also establishes Han’s legendary lousy negotiating skills. Perhaps the movie should’ve started in medias res with Han and Qi’ra on the run from Lady Proxima’s goons. It would’ve been a bolder move to just drop us right in it and establish Han’s formidable piloting skills. In addition, getting separated at the Imperial checkpoints is an excellent way of showing how close they are and how painful it is for them to be torn apart (Han giving Qi’ra his lucky dice is a nice touch) by the Empire. Although, the moment where we learn how Han got his surname is clumsy and unnecessary as it awkwardly references The Godfather Part II (1974). I do like how this scene ends – with Han alone and afraid, which is a scenario we rarely see him in.

Solo really gets going when we catch up with Han three years later fighting for the Empire and meets Chewie and Beckett. It is also a brief albeit fascinating look at the Empire from the P.O.V. of the foot soldier: they are cannon fodder in a dirty chaotic battlefield that Han is lucky to survive. As bonus to film buffs, there’s even a nice visual nod to Stanley Kubrick’s World War I film Paths of Glory (1957). Once free of the Empire and in the employ of Beckett, Han enters a bigger world and the movie opens up as well.

It doesn’t take long for Ehrenreich to slip effortlessly into the role and make it his own. He doesn’t really look like Ford and doesn’t try to imitate the actor either, but instead adopts a few choice mannerisms of the character. He captures Han’s swagger and smartass disregard for authority brilliantly and in a way that shows the beginnings of the man we see in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977). In Solo, Han still trusts people and has a sense of wonder, which Ehrenreich conveys quite well when he witnesses his first jump to hyperspace aboard the Millennium Falcon as he finally realizes his dream to see the galaxy. The actor is playing Han at an age that we never saw Ford play the character. It isn’t like Ehrenreich is replacing Ford but instead playing Han at a young age much like River Phoenix played a young Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).

When Han, Chewie and Beckett arrive on infamous crime boss Dryden Vos’ (Paul Bettany) “yacht,” Ehrenreich does some of his best work with low-key comedy as Han tries to follow Beckett’s advice only to quickly abandon it. He’s told to keep his eyes down and not look at anyone. For a few seconds he does and the actor’s slightly embarrassed look is amusing. This quickly gives way to a romantic vibe when he’s reunited with Qi’ra and Ehrenreich does an excellent job of showing the rush of emotions that play over Han’s face. This entire sequence shows Han clearly out of his depth and trying to convey a confident front. The humor comes from the brief moments where we get glimpses of cracks in this façade.

Han even comes up with an unconventional solution to the coaxium they need to get for Dryden or risk facing his wrath. The young man is bullshitting his way through the plan as fast as he can. Fortunately, Beckett and Qi’ra catch on the help flesh it out. The best moment comes when Han proposes that he’ll fly the coaxium to a refinery before it destabilizes: “We’ve already got the pilot.” Ehrenreich points to himself and flashes Han’s trademark cocky smirk. This is the moment that Han starts to become the character we all know and love. The rest of the movie sees the actor build the character of Han bit by bit, like when he first boards the Falcon and begins to adopt Han’s trademark stance, even the way Ford would lean against a doorway. These are little gestures but they all go towards building the character up.

Another inspired bit of casting is Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian, a smooth operator that knows how to invent his own luck, especially when it comes to games of chance. We meet him plying his trade: fleecing people of their money in a card game known as Sabacc. Glover exudes a cool sense of style and a confidence that is fun to watch, as is the amusing interplay with Han, most notably when they verbally spar while playing cards. Here are two arrogant smugglers facing off against each other for increasingly higher stakes. Glover is funny as Lando treats Han with whimsical condescension, much to Han’s chagrin, but his cockiness is put in check when Beckett steps in to negotiate his percentage of the take from an upcoming score.

Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan’s screenplay invokes A New Hope and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) by paying homage to its roots – the old serials from a bygone era. Solo is structured as a series of cliffhangers as our heroes go from one sticky situation to another. The elder Kasdan slips right back into Han and Lando’s familiar cadences with ease, crafting a space western complete with chases, shoot-outs and showdowns.

The script also includes several character building moments between action sequences, like when Han and Chewie tell Beckett and his crew what they are going to do with their share from the loot in an upcoming score. It gives us insight into what motivates them. They’re not just mercenaries like Beckett and his crew. Han and Chewie have personal goals – the former wants to buy his own ship and go back for Qi’ra while the latter wants to free his people that have been enslaved by the Empire.

This is not to say that Solo doesn’t have its action-packed set pieces. The movie’s centerpiece is a thrilling train heist as Han, Chewie, Beckett and his crew attempt to steal a shipment of coaxium, a valuable commodity, from the Empire while also trying to fend off a gang of pirates led by the mysterious Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman). There are plenty of tense moments as our heroes have to deal with multiple opponents whilst atop a very volatile and valuable shipment. This is the first time Han plays a pivotal role in something and he almost succeeds. He’s faced with a dilemma that forces him to take a risk or play it safe and he opts for the latter. It is an important lesson and from that point on he fully commits to being a risk-taking smuggler like Beckett who tells him, “You’re in this life for good.”

“You want to know how I’ve survived as long as I have? I trust no one. Assume every one will betray you and you will never be disappointed,” says Beckett to Han halfway through Solo. The young man replies, “Sounds like a lonely way to live.” The veteran outlaw simply tells him, “It’s the only way.” This exchange lays the down the foundation for the Han we first meet in A New Hope – a cynical smuggler that is out for only one person – himself. There’s an argument to be made that this movie is completely unnecessary and demystifies the iconic character. I understand this sentiment as I was initially resistant to this movie and the whole idea of it. Solo only sheds some light on the character of Han. There is still plenty of mystery to the character, like how does he go from this movie to what we see in A New Hope? What exactly went down between him and Jabba? Did he ever cross paths with Qi’ra again? What is Lando’s backstory? Or Chewie’s? We are only given small pieces of their story. There are so many adventures he and Chewie had between this movie and A New Hope that leaves plenty of gaps for us to use or imagination, especially since the disappointing box office results all but assures there won’t be a sequel anytime soon. Solo creates such a rich, textured world and introduces so many fascinating character that there are even more questions left unanswered about Han and his future.

I find myself enjoying these anthology movies more than the actual chapter movies. It might be that Rogue One and Solo don’t have to be too slavish to the style, tone and structure of the saga movies and this gives them the freedom to be their own thing. They also both explore the nooks and crannies of the Star Wars universe, showing us worlds we’ve never seen before and introducing us to all kinds of new characters we’ve never met. I have fond memories of reading the trilogy of Han Solo Adventures novels that came out in the late 1970s and they made me daydream about all kinds of adventures that Han and Chewie had pre-A New Hope. It was great to finally see a movie that realized those dreams and brought them so vividly to life.

Monday, October 22, 2018


El Topo (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972), Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and Repo Man (1984). These iconic films are examples of “midnight movies” – cinema so outlandish and bizarre that they could only be viewed at midnight screenings, typically financial flops during their initial theatrical run only to be rediscovered later by a small but dedicated following that worships every scene, every bit of memorable dialogue. These films dealt with wild elements like drugs, rock 'n' roll, sex and violence in extreme ways so that the act of going to see them felt like a taboo smashing event in itself. The midnight movies aesthetic nearly became extinct thanks to the decline of art houses and repertory theatres and the popularity of home video and the Internet. Like the zombies in Romero’s Dead films, however, the midnight movie experience refused to die with films like Donnie Darko (2001) developing a cult following through late night screenings. Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy (2018) continues this tradition.

The film rather fittingly received its theatrical debut at midnight. It is a throwback to the midnight movie aesthetic – imagine a Frank Frazetta illustration brought to life by some kind of cinematic alchemy courtesy of Alejandro Jodorowsky if he decided to direct a biker movie. This is the cinematic equivalent of a death metal record and feels like it should be watched with a black light on. Mandy returns us to the heady times when a film was experienced as opposed to merely being watched. It comes from the mind of Panos Cosmatos, son of journeyman Hollywood director George P. Cosmatos (responsible for action fare like Rambo: First Blood Part II and Cobra). Mandy is the follow-up to his auspicious debut Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010), a hallucinatory mood piece that felt like early David Cronenberg on acid.

Cosmatos sets the tone right from the get-go with “Starless” by King Crimson playing over the opening credits while introducing Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) plying his trade as a logger. He returns home after a hard day’s work to his girlfriend Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough), an artist who creates wonderfully detailed fantasy art. Cosmatos makes a simple scene like the couple talking in bed visually arresting by employing a series of constantly shifting color filters over them. The first half of the film is a love story between Red and Mandy as we hang out with them, observing the couple talking in bed and eating dinner in front of their television – things that most couples do. This gets us to care about and like them. It also shows how Red is defined by his relationship with Mandy. He works hard during the day cutting trees. He doesn’t enjoy it; he does it to support them. He is also supportive of her work as an illustrator, taking a genuine interest in her latest project.

Cosmatos’ film is permeated with a dreamy atmosphere where everyone talks slowly with pregnant pauses and utilizes long takes like something out of a David Lynch film. An ominous tone is gradually established throughout the first half of the film as there is the feeling that something horrible is going to happen. While out for a walk one day a truck emerges out of a hellish light and passes by her. One of the passengers is Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), leader of a hippie cult known as Children of the New Dawn. He notices and becomes immediately fixated on her. He enlists his people to kidnap Mandy and they in turn call upon the Black Skulls, a demonic biker gang from out of the woods in an unsettling scene where they are summoned with a mystical horn, emerging in the form the marauders from The Road Warrior (1981) if they mated with the Cenobites from Hellraiser (1987).

They kidnap Mandy in the middle of the night and subdue Red amidst strobing lights in a nightmarish scene. Once the cultists dose Mandy with LSD and the venom from a giant black wasp that apparently lives in mysterious thick fluid, Cosmatos cuts loose with the Giallo lighting and a trippy audio/visual assault on the senses. Sand and his people torture Red and force him to watch a gut-wrenching act that destroys his entire world. Of course, the cultists make the fatal flaw that bad guys always make in revenge movies – they let the hero live when they had the chance to kill him. Once free, Red makes it his sole mission in life to wreak unholy vengeance on Sand and his cult of Jesus freaks. From this point on Mandy becomes a full-throttle revenge picture referencing Enter the Dragon (1973) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) as Red drops acid, snorts cocaine and lights a cigarette from the flaming skull of a biker on his bloody path of revenge.

Cosmatos understands that for a revenge story to work the antagonist must do evil things that affect the protagonist in a very personal way so that the vengeance that comes later on is not only satisfying for the hero but a cathartic experience for the audience. Over the course of the film, Red undergoes a harrowing transformation from loving everyman to home-made, axe-wielding golem whose breaking point comes during an impressively acted freak out by Nicolas Cage that rivals Martin Sheen hitting rock bottom at the beginning of Apocalypse Now (1979). There is something genuine about the primal anger and sadness that Cage emotes in this powerful scene.

These days when you watch a Nicolas Cage movie you know what you’re going to get. Long gone are the days where he’d attack every film role that came his way with unpredictable gusto. Since his last significant studio movie and his well-publicized financial problems he’s appeared in several forgettable movies. Every so often, however, he throws audiences a curveball, appearing in notable projects like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) and Drive Angry (2011) that allow him to channel his inner Cage and demonstrate that the desire to cut loose has not gone away; it merely lies dormant, anticipating the opportunity to let its freak flag fly. Mandy is such a film.

The character of Mandy is tied to the earth as evident in a scene where she grieves for a dead baby animal she encounters while out for a walk in the woods. While Red suggests leaving at some point, she disagrees, finding it peaceful out in the middle of nowhere. She also recounts a story about her father killing a baby starling with a crowbar and how he gave it to other kids so they could take a turn but when it came to her time she ran away. Andrea Riseborough does an excellent job in these scenes, giving insight into Mandy’s dark past and how she feels safe and happy with Red.

Linus Roache plays Jeremiah as a charismatic figure that destroys one man’s life for his own trivial fantasies. He is a cult leader with a messiah complex, spouting pseudo philosophical religious twaddle while the women in his cult serve and service him. He surrounds himself with people willing to do his bidding and is ultimately portrayed as a pathetic figure with delusions of grandeur that will be his undoing.

Hopefully, the buzz that Mandy has generated will get Cage out of cinema purgatory and back working with top tier talent on significant material instead of garbage like 211 (2018) and The Humanity Bureau (2018). He has always been something of a wild card, following his own internal muse for better or for worse. Mandy shows that he can still deliver the goods if given the right material. Hopefully, it will also allow Cosmatos to make another film in less time it took between this and Beyond the Black Rainbow. He wisely bided his time between projects until he hooked up with backers that were willing to give him the creative freedom he wanted. It has more than paid off – the end result is a confident and assured film with a bold, distinctive visual style and many unforgettable moments that make it a prime candidate for the midnight movie hall of fame.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Born on the Fourth of July

“When people say if you don’t love America, then get the hell out. Well, I love America, but when it comes to the government, it stops right there.” – Ron Kovic

Oliver Stone’s filmic prescience is widely regarded by critics, students and the public at large. It hit is apex with 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July, a cinematic crystal ball, which anticipated the rise of Donald Trump’s divisive “Make America Great Again” nationalism. Stone’s biopic traces the life of Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise), from his beginnings as the quintessential all-American boy proud eager to serve the country he loves and respects in the Vietnam War, to being a disillusioned veteran, paralyzed in battle and how it led to his anti-war activism. This film asks particularly difficult questions about what it means to be American and has become even more relevant today than the year it was released to critical and commercial success.

Ron Kovic’s voiceover narration establishes a picturesque childhood, he and his best friends play soldiers with other neighborhood kids. He grows up in the Norman Rockwell-esque small town America of the 1950s. Born on the Fourth of July is propaganda – but all is not what it appears; Stone cleverly subverts it, showing us little cracks in the idyllic façade. As a child, Ron idolizes the soldiers he sees with his family in a parade early on in the film. This is tempered when one soldier visibly winces at the sound of firecrackers and another is shown, arms lost in battle, a grim look on his face.

Stone’s multi-layered patriotic imagery during the opening credits sequence is bathed in a sun-kissed glow, courtesy of Robert Richardson’s stunning cinematography. Ron’s mother (Caroline Kava) even calls him her “little Yankee Doodle Boy.” This is the land of 4th of July fireworks, parades populated by beautiful cheerleaders and where Ron is an exceptional athlete, hitting an in-the-park home run as a boy. He lives in suburbia with a family that embodies the American Dream.

As a teenager, he excels in wrestling, being pushed to his limits by a coach whom has all the zeal of an army drill sergeant. It is in these early scenes that we see the Tom Cruise we all know – the ambitious go-getter, but Stone tempers this by showing Ron lose an important match in front of his classmates, friends, and family. His anguished expression – as boos ring out around him –foreshadows more painful defeats to come.

Ron’s hero worship of the military continues when he attends a presentation (a.k.a. a recruitment pitch) by the United States Marines at his school. There is delicious irony as Ron looks adoringly at the Marine speaking (played by none other than Tom Berenger) as if the actor’s demonic soldier from Platoon (1986) somehow survived, returning stateside to recruit young men to fight in the Vietnam War.

Ron buys into it, eager to serve his country as his father (Raymond J. Barry) did before him in World War II. He wants to go and fight in Vietnam and is even willing to die there (“I want to go to Vietnam – and I’ll die there if I have to). His life is playing out like a stereotypical Hollywood movie. He even rushes to the prom, in the rain, to declare his love for girl-next-door-eseque Donna (Kyra Sedgwick) as “Moon River” plays over the gymnasium speakers.

Ron’s idyllic youth comes to a violent end once we see him in ‘Nam, his platoon accidentally slaughtering an entire village. To make matters worse, he inadvertently shoots and kills one of his own soldiers. He tries to own up to it but his superior (John Getz) dismisses him. Where everything stateside was simple to understand – Ron always took for granted that he knew what was expected of him. Vietnam is chaotic and confusing, the enemy difficult to identify. As he did with Platoon, Stone immerses us in the sights and sounds of battle, albeit in a more stylized depiction. Here, he employs more slow-motion, filters, and skewed camera angles to show the disorienting effect of combat through Ron’s eyes.

He is wounded in battle and is shipped back to the Bronx Veterans Hospital where he finds out that he’s been paralyzed from the chest down. Despite the absolutely appalling conditions (rats scurrying between beds, interns shooting up in closets and Ron starring at his own vomit for hours), he still believes in the American Dream and is critical of the anti-war protestors he sees on television. He aggressively attacks physical therapy, refusing to accept the doctor’s diagnosis that he’ll never regain the use of his legs.

Cruise is particularly effective in these scenes as he conveys Ron’s gradual disillusionment with the system. He is slowly becoming dehumanized by the system that cares little about him. Government cutbacks result in poor conditions and treatment that Stone depicts in unflinching detail. Is this how our country honors those that put everything on the line to serve their country?

Ron’s homecoming is a heart-wrenchingly bittersweet one. On the surface, his family is happy to see him – the heartbreaking emotions swell under the surface, conveyed in his mother’s eyes when she embraces him, giving a brief, sad look that he is unable to see. While his father goes on about the changes he’s made to the bathroom to make it more accessible for his son, Ron only half-listens as he looks around his old bedroom, lingering on a photograph of himself during his wrestling days at high school. Stone shows Ron’s image reflected in the glass of the picture frame, visually giving us a before and after of this man’s life.

Ron quickly picks up on how differently people in the town look at him: “Sometimes I think people know you’re back from Vietnam and their face changes, their eyes, the voice, the way they look at you.” A family dinner breaks up when Ron’s brother (Josh Evans) leaves the table, unable to stomach his brother’s patriotic rant. He participates in a parade, much like the one he saw as a child and flinches at the sound of a firecracker, like the veterans he once saw, and this time is faced with angry protestors and other townsfolk; he begins to realize this is not his father’s war.

At the rally afterwards, Ron falters while making a patriotic speech as he experiences a flashback to ‘Nam. Confused, he is “rescued” by childhood friend and fellow veteran Timmy Burns (Frank Whaley). The relief that washes over him at the sight of a familiar face is palpable. The scene between the two men afterwards is quietly affecting as they share stories of their experiences on the battlefield. Timmy tells Ron about the headaches he has – “I don’t feel like me anymore” – and his frustration that the doctors don’t know how to help him. Cruise conveys incredible vulnerability as Ron regrets the mistakes he made in Vietnam, how he feels like a failure, and how badly he wants to regain the ability to walk. This scene features some particularly strong acting from both men, defining moments for both actors and the characters.

I like how Stone spends time showing the moments and events that happen to change Ron’s views of the war. It wasn’t just one incident but a series of them, most significantly an anti-war rally where we can see the change of his way of thinking play over his face. Without warning, cops move in and he watches, helplessly, as they beat protestors. At last, Ron breaks down in his parents’ home, getting into a shouting match with his mother as he finally lets out all of the anger and anguish built up inside him about the war. He’s approaching rock bottom and Cruise conveys Ron’s hurt in a raw and powerful way that is riveting to watch.

It isn’t until he goes to Mexico – in a dust-up with a group of veterans in a bordello – that Ron has an epiphany out in the desert with Charlie (Willem Dafoe), a fellow Vietnam vet. They get into a heated argument about how many babies they killed over there. Afterwards, exhausted, Ron says, “Do you remember things that made sense? Things you could count on before it all got so lost? What am I gonna do, Charlie?” This conversation, combined with visiting the graveside and confessing to the parents of the American soldier he accidentally killed (in a painful, gut-wrenching scene that Cruise gives everything he has), are the pivotal moments that transform him into being an anti-war activist.

When Ron emerges on the floor of the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, speaking out against the war and President Nixon administration, Ron has a cathartic moment, finally finding a way to channel his anger and frustration. Once removed from the convention, he’s almost arrested and roughed up, the police giving no consideration for his physical condition. Undaunted, he uses his military training to organize the protestors and continue on in a battle of a different kind.

One month after Ron Kovic gave a speech at the 1976 Democratic Convention, his book about his experiences before, during and after the Vietnam War was reviewed in The New York Times. It drew the attention of movie producer Martin Bregman who bought the rights to the book. He quickly realized that it didn’t have good commercial prospects as the subjects of Vietnam and life as a paraplegic being its focal points. Kovic then served as a consultant on a film about the same subject – Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978), starring Jon Voight, who won the Academy Award for his performance. Universal Studios – who were going to finance Born on the Fourth of July – pulled their money and support. No other studio was interested and no one wanted to direct it. All Bregman had was a screenplay written by a young Oliver Stone, who clearly identified with Kovic’s experiences: “My story and that of other vets is subsumed in Ron’s. We experience one war over there then came home and slammed our heads into another war of indifference…and we all came to feel we had made a terrible mistake.”

Bregman found German investors willing to put up money for pre-production, hired Dan Petrie (A Raison in the Sun) to direct, cast Al Pacino as Kovic, with Orion Pictures distributing the film. A few weeks before rehearsals were to begin, the foreign financing fell through and the rights reverted back to Universal. Pacino had second thoughts and left to make …And Justice For All (1979), leaving Bregman $1 million in the hole and Stone depressed, his script without a home. The latter promised Kovic that one day they’d make this film together and became a filmmaker in his own right.

While Stone wrote the script for Wall Street (1987), Tom Pollock, then-president of Universal, took a look at the filmmaker’s script for Born on the Fourth of July and realized, “it was one of the great unmade screenplays of the past 15 years.” He told Stone that the studio would make it for $14 million and a major movie star as Kovic. After making Platoon, Stone considered rewriting a script from 1971 based loosely on his own experiences returning home from Vietnam but put it aside in favor of Kovic’s story, which he felt had broader appeal.

Stone and Kovic considered Sean Penn, Charlie Sheen, Nicolas Cage, and ultimately went with Tom Cruise. Stone met with him and told the actor he needed a movie star to play Kovic and had a small budget to make it. Cruise, who had wanted to work with Stone, accepted the challenge. He was drawn to the film as he felt it was a personal passion project for Stone: “I thought it was almost his life story, too, his Coming Home.”

The young actor identified with Kovic’s working class ethic and his drive to become the best: “I grew up hearing ‘no’s and can’ts’, but I pushed myself forward, always looking ahead so I wouldn’t get stuck.” Stone was drawn to Cruise’s all-American boy image: “I thought it was an interesting proposition: What would happen to Tom Cruise if something goes wrong?” Furthermore, “I sensed with Tom a crack in his background, some kind of unhappiness, that he had seen some kind of trouble. And I thought that trouble could be helpful to him in dealing with the second part of Ron’s life.”

Bregman felt that Cruise was a safe choice and not strong enough an actor for the tough material. Initially, Kovic agreed until he met Cruise: “I felt an instant rapport with him that I never experienced with Pacino.” The two men talked for hours and Kovic got very emotional. He remembered, “I felt like a burden was lifted, that I was passing all this on to Tom. I knew he was about to go to Vietnam, to the dark side, in his own way.” The actor remembers meeting the man he would play on film and how he “really opened up to me.” Cruise knew this would be a daunting role and felt ready after making The Color of Money (1986) with Martin Scorsese and Rain Man (1988) with Barry Levinson. “I made it work one day at a time. If I looked at the mountain, it was just too high.”

Stone wasn’t immediately convinced: “Tom was cocky, sure he could handle everything. But I wasn’t so sure…He was shaky at first, but we shot in continuity as much as possible to show how, step by step, he began to understand.” To prepare for the role, Kovic took Cruise to veterans’ hospitals where he spent days talking and working with paraplegics. He hung out with Kovic in a wheelchair until it became second nature. Cruise also read many books about the war, including Kovic’s diary. Stone brought in his trusted military adviser Dale Dye to work with Cruise and the cast on two separate week-long training missions. Dye remembered that he “treated him no differently than I treated anybody else…A big part of it was, of course, helping Tom Cruise get the mentality he needed for the film.” They had to dig their own foxholes and live in them as well as learn to handle a variety of weapons. Stone also brought in Abbie Hoffman to talk to the cast about the peace movement in the 1960s. The legendary activist even has a cameo in the film.

Principal photography was a grueling 65-day shoot with 15,000 extras and 160 speaking roles. Dallas doubled for both Long Island and Mexico. The production shot 10-12 hours a day in 100-degree heat. At one point, Cruise got sinusitis. Several crew members fainted in the extreme climate. At one point, Stone became quite sick. Focused on the film, he ignored the symptoms until they got in the way of his work. He went to a local hospital in Dallas, underwent a panel of tests and was given medicine. His condition, however, only worsened. The film’s production coordinator called a local physician who had treated other crew members. He recognized Stone’s symptoms as an allergic reaction to a particular kind of pollen common in Dallas at that time of year.

Stone challenged his crew to duplicate Long Island in Dallas on a small budget. Several blocks of houses were given new looks and landscaped to recreate Massapequa, 1957. Principal photography began in October 1988 with the successful transformation of a southeast section of the city into a Long Island neighborhood. Born on the Fourth of July also saw Stone, for the first time, experiment with several different kinds of film stocks: 16mm, Super 16 and 35mm. He combined footage shot for the film with grainy, archival footage that was originally shot for network news in ’72 to recreate the veterans demonstrating at the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach. This certainly wouldn’t be the last time as he continued to do so with The Doors (1991), JFK (1991), Natural Born Killers (1994), Nixon (1995), and U Turn (1997).

Filming went on hiatus for the Christmas holidays, giving Stone an opportunity to edit sections of the film. He realized that his vision for Born on the Fourth of July had expanded and he would need to shoot more footage than budgeted. Stone went to Pollock and told him he needed an additional $3.8 million. The studio executive was hesitant but after the director showed him some edited sequences, he was given the money and allowed to go ten minutes over the running time that was in his contract.

Cruise had a particularly tough time with the scene where a sexually impotent Kovic pays to be with a Mexican prostitute. Stone remembers the actor’s shyness:

“We just kept shooting, working up to the place where Tom cries, thinking about everything he’ll miss – certainly not from the joy of sex. On one take, something happened inside him. Those tears came from someplace in Tom.”

Cruise remembered, “I went to Oliver and I said, ‘I’m just not there. It’s just not working.’ I remember feeling a lot of anxiety actually.” Stone told him to just do the scene and not think about it. The actor did it and, in the process, learned to let go. The two men clashed occasionally: “Tom is macho, aggressive, male and he wants the best. Perfection is his goal and if he doesn’t achieve it, his frustration is high.” Stone also clashed with the studio, nervous about the film’s commercial prospects so he and Cruise gave up their salaries for a percentage of the profits – a gamble that paid off exponentially.

Kovic was so impressed by Cruise’s performance that on the last day of filming he gave the actor his Bronze Star that he won in Vietnam. For Stone, he wanted the film to “show America, and Tom, and through Tom, Ron being put in a wheelchair, losing their potency. We wanted to show America being forced to redefine its concept of heroism.”

More conflicts arose between Stone and the studio during post-production. When it came to editing the film, Stone felt that the ending needed to be reshot and he also wanted John Williams to score the film. Cruise and Pollock agreed about reshooting the ending but the executive did not want to spend the extra money required to get Williams. In addition, he wanted to move up the release date to Veterans Day instead of Christmas. This enraged Stone and he went to Mike Ovitz, then-head of Creative Artists Agency, who wielded great power in Hollywood, and got him involved. After a meeting with Pollock, Stone agreed to shoot a new ending and Pollock agreed to both keep the original release date and pay to have Williams create the score. Stone remembers, “It left a lot of bad blood. I didn’t continue to work with Universal.”

Born on the Fourth of July received mixed to positive reviews at the time. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “It is not a movie about battle or wounds or recovery, but a movie about an American who changes his mind about the war…This is a film about ideology, played out in the personal experiences of a young man who paid dearly for what he learned.” Pauline Kael was much more dismissive: “Born on the Fourth of July is like one of those commemorative issues of Life – this one covers 1956 to 1976. Stone plays bumper cars with the camera and uses cutting to jam you into the action, and you can’t even enjoy his uncouthness, because it’s put at the service of sanctimony.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “It’s the most ambitious non-documentary film yet made about the entire Vietnam experience. More effectively than Hal Ashby’s Coming Home and even Michael Cimino’s Deer Hunter, it connects the war of arms abroad with the war of conscience at home.”

Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman gave the film a “C+” rating and wrote, “Tom Cruise tries hard, yet he’s fatally miscast: He simply doesn’t have the emotional range to play a character wallowing in grubby desperation.” In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson wrote, “Born on the Fourth of July is nettlesome work. Stone has gifts as a filmmaker, but subtlety is not one of them. In essence, he’s a propagandist, and, as it turns out, the least effective representative for his point of view.” Finally, Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers wrote, “Stone has found in Cruise the ideal actor to anchor the movie with simplicity and strength. Together they do more than show what happened to Kovic. Their fervent, consistently gripping film shows why it still urgently matters.”

There are people that are patriotic and those that are nationalistic fused with fascism, twisted into something so ugly that it doesn’t resemble what would be called patriotism, to spawn the bastardization of what passes for democracy today. This film wrestles with the definition of patriotism. The power of constitutional rights – most pointedly, the right to assemble and freedom of speech – are both key to our understanding about what it means to be American. It is not un-American to be critical of the country when it has become an unjust place, when the landscape has become an inhospitable place no longer nurturing the ideals upon which it was founded.

Within the fabric of Born on the Fourth of July lies hope. We hope that Kovic is not representing the lone man but the everyman. Hopefully, we will all wake up to what is really happening, pick ourselves up and enact change. This film is a rallying cry that needs to be sounded again, repeatedly, unrelenting in its echo.


Chutkow, Paul. “The Private War of Tom Cruise.” The New York Times. December 17, 1989.

Dutka, Elaine. “The Latest Exorcism of Oliver Stone.” Los Angeles Times. December 17, 1989.

Gabriel, Trip. “Cruise at the Crossroads.” Rolling Stone. January 11, 1990.

O’Riordan, James. Stone: A Biography of Oliver Stone. Aurum Press. 1996.

Ressner, Jeffrey. “Breaking Conventions.” DGA Quarterly. Fall 2012.