21 October, 2010

The Day of the Lion

So here's the thing.

I was listening to Kim Hill a couple of months ago when she was interviewing one of the main people behind The Onion. During the interview, the fake newspaper's post-9/11 issue was mentioned as a key point in raising the profile of the website. There was a lot of hyperbole in the immediate aftermath of that attack about how this event entirely changed not just the world but humanity itself. Reputable magazines were publishing articles about how this was the "death of irony" or some such rubbish, that the world had changed irrevocably and that our flippant and cynical attitudes had come crashing down with the towers. It was all rubbish of course, and The Onion sought to demonstrate that. With articles like "Hijackers Surprised To Find Selves In Hell," "Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake" or "American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie," The Onion attacked the monsters that launched the attack, while also placing the attack in a wider history of religious intolerance, pointed out the ridiculous nature of much of the subsequent outpouring of patriotic expression, and examined the attacks in the context of a culture that consumes such attacks for entertainment. It even mocked the prevailing "death of irony" sentiments. And all the while it remained sensitive to the truth of the matter, targeting the jokes at the events around the attacks, but always aware that the tragic deaths of thousands of real people in a terrorist attack is not a laughing matter.

Of course 9/11 was a significant world-changing event - nearly a decade later we are living in a world that is much more sensitive to the risk of terrorism, and certainly there have been a number of horrifying and tragic terrorist attacks since then. But these days, you're just as likely to hear about the hilarious misadventures of unsuccessful terrorists. There was the shoe bomber (whose bomb didn't explode because his sweat dampened the wick), or the underpants bomber (the joke of which really doesn't need any more explaining). There was also the guy who left an ineptly-manufactured bomb in a car in Times Square - the bomb didn't go off, it was discovered, and police identified the attempted terrorist by his keys which he had accidentally locked in the car. Or there was the guy who planned to kill a Government minister from Saudi Arabia but succeeded only in blowing himself up with a bomb shoved up his anus. And there's something almost comforting about such stories. We see 9/11, or the 7/7 London attack, or some bomb going off in a nightclub somewhere, and it's horrific; you get an impression of coolly-planned operations efficiently executed. So it's a relief to hear these stories about the other guys and be able to laugh, knowing that terrorists apparently are still human, and some of them are just as stupid and bad at their jobs as the rest of us.

It's in this context that Four Lions (see the trailer here) works so well. The core idea, a group of British Muslim jihadists plan a terrorist attack, doesn't seem that promising an idea for a comedy, and I've even had some people questioning the taste of basing a comedy around such a horrific concept. But the success of a comedy lies in the quality of the humour within, not the core concept (After all, a surgical hospital in a war zone doesn't sound like a promising comedy either, yet M*A*S*H is one of the defining TV comedies of last century.) And who cares about whether it's seen as tasteless to make a comedy about terrorism? It's like Mel Brooks once said, "Rhetoric does not get you anywhere, because Hitler and Mussolini are just as good at rhetoric. But if you can bring these people down with comedy, they stand no chance." If we treat these people, be it Hitler or your local jihadist, and what they do as something so big and terrible that they can only be treated seriously, then they have power over us. But if we hold them up to mockery and ridicule, that cuts them down to a manageable level. It says that we're not frightened of them, they have no hold over us, and they're worthy of nothing but our laughter.

And there's a lot of laughter generated by this film. It's always a little difficult to describe comedies, since the success of the film ultimately rests on the quality of the jokes. And the quality of jokes on display in Four Lions is very high - in fact, this is easily the funniest comedy I've seen since In the Loop at last year's festival. But how does someone gets across just how funny it is to watch a bearded man describe disguising himself as a lady to purchase vast quantities of chemicals, or watch someone record a terrorist video while holding a tiny replica machine gun, or hear Barry lay out his plan to bomb a mosque in order to radicalise the moderate Muslim population. There's the fake suicide bombing, or the exploding birds, or the unsuccessful use of a rocket launcher. This is one of those films where the comedy just keeps giving; where you discuss the film with your friends, and every time someone mentions this scene or that, it reminds you of yet another hilarious scene or line that had slipped your mind.

A recent Onion News Network video exclaimed "Al-Qaeda Calls Off Attack On Nation's Capitol To Spare Life Of 'Twilight' Author," and the film takes a similar joy at exploring the uneasy way religious fanaticism mixes with western lifestyles among those living in the West. In one of the film's best moments, on their way to conduct their attack, the group find themselves cheerfully singing along to "Dancing In The Moonlight," Barry looking at the group in horror at their wholehearted embracing of the worst of Western pop culture and their inability to treat their upcoming mission with the seriousness it deserves. In another great scene, the uncertainties of Western architecture are debated in the context of prohibitions on being in the same room as a woman with an uncovered head; it's funnier than it sounds, especially when the water pistols come out.

The characters in the film are perhaps a little shallow - by the end of the film, I really only felt that Omar (the leader, and most level-headed of the group) and Barry (the most radical of the group, seemingly out of defensiveness due to his status as a Muslim convert) were well-fleshed-out characters. The remaining characters, while all getting their own very funny moments, simply aren't that developed as characters.

It's to the film's credit that it does follow through with the premise. It's a slight spoiler to say that the characters do end up dead, mostly blowing themselves up in the execution of their plan. There's no last-minute decision not to do it because this is wrong; for the most part the characters generally remain committed to their goal, even while the absolute pointlessness of their actions is illustrated. And I don't want you thinking the film adopts a simple "aren't terrorists stupid" approach. The film actually thinks everyone is stupid. (By the end of the film, when the final body count is tallied up, there's more than one person dead due to the incompetence or bad decisions of the people supposed to protect us.) It's just that, when the terrorists are the main characters, we get more opportunity to see their idiocies.

But it seems that less-than-competent terrorists is not strictly a post-9/11 phenomenon. In one surprisingly funny moment early in Carlos (see the trailer here), a couple of terrorists twice try to fire a rocket-launcher at an Israeli airliner, both times hitting other planes instead. Working with people with such poor ability, famed real-life terrorist Carlos (later nicknamed Carlos the Jackal) several times finds himself needing to act quickly to fix problems created by others. And Carlos himself isn't exactly perfect in his planning - his otherwise seamlessly-executed attack on an OPEC meeting ultimately fell apart because of one small miscalculation in his planning.

Carlos is quite an impressive achievement. Originally made for French television, the biopic runs for 5½ hours, spread out over three parts. It certainly makes for a long day in the cinema, but it seems much shorter than it actually is. (By comparison, I really liked last year's Che, but it really did feel 4½ hours long. Carlos, even at an hour longer, felt much shorter than that experience.) Each part has a very clear focus - the first looks at the rise in prominence of Carlos, and ends with the terrorist leading a group on their way to attack the OPEC meeting. That attack occupies a significant portion of the second film, before focusing on how that attack made Carlos possibly the most prominent terrorist of the time. And then the third film finds an older Carlos settled down to a degree, in a long-term relationship, trying to stay ahead and protect himself as the number of friendly nations slowly reduces, until finally he is captured and imprisoned for a couple of impulsive murders committed back in Part One.

While the whole film is excellent - exciting, involving, gripping - easily the most phenomenal section of the film lies in the OPEC attack. Running about an hour, it is easily one of the best suspense sequences I have seen in a long time. Every moment is filled with the threat of possible violence - Carlos by this point has been established as someone who will kill without a second thought, and he openly tells certain people "you will die." The raid is a success, but as Carlos takes his hostages onto the plane to fly to Iraq, he's frustrated to learn that the DC7 he's ordered doesn't have sufficient range to make it to that destination, even if they do refuel. It prompts hours of frustration, the plane and its hostages frozen while Carlos wavers in indecision. It's a phenomenal sequence, suspenseful and tense. And it really illustrates how a long running-time can be used well. There's no need to hurry the sequence, there's time to make clear every part of the operation, while being able to replicate the sense of being in that room or that plane, just waiting for something to happen, with the constant threat of imminent violence hanging over their heads. It's truly masterful. I read that a shorter 2½ hour cut of the film has been made for general release, and I shudder at the thought. While you could perhaps trim a half-hour from the final part if you had to (as Carlos stagnates and loses much of his drive, the film does run the risk of doing so as well), on the whole there is so little slack in the film that a shorter cut could only be damaged, and I can't imagine a heavily-edited version of the OPEC raid in particular having anywhere near the intended impact.

The film is also careful to remind us that it's not possible for someone like Carlos to operate without significant backing. There are scenes where the man meets with various recognisable presidents or prime ministers or leaders in various countries, who casually agree to accommodate and shelter Carlos; as long as he refrains from attacking them, they don't really care what he does to anyone else. And I think we all understand that there have been certain states that have, at times, given some level of support or backing to the activities of people such as Carlos, but there is something shocking to actually see such scenes play out in front of the viewer.

In the lead role, Édgar Ramírez gives an extraordinary performance. As a young man, he's all fire and passion for the cause, cold-blooded to his enemies, and full of fury at anyone with any less commitment to the fight, with an charisma that's so strong it seems natural that people would gravitate to this man and do anything to maintain his approval. As a result, it's a shock to see the Carlos of the final part, overweight and lethargic, holding to his ideals in a theoretical way only, having become one of those half-hearted pseudo-radicals that the young Carlos would have railed against. Much as we may hate the young Carlos, so callous with the lives of anyone that stands in his way, it's sad to see that fiery charisma gone, and replaced with an air of self-preservation. The character changes dramatically over the course of the story, and Ramírez skilfully navigates these character changes; convincingly determined in his youthful idealism, and in his later form subtly listless in his awareness that he has changed from one of the world's most notorious criminals to a forgotten and historic footnote.

Inevitably most people that see this film will either see the cut-down version (which you should avoid, since I can see no possible way it can work), or the complete version at home on DVD (since I assume big screen prospects for a film that occupies six hours of screen real estate are obviously limited). And since the film was originally made for television, no doubt it works very well on the small screen. But if you do get a chance to catch a cinema screening of the complete Carlos, do not miss it. Certainly I count myself lucky to have had the opportunity to watch the film in cinemas. But however you get to see it, it's well worth your time. One of the highlights of my film year.

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