So here's the thing,
The Oscars are always a weird mix of joy and frustration, where you're excited by the acknowledgement given to one film that you love, and baffled by the focus on another film that just didn't work for you. As part of that experience, it's always interesting watching all of the Best Picture nominees, and seeing what the Academy regards as the best that filmmaking had to offer in the year. This year, there are a number of absolutely incredible films that would top the list in any year, a few more that in being nominated have been a bit overrated but are still pretty good, and one film that is so blandly generic and that so completely fails to distinguish itself in any way at all that I simply cannot image how it ever gained the support to be nominated.
[My thoughts on Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, American Sniper, Selma, and Whiplash, after the break.]
The film is focused on a washed-up actor named Riggan Thomson (played by Michael Keaton), who is best known for playing a superhero named Birdman in a series of films several decades ago. Now barely remembered, he has written and is starring in a Broadway play that he hopes will revive his public image and his career. But he's not doing well; he has a troubled relationship with his daughter, his new girlfriend may be pregnant, one of his cast members injures himself during rehearsals and is looking to sue, the replacement cast member is a complete asshole, and his inner dialogue has been taken over by his coarse and abrasive Birdman character.
The key thing to understand about the film is that it is presented as though the entire film were basically one long-take, without cuts. The camera follows our characters from location to location, navigating the narrow corridors of the theatre, at times getting uncomfortably close to these people. And sure, it's a show-off way of filming the movie, where the filming draws attention to itself rather than remaining invisible. But it also has a strange heightening effect on the audience. Normally when you shoot a long-take sequence, part of the key element of that scene is that it takes place in real-time; if you're following Henry Hill as he walks into the Copacabana, you know exactly how long it took him to walk into that nightclub. But part of the point of the film is that it's not in real-time; the movie starts during rehearsals, and takes you all the way through to opening night. That creates a weird sense of time slippage, that we're never quite on solid ground about where or when we are; if there had been a cut we would understand when we changed to a later night, but the lack of visible editing makes the audience uncomfortable and uncertain. Add to that the fact that there's a definite air of unreality to the world the movie presents; the first thing we see when this long shot begins is the image of Keaton meditating, literally floating in mid-air, while later on we see him moving objects with his mind. But most of what we see is real, and even in the unreal moments, reality can intrude in amusing ways; in one moment we see Keaton flying down Broadway, but as he lands he's chased by the taxi driver he's failed to pay. This weird unreliable reality of the film ties in with the way the single-take approach to create a sense where we're never quite sure what is real, what is not, where and when we are. We can begin to feel trapped and claustrophobic, as though there's no way to escape. It's also effective in getting the viewer into Riggan's mindset; this is a character who is very clearly dealing with issues of depression, and the ever moving drifting camerawork, sliding uncertainly through time visually communicates that kind of numbed uneven experience that he might be going through.
The cast is one of the best of the year, and you can see their excitement at being involved in the challenge of making this film. The unique filmmaking style gives the film a sense of danger and excitement, almost like its a theatrical performance where everything has to go perfectly, and that elevates the performances. The casting of Michael Keaton is obviously essential to the film; while Keaton has had a better post-Batman career than Riggan seems to have had a post-Birdman career, he never really reached the heights that an actor of his talents deserved, and the film really plays with that. Edward Norton's performance is just remarkable, completely lacking in any self-consciousness or fear of being unlikeable or absurd, but at the same time there are moments where his character is acting and he reaches a level where we can understand why his character is so in-demand as an actor. But everyone – Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, Andrea Riseborough, Lindsay Duncan – give excellent performances, and each have moments that just wowed me. But the film is a very theatrical film, and the performances are inevitably heightened as a result. Because the film was working for me, the performances worked for me. If the film doesn't work for you, the performances would probably be intolerable. That's the challenge of the film.
There are a couple of things that I did not care for. The film is generally very bitter and angry at the modern film culture and the world of celebrity, and I'm good with that. But part of the expression of its bitterness is through (or at) a theatre critic character played by Lindsay Duncan. I don't blame the actor; she gives a good performance of the role given how it was written. But I'm always wary whenever a piece of art includes a "critic" character, as they're almost always presented as someone whose primary delight is in tearing down someone else's work. Indeed, that is the case for Duncan's character; she actually tells Riggan several days before opening that her review will bury the play no matter what the merits of the play may be. The thing is, I follow and read the work of a lot of critics, and in my experience, that's NEVER the case. Critics tend to come from a place of love for the artform, and seem to get greater joy from expressing passion for a work that deserves attention. Sure, they may find it fun to attack an appalling big-budget mess, but that is seldom, if ever, the critic's overriding motivation. So when the film has this sour critic character, it plays as though Inarritu is still bitter at those critics who didn't like his film Babel, and has decided the problem was with critics who just want to be negative, rather than with the possibility that maybe his film didn't work in the way he intended. It's not the worst treatment of a critic ever by a film (M Night Shyamalan had a similarly negative critic torn apart by a supernatural creature in Lady In The Water), but it was a direction the film took that I did not care for.
I'm also unsure about the ending. I'll avoid spoilers, but because the film constantly shifted between reality and fantasy, it lends a degree of uncertainty to the reality of the ending. Is the end sequence entirely true, does it all happen in the context of the film? Or is the last five seconds a fantasy? Or is it possible that the entire final sequence is a fantasy, and the actual events take place finish at the film's climax? I don't have any answers to that, nor do I really know what the film is trying to say with any of those endings. I'm looking forward to rewatching the film, and trying to better understand what it's saying, and how that ending factors into that.
It's an insane project. The entire film was made on a year-by-year basis, effectively funded as 12 short films. It could have gone wrong in so many ways; his lead Ellar Coltrane could have grown to be an awful actor, or any of his core actors could have decided not to do the film (indeed Linklater's daughter Lorelai, who plays Mason's older sister, apparently wanted to pull out of the film several times), or the funding could have been lost halfway through the film. That the film was completed is a minor miracle.
But that's not why the film deserves to win. The simple fact is, this is one incredible film. The movie is genuine and true and heartfelt and emotional and speaks about life and the experience of growing up in a way that no other film that I know of ever has. One of the smartest conceits of the film is that this is not just the story of this kid's life, which would be very basic and simple (this happened, then that happed, then another thing happened). Instead, it's as though the film is 18-year-old Mason looking back and remembering his life. The key thing about that is that it's not necessarily the "big landmarks" that a person thinks about when they think about their life; it's often the smaller moments that made an emotional impact on you. So we see little of Mason at school, but we do see him going bowling or going camping with his father. We're not there when he loses his virginity, but we see him spend a later night with his girlfriend that perhaps meant more to him. We don't see him graduate from high school, but we do see him driving around with his friends after graduation. And it captures the way people come and go from your life; the way someone might be your best friend, you're inseparable, and then one day you realise you've grown apart and you haven't seen that person in years and you didn't even notice it happening. Or maybe you come home one night and find yourself meeting your mother's new boyfriend, but after a month or two he's no longer around and there's a new guy visiting. Or maybe there's a teacher who really inspires and encourages you, and helps you discover a passion you might never have known about otherwise, but when you leave that school he's gone. And all these people are in your life, and they play a role, for good or for ill, in shaping you, and a few of these people might remain in your life but most will not. And that is what the film is trying to express.
It's interesting to learn that the film was originally going to be called "12 Years", but the name changed to "Boyhood" when 12 Years A Slave came out last year. In some ways, I think "Boyhood" is the better title; it's certainly a more evocative title than the literalism of "12 Years". But in other ways, it's possibly a misleading title. Calling the film "Boyhood" focuses the audience's attention on this young boy, and with good reason; he's definitely the lead character. But it's not just his story; it's the story of his entire family. It's intrinsic to the film that everyone in the film grows, changes, learns or doesn't learn over these 12 years. Indeed, while Mason's father and sister are definitely supporting characters, Patricia Arquette as Mason's mother Olivia is very nearly the co-lead. The difference is that, while Mason is learning who he is throughout the film, Olivia is caught repeating patterns in her life, unable to break free, and terrified because her children have been her reason for being for so long and they're growing up so fast and she doesn't know who she is outside of being their mother. It's a performance that is filled with pain and joy and sadness and one of the best things in the film. Arquette is almost a lock for the Supporting Actress Oscar, and while I'd quibble about her being in the Supporting category, I'm glad the performance is getting the recognition it deserves.
I've seen some people try to dismiss the film by arguing that it's not as special as it may seem. They point to other instances where movies have explored the way people grow and change over time. They point to the Seven Up documentary series, where a group of children were filmed at the age of 7, and then have been revisited every 7 years for eight films now. They point to the Antoine Doinel films, in which director François Truffaut repeatedly revisited the child at the centre of his film The 400 Blows, watching as he grows to adulthood, marries, gets divorced. They cite Linklater's own Before films, in which we meet a couple in their 20s, and then revisit them each nine years to see them in their 30s and their 40s. (It's disorienting to realise that at the time Linklater started working on Boyhood there was only Before Sunrise; he wouldn't make Before Sunset for another two years.) They even cite the Harry Potter films, which may take place in a fantasy world but we do see this entire class of children grow to adulthood. And yes, taken together, each of these films do explore the passage of time, but they do need to be taken together to do so. I've seen The 400 Blows multiple times, but I've never seen any of the other Doinel films, so for me, Doinel is still a young troubled child running down the beach, never growing up. I could watch Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and have an extremely entertaining experience and never once think about Potter as an 11 year old or a 17 year old. And while people may have wanted to know whether Céline and Jesse ever reunited, had Before Sunrise been the only film about that couple to exist it would have been absolutely satisfying. That's the difference with Boyhood, that's what is unique about this film. This isn't something where the filmmaker made a film and then wanted to revisit it later; this is a single unique work of art that is expressly and unmistakably about exploring the passage of time and the experiences that cause us to change and grow and become the people that we are.
And yet, despite its unmistakable greatness, it's difficult to say much about the film. There's no story to the film, it's just a collection of moments; at best there are a few character arcs for different people. The direction is good, but deliberately invisible, just staying out of the way and capturing the experience of the characters.(Indeed, I suspect most of Linklater's directorial involvement is behind-the-scenes rather than on-camera, developing the vision for the film and being the clear hand that keeps the project together.) And yet I've found myself repeatedly returning to reflect on the film over the past six months. And I think that's because the film touches on something that is purely emotional. I remember going home after watching the film, and watching a behind-the-scenes video where they were interviewing the young Ellar Coltrane back in 2002, and I was astonished how much affection for that child I felt. "He looks so young" I thought, about a child I'd never seen before that day and who, when I did see him for the first time just a couple of hours earlier, was that six-year-old child. The great thing about this film is that, when you reach the end of the nearly three-hour running time, you genuinely feel like you've been on a life journey with this kid. It's utterly unique, unlike any film I've experienced, and quite remarkable.
The Grand Budapest Hotel, in particular, may very well be Wes Anderson's best film. Set in a fictional European country on the brink of war in the early 1930s, the story focuses on Gustave H, the concierge at the titular hotel, and young lobby boy Zero. Gustave spends his evenings in intimate encounters with the hotel's elderly visitors, one of whom dies and leaves him a valuable painting. Gustave is arrested for her murder, but escapes from prison with the help of Zero, and the two of them are pursued by an assassin working for the dead woman's son wanting to recover the painting.
Every time I rewatch the film, I find myself increasingly appreciating the way the story is told. The entire film is told through a nesting structure, where the story is narrated decades later by an elderly Zero to a young man, who decades later as an celebrated elderly writer writes the story up in a book, which is then read decades later by a young girl visiting the writer's tomb. Except that in the film it's presented to us in the reverse order, starting with the young girl at the tomb and working backwards until we reach the events of the story. It's an interesting choice, and one that I initially struggled with – since for 90 percent of the film we're just watching the story play out with minimal interference from the various storytellers, what does that structure really achieve? But I think it has a number of effects. Firstly, there's a great deal of artifice and heightened unreality in the film, be it visually (there's nothing in the film that looks like it exists in the real world; it's all drawn straight from Anderson's mind), character-wise (there's virtually no one in the film who feels like a real person), or plot-wise (there's a frantic pace to the film that feels artificial). But the idea of the film being a representation of the story being imagined by the girl, multiple storytelling-generations away from the actual events, justifies the complete artifice of the story's presentation.
Another reason why the film has this structure is that it imposes a sense of reflection on the story. The film hits a weird tonal shift at the end. For almost its entire running time the film achieves a sweetness of tone and a sense that nothing can really go wrong. But after the actual story ends, we learn what happened after, how this character became ill and died a couple of years later and that person died gunned down by soldiers. It imposes a sense of melancholy over the film's joyful nostalgia. And then we see the once-bright-and-beautiful hotel, now decaying and in serious decline. And we hear F Murray Abraham, as the older Zero, reflecting on how much this place meant to him, how he could never let it go because of the hold that it has on him as a reminder of his past and the people he has known. It's not an especially original observation to notes that even as stories end reality continues to go on, and that happily-ever-after rarely is. But this film makes me feel the weight of that fact in a way that few other explorations of that idea ever have. Couple that with the fact that we're viewing the story as imagined by this young girl some 80 years after the events took place, and it also becomes about the power and importance of storytelling to keep people, events, and memories alive long after they fade away.
The film has a comically large cast – one poster for the film highlights 17 different character played by recognisable actors – and although most of those actors have little more than cameos, they each bring little grace notes and touches to the film that give the characters an impact however little screentime they might have. But particular attention has to be given to Ralph Fiennes, in the co-lead role of Gustave H. Ralph Fiennes to me always feels like a very serious actor, and it's a revelation to see him being this light, breezy, and silly. His performance has sweetness and charm and a genuine affection throughout, and I loved every second of it. In his previous film, Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson brought out something new from Edward Norton and Harvey Keitel (and it's exciting to see them both return here to do very funny work); now he's tapping previously-unseen talents for Fiennes; I'm excited to see which hidden comedic genius he discovers in his next film.
I also love the way the film looks. There's a scene in the film where break-out tools are smuggled into a prison hidden in suspiciously-tool-shaped pastries, but the pastries are so beautiful to look at that the mail inspectors cannot bear to damage them, and send them through uninspected. That's how the film looks; like a perfect confection, light and sweet and oh so beautiful. Anderson's carefully constructed world is incredible to look at, and so much fun to exist in. And as a director, he has an impressive and precise control over the tone of the film; it's fast-paced, but never falls into manic; it's light and breezy, even during moments that might ordinarily seem horrific; and it has a sweet love for all of its characters.
Wes Anderson is one of the most purely enjoyable filmmakers working today. But it always seemed like he was a filmmaker relegated to the Academy's second-tier; he'd only ever received Original Screenplay nominations, which is where the Academy sends people when it knows they're good but doesn't quite understand why. To finally see one of his films nominated as Best Picture is a real thrill, to see him nominated as a director even more so. And it says a lot that he was nominated, given that the film was released nearly a year ago, and yet stayed in the memories of Academy members through all of the Oscar season awards-bait films. Anderson won't win, the movie won't win (except maybe in some technical awards), but the mere fact that the film was nominated says a great deal.
The film starts in 1951, where the investigation into a break-in to Turing's house leads to the discovery by the investigating officers of Turing's homosexuality. It then flashes back to the 1940s for the bulk of the film, showing Turing's codebreaking efforts at Bletchley Park, but periodically flashes even earlier to his school days where Turing discovered his love for cryptography and fell in love with his best friend. And this gives the film a decidedly awkward structure. Now, I can understand that; if you're making a film about Turing, you have to focus on his work with Enigma, and you have to talk about his homosexuality and how society's reaction to that led to his death. And those are two different stories that take place at two different points in his life, which can make it a challenge to fully marry them together. That's how you get this flashback structure, which seems to exist primarily to try to integrate the latter story into a film that is primarily focused on his wartime efforts. But the approach just feels forced, and the flashbacks just feel randomly placed, as though the filmmakers realised "we haven't referenced the fact that he's gay for 30 minutes, so let's throw in a 50s scene to remind us all." This is made worse by the fact that Turing's relationship with fellow codebreaker Joan Clarke (played by Keira Knightley) feels as if it's being played as a love story. It's almost as though the film is fighting with itself, wanting to be about this famous homosexual, but at the same time not wanting him to be too gay. As it is, the film comes as close as is possible to pushing Turing back into the closet without actually doing so.
Turing is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, and I am a definite fan of Cumberbatch (as admittedly most people are these days). And I like that he's stretching himself here by playing a socially-awkward genius. But the problem was that I felt like I could see the acting choices; I could see Cumberbatch thinking "I will move my head in this way, or pause my words at this spot", and that took me out of the film. Now, it could just be that I'm so familiar with the way he acts on Sherlock that every difference in performance leapt out at me, but the fact is I always felt like I was watching someone pretending to be Turing. And that is not how I should be responding to the main character in the film. Still, at least Turing is a recognisable character. Get past Turing and Knightley's Joan character, and everyone else in the film is a complete cypher. I don't know anyone's name, I couldn't tell you about their personalities, I don't recall anything interesting anyone did; these people seem to exist in the film solely because there were more than two people at Bletchley Park, so they needed to have more than two people in the room but God forbid that they actually seem like real people.
The film seems to lack any interest in following through with anything it sets up. In the film's most appalling example, it is discovered that there is a Soviet spy on the codebreaker team, and Turing is accused of being that spy; he manages to get out of that accusation in about a minute, and then the film seems to forget about that spy for the next hour. Eventually they get around to finishing off that plotline, but they do so by revealing the spy's identity and then having someone say "I know that so-and-so was the spy, and it doesn't matter." That is not an exaggeration; that is literally what happens. If the people in the film don't care about who the spy is, how are we supposed to care?
Even in moments where there should be incredible tension, I felt completely uninvolved. There was a scene where they realise they have information about an impending enemy attack on a civilian convoy, and then they realise they can't warn anyone of the attack because if they do the enemy will realise the Enigma machine has been cracked and their advantage will be lost almost immediately. That should be intense and suspenseful, we should feel torn at the morality of letting these people die in order to keep a secret that could save many more people. And the film tries to elevate the stakes even more; of the maybe six people in the room, one of them has a brother that happens to coincidentally be on one of the ships to be attacked, so he's grappling with allowing the death of his brother. And yet I didn't feel connected to the moment. For a film to fail to connect with such a moment is just a staggering disappointment.
When I look at the Oscar nominations for this film, I genuinely do not understand what is going on. It's one thing to nominate this film for Best Picture (that category can have up to ten nominees in a year, which can give enough space for a poor film to get in), but the fact that this film is nominated for Best Director (even though that category is restricted to five nominees) makes no sense to me. That the bland unremarkable direction of this film got a nomination ahead of Whiplash or Selma has me confused. That the film has eight nominations has me utterly befuddled. Who are these people that think this is one of the crowning film achievements of the year? Did they see any other films this year?
The film starts with young Stephen Hawking struggling to find a subject for his thesis. Once night he meets fellow Cambridge student Jane at a party, and the two sit and talk all night. They gradually fall in love, and their growing relationship in turn inspires Hawking's thoughts until he has the revolutionary ideas that will form his thesis and his entire life's work. Once Hawking is diagnosed with motor neuron disease, Jane decides to marry the man. From there, we watch as Hawking becomes a major public figure, as he struggles to fight his debilitating condition, and as the marriage slowly comes to its inevitable end.
To its credit, the film seems to approach the story honestly. This is not some film that seeks to brush over any complicated issues. Right from the start, Stephen and Jane clash over their fundamental worldviews; Stephen is an atheist, while Jane is a devout Christian. (The film even has some fun with this fact; there's one point where it doesn't occur to Stephen that Jane might have something to go to on Sunday morning. It's a moment that's entirely unnecessary, but valuable as a simple expression of this core conflict.) As Hawking's condition declines, we can see the understandable frustration that Jane feels; when the man who would become Jane's second husband is first introduced, there's a clear attraction between the two, even if the two are reluctant to act on it; and similarly we can understand when Stephen falls in love with his nurse and makes clear that he's ending the marriage. While the situation is obviously simplified, as is inevitable in a two hour film, the film seems to genuinely try to embrace and relate the messiness and complications inherent in this relationship.
The main strength of the film is the extraordinary performance by Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking. The real challenge to the role is the graduated loss of physical ability that has to be communicated; he starts the film as a person of perfectly normal ability, but as his motor neuron disease takes over, there's a gradual decline until he becomes the man we know, trapped inside his wheelchair unable to speak for himself. So every scene, he has to carefully watch the progression of his transition and chart the physicality of his performance, without ever letting his focus on the details detract from the emotional core being expressed. And, to my eyes at least, it is seamless. Redmayne is a strong actor, but I never would have anticipated a transformation. By the end of the film, he's literally working solely with his eyes, and there is a richness and depth in this performance. I believe Redmayne is considered the frontrunner for the Actor award (although Michael Keaton is close behind), and if Redmayne wins it would be thoroughly deserved.
Ultimately, it's not a great film. It's not one that I feel the need to see ever again, nor one that I'm ever to find myself thinking about. But it is a very good film, much better than I was anticipating in fact, and I was genuinely pleased to have had a reason to see it.
But watching the film, I was constantly remembering something I'd once heard a screenwriter say about Eastwood. I don't remember who the screenwriter was or what the film was, but the story was that Eastwood had acquired the rights to make the film based on the first draft of the script. "Great," the screenwriter said, "when do you want the next draft?" But no next draft was needed; Eastwood had bought that first draft and wanted to make that first draft. Then there's Eastwood's general reputation for speed in shooting. He's incredibly economical as a director, will typically shoot the bare minimum number of takes needed, and gets through a huge amount of shooting in a day. And that seems appealing, especially when you compare him to someone like David Fincher, who famously will often take 80 or 90 takes of a scene, or like Kubrick who set a record by shooting 148 takes of a single shot. But I think these stories of Eastwood are indicative of the problem with him as a director. A first draft of a script, of anything really, is rarely perfect. You need to go back, revisit, identify issues in the writing, and rework them to refine the final product. In making the decision to just take the script they have and shoot that, Eastwood is essentially saying "what we have is good enough". Same thing with his shooting approach. Sure, you might capture all the necessary action and fine performances if you just do three or four takes of a key scene, and that's good enough to do what you want. But as it is often said, "good is the enemy of great". When I go to see a new David Fincher film, I'm always excited, because even when he has made a film that doesn't necessarily succeed I know that this is the best version of that film that he was capable of making. When I see an Eastwood film, it may be fine, I might enjoy it, but it won't have that sense of being perfected. It will do what it needs to do, it will be functional, but nothing else.
I was thinking about that a lot in the film, because I very quickly noticed something about the script. Each scene, particularly dialogue-based non-action scenes, tended to build up to one key line before cutting away (often immediately), and that key line would often be a bald statement of the point of the scene. There's never any moment where things are left unsaid, where the audience is left to work out that "on the surface they're fighting over this, but underpinning the argument is their frustration over that". I don't know if this was a first draft script, but it felt like it was; in reworking the script, some of those moments could have been tweaked, the text could have become subtext, and it would have improved the film immeasurably.
And it's a shame, because it's generally a pretty good film. Not one of the eight best films of the year, but it works. The conflict scenes are exciting and intense, and the actual sniper scenes maintain an intense level of suspense; as an audience we're constantly aware of the risks if he doesn't kill someone in time or the consequences if he kills someone he shouldn't. (There's a trailer that largely consists of the film's opening scene that really communicates that suspense, and there's a later scene that's even better, where Kyle has to decide whether to kill a child who has picked up a rocket launcher that was lying on the ground.) The domestic scenes back home are less compelling, although Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller do their best given the thinly-written nature of those scenes, and fortunately the film never stays in the US too often. (It's noticeable that the one action scene I didn't care for is one where Kyle is on the phone to his wife when his vehicle comes under attack; the constant cutting between the best part of the film and the worst part feels uncomfortable and detracts from the intensity of the scene.)
Ultimately, Eastwood's approach to filmmaking has given us a film that is good enough. But a good-enough film should never even be in the conversation for best picture of the year.
At the centre of Selma is an absolutely extraordinary performance by David Oyelewo as Martin Luther King. With a figure like King, it could be easy to just hold him up as some paragon of perfection, turning the film into a hagiography. That is not how the film plays it. King is certainly a great man, but he is absolutely a man. He's someone who is completely convinced of the importance of adopting a non-violent approach to protest, but for whom this is never easy; there are moments where you can see him burning with fury over one brutal assault or another, when his every instinct is to jump in and attack, but he makes the choice to stand still, and that tension is played out in the small subtle details, a tensing of the body, a clenching of the jaw, a look in the eye. We get the man trying to keep himself from breaking as he comforts people whose loved ones have been murdered for his cause. We get the man who is uncertain, who finds himself facing situations in the film where he has no idea how best to respond. I also was surprised to see that they approach with honesty the man's genuine failings without letting that overwhelm the character. So we're often aware of the tensions in the Kings' marriage, and they even explicitly refer in one scene to his womanising as being a major issue (something I never expected to see in this film), but these problems never become the defining trait of the man. Compare the way King is portrayed in Selma with the way Spielberg had Abraham Lincoln portrayed in Lincoln, and the stark differences are clear to see. Lincoln was afraid to tarnish the myth, so kept him away from the dirtiness of politics, and in so doing left Lincoln as the least interesting person in his own film. But in Selma, the focus is absolutely on finding the human in King that could create the myth, and it's utterly compelling.
And yet despite this very human portrayal, Oyelowo's King is absolutely the Martin Luther King that we all think of. We hear him deliver multiple speeches throughout the film, and Oyelowo convinces as a man used to delivering speeches from the pulpit, someone who recognises that his voice and his words are his greatest weapon. What is particularly astonishing is the fact that none of the speeches in the film are actually from King; it seems that Steven Spielberg owns the rights to the actual text of his speeches as part of a King biopic he's working on, so it was necessary for the filmmakers to write their own speeches for King to deliver, breaking down and analysing the component parts of his speech, identifying recurring patterns and images, until they've written speeches that sound exactly like something that Martin Luther King would say. That I never once questioned the authenticity of the speeches, and even at points thought I had heard these speeches before, demonstrates how well they were done.
There's some fascinating material around the strategic element of King's protest. There's one scene where they explicitly discuss how recent protests haven't been effective because the local law enforcement have been too reasonable, and they need to move their protests to Selma because that is somewhere where the police will assault unarmed people, which in turn will get the issue onto the front page and create the pressure needed to effect change. All involved understand the consequences of their plan, and recognise that people will be killed because of their strategic decision; this is not an easy choice to make, and it's one that causes great pain to those making it, but they still make it because it's the right choice to make if your goal is to force change in a society that is otherwise resistant to the issue. It's often very easy to view King's non-violent approach as passive; what is fascinating is that the film emphasises the complete opposite. The Selma march was a deliberate attempt to antagonise the community in an attempt to force an outcome that might otherwise never come. I find that fascinating.
Looking at what I've written, I realise that I've given a lot of focus to the way the film portrays Martin Luther King. And, sure, that's inevitable. But one of the things I really loved about the film was that it wasn't just King's story. In some ways it's almost an ensemble film, with a wide variety of developed identifiable characters coming together to fight. There was a very strong, very clear focus on how the civil rights battle wasn't won because of this one great figure, but how it was won by individual bravery, people who made the choice to put themselves in harm's way to stand for what they believe. And one aspect of the film that I really appreciated was the voice it gave to opposing viewpoints, how it presents significant characters amongst the civil rights movement who are utterly convinced that King is completely wrong; there are those who believe non-violence is not enough and that a violent uprising is the only way to achieve change, and there are those that view the march as being too much, as being something that will undercut their own longer-term efforts to bring about change. And we get debates, compelling discussions among our characters grappling with the pros and cons of this approach or that approach, that are fascinating to listen to and that explain the choices that people make, and that far from stopping the flow of the film actually build and accelerate the film's tension.
There has been a lot of controversy around the film, largely arising out the film's portrayal of President Lyndon B Johnson, and I'm puzzled by that. It's possible the film may not be a perfectly accurate representation of LBJ's actions during the time period; I wouldn't know one way or the other. But when I saw the film, I was shocked that this portrayal was the subject of so much criticism. This is not someone who is in any way in opposition to King or the civil rights movement. He's just a politician; someone for whom the need to protect civil rights is important, but who also has other changes he wants to bring about, and he needs to balance those priorities. He's already achieved the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which in itself tapped out his support in some areas. He now wants to ease back, focus on his other core issues, return to the matter next year, and hopefully in the meantime they'll have been able to bring the public with them on the issue. He's concerned at the possibility that his sole legacy might be in civil rights when he has a much wider focus. To me it made complete sense that this would be how he would respond. And even if, behind closed doors, LBJ did support the march, so what? Cinema is filled with stories of oppressed minorities who are helped or supported by a representative of the majority to rise above their circumstances; the so-called "white saviour" film. Many of these are genuinely great films; I'm not going to criticise To Kill A Mockingbird just because it's about a white lawyer defending a black man. But it's nice to see a film where the focus is on black people coming together to fight for what is right, rather than one where yet another white person is seen to be a key figure helping black people.
It's a small matter, but one of the film's devices that I really liked had the film pausing at the end of many scenes to show a two line summary of the scene we've just seen, followed by a timestamp and the word "Logged". That was a nice simple approach that took the audience back to the 60s and constantly reminded us that Martin Luther King, now regarded as one of the greatest men of the 20th century, was at the time regarded with great suspicion and under constant surveillance by the FBI.
I am not someone who gets emotional watching movies. It's rare that a film will get under my skin and affect my cold stony heart. So it says something that this film moved me deeply. I walked out of the cinema feeling like I had been torn apart. This film is absolutely one of the greatest films of the year, and when I look at the minimal award nominations being given to it (other than Best Picture, its only other Oscar nomination is for Best Song, for an awful overly-proud-of-itself piece that comes straight out and baldly states everything the film has been expressing without an ounce of the film's subtlety), I do not understand. I was already puzzled by the surfeit of nominations for the mediocrity of The Imitation Game, but when I see a subtle, beautiful, and challenging work like this being effectively ignored, it feels like there is something wrong with the world.
Essentially Fletcher's worldview is that by never just accepting "good enough", you force people to strive to do better. He tells the story of Charlie Parker, who supposedly had Jo Jones throw a cymbal at his head after making a mistake*; this led him to obsessively practice until he became one of the greatest performers of the century. It's almost like the idea is to tear someone down, completely destroy them, until they're nothing, and then they're ready to be built up into greatness. It's a very similar approach to the one that's taken by the military, which is why JK Simmons' performance as Fletcher feels so much like R Lee Ermy's drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket. It's just a remarkable performance, and one where if Simmons doesn't land with an impact, then the film falls completely flat. It leaves the audience with the exact same sense of being brutalised, terrorised; so much so that I found I was on edge and tensed up throughout the film, not just when Fletcher was on screen, but even during quiet moments with Andrew at home.
(* Side note: apparently this is not true. Jones apparently threw the cymbal at Parker's feet, which is a lot less life-threatening than throwing at his head. But it says a lot about Fletcher that he would tell this untrue story to justify his behaviour.)
I was also impressed by Miles Teller. He's made an impact on me before, particularly in Rabbit Hole, but here he is called on to do some complicated work. Andrew is our audience surrogate, someone we're supposed to sympathise with and support, but at the same time there's an element of recklessness and arrogance to him, and even active unlikability, that deliberately alienates him from the audience even as we continue to be on his side. One of the best things about the performance is the fact that Teller can clearly play drums; I don't know whether there is any movie fakery around the most tricky drum work, but for the most part it seems pretty clear that Teller knows his way around a drum kit. I've sat through too many films where supposed musical geniuses can't even hold their instrument correctly, so as an audience member it brings an instant relief seeing someone on screen who clearly knows what he's doing.
The film's writer/director Damien Chazelle apparently wrote the film based on his own experiences studying music, although the behaviour of Fletcher was apparently heightened based on the actions of other famous jazz performers. I completely bought the character; the friend I saw the film less so, questioning whether someone who behaves so consistently in an abusive manner could continue to teach for as long as Fletcher did. It's probably a fair criticism, although it's also true that in many institutions very bad behaviour by key teachers or coaches have been swept under the carpet as long as that person achieves successful outcomes.
It's also clear that Chazelle has extensive experience with music because he's able to shoot the musical sequence in a way that expresses a tactile sense of performance. There's no grand glamour to the way the music is performed; we see every little detail; the spit valves being emptied, the squeak of the reeds being warmed, the exhausted sweat of the performers at the end of a challenging piece. Musical performance can be wearying and painful (even before you have to deal with a bully like Fletcher), and it's impressive how this film communicates that pain, and the satisfaction that comes at the end of a successful performance.
Despite my enthusiasm for the experience, I did have some issues with the film. There's a girlfriend character in the film that plays an important role in bringing out some of the themes of the film, but the film starts at the start of the relationship. This means the film wastes three scenes for the two to start dating, and then we only get to see them on their first date before a key scene takes place where we're just supposed to accept that they're a serious couple. Had the two been dating when the film started, the film could have had four scenes to establish and develop the strength of the relationship, which would have given that key scene so much more impact.
I also thought the third act made no sense at all from a human behaviour sense. From a film-making sense, it worked perfectly; I really enjoyed the ending and found it an absolutely satisfying emotionally. But the way the film gets to that ending involves everyone in the film, particularly Fletcher, behaving in a way that no human being would ever behave. It was as though every character had read the script, and understood that their ultimate purpose was to get the film to that (admittedly great) scene, no matter how improbable each of the steps towards that ending might be.
And yet that ending scene really did work for me. Appropriately enough for this film, the film climaxes in a near-wordless music performance that must last 10 or 15 minutes, and as much as I might criticise the way it gets there, that scene itself is utterly gripping. We get so used to movie climaxes that are all chases and big statements and gunplay and big glowing things that it's shocking to see something this simple have such a powerful impact. The emotions in the film are big and angry, and by the point of the climax they've completely reached breaking point; we're watching a battle of wills, but it comes through this blistering frantic musical performance. It's fascinating and exhilarating to watch, and I struggle to think of anything like it that I've seen before. This is why I love movies.