This is a compilation film which offers a distinctive representation of the North-East during World War I. The film’s centre is the Battle of the Somme which provided the key to funding. The première was held in the Sunderland Empire Theatre in July 2016, one hundred years on from the battle. This included live music and [I assume] live commentary. The film marries archive and contemporary film footage with a narration composed of both individual records and media reports.
The film was directed by Esther Johnson, whose work crosses between art and documentary. The film was written by Bob Stanley, a musician, journalist and film-maker. The archive film was researched ait the British Film Institute and the Imperial War Museum and at smaller archives in the North East. The voices of the film are diaries, letters and oral records by a number of individuals during and after the war, living in the North East in or around Sunderland and Newcastle on Tyne. These were read on the soundtrack by Kate Adie. The media reports, from the ‘Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette’, are read by Alun Armstrong. These are arranged mainly in chronological order but at certain points the film changes to contemporary footage and voices.
I liked the film and found the interwoven stories fascinating. I was pleased that the film, in both black and white and colour, was in 1.33:1 so that the archive film footage was in its proper ratio. The contemporary footage, filmed digitally, is in the same ratio. The sound commentary by the two readers works well, interweaving official and public comments and reports with the personal and subjective.
The characters whose stories are woven into this chronicle include several woman, a suffragist and a conscientious objector. Thus whilst there is a certain amount of valorisation of the war there are also critical voices.
The editing for much of the film is excellent. There is cross-cutting between the official record and the subjective experience. And at certain points edits provide shock, pathos but also irony.
However there are also weaknesses in the way the film material has been used. Understandably there is little or no film of the ordinary people whose voices provide the narration. For much of the film the makers use ‘generic ‘ footage which fits the voices. Some of this is familiar from other compilations or from screenings of the actual titles; some of it is new and fresh. However, in the later stages there are a number of combined image and sounds which I thought a little anachronistic.
And there are two odd sequences in the centre of the film. Whilst we are watching and hearing the material on The Battle of the Somme there is a cut to several minutes of contemporary colour footage accompanied by a song. I think this is meant as a poetic counter-point but It seemed to me confusing. And shortly before this there was a sequence of shots which were repeated from earlier in the film and which [again] did not fit the narration. It was if a sequence had been transposed incorrectly, which may be to do with a transfer to DCP.
For most of the film the music is appropriate and works well. The performers include the Royal Northern Sinfonia and two musical duos from the North East, Filed Music and Warm Digits. The musical interlude during the Somme is sung by the Cornished Sisters. They all perform very well.
The Webpages for the film list screenings across the country; I saw it at the Hyde Park Picture House. The director was there for a Q&A, but I missed some of this so I am not sure if she discussed the form of the film. On November 11th, the anniversary of the Armistice Day at the end of the war, there is another screening at the Sage in Gateshead with live musical accompaniment. This will likely be the best way of experiencing the art work but it is worth seeing in the DCP version if that is accessible.
Despite Christopher Nolan’s well publicised advocacy of ‘reel’ film and large format production the critical response is something of a lottery. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian did not bother, or forgot, to tell readers in what format he saw the film. Mark Kermode, as one would expect, was more careful, spelling out the formats and advising would-be viewers to pick their venue and screening carefully. The choice is likely also affected by aspect ratios; 70mm IMAX is predominately 1.43:1; digital IMAX is partially in 1.90:1; 70 mm and DCPs are in 2.20:1 though the DCPs will likely screen with not quite black bars at top and bottom; and 35mm prints are in 2.35:1; all in colour.
Given the film was shot on ‘reel’ film 65mmIMAX and 65mm cameras the choice would appear obvious. However, here in West Yorkshire, the choice is limited. A couple of venues are screening digital IMAX; others are using DCPs; so the best option is the Hyde Park Picture House where they are screening a 35mm print. Otherwise you can trek to Manchester and see the film in 70mm IMAX or wait and hope: the Barnsley Parkway will screen the film on DCP from the 28th and plan to screen a 70mm print when one of the five available in the UK is bookable.
It is not just a film to be seen in a ‘reel’ film format, it is a film to be seen and seen in the cinema. I was impressed, as were other members of the audience. I saw it at the Hyde Park in 35mm; I hope I will get to see a 70mm version.
The film not only looks superb, it has a fine soundtrack and an excellent score by Hans Zimmer: give him his due, he credited Elgar who provides one of the key accompaniments in the film. The music runs through much of the film, though mostly it is a subtle background music, occasionally swelling for dramatic moments.
Christopher Nolan not only directed the film but also wrote the screenplay. It offers his usual preoccupation with ‘time slip’. Essentially the film offers three intertwined stories/experiences of the mythic evacuation. A one-week odyssey by a private soldier caught on the beaches; a one-day sailing journey by as civilian boat which is part of the rescue flotilla; and a one-hour flight by a RAF spitfire pilot offering aid to the 350,000 troops stranded on the beaches.
In what is effectively montage, and eschewing more traditional parallel cutting, the film takes the viewer back and forth between these small-scale stories. At times it does so with great rapidity. Mark Kermode suggested that viewers will clearly find their way through this complex structure. I found it took time for me to identify the strategy and I suspect audiences will take time to crack this as well.
As the relationship between these individual stories falls into place the film produces a real sense of the complexity of the experiences in the ten days of the evacuation. It also enables a climactic moment, as a fine widescreen shot takes us to a the mythic moment in the story, bringing it from the personal to the epic. There are lacunae in the script, but I only noticed those after the film had finished. At 106 minutes in length there is not the space to dot every ‘i’ or tick every ‘t’.
There are also influences apparent from earlier films dramatising this key British disaster-cum-victory. The definitive version has been that produced at Ealing Studio in 1958 (also Dunkirk), in black and white standard widescreen. That film combines moments of action and drama with periods when the beach is quiet, and the listless soldiers watch and wait. This ‘Dunkirk’ has more action but does retain some sense of the passive as opposed to the active moments. Both films, as also does Atonement (2007), open with soldiers making their way onto the beach to be confronted by the waiting multitudes and the ships vainly trying to take them off the beaches. Visually this ‘Dunkirk’ also shares some aspects of that panorama with the 1997 version. But there is no giant Ferris Wheel to counterpoint the settings in peace and war.
The film has great pace, excellent performances and very fine cinematographic and production work. Whilst Nolan deserves serious praise for this fine film it is also equally due to the craft people who worked with him. Notably this includes the Cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema; the Production Design by Nathan Crowley aided by a team of Art Designers; and the Film Editing by Lee Smith.
The cast are excellent. Most are fresh faces like Fionn Whitehead as Tommy, Aneurin Barnard as Gibson and Barry Keoghan as George. But there are also several familiar faces in key roles: Mark Rylance as Mr Dawson, Tom Hardy as Farrier and Kenneth Branagh as Commander Fulton. These are aided by a fine variety of small characterisations that fill out the picture.
The print that I watched was excellent. At times the image was in soft focus and had a relatively shallow depth of field: I do prefer enough definition to watch deep staging. Presumably these effects were due in part to shooting much of the film in natural light and also because the production opted for actual settings and extremely little CGI. The soundtrack was fine though some of the dialogue was muffled. I expect that this will be less noticeable in IMAX screenings which apparently have higher decibels as well. Note, there are also four different soundtrack formats to choose from: IMAX 6-track, 12 track Digital Sound, Datasat and Dolby digital.
I should mention the trailer in the UK. Modern trailers are frequently edited with pace, so the one for this film (in that fashion) does not really give a sense of how the stories actually work together. It also contains one really corny line of dialogue, played over a series of shots. But this is a misconception: in the actual film, as the troops come home this line is presented with real effect, by a character, in a series of close-ups and mid-shots. And that is where the film leaves us, with one more variation on the recurring line of ‘Lets go home’.
I have now seen the 70mmIMAX version at the Printworks in Manchester. This is definitely the way to see the film. I am not a great fan of IMAX but the quality of the image and the immersive screen and soundtrack give the film an epic quality.
I have also read Roy’s comments on the film. I gather he saw it on a 2K DCP. I found the sound quality better on IMAX than on 35mm and I assume that would also be the case with a DCP. The accompaniment is continuous but much of it does not use musical instruments but organised sound. It is part of the immersive experience. The visual quality, both of IMAX and 70mm [the latter nearly all on the small boat, ‘Moonstone’] is awesome. The colour palette looks fine. There is a lot of blue/grey sky and green/grey sea: perhaps that accounts for Roy’s comment. The colour palette on 2K DCPs does not match 35mm, let alone 70mm. I do remember the tracking shot in Atonement but whilst there are not that many long takes in this film much of Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography is equally impressive. There are some stunning high-angle shots of the action and the aerial sequences are the best that I have seen since Battle of Britain (1969).
The 1958 film does give a more informed over-view of the event, but [like all the versions that I have seen] it is partial. What it does fail to offer is the epic quality that is apparent in this version. All the film versions rely on familiar/star performers as lead characters. Perhaps a version on the Soviet model or in the manner of Abel Gance’s silent epics would offer a greater mythic presentation.
On the myth I was puzzled by Roy’s comments on ‘Brexit’. Have comments on this been made? The film is not isolationist which is often the case with Hollywood war films. Right at the end Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) stays on to evacuate the French. These are the soldiers we saw at the opening who are defending the perimeter as the troops make their escapes.
The narrative does take time to fall into place but the overlapping time zones come together in an exhilarating manner at the climax. Here the various rescues form a tapestry that dramatises Nolan’s prime focus, survival.
I should add that watching the credits a second time I realised that the variation on Elgar in the film used by Hans Zimmer is by Benjamin Wallfisch after Elgar. The credits also demonstrate the contemporary army of craft people who made this great film possible. This is not strictly ‘auteur’ but large scale film production orchestrated by Christopher Nolan.
And the good news is that Barnsley Parkway are screening the film in 70mm from August 28th until the 31st. So I shall get to see all three ‘reel film’ versions.
I recently read Roy’s review of Suite Française where he took Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian to task. So I went back and read Bradshaw’s review and whilst I could sympathise with Roy’s contentions over the language of the review I still disagreed with Roy’s actual assessment of that film. However Peter Bradshaw is a novice when it comes to invective in comparison to the review of this film by Thirza Wakefield in Sight & Sound (April 2015). Does Wakefield have a personal grudge against Russell Crowe, director and star of the film? It reminded me of the vitriolic obituary by Tony Rayns of Akira Kurosawa.
Apart from hyping up her comments Wakefield misses out on a crucial element in the film: its treatment of the Turks in relation to the colonial war prosecuted by Britain and its allies. The film opens as Turkish troops invade the trenches of the allied forces (mainly Australian troops) to discover that they have ‘retreated’ / ‘evacuated’. The film spends a good deal of attention on the Turkish position on the war and its aftermath. Something that is rare in mainstream war movies . . . We have a major Turkish protagonist and some telling comments on both the allied conduct in the war and their conduct in the post-war settlement.
Or course rooting for the Turks means that the Greeks become villains: even so it is refreshing. And given this is an Australian film the representation of British officers is negative: deservedly. The review is rightly critical of the representation of women, and the conventionality of the plot. However, there is a whole dynamic of the treatment that seems to have passed the reviewer by.
The film is, by and large, conventional. And Russell Crowe does not show great promise as a director. But he clearly has a distinctive view on these past events. Anzac Day, the anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign, is one of the more reactionary memorials in Australian culture. Germaine Greer has rightly taken it to task. But this film does not valorise those events or its memory. And whilst it ends up valorising the male protagonist and aspects of Australian culture: its treatment of a distinctive foreign culture is not common in Australian cinema.
I had warnings about this film beforehand – not that great reviews and less than positive word of mouth. The film lived down to my expectations. Mainly this was because of the reactionary politics that provide its basis. The film is based on the actual career of a SEAL sniper, nicknamed ‘the legend’, fighting in Iraq where he scored over 160 kills. We follow gun-toting yanks riding round Iraq shooting down the hapless natives – be they civilians, collaborators or the opposition. The battle scenes were rather like a computer game, with bodies falling everywhere: the amount of firepower makes the film rather loud. This is nothing new: US films tend to present body counts of something like 50 or a 100 to one in their own favour. And the stereotypical and negative representation of the ‘other’ has a long track record.
On top of this the film was not that engaging. The production values are pretty good, but the protagonists do not seem to engender much sympathy or identification, though both are clearly intended.
When I returned home, as is my habit, I read the review in Sight & Sound (February 2015). This was one of the longer reviews; by Nick Pinkerton. It stimulated me to think again about the film. The comments on the film are really interesting, though finally I found them not fully convincing.
Pinkerton’s main point is to argue that:
He [Eastwood] has made a movie that embodies, with awe and horror, the national romance with firearms.
In arguing this point of view Pinkerton fails to address the main point – that the Iraq military adventure was a neo-colonial assault on an oppressed people. One of the main characters, Taya (Sienna Miller) tells her husband Chris Kyle (the sniper of the title – Bradley Cooper) that
This is about us, not them.
This appears to be the stance of a large proportion of the US population, of the book from which the film is adapted [Kyle’s bestselling memoir], of this film version, and the review itself.
The nearest the review approaches to the violence inflicted on the Iraqi people is,
While in the country, Kyle witnesses – and inflicts – horrors untold. Many people die and die badly, women and children first.
That is as close as Pinkerton gets to addressing the major silences of the film. It is clear that Kyle has little comprehension of the politics of this war. The film itself is mainly silent on these, and whilst we see atrocities committed by the Iraqi opposition, there is no mention of those perpetrated by the US military, despite much of the film being set in Fallujah.
There is a hint of criticism in the film, (overlooked in this review). Kyle’s friend and fellow SEAL is Marc (Lee Grimes). At one point he starts to voice his doubts about the war: Kyle silences him. Marc is killed in action and his last letter home is read out at the graveside by his mother. The letter appears critical of the US war: however, you cannot be sure because the mother’s voice is racked with sobs that make her words inaudible.
The review is stronger in its focus on the US gun culture. Guns are endemic in this film: not just toted by yanks in Iraq but also in the flashbacks to Kyle’s childhood and in his parenting of his own children later. However, Pinkerton’s emphasis on the film’s treatment of guns seems to me to overstate the case. The aspects of the film that he points to are mainly in the mise en scène, cinematography and editing. He may be correct in attributing this to a conscious stance on the part of Eastwood; however, I rather doubt that with a film intended for a mainstream audience that visual style alone is sufficient to carry messages. The audience has already contributed over $250 million at the box office.
One point that Pinkerton’s picks up on is the commencement of a flashback:
We are on the rooftop in Fallujah where Kyle is lining up his first kill. Then, with the sound of a rifle report, we are in a patch of wood in Texas some 20 years earlier, with Kyle – not much older than the boy he is about to kill – and his father.
His comments on the father-son chain in US gun culture are pertinent: but the equation of an Iraqi child and a deer is troubling.
Then he points out a sequence late in the film, with Kyle and Taya married with two children.
Kyle, on the morning of his death, prowls around his house with an upholstered six-shooter, playing a game of stick-‘em-up desperado with his wife . . .
This scene is disturbing. But it is followed by the onscreen title explaining how Kyle died – shot by a Vet he was helping to rehabilitate. Kyle has been working with disabled Vets, mainly taking them to shooting ranges. The prior sequences where we see a vet shooting at target seems to be played entirely straight, no hint of irony. The film implies that Kyle’s work with Vets helps him resolve his own post-conflict traumas. Cooper plays Kyle as tight-lipped; not revealing his inner troubles. The sequence where they surface is at a family garden party. Typically of Hollywood we are shown Kyle attacking, not a human, but a playful border collie: the dog survives, apparently unscathed.
We see over the final credits the funeral sequence that follows his death. It shows Kyle honoured as a hero, with innumerable Stars and Stripes visible. The endings of films usually have a special privilege in endorsing particular values in the film. Here we have the endorsement of the US adventure in Iraq and [it seems to me] Kyle’s obsession with and use of guns.
Pinkerton thinks that
American Sniper is a movie that says one thing and shows another …
He compares the film to Flags of Our Fathers (2006)
Examining the apparatus of myth-making as it applies to real human lives. First you print the legend, then you bury him.
It seems to me that Flags of Our Fathers is a much better and more critical film than American Sniper. The latter film uses the flashback mode, the earlier film set around the battle for Iwo Jima, is constructed around a complex series of sequences that range back and forth between past and present: pointing up the contradictions embodied in the story. The first depiction of the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima turns out to be a re-enactment. It is 70 minutes into the film that we finally see the actual event. Eastwood allows us to see the price that the characters pay in that film: and indeed to see their own awareness of the cost. Moreover, Flags of Our Fathers presents the social and economic context in the USA at the time. The film does focus on the experience of the US military and citizens, as does American Psycho. In both films Eastwood’s sympathies are clearly with the ordinary ‘grunts’: but American Sniper fails to move beyond this. And Flags of Our Fathers was accompanied by a fellow film, Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), which presented (less successfully) the Japanese experience. It is a shame that Eastwood did not care to provide a film that presents the experience of the Iraqi people during the war.