Monday, December 21, 2009
Somebody Has To Deliver the Bad News: The Messenger and Up in the Air
(WARNING: Some SPOILERS may be discussed about both films, particularly "Up in the Air"!!!)
"The Messenger" co-written and directed by Oren Moverman and "Up in the Air" co-written and directed by Jason Reitman both revolve around characters who are tasked with delivering bad news, whether telling a family member that their husband, son, or daughter died in battle or explaining to someone the job they had for years, possibly decades is now gone. Without a doubt, both films are about the Here and Now attempting to provide insight to two of the issues that occupy our thoughts not only now but for a good part of this decade: Iraq and the economy. Not only that, these two films are also about the importance of connecting with others beyond the tasks that each of the main characters are given in both films.
Admittedly, it is tough to make films like these considering it's impossible to know whether they will resonate years from now. "Up in the Air" is based on a novel from 2001, but is being released during a time when it is more relevant. However, it is clear that certain aspects of the film were meant to comment directly on our current economic situation. "The Messenger", on the other hand, is based on an original screenplay with the intent, as many previous sincere but unsuccessful films commenting on the Iraq War, to present an understanding of the toll the war has taken on the people fighting it.
Now, I am not going to shy away from my personal views when discussing these films. Clearly, both films are attempting to engage the audience with a certain viewpoint, so if I cannot engage myself, it would ignore why I had such different reactions to each film. I have been seeing a lot of "Turn your brain off, it's supposed to be a ride" rationalizations for "Avatar" recently, as if discussing James Cameron's political ideas seriously was forbidden despite from what I have read is their obvious presence in the film. What are movies worth if we do not look a little deeper into what they are saying?
"The Messenger", I believe, has the tougher job coming after so many failed movies about the Iraq War that wanted to be rewarded for having the right message, regardless how ineffectively it was presented. The obvious exception to this was Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" which commented on ideas well beyond preaching to the choir about what a disaster our country escalated when we invaded that country. Its focus on the the thrill of war, not only for those in it but those watching a real cowboy like Sgt. James in action probably explains more about the arrogance and mentality that motivated our invasion. I believe "Locker" will last because its themes can apply to any American war, not just Iraq.
Oren Moverman's film is the closest to "Locker" in regards to being less didactic and having a better probability for standing the test of time. Although dealing with the obvious question whether our involvement in Iraq is worth the loss of human life, as well as the suffering of the soldier's loved ones, it rarely feels like a Message Movie. The subject of the Iraq War is still so heated these days that I greatly appreciated the restraint of the film. The truth is that the characters in "The Messenger" are still wrestling with the aftermath of their war experiences. When characters experience the death of someone close to them, they are trying to deal with life on a day-to-day basis as opposed to the epiphanies often imposed on them by message-mongering filmmakers.
The main character of the film is U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (played by Ben Foster), suffering from various medical issues from combat in Iraq, who is given the job to pair up with Captain Tony Stone (played by Woody Harrelson) to deliver news to the next of kin when a soldier is killed in action. Stone schools Montgomery on the job, explaining that they need to stick to the pre-written script and exhibit no emotions beyond that, regardless of the reactions from the bereaved. When we accompany them on their first visits, we are put in the position of witnessing moments of pure grief that no one should be subject to. We identify with Montgomery and Stone in some way, as many would prefer to say little more than what we are told to say. I have often felt that saying words to comfort someone often comes out as trivial, so I understood Stone's insistence on keeping to the script.
These two soldiers are given a thankless task, more thankless than the tour of duty from which Montgomery had just returned. One of the most painful scenes involves a grieving father named Dale Martin played by Steve Buscemi, who takes his pain out on Montgomery and Stone hurling insults at them when they try to return to their car to leave. Martin is the one who blurts out most of the anti-war rhetoric in the film. While those who sympathize with him can understand his anger, the film also recognizes that he is taking it out on the wrong people. Near the end of the film, Martin returns in a scene realizing this and apologizes to Montgomery for his behavior earlier. In some ways, this scene demonstrates that those who should take responsibility for the death of this man's son are sheltered from the real life consequences of their decisions. People like Martin almost have no choice but to lash out at the closest representatives, basically ignoring the old saying that you don't shoot the messenger. Stone even warns Montgomery early on there is a chance they may get shot at, which gives them motivation to get the job done quickly and with less drama.
"The Messenger" is graced with three fantastic performances from Foster, Harrelson and Samantha Morton as Olivia, the wife of a recently killed soldier that Montgomery tries to connect with emotionally far beyond the personal boundaries set by Stone. This film is not an easy film to get through, considering the pain it requires you to witness. There are occasional lapses in dialogue such as the line where Morton talks about the "fear and rage" she smells in her husband's clothes. Or the contrived moment when Montgomery decides to tell the parents of a dead soldier in the middle of a grocery store because they happened to be there when they were on the way to their home. Moments like these are outweighed by moments like the great nearly ten-minute shot that takes place in a kitchen between Olivia and Montgomery that slowly zooms in and out and pans left and right as the both of them negotiate the boundaries of their relationship.
I believe the film is an important one to represent what this war has done to this country. Often, the war has been fought over in abstract terms by those for and against it, as if ideology defines our principles rather than recognizing the humanity needed to approach any issue. One thing that unites both sides in this divisive war is that most of them truly do not understand what those who actually fight have to deal with, along with their immediate families. I wonder how often it is easy to argue something that few have any direct personal stake in.
Moverman's film resists the urge to turn this into a debate of soundbites, as opposed to demonstrating the value in making a human connection and showing compassion. The families Montgomery and Stone visit are obviously trying to cope with someone they love not being around anymore. Despite taking on a task they both deep down would never volunteer for, Montgomery and Stone eventually grow closer to each other, revealing their doubts and past demons. Although it may seem reckless for Montgomery to visit Olivia repeatedly so soon after he had delivered such awful news to her, you can understand that these two people are reaching out to someone, anyone who may just understand a little what they have experienced. Just because these characters have found themselves in a no-win situation does not mean they need to disconnect from the world. Many people today are not lining up to hear the stories of what is going on over there or the toll it takes on those waiting for them to come home. For a film called "The Messenger", it actually understands that listening is the most selfless thing you can do to show that you care.
"Up in the Air" comes from a different place than "The Messenger" with a tone that is somewhere between mild screwball comedy and serious drama. It is not a surprise that George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a man who flies around the country to lay off employees at various companies. This is a role that Cary Grant would have played in the the 1940's or '50's. The problem with "Air", however, is that I believe Jason Reitman has made a movie that takes place in modern times, but presents it to us with a simplistic and out of touch sensibility that seems hopelessly stuck in the past.
I was actually looking forward to "Up in the Air", despite not caring much for Reitman's previous films "Thank You for Smoking" and "Juno". I considered "Smoking" a rather smug presentation of libertarian ideology that is saved by a strong performance by Aaron Eckhart. It is not the film's viewpoints that bother me, but how it stacks the deck for the filmmaker to reassure himself of his beliefs by making the main character's primary opponent, a congressman from Vermont played by William H. Macy, such an obvious buffoon. For a movie that professes to be about making a strong argument, it presents the opposing view as straw men easy for the main character to blow away with clever quips. Considering how overrated I believe Reitman's films are, I still prefer he write his own screenplays than direct the pop culture-spewing nonsense scripted by Diablo Cody that plagued nearly the entirety of "Juno" before it turns into a film that wants to wring false tears out of you with all the subtlety of James L. Brooks.
Reitman's smugness was my main problem with his two earlier films. His films were often pleased with themselves with main characters who were so clever, you can imagine them keeping a scorecard of all the zingers they rattled off on a daily basis. I am happy to report that "Up in the Air" cuts the usual Reitman smugosity in half and the film actually becomes somewhat involving for almost the first hour as we see Bingham show Natalie Keener, a young corporate go-getter played by Anna Kendrick, how to best fire people with little hassle much like Woody Harrelson shows Ben Foster the ropes in "The Messenger". Keener, however, is introduced as someone who has come up with a way to fire people over the internet, as opposed to doing it in person with its considerable air travel expenses, which would then make Bingham's job unnecessary. As Bingham wrestles with his possible eventual irrelevancy, he begins to grow closer to a fellow traveler named Alex (played by Vera Farmiga), although they both openly state that neither wants to get too involved in a serious relationship.
Much like "The Messenger", you begin to see the toll of constantly telling people that they have been let go has taken on Bingham. Plus, much like Montgomery, sometimes you wonder if Keener is up to her task. Much has been written about how Reitman used actual people recently unemployed in the various layoff montages in the film, his way of getting a genuine reaction from someone who was actually put in that position. Though, the most effective layoff scene is a cameo by J.K. Simmons (Who else do you bring in to knock it out of the park with such little screen time?) which does not start out well when he openly confronts Bingham and Keener before Bingham turns the tables by convincing him that this layoff represents an opportunity to fulfill long-lost dreams.
The acting in "Up in the Air" is quite good with Clooney giving another seemingly effortless performance demonstrating how smart he is at picking roles for himself. Clooney will never have great range, but I feel that he is having the career that Harrison Ford should have had if he had ever given a shit. Although, I do have to admit that Clooney has played this kind of operator before. Bingham makes motivational speeches which seem to contain Clooney-esque phrases such as "Listen to what I am saying." or "This is what you do." delivered with a steady and firm facial expression seen from past performances. Farmiga and Kendrick are also effective in their roles. About an hour into this film, I was convinced that this would be the first Jason Reitman film I would embrace.
Then, it falls apart in a way that made me question even the first hour. I could break it down to two aspects of the film that truly bothered the hell out of me, things that I could not help but take a bit personally. First, throughout the film, Bingham has been portrayed as someone who has been unapologetic about being single, having no kids or even any deep emotional connections. He is clearly not that close to any of his two sisters. I understood that the film would challenge his thinking in some way, which it does when he grows closer to Alex and invites her to his sister's wedding. Considering his job and lifestyle may be non-existent soon, it is understandable that perhaps he sees a more stable future with this woman. Sometime after the wedding, Bingham decides to make a surprise visit to Alex's home in Chicago to discover that she is married with two kids.
So, some of you may be thinking what I am thinking. Perhaps, Bingham would see this and come to the realization that perhaps his life was not that bad. In a movie made during 2009, there is nothing wrong with a movie that says it is okay to be single and not want kids. That the answers to life's problems are not solved by embracing what some politicians love to exploit as "family values". This film should be more open-minded than that, right? Nope. The film's idea of an ambiguous ending is to subtly suggest that Bingham is slightly doomed to a lonely existence, which is further exclaimed in what I thought was the most bothersome and exploitive moment in the film. At the end of the film, Reitman cuts together one last montage of the newly unemployed all proclaiming that they would not be able to get through tough times without family, as well as other platitudes that seem to reassure the family values the filmmakers are peddling.
There is not necessarily anything wrong with that message, but I do not think the film up until then supports it, as well as it being the most obvious, safe message a film can put out to make every audience member feel good about themselves. What do we get throughout the film to back this notion up? One of Bingham's sisters has recently separated from her husband. His other sister gets married to a guy and, let's face it, that union does not look like it is going to last too long. We have Alex, who is revealed to be someone sleeping around on her husband while she's traveling and not feeling a whole lot of guilt about it. The oddest scene is the last phone call between Bingham and Alex where she tells him to grow up for thinking the relationship would be anything more than sex. During that scene, I was thinking to myself: is she the person to tell anyone else to grow up? What was necessarily wrong with Bingham realizing at the end that he could be happy with a lifestyle that is not traditional particularly when all the characters who live traditional lives seem so miserable and adrift?
But it is that final montage of the unemployed that really irks me and started to make me believe that Reitman, not only then, but throughout the entire film, was exploiting these people and their travails for the purpose of selling his brand of Hollywood bullshit. In some ways, these montages come across as a condescending pet project for a relatively wealthy person like Reitman to prove how much he cares about the little people and what a big heart he has. These people are never seen beyond objects of pity, unlike "The Messenger" which takes the pains of trying to show as many dimensions to the families as they can in a short amount of time. This, like Reitman's previous films, reveal him as a filmmaker who always succumbs to easy and cheap manipulation in the service of a message best suited for Hallmark cards.
The big difference between these two films is that "The Messenger" is well aware that someone, somewhere bears some responsibility for the loss of lives. From watching "Up in the Air", you would think some faceless monster called The Bad Economy is doing great harm to innocent people. This is a movie that takes place in corporate culture and fails to hold greed, self-indulgence and corruption responsible in any way for the loss of these peoples' livelihoods. Either "Up in the Air" is incredibly naive or being completely disingenuous in presenting this issue. Sure, perhaps, my political leanings may want something out of the film that others would not expect. But is it really that crazy for me to expect a movie that so desperately wants to be about How We Live Now to give us something beyond "Oh, don't you feel sorry for these people who lost their jobs?" As much sympathy as you feel for the families in "The Messenger", some of their flaws and issues are still present during their short times on screen. Nor does it forget that someone should be held accountable for their grief.
I am a bit perplexed at the praise Reitman's films have received. He is a competent director, but his films are less cinematic than the best television has to offer. Can anyone remember a shot from any Reitman film that would lose anything on the small screen? Much of the last 45 minutes of this film contains montages set to emo indie rock directly commenting on the emotions of the characters demonstrating that he is a director who wants to spell every little bit out for the audience. I have heard him being compared to Billy Wilder, but if Reitman were to make a film like "The Apartment" with the sensibility he displays in this film, Fred MacMurray's Sheldrake would be the hero instead of Jack Lemmon's C.C. Baxter.
Reitman's film resembles an airline commercial. Using competent, but unremarkable compositions and warm lighting, those commercials always assure you that you will get home to your wife and kids for the holiday safe and sound. Much like Reitman, the ugly business about the pilots making under 30 grand a year or the airline going out of business a year after the executives received record bonuses will get glossed over at the end of the commercial with a man hugging his family. Sure, neither the man or any of the airline workers may have a job next year, but they will get home somehow. Even if they can't afford the plane ticket or even bus or train fare.
The Messenger was seen at the Village East Cinemas. Up in the Air was seen at the Tribeca Cinemas.