Category Archives: 2010s

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

*. I mentioned in my notes on Captain America: The Winter Soldier how I appreciated the simpler storyline, with Cap facing off against human enemies with relatable motivations. Keeping that in mind, I rate these two Captain America movies much higher than the Avengers: Infinity Wars and Endgame all-star doubleheader. Did I really care what Thanos was all about in gathering his chunky infinity-stone gauntlet and rearranging all the deck chairs in the universe? No, I did not.
*. In this movie the whole plot is being masterminded by a regular, even low-key dude named Zemo (Daniel Brühl) who has a hate on for superheroes. And he has his reasons. The narrative here comes from the Civil War storyline that ran in some Marvel comics a decade earlier. I’d actually read those comics and thought the idea — where superheroes fall out over whether or not they should accept government oversight given all the collateral damage they cause — was a good one. A lot more interesting than magic stones that open portals to other dimensions, anyway.
*. Given all the star power here, it’s basically an Avengers film. There are some newbies introduced (including Tom Holland as Spider-Man and Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther) while MIA are Thor and Hulk, who were off fighting each other in Jeff Goldblum’s Thunderdome at the time. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is Cap’s main antagonist, being on the side of big government. I thought everyone played well, except for Paul Bettany as Vision, a character I could never warm too. I don’t know why. I liked Vision in the comic books. But in the movies he’s very dull.
*. So what you get is a lot of what Marvel does best. Spectacular fight scenes, like the battle royale that destroys Leipzig airport. Lots of likeable stars humanizing their cartoonish parts. And a story that, for once, I could get on board with. Not only is Zemo motivated, I actually liked the bait and switch at the end where the other super soldiers aren’t awakened, even though I’d been looking forward to this as a climax.
*. The only thing I didn’t like was how Stark couldn’t see through Zemo’s plan to have the Avengers destroy themselves. By this point he knew that Bucky was being controlled by Hydra when he was doing his missions as the Winter Soldier, so why did he have a total meltdown? Yes, he had to watch his parents being killed, but hadn’t he had time to get over that?
*. Instead of an army of mooks being clobbered and a god from another dimension wreaking havoc the heart of the story is the conflict between the obnoxious tech zillionaire in the age of hypercapitalism and a man out of his his time who is deeply uncomfortable about what’s happened to America. No, this isn’t high-level political commentary. But compared to the usual Marvel shenanigans it stood out as at least somewhat meaningful.
*. In short, I see this and the immediately surrounding films as marking the acme of the Marvel years. Nothing I’ve seen since was as good, and given how limited the franchise has been I don’t have high hopes of it evolving into anything interesting going forward.
*. That these movies were decent entertainment though is one thing; that they dominated the box office and transformed the movie business so completely is another. How are we going to look back on all of this sound and fury? Will we care? Will we remember it at all?

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

*. In years to come, if we’re still talking about the reign of the Marvel franchise over the film industry in the first decades of the twenty-first century, we may have to take seriously the various “phases” of the MCU. And if we do, I suppose we’d locate the high point of their creative achievement as being somewhere in the middle of Phases Two and Three. Here were the handful of movies I found to be the best, including Ant-Man, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and Captain America: Civil War. I am excluding the two-part phase finale of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame because I thought those two were overripe disasters, but that’s another story.
*. The Winter Soldier is the first instalment in a two-part storyline that would be concluded in Civil War. Unfortunately, this saddles it with doing a fair bit of set-up work. I can’t say this was particularly interesting, but I did appreciate the way the story stayed somewhat on the ground. The directing team of the brothers Anthony and Joe Russo wanted an homage to 1970s political thrillers, and while this is depressing to contemplate (the road from The Parallax View and Three Days of Condor led to this?) it still made for something better than the usual MarvelCrap.

*. One big plus is the way the plot focuses on just a couple of bad guys who are at least semi-human (that is, not aliens or gods). Robert Redford feels too old for this shit, and I didn’t think he brought anything to the role, but Sebastian Stan is solid as the brooding killing machine. Given that he’s a zombie he doesn’t have to act much, but he looks the part.
*. Seeing as Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is the ultimate straight arrow, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is placed in the position of providing most of the comic banter. This felt unusual, but it worked. Also lightening things up somewhat is Anthony Mackie as Falcon and Samuel L. Jackson as the irascible Nick Fury.
*. There’s nothing new here, but it’s all well done. There’s a smash-’em-up car chase that I thought was really good. Cap’s vintage leathers still score style points. Otherwise the Marvel men walk around in tight t-shirts to show that none of them miss biceps day. The climax has giant flying aircraft carriers blasting away at one another and crashing into the Potomac.
*. For straight-up superhero action, The Winter Soldier is perfectly fine. Marvel fans got what they wanted and the rest of the audience at least weren’t bored. If I had to knock it for anything it would be for the sheer silliness of Hydra and the fact that the film is basically just a placeholder. But even so it grades out as slightly above average from this studio.

Tron: Legacy (2010)

*. Despite its minor cult status and instant name recognition, I’ve always thought the original Tron a but underwhelming, both at the time and today. Still, given that name recognition a reboot (the name actually has some resonance here) was inevitable. Especially given how completely computers had taken over animation in the intervening thirty years.
*. Tron: Legacy wasn’t well received, with the critical consensus being that the visuals were nice but the story and characters were weak. I agree with this take, and what makes this even more annoying is the fact that this was the exact same problem with the first film. In Legacy they just upped the effects and ran everything back again. Indeed, it’s almost the same story playing back again, with young Flynn on a nearly identical quest to that of his dad in Tron. I realize that the main selling point here was the pinball game, but this struck me as very lazy.

*. So, once more into the machine. This time Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) is scanned into the matrix, or what’s called the Grid, while searching for his missing father Kevin (Jeff Bridges). Once inside Sam plays various games that are basically sexier-looking versions of the original, including a team lightcycle race. There’s no corporate baddy at the head of Encom in the real world (the part played by David Warner in the original), but the point is made that Encom is bad anyway, and Sam is the heroic hacker in a t-shirt who likes to ride motorbikes.
*. In computerland things are being run by Clu (played by a young Jeff Bridges). Clu is no longer the cute little icon of the first movie but a power-mad dictator intent on stamping out all noncomformists. So he doesn’t like rebels like the Flynns (père et fils) or the “isomorphic algorithms” he wiped out in a digital genocide many “cycles” earlier, leaving only a sexy gal named Quorra (Olivia stepping into Carrie-Anne Moss’s vinyl pants).

*. All of the characters are types we’ve seen before. I mentioned Carrie-Anne Moss. Michael Sheen plays Joel Grey in Cabaret, a part I couldn’t find any reason for including. Sam is Peter Parker or Luke Skywalker and Kevin is Obi-Wan Kenobi, crossed with the Dude from The Big Lebowski. Really, he could have traded in his Matrix overcoat for a bathrobe and not seemed out of place. Tron has been reprogrammed into Darth Maul. Daft Punk, who did the soundtrack, show up as cameos and don’t seem out of place.
*. It’s hard to think of anything much to say about a movie this unoriginal, which set out to be nothing much more than a live-action video game. The effects are neat, though a bit drab in their reliance on a colourless ground. I found the whole thing weightless and instantly forgettable. There’s been much talk of a third movie, but instead Disney plumped for a fully-animated television series that ran from 2012-2013. Things have been quiet since, but I doubt it’s game over.

Colossal (2016)

*. Ouch! Without getting moralistic, there are some subjects that just don’t work as comedy. One of these is men beating on women.
*. This is especially the case when the abuse is, in context, not meant to be played for laughs or in comic-book fashion but is presented realistically, as the culmination of a building threat of physical violence.
*. To backtrack: Colossal tells the story of a young woman named Gloria (Anne Hathaway, in a truly godawful haircut) who returns to her small-town hometown after drinking herself out of a job and a boyfriend in NYC. She immediately gets reacquainted with a fellow named Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) she used to know as a kid who apparently still has a creepy crush on her. Oscar hires her to work as a waitress at his bar and it’s clear to everyone, though possibly not Gloria, that he figures they’re going to hook-up. Meanwhile, she’s ready to fall into bed with a young stud (Austin Stowell) and has no interest in Oscar at all.
*. Oscar is understandably miffed at this, and tries to leverage the fact that he’s Gloria’s boss and that he can do things for her into a relationship. He becomes increasingly nasty, and things finally get rough.
*. Does this sound like a rom-com plot? Well, there’s another angle introduced where Gloria is controlling a giant lizard monster in Seoul, and Oscar a giant robot. I take it this was meant as a metaphor, with the kaiju elements standing in for the collateral damage that people like Gloria and Oscar cause (through her alcoholism and his brutality). To my eye it made no sense at all and I couldn’t begin to understand why they bothered with it. I should also say that it isn’t funny either.
*. The movie I kept thinking of while watching Colossal was The Cable Guy, another very dark comedy that alienated a lot of people when it came out but that has gone on to become a bit of a cult favourite. It’s a movie that’s grown in my estimation too, though I still find it hard to watch. But Colossal is just hard to watch, with no redeeming features that I can identify.
*. Yes, Hathaway and Sudeikis are good, but their characters are dense and unrelatable. It’s not just that they have no attraction to each other, but they seem not to be able to see this for themselves. Then the supporting characters, of which there are only a few, are just as mystifying. Stowell is so passive he might as well be holding a camera. Gloria’s ex-boyfriend is such an upper-class twit he even has a British accent. Plus he’s a total jerk. You’re not in a good place watching a movie and wondering how soon you can get away from these people.
*. Written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo, whose debut was the excellent Timecrimes. His name made me wonder if “Nacho” is a real Spanish name. Who would name their kid after a fried tortilla chip? But I asked an expert and he told me that Nacho is short for Ignacio. I didn’t know that.
*. That matter settled, I had the sense that Vigalondo was trying to do something different here and that it just wasn’t working. None of the pieces fit together. This is a shame because if he’d wanted to make a serious movie about this kind of situation it had the potential to be something special. Even Sudeikis, cast way against type, might have worked as the heavy. But instead there’s a giant lizard fighting a giant robot and a gesture toward female empowerment, all interspersed with awkward attempts at humour. Not just a bad movie but a painful experience all around.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

*. In terms of its formula Thor: Ragnarok is just like every other Marvel movie, but to give it its due, its better in most regards. That means that while I could appreciate and even enjoy it, I’m sure I’ll never want to see it again and only a day after watching it there were big parts that I could no longer remember.
*. What’s the same this time out? The sprawling plot that draws in a crowded cast of extra characters played by big stars. The villain with an army of disposable mooks who wants to, yes, open another portal to Earth (here it’s the Bifröst Bridge) so that they can . . . I don’t know. Either kill everyone or else sit on a throne lording it over them. Motivation for these baddies always seems kind of vague.
*. As far as the story arc goes, it follows the tried-tested-and-true pattern of every pro wrestling match. The hero starts out strong, then gets taken by surprise and is humbled/loses his power. He has to spend some time on the outs, getting his mojo back/powering up so that he’s ready for the re-match, wherein he kicks ass and re-establishes the proper order of things.
*. Would these movies be better if they were a little more focused? Did we need to have Doctor Strange drop in here? Or the Hulk? The whole subplot where Thor is whisked off to a game-show planet where he fights as a gladiator has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, though seeing Jeff Goldblum do his shtick was fun, and made me wonder when Nicolas Cage might be coming back to Marvel. Was Ghost Rider that big a set-back?

*. As it is, the story didn’t need all these extras. It already has Thor (Chris Hemsworth) bickering as per usual with Loki (Tom Hiddleston). And there are other Asgardians like Heimdall (Idris Elba), Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), and Skurge (Karl Urban). Anthony Hopkins as Odin passes the torch with some flabby words of wisdom. Plus there’s Cate Blanchett as Hela, another distinguished actor that Marvel squeezes into spandex but doesn’t give much to do but strike various poses. She seems bored by power. Hela, that is.
*. There’s little to add at this point. Director Taika Waititi, who also provides the voice of Korg, was going for something more comic, and he got it. Though the humour is still very much in the Marvel vein: dry wise-cracking in the face of danger, or just taking a poke at the sheer portentous ridiculousness of everything that’s going on. It’s a self-aware sort of humour, with the hero as a self-deprecating figure until he has to get serious for a bit, before going back to cracking jokes.
*. In sum, it’s a fun bit of cotton candy. Hemsworth looks impossibly buff. Thompson and Goldblum stand out in a solid cast. The use of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” is inspired. So both more of the same and as good as it gets. I can’t be more, or less, enthusiastic than that.

Prophet’s Prey (2015)

*. It’s such an old con you have to wonder how it still works. The prophet or spiritual leader who is really just an oversexed fraud, their power degenerating into megalomania. It’s not like Jim Jones didn’t get enough press, or more recently the Church of Scientology.
*. Prophet’s Prey is a documentary directed by Amy Berg (Deliver Us from Evil, West of Memphis) that takes as its subject the case of Warren Jeffs, the president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The most significant “fundamental” being polygamy, and that at a very young age for the brides. As it’s explained here, women and children were the church’s currency. Not that Jeffs didn’t help himself to everyone’s money too.
*. It’s obvious what was going on here, and eventually the law caught up to Jeffs, who is now serving a life sentence in a Texas state prison. But as I said in my notes on Holy Hell, a documentary on an even more obvious fraud, these cases always leave outsiders shaking their heads. How could anyone not see through someone like Jeffs?
*. The followers here had some excuse. Jeffs had institutional support, and the grooming/indoctrination/brainwashing was multigenerational and took place in a totally closed environment. All factors that contributed to making the FLDS community a happy hunting ground for predators. That it’s still in operation is testimony to the strength of its roots.
*. I can’t give high marks to the film though. Berg handles things well, in the manner of an extended 60 Minutes feature, but the guiding forces behind the project were the two figures who appear most on screen: Sam Brower (who wrote the book of the same name from which the film was adapted) and Jon Krakauer, who had also written a true-crime exposé of the Mormon Church. Though I respect the work they put into it, they also give the film a bit of the feel of a vanity project.
*. Jeffs remains a cipher, hidden behind his prison screen and a repetitive invocation of the Fifth Amendment in response to all the questions put to him. I suspect, however, that there’s really not much to him anyway. He inherited leadership of the church from his father and seems mostly to have just been a surprisingly uncharismatic creep who worked the levers of power in lots of nasty and secret ways. His flat voice recordings have a bit of the air of Jim Jones on his last day, but they’re more weird than hypnotic. I don’t see what the attraction was. But then that’s usually the case.
*. As Krakauer puts it at the end, it all all “speaks to something disturbing about human nature.” The need to follow others, for certainty and easy answers, exploited by individuals driven by lust and greed. A story so old it can safely be called timeless as well as deathless. As we sign off, the church is still going, being run by Jeffs’ brother as a proxy.

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (2018)

*. My introduction to the work of photographer Edward Burtynsky was the film Manufactured Landscapes (2006). A fully developed vision was on display in that film of what I’d call the industrial sublime. Burtynsky specializes in locations like mines, factories, refineries, and mills that are their own kind of landscape. And when I say that, one of the things I mean is that they’re big.
*. Burtynsky is all about the big. His format is large-format photography and his pictures take up entire sections of gallery walls. I went to see his Anthropocene exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario and was quite impressed, even trying to talk as many people as I knew into going to see it. I don’t think any of them did. But maybe some of them will see the movie.
*. The bigness isn’t just about the size of the pictures or the way the aerial photography in particular shows industry as landscape, from lithium fields in the Atacama desert to the marble quarries of Carrara. Bigness infects everything. There’s a bucket-wheel excavator at work in Germany’s largest open-pit mine here that made my jaw drop. The thing weighs 12,000 tons and it moves! There’s the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Lagos, Nigeria that can seat a congregation of a million. There’s a high-speed trip through the longest tunnel in the world, the Gotthard Base Tunnel that cuts 57 km through the Alps. At scales like these humanity seems to almost disappear.

*. This in turn leads to what I take it is the point being made. The Anthropocene is so called because it marks a phase in the Earth’s history where the planet’s geology and ecosystems have been transformed by human impact. But the “human epoch” is paradoxically inhuman. It’s not just that human figures are reduced to ant-size, or even made invisible by our species’ giant works, but that these works are transforming the planet into a new sort of environment that is unlivable. We are living in the inhuman epoch.
*. The other paradox that the film exploits is that of toxic beauty. The imagery here is beautiful, even when scrolling over a hellscape of refineries that recalls Mordor, or trudging through the garbage world of Nairobi’s Dandora. It’s hard to imagine anyone living or working in such places, but there they are. The aesthetic response to the sublime is shock and awe and there’s no denying it’s evoked here. But the sublime is a terrifying beauty.

*. There’s minimal narration from Alicia Vikander, and some interviews with people on the ground. But it’s not an informational movie. As Edward Norton puts it in an interview included with the DVD, it’s not an intellectual documentary but more “visceral.” Though I’m not sure that’s right either. It’s not the gut that’s targeted but the eye, which may be an even more direct route to provoking a response.
*. This matters because Anthropocene is a political film. It has an environmental message much the same as films like An Inconvenient Truth and Before the Flood, that message being the mess we’ve made of things. I think it’s more effective in making that message than those other films for its visual directness. No need for graphs and charts and talking heads with imagery like this. Imagery that carries a final paradox: the apocalyptic everyday. As industrial landscapes these are both visions of the end of the world as well as just places where people work, and even sometimes live. Our only mistake would be to see them as far away or exotic. In a globalized economy, they are the apocalypse next door.

Best of Enemies (2015)

*. Historians are invested in the idea of there being politically or culturally significant watersheds that act as helpful benchmarks in their chronicles of rise, fall, and transformation. Were the 1968 debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal that ABC News broadcast as part of their coverage of the Republican and Democratic nominating conventions just such a turning point? Or were they more a footnote?
*. The argument that they were important, or at least important enough to be memorialized in this documentary, is made in Best of Enemies. The basic argument is that the Buckley-Vidal debates opened the door for a lot of the noisy, combative talking heads of the punditocracy that would take over television news in the decades to come. In 1968 (generally regarded as a year of turning points) ABC was languishing at the bottom of the Nielsen ratings. Or, as one of the execs interviewed puts it, “ABC was the third of the three networks. It would’ve been fourth, but there were only three.” They needed something to give them a boost. What they came up with was the red meat of intellectual debate packaged as prize-fighting.
*. It worked. The face-offs were a hit. And television news has never looked back. Even in the Internet age what attracts eyeballs is outrage, confrontation, and sensationalism. The deeper question to ask is whether Buckley and Vidal were that far above what came after.
*. They certainly sound different than today’s pundits. It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to come off so posh in our current media circus, much less finding commentators able to match their orotundity. But did their highbrow language carry any great depth of thought or analysis? From the evidence I’ve seen, no.
*. While I think both Buckley and Vidal were intellectual heavyweights, and two of the most accomplished essayists of their day, the debates weren’t intellectual in terms of their content but just exercises in snappy put-downs and gotcha! moments. Both men came prepared with their talking points and scripts, and but for the one signature moment — where Vidal called Buckley a crypto-Nazi and was called a queer in return, before being threatened with violence — the back-and-forth was just bitchiness. This wasn’t what’s called a constructive debate and the two weren’t even talking to one another. In short, it does feel like a precursor for all that came after, only with people capable of speaking in sentences and using more erudite and precise language. I wouldn’t call them trolls, but the debates here did mark a stage in that devolution.
*. I had to smile at the voicecasting: John Lithgow as Vidal and Kelsey Grammer as Buckley. They weren’t all that necessary as there’s very little reading for them to do, but still.
*. Interesting to note that both men were failed politicians, though it’s probably more precise to say they both ran failed political campaigns (Vidal for Congress in New York in 1960, Buckley for New York City mayor in 1965). Norman Mailer also ran for mayor of New York in 1969. It’s something literary figures did back in the day. Not so much anymore. Today we like talk-radio hosts and television personalities.
*. I was already familiar with the story and had seen videos of the debates, but as a bit of a political junky I found this all nicely done and interesting enough. The “debates” weren’t a world-changing event though, and I came away thinking that they still play better on a small screen.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015)

*. Going Clear is a documentary about the Church of Scientology based on Lawrence Wright’s 2013 book of the (nearly) same title. Directed by Alex Gibney, it’s a well-crafted film that plays much like a double-wide 60 Minutes episode. The history of the church’s founding by L. Ron Hubbard is described and then the story brought up to date with the various scandals it has been involved in. There are plenty of moments that will have you shaking your head, or rolling your eyes.
*. Any study of a cult raises two questions. The first has to do with the word “cult.” Is Scientology a cult or a bona fide religion? That’s an interesting question in the history of these things, as evidenced by the shabby roots of Mormonism and Christianity itself (the latter being a despised Jewish sect, originally). Hubbard’s “space opera” mythology is patent nonsense (the time scales, for starters, are impossible), but every faith has its loopier elements, like Jesus coming to America or a virgin birth.
*. In the end, the question of whether Scientology was a religion had to be determined by the Internal Revenue Service in the U.S., and when they held, under duress, that it was, it gave the church not just legal imprimatur but a renewed breath of life. That is, tax exempt status. Without so finding the story of Scientology may well have ended, as they didn’t have the money to pay their bills.
*. To my eyes I think Scientology can lay claim to being a religion. Any religion or church today though is also a business, and Scientology is rather more geared toward the bottom line than most. As Hubbard himself once summed his mission up: “MAKE MONEY. MAKE MORE MONEY. MAKE OTHER PEOPLE PRODUCE SO AS TO MAKE MORE MONEY.” That said, Scientology does at least make the usual nods toward self-improvement and saving the world.
*. The second question raised by cults has to do with how people fall for them in the first place. From an objective point of view, Scientology is total nonsense. Despite its claims to being scientifically based it hasn’t a shred of science to back up any of its claims. But there are always seekers looking for a larger meaning or purpose to their lives, and then a next generation who are born into the faith. Then once in, especially in the case of Scientology, it’s very hard to leave. The church is a little like a roach motel.
*. This is what is meant by the prison of belief: being so invested in a system of belief (and we can extend this from a religion to a political party, or the fandom surrounding a celebrity) that it’s no longer possible to back out. One simply doesn’t have the emotional or psychological resources to achieve escape velocity.
*. I think Going Clear works very well as an exposé, and special credit has to be given for proceeding in the face of one of the most litigious organizations on the planet. As a cult of celebrity Scientology has little time for God or gods but instead holds up money and fame as life goals. Most of their practice is pitched as therapeutic, with its biggest stars representing the kind of transfiguration that can be achieved. That the rest of it is so corny and shoddy (the cartoonish mythology, the silly sailor suits, the giant portrait of Hubbard with his hand resting on a globe like some kind of Bond villain) it can only raise a smile. But to be John Travolta or Tom Cruise . . . isn’t that like touching the face of God? Or becoming God oneself?
*. Obviously the current head of the Church, David Miscavige, does not come off well. Indeed, the testimony here paints him as a violent sociopath with delusions of grandeur. But Tom Cruise fares little better as celeb pitchman. Receiving an oversize Medal of Valor (for what?) and then saluting the aforementioned portrait of Hubbard is beyond satire. But of course it’s all a bit darker than that.
*. Lawrence Wright: “Probably no other member of the church derives as much material benefit from his religion as Cruise does, and consequently none bears a greater moral responsibility for the indignities inflicted on members of the Sea Org [Scientology’s executive body], sometimes directly because of his membership.” One wants to ask Cruise how he sleeps at night, and Rainier Wolfcastle’s answer comes to mind: “On top of a pile of money, with many beautiful ladies.”
*. Given how secretive and paranoid an organization the Church of Scientology is, Going Clear is probably about as deep an investigation as you’re going to see. It’s also fairly presented, not coming across as having any axe to grind. Indeed, even former members of the Church who are interviewed are surprisingly forgiving. The contrast to Scientology’s all-too predictable response — going on the attack — speaks volumes, both about them and the times we live in.

Collective (2019)

*. In my notes on Spotlight I mentioned how it was a sad movie not just for its subject matter as for its elegiac tone in being about the death of the newspaper industry and journalism in general. Movies like All the President’s Men now seem part of a past we are no longer connected to, especially when Woodward and Bernstein on the fiftieth anniversary of Watergate could declare the crimes of Donald Trump exponentially greater than Nixon’s, which turned out not to mean anything at all. Meaning that even if we still had a functioning news ecosystem it likely wouldn’t matter to a public so invested in manufactured narratives and quick to call anything they disagree with fake news.
*. Collective is a documentary that drives this point home even further. It starts off with the Colectiv nightclub fire in Bucharest, Romania in 2015 that killed 64 people and injured many more. Some horrific footage taken inside the club provides one of the more shocking moments in the film as the whole place basically bursts into flame in a matter of seconds.
*. In the aftermath of the fire the club owners were charged with negligent homicide and bodily harm but the story being investigated in this film has to do with the substandard medical treatment provided victims of the fire who subsequently died in hospital due to cost-cutting and corruption, and in particular the dilution of anti-bacterial disinfectants. It’s broken by a team of reporters for the daily Gazeta Sporturilor or The Sports Gazette. And if you’re wondering why a sports paper was breaking this story you’re not alone. Even Romanians express surprise. Nothing much is said in explanation of this but the implication is that most of the news media were in the tank with the government.
*. The big boost Collective got as a documentary, what in fact made it possible in the first place, is the fact that the government in power at the time of the fire was replaced by a temporary non-partisan caretaker administration that was tasked with looking into these matters. This allowed the filmmakers access that would never have been granted in any other circumstances I can imagine. Are things any better in our own health care systems? I think so, but perhaps not so much as we’d like to think.
*. Aside from the reporters, the main character in the drama is Vlad Voiculescu, the interim health minister who seems a well-meaning young man trying to get to the bottom of a truly miserable situation.
*. The whole system is rotten with corruption. In what is probably the most striking moment in the movie Voiculescu talks to a doctor who tells him of how other doctors at the hospital she works at bribe the heads of surgery so that they can then take bribes from the patients. Voiculescu can only respond initially with a laugh of sad amazement and then ask “How did hospitals get so bad? And doctors? It’s their humanity, after all.” To which the doctor replies “Well, as my mother put it, we’re no longer human. We doctors, we’re no longer human beings. We only care about money.” The matter-of-fact way she says “we’re no longer human” is as chilling and unforgettable line you’ll hear in any movie.
*. The end of the film is as dark as everything that has gone before, with the return to power of the same Social Democratic government that had been in charge before (these ironic party names are a feature of dysfunctional democracies). Apparently in that election there was a turnout of less than 40%. This despite the anti-corruption rallies we see in the street.
*. All of which brings us back to the death of the news and the feeling that nothing matters anymore. What good did any of this reporting do? It’s been said that speaking truth to power doesn’t mean much because power doesn’t care, but what if nobody else cares? We’re not living in an age of post-truth or post-facts so much as one of post-political engagement. And, as the doctor’s diagnosis has it, on our way to becoming post-human.