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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz

11/09/2016

Gerald SchmitzDuty of remembrance when ‘post-truth’ threatens

 

Denial (U.K./U.S.)
The Accountant (U.S.)
American Honey (U.K./U.S.)

 

Today is the morning after the U.S. elections following what may be the most vile deceitful campaign in the history of the world’s most powerful democracy. This Friday is Remembrance Day when we honour the memory of those who sacrificed in wars, some fought in the name of freedom and democracy. Remembering how the world has needed the strength of American democracy in the past, and still does, I hope that when Americans wake up it isn’t in a state of shock or denial.

History offers plentiful examples of denials and “big lies,” not only in the totalitarian regimes which required them to survive. The insidious danger of our times is when a free society loses its moorings to the point of disregarding factual truths. Absent a truth-telling moral centre, empirical evidence (e.g. the science of climate change) can be denied and anything, including absurd fabrications, can be believed. That was the warning in the Sept. 10-16 cover feature of The Economist magazine, “Art of the Lie: Post-truth politics in the age of social media.” In America it pointed to the troubling phenomenon of Donald Trump, a pathological liar, serial sexual predator and shameless denier, who has poisoned political discourse while seducing millions of followers.

Director Mick Jackson’s Denial tackles a particular episode in the most odious denial of the past century — namely that the Holocaust in which six million Jews perished never happened. The first image is of the self-proclaimed historian David Irving (Timothy Spall), a notorious anti-Semite and admirer of Hitler, making such claims to the applause of a Calgary audience (which should remind Canadians of our Ed Keegstras and Ernst Zundels). The scene shifts to a lecture hall at Atlanta’s Emory University where Irving interrupts Jewish history professor Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) who refuses to debate Holocaust deniers. He makes a show of offering $1,000 to anyone who can prove there were gas chambers at Auschwitz. Subsequently Irving brought a libel suit against Lipstadt and the publisher of her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust. She refused any settlement so the protracted case was held in the arch bewigged atmosphere of a British high court, in which the burden of proof falls on the accused not the accuser, to be decided by judge alone. David Hare’s screenplay draws on Lipstadt’s own 2005 account History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier.

Much of the movie concerns the complex legal stratagems for the defence. While Irving played to the cameras, acting as his own legal counsel, the crack team supporting Lipstadt restrained her impulses. It was led by hotshot solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) who represented Princess Diana in her divorce, and veteran barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) in the courtroom. To deny Irving any chance to play games in court, neither Lipstadt nor any Holocaust survivors were allowed to testify. As hard as her “act of self-denial” was to accept, winning the case was more important.

Whatever qualms she may have had about putting historical truth in the hands of a single judge, the verdict could not be allowed to give comfort to deniers. However much Irving believed in his own lies, it had to be shown that he engaged in a deliberate pattern of mendacity in order to falsify the historical record. During a sombre pre-trial visit to the Auschwitz site — the film’s most affecting scene — Lipstadt came to realize that Rampton had not been unmoved but was intent on meticulous research to counter Irving’s specious claims in court.

While the case was certainly sensational, Jackson and Hare keep the drama low key for the most part. Such a sober subject should not be given to theatrics, though we get glimpses of the passions it inflamed. Weisz is effective as the spirited academic who must control her emotions in a foreign court. Spall, the supreme character actor (Mr. Turner, I, Daniel Blake), reduces Irving’s self-confident zealotry to a rather pathetic “banality of evil.”

This is perhaps not the strongest film that could have been made, but it is powerfully timely. Lipstadt herself sees the relevance in the prevalence of malignant conspiracies (e.g., 9/11 was an inside job, Obama is a Muslim imposter) and in the rise of Trump whose denials are legion and whose admiration for authoritarian strongmen, coupled with a threat not to accept the election result, is the closest a major party presidential candidate has come to proto-fascism.

***

Trump has frequently described America in dystopian terms, a country on the road to perdition in dire need of saving. While this is self-serving nonsense, the America depicted in several recent movies isn’t a pretty picture.

The world of director Gavin O’Connor’s The Accountant is, notwithstanding the title, a vicious one of obsession, blackmail, malfeasance and murder. Ben Affleck stars as Christian Wolff, one of multiple aliases, an obsessive-compulsive sociopath and numbers genius whose accounting skills have been in demand by all manner of bad guys (mafia families, arms smugglers, terrorist networks). An expert marksman, he’s also an efficient killer when required. Wolff operates in the shadows out of a super-secure trailer, but his movements are being tracked by the soon-to-retire head of the Treasury’s financial crimes unit, Ray King (J.K. Simmons), who blackmails a young black recruit, Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), into pursuing his man.

Through flashback snippets we learn that the autistic Christian and his little brother Brax have been trained in violent ways by their psychopathic military father. Christian has also learned his trade in military prison from a black money artist played by Jeffrey Tambor. Christian’s sole human contact seems to be an anonymous encrypted female voice on his smartphone. But when called in to investigate suspicions of missing money at a company named Living Robotics, founded by billionaire Lamar Black (John Lithgow), he develops a soft spot for junior company accountant Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) whom he tries to protect from the deadly whirlwind of corporate corruption and betrayal that ensues.

The movie’s messy tangle of story lines — a basket of improbables if not deplorables — leads up to a strange brotherly reunion and an even stranger reveal about that digital voice. Forget Muslims and migrants, this America must be an awful place if even accountants are to be feared.

***

British director Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, which snagged a jury prize at Cannes, is anything but sweet. Southern girl 18-year-old Star (Sasha Lane) is the “honey” of the title, which is also the name of a closing song sung by a ragtag band of young pierced and tattooed magazine sellers that she joins after a chance encounter. Star, who we first see dumpster diving with a couple of kids in tow, is a wild child with an untidy mop of dreadlocks. Falling for the siren song of the pack’s top seller Jake (Shia LaBeouf), even if he “looks a little Donald Trumpish,” she splits from her macho man, dumps the kids (apparently not hers), and climbs aboard the group’s white van headed for Kansas City. Riding separately with Jake at the wheel is the gang’s boss and alpha female Krystal (Riley Keough). Jake will be Star’s mentor and partner, though Krystal makes it tough-as-nails clear he belongs to her. Any animalistic attraction between Star and Jake is bound to have consequences.

The movie at over 160 minutes turns into a long freakish road trip through Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas — a class-divided downwardly mobile landscape almost as depressing as the not-great America of Trumpland. The magazine thing is a door-to-door scheme to make money any way that works. When not selling, the motley crew smoke, drink, do drugs, and horse around (the camerawork as dizzy as their antics). They may be harmless, though Jake, a master in the art of lying and stealing, carries a gun. In giving a middle finger to middle America, these young people could be satirizing the American dream if their anti-social path wasn’t so sad. If they are the future, it’s a deeply troubled one.