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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz

 

War stories and the paradoxes of the human condition

Gerald Schmitz

11/08/2017

Thank You for Your Service (U.S.)
Last Flag Flying (U.S.)
The Guardians (France/Switzerland)
Journey’s End (U.K.)
The Captain (Germany/France/ Poland)
Darkest Hour (U.K.)

Another Remembrance Day has passed with the familiar tributes to the fallen and all who served in the nation’s wars. Although there are no surviving veterans of the so-called “Great War” of a century ago, and an ever-diminishing number from the last century’s next world war, each subsequent conflict adds to the toll of casualties and leaves new veterans in its wake. With hot wars in the Middle East and a bellicose president in the White House, the portents are less than reassuring.

Television has brought the terror and tragedy of war into our living rooms. We can relive it as in the recent monumental 18-hour PBS series The Vietnam War (http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/the-vietnam-war/watch/). We can watch it unfold as in Olivier Sarbil’s exceptional 40-minute documentary Mosul (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/mosul/), first broadcast on PBS Frontline Oct. 18, which follows an Iraqi special forces squad through the 266 days of the battle to retake Iraq’s second largest city from the so-called Islamic State, at great personal cost and a toll of 20,000 civilian deaths.

Movies about war have been a staple genre of the cinema from the beginning, including as a propaganda tool. But truth doesn’t have to be the first casualty when films are unafraid to show how wars and wartime affect what human beings do to and for each other, to plumb the paradoxes of the human condition — the courage and the folly, malice and selfless love, madness and stoic resolve, fearful frailty and fearless resilience, tragedy and comedy. In war we see these paradoxes play out, individually and collectively, sometimes to terrible even absurd extremes.

In the following I look at American movies on legacies of war from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq, then, from the Toronto film festival, four new European productions set during the world wars.

Veterans Day in the U.S. coincides with the availability of a spate of films about vets. Two from 2016 deal with the consequences of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). This is largely seen as a male problem. But coming to video-on-demand is Remy Auberjonois’ Blood Stripe (https://www.bloodstripefilm.com/) about a female marine sergeant (Kate Nowlin) returned from a third tour of duty who proves unable to cope. Broadcast on the PBS Point of View (POV) series is director Michael Collins’ documentary Almost Sunrise (http://sunrisedocumentary.com/) about two Iraq vets, Tom Voss and Anthony Anderson, who confront their depression by undertaking a cross-country trek from Wisconsin to California. (Not to leave out the canine experience, HBO is showing the documentary War Dog: A Soldier’s Best Friend on Nov. 13.)

First to be released theatrically is writer-director Jason Hall’s Thank You for Your Service (https://www.thankyouforyourservicemovie.com/), a dramatization of David Finkel’s 2013 non-fiction book. Miles Teller is Sgt. Adam Schumann, returning home with several buddies from an infantry battalion he commanded in Iraq following a 2008 IED attack in Baghdad that killed another sergeant who had taken Schumann’s place. (Teller is also convincing in Only the Brave, as the sole survivor of an elite group of firefighters known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots, who perished in a 2013 Arizona wildfire.)

Schumann, PFC Will Waller (Joe Cole), and Specialist Tausolo Aite (Beulah Koale) are all wrestling with demons, desperate for help and frustrated by the wait to get it through the Veterans Affairs bureaucracy. Schumann, confronted by the dead soldier’s widow, has a double case of guilt as his absence on the fateful day resulted from an incident with another comrade shot in the head the day before. Unable to relate to his wife, Saskia (Haley Bennett), young daughter and baby son, he withdraws into a dark place.

Wall, finding that his fiancé has split, is bereft, becoming an early casualty that underscores the statistic of 22 American veterans taking their own lives every day. Aite has a pregnant wife but descends into a nightmare of drug addiction. Fortunately Schumann’s anxiety is relieved by visiting the widow and the injured fellow soldier. He pulls back from the brink of suicidal despair. After finding a sympathetic therapist’s ear at the VA directing him to a program at The Pathway Home in California, he does a noble thing for his friend Aite. (Pathway’s work features prominently in the excellent 2014 documentary Of Men and War.)

Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying gets terrific performances from Steve Carell as ex-Navy medic Larry “Doc” Shepherd, Bryan Cranston as Sal Nealon, and Laurence Fishburne as Rev. Richard Mueller, both ex-Marines and Vietnam vets reunited after three decades in late 2003 on a mission to lay to rest Doc’s son Larry Jr., who was killed in Iraq. Co-written by Daryl Ponicsan adapting his eponymous 2005 novel, the movie is in a sense a sequel to Hal Ashy’s The Last Detail (1973) based on Ponicsan’s 1970 novel.

Doc has also recently lost his wife to cancer. In the throes of loss, he has never had greater need of these old army buddies as he faces accompanying his son’s body to Arlington cemetery. But with a cloud over the circumstances of Larry Jr.’s death, Doc resists the official burial plans and the threesome embark on an eventful road trip from Virginia to the hometown of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The hard-drinking Sal is the disturber, while pastor Mueller brings the consoling presence of a faith deeper than that which they’ve lost in the military and political leadership, sending young men to die for the flag in a deceptive war. As always Linklater is a keen observer of the cultural moment and brings a deep humanity to these characters as they reflect on their pasts and struggle to come to terms with doing the right thing as citizens.

***

TIFF was blessed to have the world premiere of The Guardians (Les gardiennes), the latest film from French writer-director Xavier Beauvois, best known for his transcendent Of Gods and Men awarded the Grand Prix at the 2010 Cannes film festival. Beauvois’ introduction included a tribute to the Canadians who fought to liberate France from German occupation.

Adapted from a 1924 novel by Ernest Pérochon, The Guardians refers to the women left to labour on the home front, to hold together family and society in time of war. The focus is on the Pardier farm family in rural France in 1916, the year of the great battle of Verdun. With husbands and sons off fighting, the household is led by Hortense (screen veteran Nathalie Baye, magnificent) who despite her age works backbreaking hours in the fields. She has help from her daughter Solange and a young woman, an orphan Francine (newcomer Iris Bry, also excellent), brought in to help at harvest time and kept on. Except for several brief scenes of the terrors at the front — gas attacks and assaults from the trenches — the narrative centres on the women and the farm.

On a short leave home the dashing son, Georges, is attracted to Francine and makes plans. His older brother Constant will suffer shell shock. While Hortense bears the greatest burden, Solange dreads news of her husband, Clovis, and in that depression seeks solace among Yankee soldiers who arrive in the area. Things happen that should not, there is terrible news, secrets are held and withheld, a prisoner of war returns and in the aftermath of war men still struggle over land while the women must endure. Emotionally powerful and poignant, stunningly lensed, Beauvois brings a measured mastery to this moving all too human story.

Another TIFF world premiere, director Saul Dibb’s Journey’s End, is the second screen adaptation of R.C. Sherriff’s eponymous 1928 play (the first by James Whale was in 1930), set over a mere six days in March 1918 as a group of war-weary British soldiers are on a frontline rotation. They pass the time holed up in the hellish trenches of Mont Saint-Quentin, waiting on orders to face an expected German spring offensive, cannon fodder for another chapter in this long terrible war of attrition and futile slaughters. The focus of this all-male affair is on three officers: the fatalistic commander Captain Stanhope (Sam Clafin), who calms his nerves with alcohol; the steadier Lieutenant Osborne (Paul Bettany), a teacher looked up to as “uncle” by the men; some mere boys including the just-arrived naïve fresh-faced teenager Second Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), who has chosen this unit in order to serve under Stanhope, an admired former student at Raleigh’s elite school.

The tension ratchets up as Osborne and Raleigh are chosen to be the officers to lead a daring daytime raid over the top to assess German numbers. While smoke from an artillery barrage is supposed to lay down a protective shroud over the desolate stretch of no man’s land between trenches, it has the feel of a suicide mission. Or perhaps the end can only be delayed, not avoided (700,000 men perished during the actual offensive). The waiting can be as terrifying as it is soul-destroying; the bonds between brothers in arms, man and boy, the sole comfort as the agonizing minutes go by and the hour approaches. Dibbs captures that claustrophobic twilight zone with an unsentimental realism that is utterly convincing, its heartfelt moments bearing witness to the calamity of a heartless theatre of death.

The most extraordinary war story I saw at TIFF is based on actual events in Germany in the spring of 1945 as the Third Reich was collapsing. German-American writer-director Robert Schwentke’s The Captain, also a world premiere, focuses on young infantryman Willi Herold (Max Hubacher). In the desperate chaos of the Nazi retreat a wild-eyed Herold is pursued as a deserter who could be shot on sight. He escapes and comes across an abandoned vehicle containing the uniform of a high-ranking army commander. Herold puts it on for protection and as the bluff works the imposter “captain” grows ever bolder. He claims to be acting on the direct orders of the Führer. He gathers a gang of soldier followers. He takes command of a camp for German soldiers detained for desertion and looting. He directs a massacre. Indeed he turns into a preening homicidal little Hitler. Even when a stop is put to his debauched murderous rampage, a Nazi military court judge is inclined to absolve him.

Herold’s story, strikingly shot in black and white, shows the crazed extremes of human behaviour that can occur amid the violent catharsis of war. After working in Hollywood for many years, Schwentke returned to his native Germany in order, as he explains, to tell this little-known episode of German Second World War atrocities “from the perspective of the perpetrators.” Seldom has a movie been more graphic on how the evils of war can turn even its victims into monsters.

Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour sheds light on the more conventional narrative of heroic British resistance to the Nazi blitzkrieg advancing across continental Europe in the first year of that war. The focus is on the intense backroom politics of Westminster in May 1940 as ailing Conservative prime minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) is forced to resign. The Tory establishment wants his replacement to be the Foreign Secretary Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), an advocate of peace negotiations with Hitler. They actively scheme against Winston Churchill whom they regard as an unsuitable has-been. Gary Oldman delivers a career-topping performance as the aging bulldog with a fondness for liquor and cigars. King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) is no admirer either, worried that “his record is a litany of catastrophe.” But the Labour opposition insists on Churchill as its price to enter a wartime grand coalition.

With Belgium and France facing imminent defeat, dire events thrust Churchill into the spotlight. He may grouse that “I’m getting the job only because the ship is sinking.” But after getting the king’s confidence at a critical moment, he becomes prime minister on May 10 with an iron determination that it will not. Loyally supported by wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and young personal secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), encouraged by the spirit of the common people, Churchill rallies the war cabinet. He puts in place Operation Dynamo to avert a military disaster at Dunkirk (the subject of Christopher Nolan’s epic IMAX movie released in July), and promises “we will never surrender” in a famous June 4 speech to the House of Commons, after which a chastened Halifax concedes: “He mobilized the English language and sent it into war.”

This is stirring stuff. At the same time, the sorrow and the pity is that all wars, including the “good” ones, leave behind a legacy of human carnage, for the victors as well as the vanquished. War is always a failure of our common humanity, lest we forget.