Directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker and actor Clint Eastwood, The 15:17 to Paris is a well-intentioned movie remarkable for its use of the actual people that the true story is based upon but ultimately fails fairly miserably as a result of its poor writing and risky casting choices. The story revolves around a group of three American friends who unexpectedly become heroes while on a European vacation after they prevent a terrorist attack on a train from Amsterdam to Paris on August 21, 2015. We first meet Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler as troublesome middle schoolers at a Christian school in California where they become close friends interested in the United States military. The movie fast forwards several years later when the men, all played by themselves, are in their 20s still friends but living separate lives. It primarily focuses on Spencer who decides to join the Air Force in the Pararescue division and Alek who is deployed to Afghanistan as a soldier in the Oregon Army National Guard. In a rather lackluster build-up to the incident, we see all three friends join together on a stereotypical American vacation across Europe filled with drunken nights and sightseeing. The stilted dialogue does not really add much to a greater understanding of the moments leading up to their heroics. Also, the movie sometimes inexplicably switches back and forth between snippets of the action-packed train sequence and the rather mundane activities of their trip. Finally, towards the end, the movie reaches its climax when it details the men boarding a high-speed train from Amsterdam, the interlude as typical passengers, and the remarkable moments when they face off against a radical Islamic terrorist set on killing everyone aboard the train. Spencer makes the quick-fire decision to tackle the terrorist whose gun luckily jams, and a bloody fight ensues between the two men with Spencer sustaining injuries. At the same time, Alek and Anthony along with other brave passengers help to subdue the gunman until the train reaches its next stop where the police can take him into custody. Unquestionably an amazing story of courage, the creative use of the real people in a dramatized motion picture unfortunately backfires and does not really do justice to what happened. Overall, I found it to be a wasted opportunity to pay tribute to three American heroes who undoubtedly saved many lives; therefore, the story would have been better served by a documentary or a more conventional movie with real professional actors.
Based on the 2009 non-fiction book Horse Soldiers written by Doug Stanton, 12 Strong is a fairly typical war movie whose main strength is telling a fascinating true story about one of the first military operations in Afghanistan following the September 11th attacks. It follows a group of twelve United States Army Special Forces soldiers who are sent to Afghanistan on a covert mission known as Task Force Dagger in October 2001 to combat the Taliban harboring the al-Qaeda terrorist group responsible for the deadliest attack on American soil. The group known as Operational Detachment Alpha 595 within the elite 5th Special Forces Group are commanded by Captain Mitch Nelson, played by Chris Hemsworth, on his first leadership role in combat and is tasked with joining Afghan General Abdul Rashid Dostum and his Northern Alliance fighters. Their mission is to recapture the Taliban stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif, a Northern Afghan city strategically vital to the Americans in the forthcoming war, and eliminate Taliban and al-Qaeda soldiers in the region. Once they arrive in Afghanistan, the American troops, including soldiers played by Oscar nominee Michael Shannon and Michael Peña, discover they are outnumbered by the Taliban heavily armored with tanks and rocket launchers. Earning their nickname the Horse Soldiers, the men are surprised to learn they must ride horses into combat due to the rough terrain. As to be expected from a Jerry Bruckheimer production, the film contains several well-coordinated and thrilling action sequences involving the Special Forces on horseback firing machine guns at the relentless Taliban and al-Qaeda forces. Overall, despite the talented cast and spectacular scenes of modern warfare, the movie never transcends the generic formula of an action flick as a result of the lack of character development and the bloated runtime. Unfortunately, it does not really do justice to the truly remarkable story of one of the first military responses to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, an operation that up until recently was classified.
Directed by Steven Spielberg who won the Oscar for best director for 1994’s Schindler’s List and 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, The Post is a terrific film about the importance of journalism and is full of brilliant performances from an all-star cast under the guidance of one of the greatest filmmakers with a well-crafted script. Set in the early 1970s as the Vietnam War became increasingly unpopular, the movie tells the true story of the release of the so-called Pentagon Papers, which documented the failures and cover-ups of the war in Vietnam by the United States government. It is about the fierce competition between The New York Times and the relatively small Washington Post to get the scoop on such consequential classified documents. The plot follows the groundbreaking female publisher and owner of The Washington Post Katharine Graham, played by Oscar winner Meryl Streep, and the well-respected editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee, played by Oscar winner Tom Hanks, as they struggle to raise the newspaper’s national profile as they begin the process of going public to raise funds to keep the paper running. When they catch wind of the Pentagon Papers leaking, they along with their journalists desperately try to get the full report and publish stories about the secret government report that The New York Times has been barred from publishing because of a government injunction. Eventually, the Post journalist Ben Bagdikian, played by Golden Globe nominee Bob Odenkirk, is given thousands of pages of the Pentagon Papers from one of its authors, a government contractor for the Rand Corporation named Daniel Ellsberg, played by Emmy nominee Matthew Rhys. Graham and Bradlee must grapple with the legal implications of publishing confidential government records, which could result in jail time and the newspaper going bankrupt, and the journalistic duty of informing the public in a country with freedom of the press. Although it is a historical snapshot of a crucially important time in journalism, the filmmakers effectively allude to the parallels in today’s society, with the current president of the United States criticizing the free press and calling for the prosecution of leakers. The movie very much reminds me of the 1976 movie All the President’s Men, perhaps the greatest movie ever made about journalists, by focusing on the investigative reporting at The Washington Post during the Nixon era. Both films powerfully shed light on the significance that journalism has on holding the American government and president accountable for their actions. A spiritual prequel to the Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman movie in which the story takes place almost immediately after the Pentagon Papers, Spielberg’s work is much more about the leadership at The Washington Post and its conflict with the judicial system. Overall, I found The Post to be one of the most relevant movies made about America’s current political and journalistic environment and stands by itself as an excellent movie due to its marvelous ensemble cast with almost too many great actors to name directed by the great Steven Spielberg.
Directed by Simon Curtis who is best known for 2011’s My Week with Marilyn, Goodbye Christopher Robin is a fascinating glimpse into the personal life of the creator of Winnie the Pooh and what inspired him to create such an iconic children’s character. Played by Domhnall Gleeson, A. A. Milne is a talented and well-respected writer who struggles with his next project after serving as a soldier during World War I and still suffering from post-traumatic stress. He decides it would be good for his mental health to move out of London and live in East Sussex in the English countryside with his beautiful wife Daphne, played by Margot Robbie, and his young son Christopher Robin who they nickname Billy Moon. Clearly experiencing horrific flashbacks and ridden with guilt and depression, he is largely an absent father and has a sometimes difficult married life. As a result, Christopher Robin is primarily raised by his loving nanny Olive, played by Kelly Macdonald best known for her role in HBO’s TV series Boardwalk Empire. Eventually, Milne becomes inspired during a long weekend alone with his son when he comes up with fantastical stories about Christopher Robin’s toys, particularly his teddy bear, while they play in the nearby woods. With the help of a friend and illustrator, he comes up with the character Winnie the Pooh, named after a bear from Winnipeg in the London Zoo and a swan named by his son as Pooh, and other characters that would be later first published as a children’s book in 1926 and a second book released in 1928. After such a catastrophic war, Winnie the Pooh becomes an inspirational distraction for the British public and helps heal the emotional wounds suffered. The international success of the character Winnie the Pooh and his fictional friend Christopher Robin does renew his literary career but at the expense of his family. His son Christopher Robin, who is the basis for the boy in the stories, essentially becomes a marketing tool and becomes too busy to experience a normal childhood because of his own fame. Milne realizes the mistakes he has made in exposing his son to such publicity at such a young age when the real Christopher Robin grows up and enlists in the military at the outbreak of World War II. Overall, I found it to be a well acted film that does a good job of providing insight into the creation of one of the most beloved children characters and its positive and negative effects on the author and his family. However, the movie at times felt conflicted about whether it should be a sentimental story about childhood or a dramatic story about the ills of war and celebrity.
Directed by Gurinder Chadha who is best known for 2002’s Bend It Like Beckham, Viceroy’s House is a fascinating historical drama about the final days of British Imperial rule of India and gives a behind-the-scenes look at the predominantly Indian staff who work for the last British Viceroy of India at his palatial estate in Delhi. The well-respected Lord Mountbatten, played by Hugh Bonneville of Downton Abbey fame, along with his strong wife Edwina, played by Gillian Anderson of X-Files fame, arrive in India in 1947 as the British Empire begins the complicated process of turning over power to an Indian government. They are portrayed as sympathetic to the plight of many Indians who are extremely divided between the majority Hindu population and the minority Muslim population. Lord Mountbatten first advocates a unified India in which both religions live together as one nation, but, ultimately, he discovers that the issues are much more contentious and that a possible two-state solution of India and Pakistan may be the only option to prevent further violence. The Hindu political leader Jawaharlal Nehru, as well as Mahatma Gandhi, personally petition Lord Mountbatten to push for a single nation while the Muslim political leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah urges the Viceroy to create Pakistan as a separate Muslim-majority country. To dramatize the very real tensions between Hindu and Muslim, the movie follows a new Hindu servant at the Viceroy’s House named Jeet who is in love with the Muslim servant Aalia who has been arranged to marry another Muslim. With violent riots erupting across India over whether to partition the post-colonial nation, Jeet fears for the safety of his family and particularly his love Aalia. As the day of independence approaches, the conflicted Lord Mountbatten announces India will be partitioned in hopes of easing tensions; he learns that it was always the British government’s plan to create the nation of Pakistan and has been secretly supported by his Chief of Staff Lord Ismay, played by the terrific Michael Gambon. Subsequently, like the rest of India, Lord Mountbatten’s staff are forced to claim their allegiance either to India or Pakistan and will have to move their families accordingly after British rule officially ends. Jeet and Aalia, along with their families, must also make this extremely difficult decision. Overall, I thought the filmmaker did an excellent job of providing the audience with a greater understanding of the challenges caused by the Partition of India and its massive human toll, including over 1 million deaths and almost 15 million people migrating between the two new countries. One issue I had with the movie is the romance between the two major Indian characters did not feel necessary to tell the story and was almost as if it was thrown in at the last minute just for dramatic effect.
Directed by Academy Award-nominated British filmmaker Stephen Frears who is best known for 2006’s The Queen also about a famous British female monarch, Victoria and Abdul is the fascinating untold true story of Queen Victoria’s unlikely relationship with an Indian servant. Clearly, the film’s greatest strength is the magnificent acting performance from Dame Judi Dench, already well-regarded for her portrayal of Queen Victoria in 1997’s Mrs. Brown and her Oscar-winning role as Queen Elizabeth I in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love. Celebrating her golden jubilee commemorating 50 years on the throne in 1887, the Queen is sent two Indian servants as representatives of British-ruled India and begins a fond relationship with one of the men named Abdul Karim, played by Indian actor Ali Fazal. Eventually, he becomes a close confidant of the lonely Victoria who lost her husband Albert many years ago and invites Abdul to palace functions and is even taught his native Indian language. Abdul also is given a house on Royal property and is able to bring his Indian wife and mother-in-law to England. The film does an excellent job of realistically depicting what it must have been like at Queen Victoria’s residences, mostly because it was filmed at the real Osborne House on the Isle of Wight where much of the movie takes place. As Abdul becomes increasingly closer to Victoria, the Royal household and Victoria’s successor and son Prince Bertie, played by Eddie Izzard, continue to get fed up with her unorthodox friendship to a man that they believe is racially inferior and a simple-minded servant unworthy of her attention. Her real deep connection with Abdul forces her to fight back against her own family and royal duties and defends him until her death in 1901. Apparent by the story of Abdul not being uncovered until only recently, there was a actual animosity evidenced by Bertie ordering the destruction of all records pertaining to Abdul immediately after he takes the throne. Overall, I was particularly intrigued by the film’s plot and especially struck by Judi Dench’s terrific performance; however, it was too full of cliches to transcend the genre and was much more of a sad story than the promotional materials lead the viewer to believe.
Written and directed by the acclaimed Christopher Nolan who is best known for 2008’s The Dark Knight and 2010’s Inception, Dunkirk is a top-notch war movie crafted by Nolan at his finest and joints the ranks of the greatest war films, including Steven Spielberg’s 1998 modern classic Saving Private Ryan. The remarkable true story chronicles one of the most pivotal moments of World War II: the British surrender and massive evacuation at Dunkirk, France beginning in late May and ending in early June of 1940. Up to 400,000 mostly British soldiers representing almost the entirety of the British military were stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk with no real way of crossing the English Channel and reaching home even though it was within sight across the shore. With outstanding cinematography, greatly enhanced by the all-encompassing IMAX 70mm format, the film uses spectacular and often horrifying imagery to follow all the major aspects of the massive operation led by the British Commander Bolton, played by the Oscar-nominated actor Kenneth Branagh. The wide sweeping shots of the thousands upon thousands of war-weary soldiers waiting to be rescued while being constantly bombarded by the German air force reinforce the unbelievable scope of the evacuation. There are also mesmerizing dogfighting sequences between the strained British Royal Air Force, represented by a particularly heroic pilot played by Tom Hardy, and German warplanes and bombers targeting the vulnerable British troops. Further underscoring the horrors of war and the difficulty of evacuating so many men are the scenes showing jubilant soldiers finally getting on British Naval vessels after surviving the battle, only to be killed after many of their ships are torpedoed or bombed by the Germans. Throughout the film, Nolan is able to effectively recreate what it must have been like at Dunkirk and thereby engenders an anxiety-inducing cinematic experience. The visceral reaction is not only created by the stunning visuals but also by the simple yet effectual soundtrack, which is mostly composed of what sounds like a ticking clock to heighten the nerve-wracking situations the characters are facing. Besides speaking to the hell that is war, the film also presents the hopeful and inspirational aspect of the evacuation of Dunkirk: the massive flotilla of ordinary Brits using their fishing and pleasure boats who journey to Dunkirk in the face of danger to help evacuate the many thousands of soldiers and bring them back home safely. To develop a personal connection with these unlikely heroes, the film also follows a father, played by Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance, and son and a local teenager as they venture their way on their civilian boat to pick up survivors from Dunkirk. They themselves face the harsh reality of warfare when they rescue a severely shell-shocked soldier, played by the Irish actor Cillian Murphy, who is adamant that he must not return to Dunkirk. Overall, I found it to be one of the more engrossing and emotionally powerful depictions of war and was nothing short of a cinematic masterpiece from the auteur filmmaker Christopher Nolan. His remarkable attention to detail and beautiful cinematography is probably the closest a filmgoer can get to experiencing war, both the horrific and inspirational qualities. The uplifting moments appeal to what many Brits still affectionately refer to as the Dunkirk spirit, the forces for good during times of adversity.