The Zookeeper’s Wife

Based on the true story as recounted in Diane Ackerman’s 2007’s book of the same title, The Zookeeper’s Wife tells a fascinating mostly untold story about the director of the Warsaw Zoo, Jan Żabiński, and his wife Antonina, portrayed by Jessica Chastain, who were instrumental in saving many Jewish lives throughout World War II in the bombarded city of Warsaw, Poland. The movie begins showing the innocent goings-on of the zoo during the typical days before the Nazis invaded Poland and focuses mostly on Chastain’s character and her love of animals. Eventually, after it suffers catastrophic damage from German bombings in which many animals are killed, the zoo is shuttered by the new Nazi regime and becomes the testing grounds for Hitler’s so-called zoologist, played by the sinister Daniel Brühl, to breed a large extinct animal. Still living on the zoo’s property with their young son, the couple devise a plan to hide Jewish citizens from the infamous Warsaw Ghetto who would eventually be condemned to death in the extermination camps. Over the course of the war, over 300 men, women, and children are estimated to have been saved as a result of their heroic actions of sneaking Jews away from the ghetto and harboring them until they could be safely freed from German-occupied Poland. Like many Holocaust-themed films, at times it was very hard to watch, especially the scenes taking place within the inhumane Warsaw Ghetto and when the Nazis finally decided to liquidate all of its Jewish residents. What also struck me about the movie was the uncanny parallels between the zoo animals who were kept in cages yet very much loved by their zookeepers and the innocent Jewish victims who were deprived of their human rights and forced to live in cages of their own as if they were animals themselves. Overall, I found it to tell a very enlightening story that significantly contributes to the innumerable tales of horror and heroism during one of the darkest times in our history.

Silence

Directed by Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese as a passion project 25 years in the making, Silence is an often difficult to watch film that as the title suggests is full of silent moments reflecting the characters’ religious introspection and how God could exist in such a cruel world. Set in 17th century Japan when the country was closed to Westerners and Christians were violently oppressed, the film follows the Portuguese Jesuit priests Father Rodrigues, played by Andrew Garfield, and Father Garupe, played by Adam Driver. Both eagerly religious men are snuck into forbidden Japan on a mission to find the missing Father Ferreira, portrayed by Liam Neeson, who may have apostatized, or renounced Christianity. When the men first arrive in the Nagasaki region, they are greeted enthusiastically by downtrodden farmers who have had to hide their Catholic faith. The priests live out of sight during the day to avoid the draconian Japanese inquisitors but return to the villagers at night to give Mass, Communion, confession, and baptism, strictly forbidden rituals not given by clergy in several years. Through the eyes of Garfield’s and Driver’s characters, we witness the horrifying torture and gruesome killings of those suspected to be Christians by the Japanese authorities. For instance, men are tied to crucifixes on the shore where rising tides eventually drown them, and innocent bystanders are executed if one person does not apostatize. The major tactic used by the Japanese to discover who is a Christian is to force individuals to trample, or step, on a stone inscribed with the image of Jesus or other Christian iconography. Eventually, Father Rodrigues is detained by brutal Japanese officials who insist that he immediately apostatize while being told that Father Ferreira has renounced his faith and now lives as a Buddhist with a Japanese wife. Scorsese does a brilliant job of underscoring the priests and Japanese Christians torturously grappling with their inner personal faith as they suffer unimaginably simply for being Christians. Mirroring often tedious spiritual exploration that takes time and quiet reflection, the movie is almost three hours long with very little action and has extended stretches of no dialogue. Furthermore, the film heavily relies on nature for storytelling by filling the soundtrack with insect and other wild noises instead of a more conventional musical score. The sweepingly beautiful yet rough landscape of rural Japan is also perfectly captured by the powerfully nuanced cinematography. Overall, I found it to be a spiritually moving cinematic experience about what it means to follow a religion and how even the most dire circumstances can be overcome with deep personal convictions. Although it definitely is not for everyone or the faint of heart, the movie presents yet another terrific case why Martin Scorsese is one of the most talented filmmakers today.

Patriots Day

From Peter Berg who directed 2013’s Lone Survivor and 2016’s Deepwater Horizon, Patriots Day is a well done procedural drama that follows the events of the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013 and provides insight into the many men and women who were victims as well as those investigating and capturing the culprits. The events leading up to, during, and after the terrorist attack are shown from the perspective of the fictional Boston Police Department Sergeant Tommy Saunders, portrayed by Boston native Mark Wahlberg. The movie captures the Boston Strong attitude when all of Boston came together during an especially trying time, and one way the filmmaker does this is by casting real Bostonians as extras. Much of the movie revolves around finding out what happened and how to pursue the bombers. The local officials, including the Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis portrayed by John Goodman, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, have initial investigative differences, typical of most Hollywood depictions, with the federal government represented by FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers, played by Kevin Bacon. Underscoring patriotism and the desire to seek justice, the filmmaker shows many of these characters working together to arrest and capture the Tsarnaev brothers whose free reign terrorizes the entire city of Boston. Free of excessively gruesome imagery of the actual attacks, the film attempts to focus on the emotional aftermath and vividly retrace what happens over the course of the days that follow until those responsible are no longer a threat. The power of the movie is visualizing the events for the viewer even though most Americans already know many of the details. Overall, I found it to an effectively somber and emotional film that shines a light on terrorism and how authorities are able to tackle such a timely issue in a humane and thorough manner.

The Founder

Directed by John Lee Hancock who is best known for 2009’s The Blind Side, The Founder is an entertaining film that tells the fascinating true story of the great American icon known as McDonald’s. Oscar-nominated actor Michael Keaton gives a strong performance as Ray Kroc, a desperate businessman from Illinois who helped transform McDonald’s into a billion-dollar global corporation. We first meet Kroc in 1954 working as a traveling salesman for a milkshake maker manufacturer and hoping to break through in the business world while supporting his wife played by Laura Dern. Eventually, he ends up in San Bernardino, California where he discovers a small pioneering fast food restaurant owned and operated by the McDonald brothers, the older Mac played by John Carroll Lynch and the inventive Dick played by Nick Offerman. Ray Kroc will do anything to get a piece of the McDonald’s pie and will ultimately use questionable tactics to take advantage of the two hard-working brothers already satisfied with running a single successful restaurant. Providing a remarkably fast and efficient method never used before to serve hamburgers, the McDonald’s innovative fast food model inspires Kroc to convince the brothers to franchise the restaurant across the nation. Kroc becomes increasingly hostile to the largely naive founding brothers who are hesitant to give more control to their new partner. To get around the original contract and make more money, he devises a plan to purchase the real estate of each franchise and form a company exerting more control over McDonald’s. The movie effectively illustrates the corrupting influence of money by depicting Ray Kroc towards the end as a conniving character unsympathetic to the true founders of McDonald’s and even to his own wife who stood by his side. Through the alluring performance of Michael Keaton, the viewer is given a glimpse into the largely unseen side of such an iconic brand and a man who has become known as the founder of McDonald’s. Overall, I found it to be a highly compelling film about a complicated figure in the seemingly mundane fast food world and leaves the audience with a disillusioned view of the Golden Arches.

Hidden Figures

Based on a true story, Hidden Figures is a well-crafted inspirational film about a group of women who contributed significantly to the early American space program despite facing intense discrimination. Set in 1961 as the nascent NASA attempts to send the first American into space, it follows three African-American female mathematicians working at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia tasked with computing the flight trajectories of manned spacecraft. Due to the discriminatory norms and laws of the time, they were forced to work in a segregated division where it was practically impossible to move up the career ladder. Eventually, the main protagonist Katherine Goble Johnson, a brilliant mathematician played by Taraji P. Henson, breaks the color barrier by being permitted to work at the Space Task Group led by the tough director Al Harrison portrayed by Kevin Costner. She was allowed access out of necessity in order to catch up with the rapidly advancing Soviets who were the first to send a satellite and human into space. At the same time, the movie shows the struggles of Mary Jackson, portrayed by Janelle Monáe, who fights for her education to become an engineer, and Dorothy Vaughan, played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, who wants to be treated as an equal as a supervisor at NASA. Helping to round out the characters, the film also presents the women’s personal lives and how they cope with the immense pressures they experience at their stressful yet important jobs. Their vital contributions that ensure the safety of such astronauts as Alan Shepard and John Glenn seem to be readily dismissed simply because of their skin color and gender. Overall, I found it to be a must-see movie that provides an uplifting and historically relevant glimpse into the largely unknown role of African American women in such a quintessentially American success story as putting a man in space.

Denial

Based on a true story, Denial is a fascinating courtroom drama that delves deep into the issues of freedom of speech, the justice system, and the role of historians. It revolves around a noteworthy 2000 libel case tried in the United Kingdom and brought by a particularly infamous British Holocaust denier named David Irving, brilliantly portrayed by Timothy Spall, against a respected American Holocaust historian, played by Academy Award winner Rachel Weisz. Weisz’s character Deborah Lipstadt becomes a target of the provocative amateur historian Irving after she publishes a book about Holocaust denial that harshly criticizes his writings. He claims she defamed his name and therefore decides to sue her in the British court system, which, unlike, the American system does not assume that the accused are innocent until proven guilty. Along with her publisher Penguin Books, she hires a group of high-powered British lawyers, including the solicitor who represented Princess Diana and a barrister specializing in libel law who is played by the always terrific Oscar-nominated actor Tom Wilkinson Wilkinson. Much of the film takes place during the trial as the defense team prepares for the highly unusual task of proving that the Holocaust really happened in order to prove that Irving’s case is unfounded. Consequently, the filmmakers quite effectively attempt to grapple with what forms of speech are protected and and whether something that is widely perceived as offensive like Holocaust denial should be allowed a platform in public. Furthermore, I was greatly intrigued by learning about some of the intricate details of the British legal system, something that I knew little about and assumed was much more similar to the American system. There were also emotionally powerful moments, especially as Weisz’s character and her legal team visit the ruins of the Auschwitz gas chambers. Overall, I found it to be a compelling movie that raised significant points about justice and what is acceptable in society while presenting a gripping story about a rather unusual trial.

Backdrop

An American of Jewish and German heritage, Deborah Lipstadt remains on the faculty of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia as a Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies and is the author of several historical books, including her seminal work Denying the Holocaust published in 1993. That book was the basis for David Irving’s lawsuit that he brought forth in 1996 and was finally decided in her favor in a 334-page judgement in 2000 disproving many of his claims about the Holocaust.

David Irving started his career as a largely reputable World War II historian who wrote extensively beginning in the 1960s primarily about Nazi Germany. Although he lived during World War II as a British citizen and his father served in the British military, sometime around 1988, he became a revisionist historian who felt Hitler was misconstrued and that the Holocaust was fabricated. He was heavily influenced by the discredited pseudo-scientific Leuchter Report written by an American execution expert who tried to find evidence disputing the genocidal purpose of the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Under Europe’s strict Holocaust denial laws, Irving has been banned from entering Austria, New Zealand, and Germany. In 1989, Austrian officials had a warrant out for his arrest but did not face jail time until 2005 when she snuck into Austria for a series of speeches to extremist organizations. He was sentenced to three years in jail but only served 13 months after his appeal in 2006. The Southern Poverty Law Center, the preeminent organization on hate groups, calls him the world’s most prominent Holocaust denier.

All The Way

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Based on the Tony Award-winning play, All The Way is a phenomenal HBO movie about LBJ in his first year as president following JFK’s assassination in 1963. It is a first-rate political drama drawing the curtains on the inner workings of LBJ’s determination to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. LBJ is brilliantly portrayed by Bryan Cranston who won the Tony Award for his performance in the theatrical version. It is exhilarating to watch Cranston as he uncannily transforms into LBJ, complete with his physical appearance, mannerisms, and sharp wit. He is effectively able to show the nuances of LBJ, a complex larger-than-life character with deep convictions about making America a better place. The film chronicles LBJ’s deft political acumen to enact legislation through sometimes controversial tactics and compromise with his political enemies. In order to achieve his ends, LBJ was also forced to confront his political allies, including MLK and the Dixiecrats, even at the risk of hurting his chances in the 1964 presidential election. Although depicted in a largely positive light, the movie touches on his ultimately disastrous decision to escalate the Vietnam War. LBJ is also vividly shown as a regular man with a folksy, often profane wit and humor. He comes across as a simple Texas country boy from humble beginnings who truly wants to make a difference. Besides Cranston’s skillful performance, the film has a star-studded cast, including Anthony Mackie as MLK, Bradley Whitford as Hubert Humphrey, Frank Langella as Senator Dick Russell, and Melissa Leo as Lady Bird Johnson. Overall, the movie is a must-see for its terrific performances, especially Bryan Cranston, and its well-crafted portrayal of a politician during a time when compromise was not a dirty word. It is an refreshing look into how politics should work unlike today with the Congressional gridlock and the rise of political demagoguery.