Category Archives: Historical Drama Films

LBJ-2017

LBJ-2017

Director-Rob Reiner

Starring-Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Scott’s Review #890

Reviewed April 27, 2019

Grade: B-

LBJ (2017) provides small glimpses of historical interest with a biography about a United States President perhaps underrepresented in cinema history as compared to other presidents but the production never catches fire and falls flat with an overproduced film lacking bombast. The film can easily be viewed once, never to be thought of again, nor providing need for analysis or discussion. Director Rob Reiner creates a glossy, mainstream Hollywood production with questionable casting choices and a muddled feel.

To its credit the film gets off to a good start introducing the fateful day of November 22, 1963 into the story. As then Vice President Johnson (LBJ), played by Woody Harrelson and wife Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh) deplane and embark on a motorcade procession through downtown Dallas, Texas, dire events will follow. As the violent assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) soon arrives the film portrays the initial foreshadowing well then backtracks to 1960 when the Democratic nominee was up for grabs with both JFK and Johnson in contention.

The film traverses back and forth from pre to post JFK assassination as LBJ took over the presidency amid the controversial Civil Rights Bill and a still shocked United States public. A character study develops as the gruff and grizzled man takes center stage to lead the country into the future. The attempt is to show LBJ, the man, at his best and worst personally and professionally facing pressure from his cabinet. Reiner portrays LBJ as complex, brooding, and vulgar, but also as a person whose heart is ultimately in the right place. A man we love to hate? Or hate to love?

From a historical drama perspective, and a genre that has many in the cinematic chambers, the film fails. A powerful political drama is supposed to be compelling but LBJ just feels dull, run-of-the-mill, and extremely forgettable. Some examples of exceptional political film projects are Lincoln (2012), JFK (1991), and Vice (2018). Each has flare, flavor, and a twist or otherwise unusual story construction that LBJ glaringly lacks. Simply put, the experience feels plain and unimpressive.

Having regrettably not seen the HBO film version entitled All the Way starring Bryan Cranston as LBJ, I cannot compare the two other than from word of mouth that Cranston gives the superior portrayal. Based on trailers I would agree with the overall assessment. Harrelson’s version of LBJ is adequate if not sensational. His mannerisms of the President may be effective, but he does not resemble the man too well. With a waxy, heavily made up face, Harrelson the actor is unrecognizable and feels staged rather than authentic.

Jennifer Jason Leigh suffers the same fate as Harrelson in the important role of First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson. The actress is successful at emulating the appropriate characteristics specifically facially but also appears too made up- like a wax figure in a museum sprung to life. As Harrelson and Jason Leigh daftly teeter from scene to scene the result is marginally comical but LBJ the film not a comedy nor a satire, played instead for the heavy drama.

LBJ (2017) is of mild interest but limited as a successful film adaptation of an important figure in United States history. Glimpses of political education for those not alive to experience the tumultuous 1960’s are good but much more was expected from this film than was provided. Better studies exist and hopefully will be created in the future than what adds up too little more than a snore-fest.

Darkest Hour-2017

Darkest Hour-2017

Director-Joe Wright

Starring-Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas

Scott’s Review #718

Reviewed January 24, 2018

Grade: A-

Darkest Hour is a British historical film that showcases an astounding portrayal of Winston Churchill that legendary actor Gary Oldman gives. Certainly known for numerous other fine acting performances in films such as the Harry Potter series, JFK, and Batman Begins, this performance easily transcends all of the others as he brings perfection to a complex role-infusing humor, drama, and many idiosyncrasies of the storied historic figure. Surely, Churchill is the best role of Oldman’s  lengthy career.

Director, Joe Wright, famous for such classy European films as Pride and Prejudice (2005), Atonement (2007), and Anna Karenina (2012), traditionally offers rich, intelligent experiences with an upper-crust, often British theme, and fills his characters with wry humor and wit. In the case of Darkest Hour, a film that absolutely belongs to Oldman by the way, his Churchill is the master of gruff sarcasm and cantankerous charm.

During the tumultuous time of 1940,  with the barbaric grips of Nazi Germany settling upon both England and France (Allies in World War II), a disheveled England is frustrated with their current Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, for being weak. Chamberlain begrudgingly appoints Winston Churchill as his successor, amid limited support. The film discusses Churchill’s early days in charge as the war and the Nazi presence loomed larger and larger- especially as the historic Dunkirk situation comes into fruition.

Darkest Hour as a film is good quality- there exists a certain historic richness and the feeling of experiencing a film that is worthy and relevant. For those of us not in existence during the 1940’s, the film will likely serve as an educational experience into the events of the day.  Certainly, hundreds of films have been made over time that have explored the events during World War II in fantastic detail, but this film is unique in that it not only provides a perspective of the Allied countries “back against the wall” situation, but the ups and downs and pressures that Churchill, the man, faced.

Despite a few quick clips of Hitler and both very old black and white footage and newspaper headlines of the crazed leader, the focus is not on the enemy country, in fact, no actor was used to play Hitler, rather, the focus is on Churchill and the decisions he made and the influences he was faced with. Pressured to appease the militant German country and reach a “peaceful” deal, Churchill instead listened to the voices of the common, everyday, British people to reach his decision to fight the Germans and not back down.

Clever, and relevant in 2017 cinema, is the films spotlight on the famous Dunkirk situation, when British forces were trapped on the shores of Dunkirk, with German planes looming overhead. Thanks in large part to Churchill and British and French civilian boats who aided in the rescue, many men were saved. The 2017 film, aptly named Dunkirk, would make a wonderful companion piece to Darkest Hour in that the subject matters mirror one another. Not surprisingly, both films received Academy award nominations for Best Picture.

A great lesson I carried away from the film is with Churchill himself. Sure, I knew that he was the Prime Minister of England during the 1940’s and was instrumental in the events of the bloody war, but I knew little about the man himself. Thanks to Wright and, of course, Oldman, the viewer will learn the good and bad characteristics of this man. A heavy drinker, commonly downing champagne with lunch and brandy the rest of the day, he was initially not well liked, nor taken very seriously by British royalty.

With Churchill’s bumbling personality, Oldman is fantastic at filling the role with humor, frustration, and just the correct amount of empathy and concern. Despite having a temper, we can tell that he has a love of country and pride for the people living there- that is why he is adamant at conquering the enemy. So we know he is a good man despite his temper tantrums. Oldman also successfully embodies the mannerisms that this historical figure contained. Kristin Scott Thomas also gives a worthy performance, albeit in a small role, as the mature and graceful wife, who can both support and match wits with her husband.

Thanks to a brilliant acting performance by Gary Oldman, who takes on a difficult role that could easily be botched by lesser talent, he makes a film that could have been dull and flat, into a worthy watch to both learn something and be amazed at a truly great acting performance. Darkest Hour is a 2017 historical drama worth seeing.

Bridge of Spies-2015

Bridge of Spies-2015

Director-Steven Spielberg

Starring-Tom Hanks

Scott’s Review #399

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Reviewed April 28, 2016

Grade: B+

Tom Hanks teams with Stephen Spielberg once again in another A-list Hollywood film. Like Saving Private Ryan, Bridge of Spies is in the historical vein. This time the Cold War is featured- it is 1957 when the film begins. The camera work, the art work, and the set decorations are second to none as the film looks and feels authentic. As interesting as the overall film is, and it felt like I was watching a well-made film, there was also something missing, which did not make it truly riveting and that is why it receives a B+ rating. Still, with Spielberg and Hanks on board, you know you will get a quality film.

Hanks portrays James B. Donovan, a Brooklyn attorney specializing in insurance law, but a wiz at negotiation and experienced with the Nuremberg trials. He is assigned to defend suspected spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in what is assumed to be an open and shut case-his guilt considered a given. Abel has been arrested by the F.B.I and is thought a Russian spy. They are willing to release him on the condition that he reveal Soviet contacts, but he refuses. Meanwhile, an American pilot, Frances Powers, is captured in Soviet territory and taken hostage. To make matters more complicated, an American graduate student, Pryor, is trapped behind the Berlin wall in East Germany and not allowed by the Germans to leave. The pressure is on Donovan to not only defend Abel in the United States,  but to make a deal to return the three men to their respective countries.

Hanks, a great actor, is his typical stoic, capable self, and his portrayal reminds me of his role in Captain Phillips- calm, well-mannered- a clear yet quiet leader. The role is not flashy  in comparison to other legendary Hanks roles (Forrest Gump, Philadelphia). Certainly, the film centers around Hanks and is catered to his acting style- his character is always in the forefront. In my opinion, Hanks never gives a bad performance and I admire him in almost any he gives.

Let’s discuss the role and the portrayal by Mark Rylance in his Oscar winning role. Giving a very subdued, nuanced performance, he is good and low-key in what could have been an energetic, over-the-top performance if written that way, but I am not sure I would have handed him the golden statuette over a few of the other nominees in the 2015 Supporting Actor category. Not that this is a criticism, but I am unsure if there is as much meat in this performance as would warrant an Academy award.

Bridge of Spies is very detail oriented and every set piece- from late 1950’s cars, clothing, hair styles and home furnishings are spot on. Clearly the film was expensive to produce and no expense seems to have been spared.  The film travels from Brooklyn to the Soviet Union, to Germany and gives off a patriotic, Americana flare, which is very true to life in the given time period. There was such a sense of country and community. Nothing makes this more apparent than the distasteful glares and downright coldness and hatred displayed by many characters towards Donovan. To counteract this, when Donovan is ultimately more the hero, he is revered and celebrated.

As great as the film looks, there is something slightly disconnecting about it. I was left wanting a bit more from a story perspective and feeling slightly disengaged throughout parts of it. I was never riveted or blown away despite realizing that I was watching a well-made film. This can oftentimes happen as the story is less compelling than the way the film looks and this is the case with Bridge of Spies. After I finished watching I was left with the feeling that I did not ever really need to see the film again, in contrast to truly great films where one can watch over and over again.

A slight mention is that Bridge of Spies is clearly a “guy’s film”. Amy Ryan, a great actress, does all she can with the only real female role in the film in that of Donovan’s dutiful, supportive wife-a role written one-dimensionally hundreds of times. It is a shame her character is not more fleshed out instead of the typical worried scenes or fretting for her husband to return home to his family- purely reactionary and not furthering the plot in any way. In this sense the film deserves criticism for being a bit too traditional.

Bridge of Spies is a very good effort, but certainly not a tremendous film. It is the type of film that I liked, but not loved. Plot driven rather than character driven. Perhaps, due to the names Spielberg and Hanks on the marquee, I expected a bit more.