“For Sama”—A Letter to My Daughter

For Sama is the most searing  documentary about war that I have ever seen.  Nominated this year for an Academy Award for Best International Film, For Sama presents some of the most unflinching war coverage and remarkable and courageous footage.   A love letter to her infant daughter Sama,  born in Aleppo,   For Sama is a Syrian mother’s  first-person account of the bombing of her beloved homeland over a period of five years.  Aleppo, at the time, was one of the last strongholds resisting the Assad dictatorship.

Waad Al-Khateab is the Syrian producer, cinematographer and  hero of this documentary. She and her equally heroic husband—a surgeon—stayed in Aleppo through the worst of the battles, although their gut reaction was to flee the war zone with baby Sama. It is a young family’s love story set in the terrors of hell. While her doctor-husband saves countless civilian lives, Waad documents the heart-wrenching horrors that civilians—young and old— experience.   

It is difficult to  pretend there is no place in the world where human beings are being routinely slaughtered after seeing For Sama.  A testament to human resilience and sacrifice for the sake of a community, For Sama is highly recommended in order to understand what really happens in war as we bear witness to pain and unimaginable suffering, both physical and mental.

I challenge anyone to watch this film and not be deeply moved. 

Note:  This film is available on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.  There are intensely disturbing images of severely wounded civilians, especially young children.

“Clemency”–No Mercy or Absolution

What’s the psychological and moral cost to a society that administers the death penalty?  That’s the question raised in Clemency, the winner of the Sundance drama award last year. 

So much more than a “death-row drama” ,  Clemency shifts the lens to the impact of  bureaucratized human cruelty:  a scathing portrait of the toll the process of administering an execution has on prison staff. We see how they are not executioners but bureaucratic cogs in a horrible machine of death.

Sixty-something Bernadine (the remarkable African American actor Alfre Woodard in an Academy Award-worthy performance) prides herself  on  her professionalism in presiding over a dozen lethal injection executions. But the compartmentalization of her professional and emotional life is beginning to unspool.  The first half of Clemency focuses on a perfectly impassive blankness and rigidity that masks Bernadine’s emotional self.

She’s experienced something no human should– a dozen times.  The unnerving and opposing forces wrestling inside Bernadine’s mind begin to be magnified as we witness her heartbreaking need for redemption, etched on her face as if her feelings are surfacing for the first time. Something has broken in Bernadine.   And her  marriage to empathetic schoolteacher Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) is lost.  She can no longer process her world separate from being a warden.

Clemency‘s central plot includes a death-row inmate’s perspective–Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge in a career-defining performance)–who has been in prison for fifteen years:  accused and convicted of killing a police officer during a robbery.  As his appeals for clemency filed by his deeply committed lawyer (Richard Schiff) have been denied,  Anthony Woods is also complicated and emotionally shut down.    Both Bernadine and Anthony Woods are  maddeningly emotionless  and flawed.   Bernadine’s womanhood and blackness are inextricable from her sense of professionalism, but she cannot be reduced to either.   And Anthony Woods,  a young black man, never rages about possible injustice. The viewer wonders:  Who needs the clemency more?  The warden or the prisoner?  Maybe it’s both.

A lot of performances get praised for subtlety that are merely wooden or impassive. Alfre Woodward is a phenomenon to behold!  With the subtlest of facial movements, she conveys not only what she is feeling but how it feels to be feeling what she has to feel.  In a camera close-up lasting over three minutes, her face held this viewer in a way both unforgettable and unimaginable.   Alfre Woodard is the reason to see Clemency.  She simply possesses the space, the screen, every scene…and your heart.

The Report—An Exposé for Us All

Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EIT)—is the focus of The Report, a provocative Amazon political thriller.  A Senate staff researcher, Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) is assigned by Sen. Diane Feinstein (Annette Bening) to investigate  detainees held by the CIA in “black sites”.  A shameful chapter of American history unfolds , where torture was re-introduced as a legitimate tool in pursuit of national security. 

The Report  employs flashbacks of “enhanced interrogation techniques” that are frightening and harrowing. Flashing back to 2001 immediately after 9/11, the anxiety and deep fear of another terrorist attack incites George Tenet to ramp up the Counterterrorist Center at the encouragement of President George W. Bush.  Tenet hires two psychologists, Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, to design torture methods without calling it torture.    The CIA’s intention is to elicit information to capture possible terrorists.   Although both men are psychologists, their educational background, professional training and experience have nothing to do with military interrogation.  Not surprisingly, little useful information was collected.

Nonetheless, the CIA was impressed with the  “menu” of twenty enhanced techniques including waterboarding, sleep deprivation, “stress positions,” stuffing prisoners into small boxes,  and slamming them into walls.

After political maneuvers, attempts at cover-up and threats of countersuits by the CIA,  the Senate intelligence committee releases part of its report in 2015,.  As expected, the Department of Justice tried to table the report.  This time portions of the more comprehensive investigation, totaling 6 million pages, become public.  Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman,  concludes that “under any common meaning of the term, CIA detainees were tortured.”

Adam Driver and Annette Bening, under the direction of Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Identity”), deliver truly outstanding performances with gripping pacing rivaling the best action thrillers.

Note:   John Rizzo, CIA acting general counsel at the time of Jones’ report, described in his book Company Man, that the techniques were “sadistic and terrifying.”

On October 13, 2015 the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against James Mitchell and Bruce Jensen with regard to the EIT methods they designed,  claiming their  conduct constituted torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and war crimes.  A settlement was reached before trial in August 2017.

None of the major government officials were ever indicted and the subcontracting psychologists who earned $81 million for EIT development and consulting were indemnified by the US government. Some reviews have considered The Report polemical and politically one-sided, but transcripts of the investigation available online speak for themselves.

1917—This Great War Is Not So Great

The multiple award-winning 1917  is inspired by “American Beauty” writer-director Sam Mendes’s great grandfather’s experience during World War I.  Almost everything you’ve ever seen in a war film is here in 1917. There are  several homages to the classic Stanley Kubrick film, “Paths of Glory” (1957), including the technique of tracking a long take, seemingly a continuous single-shot with no cuts, of the brutal trench warfare that cost 9-12 million soldiers’ lives.  (The calculus for civilian deaths would double the total.) It is as if we’re in the trenches ourselves.

Recent British intelligence has discovered that the  German army has set a trap that will slaughter  an entire British battalion.  To prevent the massacre we travel  through the trenches with two young and inexperienced corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean Charles Chapman).   With the radio lines down, Blake and Schofield scramble through enemy territory, intent on saving 1600 lives. 

It’s a grim spectacle.  Swamps of floating corpses  lie everywhere–sometimes half-submerged, sometimes hanging from barbed wire. With flies buzzing around horse carcasses and rats scurrying over soldiers’ corpses, the faces of the soldiers are all nibbled away. It’s a waking nightmare, no less so because of the unforgiving daylight. No mood lighting required. That comes later.  Master cinematographer Roger Deakins really lights a bombed-out town in sepia tones reminiscent of Rembrandt. There are some staggering landscapes in 1917 conveying the  hell of war..  Director Sam Mendes wants us to to see and feel the carnage in a way that is raw and traumatic, with viscous blood on our hands too.

1917 feels stylistically contrived, however, and not nearly  as immersive as Mendes’s technique wants us to feel. Format and technique are  front and center.   Despite 1917’s mission,  it is essentially a string of action scenes, with unbelievable escapes from barrages of bullets by the young soldiers.  MacKay and Chapman are perfect for their roles, both convincing and immensely likable. However, there’s barely any backstory.

After a strong first half in which the two corporals  are heroically fighting for each other’s survival, 1917 becomes more like an X-Men comic book drama or a video game. The thrills and spills border on ridiculous, the action in service of the testosterone-driven pacing. There is little complexity in character development and even less dialogue.   Yet,  there is no questioning the cinematic skill in immersing the viewer (as if in  a 3-D film) in breathtaking, heart-pumping combat scenes. 

Some scenes are jarring for being disconnected from the  forward momentum of alerting the British battalion.  The most irrelevant scene involves a young French woman and her baby.  In the only scene with a female character, the viewer is left wondering if she will reappear later on.  Otherwise, why was she there in the first place? 

The film becomes plot-driven, not character-driven, but 1917 is supposedly a young hero’s journey.  Then,  what inspired the almost unbelievable courage of an inexperienced young soldier where others failed?

The emotional journey of Schofield should be  layered as deeply as  the horrific trenches of  war.   A strong story, interesting characters, or a reason for their motivation besides dodging bullets to survive allows us to care more about the characters than the battle.  In 1917  the story is pretty inconsequential. It’s about being there in the moment with them. Sitting through 1917 was like watching someone else play a video game.   For some viewers, where war is played like a game, this might be an appealing movie.