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.

Marriage Story (2019)-The Bonds of Love

 

Nominated this year for eleven Academy Awards, Marriage Story portrays  two people who really care about, respect, and love each other, and yearn for  a “gentle” amicable divorce resolution. They also are determined  to nurture and nourish their young son, Henry, with as little wounding as possible.

 Written, directed and produced by Noah Baumbach (of “Squid and the Whale”, another excellent film about divorce), this film eviscerates what happens in even the best-intentioned divorces, reminiscent of  the classic 1979 film “Kramer vs Kramer”. 

Charlie (Adam Driver) is  a very competitive, driven theater director whose wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) has substantially contributed to his recent success. As the leading actress and idea-generator for this theatrical company, Nicole loves witnessing  the accolades and fame Charlie is garnering, including receiving the prestigious MacArthur grant.  (There are parallels to last year’s hit, The Wife, here.)  Until she doesn’t.

Neither character is portrayed as overly narcissistic (although Charlie comes close) but both are flawed.  While the viewer comes to understand and empathize with both of them wanting to pursue their dreams,  we see the character arcs change radically.  The hoped-for amicable divorce proceedings turn very ugly when lawyers get involved. 

This is an emotionally raw journey into trying to figure out how to be an independent adult and survive alone.  It is so grief-stricken in impact that it is as if the viewer’s observing the psychological amputation of the couple’s former selves.

Charlie and Nicole’s  assumptions about each other were lovingly expressed while they were a couple, and are now weaponized.  What they had been fond of in each other’s character, turns into deep wounds and grievances.

The cast is phenomenal. Adam Driver offers a transformative, heartbreaking performance that may surprise many.   Scarlett Johansson is his equal, playing a broken woman who wants the best for her family, but can no longer hope for her marriage to change.  Their performances are as intertwined and nuanced as they are fragmented, and they play  off each other with rarely seen chemistry.

Marriage Story is a delicate dance and dialectic of vertiginous rage and  devastating miscommunication, weaving together themes of loneliness, heartbreak, and regret acutely reflecting the imperfect and painful nature of human relationships.  An unnerving capture of the complexities of character and the dissolution of a marriage between two loving people, Marriage Story will become a classic allegory for us all.


Burn This–Blazing Comedy on Broadway

“Burn This”–a Broadway revival of a Lanford Wilson play

Burn This,  a revival of a 1980’s play by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson, well deserves the five Tony award nominations it has received this year. The exceptional performance by Adam Driver will leave you breathless.

The tragic death of a young, gay dancer named Robbie has left his two roommates and his older brother broken-hearted.  Anna (Keri Russell from “The Americans”) and Larry (Tony-nominated Brandon Uranowitz), are shattered by Robbie’s death and wander listlessly around their apartment recalling moments they shared with him.   Having just met Robbie’s family for the first time at the funeral, Anna wonders how she could have known so little about someone she thought she knew so well.  A major theme of Burn This, –that we are strangers to ourselves even more than to the those who think they know us best–sets fireworks throughout the extraordinary and sometimes very funny dialogue.

With the unleashed frenzy of a tornado,–an entrance of sound and fury– Robbie’s older brother, Pale (Adam Driver of “Girls” and the last two Star Wars movies),  opens the door to  Anna and Larry’s apartment in New York City. He has arrived there unannounced to collect his brother’s belongings. He is unhinged, in a drug-induced state of mind, burdened by a  grief that deranges.  In spite of having had little recent contact with Robbie over the years, Pale’s guilt and remorse are obvious.  He is hiding a bitter secret and is oblivious to how he is impacting Anna and Larry’s own mourning for Robbie.

Anna has an entitled, scriptwriter boyfriend, Burton (David Furr), who assumes he will marry her. But the anguish and pheromones are palpable and jolt Anna and Pale into love or lust or something more relentless and unexpected.

Failure to connect with one another, fear of intimacy, lack of empathy for another’s aspirations and uncertainty with one’s own feelings of desire and need:  Burn This sizzles with humor, darkness and ambiguity.

Such a crowd-pleaser! I hope Burn This will travel nationwide like “Book of Mormon”, “Hamilton”, and “Dear Evan Hansen”.  There is something for everyone in the audience to relate to!

“BlacKkKlansman”: Part of the American Fabric?

 

BlacKkKlansman movie

A  Spike Lee film about white supremacy, BlacKkKlansman is based on Ron Stallworth’s 2006 memoir, which eviscerates the hideous social structures of racism in the US.

In 1979 Stallworth (played by newcomer, John David Washington, son of Denzel Washington) becomes the first black detective in Colorado Springs’s police department. The police chief warns Stallworth:  “We’ve never had a black police officer. So you’ll be the Jackie Robinson of the Colorado Springs police department.”

Assigned to be an undercover cop at a black power student rally, Stallworth is to gather intelligence in what his boss implies may be a terrorist movement. Stokely Carmichael, Black Panther leader, will be giving a speech.

The rookie police officer is deeply affected as he watches young black college students take pride in what Carmichael is saying. He understands their rhetoric but his superiors are threatened by the Black Panther political movement. Stallworth suggests that the real terrorism stems from the KKK as well as perhaps the Black Panthers. Both are kindling for explosive violence.

With footage from the notorious 1915 film, “The Birth of a Nation”,– a homage to the Ku Klux Klan,– we are pulled into a clandestine operation where Ron’s colleague, Flip Zimmerman (an endearing Adam Driver), goes undercover as the white version of Ron at KKK meetings. Scenes of Flip’s own victimization by Klansman for suspecting he is a Jew triggers the empathy he has for Stallworth’s experience.

John David Washington, Adam Driver

Toward the end of the movie, Spike Lee uses original footage of the horrific scenes of the Unite the Right rally and Heather Heyer’s death in Charlottesville, Virginia, to show that little has changed from the racism of the 70s. BlacKkKlansman’s  terrifying message is loud and clear: What you see is a story taking place in 1979, but this is not only a period piece about those days. That was then but also here now too. Little has changed.

BlacKkKlansman is both a conversation-starter and conversation stopper. It will leave you deeply moved!

 

Note: BlacKkKlansman opened in theaters on the anniversary weekend of Heather Heyer’s death.

 

“What If”–She Doesn”t Understand?

What If the movie

What If  is a charming romantic comedy perfect for the holidays. Starring Daniel Radcliffe (“Harry Potter”) as Wallace and Zoe Kazan (“The Big Sick”) as Chantry, What If is a well-written story about two millennials who meet at a party and unexpectedly decide to start a friendship. Wallace is emotionally damaged from a failed romance with a doctor while both were in med school. He dropped out, and now is languishing in an unsatisfying and boring job, still moping over a year later. Chantry, a quirky intellectual artist who works for an animation studio, lives with her longtime boyfriend who is a high-power international negotiator.

Both Chantry and Wallace are somewhat awkward socially and emotionally wobbly, but blossom in each other’s company, discussing arcane topics that no one else seems interested in.

Canadian screenwriter and novelist Elan Mastai has written a sharp and clever comedy, balancing laughs with heart. Suggesting the tentative sweetness of changing the territory of the “friendzone” and the “love triangle”, What If asks the question: What does it mean to fall in love with your best friend?

The romantic comedy genre seems to be criticized a lot. There are plenty of cheesy films but What If is a gem. It’s well-written and a romantic comedy done right. Like most movies of this genre, you know how this movie progresses. However, What If still has some fresh moments, including the near universal (?) awkwardness for the woman (and maybe the man) in using the bathroom in the friend’s apartment. The scene is hilarious and endearing at the same time.

The dialogue stands out, alive with surprising turns and turbo-charged zingers as honest conversations poured out stemming from love, misunderstanding, and hurt feelings.

There is an undeniable charm in the ensemble cast’s performances (including Adam Driver). Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan bring soul and chemistry to the human connection they both are afraid of but want so desperately. My only negative comments are that neither the subplot with Chantry’s mother doesn’t contribute to the story’s momentum nor does the intrusive clips of animation. The overall structure of the story, however, with a nice “bookending” of first and last scenes is outstanding.

What If is worth watching as delightful, feel-good entertainment. If you’re looking for an intelligent–not cheesy– comedy to watch during the holidays (don’t wait until Valentine’s Day), rent What If.

Note: Available on Netflix