A few quick thoughts on things that I’ve seen recently, some of them on planes.
The Imitation Game: As you know if you’ve seen this movie, know anything about the history of WWII cryptography or have been breathing the air in the UK since it came out, The Imitation Game is just a tissue of historical inaccuracies. Some of these (reducing the cast, making the individual breakthroughs seem much more important than they really were, introducing John Cairncross, turning Charles Dance’s guy into a baddie) are done in the name of taking complex, narratively-unsatisfying real life and turning it into a story with a protagonist who has an arc, and conflicts, and blah blah blah blah. But some of the other changes — most notably the portrayal of Turing — are a little different.
For instance: Turing was almost certainly not the hyper-rational, joke-blind character the film depicts. Apparently, this is artistic: because a Turing test is about whether you can tell if someone’s a human or a computer, get it? Get it? Damn, son, no wonder this got Best Adapted Screenplay. To cap it off, the screenwriter said, and I am not making this up, that “you don’t fact-check Monet’s Water Lilies.” Because the purpose of the film is to help you understand what it would feel like to be Alan Turing, see? That’s why they changed his personality to be Sheldon Cooper, not because the only way Hollywood can understand smart people is by making them super awkward and mechanical or because Benedict Cumberbatch already plays an ice-cold misanthrope on TV. No, no. It’s impressionism. You might think that’s facile and ignorant, but you don’t have an Academy Award, do you?
The worst part of it is that that “historical impressionism” idea is actually a really good way of summing up the right way to do historical filmmaking. Like, if they had actually given a broad-strokes picture of Turing that focused mainly on his drives and passions rather than on getting every detail exactly right, that would be great. Instead, they just made the exact same goddamn Math Is Hard Hollywood Science Movie everyone makes.
Whatever; no matter how fast he’s wearing out his welcome, Benedict Cumberbatch can act, and it looks pretty and I saw it on the plane so I didn’t pay for it. It’s not even a bad film, but Hollywood has always struggled to make historical films and films about science. Both at once was probably just too much to ask.
Fury: I have spoken before about the thing where a World War II film necessarily has to be all faded and desaturated and grey because everyone knows that colours were rationed for the war effort or whatever. There’s a lot to be said about the idea that a particular filmmaking technique is a sign of realism (like everyone being covered in grime in the middle ages because no one ever washes even though the women all have perfectly smooth legs and armpits. I guess they depilate in the pigsty).
I like a good testosteroney action movie as much as the next person, don’t get me wrong. Possibly slightly more. I have probably seen The 13th Warrior more times than is technically good for me. But sometimes such a film gets, shall we say, ideas above its station and tries to present itself as a big philosophical question. Which …
… hmmm. I’m not saying a movie shouldn’t try to explore the contradictions and ambiguities of war. And there are moments when Fury actually does this in a very interesting way. The last shot of the film is a good example — it’s nicely ambiguous in a way that sums up the conflicting reactions the main character has to what he’s just experienced. I think the symbolism was just a bit too on the nose. Like Brad Pitt’s character is called “Wardaddy.” Or when the main character gets really angry about something for the first time, he climbs onto the tank and the name “FURY,” painted on the barrel, appears right next to his head. And the whole “rarr, we are men! We are strong and tough, but conflicted! Our simple gruntings conceal profound wisdom!” thing is just … y’know.
Obviously, this is not a historical film per se, but it does do the thing where it takes a particular historical fact that the viewer might not know and front-loads it; in this case the fact that German tanks significantly outperformed their American counterparts for most of the war. It sucks to be the guy who is winning through superior numbers.
The Long Ships: again, this is based on a historical novel rather than on a piece of history. And like any other movie about the Vikings — notably The Vikings — it’s a really pure expression of the 19th-century romantic image of the Norsemen as filtered through Hollywood’s creepy lustful obsessions. I’m not even just talking about the whole abducting-the-princess thing, or the constant background noise of women being groped and disrobed, but also our hero’s tiny leather shorts. Other than that, it’s your usual adventure flick, with shipwrecks and little wooden models in bathtubs and inadvisable beards and lots of jumping. And distant horns. And a bunch of corny Orientalism (and Sidney Poitier!) because it’s set in “Barbary.”
It is based on The Long Ships by Frans Begtssen, but only in the loosest possible sense. I’ve read the book, although it was a long time ago. There was definitely some stuff about a bell (which is the major plot of the film) but I mainly remember the rapturous descriptions of sausage. Anyway, like the novel, the film rollicks along and doesn’t take itself too seriously, although one might argue that sometimes that’s a flaw. Some good lines, though.
Captured Viking: Where are we?
Rolfe (disgustedly): Civilisation.
I have also been watching Season 3 of Vikings, so look for a post on that tomorrow — on TV Tuesday!