Q&A

WELCOME, EARTHLINGS

WILLIAM HARTMANN February 9 2004
Q&A

WELCOME, EARTHLINGS

WILLIAM HARTMANN February 9 2004

COMING IN FROM THE COLD

As the Oscar race heats up, creative non-fiction finds a place in the sun

Film

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

THE WAR for the hearts and minds of voters is underway. Not the contest for White House supremacy, but for the gold naked guy with the sword between his legs. The madness began last week at the Golden Globes, the dress rehearsal for the Oscars. Winning for Lost in Translation, Bill Murray said he’d thank the studio “except there are so many people trying to take credit for this I wouldn’t know where to begin.” Mary-Louise Parker thanked her newborn son “for my boobs looking so good in this dress,” and a delirious Charlize Theron (Monster) behaved as if she’d been accepted into the kingdom of heaven.

Two days later the Oscar nominations landed—this year’s awards have been moved up to Feb. 29. And while Nicole Kidman must be wondering how she got squeezed out of the best actress category by a 13-year-old Kiwi (WhaleRider’s Keisha Castle-Hughes), Canadians have cause to celebrate.

Quebec director Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions is a leading contender for best foreign-language film, but he’s also honoured for original screenplay. The Triplets of Belleville, a Canada-France-Belgium coproduction made largely in Montreal, is up for best animated feature and best song. The National Film Board’s Chris Hinton was recognized for Nibbles, a funny, frantic animated short. And native son Howard Shore,

son who composed the music for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, is nominated for score and original song.

Earlier last week, two Canadian movies took home audience awards from the Sundance Film Festival: Seducing Dr. Lewis, a whimsical Quebec comedy, and The Corporation, a provocative documentary from Vancouver.

The Corporation was one of the most talked-about films at Sundance—along with Super Size Me, a fast-food horror story about an intrepid American filmmaker who spends a month on an allMcDonald’s diet. These groundbreaking documentaries, which do so much more than document reality, point to a dynamic trend on the frontier of filmmakingsome of the most dramatic new work is in the field of creative non-fiction.

Directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, and written byjoel Bakan, The Corporation turns on an ingenious premise. The movie explains how a series of court precedents in the mid-19th century gave corporations the rights of a legal “person.” And just what kind of person is it? Well, applying diagnostic criteria used by psychiatrists and the World Health Organization, the filmmakers run through a checklist of personality traits and conclude that our society’s dominant institution is self-centred, amoral, deceitful, destructive, anti-social and incapable of feeling guilt. In short, a psychopath.

Featuring interviews with the current pantheon of leftist gurus—Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein—The Corporation comes across as a forceful polemic with an unequivocal agenda. But among the talking heads are a number of empathetic CEOs. And along with the expected panoramas of environmental rape and toxic marketing, the filmmakers illustrate their Kafkaesque essay with visual wit—a bracing mix of vintage clips and fresh footage. From evidence of IBM helping the Nazis keep track of Holocaust victims with punch cards, to visions of biotech companies copyrighting our genes, The Corporation assembles an exhaustive, and devastating, picture of corporate pathology. It feels like a new kind of cinematic argument, one that harnesses McLuhan’s old matrix of medium and message to a compelling sense of global emergency.

The Fog of War offers an even more seductive view of catastrophe unfolding on a historic scale, but one that’s viewed through an eerily neutral lens. The most celebrated contender among this year’s Oscar-nominated documentary features, it’s the latest masterpiece from American director Errol

Morris, a pioneer of creative non-fiction whose filmmaking washes over the senses as a mysterious, almost metaphysical inquiry into the human condition. Morris—whose films include The Thin Blue Line (1988) and Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall ofFredA. Leuchter, Jr. (1999)—has a way of weaving rigorous research into a kind of investigative fugue.

The Corporation assails capitalism; Miracle has its jingoistic moments

With The Fog of War he constructs a mesmerizing portrait of Robert S. McNamara, a former lieutenant-colonel in the U.S. air force, and later defense secretary, who bore close witness to some of the most cataclysmic events of the 20th century. Morris employs his “Interrotron,” a mirrored device that allows him to make eye contact with his subject directly through the camera. It gives the viewer a sense of peering into the subject’s soul. And as McNamara reviews his role as an agent of horror—the 1945 firebombing of Japan, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War—it’s as if he’s standing at the pearly gates, trying to account for himself in the eyes of God.

Pondering the morality of military slaughter, McNamara is a fascinating sub-

ject, and still formidably lucid at 85. As he recalls U.S. General Curtis LeMay’s decision to firebomb Japan during the Second World War, he says, “In a sense I recommended it.” Then, wondering if the killing of 100,000 Tokyo civilians on a single night could ever be justified, he admits that he and LeMay would have been tried as war criminals if the Allies had lost.

McNamara was a technocrat, a knight of industry who had just been named president of the Ford Motor Co. when John F. Kennedy summoned him to Camelot in 1961. The next year he was plunged into the Cuban Missile Crisis. Offering a chilling account, McNamara insists that nuclear Armageddon was averted not by presidential bravado, but by blind luck. Later, as the U.S. is drawn into the Vietnam quagmire, we hear taped phone conversations between him and President Lyndon Johnson; both seem to be escalating the war against their better judgment. The film never mentions Iraq, but when McNamara says the U.S. should never again take unilateral military action, the resonance is unmistakable.

Some critics have attacked The Fog of War as an apologia. But what emerges is a complex portrait of a man wrestling with his conscience and culling lessons from the blood of history, a company man who found himself running a hot war in the name of the cold one. It’s a strangely moving and beautiful film. McNamara is often on the verge of tears. And Morris shrouds his confessions with hypnotic barrages of archival imagesinstruments of war and typewritten words— set to a haunting score by Philip Glass. There are endless shots of bombs being assembled, delivered and dropped, until war begins to look like a fetishistic rite, and that line by Leonard Cohen comes to mind: “I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons.”

On a lighter note, Canadians who want to revisit a less apocalyptic chapter of the Cold War—and get angry—should check out Miracle. It’s a drama about the U.S. Olympic hockey team’s David-and-Goliath victory over the Soviets in 1980. Not only did the Americans steal our game, but now they’ve made a movie that rubs it in—shot on Canadian ice (in Abbotsford, B.C.) with a lot of Canadian actors in minor roles. It comes from Disney, the folks who made The Mighty Ducks. But this one’s a true story, about a squad of U.S. college players who are beaten into shape by a shrewd, sadistic coach (Kurt Russell). It’s enough to make you ask why we’ve never made our own movie about the Paul Henderson goal.

As hockey movies go, this one’s not bad, despite some forays into the non-neutral zone of Yankee jingoism. While America embraces the showdown as payback for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, at least the coach insists it’s only a game. There’s also a generous amount of hockey in the movie, and it’s fun to watch it on the big screen without icing, offsides or commercial breaks— even if the camera deserts the play before the go-ahead goal to deliver a close-up of the scorer’s face. But you can’t expect a Hollywood movie to stick with the narrative arc of a hunk of rubber when it’s being carried by an actor with good teeth. Miracle, after all, is not a documentary, just another corporate fable of good over evil. lifl