When you have been brought up with a myth that happens to be true, you get chary if anyone tries to fiddle with it. For that reason, I did not see the recent film about Lincoln. I put Lincoln on the right hand side of God. I have a similar view about Churchill, but I am alive to and relaxed about his foibles and failures. So, I could go and see Darkest Hour. I thought it dragged a bit. The lead (Gary Oldman) and the two women (Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James) were excellent. I wonder if Halifax and Chamberlain were that evil – trying to unseat a PM in wartime unless he agreed to negotiate with someone who couldn’t be trusted. The prescience of the English Labour Party was invaluable then – and later. I thought the film makers got it about right. Lincoln’s cabinet thought he was an idiot. Churchill’s thought he couldn’t be trusted. Lincoln didn’t have the baggage of Gallipoli – but Churchill had been right about Hitler. The train scene was an allowable fancy, but the scene with the full cabinet was spot on, word for word – about the war only ending when we are writhing in our own blood. Churchill said he was surprised how elated some hardened MP’s had been. They just wanted someone to take a stand. That was I think the turning point. It’s sobering to think what may have happened had Halifax prevailed. One thing is sure – we wouldn’t he having this discussion – in English, or at all, since the history of the world would have been very different.
The problem starts with the conception. They thought they were making a Western. How many Westerns have you seen about the fate of African Americans – where the most likely finale is a good old fashioned lynching? Does not the idea seem both tasteless and senseless? Black Hats versus White Hats can be a high art form, but the fate of a people is not a fit subject for caricature. The main white people in Sweet Country are either combinations of Hitler and Stalin, or irrelevant because they are saintly, or a decent relic of Empire. The blackfella is doomed from the time he kills a white man, but we are taken through a cruelly long process that leads to the ultimate cliché – the innocent man listening to his scaffold being erected. And any link to reality goes clean out the window in the farcical ‘trial’ scene, where the participants sit on deck chairs in front of a pub full of drunks cheering the home team – after a committal hearing, in which the judge calls the accused to give evidence. The predicate is that a committal leads to a verdict and execution, sixty years or so after the last public hanging in Australia. It’s not just bad theatre – it’s bad history, too. This was a ham-fisted disaster that does nobody any good. And, irrespective of whether Bryan Brown can act – he always looked like a superannuated head prefect to me, a poor man’s Michael Caine – why does a whitefella get top billing over a blackfella, in a film said to be about the oppression of blackfellas, and where, for the removal of doubt, the blackfella is the White Hat, and the whitefella is the Black Hat?
Three billboards outside Ebbing Missouri
If, like me, you doubt the proposition that that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, you may relate to this film. In a smallish town in Missouri, the mother (Frances McDormand) of a raped and murdered child is not happy with what the police are doing. She vents her anger on three billboards that single out the Commissioner (Woody Harrelson). She has no particular complaint against him. As far as we can see, the police are doing what they can. Her actions against the Commissioner are cruel on him and his young family because he is dying of pancreatic cancer. When this is put to Mildred, her response is despicably tart. (And she has a few shockers.) The self-righteous anger of a victim can be both dangerous and nauseating. It was for me in this film. There is a ghastly cycle of violence and despair among many no-hopers, and the makers of the film tried to fit too much in. The first object of the law is to end vendettas. Not here – they just keep rolling along. I wasn’t particularly grabbed by the lead performance. Her part is that of a steely hard-assed bitch, who obviously let her daughter down and shows a remarkable capacity to do the same for her son. She has a mask on at the start and she keeps it on. If she showed compassion, or anything you would expect of a mother, I missed it. Against that, Woody Harrelson’s part is engaging and uplifting. Without it, the arvo would have been even harder. I was neither entertained nor impressed by this movie. I couldn’t see the point of all that anger and cruelty. If Americans get that angry, they can produce someone like Trump. What you get is the lack of tolerance and balance that bedevils all of us. I believe that there is a great malaise in America, but I do not pay $13.50 for a seniors’ ticket to have that sad fact rammed down my throat.
It was my good fortune to hear Katie Graham speak to a large audience of lawyers in Washington D C in 1984. She was clearly a person of great character – and she was treated that way by a large audience that she held in her hands. Her role and that of The Washington Post in the Pentagon Papers and Watergate was still fresh in the minds of everyone there. The press then enjoyed a level of renown that it has since sadly lost. A film about her and her paper, and her editor, Ben Bradlee, starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks would be hard put to fail. Washington 1971 looks a long way back now – wealth and privilege – is the press too cosy with government? – and gorgeous lamps and coverings. And so frightfully male. Graham is forever surrounded, and taunted or ignored, by ugly, condescending suits. I thought Hanks was a little too much Boys’ Own at times, and the movie got a bit soppy and floppy near the end to prolong the agony – but otherwise I lapped up every bit of it. Streep is immensely gifted. She doesn’t have to engage in histrionics for you to know that. Her performance is wonderfully cadenced – as when Bradlee taxes her for being too close to McNamara, and she responds by reminding him how close he was to Jack Kennedy – if Bradlee got invited on to the Kennedy yacht, surely he had to pull a couple of punches. If I had a vote at the Academy, Meryl Streep would get it hands down. The film reminds us that we need a strong press to deal with a corrupt or dishonest president – who hates the press. And it’s not every day that you get to see a great actress playing a great lady.