J Robert’s TIFF Diary: Day Four

J. Robert continues to send in his informative Toronto fest reviews, and here’s his latest batch. Be sure to visit his entire thread for the complete series. -Doug

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Monday, September 8, 2003
Day Four — A Day of Rest…and Masterpieces

by J. Robert Parks

Before Toronto I was talking with fellow Chicago critic Patrick McGavin. Now Patrick goes to Cannes every year and either Venice or Toronto most years. Sundance sometimes, Berlin other times. In other words, he’s a festival hound. So I asked him how he dealt with the inevitable fatigue that comes from seeing so many movies in so many days. He mentioned that he
likes to take an afternoon off in the middle of the festival and recharge the batteries. After two five-movie days in a row, I’m ready for that break.

Fortunately, my first screening isn’t until 1:15 p.m. Hello, sleep and a decent breakfast. I even have a chance to catch up on some writing. And then I’m off to one of my most-anticipated films.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (2003)

In a foreign policy filled with numerous low points, the Bush
administration’s approach to the 2002 coup in Venezuela is one of its most despicable. It of course has been US stated policy for decades that it supports democracy and opposes all military coups and dictatorships. But when the Venezuelan military, working with wealthy oligarchs, overthrew the democratically elected (by an enormous majority) Hugo Chavez, Bush and the
State Department threw their support behind the plotters and hailed it as an advance for Venezuela. That this set back American foreign policy in Latin America by a decade is an understatement.

Irish documentary filmmakers Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain were in Venezuela at the time, making a documentary on Chavez and his attempts to bring reform to Venezuela. Given enormous access during the coup’s critical 48 hours, Bartley and O’Briain have constructed a documentary unlike anything you’ve ever seen. It is heroic journalism and explosive filmmaking. Their footage of the coup’s opening moments–when the anti-Chavez forces provoked a confrontation between opposing sides–is absolutely gripping.

But even more incendiary is how they expose the plotters’ extraordinary duplicity. Using the confrontation as a front, the plotters had placed snipers around the presidential palace and started firing into the pro-Chavez crowd. When chaos broke out, they continued firing, killing many. Then they used the private media, all of which is owned by the wealthy oligarchs, to broadcast that it was Chavez’s troops that had fired on the anti-Chavez forces. That became the premise for the
military to seize power and for the US to support the coup. The
documentary exposes the utter falsity of those claims with amazing footage that completely undermines the images showed on the private TV stations. It then contrasts that with the American media’s wholesale acceptance of the deeply biased, anti-Chavez media in Venezuela.

But the most amazing parts are still to come, as the documentary takes us inside the presidential palace where Chavez and his ministers are holed up while the military threatens to bomb them. I won’t give anything away for
those who don’t know the story, but the movie is incredibly powerful. The film is clearly a case of being in the right place at the right time, but Bartley and O’Briain have also edited their footage for maximum effect. It is absolutely riveting and will be an entertaining eye-opener for both the novice in world affairs and the jaded veteran.

In the Q&A which followed the screening, someone asked Bartley how the people in the countryside had received important information that contradicted what the private media was showing. She mentioned that, under Chavez, local neighborhood radio stations and newspapers had been organized independent of both the state and the oligarchs. That media had been able to alert listeners and readers of what was actually happening, which provoked millions to flood the streets. I was reminded of the Bush administration’s claim that more corporate control of media will actually lead to a greater variety of independent voices. That CNN, Fox, and many others continue to parrot that claim is indicative of our current state.

The revolution will not be televised. Fortunately, it was filmed and an amazing film it is. Absolutely a must see.

Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)

The Fog of War (2003) is another piece of evidence for the incredibly rich year in documentaries.

Errol Morris‘s masterpiece, and that it is, is a look at the life and career of Robert McNamara. McNamara is most famous for being the Secretary of State under Kennedy and Johnson and is most closely associated with the acceleration of the Vietnam War. Culling from over 20 hours of interviews with the now 85-year-old statesmen as well as rich archival material, Morris has constructed a brilliant documentary, one that has both rich historical value and searing contemporary relevance.

The score by Philip Glass is beautiful, jaunty in some places and elegiac in others. It supports Morris’s editing, which has a powerful rhythmic quality. The film, which covers some rather dry material, is nevertheless always gripping. The interviews are powerful and compelling, as McNamara wrestles with his own role in history.

In the post-film Q&A, Morris defended McNamara, remarking “it is harder to examine error than to apologize for it.” Indeed, this doc examines the very core of power and how it’s used. When is it right to go to war? How can we wage war responsibly?
How can we avoid mistakes, and what do we do when they occur? And how can we work to prevent war in the future?

Morris, whose liberal credentials are well-established, has clearly edited his material to draw attention to the parallels between McNamara’s career and our present-day situation. While this may irritate some viewers, the issues McNamara raises are fundamental, no matter what your political
persuasion. That we must learn from the lessons of history is axiomatic.

The Fog of War is a rich and entertaining place to start.

Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)

After seeing two masterpieces back to back, I had high hopes for 21 Grams, my third and final film of the day. I was originally scheduled for four, but I bailed on Identity Kills (2003) after hearing some negative buzz. Besides, I needed the rest. Turns out I got some more downtime while waiting in line
for 21 Grams. While most of the films in Toronto have started on time, this one was almost an hour late. And if I had to guess, I’d say that celebrity culture was the culprit. Though Sean Penn was in town, he couldn’t be bothered to even show up. And director Alejandro Gonz·lez IÒ·rritu admitted
before the movie that he was “a little drunk.”

Still, the wait was pleasant as I had a chance to talk with Michael Wilmington, lead critic for The Chicago Tribune. Michael is a movie fanatic in the best sense of that phrase. Though he could certainly coast at this point, he still sees more movies than almost anyone I know. So it was fun to pick his brain about
what he’d seen and hear his stories. Unfortunately, Michael also likes to sit right down front when he sees a movie, which isn’t my favorite place. So when we entered the theater, we headed for a rather, to my mind, uncomfortable location. Still, I got used to it, and the company was good.

The movie is also good, though certainly neither a masterpiece nor up to expectations. The film focuses on three characters–played by Sean Penn, Benecio del Toro, and Naomi Watts–struggling with death. Sean Penn desperately needs a heart transplant, Watts has lost someone close to her,
and del Toro…well, I better not give too much away. Told in an even more fragmented style than IÒ·rritu’s Amores Perros, the movie skips back and forth across time. For the first 45 minutes, it was genuinely difficult to figure out how these characters were related and what was going on. By the second act, it was a little easier, but the time shifts still provoke a
sense of uncertainty.

Unfortunately, they also provoke an incredible sense of distance. Since I had to spend so much effort figuring things out, I found myself alienated from all of the characters. Though they’re going through extraordinarily painful events, I couldn’t empathize with either their plight or their decisions. And this is in spite of the fantastic acting on display. Penn won the Best Actor prize at Venice, but it’s Watts who really steals the show. She has a flashier role, which I don’t usually care for, but she takes center stage and holds it for the entire film. Penn and del Toro are
just giving us their usual anguished intensity. Don’t get me wrong; they do that very well. But it’s not anything we haven’t seen before. The direction is fine, though after seeing so many films with brilliant cinematography, 21 Grams seemed rather pedestrian. Still, there’s much to like here, and my friend Garth was enthralled. But it’s no Fog of War.

Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)

We’re back to five films on Day Five, including yet another best-of-year contender. Look for that later today.

Slowly catching up but you won’t see me complaining…