Politics at the Movies
Directed by Larysa Kondracki
Review by Malcolm Maclachlan
DynCorp. Dyncorp. Dyncorp.
That’s the actual name of the defense contractor that Kathryn Bolkovac worked for in Bosnia in 1999—and which the makers of “The Whistleblower” didn’t have the guts to name in the film. Instead they change it to “Democra,” which may be a comment on how it’s been both Democrats and Republicans pushing the, to me, troubling rise of contractors in the U.S. military.
Though nothing about this film is anywhere near that subtle. One might think that human trafficking and sexual sadism in a war ravaged country would be dramatic enough on their own, but “The Whisteblower” emphasizes these points with intrusive music, over-explained dialog and gleeful rapist bad guys. Though arguably miscast, Rachel Weisz gives a performance that’s much better than the script she’s given, and old pros like Lynn Redgrave and David Straithairn make appearances. But overall the story is told in such a heavy-handed way that at times I found myself wishing they’d just gone ahead and made a documentary instead.
To back up, Bolkovac was a real live Nebraska cop who signed on to be part of the peace mission in postwar Bosnia. Divorced, short on cash and having lost custody of her beloved teenage daughter, apparently due to being a workaholic, she’s looking to make $100,000 in six months. Upon arriving in Bosnia, she found that a society which has lost nearly half its men to war still seems to have an endless appetite for sex slaves—who, of course, it turns out are actually mainly servicing the so-called peacekeepers, made up of various militaries from around the world and, especially, contractors from the United States.
So the thing that struck me here was “$100,000 in six freakin’ months?”Half of all military spending in the world is by the U.S., yet we have to pay $200 K a year to send not-necessarily competent people to do jobs that ought to done by American soldiers? Paid out of the State Department, if I followed the film correctly, and not even necessarily showing up as military spending.
I know this goes against the current orthodoxy, but I see “contractors” as not much different from mercenaries, at least when they’re on the ground doing jobs that in the past were done by military personnel. The problem is cost and accountability. Soldiers cost far less and, when they commit crimes on foreign soil, can be prosecuted. The contractors in this story, exist in an amoral world of “diplomatic” immunity.
The women in question tended to be young Russians and Ukrainians, coming from a completely different upheaval—the final economic collapse at the end of the Soviet Union. Just as the American media began to fill with Russian models and Russian tennis players who look like models, the world’s brothels began to fill with less lucky women. Travelling on Eurorail pass with a friend two decades ago, I briefly chatted with another male passenger who regaled me with tales of how it was then possible in Berlin to buy sex with a beautiful young Eastern European woman for $5. Hotel room extra, but there were a lot of unlocked port-a-potties around. We didn’t take his advice, but within a few years this trade had hardened into smuggling routes of enslaved women. With a few key exceptions, the Bosnians and others around seemed entirely uninterested in what was happening.
The squalor in this film is laid on a bit thick, with many shots of backrooms in bars filled with used condoms, heroin needles and pans of urine. How these men could have sex with women kept this filthy seemed a little strange to me, as did the pervasiveness of the sexual sadism portrayed. Though, if Blackwater’s exploits in Iraq are any indication, these companies do seem to subsist largely on the moral dregs of society.
And I can believe that Bolkovac actually came across people (not just men) as bad as the ones portrayed here. But when a film is this unpleasant in its subject matter as this one, I actually prefer a story that isn’t so black and white. The heroes (mainly heroine) are so kind, and the villains so unrelentingly vile, you find yourself rooting for the Navy SEALS to swoop in and start blowing heads off. Instead we get a contrived-feeling version of how Bolkovac got her files—showing a complete cover-up of U.S. contractors and other internationals involved in the trafficking—out of the country, resulting in a news story that barely made ripples in the U.S.
What’s almost more interesting that the film itself is the response from different media. More liberal-leaning publications seemed to look for something to like in an overall mediocre film. Conservative-leaning publications seemed to attempt to attack it on its artistic merits, which are admittedly lacking, while glossing over the actual subject matter, with some even somehow seeming to miss the fact that it portrays real events. In both cases, it seems to have to do with how comfortable they are with the message.
Another batch of six
By Tony Sheppard
Last week, I went on a bit of a rant about late summer movies, with the only respite being the quality of “Sarah’s Key.” This week is more of a mixed bag although the range, from awful to respectable, is just as broad.
“Don’t be Afraid of the Dark” is set in another of those stereotypically, cinematically spooky large houses that make you wonder why anybody would ever want to buy them or if they’ve simply never seen a horror movie. This time, Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes are a couple who are renovating the house (with the current real estate market perhaps adding to the horror) when his daughter is sent by an off screen mother to live with them. Naturally, she strolls into the house they’ve spent time stripping apart and immediately discovers a basement they’ve never even noticed. The rest of the plot, which involves creepy little creatures who enjoy eating teeth, makes about as much sense – including a Polaroid camera with a five-shot flash attachment that can apparently flash an unlimited number of times. There are some genuine scary moments, but far more abundant periods of eye-rolling.
However, not so much as in “Seven days in Utopia,” a movie that may claim the title of having the most, and most awful, clichés packed into a single screenplay. In this combination of “Doc Hollywood,” “Bagger Vance,” and an evangelical prayer meeting, a young golfer played by Lucas Black runs off the road in quiet little Utopia. He’s had a meltdown on the course and just happens to end up finding room at the Inn of ex-golfer Robert Duvall, who proceeds to Miyagi him back to mental fitness through a series of activities that seem only tenuously associated with golf. For the first hour or so, the topic of religion seems to hover in the background, but later in the film it comes on hot and heavy and the preaching begins in repetitive earnest. This is a film that can’t let a religious revelation occur without also having a song entitled “Born Again” play in the background.
Where “Seven Days in Utopia” is a G-rated drama that could use a couple of curse words, “Our Idiot Brother” is an R-rated comedy largely because of an abundance of cursing and little else that’s objectionable. Paul Rudd plays one of those characters who’s so trusting that he tends to say or do the wrong thing at the wrong time. He has three sisters who find him a burden, and he manages to turn each of their lives upside down as he crashes with each one in turn. It’s a flimsy premise that works relatively well purely because the cast is as appealing as it is. With less capable
actors this would probably be a chore to watch. Instead, it’s light and fun and worthy of a series of hearty chuckles.
The chuckles also come in “Colombiana,” although it’s probably not the reaction the filmmakers were shooting for. Zoe Saldana plays a woman who, as a girl, saw her parents murdered and who has grown up with the singular purpose of exacting revenge on those responsible. However, the action that we see, while fun to watch at times, stretches the limits of plausibility. This is a movie in which a character who’s about to drive across country in an armored truck, with extreme lawlessness in mind, starts out by careening the truck through a gate and into passing traffic. Presumably, somebody who has spent years plotting this moment would drive somewhat carefully to avoid having the entire plan endangered by simple traffic violations. But it’s also a film that assumes that a Maori actor looks sufficiently, generically ethnic to play Colombian.
The saving grace for Labor Day comes from two very different movies. The first, “The Debt,” stars Helen Mirren as a gracefully aging Israeli mother who was once a member of a Mossad team, tasked with capturing a Nazi war criminal. In 1965, she and her colleagues operated under cover in East Berlin, tracking one of the doctors who engaged in cruel experimentation on concentration camp prisoners. Thirty-plus years later, her daughter has written a book about their exploits, but the team members are forced to face demons from their past. It’s a film that jumps between periods (with very occasional flaws, such as a car that seems out of its time) and maintains a steady, effective level of suspense and intrigue. It would make a good partner in a pair of quality historic dramas with the aforementioned “Sarah’s Key.”
Which brings me to my personal guilty pleasure: “Attack the Block.” I wrote about this several weeks ago when it opened in the Bay Area and when “Cowboys and Aliens” was opening in wide release. It’s finally in Sacramento and it’s worth the wait – at least for folks who enjoy films of this kind. It’s a true low budget sci-fi film, from the producers of “Shaun of the Dead,” about a gang of South London kids whose housing project is invaded by vicious, furry aliens. The accents are tricky, and the story is simple – but this is a cult-film-style, action-packed blast from start to finish – and far more fun than the bloated and poorly written “Cowboys and Aliens.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: “The Whistleblower” review included a reference to the case of Jamie Lynn Jones, who had alleged she was gang-raped in Iraq by coworkers at Kellogg, Brown & Root. A jury later determined she fabricated the story, but the case remains that the coworkers, had they been guilty, would not have been able to be prosecuted under U.S. law despite being U.S. citizens.