By BRUCE DENNILL
The End Of The Tour / Directed by James Ponsoldt / 13L
Genius / Directed by Michael Grandage / PG
Denial / Directed by Mick Jackson / PG
A United Kingdom / Directed by Amma Asante / PG
Elvis & Nixon / Directed by Liza Johnson / 10L
Sully / Directed by Clint Eastwood / 10L
War Dogs/ Directed by Todd Phillips / 16L
The End Of The Tour is a movie that’s not about very much, particularly if you have no real knowledge of writer and Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) or, more particularly, the late prize-winning novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segal). The film is based on the former’s book, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which itself grew from Lipsky’s accompanying Wallace for five days of a book tour. The protagonists are two unashamedly intelligent men, both unafraid to eloquently push their own agendas as they spar intellectually in long, meandering conversations. Wallace is depicted as a bit of a hippy hermit, intensely wary of the fame his growing success is beginning to deliver. That attitude is coupled with (or caused by) depression and struggles with various addictions, which offer rich pickings for Lipsky as a reporter but also ask complicated ethical questions of the journalist as he tries to establish where the line between strong storytelling and abuse of trust is. The End Of The Tour is slow, smart, sometimes sad and compelling for anyone with any sort of overlap with either or both of the characters – an enquiring mind; a love for literature; feelings of either pride or inadequacy – or, indeed, a respect for good scriptwriting; work that proclaims that quality is not measured in explosions or special effects.
There are more authors and books involved in Genius, a look at the discovery and nurturing of volatile writer Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) by hard-working, risk-taking editor Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth). Wolfe was – for anyone other than Perkins, who also brought the likes of Ernest Hemingway to prominence – a once-in-a-lifetime find. But for all his remarkable talent, he was a loose cannon who required a great deal of patient management and, often, forgiveness. Law gives the character both barrels, helping listeners to grasp the infuriating combination of aptitude an immaturity the scriptwriters will have you believe Wolfe exhibited, and Firth’s steel and reserve is well fitted to his character and the challenges Perkins faces with his new charge. A strong supporting cast is led by Laura Linney as Perkins’ wife and Nicole Kidman as Wolfe’s doughty, enigmatic mistress. This is a great character study and a revealing insight into the (idealised) alchemy behind making great literature.
Denial explores, among other things, the power of writing, based as it is on a book by American scholar Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) about a hugely stressful court case brought against her by English historian David Irving (Timothy Spall). Irving, a Holocaust denier, feels that Lipstadt – who is an expert on that subject, and a Jew – has defamed him in a book she has written. In short, she has, but the question that must be answered is legal terms was whether her perspective is based on sound reasoning and proof. Much of the film is taken up with the exhausting process of making an English High Court judge feel the same way as she does, and because of the different legal systems in use, this becomes a very different sort of courtroom drama to those churned out by American filmmakers. The major players are uniformly brilliant, with Spall being brave in taking on such a detestable character and braver still in making him so believable. Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott as the leaders of Lipstadt’s legal team both convincingly balance the detachment needed to get to the heart of a complex matter and the compassion that allows them to give validity and value to their client and her concerns. And Weisz shows Lipstadt to be flawed and inspiring, and thus sustainably intriguing. An important statement piece about a devastating topic.
There is a further examination of relatively recent history in A United Kingdom, a retelling of the controversial romance between Seretse Khama, King of Bechuanaland (David Oyelowo), and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), which began just as the former was about to ascend the throne of his country (now Botswana). It is a largely under-appreciated story, almost certainly because of the rampant racism evident throughout all the mechanations involved in Botswana moving from being a British protectorate to an independent country. Khama and Williams are the specific focus of the piece, but the entrenched attitudes on both sides – personified by the proud, poncey and frankly evil Sir Alistair Canning (Her Majesty’s representative in Southern Africa, played with a caustic sneer by Jack Davenport) and Tshekedi Khama (Vusi Kunene), Seretse’s stubborn, old-fashioned uncle – speak to the permanent capacity of humankind to ruin the potential for progress with prejudice. Watching matters unfold and knowing that the story is based on truth is, at times, distressing, but the effect is considerably softened by the love story at the heart of the narrative and Oyelowo and Pike’s warm chemistry. As educational as it is entertaining.
Somewhat less earth-shattering in the grand scheme of things but even more impressively handled on screen is Elvis & Nixon, a look at a real-life meeting between these two bombastic personalities. Everything about the event is preposterous, from Elvis’ stated desire to be appointed a federal agent in order to save the US from many of the same unsavoury elements that he was surrounded by as the most famous rock star in the world to the persnickety White House etiquette that prevents the singer delivering a special gift for the President. But the only thing more ridiculous than this story being made up is the fact that it actually happened, and the way it’s told here celebrates that bizarre occasion with a wonderful mix of undistilled glee and carefully observed sophistication. Michael Shannon as Elvis initially seems like odd casting, but the actor completely inhabits the iconic character, showing him to be eccentric, charismatic, cunning, and simultaneously confident and depressed. Kevin Spacey as Nixon is almost as good, perfectly recreating the President’s odd tics – and the confusion that comes with being unwittingly dragged out of his comfort zone by a mere entertainer. The writing is the equal of the performances, and the combination makes for a profoundly funny and magnificently made film.
Yet another true story – this time of the incredible emergency landing of an airliner on the Hudson River in New York – gives Sully its captivating heart. Tom Hanks plays the titular airline captain who, after a bird strike, is forced to make a decision to attempt a water landing in order to save the lives of the 155 passengers in the aircraft he’s piloting. He pulls it off, but what follows is the most interesting part of the tale. Director Clint Eastwood examines the ordeal Sully and his co-pilot (Aaron Eckhart) went through as the investigation that follows the event postulates that what looked like heroism was actually irresponsibility, focusing on the material value of the property that was lost rather than the lives that were saved. It’s an indictment of big business and its attitudes, and Sully’s attitude during the process is as revealing of his character as his landing the plane was of his technical skills. It’s thought-provoking stuff, interspersed with plenty of widescreen thrills as the scenes of the plane’s take-off and forced landing are recreated.
Still another suggestion that the best stories are not dreamed up but rather observed and adapted is provided by War Dogs, starring Miles Teller as David Packouz and Jonah Hill as Efraim Diveroli. These two friends began an arms dealing business in the early 2000s and, flying by the seat of their pants, exploit a number of legal loopholes to begin racking up huge deals with unscrupulous types in war zones around the world. That the pair don’t get themselves killed (at best) or inadvertently start World War Three (at worst) is incredible – the original story is almost as nuts as this dramatised version – and director Todd Phillips makes the most of their walking a rollercoaster razor’s edge to create a wildly audacious, fast-moving comedy-drama. The one major weakness of the script is that it highlights its protagonists’ chutzpah rather than investigating their greed and ruthlessness – indeed, their capacity for evil. That would have made for an even better film, if not such a directly entertaining one.