European-helmed films focus on a bleak America
As usual, overseas talent stands poised to take many of Hollywood’s top prizes this awards season. But some among this group — especially the directors — could be seen as biting the hand that feeds them.
Take Ridley Scott. One can argue that his “Body of Lies” deserved a better box office fate, considering the talent attached. Yet the film’s scalding look at America’s global fight against terror proved a turn-off to auds.
“Body of Lies” is part of a trend of pics from European filmmakers who are taking a grim look at how America has slipped off its moral perch domestically and abroad.
This wasn’t the first Ridley Scott film to look at America’s fall from grace. “American Gangster” was about the rise of crime in Harlem, seen through the story of drug lord Frank Lucas, played by Denzel Washington. “Black Hawk Down” showed the Marine Corps admirable in wanting to save its own members in a battle but inefficient when it came to strategy and military planning.
This year’s “The Dark Knight,” by Christopher Nolan, provided a bleak look at how American society is so violent that it needs a superhero to save its members from killing themselves. Pete Travis’ “Vantage Point” offers the perspective that the president needs a body double because there’s a great chance he’ll be assassinated while attending a summit on terror in Spain. Even Paul Greengrass’ “The Bourne Ultimatum,” one of the best-reviewed films of last year, surmises that our own intelligence agencies are corrupt and not to be trusted. All three directors are from the U.K.
And from a bedroom perspective, Sam Mendes exposed American suburban angst in the Oscar-winning “American Beauty,” and will once again uncover familial dysfunction in “Revolutionary Road.”
Brit director John Hillcoat, whose upcoming pic “The Road,” based on the Cormac McCarthy novel about a post-apocalypse America, says Scott’s films are reflective of what many — in both the States and Europe — are thinking at the moment.
“I think Ridley has tapped into a mainstream sensibility. What’s he’s doing now is looking at the damage of the Bush administration and what they have done worldwide. People have woken up to that,” Hillcoat explains. “Europe was aware of what was going on, and now Americans are in sync with those European sensibilities. They’re seeing the outsider’s perspective.”
“To me, ‘Vantage Point’ touched the world of politics, but not in a heavy-handed way,” says director Travis. “It’s basically an action movie set around a president being assassinated, but the political ideas of it depend on your own point of view.”
British film critic and historian David Thomson says the viewpoint of America as a dark and scary place has been around for many years, far before Bush took office.
“I don’t think it’s just now. It’s always been there. You can go back to Fritz Lang and ‘Metropolis,’ ” he says of the 1927 silent sci-fi classic. “Europeans have a sense of America as a sort of fountainhead of noir. They think America is a much more lawless and violent country than theirs. Everything is bigger, more exaggerated and emptier.
“But there has never been a time like the last eight years, when the view of America has been so diminished. Europeans are really falling out with America. They view America as a dangerous country that led the world to the brink of tragedy.”
In “Body of Lies,” written by Oscar winner William Monahan (“The Departed”), Russell Crowe calls the shots from half a world away to Leonardo DiCaprio, the U.S. agent on the crowd in the Middle East. When civilians are killed or informants tortured, Crowe seems to have little interest or sympathy.
Not all agree with the assessment. Film critic Molly Haskell says U.S. directors are just as harsh on America as their foreign counterparts.
“Our homegrown directors have been pretty pessimistic of late,” she says. “I don’t see it as necessarily relating to Iraq, or at least not just Iraq. You can’t get more fractured than ‘Synecdoche, New York’ or more dismally corrupt than ‘Pride and Glory.’ It’s a country getting old, tired and now broke, and maybe Europeans know that feeling, whereas it’s new to us.”
English director Joel Hopkins’ romantic comedy “Last Chance Harvey” (opening Dec. 26) doesn’t touch any political issues, but he can relate to the discussion. Hopkins has lived in both the States and the U.K. and says that when he returned to England at the beginning of the Iraq War, the negativity toward the U.S. was palpable.
“I was at a dinner and you’d get this anti-American sentiment from educated people,” he recalls. “I would find myself a little defensive. I thought it was incredibly easy to point a finger and say America is the baddies.”
Hopkins says that while much of the European film community — and the general population — may be quick to criticize America, they should just as quickly give the country credit for electing Barack Obama as its new president.
“There’s not a chance in the world Europe would elect a black man,” he assesses. “They should admire America and what they’ve pulled off. It’s going to make a real impression around the world.”
Says Travis: “This election has sparked a huge wave of optimism, people looking for change.”
And Thomson is quick to point out that European directors offering a bleaker side of the States may be suffering from bouts of jealousy and would go there in a heartbeat if it meant getting a chance to become prolific filmmakers.
“Brits still want to go to America and make films,” he says. “They’re all keen to come here.”