As source material, the failed 1981 coup that nearly brought a newly democratic Spain to its knees reps a great opportunity, but docudrama “23-F” fails to seize it. Offering too little that’s new for those who know the subject, and too little real drama for those who don’t, pic plays like a slick re-creation made for educational purposes, but fails to scratch beneath the surface of what really happened or to illuminate the men who led the coup. Early domestic B.O. has been poor (around $333,000 so far), but subject matter could generate offshore interest.
Behind the credits, archival images suggest serious social and political unrest, yet fall short of providing necessary context. Action starts with fanatically right-wing civil guard Antonio Tejero (Paco Tous) taking a bus, along with 200 of his men, to the parliament buildings in Madrid where just about every leading Spanish politician of the day is present, including former president Adolfo Suarez (Gines Garcia Millan). Tejero’s aim is to create a power vacuum the military will fill.
In a re-creation of televised footage with which generations of Spaniards are familiar, the guards are seen entering and seizing control. Tejero forces the politicians to the floor as rounds of bullets are fired into the ceiling.
As far as exciting visuals go, that’s about it. The long wait for military reinforcements begins, and it soon becomes clear things have not been well planned.
The action moves into offices and military buildings around the country. King Juan Carlos (Fernando Cayo) hears the news on the radio and is angered to learn that Tejero, supported by Gen. Alfonso Armada (Juan Diego), used his name to gain access to the parliament buildings. After Juan Carlos makes a pacifying speech to the nation, support for Tejero starts to drain away.
Joaquin Andujar, who has previously written mostly farces — albeit about men with similar delusions of grandeur — was a risky choice of scribe; his work here has unintended consequences by association. Largely wearing the uniforms and mustaches of huffin’ and puffin’ comedy-sketch stereotypes spouting officialese, the thesps are left to struggle gamely to individualize their roles. Apart from Diego as the turncoat Armada, the gang comes across mainly as a group of exaggerated, cojones-obsessed, paunchy middle-agers, unleashing their personal prejudices on the country. While this reading may have a grain of truth to it, the script is disappointingly silent on the issues of personal motivation that could have generated some real tension.
Attempts to humanize things are just cheesy. Tejero, a fanatic with a hint of the tragic clown about him, has his backstory sketched out via a ludicrously perfunctory 20-second phone call with his wife. King Juan Carlos himself would no doubt approve of Cayo’s hagiographic portrayal of him as a charming, cool-headed hero, finding time to reassure his family as he slips dexterously from tennis whites to military uniform to singlehandedly save the country.
Pic is well documented, but sticks uncontroversially to the officially sanctioned version of events. Period detail is fine. Title reps Spanish nomenclature for Feb. 23, the day when the coup took place.