Wednesday, November 21, 2018

"The Ballad of Buster Scruggs"

I have written about the library of Coen Brothers films before. In my review of "No Country For Old Men," I observed that they mix the presumptions of Hollywood mythology with the grimmer facts of life to create their sardonic masterworks. 

The resulting body of work constitutes the best collection of American story-telling since Mark Twain. Their most recent work, an anthology of six folktales about the American West advances the theme. 

The Coens are noted for their mordant sense of humor, the ironic twists reminiscent of O'Henry. They share with Tarantino the operatic suddenness of humor turning to violence. 

They have a genuine respect for the genres of classic Hollywood: including paeans to film noir ("Miller's Crossing," "Blood Simple"), screwball comedy ("The Hudsucker Proxy"), the Preston Sturges comedy style ("O Brother, Where Art Thou"), crime comedy ("Fargo).

They dealt with the western before, in "No Country." As I pointed out in my review of that film, the character portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones is a classic western hero, the weathered and grim sheriff, who would be expected to overcome the villains in the end. But faced with the modern hitman who shows himself to be far more chillingly violent than the old gunslinger model, he shrugs, admitting his defeat.

In "O Brother" the Coens produced a soundtrack full of traditional southern folk songs, particularly of The Great Depression. Here, they continue that tradition. Carter Burwell's selection of western songs, include "Cool, Clear Water," sung by a guitar playing, white hatted Tim Blake Nelson, a Gene Autry of an alternate western movie universe, in which he is a brutal killer who is then killed by a gunslinger who admires his singing. 

In the final story, Brendan Gleeson sings a version of "The Unfortunate Rake" an Irish song whose melody is almost the same as the western dirge, "Streets of Laredo." The singing is done in a stagecoach that seems to be traveling to a town in the nether world. 

And that is the appropriate destination for these tales, in which death is sometimes deserved, sometimes unjust, but almost always sudden and violent. It is something we sing about, tell tall tales about, something we fear, laugh about (as long as it happens to others). Death supplies a never ending source of entertainment for us. 
     

Friday, October 05, 2018

The Half Empty Glass Does NOT Runneth Over

I admit it. I am a pessimist. My glass is half empty. But so is yours, all of you.

Be honest. You love to be miserable. It explains the popularity of dystopian sci-fi and fantasy. Post-apocalyptic fiction such as “Mad Max” proliferates on screens big and small. The Undead in many forms haunt the airwaves. Teen vampire love stories tell us something about what we think of the likelihood of permanent happiness in relationships. Even in love stories involving living characters, the most popular versions seem to be telling us that it is hopeless, or at least, unlikely. (Eg. “500 Days of Summer,” “Titanic,” “La La Land.”) The most frequently re-told tale of woe is “Romeo And Juliet,” the quintessential teen love tragedy.

In classic Hollywood films, a common trope was the tacked-on moral, the happy ending that mollified censors after the sex and violence wreaked by malevolent characters won the first two acts and thrilled audiences. The modern rom-com does something like that. In “Trainwreck,” Amy Schumer’s self-shaming and ascerbic persona gathers most of the laughs until she melts in the end, yielding to conventional love. We like her better when she is a bitter pessimist about love.

The same is true of the Judd Apatow style of comedy, in which the man-child goes through life getting high and palling with other stoned losers until a serious adult woman comes along who demands change in return for love. Once the motherly woman takes over, most of the hedonistic lazy fun is done. The losers become strivers, give up their porn, get jobs, get serious. See “Knocked Up,” as a template. The male stars of these films all have the same personae; think Adam Sandler, Jason Segal, Will Farrell, Owen Wilson, Jack Black.

This is a drastic change from the notions idealized in the screwball romantic comedies of Hollywood’s Golden Age. As I’ve detailed in another post, the most common plot of those films had one serious character being loosened up by a free spirit. Sometimes it was a ditzy heiress who charmed an uptight man (“Bringing Up Baby,” “My Man Godfrey”); in others it was the working girl heroine who was freed to laugh by a man who often was a rebellious son of privilege. (Think Ray Milland or Melvyn Douglas in any number of films.)

Of course, in The Great Depression, there were plenty of films that reflected the pessimism of the age. “The Grapes of Wrath” is a real downer; “Fury,” which is about lynching is chillingly bleak. Nathaniel West’s novel, “The Day of the Locust” and Horace Mc Coy’s “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” epitomize this pessimistic outlook.

In the 1940’s, after the real horror of World War, pessimism in the form of the popular notion of “existentialism”—defined as “the overwhelming sense of dread in the face of an apparently meaningless and absurd world”—took hold in literature and films. The French label of “film noir” dominated the era in Hollywood films. The popular films made of James M. Cain’s novels, “Double Indemnity,” “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” and “Mildred Pierce,” elevated the anti-hero and femme fatale to dominant status as iconic characters.

In the 1950’s, sci-fi found another cause for pessimism: the atom bomb. Mutated monsters arrived from Japan to warn us that we were tampering with Nature at risk of our survival.
With the rockets came the prediction of space travel.  The optimism this engendered was quickly overwhelmed by the negative implications. The UFO phenomenon was (and still is) basically pessimistic. There are many more tales such as “War Of The Worlds” and “Invasion Of The Body Snatchers” and “The Thing From Another World” than “The Day The Earth Stood Still.” (I would argue that even that film, though the space alien is benevolent, is ultimately pessimistic: Earthlings begin by destroying his gift that might cure cancer, and end by failing to heed his warning of total destruction by Gort if we go on like this. The recent remake was a failure, except for the modern twist—that the alien came to save our planet from our destructiveness.)

In the 1960’s, assassinations, the generational split, urban riots, and unpopular war marked the era and led to disillusionment and depression. The “turn on, tune in, drop out” attitude was pessimistic about the macro world, and tried to put a positive face on giving up on society by turning to drugs, free love and communal living—which resulted in male domination of lost women and led to frightening cults like the Manson Family and Jim Jones. The uplifting “Jesus Movement” often turned to the apocalyptic negativity of “Revelations.”

In popular music, Bob Dylan began as an inheritor of Depression Era activism, but his innate moody disposition soon turned inward and often dark. The Beatles began the era singing “All You Need Is Love” and ended in “Revolution” and “Helter Skelter.” Monterey led to Woodstock and then to Altamont. Morrison, Hendrix, Joplin were pop’s JFK, RFK, and MLK, Jr.

In the Nixon and post Nixon era, films reflected the mood of paranoia and sadness: “Parallax View,” “Apocalypse, Now” “All The President’s Men,” “Chinatown,” “The China Syndrome.” The inexorable monster of the era was “Jaws.”

In the Reagan 1980’s, greed and self-interest exiled altruistic liberalism. The decade in films was ruled by Spielberg and Lucas, with escapist, pre-adolescent, sexless adventure movies. (“Back To The Future” was one they missed.) Of the top ten grossing films, the only “dark” one was, fittingly, “Batman.” As reformulated, the dark knight of comics was far from the “Boom! Pow!” TV caricature of the 60’s. He was an avenging vigilante who reveled in sadistic torture of villains.

Even so, “Batman,” like “Dirty Harry” and “Death Wish,” reflects law-and-order pessimism, a violent reaction to the perceived “permissive coddling” of criminals—i.e. the Warren Court’s recognition of civil liberties in criminal justice. “The Star Chamber” depicted judges who secretly got together to condemn criminals who foiled the system.

One film that was not a great hit in 1982 was “Blade Runner.” Its darkness was contrary to the trend of the era and wasn’t appreciated until DVD releases gave it a cult following. The dystopian vision of a most noirish future Los Angeles fit with the image of pessimistic futurists. The ambiguity of what makes humanness as shown by the striving of the androids for life strikes a chord with people searching for individual identity in a cold, impersonal world.
            Philip K. Dick died the year this film was released. His novels and short stories were fixed in 50’s and 60’s issues: paranoia about a big brother government, the implications of the drug culture, doubts about mental illness, reality, and identity. His stories have been adapted often: “Minority Report,” “Total Recall,” “A Scanner Darkly,” and the anthology series, “Electric Dreams.”  

Spielberg,moved from uplifting adventures to darker futuristic themes: “A.I.,” and “Jurassic Park.”  “A.I.-Artificial Intelligence” dealt with another futuristic choice between optimistic and pessimistic outlooks. The notion that humans may create smart machines that have emotions and make their own choices is fascinating and scary.

Recently, two movies have explored it in interesting takes on the familiar genre male romantic fantasies. “Her” had a shy young man smitten with his operating system—as voiced by sultry Scarlett Johansson, who wouldn’t? “Ex Machina” uses the idea of the “Turing Test” to question the android’s degree of humanity, and ends with the robot as femme fatale gaining her freedom.

Both of these films expand the sci-fi form from its traditional male fantasy to comment on issues of sexism. The adolescent fantasy of creating a subservient, compliant, sexy female is challenged in both films. “Samantha” in “Her,” and “Ava” in “Ex Machina” escape the male’s fantasy trap by their own intelligence. Ava, in fact, is smart enough to use her attraction as bait. While Samantha is more philosophical, mostly because she exists without a physical body of her own, she manages to achieve a higher plane of “existence” than mere humanity.  

“Game of Thrones” is another example of drama with a pessimistic outlook. The quasi-Medieval setting is almost always bleak and forbidding. The action is often brutal and violent, and that includes it famous sex scenes that sometimes end in blood. It is a cruel world where children learn early to kill or be killed. The competing monarchs, especially the dominating women are ruthless, willing to torture and kill their lovers, brothers, (in one case, lover/brother) to gain or maintain power.

The White Walkers are a version of the ultimate bogeymen of fantasy literature: the undead. We all fear the unknown and nothing is more unknown than what happens after death. But in the usual story line, death is the end, especially death of the villain. The dragon is slain, the ogre falls to the hero, the tyrant is beheaded and his army surrenders.
Even in fantasies like “Star Wars,” the emperor, Darth Vader, and innumerable henchmen, all meet their final comeuppance. Obi-Wan, Yoda, and the redeemed Darth return in spirit to advise Luke to “use the force,” but that is more sentimental than literal.

In the dystopian, post-apocalyptic scenario, the end is harder to come by. There is a never-ending supply of undead to stalk the living. In the “Terminator” and “Matrix” franchises, humans are threatened by machines (i.e., computers), which are as inexorable as the undead. This theme seems to derive from video games that provide a plentiful supply of henchmen to dispose of as the user progresses through the maze to the next level in the infinitely complex labyrinth.

The game can never be “won” because that would end the interest: there must always be another, more challenging level to conquer. This parallels the struggle we face in life: we are always like Sisyfus, fighting to move that boulder up an impossibly steep mountain.

“We can never win; we can only hope to endure.” (I couldn’t find the source of that wisdom; maybe I made it up because I believe it . . . and so do you.)  

  

Thursday, April 09, 2015

THE IMITATION GAME ... The Enigma Of Cinema "Truth"

THE IMITATION GAME

I am too picky about pictures like this — I mean those with “based on a true story” disclaimers prefacing a movie that dramatizes the lives of real people and real events.

I accept the notion that certain liberties (dramatic license) will be taken in order to enhance the story-telling.  Characters may be embellished or eliminated or combined into one person, events can be telescoped or re-arranged to fit into the time limits.  

But aren’t there limits, rules that the dramatist should follow, especially when dealing with a historically or culturally important person or event? Oliver Stone has been accused of crossing this imaginary line in NIXON and JFK. Of course the most notorious and often cited abuses are Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION and Riefenstall’s TRIUMPH OF THE WILL. Both of these films are considered masterpieces, landmarks of cinema art because of their outstanding technical achievements in editing, pacing, and emotional impact. But as documents purporting to tell true stories, they are tragically flawed. Both contain many blatant lies, distorting the events and people depicted so much that they should be labeled propaganda.

The line between a true story and propaganda includes the intent of the artist, of course. Griffith was trying to glorify the heroes of his Southern youth, the Klansmen who “defended white rights” in the post Civil War era. Riefenstall was selling her patrons, Hitler, Goebbels, and the other Nazi leaders of Germany. Oliver Stone had an agenda, too. His bitterness about the 1960’s is a recurring theme of his films and his paranoia saturates his work.

Alan Turing is a fascinating person, a fit subject for dramatic treatment. Although he died sixty years ago, his story involves two issues that concern us today: computers and the plight of homosexuals. Turing, like many geniuses, had colorful eccentricities. In an academic paper, he imagined a “thinking machine” that seemed to foresee the computer age. In World War II, he used his genius as part of the Bletchley Park secret code and cypher school to create a calculating machine (the Bombe) and other techniques (called Banburisms) that aided in breaking the Enigma code.

Turing’s work during the war was known to very few because of the secrecy required. After the war, he taught in Manchester and while there continued his occasional sorties to underground gay bars. He met men and boys and brought some to his digs. One of them burglarized his home, and stole his father’s watch. Turing reported the burglary to the local police, and told them that he suspected one of the young men who had done it. The police knew the bar and instead of pursuing the theft, arrested Turing for the same crime that Oscar Wilde had committed.

Turing was offered a choice by the judge: prison or undergo a treatment that was considered a cure of homosexuality. He chose that; large doses of estrogen, known as chemical castration. He lost his security clearance, his sex drive, grew breasts, and felt depressed and humiliated. Eventually, he committed suicide by ingesting cyanide.

Fifty years later, his achievements were finally recognized, both as to computers and the war work. The homosexual laws were by now repealed and the government apologized to his memory.

That is a terrific story, an important one to tell.

So why did the filmmakers feel compelled to lie to us in important as well as trivial details and fail to focus enough on the real drama?

The first disturbing distortion is the depiction of Turing as seeming to suffer from some form of mental illness like Asberger’s. He is shown to be socially inept, obsessive compulsive (as a student he carefully separates his peas from carrots on his dinner plate, is ridiculed and tortured by classmates).  According to most witnesses, this is a gross exaggeration. He was eccentric, but by no means was he anti-social. He had many friends, had a sense of humor, was polite (in a professorial way).

The filmmakers decided to use the formula of A BEAUTIFUL MIND (which had its own significant distortions) and Turing becomes a sort of John Nash. In fact, they contrive scenes in pubs in which he shows his social awkwardness and then suddenly hits upon the key to break the code that reminded me of similar scenes in A BEAUTIFUL MIND.

The second distortion was the fictional character of Detective Nock, who is insulted by Turing who says he does not want the burglary pursued. This is not true. Turing reported the burglary in the naïve belief that the police would want to solve the crime rather than punish him for his honesty admitting his homosexual acts. 

The entire plot of Nock deciding that Turing’s secret must be that he is a Soviet spy is complete nonsense.

The same is true of the egregious fiction related to Alastair Denniston that almost amounts to malicious slander of the man’s reputation. Denniston was a career codebreaker, having served in World War I in Room 40 the famous British team that broke the German code in that war. Their work was responsible for bringing the U.S. in that war when they translated the Zimmermann Telegram that showed German intentions to side with Mexico in a war against the U.S.

 Denniston (played by Charles Dance, a frequent film villain, usually as an upper class snob) is depicted as hating Turing, accusing him of being a Soviet spy, and then trying to fire him.

In truth, Denniston had recruited and consulted Turing and many other academics even before September 1939. When the war started, Turing was hired full time. Denniston did have disagreements with Turing and others and eventually was replaced in the job, but he didn’t accuse Turing of spying. That is simply invented to spice up the plot and add conflict.

John Cairncross (played by Alan Leech) was not one of the team in Hut 8. He was at Bletchley but probably never met or knew of Turing. In 1951, he was revealed to be a Soviet spy. The scene in which Turing discovers his secret and Cairncross threatens to expose Turing’s is a total fabrication.

The same is true of Stewart Menzies (the head of MI6 – played by Mark Strong). In the movie, Turing tells Menzies about Cairncross. Menzies says he knows all about it and uses Cairncross to relate secrets to the Soviets because Churchill foolishly refuses to do so. This is completely untrue.

In truth, Menzies was fooled by all of the Cambridge Five – the traitors who were his friends and colleagues for many years. He refused to believe that he had been deceived by people of his own class and education.

There are other distortions that are more or less significant. Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) is not given enough credit for his contributions. Turing didn’t build The Bombe alone – Gordon Welchman helped him to build the first one.

 “He had also been busy devising a machine, called the Bombe, after the Bomby, although it was a more complex piece of equipment than its Polish namesake. This would test the encyphered messages against commonly used streams of text – known to the codebreakers as cribs – to narrow down the possibilities for the keys, settings and wheel orders of the Enigma machines. Turing enjoyed a good degree of
progress on both. Menzies agreed funding of £100,000 for the construction of the first Bombes and the British Tabulating Machinery company (BTM) was commissioned to build it, with the work supervised by the BTM research director Harold ‘Doc’ Keen. Then in December 1939, Turing managed to work out the indicator systems for five days of pre-war Naval Enigma traffic.”


Smith, Michael (2011-10-31). The Secrets of Station X: How the Bletchley Park codebreakers helped win the war (Kindle Locations 644-648). Biteback Publishing. Kindle Edition.

One thing the movie does almost get right is the clue (called a crib) that led to the first successes in breaking the Naval Code. One of the women whose task was to listen to and record Morse code transmissions noticed that the operator was using the same letters – probably a girlfriend’s initials – as identifiers at the start of each message. This was a violation of German protocol that ordered using random letters, changed every day. Once the codebreakers had this head start their task was easier.

But it was by no means the breakthrough that won the war. Many more Bombes were built to shorten the calculating time and when the Germans distributed a new Enigma machine that was even more complex, the British were lucky to capture one along with codebook from a German ship – and to keep it all secret.


The movie oversimplifies and flattens a complex story. In so doing, they reduce heroism and tragedy into a trite movie formula. The hope is always that people will be intrigued enough by the subject matter that they will seek the whole truth but the fear is that movies will become the legend and then will become history.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Truth And Justice In The Movies: "Unbroken" and "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo"

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO

            This movie taught me a few valuable lessons, especially after listening to director David Fincher’s commentary track. I love mysteries, especially the classics  that are old fashioned, linear, following a detective uncovering clues to crimes as they occur or those of the cold case variety. A rich and powerful family concealing their dirty secrets. Scenes are salted with juicy suspects, and there is an enormous amount of exposition required in order to be fair to the viewer so that we experience what the detective does.
            The genre is more difficult to carry off than a straight thriller, in which we share the culprit’s point of view as well, and the tension comes not from anticipating a whodunit reveal, but in the hero vs antihero chase. The viewer need not think too much to figure things out; just sit back and veg out while the bodies pile up.   
            The straight mystery genre has retreated in recent years because filmmakers have no confidence that audiences have patience or willingness to concentrate long enough to solve complex puzzles. The genre includes long periods of relative inaction, which the best filmmakers used to fill with character and something called “suspense.”
            But today’s action films jettison suspense and resort to characters derived from comics and video games whose traits are so familiar, there is no need to develop them further. The only mystery left is how many henchmen are going to be wasted on route to the violent CGI laced climax.
            The mystery genre has gone the way of the western and the musical comedy. It barely survives on TV, in formula police procedurals and gimmicky quirky takeoffs of the Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes models.
            Added to those hurdles, Steven Zallian’s script adapts the first of Stieg Larsson’s Swedish best seller series of books which already had been translated into many languages, including English, and also made into a hit film in Swedish. The book and film was much admired and the solution of the mystery had been widely told. The lead characters, Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomqvist, had already become “iconic” characters and were repeated in Larsson’s sequels. 
            So Fincher had many problems to solve.
            He doesn’t solve all the problems. In fact, he adds another one. The casting of Stellan Skaarsgard (Ronin) as one of the suspects was a problem for my enjoyment of the mystery. He is too important an actor to be a minor character. This is a clue that any devotee of the film genre should see. I was able to discern quickly that he was the killer.
            The Harriet mystery runs up against a similar problem. Harriet is presumed to be dead and we are told that the aim is to find out who killed her. But she disappeared forty years ago, and no body was ever found. In this genre this always raises the probability that we are being deceived: she is not dead, but is one of the other characters and that other secrets are beneath the disappearance.
            A third problem lies in the need to make the plot relevant to today’s concerns. Sexual abuse (all abuse but particularly, of girls or women) is a popular cliché of modern crime films. Sex perverts / serial killers are also rampant in today’s mystery-thrillers. The character of Lisbeth is iconic because of her attraction as a sort of superhero to girls and women. She is damaged as a victim of incestuous sex abuse and we know, while watching her suffer additional abuse, that she is going to have her revenge.
            We know more about her than any other character and she is an extreme symbol for empowered young adult females and a warning to anyone who isn’t. At 12, she killed her tormenting father and since, has been a ward of the courts until, at 23, she has become a far more complex character. She is “different” looking – punkish, gothy, facial piercings, and of course tattoos.
            She wears her anti-social almost autistic attitude with a brooding arrogance that teenagers adore. She is intelligent, gifted with a photographic memory, and techno-hip nerd genius who can hack into any computer or security system to gain access to data she needs to solve the case. Of course she hates authority, macho males, judgmental adults.
            She is bisexual but defensive, closed off emotionally, and fiercelt private. She has a tenacity borne of rage and obsession about justice and retribution. This makes her a worthy heir of the Sherlock Holmes brand of sleuth.
            Salander’s character is so fully formed and fascinating that the other characters are mere sketches. Even Blomqvist, played by Daniel Craig, a male actor with great presence, is almost reduced to a sidekick, who must be saved by her. This in itself is something of a breakthrough in fiction.
            The “damsel in distress” is no more. GONE GIRL took the femme fatale to another level. DRAGON TATTOO now eliminates the manic pixie dream girl.
            As in Batman, there is not enough oxygen for Commissioner Gordon or anyone else to fascinate viewers. The best superheroes face a supervillain. Batman has The Joker and Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger showed important that was.
            A problem with the sort of superhero who is supposed to be existing in a real world — rather than a Gotham or Metropolis — is that real world crimes like sexual abuse are too real. These predators are not trying to take over the world like a Bond villain. They do not come from other galaxies or times or mythologies. They are not foreign terrorists with beady eyes.
            In real life, the abusers may be our priests, bosses, teachers, neighbors, or even close nurturing loved ones we trust and need.  
            Batman trumped Superman by acknowledging his dark side in seeking vengeance rather than the lukewarm ideals of “truth, justice, and the American way.” Now, Liam Neeson (TAKEN) kills the abductors of his daughter. He is the follower of Clint Eastwood (DIRTY HARRY) and Charles Bronson (DEATH WISH). These also spawned movie franchises that traded on the populist revulsion with violent predatory criminals that dominated the law and order demands the 1970’s and 80’s and continue to provide answers to such fears and wishes.  Salander satisfies the modern audience’s lust for revenge against male victimizers of women.  
            One reason for the popularity of these revenge movies is the widespread belief that justice is denied in the real world. Media saturation assures us that our justice system can’t prevent or punish these predators. This is not a new phenomenon. The gangster movies of the 1930’s were “torn from headlines” about real life criminals like “Scarface” Al Capone, Bonny and Clyde, John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson.
            Villains of literature often represent current social nightmares. Grimm’s tales codified the fears of town dwellers about dangers lurking in the forests. Victims of the early flickers were often the familiar ones of stage melodramas, landlords who held the mortgage and leered at the maiden with an offer to save her family by yielding to his lust.
            Immigrants who lived in crowded tenements and others who were moving from the country to the city found plenty of other predators there. The rich, the powerful, the reckless playboys, the factory foreman; all were sources of villainy that the moving pictures exposed as sexual predators.

            In the early 30’s, the era known as “pre-code,” the early talkies revealed a new kind of woman, one who overcame the label of victim by using her sexuality to survive and even to dominate her would-be predators.    


UNBROKEN

            After so many recent movies that revel in the violent pleasure of serving the cold dish of revenge, it would seem that a film that prizes forgiveness of even the most heinous crimes might be refreshing and uplifting.
            But, sorry, not this one. 
            As I watched it, I knew I was being led into hatred of the villains (particularly the lead villain (Corporal Watanabe), and now, after being told to forgive, I do not feel redeemed. Rather, I admit to resenting being deprived of the satisfaction that the revenge films accords. But I don’t feel guilty about that feeling in this particular case and I’ll explain why.

            Unbroken is an Angelina Jolie directed film of the Laura Hillenbrand best seller about Louis Zamperini, the Italian-American 1936 Olympic runner, B-24 bombadier, survivor of 47 days on a life raft and two plus years as a POW in Japan.
            Eschewing the usual disclaimers (“based on” . . . etc.), Jolie opts for a bold claim that it is “A true story” - period - as her preface.  My research suggests that the phrase is accurate . . . as far as it goes.  She shows the details of his ordeal at sea in vivid detail, which is disturbing and impressive as a document of the man’s will to live. But that is merely a first act to his sternest test: the years of his captivity, including unending sadistic abuse and mistreatment by Corporal Watanabe, the evil camp commandant who wants to break him.  The dramatization ends with the liberation at the war’s end, and Zamperini’s welcome home to his family.
            The character traits that allowed him to survive are laid out clearly enough in flashbacks to his youth. A child who is naturally stubborn, introverted, and contrary, he fights bigoted school boys and is on the way to reform school until his older brother convinces him to try the track team. To impress girls, Luis agrees, and then finds he has a talent for long distance running. His brother adds the element of discipline by pushing him to levels beyond his apparent limits.
            His running style is a metaphor for his character, or at least good training for his coming crises: to come from behind in distance races after his opponents have exhausted themselves. He is able to draw upon a reservoir of strength to endure tremendous pain.
            In the prison camp, he is given another key piece of wisdom. When he expresses his hatred for the tormenting Japanese sadist and desire to kill him even if he would be executed for it, a fellow prisoner tells him that his job is to survive; that will be your victory, your revenge. 
            A brief epilog tells (not shows) us that after the war he became a Christian and turned from revenge to forgiveness. It shows the real man at age 80 running in a race in Japan. He lived well into his 90’s. We are told (not shown) that Watanabe escaped punishment by evading capture and then obtaining amnesty.  We are informed that he refused to meet with Zamperini later in life to accept his prisoner’s forgiveness. We are meant to infer that his captor was the broken man.
            My own cursory research expands on these facts. While not controverting any of the claimed “true facts,” the facts which were not included in the film include some which might have challenged the intended theme and thus made a more meaningful movie.
            Apparently, after the happy ending depicted in the movie, the courageous and mentally tough Zamperini suffered from nightmares for many years, part of what we would now call post traumatic stress. He survived that, too, by finding religious faith. He became a part of Billy Graham’s Christian crusades, lecturing about his ordeals. Through his conversion, he decided to forgive his tormentors in order to find peace. He claimed that some of the prison guards he later met and forgave became Christians as a result. He lived a long and useful life.
            The epilog of Watanabe’s journey, however, would not fit into such a nice Hollywood ending. He was interviewed later in life, when Zamperini’s story was being told to the next generation in Japan. Like the Nazi war criminal, Dr. Josef Mengele, Watanabe had come from a wealthy family. After years in hiding, he had become respectable, wealthy, comfortable.
            When interviewed in the mid 1990’s, he was unrepentant about the harshness of his treatment of American prisoners, asserting his mantra that they were enemies of Japan and deserved no better. He owed no apology and did not seek forgiveness. He thus justified his cruelty and denied any sense of defeat.
            I think that might have made a better story. Certainly, it is one that would have elicited more interest — for me, at least. I have been fascinated by stories involving the frustrating search for Nazi war criminals to prosecute. I hate the fact that leaders of nations and churches abetted the crimes, concealed the criminals, and conspired to deny justice to victims and escaped even societal censure. They not only survived. They went on as if nothing happened, while their victims lived with the nightmares and sense of guilt that the criminals never faced.
            I am appalled by the arguments that excuse those who committed such heinous crimes as soldiers following orders. I don’t understand how amnesty can apply to such crimes or how a statute of limitations can estop prosecution for murders of hundreds, thousands, or millions, when it there is no limitation in law for punishing a murderer of one person.
            I spent a lifetime defending accused murderers and specialized in finding arguments against executing them as punishment for their crimes. Yet, I never argued as a matter of principle or morality that no person ever deserved to die for crimes. The issue for me always depends on the individual, the motives, the procedure for finding the truth, the rules and evidence and fairness of the system devised to make the decision.  
            One self-truth I have to admit is that I am Jewish. The Holocaust is very personal to me. When I am forced to see the proof of the worst crimes ever perpetrated, I cannot deny that those responsible — and I mean ALL of those responsible — should be prosecuted and punished by their execution.
            The purpose is not revenge, not a biblical notion of an eye for an eye, or as a matter of lynching from hatred and rage. My purpose would not be as a deterrence. It is really a simple matter of justice.
            And so I would not forgive Sargent Watanabe. Even if forgiving him provides closure for his victim and even if giving him amnesty serves the purpose of Japanese – American politics. Not even if he did express remorse. To me, his crimes are unforgivable and civilization should demand that he forfeit his right to exist.