Demme, Gibney, Macdonald, Redford, Siegel

The Agronomist (Jonathan Demme, 2003). I greatly admire Demme’s commitment to interspersing documentaries and other non-fiction offerings throughout his filmography, but I also need to sadly concede that this is not a strong effort. The film examine the life and contentious career of Jean Dominique, who operated a Haitian radio station committed to bringing information to the citizenry and speaking truth to power, especially during times when the country was being crushed by oppressive regimes. It’s easy to root for him, but Demme’s approach is too sedate, too withdrawn. This impassive approach prevents the film from becoming anything beyond a dry recitation of a bold history.

Lions for Lambs (Robert Redford, 2007). Robert Redford has been around long enough, worked with enough fine directors, made enough exemplary films of his own, that you’d think he’d be more adept at disguising his op-ed pieces as drama. Instead, he expresses some clear (and, let’s face it, entirely justifiable) anger at the state of the nation with a three-tiered exercise in leaden didacticism. The story of two soldiers in Afghanistan is irredeemably devoid of any tension whatsoever, and a parallel sequence featuring a college professor (played by Redford) lecturing a layabout student on his lack of dedication is blandly phony. On the other hand, the storyline that casts Meryl Streep as a skeptical journalist interviewing a beaming, arrogant Senator (played by Tom Cruise, who knows something about beaming arrogance) is such a cascade of implausibilities that it borders on farce.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (Alex Gibney, 2005). Gibney’s diatribe against the massive energy conglomerate that was the poster child for corporate malfeasance–not that anything useful came out of the animosity leveled at them–is, ironically enough, too relentlessly hateful to become an effective damnation of the criminals he depicts. Gibney’s litany of complaints, which includes everything up to the personal sins of corporate suite residents, eventually becomes numbing, generated boredom instead of fury. There’s a story there worth telling, and worth telling forcefully, making Gibney’s film a sadly wasted opportunity.

State of Play (Kevin Macdonald, 2009). Adapting a British television mini-series, Kevin MacDonald crafts a serious-minded drama that makes respectable, honestly rendered points about everything from abuses of power to the precarious state of print journalism. The story elements and intelligently colorful characters keep getting flung out like individual cards from an overstuffed deck–by the midway point, it starts to feel like every dedicated actor with a compunction for important drama is going to make an appearance. In its best moments, it gets some of that same energy of investigative discovery that propels top tier films like All the President’s Men and Shattered Glass. It’s not as inspired as those films, though. It’s merely sturdy, at least until its coiled garden hose of a plot pushes a twist too far at the end.

Coogan’s Bluff (Don Siegel, 1968). Three years before Harry Callahan snarls his disapproval at namby-pamby, liberal nonsense like due process and innocence assumed until guilt was proved, Arizona lawman Walt Coogan was making the same incensed points. Clint Eastwood stars for his favorite director (and eventual Dirty Harry helmer) in this film that combines a fairly run-of-the-mill cop movie with some fish-out-of-water conflicts as the guy in the cowboy hat suffers through the impediments of big city jurisprudence. It entertaining, though woefully dated, especially when Coogan starts encountering hippie lowlifes on his way towards apprehending his man. Eastwood is particular fun to watch, alternating charm with impatience. It’s not great acting, but his developing star power is clearly apparent.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)