Saturday, April 14, 2007
When did Peter Berg become a better filmmaker than Michael Mann?
An intentionally inflammatory headline, and not entirely accurate, but it’s worth exploring if only in the “what have you done for me lately” vein. At 43, Berg is a relatively young man to have already directed four features, all the more impressive when you consider he worked as a successful character-actor for almost ten years before making 1998’s sophomoric, but loved in some circles, “dark comedy” Very Bad Things. Since then Berg directed the underrated The Rundown which has the dubious distinction of being the only film in history where The Rock and Arnold Schwarzenegger share screen time together and the well-liked Friday Night Lights which has spawned a critically adored television show that he also executive produces.
An impressive start to what should prove to be a long and fruitful journeyman director’s career and yet the film that may ultimately prove to be the most important harbinger to his career up till now is 2004’s Collateral, a film where Berg remained entirely in front of the camera (he played Mark Ruffalo’s straight-laced cop buddy). It was at some point during this production that Collateral director-producer Michael Mann entrusted Berg to take over the reins of a project he’d been eye-balling, staying on as a producer and securing the budget and enormous amount of resources required to bring this story to the screen.
In many ways, The Kingdom is the film Miami Vice should have been and will likely attract the audience members that avoided Vice when it’s released into theaters this fall. Berg has shaped this film very much in the mold that Mann has been cultivating for nearly thirty years and if the final results lacks the artistry and grandeur of Mann’s best films it’s a fair sacrifice for the level of immediacy and white-knuckle tension that The Kingdom generates.
Mann’s influence is impossible to miss in the film, from the casting of Jamie Foxx as another meticulous authority figure operating by his own code (he may ultimately become more associated with wearing sunglasses than even Nicholson) to the way the camera seems to burrow into its subjects, often framing the actors in tight close-up, just off-center and over the shoulder. The film—which to mine eyes, does an astounding job of faking the Arizona desert for Saudi Arabia—makes use of oppressive daylight, filming the majority of its bravura set-piece with the sun hanging unforgiving high in the sky. Predominantly shot on 35mm, as day gives way to night, Berg shoots exteriors in high definition video giving an otherworldly quality to what is already an alien terrain (when one American character asks for a description of their latest assignment they’re told it’s “a bit like Mars.”) Even Berg’s use of Explosions in the Sky as the temp music score (sadly to be replaced by a likely generic, Syriana-esque Danny Elfman composition) is the sort of boldly anachronistic choice that mirrors Mann’s own soundtrack selections ranging from Tangerine Dream in Thief to Elliot Goldenthal’s minimalist, percussion work on Heat.
The Kingdom values atmosphere and professionalism over clarity and character, at times flattening the incidental “how’s” and “why’s,” spitting out exposition as if it were a chore to be done with as quickly as possible. The result can be somewhat disorientating on the viewer, yet the absolutely confidence on display by both the performers and the filmmakers is somewhat assuaging. The overall sensation is one of understanding that we’re merely tagging along and the important thing is the people with badges and guns know what they’re doing.
Ultimately the film is about “the job” with emotion largely held in check save brief exchanges to mourn fallen comrades. Mann’s swooning romanticism and lyrical silent exchanges (in many ways, Mann has developed into the Wong Kar Wai of the loud guns and fast cars set) are absent here, and so too is anything in the way of character. With the exception of Foxx, the Americans in The Kingdom are afforded one personality-trait a piece (apart from their default setting of “badass”), which, in the case of poor Jennifer Garner, is the habit of sucking on lollypops during tense moments. The trailers for the film give off a distinct “C.S.I.: Riyadh” feel, which isn’t exactly wrong. The film is a procedural at heart, only one that’s thankfully less interested in forensics nuts and bolts, but rather in exploring the cultural divide between western interests and the Islamic Fundamentalism violently attempting change the course of the region.
What ultimately gives the film its strength, and perhaps pushes the film into a questionable moral quagmire, is the way it preys upon U.S. fears of the Middle-Eastern man. The film’s professionalism and discipline extends not only to the men and women of the FBI sent to investigate a horrific crime (the details of which I’m intentionally omitting), but to those fighting a holy war where there’s no concept of collateral damage or innocent bystanders. Like all great suspense films, the specter of violence looms as heavy as the violence itself, with seemingly every corner and darkened-doorway threatening to conceal a suicide bomber or rocket-propelled grenade launcher. The film plays upon our CNN-addicted culture, staging scenes meant to evoke everything from Al-Qaeda execution videos to Black Hawk Dawn. Bin-Laden is name-checked here as the film studiously tries to place its fictional events within a very real setting and context (there’s a fantastic opening credit sequence which serves as a USA Today style timeline to strife in the region). It’s the sort of film where you’ll probably find yourself leaning over to the person next to you and asking “did this really happen?”
Those who felt squeamish watching waves of minorities mowed-down in Black Hawk Down are likely to feel similar pangs of unease here. Although less jingoistic than the Ridley Scott film, The Kingdom poses the question “why do they hate us?” but isn’t especially interested in answers, rather it keeps the film’s Muslim assailants at arm’s length where they remain faceless boogie-men; appearing at will, attacking women and children with homemade bombs packed with C4 and nails. Accusations that the film is alarmist or even bigoted are not entirely without merit and may ultimately be its cross to bear.
The film gives Foxx’s character an indigenous police officer (Ashraf Barhom) with which he can butt heads and, ultimately, earn the respect and friendship of. The character is something of a screenwriter’s dream, forced to carry most of the film’s thematic weight while enduring withering glances and constant peril for being an Arab forced to aid and protect white infidels. Yet Barhom’s performance keeps the character from becoming a cipher, humanizing not only Foxx but the film itself. The character’s strong instincts and dedication to the work is the unifying factor which supersedes nationality and religion here; those who show up everyday and kickass without fuss are easily invited into Mann and Berg’s brotherhood.
As an action film The Kingdom is a curious beast. Too talky and observant to provide a rollercoaster ride for impatient genre fan, the film is however constructed around two elaborately staged action sequences at its book-ends that intensify slowly and steadily long before they snap in place like a bear-trap. What’s so remarkable though is how these sequences continue to build to terrifying heights, waiting for the audience to poke its head out after the smoke has presumably cleared, only to toss a hand grenade (literally) into the fox hole. It’s tempting to compare the latter of these two sequences to the now infamous “Battle of Bexhill” scene in Children of Men, matching that scene in duration and intensity (if not in ingenuity) as we follow our characters from a roadside attack to a courtyard RPG-evading shoot-out, to the claustrophobic confines of an apartment complex over the course of a break-neck twenty-five minutes.
Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, The Kingdom is ultimately too schematic for its own good. A subject this messy shouldn’t tie itself up in such neat little thematic bows and there’s far too much “Syd Field-ian”, screenwriting 101 on display. Berg’s direction possesses far too much tunnel-vision to abide by such clumsy attempts at social commentary and unifying image-systems (it’s the sort of film where we endure a mawkish scene early on involving an adult and a father-less young boy only for it to be repeated in the third act in a different setting). From a momentum stand-point, the film doesn't so much crest as it does run into a brick wall, perhaps a victim of its own success.
The film is ultimately less than the sum of its parts but oh what parts they are. Scheduled for release in late September, the film is, in many ways, the perfect fall film. Adult and exhilarating, The Kingdom is taut like a really good airport-bookstore novel. There are quibbles to be found but they’re secondary to the realization that you’ve just dug your nails into the palm of your hand or that the air has slowly crept out of you lungs because you’re too tense to breathe. More importantly, it announces the arrival of Berg as an upper-echelon filmmaker who can operate comfortably on a large scale. Berg may only be emulating Michael Mann’s worldview here but, in essence, he’s re-appropriated it and stripped it down to only its most essential elements.
NOTE: This is an early review of a work-in-progress. As a filmmaker, I respect the test-screening process as an important tool and, in general, believe an artist should be allowed to complete a piece of work before it’s appraised. I publish this review then as a rare breach of this agreement because I feel a) no one’s really going to care about a crappy upstart blog and b) what I’ve written is so overwhelming positive and effusive with praise for the film that it can only benefit from me banging the drum. This is what you call semantics.