Wednesday, January 6, 2010

MRA Movie Review: Up in the Air about Invictus

So I thought I'd combine two movie reviews in this single post: Invictus and Up in the Air.

Today, Southern Man and I went to see Up in the Air

First, let me say that I thought the most powerful part of the film were the scenes of people describing their reactions to being fired. Apparently, these were not actors but rather real people who had recently experienced being laid off due to the downturn in the economy. I'm going to include an extensive quote from an interview that Jason Reitman (the director) gave to (by the way, if you follow the link to the interview, just be aware that there are spoilers in it--they do warn you, but I wanted to warn you too):

"[S]ince we were shooting in St. Louis and Detroit, two cities that got hit hardest in this country, we reached out to find people who had been fired to act in this movie. We put an ad out in the local papers and said we wanted to make a documentary about job loss, we thought by saying this we would weed out actors trying to sneak into the film, and find people who had no on-camera experience who were ready to just open up about what it’s like to be searching for purpose on a daily basis in a very, very tough time.

We ended up putting 60 people on film, 22 of which are in this movie. So everyone besides the actors you recognize, everyone who gets fired in this movie, is someone who’s lost their job. They would come in, sit at a table, we would interview them for about 10 minutes, we would ask them questions about how they lost their job, who they told first, how this has affected their life, and as soon as they were comfortable on camera, we would say, ‘we’d like to actually fire you on camera now. And we’d like you to respond the way you did the day you lost your job, or if you prefer, how you wish you had responded.’ And this would begin an improv scene; unlike any improv scene I’ve ever seen in my life.

My job as a director is to get people to get people to be honest on camera, that’s kind of it in a nutshell. It’s to get actors to be authentic. And I know how hard it is to sometimes get people to be authentic on camera. And yet here in this moment, 22 people who had never acted before, we would read them this boilerplate legal firing document that I found through an HR person, that is basically used coast to coast for firing. And the second they would hear this legal verbiage, and they would hear the kind of language they heard the day they lost their job, they would start to use sense-memory without knowing it. Their body language would change, their shoulders would fold, their eyes would turn, one girl broke into hives. I’m not sure if you noticed her, the hives broke out across her neck, right at that moment. And they’d begin asking questions of our interviewer, who knows nothing of their situation, they’d ask them about severance, and their medical benefits, and why they were chosen and why not somebody else. And if there was another job that they could get in the company, and these would go on for ten, sometimes 20 minutes. They were really emotional, and they would get angry and they would cry, and they would say the kind of things I could never think of as a writer, and it was said in a way that I would never think to direct them."

I think, given the times we are living in, the themes of this film--of alienation and the fragility of human connection and the difficulty of true and honest communication, is very apropos.

As for the rest of the film, I also enjoyed it--as much as you can say you enjoyed a film focused on a man who fires people for a living. To that end, I can't imagine anyone else but George Clooney in the role. There is a moment, and I promise not to provide any spoilers, but let me just say that there is a moment in the film that shows that Clooney isn't just a pretty face, he's an actor with true talent.

I do have to offer a criticism, however, since this blog is called Mixed Race America--namely that while the people getting fired were a somewhat mixed and diverse group, racially, all of the actual actors were not. The people at Clooney's company, the people at his sister's wedding, and most of the folks in the airport were a rather monochromatic lot. Which may be true if you are flying into certain airports, but having recently flown in and out of Toronto, Canada and Washington DC, I'd say that the folks I saw in the airport were vastly diverse, racially, ethnically, nationally. Can't guess socio-economics, but of course if you're flying you more than likely come from a middle-class (or higher) background, since taking Greyhound is still cheaper than many roundtrip tickets (and let me say that part of me contemplated taking a bus out of Toronto because of the huge hassle that followed). Ok, tangent aside, I'd say that Up in the Air, while entertaining, didn't really do anything to dispell my disappointment that most of Hollywood still maintains a very white-washed notion of America, even when the face of America, as represented by real people who have recently been fired in the Midwest, display a different side.

Now, on to Invictus

I was recently talking to a friend about this film--she asked what I thought, and I prefaced my remarks by saying that any film about Nelson Mandela was going to be a film I'd go see, because I LOVE Nelson Mandela, as is evidence by this previous post on his 90th birthday (he'll be 92 this July--REMARKABLE!).

Apparently Nelson Mandela handpicked Morgan Freeman to represent him on film (click here for Freeman interview), so you know that this film, as far as the casting goes, has Mandela's seal of approval. And my favorite part of the film were the first ten minutes that shows Mandela's release from prison, the reaction of black South Africans, Mandela's campaign and election into the presidency, and the changing face of South Africa. The footage was largely re-created since it was Morgan as Mandela that you saw, but that feeling of triumph and joy at Mandela's release--it made me remember what it was like in the early 90s to witness the end of Apartheid and the ascendancy of Mandela. I was literally in tears in the beginning.

As for the rest of the film, it is your standard "rise from the ashes to glory" kind of sports film--fairly predictable (particularly if you google this event since it is a historic event) with fairly predictable conflicts and resolutions. But you know, it's not a bad reason to make a film--certainly with dreadful movies out in the world, to have a film made about one man's attempt to heal the racial wounds of his country and to have the forethought to recognize the cultural significance of a sport to help make this happen, is reason enough to give this film a viewing. That this man is Nelson Mandela was all I needed to plunk down my money.

I was struck, in particular, by one part of the film--a section in which Mandela talks about forgiveness--how important it is to forgive the white Afrikaaners who subjugated black South Africans for decades. That the time for anger was past and the time for healing was now. It is a theme I have heard again and again in terms of racial reconciliation, especially between blacks and whites in various contexts--especially between minorities previously disenfranchised about those formerly in power. I'm always amazed at this sentiment--because forgiveness does not seem obvious or natural and yet, what are the alternatives? Escalation of conflict and tensions that pull people and countries apart into civil war?

Finally, let me just say that while I was trying to be clever in my blog title, I actually am a bit ambivalent about Invictus. Because I wish it gave me a bit more about Nelson Mandela. Guess we'll have to wait for that biopic to be made in the future.

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