Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) revised his 1984 motion picture, The Cotton Club, for its 35th anniversary. The result, which I am unable to compare to the original, because I never saw it in either theatrical or home video release, is spectacular.
This doesn’t mean that The Cotton Club (encore edition) is perfect. It isn’t. But The Cotton Club (encore edition) is gorgeous. Song and dance scenes offer rare and exquisite entertainment. Besides Taylor Hackford’s anti-Communist thriller, White Nights, I can’t think of another movie in the past 50 years with tap dancing as integral to a coherent story.
To borrow the film’s slightly sordid Harlem style, every major character in this gangster-themed musical either wants a piece of ass or a piece of the action. This is Mr. Coppola’s first movie, which was made and financed by very contentious principals, such as the late Robert Evans, and micro-studios, such as the defunct Orion Pictures, after his self-financed 1982 musical debacle, One from the Heart.
The Cotton Club centers on Harlem’s famed nightclub of the same name, which, in reality, if not here, featured exclusively Negro artists singing and dancing for exclusively white audiences. The plot encompasses the period from the Twenties Prohibition era, when black market alcohol sales flourished for better and for worse, arguably for worse, through the Depression. With three main actors, Gregory Hines (White Nights), Diane Lane (A Little Romance) and Richard Gere (An Officer and a Gentleman), the story unfolds at upper Manhattan’s swank jazz club.
The Cotton Club’s reputation for being a disjointed hybrid of jazz extravaganza and mob movie is undeserved, judging by Francis Ford Coppola’s restoration. The truth is that it’s a relatively seamless stitching of twin tales of two sets of brothers — one white brethren, one black brethren — with emphasis on two of the men’s love for two different women. The central men (Hines and Gere), whose loves and endeavors climax at the club, are artists; one tap dances, one plays an instrument.
That’s the gist of The Cotton Club. Much of it is earnest. Most of it is well done. Parts are not. The remainder is split between upper mediocre and lower mediocre. The latter includes Lane’s flat performance.
Mr. Coppola, whose movies valiantly attempt to portray epic stories, really puts on a show. Whatever this movie’s history, which I deliberately averted knowing about in advance for the purpose of writing this review, The Cotton Club is a labor of love for American jazz, tap dancing and Harlem subculture and show business. Like his peers, fellow blockbusting directors Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese, he tends to lay on too much movie for its own good.
The Cotton Club (encore edition) is another example. Besides corrupt police, gang wars, Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne as gangsters who are also best friends, Lane as a vacuous mob groupie and Gere as the smooth and hard cornet player drafted as a mob lackey who pursues her, there’s more. Plot points include a bombing, grisly murder — as blood drips from a chandelier — man slapping woman during a dance, confessions of a gigolo and racism at the Cotton Club.
All of this happens to music by Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, among others. By the time someone tags “Jazz” as an explanation of wild ways, it adds up, despite wooden lines and acting.
This is thanks to Francis Coppola’s commitment to depicting jazz as an appealing, if subversive, cultural achievement. With painted eyelids, shadowed faces during lovemaking in the rain and magnetic tap dancing — including scenes with a Nicholas brothers-like duo and an old preacher breaking into routine — The Cotton Club’s production values elevate the spectacle. If the plot lacks, and it does, the show dazzles.
The tap dancing Negro, portrayed with zest and eminence by the late Gregory Hines, falls in love with an interracial torch singer (Lonette McKee) who’s “passing” as white. If you can imagine the indelible “Stormy Weather” as deft punctuation, you get a sense of the dual plot lines and love at stake. Mr. Coppola’s apparently restored the film to a movie in which black characters get their due.
The Cotton Club packs action without piling on: imaginative numbers, an erotic dance and early turns by Lawrence Fishburne (Boyz N the Hood) as a rising and realistic black thug named Bumpy Rhodes, Jackee Harry (227) as a sassy songstress, Jennifer Grey and Nicolas Cage as impetuous newlyweds, a portrayal of Cab Calloway singing “Minnie the Moocher”, a kiss between curtains and the sudden firing of a handgun.
With Woody Strode (Sergeant Rutledge) as a doorman, an antebellum-era decorative motif, Hines tap dancing in crisp white tails in a lone spotlight, Gere strolling under a mob movie poster and a sensational Grand Central Station fantasy, featuring Gwen Verdon tap dancing with a Negro child, The Cotton Club (encore edition) converges at the 20th Century Limited in an absorbing final assimilation of all previous rhythm, mayhem, shenanigans, toe-tapping and revelry.
Capped by classic Hollywood transitional titles and an Andy Warhol darling as the semi-glorified thug Lucky Luciano, with John Barry (Born Free) as composer, Henry LeTang, who also dances, as tap choreographer and James Remar as the monstrous villain, The Cotton Club’s excesses ultimately align with Francis Ford Coppola’s bloodstained romanticism to pull off a uniquely American show of jazz.
President Trump apparently ordered today’s pre-emptive strike on Iran’s top military official for planning to mass murder Americans in Iraq. The Islamic dictatorship of Iran confirmed the death. The New York Times reports confirmation of both assertions.
The historic nature of this excellent act of U.S. self-defense is unmistakable. Donald Trump is the first American president to militarily counterstrike this evil enemy explicitly on the principle of saving American lives. Time and again, from President Carter, who refused to assassinate Iran’s first Islamic dictator, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, before the monster returned to impose a barbaric theocracy, to President Obama, who appeased Iran and brokered a deal which brought Israel’s prime minister and the late Elie Wiesel to plead to a joint session of Congress for U.S. rejection of Obama’s death pact.
“This is devastating for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, the [Islamic] regime and Khamenei’s regional ambitions,” Mark Dubowitz, who runs a think tank opposing appeasement of Iran, referring to the Iranian dictatorship’s ayatollah, told the Times, which reported that President Trump ordered the drone strike on Baghdad’s International Airport.
In the 40 years since Iran waged war on America by seizing our embassy in Teheran, capturing Americans as prisoners of war wrongly dubbed “hostages”, beating U.S. Marines, baiting Americans for a race war involving radical leftists including Rev. Jesse Jackson and waging war with mass murder on American Marines in Beirut and across the world, including sponsoring nonstop attacks on America from hijacked passenger jets to countless untold acts of war, not a single American government hit Iran back hard. Carter shrunk in defeat after his folly over Khomeini. Reagan retreated. Bush the pappy appeased Iran, letting the savages threaten a published Western author and bomb American bookstores. Clinton did nothing when Iran bombed the United States Navy. Bush the son ordered the Marines to stand down in Iraq when Iran’s mystics ordered a siege against America. Obama welcomed and appeased Iran over and over. Even when Obama ordered the U.S. military to kill the top Moslem connected to carrying out the attack on Black Tuesday, September 11, 2001, he did so with a sad, morose, somber tone and honored the monster, granting an Islamic ritual at sea. And pleading with the enemy by pledging that he had done so in accordance with the faith that moves the enemy to destroy the West.
On Friday, January 3, 2020, the third American president to be impeached by Congress, Donald Trump, hit Iran by taking out one of its top thugs. It’s even better that he did so on the grounds of saving Americans’ lives, contrary to all of his presidential predecessors combined, who
“General Suleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,” the Pentagon said in a statement. “General Suleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more.”
Don Imus died at age 79 this week. What was disturbing about him has only spread in the culture and worsened. What was distinctive and unique about this radio broadcaster has almost disappeared in today’s culture. In either case, his is a career worth knowing and thinking about.
He debuted on New York City radio at the dawn of New Left predominance. The year was 1971. America was in a steep and rapid decline. In retrospect, Imus represents part of the downward slide.
I remember hearing him on the radio in New York City for the first time. The disc jockey was sarcastic, really caustic. He was a complete turn-off. I didn’t become part of his audience. He struck me then as small, petty and cynical, not what I expected from a popular—one of the most influential—radio hosts in America’s greatest city.
I didn’t listen again for another decade which turned out to be the high point of his career. It was the 1990s. President Clinton was being impeached. Imus, with other so-called radio shock jocks, applied his caustic commentary to the news of the day.
This time, something clicked.
Whatever his faults, whatever his errors and flaws, Imus expressed himself with both biting humor and intelligence. I never became a regular listener, let alone fan. But between the early 1970s, when the New Left’s crusade for environmentalism, feminism and multiculturalism appeared to many Americans as odd or innocuous departures from mainstream ideas, and the mid-90s, when Republicans presumably opposing New Left madness did so on the grounds of seeking to remove a president from office for lying about sex, Don Imus became a counterpoint to America’s decline.
Around this time, I worked as a production assistant for Leonard Peikoff who had launched his own talk radio show in LA. It struck me that reducing Imus to sensationalistic radio host wasn’t fair whatever one’s view of his broadcasts. For one thing, his sarcasm was thoughtful (and often right on). Though he could be harsh, he was not malicious. When he went for the joke, it was not at the expense of the thought. Cynical humor had, by then, with South Park, The Simpsons and most modern comedy, consumed American culture. Imus became less a cynic than a curmudgeon rejecting the status quo.
Like showman Rush Limbaugh and philosopher Leonard Peikoff, Imus raised the level of discourse. He didn’t broadcast for the sole purpose of titillation. Imus reported the news, commentating, in this context, as a relatively reliable source.
Imus found humor in the increasingly absurd slogans of the day. Occasionally, I would tune in or watch his morning program on MSNBC in the late 1990s. Typically, I was repelled. Sometimes, he tried too hard to crack the joke. But I grew to appreciate his sincerity. He was self-made. Like me, he was self-educated. He created a charity to let kids with cancer experience the cowboy lifestyle at a ranch he owned. The native Southern Californian who grew up in the Grand Canyon State wore a cowboy hat, speaking freely and authentically. As far as I could tell, Imus was honest and sincere, which is more than I can say for many of today’s broadcasters.
Unlike today’s media hosts, Imus did not pander to others or distort facts or news to fit an agenda. He was relatively detached and objective, as I recall. If biased, he was transparent about it. He criticized conservatives and leftists alike.
Don Imus spoke his mind. He did so freely without overfiltering. He called out New Left irrationalism which worsened with each year. His career stalled from telling a bad joke, for which he repeatedly apologized, and he became a victim of exactly what he opposed. But Imus left his mark on broadcasting. Without him, I can’t think of a single East Coast media host that didn’t hold back, go flat and seek to silence proper discourse.
Like Johnny Carson, Don Imus blended irony with intelligent inquiry in broadcasting. His approach had a major impact and influence for the better on modern mass communication. Talk radio was never the same and led to new media, podcasting, which in my estimation elevates the caliber of debate and improves Americans’ willingness to think and speak freely.
With anti-capitalist frontrunners in the Democratic Party‘s 2020 presidential campaign, a mass surveillance and welfare state and a political circus bordering on dysfunction which has led to paralysis and incompetence in American government, thinking and speaking freely matters more than ever. Don Imus, an addict who made his career out of biting commentary paired with his brand of cowboy individualism, showed the way. May Imus rest in peace.
At the beginning of 1917, the World War One movie by writer and director Sam Mendes (American Beauty), one British soldier is covered. One is not. This type of visual sets up 1917′s many stylized pictures that signal plot points to come. Most of 1917 is similarly structured, relatively predictable and visually, not conceptually, driven.
Indeed, there’s no historical context. The audience barely learns that the Germans are at war with the British, let alone that what was called the Great War irrevocably altered history, including the arts, as Ayn Rand observed in The Romantic Manifesto (1969). It is somehow fitting that this sensory-oriented, perpetually-driven film, co-written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns, only strives to immerse the audience in a selective depiction of war.
It’s a whole, not halfway, immersion. The British soldier characters played by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman accept an assignment to save 1,600 Brits from enemy entrapment starting with a charge down the Western front’s winding trenches. The best line in the thrilling 1917, “we should think about this”, is the movie’s only effort to make the audience think about war; the rest of 1917 is more of a horror movie than an epic war movie.
Perhaps this is as it should be, though even the most horrifying great war films, such as Sergeant York (1941) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), both of which 1917 draws heavily from, go to tremendous efforts to dramatize and contextualize in detail war and the men who fought it. With Thomas Newman’s (Thank You for Your Service, Little Children, Bridge of Spies) electronic musical score, cinematography by Roger Deakins (The Goldfinch, 1984, Blade Runner 2049) and silhouettes, light and scenes of men running, Mendes fills 1917 with multitudes of arresting sounds and pictures to hold interest.
The cast, too, including Richard Madden (Rocketman), Colin Firth (The King’s Speech), Mark Strong (RobinHood) and Benedict Cumberbatch (War Horse), deliver fine performances, particularly MacKay in the lead as the knowing soldier in search of an elusive and faraway band of British soldiers.
Yet the upshot is that 1917 lacks emotional, if not visceral, power. Surely, there are symbolic moments, such as a running soldier against the charge of his comrades, desperately trying to halt the push in an impossible task. This is the perfect metaphor for the Great War, which one of America’s worst presidents, Woodrow Wilson, championed, sending countless Americans to be sacrificed.
That the audience never learns the cause of war, this war’s or any war’s, and sees only some of the carefully selected effects for the sake of horror, goes to 1917′s anti-war message. Such a message may emerge in any honest war movie. In 1917, a historic year for at least a few major reasons, gripping human peril, spectacular images and ominous music mask what at root is a cliched and oddly hollow message that war is bad.
Disney, Lucasfilm, Kathleen Kennedy, writers and director J.J. Abrams dig Star Wars a sad and humble grave.
Starting with a bad title, ending with a causeless conclusion and leaving filler that climaxes too soon and accomplishes nothing of substance, the ninth episode of the saga drags, mugs, hams, flashes and limps to the end. What began as a fresh shot of idealism in the middle of a mythical movie series envisioned by George Lucas putters to an incoherently uninteresting ending with The Rise of Skywalker.
Abrams directs and Kennedy guides as Disney funds this mashup of mysticism and mainstreamed “social justice” pap. The problem’s not that Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a female protagonist with superpowers. The problem’s not even that the character is badly conceived, written and played, though, unfortunately, she is awful in every sense. The film’s flaw is fundamental; it exists to repeat an experience, not to dramatize a story, let alone a good story, let alone make the audience feel good and entertained, let alone provoke thought.
Diehards invested in 42 years of merchandising, including toys, discs and related memories, may be inclined to reject this view. I suspect, however, that they’ll be as fatigued as the boy who sat behind me. He started before the opening credits as a happy child and ended up drifting away in his father’s lap, bored, confused and, as far as I could tell, desperate to go home.
Rise of Skywalker blabs, flaps and flops.
Billy Dee Williams, an outstanding actor, reprising his role as a cad, best sums up the spirit of the final Star Wars movie of the central Lucas series; he can hardly work up an interest and looks like he’d rather be anywhere else than this galaxy far, far away. Surprises, plot points and effects aside, the acting is almost universally flat, bad and sleep-inducing with the lines to match. Only Adam Driver, again as the villainous son of Leia Organa and Han Solo, stands out in every appearance. The less said about the late Carrie Fisher, as in The Last Jedi, reanimated, inserted and manipulated here in the same role she originated in 1977, the better. Her character, too, is backdated to become a Jedi knight she never was.
Ridley as Rey is pained, again, shifting looks between angry and hard or between light and caught by some magical, inexplicable feeling. The series’ religious Force, made more explicit and repetitious this time, dominates her character, engulfing Finn (John Boyega), who instructs someone that causeless “feelings” are paramount.
It is important that the audience understand that nothing is at stake in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Rey may be in the middle of a battle, or a duel, or a mission with Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn, and, suddenly, she may wander, usually looking angry, intent or puzzled. Rey may stand in the middle of an open space, furrowing her brow and staring into a void. Or she may go off on her own into a storm, you never know and you never know why. This happens over and over.
This is the theme of what’s become of the George Lucas Star Wars; that one must go by “feelings”, not facts. That one must act on whim, never go by reason, and that good may or may not result but, in any case, the individual must subordinate the ego and rationality to faith, religion and whatever capricious “destiny” results. Time and again, each major character, even ghosts (Rise of Skywalker is loaded with ghosts), submits to the void.
For example, Poe, the closest to a voice of reason in the final trilogy, who was emasculated last time after a decent start in The Force Awakens, rises briefly in stature to regain his efficacious ability only to be reduced, really wiped, in the climactic battle. It’s not enough that he’s dead wrong (is this character right about anything?); Poe has to be deflated in being dead wrong and literally give up and renounce his earlier self-confidence. Only then is he “redeemed” by the universe or whatever’s believed to be outside of one’s self, like an Obama or McCain speech badly dramatized.
The Disney/Lucasfilm/Kathleen Kennedy left’s religion of irrationalism, i.e., feminism, multiculturalism, etc., trumps all with appallingly condescending plot points. Female minimizes male. Blacks pair with (and are saved by) blacks. Gays are gay only for an instant and only if they’re … female, of course. Females are omnipotent. Males are not; men are dolts. Humor almost always comes at the male’s expense.
I kept waiting for Yoda to have a cameo and announce that he’s transitioning. One major series character, who was once a candidate for the series’ hero, dismisses his entire life in two seconds with a line that he was wrong about nearly everything. Another male character, Finn, admits his incompetence at an important plot point; when asked what to do next during a military operation, he admits: “I have no idea [so] follow me.” This is intended as humor, though the boy behind me wasn’t laughing, and soon the child put several questions to his father, who told him to hush.
Finn’s line is telling. It shows that Star Wars inversion from 1977’s can-do Americanism to blank Nineties reboot and post-9/11 tribalism is complete. It falls to Finn, the flattest, blankest character, a former stormtrooper who the audience was once led to believe fell in love with the heroine, to pronounce the 42-year-old series’ edict, which looms over and dominates our culture: “[go by] instinct, feeling, the Force … I don’t know how [to think].”
Finn’s profession of ignorance stems from his fixation on cipher Rey, the ultimate whim-worshipper and magical mystic whose causeless actions invariably lead to mass death and destruction. I wish I could say as I have in previous series reviews that all of this is mitigated by enjoyable moments and effects. But almost everything is bad. Star destroyers appear in such volume as to be distracting and preposterous, even for a preachy, mystical soap opera disguised as a gussied up fantasy in outer space. Wildly undulating storm waves the size of a county go calm in an instant for no reason.
Frankly, the most entertaining moments involve the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid), whose scenes and lines are pure cheese and crackers. They drip with melodrama to the point, with logic and reason the province here of the villains, that I was almost rooting for him and his Easter Island-like carvings, faceless band of Sith Lords and legions of assembled, cloaked believers.
It’s as if this section of Rise of Skywalker is a tribute to those B movies in which you find out that the whole town’s populated by worshippers of the devil, who then encircle and seek to sacrifice a screaming virgin until the handsome, dashing hero comes in to save her.
Today’s anti-sex “social justice” activists and makers of movies by commandment need not fear being “triggered”, however. This movie like its recent predecessors is celibate and sexless. Handsome, dashing heroes are, like Song of the South, smoking, sex, guns and egoism and other imagined Disney movie outrages and injustices, purged from Star Wars.
Rise of Skywalker (like Marvel’s movies) does not entertain. Apparently, it fails to entertain the boy behind me who, in two hours, went from happy anticipation to sad disappointment.
Having enjoyed movies, but, really, most stories in any format, about escaping Communism, I recently discovered Never Let Me Go (1953) co-starring Gene Tierney (Leave Her to Heaven) and Clark Gable (Gone With the Wind). It’s good. I recommend it as crisp, taut entertainment.
Do not expect philosophical depth on the level of We the Living or The Lives of Others. It’s not that caliber of anti-Communist filmmaking. But, especially for the Fifties, when Hollywood’s disgusting affinity for Communism, in particular Soviet Communism during its bloodiest era, reached its zenith and was all the rage, Never Let Me Go takes a strong position against Soviet Russia with two major movie stars. This alone merits awareness and remembrance. With renewed relevance due to Communist China’s unceasing influence on, and what amounts to extortion of, the American press and technology and gaming industries, it is both pointed and fierce.
Buy the DVD
Gable stars as an American reporter who’s savvy about Soviet Russia, having covered the U.S. ally during World War Two. But, being an American, he’s uniquely naive, as Ayn Rand explained during her historic 1947 congressional testimony, about the fact, scale and depth of pure evil of the Soviet dictatorship’s impact on daily life; he can’t fully conceive it and this shows in his narrative and initial actions in post-war Moscow.
He learns. This is not made explicit but it’s undeniably implied and embedded in what he chooses to do after falling in love with a ballerina (Tierney with a Russian accent). He’s been in love with her from the audience of the ballet for two years. Early on in Never Let Me Go, they meet once backstage after her encounter with his British press colleague, who is more compliant with Soviet censorship. Her name is Maria. He is shocked that she confesses that she’s spotted him in the crowd and has fantasized about him, too.
This is late career Clark Gable but he’s still Clark Gable and his gallantry, strength and fire still light up the room. Tierney, too, a beautiful actress of ability, shines here as the Russian ballerina, conveying the loss, pain and superior firsthand knowledge of Stalin’s barbarism and dancing in the climactic Swan Lake which precedes an elaborate, tense and daring attempt at defection when the Communist regime moves to strike the couple down.
Thirty-two years before director Taylor Hackford put Mikhail Baryshnikov as a ballet dancer who conceives of a brilliant defection to escape Soviet Russia in White Nights, director Delmer Daves (Destination Tokyo, Dark Passage, Spencer’s Mountain) featured one of the screen’s greatest movie stars as an American journalist who creates for the woman he adores a way to escape the 20th century’s worst dictatorship. Never Let Me Go, involving forged, earned alliances of shared values, mastery of the sea, swimming in the cold, dark water, a horrifying car chase, luck and a stunning surprise at the ballet, holds true to the end.
At two hours and 45 minutes, A Hidden Life ought to have been an unforgettable epic given its topic, one man’s refusal to sanction Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, instead, writer and director Terrence Malick’s movie suffers from too many problems. Like Malick’s overly romanticized 1978 farm drama, Days of Heaven, the distinctly cinematic director takes an approach that compartmentalizes the leading couple to the point of detachment. They’re neither sufficiently detailed and realistic to be plausible on the film’s terms nor romantic enough to be as noble as Malick apparently intends.
It takes a while to realize that A Hidden Life isn’t as profound as Malick evidently must’ve thought it could, should or would be. My first clue was the audio introduction, which precedes the opening pictures. The sounds of wind, insects and nature envelop the audience. This takes the audience into the setting, which is Austria’s mountain valley farms in 1939. A narrator comes next, speaking in the past tense beginning with an admission of error as black and white footage of the National Socialist acceptance and spread over Germany sweeps over the screen very effectively, demonstrating more or less that the whole of Germany knowingly and enthusiastically accepted the Nazi philosophy.
To anyone who’s seen the trailer or knows history, the quaint Austrian farming village and its young romantic couple (August Diehl and Valerie Pachner) clearly haven’t much of a chance. As in Days of Heaven, Malick lets the couple frolic in the fields, which is mostly what they do and for a long, long time. They’re soon married, with a few kids appearing at an early point, always with the Nazi threat looming but never in clear and explicit terms. By the time husband Franz (Diehl) is called upon to enlist in the Army and swear an oath to the Nazi dictator, which he declines to do, neither he nor anyone in town has really mentioned, let alone discussed, the Nazis; men are off to train, fight and defend Nazis. Women, children and old men are left alone to toil in the fields.
Those left behind still laugh, play, raise pigs and, amid neatly interspersed pictures of Nazis, life goes on. Only Franz objects to the takeover of Austria by dictatorship. That he does so without much of a reason is treated as unexceptional. His opposition is never really named and identified. It’s just something he does that’s regarded by villagers as unusual, then as unpatriotic and by loved ones as unusual, then inconvenient. The Nazi invasion comes without much impact other than the men being drafted and conscripted into military service. Jews never merit mention in A Hidden Life, remarkably. Every aspect of Nazi Austria just sort of happens without much rancor, notice or fuss.
Perhaps this is Malick’s point. But the lack of any exposition of the origin or progression of Franz’s convictions certainly makes more glaring that the leading man never articulates his opposition, which forms the basis for the entire film. The vacuum gets filled, slowly but surely, with faith and religion.
A Hidden Life depicts Austria as lovely and enchanting, with its fields, hills and simple people as God’s country and people, contaminated by the Nazi invaders through very little fault of their own. When Franz asks his “dear wife … what’s happened to our country?” I couldn’t help wondering why it took him so long to ask himself the same question. I also wondered why he and his wife never ask in the present, not the past, tense. That one so resolute in refusal does not ask “what’s happening?” before asking “what’s happened?” strikes me as impossible or unlikely.
As Franz pays the price for a refusal to submit, asking his God-fearing wife to “pray for me” when he’s jailed as she takes comfort in the land’s “wind, wheat and sky”, Nazis try to reason with him to cease his stubborn refusal to renounce his opposition. One of his jailers promises him that he can go free.
“But I am free,” he replies in what could’ve been A Hidden Life’s best line. Malick expects the audience to intrinsically grasp why. Franz’s refusal is less a principled stand than the refusal to put faith in the state above his faith in God, though even this is portrayed as too abstract. Heaven’s light shines upon him, while his long-suffering wife, working the farm and raising her kids with her sister and mother-in-law and being shunned by pro-Nazi villagers, surrounds herself with crucifixes, church attendance, a priest, prayer and pictures of Jesus Christ. For their part, the children are seen and not heard, playing and smiling as if largely and blissfully ignorant of their poverty, deprivation and absent father.
Compounding these problems are the languages of A Hidden Life, which switch from foreign to English in key scenes and transitions. Like its enticing advertisement, and most of the movies Malick makes, A Hidden Life looks like it contains great filmmaking, holding the promise of deliverance and adding up to a momentous epic. Yet, while it thankfully doesn’t sugarcoat the true life based consequences of opposing Nazis, it is too satisfied to take itself on faith.