Land and Freedom
U Film Society, starts Friday
THE MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie may thrust a digitized likeness of Tom Cruise atop a speeding train, but Ken Loach's Spanish Civil War film Land and Freedom has a scene that's at least as exciting: It's a 10-minute political debate between anti-fascist freedom fighters, circa 1936, over the merits of collectivizing their land. Granted, excitement is subjective. But it seems fitting that, in Loach's movie, it's an American who argues to soften the group's "radical" ideas in order to win the favor of capitalist countries. This good-looking and rather smug Yank is as close to a clear-cut villain (or Tom Cruise) as there is in Land and Freedom, yet it's a measure of the film's complexity that the guy has a point. Wars aren't won through righteous principles alone, a fact that's confirmed when an antiquated rifle blows up in the face of our hero--a Liverpudlian communist (Ian Hart) named David, who naively joins a socialist militia in Spain after watching newsreels of Franco's mobilization. The power of cinema, indeed.
Just as the mindless summer movie season hits in full force, Land and Freedom provides a reminder of how ideology is always presented, but hardly ever discussed, in commercial films. You might say that Loach's is an intellectual action movie, in which notions of "truth" and "justice" are consistently held in question, and the war is fought as much in group meetings as on the battlefield. Still, the physical skirmishes in Land and Freedom are plenty engrossing as well, mainly for being aptly messy and unheroic. During one street battle, fascist soldiers hold a civilian woman hostage, while the socialists exercise their guerrilla force as well by executing a priest who's discovered to have been a sniper. If Loach's battle scenes manage an almost unbearable force, it's because the film's conception of heroism is consistently undercut by the ugly facts of war. And although the film turns on David's loss of illusions, the movie's ultimate tragedy is that his enlightenment can't change the realities of power.
As in his masterful portraits of working-class Brits (Riff Raff, Raining Stones), Loach isn't afraid here to make his protagonist appear less than courageous or decisive. David begins the film with a firm belief in "socialism in action"; however, once he's discovered the corruption of both Communism and Stalinism, and has served an eye-opening stint in the International Brigades, the guy doesn't really know where he belongs. (The characters' confusion is made palpable by the director's tactic of shooting in sequence, and doling out pages of the script to the actors one at a time.) Despite his pessimism, Loach's sensibility is made oddly galvanizing through the poetry of his images: The film's concluding symbol of land and freedom is a handful of dirt being sprinkled over a casket.
Mission: Impossible has nothing remotely as deep in its entire two hours--and yet, as directed by Brian De Palma, it's a model of stylistic integrity by current studio standards. What a relief to see a blockbuster action movie by an intelligent filmmaker, one with a sense of rhythm, an eye for the communicative potential of color and lighting and camera movement, and a dedication to keeping in touch with the viewer's pulse rate. Midway through this thriller about international agents conspiring to steal a precious computer file comes a scene that's classic De Palma: As studly spy Ethan Hunt (Cruise) tries to download the file from a heavily guarded computer, the director choreographs a hunting knife, a heat sensor, a rat, an upside-down Cruise, and a single drop of sweat into a multi-cut pileup of parallel action. Still, despite a predictable slew of spiffy techno-toys (explosive chewing gum, perfume that functions as video spray paint), the movie has zero to say about the psychology of the people who use these gadgets, or about the politics of surveillance. We're a long way from De Palma's Blow Out.
The movie opens in Prague with the grisly deaths of Ethan's spy team, thus allowing De Palma to hint at his trademark theme--that of a hero's guilt for failing to protect a partner. But this conceit has far less to do with macho frailty than the need to clear out sufficient screen space for its star; if the Impossible TV series was one of those '60s-era rainbow-coalition adventures, this is The Tom Cruise Show, an essentially shallow enterprise in further consolidating one man's box-office clout. Like Waterworld, though far less disastrously, the movie reveals the consequences of allowing an icon to be a player in the editing room (Cruise also coproduced here). Or maybe the point is that auteurs of De Palma's caliber should insist on creative control when faced with such a mainstream mission--should they choose to accept it.
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