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THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS

It would difficult to imagine a more appropriate moment for a reissue of “The Battle of Algiers,” Gillo Pontecorvo’s remarkable 1965 quasi-documentary recounting the 1954-1957 French suppression of a rebellion against their colonial rule in North Africa. The film is particularly timely given the current American attempt to deal with a resistance movement in another Islamic nation.

But even if the historical comparison didn’t exist, “Algiers” would still be a brilliant film, staged with almost newsreel precision but presented with the punch of a great political thriller. The crux of the narrative is an underground independence movement that begins making what amount to terrorist assaults against the regime: policemen are killed and bombs planted at cafes, bars and race tracks. When the established constabulary proves incapable of handling the unrest, a battalion of paratroopers led by Colonel Mathieu, a veteran of the war in Indochina, is sent into the city, and ultimately succeeds in quelling the movement by using tough extra-legal methods that would be unacceptable under ordinary circumstances. An epilogue makes clear that though the revolutionary movement was stifled in 1957, the French success was but temporary; it erupted with even greater strength a few years afterward (and that time succeeded).

Despite the extraordinary verisimilitude that Pontecorvo and his cinematographer Marcello Gatti achieve in the restaging of crowd scenes, the film takes liberties. The script by Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas isn’t a historical document but a dramatic one. Mathieu, played with cool dispassion by Jean Martin, isn’t the historical French commander of the counterinsurgency brigade (that was General Jacques Massu, who died as recently as 2002). And the score (partially the work of Ennio Morricone) certainly uses the devices of cinema music to ratchet up the tension. But the authenticity the film conveys derives not so much from details as from its general thrust. In addition to Martin’s sturdy, curiously principled Mathieu, one is struck by the performances of Brahim Haggiag and Yacef Saadi as Ali La Pointe and Jaffar, the two most notable members of the resistance. The rest of the cast do memorable work as well–Mohamed Ben Kassen is especially notable as Little Omar, the child who’s an important part of many of the underground’s missions. And you’re unlikely to forget the robed Moslem women who transform themselves into western-style garb to transport bombs through French checkpoints to their targets without attracting attention.

“The Battle of Algiers” was banned in France for years, and one can be thankful at least that a like attempt to suppress it hasn’t occurred in this country now. (Of course, the inclination on the part of some politicians to charge anybody who expresses disagreement with administration policy in Iraq with a lack of patriotism is quite bad enough, and the tendency may well get worse before things are over.) In any event, the appearance of this beautifully restored print is a cause for celebration: despite being half a century old, the film still has a powerful and pertinent message for viewers here and abroad.

THE FOG OF WAR

For Errol Morris, this documentary on the life and reflections of Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson who was a major architect of the Vietnam War, would appear at first glance to be an uncharacteristically conventional piece. After all, this is a filmmaker who’s previously turned his lens, in an almost surrealistic way, on such unusual topics as pet cemeteries, a man wrongly convicted of murder in Texas, and people with very odd passions. But in reality if it came from anyone else “The Fog of War” would be considered extremely unorthodox, because while the genre may be fairly ordinary–the picture is basically a biography (or intellectual biography) with autobiographical elements–Morris’ treatment isn’t: the picture employs a great many of his very personal stylistic devices–odd camera angles, impressionistic use of found footage, an insistent, sometimes unnerving score by Philip Glass–to create a deeply unsettling effect. And somehow the combination seems utterly right. McNamara’s middle name, after all, is–as the picture points out–Strange, and during his career in business and government he was frequently described as robotic. Taking a cue from that, it’s only just that the approach taken to him should be somewhat peculiar. Morris’ certainly is, and yet it proves astonishingly revealing, not only of the individual on whom it focuses but of the larger moral issues raised by his career.

What we’re offered in “The Fog of War”–a title that refers to the traditional view of the innate complexity of conflict, of course, but also to the idea that McNamara’s understanding of his own role in history is itself somehow blurry, and his explanation of his motives and decisions fuzzy as well–is a collage of the subject’s responses to questions posed to him about his life (we can occasionally hear the disembodied director prompting him to elaborate), cleverly arranged into a film that offers both a fairly chronological biography and a moody self-examination/apologia by McNamara on what his own actions meant, then and in hindsight. As with all of Morris’ efforts, there seems to be a brooding intelligence at work in the selection of material, and a strangely hypnotic mode of presentation that constantly suggests hidden, half-perceived depths of meaning beneath the surface. There are no clearcut answers to be found here; the whole point of the exercise is the ambiguity in McNamara’s own perception of himself.

Though the film tinkers with the chronology, as a whole it covers pretty fully the stages of McNamara’s life, from his birth during the First World War through his recent revisiting of places where his decisions played a major role in history–especially Cuba and Vietnam. Structured in the form of eleven “lessons” derived from the subject’s own words, “Fog” touches on McNamara’s early life and schooling; his attraction to mathematics and statistical analysis; his academic career; his stint as a tactical advisor to Air Force General Curtis LeMay in the Pacific theatre of operations during World War II, during which he was part of the team that directed the firebombing of Japanese cities; his years in the executive suites of the Ford Motor Company; his unlikely choice for the defense post by President Kennedy; his recollections of the Cuban Missile Crisis; his service to President Johnson, especially in terms of disagreements over Vietnam policy; and–rather briefly–his life after departure from the administration in 1968, particularly his conversations with former foreign adversaries, which are mostly used to demonstrate the imperfect knowledge that decision-makers had when they were actually in control of policy. Taken altogether, the material presents a compelling, thoughtful and moving portrait of a complex and tormented man, presented without simplistic moralizing or easy answers and pointing toward the possibility of applying the wisdom drawn from understanding one person’s experiences to later circumstances. The endless fascination of the film derives both from the innate interest of the subject and from the exquisite way in which Morris manipulates the words and images to point toward the broader moral issues revealed by the study of his life.

“The Fog of War” thus emerges as a film of historical importance, but also of sheer cinematic power. It’s easily one of the best documentaries in a year that’s been rich with exceptional examples of them.