Tag Archives: B

OFFICIAL SECRETS

Producer: Ged Doherty, Elizabeth Fowler and Melissa Shiyu Zuo
Director: Gavin Hood
Writer: Sara Bernstein, Gregory Bernstein and Gavin Hood
Stars: Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, Rhys Ifans, Adam Bakri, Ralph Fiennes, Indira Varma, Conleth Hill, Tamsin Greig, MyAnna Buring, Hattie Morahan, Jeremy Northam, John Hefferman, Monica Dolan, Jack Farthing, Peter Guinness, Kenneth Cranham and Angus Wright
Studio: IFC Films

B

An actual case of a British whistleblower prosecuted under the UK’s draconian Official Secrets Act is dramatized in Gavin Hood’s docu-drama, which offers an interesting narrative even if the treatment sometimes seems a bit too restrained and discreet for its own good.

Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) is introduced as a translator working in 2003 at a British intelligence post, GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), where her specialty is dealing with Chinese material. But one day a top secret memo lands in her computer in-box that was penned by a fellow named Frank Koza at the United States National Security Agency. At the time the Americans were angling to persuade the government of Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair to join in the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and preparing a campaign at the United Nations to secure a resolution giving the operation international legitimacy.

But some of the current member states on the U.N. Security Council—Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria, Pakistan and Guinea—were balking at voting for the resolution, and the memo suggested using wiretaps on their diplomats as a means of gathering embarrassing information to pressure on them to do so; the resolution was especially important for Britain, since it would provide Blair—some of whose officials were dubious about the invasion—with the political cover he needed to join in the operation as part of the UK’s “special relationship” with the U.S.

Aghast at the means being employed to justify what she considered an unnecessary and unjust war, Gun decided to copy the memo and, through activist Yvonne Ridley (Hattie Morahan), transmit it to the staff of a newspaper, The Observer, in hopes of its being published in time to prevent the invasion—or at least a UK role in it. And despite the fact that she admittedly failed in that purpose, she ultimately confessed being the leaker, leading to her prosecution.

The first half of the film is devoted to Gun’s dilemma about what to do and her decision to try to make the document public, much to the dismay of her husband Yassar (Adam Bakri), a Kurdish refugee who fled Turkey for asylum in Britain. Hood, who got the adrenaline running in his earlier thriller “Eye in the Sky,” offers a few suspenseful sequences here—one in which nervous Katharine runs off a hard copy of the memo, another of her trembling as she mails it—but he mostly presents things in a relatively low-key style.

Much of this portion of the picture, moreover, is devoted to work on the part of The Observer’s staff—editor Roger Alton (Conleth Hill), reporter Martin Bright (Matt Smith), war correspondent Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode) and pugnacious Washington reporter Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans)—to verify the story and the memo’s legitimacy. Finally, despite misgivings—based partially on the fact that the paper had previously editorialized in favor of the invasion—they published, though a mistake in the use of something as ordinary as spellcheck (which turns American spelling into English usage) threatens to undermine acceptance of the scoop.

Gun’s decision to accept responsibility for the leak impelled the government’s decision to bring charges against her—and led to Yassar’s deportation. But while her role in the narrative never disappears, the focus really shifts to the efforts of her lawyer Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes) to mount a defense to the charges. He eventually decides to turn the tables on the government, unearthing evidence that members in the UK administration opined that the country’s participation in the invasion would be illegal in the absence of a proper U.N. resolution. The threatened release of evidence to that effect persuaded the government to drop the charges, and Gun went free.

Here, too, Hood treats the action with a mood of mournful resignation over the Blair administration’s casual cruelty and political duplicity, rather than seething anger (although casting the menacing-looking Peter Guinness as Gun’s chief government tormentor is rather a blunt instrument). It culminates in a scene of quiet sadness on a beach between Emmerson and the government’s chief prosecutor, a friend who effectively admits that he was just following orders.

“Official Secrets” frankly lacks the tension of other thrillers of its type, largely because of Hood’s understated style and the mostly similar performances (apart, most notably, from Ifans, who feasts on his Vulliamy’s volatility). But it is well-crafted, with expert production design (Simon Rogers), cinematography (Florian Hoffmeister) and editing (Megan Gill), wittily incorporating archival clips of figures like Blair, George W. Bush and Colin Powell and other political figures into the footage to add historical context.

The result will never challenge a classic like “All the Presidents Men,” but it is a solid, thoughtful treatment of one aspect of U.S. government chicanery, in collaboration with the U.K., to pave the way to the misguided Iraq war, and of one woman’s courageous if unsuccessful effort to derail it.

FIDDLER: A MIRACLE OF MIRACLES

Producer: Max Lewkowicz and Valerie Thomas
Director: Max Lewkowicz
Writer: Max Lewcowicz and Valerie Thomas
Stars: Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, Joseph Stein, Harold Prince, Austin Pendleton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Joel Grey, Chaim Topol, Harvey Fierstein, Fran Lebowitz, Calvin Trillin, Nathan Englander, Marc Aronson, Michael Bernardi, Danny Burstein, Gurinder Chadha, Ted Chapin, Jeremy Dauber, Paul Michael Glaser, Rosalind Harris, Jessica Hecht, Jan Lisa Huttner, Norman Jewison, Adam Kantor, Samantha Massell, Joanna Merlin, Melanie Moore, Joshua Mostel, Itzhak Perlman, Bartlett Sher, Alexandra Silber, Steven Skybell, Neva Small, Alisa Solomon, Stephen Sondheim, Ted Sperling, Harry Stein and Amanda Vaill
Studio: Roadside Attractions/Samuel Goldwyn Films

B

Some might find it surprising that when “Fiddler on the Roof” opened its tryout run in Detroit in 1964, the reviews were tepid at best, and the critics expressed reservations even when it had its Broadway premiere, though by that time the iconic opening number “Tradition”—which encapsulated the theme of the narrative, drawn from Sholem Aleichem’s stories about the family and neighbors of long-suffering milkman Tevye, living in the Ukrainian shtetl of Anatevka in 1905—had been added to the score.

Yet “Fiddler” ran in New York for nearly eight years, spawned a long series of international productions as well as regular Broadway revivals, and has been widely mounted in local and amateur versions over the decades. Indeed, it has become one of the best-loved musicals ever written, and a faithful screen adaptation—though decidedly uneven in many respects—remains a staple.

How all of this happened is the stuff of Max Lewkowicz’s affectionate documentary, whose subtitle—taken from the lyrics, of course—indicates that it is a sort of hagiography, not of a saint but of a show.

Broadway buffs will naturally embrace the film, offering as it does sort of play-by-play account of the creation of the original production, replete with reminiscences (some from archival interviews, others from new ones) with the creators—writer Joseph Stein, composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, producer Harold Prince—and cast members like Austin Pendleton. All pay tribute to the show’s original director, the late Jerome Robbins, whose choreographic contributions are especially celebrated. There are also archival clips with the original star Zero Mostel (performing on the Dick Cavett show); his son Josh is also interviewed and the Tevyes from other productions (one doing a duet with Danny Kaye on his variety show) and revivals appear briefly as well.

Other interviewees comment on the effect the show had on them—including Joel Grey, who directed a recent revival of the show in Yiddish, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who actually incorporated a number from the show into his wedding ceremony. And there are sequences about unusual performances, like an early one at a high school with roles taken by African-American and Hispanic students, sparking some complaints from Jewish teachers—and even some vandalism. The student performers, as we see, became very protective of their work, because the travails of the characters reflected the difficulties in their own lives.

The basic point being made, of course, is that the musical, while specifically about a small Jewish community at the beginning of the twentieth century, carries a universal theme about people who are persecuted and displaced, and about families and communities torn apart by bigotry, politics, and—sometimes—antiquated traditions.

Yet the story also retains its sense of particularity about what European Jews suffered in the last century—and, given a recent rise in anti-Semitism around the globe, the threat they continue to face today. The point is perhaps made most poignantly when Michael Bernardi, the son of Herschel (who also played Tevye on Broadway), visits a Jewish refugee village in Ukraine named Anatevka, where a moving performance of some of the show’s music is presented.

The making of the movie is also considered, with director Norman Jewison and star Topol, among others, offering their recollections, some very funny.

Comprising a remarkable array of archival material and newly-shot footage by Scott Shelley (including some clever animation by Tess Martin, which recalls the style of Marc Chagall that also influenced Boris Aronson’s original set design), the documentary can seem scattershot at times, but Joseph Borruso’s editing keeps the occasionally bumpy ride moving along nicely, while the score by Guy Mintus and Kelly Hall-Tompkins adds to the air of mixed joy and melancholy.

When “Fiddler” opened fifty-five years ago, Broadway critic Norman Nadel remarked that you didn’t have to be Jewish to like it. One might add that you don’t have to love “Fiddler on the Roof” to like this tribute to it, either. It’s a loving salute to a show that has understandably retained its place in the public’s affection for more than half a century.