Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Two by Steven Zaillian

Screenwriter and sometime-director Steve Zaillian is perhaps best-known for penning Steven Spielberg's award-amassing Holocaust travelogue Schindler's List, for which he won and Academy Award and a lifetime of dirty sidelong glances from Jean-Luc Godard. Though he mainly scripts middling mainstream fare along the lines of Clear and Present Danger, Awakenings (for which he was nominated for an Oscar) and Hannibal, Zaillian's resume is not without highlights. Among them are the sturdy if austere chess drama Searching for Bobby Fischer (which Zaillian also directed), Martin Scorsese's charmingly untidy Gangs of New York and his feature-length screenwriting debut, 1985's The Falcon and the Snowman, directed by John Schlesinger. This year, Zaillian reteamed with that film's "Snowman," Sean Penn, to adapt Robert Penn Warren's classic novel All the King's Men, previously filmed by Robert Rossen in 1949.


The first five minutes of Falcon and the Snowman are a study in storytelling efficiency. Without saying a word, disillusioned post-adolescent Christopher Boyce (Timothy Hutton) leaves seminary with pet falcon Fawkes in tow, never to return. Meanwhile, in a fleabag Mexican motel, his childhood friend Daulton (Sean Penn) wakes up, looks out the window at a passing funeral, and leaves a tip on the bed stand for the previous night's prostitute. Both young men have reached a dead-end - one turning his back on his faith and his planned career, the other reeling from multiple convictions for drug dealing back home.

Zaillian's screenplay, based on a true story about two Americans who passed documents to the Soviets, sets up all the dominoes in near-record time. Christopher's father (Pat Hingle, the Commissioner Gordon from Burton and Schumacher's Batman films) gets him a low-level job at a company working largely on behalf of the CIA. (It's based on the real company TRW). His employers like his clean background, his ability to learn quickly and his father's many years of service as an FBI agent. So they give him some high-level clearance and bounce him into a ludicrously easy job transmitting coded documents before shredding them.

John Schlesinger's film looks on from Chris' perspective, which can kindly be called naive, even by the standards of 1974 (when the action is set). He's shocked (shocked!) when some of the documents passing through his office indicate shady CIA dealings in Australia, possibly undermining the democratically-elected government and infiltrating the air traffic controller's union. Chris and Daulton share a particularly timely conversation about the rise of Pinochet in Chile and how the CIA may have been behind that operation as well.

Interestingly, the film depicts Christopher as enthusiastic about selling out his nation from the very beginning. A toxic combination of displaced personal angst and anger about covert CIA wheelings and dealings creates within him a strong desire for vengeance, a wish to do wrong to our nation. Daulton's simply in it for the money, but Christopher clearly poses the greater threat; he's a true believer. (Naming his pet bird after Guy Fawkes, the notorious attempted Parliament bomber, provides early insight into his strongly-held attitudes towards authority.)

Once Christopher sends Daulton to the Soviet embassy in Mexico City, armed with secret documents and licensed to negotiate a price, the movie shifts from an odd, disjointed buddy comedy into a more conventional spy thriller. An intense Soviet agent (David Suchet) doles out thousand dollar payments for unimportant information, but really desires something Christopher can't access - the coordinates of US spy satellites. Daulton wants to string them along, Christopher gets cold feet and the two novices' brief flirtation with international espionage starts to turn exceptionally sour. Fast.

Daulton presumably earns the titular nickname "Snowman" (never spoken during the actual film) because of his constant cocaine and heroin use, which gives Penn an all-too-familiar arc to traverse. (With a few non-crucial changes, Daulton morphs cleanly into his sleazy coked-out lawyer character from Carlito's Way.) Hutton plays Christopher as a bewildered, somewhat lackadaisical proto-slacker, half Benjamin Braddock and half Wayne Campbell. It's a likable enough character for the most part, but the fiery political outbursts he's asked to deliver every 30 minutes or so feel out of place, like the screenwriter subbing in his own voice briefly for that of his character.

A vaguely-sketched, inconclusive romantic subplot between Christopher and a blonde he meets in a pet shop (Lori Singer) feels equally gratuitous. I guess a movie about a conflicted spy needs a girl impatiently waiting for him at home. It's a rule or something.

Still, the sequences set in Mexico City have a certain breezy panache, the '80s music and '70s fashion gives everything a throwback, nostalgic sheen. And it's always fun to watch Penn self-destruct. Falcon and the Snowman remains a solid if largely unremarkable film, enhanced by the provocative knowledge that both of its subjects have since been released from prison and returned to society.


Zaillian both adapted Warren's novel and also directed this wan, turgid treatise on corruption. The story of Louisiana Governor Willie Stark (based on Louisiana's Governor and Senator Huey Long) could be rendered as a complex, insightful and vital film about the present state of politics in America, a nation still suffering from the kind of systemic rot today that plagued government in Long's time. Instead, Zaillian has turned in a confused and disconnected mess, a movie that's not just inscrutable but downright impossible to follow in any sort of logical fashion.

Much of Falcon and the Snowman benefits from Zaillian's ability to write in a way that's both vague and compelling. In that film, he keeps Christopher's motives obscured for a good, long while and he sets up Daulton for a crime he may or may not have actually committed. In other words, he's deliberately confusing in order to enhance the audience's understanding of the daze in which the protagonists operate. They don't know quite what's going on, so neither do we. (Alan Daviau's angular cinematography adds to the effect; we never see the protagonists from eye level, and always get an obscured, interrupted view of the important on-screen action.)

In All the King's Men, a bit of context and perspective would really help. I have not read the book, but I have seen the previous film, and I'm somewhat familiar with the actual '20s and '30s political career of Huey Long. Yet taken on its own terms, Zaillian's movie fails to tell any kind of complete story. It grasps around amongst 4 or 5 different plots but never settles on one for long enough to fill in any blanks.

It's difficult to even speak about any of the performances because Zaillian gives all the actors so little to go on. We don't know if people are honest or corrupt, if they are noble or devious, if they have good or malicious intentions. There is never an explanation, nor is there any background. Willie Stark exists in a vacuum of his own power and ego. Does he care about the people he represents or doesn't he? Neither Zaillian and Penn seem sure, and if they don't know, how the hell are we supposed to figure it out? Throughout the film, for example, we're told that the voters have elected Stark in response to crippling poverty, but we never get to really see or experience their plight. It exists somewhere out there, because we are told it exists, but it never becomes tactile or palpable. (It doesn't help that Zaillian has senselessly moved the film forward in time from the '30s to the '50s, making some of the details borrowed from Long's actual biography incongruous.)

Willie Stark begins as a small man fighting a corrupt system. As a building inspector, he knew that shoddy work was being done on a schoolhouse, but his decision was overruled by bureaucrats. When the building collapses, he suddenly finds himself a bit of a local celebrity and a respected "voice of the people." So he's flattered but not entirely surprised when an operative for the State, Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini), shows up and asks him to run for Governor.

It turns out, Duffy intends to set Stark up. He's hoping Stark will peel away some of the populist vote from his own candidate's opposition, and serve as a spoiler for the establishment candidate to retain power. Gandolfini, who along with Louisiana native Patricia Clarkson boasts one of the film's lone realistic accents, does some typically great work in his few scenes here, as a large, imposing man with an unexpectedly meek, servile demeanor. Stark, a brilliant orator who discovers his true voice on the stump at precisely the right moment, turns the tables on Duffy and storms into office on the crest of a whirlwind campaign.

All these events are reported dutifully by the cynical journalist Jack Burden (Jude Law), who's not exactly impressed with Stark's man-of-the-people schtick yet nevertheless agrees to join his administration. Okay, so, in addition to building the relationship between Burden and Stark, Zaillian tries to squeeze in several extraneous, distracting subplots. I realize all this stuff might have been in the novel, but there wouldn't be time for all this story in a 2 hour film even if the director wasn't so fond of long close-up takes and shots of cars driving up to and then away from houses.

Stark's tense relationship with his wife (Talia Balsam), mistress/campaign manager (Clarkson) and assorted girlfriends each get a scene or two. Plus there's Burden's relationship to his wealthy and esteemed godfather, Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins). Not to mention his restrained, decades-long infatuation with Irwin's daughter (Kate Winslet) and his longstanding friendship with Irwin's son (Mark Ruffallo). Zaillian attempts to dart between the personal and the political, the historically accurate and the obviously fictional, without giving the audience any kind of central idea, focal point or emotional investment. With so many characters wandering around so many thinly-connected plotlines, it's no wonder nothing gets developed beyond reductive, pitchable sentences.

Zaillian can't even decide who his story's really about. He focuses on Stark and his sudden and surprising rise to prominence within a bonafide populist movement. Then, at about the halfway point, Zaillian's attention shifts to Burden and his relationship with the Irwin family. (It feels like at least a half hour goes by in the middle of the film in which Penn, the ostensible subject of the film, doesn't even appear.) By the conclusion, we're suddenly expected to care deeply about the fate of Ruffallo's character, who has said maybe 10 words and done nothing of import. He's in so little of the film and has such a minor connection to the story of Willie Stark, Zaillian's forced to give other characters expository dialogue merely to explain his presence. We're told that he's an exceedingly moral, upright man, but don't ever get a single example of something he has done to earn this reputation. His story ends with an overblown, kitschy shot of the Louisiana State Logo (you'll know it if you see it) coupled with some poorly-chosen music and an utterly nonsensical bit of dialogue, signaling that Zaillian has lost the emotional thread of his film entirely.

Consider this...A large portion of All the King's Men concerns the impeachment trial of Stark on corruption charges. Bizarrely, Zaillian not only refuses to say whether Stark is guilty or innocent of the charges, but even skips over the specific charges levelled against him. Is he corrupt? This matters! It is the crux of the entire story. If Stark is guilty of corruption, what we are watching is a bleak, angry warning about slimy, monied interests turning otherwise respectable, concerned citizens into hopeless, enabling fraud. If Stark is innocent, we're seeing a melancholy elegy for the "Last Honest Man," a Charlie Kane-like figure who dreamed of doing good only to be destroyed by the very system he hoped to change. Unfortunately, Penn doesn't seem to have a better handle on Stark than in the audience do, making his entire performance muddled and uncertain.

How are we supposed to find any meaning in Willie Stark's story if we don't know the basic facts of his case? Refusing to give any insight into the nature of Stark's leadership, his motives, his perspective or anything else about his administration aside from his rhetoric leaves us totally in the dark, disconnected completely from the story and, essentially, uninterested. There are things happening on screen, but there's no there there.

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