In the past week I had the pleasure of watching two very different films. The first was “Her”, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, and Scarlett Johansson. Some may find the premise of a man falling in love with his computer OS outlandish, but the film’s exploration of love and relationships is so genuine that any misgivings about it working fade away within the first ten minutes. This is mainly due to three things in my opinion: a smart, subtle script by Spike Jonze, a perfectly melancholic and nuanced performance by Joaquin Phoenix (a particular favorite of mine), and the chemistry that Phoenix and Johansson share.
I have always been a fan of Joaquin Phoenix and “Her” simply reinforces my opinion that he is one of the best actors around. His portrayal of the tortured and directionless Freddie Quill in 2012’s “The Master” remains one of the most impressive performances I have ever seen; and I am happy to say that his character of Theodore Twombly in “Her” is just as incredible in a completely different way. Theodore is a mixture of many things: he is awkward, yet funny; romantic, yet emotionally distant. In other words, he possesses all the complexity of a normal human being.
Still reeling from the disintegration of his marriage to Rooney Mara’s character of Catherine a year before, the Theodore that we meet at the beginning of “Her” is someone struggling to find a connection with anything. The disconnect that exists between human beings is an important theme in the movie; Theodore’s job as a writer of other people’s love letters echoes this sentiment. When he purchases a new, highly advanced OS, Theodore finally finds something he can connect with in the form of Johansson’s Samantha. Samantha possesses all the nuances of an actual human being. She has a conscience, experiences emotions, and has desires that reach far beyond organizing files in Theodore’s computer. The relationship that blooms between them is truly sweet and relatable, while at the same time addressing common issues within relationships such as jealousy and over-familiarity. The film could have stumbled into the territory of cheese with these themes, but it is a testament to Jonze’s writing that the entire 126 minutes of “Her” feel completely honest and genuine. The strength of the writing is also highlighted by the fact that Johansson wasn’t the original voice of Samantha, who was originally voiced by actress Samantha Morton. The chemistry that exists between Phoenix and Johansson in the final version of the film then is made even more impressive by this fact, especially during the last twenty minutes of the film that will surely leave some blinking away tears. Overall, “Her” is one of my favorite films this Oscar season and though I am disappointed that Joaquin Phoenix wasn’t nominated for Best Actor, I’m glad that the film got recognized with a nomination for Best Picture. In a cinematic climate populated by reboots and sequels, “Her” is a brilliant work of imagination and subtlety.
The second film that I saw was “Lone Survivor”, based on the book of the same name, detailing the failed Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan in 2005. Mark Wahlberg (who also produced) stars as the titular lone survivor, Marcus Luttrell, alongside Taylor Kitsch as Michael Murphy, Emile Hirsch as Danny Dietz, and Ben Foster as Matt Axelson. Sent to kill Ahmad Shah, the leader of Anti-Coalition Militia group located in the wilderness some twenty miles west of the city Asadabad, the film depicts the struggle of four Navy Seals against an army of Taliban. After a successful infiltration, the group of Navy Seals is discovered by a group of goat-herders. The debate that ensues on what to do with them feels incredibly real and logical, with each side of the situation presented in a way that makes the decision that much more difficult. In the end, they decide to let the goat-herders go, knowing that their operation is compromised. The goat-herders inform Shah of the Navy Seals’ presence and what follows is an hour and a half of the most cringe-inducing, heart-pounding drama I’ve seen this year. The amount of punishment these men took is truly incredible and the fact that the film is based on a true story makes the pain resonate that much more.
Last stands have always hit me in a deep place that few other narrative tropes can reach. The Battle of Thermopylae, the Alamo, the Viking at Stamford Bridge; all of these stories relate the direness and heroism inherent in this type of tale, and “Lone Survivor” is no exception. The movie alternates between raw emotion and genuine horror in a way that will have the audience rapt with a lump in their throat and tears in their eyes. I know that the film has been accused of being “jingoistic” and has been labeled as “propaganda”. With this judgment, I disagree. It is obvious that Wahlberg and director Peter Berg have a deep reverence for these men and their trials, but in no way did the film feel exploitative to me. Luttrell and company are never depicted as anything more than men, highly trained killers undoubtedly, but men just the same. They take no pleasure in killing. It just comes with the job, unfortunately. As for the statement about propaganda, I believe it was Upton Sinclair who said, “All art is propaganda.” Every story is relating something, whether on purpose or not. I don’t believe this film is a two hour recruitment video for the Navy Seals. If anything, I’d imagine it would convince some people to decide on a different career path. The film simply exists as a relation of events and though they may sometimes be exaggerated to make for a more compelling film, the emotions and sentiments portrayed still feel completely genuine. Though you don’t have to support the wars in the Middle East, I still believe you can admire the courage and the sacrifice of the good soldiers out there and in that I believe “Lone Survivor” succeeds, as a work of admiration for four men who left it all on a mountain somewhere in Afghanistan.