Right now, at Baltimore’s Charles Theatre, you can see three very different films about diplomacy and negotiation. Each movie tackles, in its own unique way, the idea that words matter. They don’t always matter equally, however, and these films are certainly unequal in quality (though even the least of them is not without some interest). In descending order of quality, I present Diplomacy, Dear White People, and Rosewater.
Diplomacy (Volker Schlöndorff, 2014)
Based on a stage play by Cyril Gély – who, along with director Volker Schlöndorff (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum), co-wrote the movie adaptation – Diplomacy tells the story of how, towards the end of World War II (August 25-26, 1944, to be exact), the Paris-born Swedish consul-general to France, Raoul Nordling, convinced Nazi General Dietrich von Choltitz – the military governor of Paris – to refrain from blowing up the “City of Light” as the Nazis retreated from the Allied invasion. This material has been covered before, in the 1966 action-adventure war film Is Paris Burning? (an adaptation of the book of the same title), but whereas that film was all battles and explosions (and very good for what it was), this new film is about a different kind of tension. Will Nordling convince von Choltitz to disobey a direct order from der Führer and save Paris? The fact that the movie is largely fictional (at least according to the great academic historian Ian Buruma) does not diminish from its success at creating a brilliant cat-and-mouse game of verbal fencing. It’s particularly rewarding because the roles of cat and mouse (who is who?) remain unclear until the very end. It is a brilliant exploration of the art of diplomacy.
Both André Dussolier (Un coeur en hiver), as Nordling, and Niels Arestrup (Un prophète), as von Choltitz, are more than up to the task that Schlöndorff and Gély devise. We believe them as men of strong will and strong minds (Dussolier, especially). And we understand the stakes at play, for the movie opens with archival images of the destruction of Warsaw (another petty act of Nazi terror that served no strategic purpose). Should Nordling fail, not only will centuries – nay, millennia – of human culture and history be destroyed, but so, too, will hundreds of thousands of lives be lost, for the demolition of the bridges over the Seine will cause widespread surges that will break the river’s banks and flood the city. This knowledge lends an urgency to the sometimes-casual conversation between the two men that makes even the most seemingly trivial line resonate with meaning. In this movie, words do, indeed, matter a great deal.
Dear White People (Justin Simien, 2014)
I must confess that I found both the trailer and the hype surrounding Dear White People more than a little annoying. The jokes and the premise, itself (white people are racist!), seemed clumsy and unoriginal. Racism exists and pervades our culture – of that I have no doubt (just look at the lack of diversity in major films coming out of Hollywood) – but that doesn’t mean that any film that takes on that subject is going to be good. Still, one of my favorite films from the 1980s remains Robert Townsend’s biting satire on race and popular culture, Hollywood Shuffle, and that had plenty of crude humor in it, so I finally made up my mind to go see first-time feature director Justin Simien’s movie. Much to my pleasant surprise, it was a lot better than I expected. Yes, it was messy – the way many first movies are – but it was also pretty smart in many places, and filled with appealing actors delivering fine (and often nuanced) performances. And yes, words do matter here, too, since they are the weapons wielded by one group against another in the negotiations over campus (and racial) supremacy.
The four main actors – Tyler James Williams (“Everybody Hates Chris“) as Lionel, Tessa Thompson (For Colored Girls) as Sam White, Teyonah Parris (“Mad Men“) as Coco, and Brandon P. Bell (“Hollywood Heights“) as Troy – all deserve immense credit for what works in the film, as they make the dumb stuff seem smart and the smart stuff seem brilliant. Lionel is the gay black (Trekker) nerd with a huge afro who fits in nowhere; Sam is the conflicted bi-racial (“tragic mulatto” as her otherwise sweet white boyfriend mockingly calls her) who hosts the titular “Dear White People” on-campus radio show; Coco is the aspirational reality TV wannabe who will do anything to draw attention to herself; and Troy is the man-about-campus son of the Dean of Students who is normally so un-confrontational that he has no real identity to speak of. All four come together in ways both contrived (the white President and black Dean of Students not only went to college together but now have children attending the same university and dating each other?) and amusing as a white-run humor magazine throws a “negro”-themed Halloween party, complete with blackface, fried chicken and watermelon, which leads to a race riot. It may not be entirely believable (why don’t the black students have their own party, as the folks over at NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour pointed out – would they really be sitting around having a Black Student Union meeting?), but much of it is good fun. And the ultimate “why can’t we all get along message” of the movie, coupled with its cynical take on (campus) politics (which is believable), is hard to argue with. So it’s a mixed bag, for sure, but one filled with lots of goodies.
On a final note: one interesting way in which we can argue that popular culture has changed a bit over the years is that there have been no alarms over how this film might incite racial rioting, as there were back in 1989, when Spike Lee released his seminal masterpiece Do the Right Thing. We’re still far from a post-racial world (if that’s even possible), but that may count as progress, of a sort.
Rosewater (Jon Stewart, 2014)
Would we care that much about this film if Jon Stewart – he of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” – were not the director? I doubt it (and I’m a fan of Stewart’s). While it tells a worthy story – how Iranian Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari was imprisoned for 118 days in 2009 by the Iranian regime after he reported on the disputed 2009 presidential election between then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the main opposition leader, Mir Hossein Moussavi, it does not tell it in any particularly exciting way. This is a film – like Dear White People – by a first-time director (and Justin Simien, above, had at least made a number of short films, first, and worked as an editor), so to expect more would be unrealistic. Still, Stewart does not embarrass himself, and gets a fine performance out of Mexican actor Gael García Bernal (Y tu mamá también), who plays Bahari. But the script (which Stewart wrote, based on Bahari’s memoir Then They Came for Me) and the direction almost succeed in making a compelling story seem pedestrian (starting with the horrible music by Howard Shore, who has done much better work in films like Doubt and The Departed, among many others). Stewart felt driven to make this film in part because Bahari had appeared on his show a few days before being arrested, an appearance which was one of the pieces of evidence used against him during his incarceration (dictators never seem to have a sense of humor, sadly). Nevertheless, it would have been better to have a Paul Greengrass (United 93) or an Alan Parker (Midnight Express) direct it. Oh, well.
What we get is a film that purports to show us a horrible ordeal at the hands of a totalitarian regime that manages to make said ordeal seem like no big deal. There is very little tension anywhere, although both Bernal and his interrogator, “Rosewater” (so nicknamed by Bahari – though we never learn this from the movie – because of the scent he applied to himself daily) – played by Danish actor Kim Bodnia (In a Better World) – do their best. There is one moment in the film where the story suddenly takes a turn for the captivating, and that is when the über-interragotor who supervises “Rosewater” challenges Bahari to prove – given the history of the Western media and of the CIA in Iran (he argues that both conspired to turn public opinion against the regime of Mohammad Mosaddeq and supported his ouster in favor of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi) – that he is not a spy. “How can you say that when the media worked with the CIA to bring the Shah to power?” It’s true – the CIA did usher in the Shah. In the ongoing Kafkaesque negotiations between Bahari and his torturers, where words matter less than subjugation, this scene proves interesting. The rest is just noise (which may be Stewart’s point, but which does not make for captivating cinema). Good try, Jon. You got this out of your system. I’ll wait for your next movie.