The Docucinema of Bold Ink: “Best of Enemies,” “The End of the Tour” and “Straight Outta Compton”

[NOTE from 8/22/15: I just added a post-script, below, to my review of “Straight Outta Compton.”]

My apologies, for this is going to be one of my occasional Frankenposts, with multiple movies folded into one larger piece. With the start of the fall semester hard upon us, I find myself more than a little overwhelmed with my Department Chair duties and final syllabus prep. Throwing these films together like this allows me to feel better about only writing a few paragraphs on each. I would add The Man from U.N.C.L.E. to the batch, too, except that I cannot find a way to link it, thematically, to the other three. It gets its own post (albeit a short one) only because it has so little in common with its fellow August 14 releases.

Best of Enemies

Best of Enemies (Robert Gordon/Morgan Neville, 2015)

How you feel about this new documentary co-directed by the helmer of the Oscar-winning Twenty Feet from Stardom may well boil down to whether or not you were alive in 1968, when the events it recounts took place. Barring that, if you have a strong interest in that time period and/or in the evolution of television punditry, you may well find yourself fascinated, regardless of age. Finally, even if the subject matter leaves you cold, both William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal – the two subjects of the film – each have enough reptilian charisma to keep you watching in spite of the heavy hand of the filmmakers, who underline their points in bold ink at every turn (they also add intrusive music that leaves no moment unscored). For my money, it’s a compelling story given a pedestrian treatment that sometimes rises above its aesthetic limitations.

To summarize: before the 1968 political conventions, ABC – the #3 network of the time (behind NBC and CBS) – decided on the Hail Mary move of hiring two intellectuals, each from an opposing ideological camp, to comment on both parties’ presidential nominations. Buckley was a well-known conservative writer, founder of National Review, and Vidal was an equally well-known novelist (Myra Breckenridge) and screenwriter (Suddenly Last Summer), far to the left of Buckley. The network first asked Buckley to sign on and when they asked him for ideas on whom to hire as his on-screen partner, he indicated no preference, save that it not be Gore Vidal. So, of course, that’s who ABC hired. Audiences of the time responded by giving the struggling network the ratings it desperately craved – especially once Buckley lost his cool and threatened to punch Vidal – and voilà: the stage was set for all bloviating talking-head faux news to follow. What these gentlemen had, however, that many of their successors do not, was a firm command of the issues and a marvelous way with the English language. It’s too bad that we can’t just watch them without the constant editorializing of the directors (although I very much liked most of the expert interview subjects, including Buckley’s surviving brother, Reid, who help provide historical context). Still, the filmmaking is only occasionally truly distracting, and we learn so much about our present in this story about our past that I still have no problem recommending the movie to all.

End of the Tour

The End of the Tour (James Ponsoldt, 2015)

Full confession: I have never read any works by David Foster Wallace. The author, best known for his 1996 Infinite Jest, killed himself in 2008 after a long battle with depression. This movie, by James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now), tells the story of the end of the Infinite Jest book tour, when David Lipsky – failed novelist-turned-Rolling Stones columnist – flew out to Indiana to interview the reclusive author over the course of five days. The screenplay, by Donald Margulies (Dinner with Friends), is based on Lipsky’s account of that trip, published after Wallace’s suicide. If you’re a fan of Wallace and like movies in which big ideas – life, love, the pursuit of happiness (i.e., sex) – are discussed in passages of broad exposition, then this might just be the film for you. Since I am unfamiliar with Wallace as a writer, however, I have no way of knowing how accurate a portrayal of the man the movie creates, or whether or not the screenplay does justice to his intellect.

What I can say is that, in spite of some issues, the film (mostly) held my interest. Which is a good thing, because I found the trailer to be a snooze. But the jury in my brain is still out: this is either a good movie about a pretentious conversation or a pretentious movie about a good conversation. Jason Segel (Sex Tape) plays Wallace with quiet conviction, proving that he is more than just his usual on-screen buffoon. Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) plays Lipsky, and brings his usual shallow inexpressiveness (not always a bad thing) in service of a shallow, envious man, who learns some hard truths about himself in the course of the multi-day conversation. It’s a fine pairing, and the two actors work well together, helping us past the occasionally glaringly obvious bold moments of revelation in the script. Ponsoldt brings his usual low-key direction to bear, which has the charm and distinction – and sometime limitation – of feeling like no direction at all. We’re intimately present as these two smart guys go at it, and if you like what they have to say, then you’ll like the film.

Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton (F. Gary Gray, 2015)

Before the screening of Straight Outta Compton began, the theater played the trailer for Ride Along 2, in which rapper-turned-actor Ice Cube (once known as O’Shea Jackson) plays a cop. How the world turns! As the movie as I was about to see reveals, Ice Cube – along with his N.W.A. colleagues – was responsible for that late 1980s rap anthem of urban discontent, “F*** tha Police.” Long since turned respectable citizen (and a very funny one at that), Ice Cube has nonetheless never quite lost all of his angry edge, honed in the streets of Compton (shown this summer, as violent as ever, in the great teen comedy Dope), where this new movie, from director F. Gary Gray (who directed Ice Cube in one of his first films, Friday, which he also co-wrote, back in 1995), begins. I have always liked Ice Cube, and I remember well the impact of N.W.A.’s 1988 debut album on the hysterical white establishment, and had high hopes that Gray’s new effort would prove both informative and entertaining.

What it turned out to be is two-thirds of a really good movie burdened with a messy and interminable final act. Expertly acted, with a powerful O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Ice Cube’s son) as Ice Cube – ably assisted by a cast of rising African-American performers that includes Corey Hawkins (Romeo and Juliet), Jason Mitchell (Dragon Eyes), Neil Brown Jr. (Battle Los Angeles) and Aldis Hodge (The East), as well as by journeyman character actor Paul Giamatti (Love & Mercy) – the film starts off with energy and a strong sense of purpose, promising a greatness that dissipates by the end. But while it lasts, this drive gives us an extremely timely meditation on poverty, race, police brutality and the intersection of all three. The five rappers who formed N.W.A. used their respective experiences as black men in America to speak truth to power, and given the traumatic events of the past year, the need for such truths has clearly not gone away. Unfortunately, the film also traffics in grotesque misogyny, with many a naked woman treated as nothing more than a sex object. You can’t have everything, I guess. It’s too bad, though, because when the movie is good, it is very good, making its failures greater for the disappointment of frustrated expectations. Still, a good flawed movie is better than a perfect mediocrity, and Straight Outta Compton is definitely worth seeing.

[from 8/22/15]

As a non-aficionado of the story of NWA and subsequent trajectories of its members, I was unaware of the full extent of the misogyny that was such a big part of how some of them viewed the world. The uproar over the omission of Dr. Dre’s abuse of women – documented in this article in today’s New York Times – gives me pause, and makes me revise my assessment of the film. It’s still a movie that does a wonderful job highlighting police brutality against young African-American men, then and now, but it’s also clearly not giving us all of the details about who these young men were. That’s a shame, since human beings grow and evolve, and including the fact that Dre and his mates changed (apparently) after committing such acts of atrocity would have made the film truer, and probably better, since the final act, as it is, is the weakest part of the movie. <sigh>

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