A grim, epic allegory of Putin’s RussiaFeb 9, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 21 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The director of the new Russian movie Leviathan now lives in Canada. This was a wise decision on Andrey Zvyagintsev’s part—because even though Leviathan received grants from the Russian government and was officially selected to represent the country in this year’s Oscar race, at some point in the near future, Zvyagintsev’s career and maybe his life won’t be worth a plugged kopek in his homeland.
Russia’s devolution into a self-dealing tinpot dictatorship with pretensions to grandeur that barely mask a frightening capacity to cause suffering in the pursuit of power is the subject of Leviathan, and everybody there knows it. The film, which has yet to be shown widely in Russia, was celebrated at the Cannes Film Festival last summer. In its wake, Russia’s Ministry of Culture has announced rules banning the release of films “defiling the national culture, posing a threat to national unity, and undermining the foundations of the constitutional order.”
The culture minister, a historian named Vladimir Medinsky, is a nationalist reactionary who intends to exercise his authority to “consolidate the state and society on the basis of values instilled by our history.” According to the Moscow Times, Medinsky has “urged the creation of a ‘patriotic’ Internet and the spread of like-minded films, radio, and television content.” Leviathan is becoming his test case. And with good reason. It’s as subversive of the ambitions of Vladimir Putin and his repugnant lackeys as Medinsky and other budding nationalist totalitarians in the Putin ambit fear it is.
Leviathan tells a small-scale tale about a working-class mechanic named Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) trying to keep his family home from being seized by the town’s charmless and ruthless mayor. Kolya’s troubles do not end there. He has a depressed wife and a teenaged son who seems to be teetering on the edge of delinquency. Kolya’s hopes rest on the shoulders of a slick old army buddy who is now a lawyer in Moscow and who comes to defend him. This leads to an unexpected domestic crisis.
So it’s a small-town melodrama. But it isn’t. If it were, Zvyagintsev wouldn’t have filmed it with the scale of a David Lean epic. The town is on the shores of the Barents Sea, just south of the Arctic Ocean, and in the waters near Kolya’s house lie the shell of a massive shipwreck and the skeleton of a great sea creature. This tells you two things: First, Leviathan is a work that aims for biblical grandeur, with Kolya cast in the role of a present-day Job; and second, that Zvyagintsev is not a subtle filmmaker.
He wants us to understand that what we’re seeing is all of Russia miniaturized. The country’s intractable sociological and political problems are all on display. The casual alcoholism that afflicts all the characters is not incidental, nor is the corruption, both on a grand scale—the mayor’s illicit seizure of Kolya’s property, for example—and a petty one. Kolya’s close buddies in the local constabulary supplement their incomes and flex their muscles at everyone’s expense, including Kolya’s. He may be a close friend of the police chief, but he is also expected to repair the man’s car at a moment’s notice without compensation.
For his part, the mayor justifies his selfish pursuits by hiding behind the heavy black robes of the region’s leading Russian Orthodox priest. When it appears Kolya’s friend from Moscow has come up with evidence strong enough to land the mayor in jail, the mayor expresses his terror to the priest—who tells him that he is an instrument of God and that he must bring his might to bear to defeat his enemies. In a brilliant final scene, we discover, finally, why Kolya’s property is so important to both the mayor and the priest.
Kolya is a classic Russian character, straight out of Gogol’s incomparable story “The Overcoat.” He is an innocent, none too bright, who is incapable of maneuvering around the corruption everyone else takes for granted and tries to take advantage of for personal gain. But unlike the hapless protagonist of “The Overcoat,” Kolya is not even bleakly comic. What happens to him is chilling and unexpected, but it’s perfectly in keeping with Zvyagintsev’s perception that, in Putin’s Russia, injustice is as ever-present as air—and disguises itself when necessary in pompous nationalistic garb.
Leviathan begins verrrry slowly, as Zvyagintsev establishes its mournful and deliberate pace. But as the gears of the plot begin to mesh, it grips, moves, and finally breaks your heart—an experience similar to that of contemplating the descent of Russia from the glorious optimism that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union to the self-aggrandizing and defensive nihilism that now seem to have swallowed it whole.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.
One man, one war, and the cost of serviceFeb 2, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 20 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The overwhelming American Sniper is cast in shadow from start to finish by two real-world tragedies, one very broad and one very precise. The first is the irresolution of the Iraq war, the conflict to which the film’s titular character—Navy SEAL Christopher Kyle—was deployed four times. The second is the 2013 murder of Kyle at the hands of a disturbed veteran he was trying to help. As a result of these tragedies, the movie that tells their stories is haunted and grave.
Is the Alan Turing seen here the Alan Turing who was? Jan 26, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 19 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The Imitation Game is the fanciest ABC Afterschool Special ever made: It takes the inspiring, mystifying, and upsetting life story of a great genius and turns it into a didactic and banal lesson about how people who are “different” are also very, very special.
When a historical drama is devoid of dramaJan 19, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 18 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The marketing genius of movies like Selma, the highly praised docudrama about the march in Alabama that triggered the 1965 Voting Rights Act, is that they simultaneously confuse and intimidate critics and audiences by making them feel as though it would be an act of disrespect to speak anything but words of praise for the way they depict life-and-death historical events of great moral moment.
The biblical saga gets an up-to-the-minute adaptationDec 29, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 16 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Raise your hand if you want to see Moses portrayed as an insurgent lunatic terrorist with a bad conscience, the pharaoh who sought the murder of all first-born Hebrew slaves as a nice and reasonable fellow, and God as a foul-tempered 11-year-old boy with an English accent.
A weird, tragic, compelling tale tainted by politicsDec 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 14 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Foxcatcher is a slow, gripping, fact-based movie about a bizarre and lonely heir to the Du Pont fortune whose obsession with the sport of wrestling eventually led him to commit a pointless and vicious murder. What makes Foxcatcher compelling is that its story, its setting, and its characters are so odd, so singular, so unlike anything we’ve seen before.
I’m OK, you’re OK, and you’re entitled to your opinionNov 3, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 08 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
If you go see the universally praised Birdman, the story of an over-the-hill film star trying to make a comeback by starring in a Broadway play, I hope you enjoy yourself. I really do. That’s what movies are for—to provide enjoyment, a few hours of diversion. Genuine art transcends that shallow goal.
The pursuit of excellence makes a great movieOct 27, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 07 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
In Whiplash, a dislikable teenager runs afoul of a dislikable adult, and what emerges from their conflict is the movie of the year so far. It’s rare for an American film to offer such an unvarnished portrait of unattractive people, and rightly so: Why would people want to watch?
Feckless men, reckless women, flawed castingOct 20, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 06 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
In the universe according to Gone Girl, men are no great shakes: They’re inconstant and weak and foolish. But women . . . ah, women. They’re smart, resourceful, infinitely clever—and profoundly dangerous.
Not so mad about the boy, but the premise is promisingSep 1, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 47 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
If you know that Boyhood has been rapturously received as a revolutionary work in the annals of American filmmaking, it is almost sure to disappoint you. I know this, because I saw it two weeks after it opened and it disappointed me, even though I knew I was seeing something no other filmmaker had ever really tried before and that the experiment was an undoubted success.
For Tom Cruise, from top gun to second fiddle? Jun 23, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 39 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Movie stars go cold. It’s part of the way popular culture works. For a long time, people just love watching them. People can’t get enough of them. And then, after they go to the well once too often with a formula that has gone flat, or after their messy personal lives get all mixed up in the characters they’re playing, stars become even slightly distasteful.
A parody of a spoof of a well-worn formula. Jun 16, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 38 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The much-maligned new comedy A Million Ways to Die in the West is actually pretty funny in spots. But it’s very strange. It’s an affectionate western homage, a mash-up western, a western pastiche. That’s not odd. What’s odd is that it’s an homage to a parody, and paying tribute to a spoof is just weird.
‘Less is more’ works for atomic monsters, too. Jun 2, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 36 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Why does it feel like a modest triumph that the new version of Godzilla is actually not bad? This is really the best thing to say about Godzilla—if said in a surprised, huh, who’da thunk it? kind of way: Hey, not bad! It’s an achievement of a kind when a film about a rubber-suited character featured in some of the most infamously ridiculous pablum ever made (Godzilla vs. Mothra, Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla) doesn’t make you giggle.
A landmark in cinematic self-love.Jun 3, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 36 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Not once, not twice, but three times in the course of the 86-minute running time of the extravagantly praised Frances Ha is the title character shown running through Manhattan. Once, we see her running with her best friend. Another time we see her running to find an ATM. Then we see her running while improvising dance moves.