Movie Blind Spots: The Untouchables

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Up until last Saturday afternoon I had never seen ‘The Untouchables’. It was a significant absence from the gangster movies of the eighties and nineties that I’d seen, the Godfather trilogy, ‘Donnie Brasco’, ‘Scarface’,  ‘Carlito’s Way’, ‘Casino’ and ‘Goodfellas’. For a working class lad watching these films were rites of passage. Everybody had the black and white ‘Scarface’ poster on their bedroom walls, we all did Joe Pesci impressions and when out on the town we strutted around looking for Michelle Pfeiffer and that white gold.

One of the first things that grabbed my attention was how the violence in ‘The Untouchables’ seemed cartoonish and unreal compared to say what we’ve seen in recent years in HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’. There was just something unreal about the way the bodies fell, particularly in the unintentionally cringey finale as Eliot Ness tries to stop a pram falling down a flight of stairs in the middle of a shootout.

I don’t know something else seemed amiss as the minutes ticked by, the performances seem out of sync, from what I’d heard about the movie De Niro is superb, but looking at his career as a whole just off his peak. What I saw was De Niro as fat and satisfied and not in the method sense of packing on pounds for dramatic effect. He presents Al Capone like Danny De Vito as The Penguin. He’s a villain in a superhero movie, grandiose, incompetent and over the top. Costner is a bit empty, De Palma seems in love with his face and Costner just doesn’t seem all that moved emotionally, even when his family are at risk from mob reprisals. Contrast this to the charismatic performances from Sean Connery as Jimmy Malone, the comedy of Charles Martin Smith and the electricity of Andy Garcia. The headliners bluff and blunder whilst the supporting cast are mind-blowing.

‘The Untouchables’ is comic book take on the myth of Eliot Ness. This is a film with hardly any grey areas during a time that was one giant grey area. Despite the law and justice system being corrupt and everything being morally ambiguous ‘The Untouchables’ basically boils down to goodies vs. baddies, Ness vs. Capone.

I don’t want to beat a classic movie down, because it’s a fun, engrossing watch, and the film looks great. The costumes, the locations (particularly the border scene) but the film’s biggest flaw is that it seems to add authentic grit. Costner’s Ness is a damp squib of a man, a square. He almost resembles Josh Brolin’s character in ‘Gangster Squad’, a pale descendent of ‘The Untouchables’. Is that the legacy of the movie, that it spawned such poor imitations? ‘The Untouchables’ perhaps hasn’t aged well, or maybe I’ve fallen out of love with the Gangster movie genre.

– RJW

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Swing Vote (2008)

Swing Vote (2008)

In an unprecedented (and implausible) turn of events, the latest U.S. election between Republican incumbent Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammar) and Democrat candidate Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper) has resolved itself in a complete dead heat. The heat is so dead, in fact, that its outcome lies in the hands of just one citizen; Ernest ‘Bud’ Johnson (Kevin Costner), a New Mexico resident and deadbeat dad, who earns a reprieve after his vote malfunctioned. Given the obligation to complete his vote and decide the election, Bud becomes the most famous man in America, leading to courtship from both political parties. Bud gleefully exploits this new-found attention, much to the chagrin of his civic-minded daughter. As the date of his vote looms and the fate of both the country and his relationship with his daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll) in the balance, will Bud do the right thing? What is the right thing anyway? Lucky for Bud, this movie isn’t that interested.

The main problem with partisan satire is in alienating about half of your potential audience, and also courting accusations of satiety. Once seen to take sides, you are to an extent no longer the outsider. No longer the archetypal Pueblo Clown figure, favoured by the likes of Stewart Lee and high-brow comedy theorists, mocking the system from some exterior vantage point and — above all else — never doing voiceovers for the Prudential. To do so will firmly place yourself within the narrative, and undermine any effort to ridicule the process.

Now the problem with bipartisan satire; Republicans. Not so much a specific judgement on those who vote Republican, or even particularly the fiscal conservatism at its bedrock. It’s more a call on the homopobia, racism, gun-coddling, historical revisionism, and Galtiphile exceptionalism that clings to that particular bedrock like so much foetid barnacle.  A bipartisan approach is ultimately a re-enforcement of the status quo, communising every polarising issue. Swing Vote, amounting to little but a middling vehicle for what will optimistically be known as ‘mid-period Costner’ by the more resilient pockets of his fanbase, is this form of cop-out. It at least cops out with a compelling premise, one with potential, but only gets round to sprouting on screen.

There’s a lot to be done with the idea of a single voter deciding an election. It could be used to address the illusion of mandate, where ideas of competition, and ‘winning’, trounce the more democratic ideal of accurate representation. Similarly, it could be used to attack the disproportionate influence of the swing states themselves. What’s the real difference between a loveable dufus picking an election and a few hundred thousand Floridans doing much the same in 2000? Perhaps you could satirise the electoral college, a controversial system whereby a series of state representatives vote in the citizen’s stead. Or perhaps one could pluck the last taboo of Democracy. Do we actually need it? Perhaps things would be more efficient if one person just decided everything for us? If not, what can be done to remedy our disparities?

Swing Vote isn’t very interested in any of these big questions. At the most, it’s a lightweight, overly saccharine critique of political apathy, with no analysis of endemic social causes of disenfranchisement. “Bud” Johnson is modern Hollywood’s idea of a south-west Everyman, which never says more about the south-west than it does the attitude of Hollywood. He’s dumb, he’s lazy, and can’t hold a job on account of his dumb laziness. To cap it all off, he drinks Budweiser, and is named ‘Bud’, hopefully not because of the Budweiser. Not to say that there’s nobody out there who fits that particularly broad silhouette, but to hang an entire movie (and an ostensibly political one at that) on someone who doesn’t appreciate the stakes or even care that much about the outlandish turn of events that comprise his story, is patronising. His loveability stems entirely from Costner’s residual on-screen charm, something always rather more niche among a pantheon that includes the likes of Tom Hanks and…I don’t know…Tom Selleck? Whatever.

The main bulk of what could be considered ‘an satire’ occurs during the second act. Both campaigns, spurred by the opportunity of appealing to — and winning by — Bud’s vote, egregiously abandon their policies and make counter-intuitive pledges. GOP President Boone supports gay marriage, while Democrat Greenleaf becomes virulently pro-life, all based off sound bites from Bud’s lackadaisical interviews. The result is buffoonish, jarring queasily with the mawkish sentiment prevailing elsewhere in the picture. It’s as though Swing Vote, somewhat ironically, doesn’t have the courage of its convictions. The critique is squarely on the political class’ appeal to popular interests rather than internal ideology, without ever having to concede the merits of one policy over another. Gay marriage, or being anti-gay marriage, is just as good/bad as being pro-life, or pro-choice. There’s no interest on the part of the film-makers to get their hands ‘dirty’.

At the very least, both candidates are allowed to be in two minds about their ridiculous pandering, something that composes the majority of their character definition. It’s never that convincing, however, that either side would take this much of an ideological plunge on so flimsy a presupposition.

When the time comes for Bud to finally (spoiler alert) get his civics lesson  and, by extension, an active part in his own film, it’s an extremely perfunctory montage. Not to mention an extremely-late-in-the-game montage, occurring as it does well into the third act. Downhearted and chastened by the public turning on him for being a national embarrassment and effectively holding the election hostage, Bud makes amends by requesting to chair another national debate between the two candidates. Here he makes an impassioned introductory speech, apologising for his errancy and effectively blaming society’s problems on himself and his ilk. The system isn’t so much in error, or unfairly weighed against its people. It’s our fault for not properly engaging with the system. For not working hard enough, not making enough sacrifices, not having enough aspiration etc. Whether you agree with this sentiment or not, it’s an egregiously conservative coda for a film so otherwise bent on political ambiguity. Counting the vice-presidential debates, this would make for the fifth debate in a dramatically overrunning election. It’s amazing that the crowd are so pleasant!

Swing Vote was released in American cinemas on August 1st, 2008, a few months before the Obama/McCain election was to dramatically change the political landscape. Like many western democracies, the US is in the thrall of two-party centrism, where their relatively slender disparity consolidates people to often bitterly opposing clans. The wake of Obama’s victory, however, has exacerbated the US ‘culture wars’ to such an extent that the idea of both parties being “as bad as each-other” feels increasingly anachronistic. Swing Vote is more interesting as a political what-if? than as a movie, which is partly why the bulk of this review has focused on these implications, rather than its dramatic worth or the quality of performance. Perhaps another movie down the line will take these ideas more seriously, or at least have more fun.

Swing Vote on IMDB
Buy Swing Vote [DVD] [2008]