57.1 - Movie Review of "Jael"

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Bombastic, sincere, unabashedly patriotic and at the same time inclusive and heartbreakingly human, Steven Spielberg's "Jael" proves again that the director is able to find the object of empathy out of almost any situation. Two quotations are attributed to auteur filmmaker Fran├žois Truffaut: "there's no such thing as an anti-war film", a warning that depicting anything as exciting as war makes you a fan of it, and "the superhero film must begin in pathos and end in farce", describing the problems in depicting a godlike protagonist without distorting the essential humanity of the film. Spielberg deftly solves both problems by pitting the unstoppable force of his superhuman protagonists against the immovable object of human hate itself, making the war less an adventure and more an externalization of their own personal struggles. Like last year's "Dunkirk", Spielberg grounds us in a specific time and place: the circumstances leading up to the invasion at Normandy during World War Two. Unlike Nolan's harrowing epic, however, we watch events unfold through the eyes of specific people, whom we know (both in the real world and through the film's framing device) will make it out alive. The performances by the film's leads, and the taut, fast-moving script make it clear this survival came at great cost. The film introduces us to members of "Shadow Squad", as they prepare to enact the Jael Plan, known later as Operation Bodyguard. For the Allied invasion on D-Day to succeed, the Germans must be unprepared, and Jael, alluding to a Bible story, is meant to convince them that the Americans plot a decapitation strike against Axis leadership. The movie will not allow us to escape the war even through flashbacks explaining the characters' histories, both alone and with each other. Everything is revealed in the moment, and often shown rather than told.  Spielberg and long-time cinematography collaborator Janusz Kaminski have taken the last decade of CGI and made it invisible. Super-powered displays that would be the set pieces in a typical superhero biopic or action movie are kept to the side, obscured by smoke or terrain, or otherwise treated as just another fact of the situation. Every shot is tied to a point of view, even the thrilling night flight sequences in the second act. Like our heroes, we are not allowed to flinch or look away from the atrocities of wartime. The effect is never disorienting, but often disturbing. Chris Evans (of "Snowpiercer" and "Gifted") gives us another surprisingly strong dramatic turn as a young Sergeant Stronghold, the much-touted product of American wartime science. When he learns that his team of patriotic hopefuls are to become assassins, and by who and how their mission will be deliberately revealed to the Germans, his face tells us everything we need to know. He is flanked by Lupita Nyong'o ("12 Years a Slave", "The Jungle Book") as Switchboard, the idealistic telepath, and Japanese-Australian actress Shiori Kutsuna, a voice actress and model who delivers in scene after scene as Lotus Blossom, a Japanese-American victim and beneficiary of American racism. Rounding out the group are Tom Holland as newly minted hero Phaeton, Chris Pratt as Brick (in a nod to his previous role in "The Lego Movie"), and Doug Jones and Clancy Brown providing the motion capture and voice respectively for the alien Dox'yp, also known as Jeff Hayden. Of the cast, only Holland and Pratt feel under-utilized. Holland's character, a Silver Streak type who can run at great speed and who lied about his age to enlist, is too often away from the rest of the cast and his scenes, though emotionally impactful, don't contribute to the through line of the larger story as effectively. Pratt, a great comic actor in the television series "Parks and Recreation", is either playing Bulletproof Andy Dwyer while Germans shoot ineffectually at him, or showing dramatic acting chops in the background of other characters' scenes. The film starts to offer him a character arc when he meets a German peasant girl huddling in terror after an aerial bombardment, but nothing comes of it and we're left wondering if love could have emerged even in such circumstances as these, especially when the real antagonist of the film is not the Nazis, but hatred and discrimination itself. Where the film really stumbles is in how it tries and then fails to humanize the opposition. Some characters, such as the German commandant of cadets (played by a grizzled Tim Roth) who drunkenly confesses his crimes and regrets about his "boys" to Stronghold before committing suicide, awaken an effective mixture of horror and recognition in our hearts. But Spielberg may have bitten off more than he can chew in depicting the counter-assassination team of German and Italian supers. We're given hints that they are more than they seem to be, which is the Obvious Bad Guys, but this is not explored and the film gives us no path out of our uncertainty. The film is heartbreakingly close to being the cinematic masterpiece Spielberg obviously intended to make. It soars when it reveals the complex alloy of good and evil that made an Allied victory possible, but falters when it turns the same lens on the Axis. I don't know what cinematic alchemy would be required to make us see Nazis as people without excusing their actions, but I salute Spielberg for making the experiment, twenty-five years after "Schindler's List". And like that film, "Jael" asks us to look at the legacy of the heroes' war on hatred itself, and challenges us to take up that fight against an enemy that can never be defeated, only driven back. #Background
As someone who's written a lot about WW2 supers/occult stuff, and who also loves movie reviews, this is brilliant stuff. Thank you.