Wednesday, November 28, 2012

An Honest Look at a Tough Situation

Often the best way to tell a story is honestly and simply. That's the mode in the new documentary Burn, which has opened on a few screens across the country and premieres in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Sterling Heights, MI and Livonia, MI on December 7. This look at the situation of how the fire department in Detroit must deal with any number of crises is sincere in the way it shows this world, serious while never getting overly emotional.

The film deals with one specific crew, that of Engine Company 50, situated in Detroit's impoverished East Side. We are told in the first few minutes of the film that Detroit has more fires that any other city in America; sadly a good number of these fires are set by the city's residents. One fire fighter notes the various ways that individuals do this damage. "There's arson for profit, arson for revenge and arson for kicks."

Other fireman tell of the everyday mess they face in their area. "There are areas that look like bombs have hit" says one fireman; another talks of certain parts of the city looking like "Katrina without the hurricane."

The job of this crew is tough enough - we are given several excellent sequences in which the film crew manages to show us the dangers of their work from only a few feet away - but add to that the fact that the city's budget for the fire department has been squeezed dry. The film makers are smart enough not to hit us over the head with the financial problems in Detroit at the current moment - we know that the automobile industry there is struggling - so we can easily understand it when we are told that there just isn't the money from City Hall to fix aging fire rigs. So the firefighters are working with one hand tied behind their back.

Still, most of them wouldn't trade their lot in life with anyone, as they love what they do. They talk of the brotherhood of the crew, who spend 24 hours a day several times a week with each other. "We're like cowboys in a rodeo," one fireman comments.

One of the subplots of the film deals with a new fire commissioner, a native Detroiter who moved to Los Angeles and performed similar duties in that city. His immediate goal of course, is to trim expenses as well as try and acquire more money for everyday business. One of the ways he aims to do this is a controversial method of letting fires at vacant structures burn out. We're told that there are 80,000 of these structures in Detroit and while the mayor has plans to raze a number of these, there are still tens of thousands of these facilities remaining and the fire crew have to answer the call when they are ablaze.

The new edict seems to make sense - why endanger fire fighters' lives for a vacant building? - but as several crew members point out, you never know if there's someone in that building at any given moment. Indeed we see one fire where that is exactly the situation. Thus the station's crew chief and the commissioner are at odds.

It's a story line like this, where we see that things are not black and white, that help give Burn some added complexity. But to me the best thing about this documentary is the way that co-producers and directors Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez honestly deal with their subject. They don't treat the fire crew as heroes, as it too often done these days in television and in the theater. Rather they show them as hard working individuals with a job to do. It's a tough job and we see that in images - we're not pounded over the head with cheap talk. The film never gets overly emotional about its subject, rather it gives us a realistic view of what the world of a Detroit firefighter is all about.

The film is beautifully photographed - kudos to cinematographers Mark Eaton, Nicola Marsh and Matt Pappas - and is briskly paced. This is an engaging, well organized documentary that is a model for how a film like this should be made. Tell us the story, don't wrap it in some sort of fantasy world. By making the fire fighters into real people and not heroes (I'm sure that most fire fighters resent being called heroes), we the audience connect on a more direct level with these individuals. That helps give Burn the proper reality the filmmakers sought to achieve.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Political Wheeling and Dealing - Preminger Style

Fifty years ago, Otto Preminger treated us to his look at the inside world of Washington, D.C. politics in his mesmerizing version of Advise and Consent. Based upon the wildly successful novel of Allen Drury, Preminger's film remains today one of the most accomplished studies of the inner workings of American politics at the highest level. Varying between numerous narrative tones, from the reality of a congressional hearing to the melodramatics of a senator's homosexual affair from several years in the past, the director assembles all of this material in a highly entertaining film that refuses to take the easy way out.

That should come as no surprise to anyone who admires the work of Preminger, who in 1962 was at the height of his fame as well as directorial powers, fresh off the triumphs of Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Exodus (1960). While the latter film was a beautifully balanced look at the struggles of a group of individuals surrounding the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, it is the former work that in my mind is Preminger's finest film; a courtroom drama that leaves us with the ending that we, the audience, wanted to see, yet one that left us wondering if justice had indeed been served.

Preminger enjoyed great critical and box-office success with his film adaptations of the blockbuster novels Anatomy and Exodus, so it was no surprise that he continued in this vein for Advise and Consent, which was a publishing phenomenon upon its release in 1959, as author Drury composed a work that was not only an enthralling look at the everyday deeds of our politicians in Washington, D.C (with the emphasis on the Senate); it also became a bit of an enjoyable pursuit, as the reader could imagine the exact senator Drury was writing about. The author was diligent in not naming which senator belonged to which party; this was a smart move, as there were likable as well as less than upright senators on both sides of the aisle in this work. Of course, while there have always been philosophical differences between the Democrats and Republicans, the venom that is spewed forth these days was not so typical in the late 1950s and early '60s.

The device that sets this story in place is a simple one; Robert A. Leffingwell (Henry Fonda), a former head of the Federal Power Commission and now, as this tale begins, the individual in charge of the office of Defense Mobilization, has been nominated by the President (Franchot Tone, in one of the more subuded, self-deflating portrayals of a US president ever put on film) for the job of Secretary of State. We learn of this news in the very first shot, as we see a newsboy holding the morning edition of the local Washington paper with a headline announcing this development (more on newspapers and communication from the early 1960s later in this post).

Senators Seabright Cooley and Robert Munson

We soon meet two of the major protagonists of this tale: Senators Robert Munson (Walter Pidgeon), who is the senior senator of Michigan and also the Majority Leader and Seab (Seabright) Cooley (Charles Laughton), senior senator and self-admitted "curmudgeon" from South Carolina. Munson is a staunch supporter of the President who will do everything in his power to see that Leffingwell is approved. Cooley on the other hand, vehemently opposes Leffingwell and will make speech after speech criticizing the nominee's stand on foreign affairs, claiming he is soft on the threat of communism. Given the political environment in 1962 when this film was released - the Cold War posturing of the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union - this was more than an idle concern. (As a point of reference, this film premiered in June, 1962, only a few months before the Cuban Missile crisis in October of that year).

We are told upfront that these two senators are from the same party, which of course, adds a great deal of inner friction and tension to the proceedings. It also makes for some highly entertaining scenes between the two with some great exchanges (the first-rate screenplay was adapted by Wendell Mayes, who performed a similarly brilliant job on Anatomy of a Murder). After the first session of the committee hearing with Leffingwell is finished, Munson tells Cooley that he has enough votes lined up to see that the nominee will win approval; he asks him, "What do you think of that, you old buzzard?" Cooley's response is wonderful; "Us old buzzards can see a mouse dying from 10,000 feet up. Us old buzzards have the sharpest eyes in creation. Right now, I'm studying the terrain."

The approval hearing is the centerpiece of this film and these sequences are masterfully directed by Preminger, who uses a documentary approach in this section. I love how he gives us a two-shot of Leffingwell and the stenographer; most directors would have given us close-ups of the nominee, probably sweating a bit, perhaps squirming in his seat. That might have been fine, but it would have been a bit clich├ęd; with this image, the documentary impact - the witness answering questions while the stenographer records his answers - is strengthened. It's the objective approach that is a trademark of Preminger - we aren't given closeups of Leffingwell except for a couple of key answers, so we're not force fed how important his words are; combine that with the minimalist performance of Fonda and you've got the proper emotions that are called for in the scene. I've always admired Preminger for this directorial philosophy and it's in evidence in several other part of the film as well.

Another key element in the scenes of the committee hearing is the outstanding work turned in by Director of Photography Sam Leavitt. The cinematographer did a marvelous job lighting this interior, as we are given vividly sharp black and white images that also have a good deal of grey to them. This is in keeping with the message of this hearing, especially when a small-time clerk named Herbert Gelman (brilliantly portrayed in a nervous, barely audible manner by Burgess Meredith) announces that he knew Leffingwell years earlier when he was a student in one of Leffingwell's classes. Leffingwell says he did not know Gelman when his name is first brought up in the hearing; later on, he states that he did know him. The witness is taking the time-honored approach that hundreds, if not thousands of individuals in his position also took during their cross-examination - admit to nothing. Thus the facts and the accusations - Gelman claims that Leffingwell is a Communist - are not black and white, but interspersed with a lot of grey. (Note: it is a shame that the luster of Leavitt's photography is not evident in these photos, as his work is particularly luminous in these scenes. Do watch the DVD to appreciate the full visual appeal of this film.)

There are numerous twists and turns in this story, as a particularly cunning senator from Wyoming by the name of Fred Van Ackerman (George Grizzard) is out to discredit the committee chairman, Senator Brigham Anderson from Utah (Don Murray), whom he believes is against Leffingwell's approval. I won't go into the details of this subplot, but the consequences play out in the final 15-minute sequence in the Senate chambers, which is supremely directed, written, edited and acted. Preminger uses his crane-mounted camera to swoop in and out of this room, as we see the inner chaos of the final act come to a resolution, as Munson has asked the Senate to advise and consent to the nomination of Leffingwell. There are speeches given, protests raised, a call for yeas and nays on this issue and finally, a taking of the vote. We are given information a little bit at a time, as we learn that the vote is almost even or perhaps one or two in favor of approval; if there is a tie, the vice-president (Lew Ayres) has the tie-breaking vote and will almost assuredly support the nominee and thus his president.

The vice president (Lew Ayres) overseeing the Senate chamber

This sequence is a great finale to this film as we are thrust into the real time of a Senate confrontation. Will the nominee be approved? Will any senators change their mind due to events that took place earlier in the film regarding Senator Anderson who is being blackmailed? This is highly entertaining stuff and it's even more memorable, given the ending we don't expect.

One additional thing worth noting is the ensemble acting of the veteran performers that Preminger assembled for this performance. The director knew that if he wanted a box-office hit when filming a blockbuster (Preminger was a shrewd producer as well as director; his films never ran over budget), he needed to have stars up on the screen that the public not only wanted to see, but also in this case, ones that could be honestly believed in their performances. Of the stellar cast, Henry Fonda was far and away the top star at the time and his brief portrayal of Leffingwell is another throughly professional job from this great actor. Professional is also the word for the performance of Walter Pidgeon, who is the glue that holds this scenario together as the even-tempered Majority Leader.

Then there are the superb supporting performances of Lew Ayres as the vice president (rarely as good as in this role), veteran Franchot Tone as the President, George Grizzard as Senator Van Ackerman, Don Murray as Sen. Anderson and Burgess Meredith as Gelman. Each performance is first-rate and clearly any one of these actors could have been nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor. The fact that none of them were - in fact, the film did not receive a single Oscar nomination - is a shame and a bit of an outrage, based partly on the fact that 1962 was a particularly strong year for cinema with the releases of such works as To Kill A Mockingbird, Lawrence of Arabia, The Manchurian CandidateBirdman of Alcatraz, The Miracle Worker and The Days of Wine and Roses among others. Yet one wonders if Preminger's reputation as a tyrannical director had left Academy voters out in the cold. Regardless, the number of accomplished performances in this film is highly notable.

Of course, watching the legendary Charles Laughton dominate the scenery here (as he did so often in his career) is a treat unto itself. Moving his hefty frame across the screen (even standing up and sitting down in his chair in the Senate chamber is an effort), Laughton is having the time of his life as Senator Cooley, a proud, cantankerous fellow whose bark is usually worse than his bite. I love the way he carries himself during the opening of the hearing, interrupting questioning and then making speeches designed to have those in attendance admire him more than the nominee. At times jovial and at times brooding, Laughton is his last film role is brilliant.

Watching this film some 50 years later is a fascinating experience, not only as the film holds up beautifully, but also because of the difference in technology today versus 1962. Thus we watch events in real time, as a Senator has to call someone from his office or hotel room to gain the latest news; he couldn't just take out his cel phone and get in touch on the spot. Newspapers and not electronic media were the main sources for information, so one's opinions were largely based on what a reporter wrote for the public to read the following day. This allows more complexities in the story line and more doubt to creep in among the characters, as everything is not decided in an instant. Preminger lets the action play out in a slightly charged atmosphere; this is a bit of a potboiler, especially in the final sequence, but it's remarkable in its look at both the rules as well as the wrong doings of the game, the game being politics, the biggest in the town of Washington, D.C.