Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Image of Victory (2021)


            “Image of Victory” is an Israeli movie directed by Avi Nesher.  It is based on the Battle of Nitzanim in the Israel War of Independence.  It was nominated for 15 Ophir Awards (the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars).  It won for Cinematography, Make-up, and Costume Design.

            The movie leads with the Camp David Accord, which causes a Palestinian journalist named Hassanin (Amir Khoury) to wonder what they fought for in 1948.  Flash back to 1947.  The movie has dual tracks.  One follows Hassanin (Amir Khoury) as he embeds with Egyptian volunteers when they join with Palestinian Arabs living in a village close to Nitzanim.  They train for an attack on the kibbutz.  It should be a piece of cake.  Hassanin narrates his half of the movie.  The other track focuses on the Israeli’s living in the kibbutz.  They are prepared to defend themselves, but the settlers are all amateurs.  They are reinforced by a unit of soldiers, some of whom are convicts.  The Israelis know an attack is coming and they prepare for it.  Even some of the women will participate in the defense.  The kibbutz scenes concentrate on Mira (Joy Reiger).  She is a bad-ass.  When most of the women and all the children are evacuated, she stays to fight. 

            The movie has a romance between Mira and the Israeli commander Avraham Schwarzstein (Yadin Gellman), but it is cursory.  There are tit-for-tat ambushes before the war even begins.  The war breaks out after Israel declares independence.  The kibbutz must be held for political reasons.  That’s the official reason, but an evil political officer thinks losing the kibbutz won’t be too bad.  The settlers will be martyrs.  At first, taking the kibbutz looks possible.  However, the force in the village shows itself to be incompetent.  The kibbutz looks like it will be held.  Unfortunately, an Egyptian unit that passes by on the way to Tel Aviv, gets its butt whipped.  To save face, it needs to have a victory before returning to Egypt.  The kibbutz will be their target.

            The film intends to be fair to both sides, but it is actually about 70% in the kibbutz.  This reflects the fact that it was made by Israelis.  It is a tribute to the defenders of Kibbutz Nitzanim, especially the women.  Mira represents all the Israeli women who fought for Israel’s independence.  Mira is a great character. We don’t see many strong women in war movies.  She not only fights.  She is a rock among the amateur kibbutz members.  Mira is not the only woman who fights.  They look to her as their unofficial leader.  Hassanin reflects the Arab point of view.  He is overconfident about the success of the soldiers he and his cameraman are covering.  He mentions wanting to be like Frank Capra.  He is your typical cinematic reporter. Hassanin is willing to be shot at to get his story.  That story is supposed to highlight the great victory of the Arabs.  Hassanin does want to cover the battle realistically, but his boss expects a puff piece highlighting the courageous Egyptians  We don’t see his finished project, but it is safe to assume it makes the battle into a great victory.  The documentary will be an “image of victory”.  The Israeli movie “Image of Victory” could have been propaganda, too.  Instead, the movie is fairly even-handed. Of course it makes the kibbutz defenders to be heroic.  But it doesn’t sugarcoat the fact that the battle was a losing effort.  The Arab irregulars are also sympathetically portrayed.


            The movie is well-made.  The acting is stellar, especially by Joy Reiger.  The dual track format was a wise decision.  We see both sides of the battle.  However, the movie is too micro.  We do not learn what the Arabs are fighting for.  We have no perception of what is going on in the war outside of the kibbutz.  We do know that although Kibbutz Nitzanim falls, the new Israeli nation will be a tough cookie.  The kibbutz stands in for the Israeli nation that was surrounded by hostile forces.  But unlike the kibbutz, the nation was not conquered in any of its wars.

            The story was originally not looked on as heroic.  The surrender of the kibbutz was one of the few surrenders in the war.  Many Israelis felt the kibbutz should have fought to the end.  In the years since, that perception has changed and the Battle of Nitzanim is now considered a valorous event similar to the Alamo.  The movie certainly buys into the current narrative.  The Kibbutz was established by farming families that included Holocaust survivors.  It had two problems:  the land was poor for farming and the settlement was isolated and surrounded by Arab villages.  It was not an easily defensible position.  There was some skirmishing before the war, as portrayed in the movie.  The Israelis consisted of 74 soldiers and 67 settlers.  On the night of June 6, 1948, the Battle of Nitzanim began with artillery fire.  Several Arab irregulars attacks were repulsed.  After an Egyptian unit was unsuccessful in its drive to Tel Aviv, the mission was switched to taking the kibbutz.  It called in aerial bombardment and then followed it with artillery, armor, and infantry. The defenders were able to take out some tanks, but the leader, Schwarzstein, was forced to fall back to more central perimeters twice.  It was decided they had no choice but to surrender.  When Schwarazstein and Ben-Ari went out to negotiate, an Egyptian officer shot Schwarzstein resulting in Ben-Ari killing him and then being killed himself.  Cooler heads then prevailed and the surrender was agreed to.  33 Israelis were dead, 16 were kibbutzers (3 were women).  105 were captured.

GRADE  = B+   

Saturday, April 22, 2023

The Covenant (2023)


            “The Covenant” (also known pretentiously as “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant) is a recently released war movie.  Director Guy Ritchie also co-wrote and co-produced the film.  It was filmed in Spain which fills in well for Afghanistan.  The original title was “The Interpreter”.

            The movie starts with a title card mentioning that during the War in Afghanistan, American forces were aided by Afghanis who risked their lives interpreting.  There was a tacit agreement that those interpreters who wished to come to the U.S. would be given visas to do so.  There is a foreboding aspect to this “covenant”.  Sgt. John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal) heads a squad of men who are in the IED prevention business.  It’s a dangerous job as evidenced by an incident at a checkpoint that leaves them needing a new interpreter.  Kinley chooses Ahmed (Dar Salim) in spite of the warning that he is not a yes man.  He has an attitude that comes with his experience and expertise.  When asked why he risks being considered a traitor and being marked for death, he simply says he needs the money.  But since that is not a good motivation for American audiences, it is later revealed that his son had been killed by the Taliban.  Revenge instead of money makes for a better hero.

            Ahmed is a good choice because he has a sixth sense about ambushes.  It takes a while for Kinley to trust Ahmed.  When told to keep his deductions to himself, Ahmed responds:  “I am an interpreter, not just a translator.”  The small unit gets permission to raid a possible bomb-making factory at an abandoned mine. They kick an ant hill and Kinley is left badly wounded with only Ahmed to save him.  At this point the movie becomes a buddy movie with the duo on the run.  Part 2 of the movie covers Kinley’s attempt to return the favor (and fulfill their personal covenant) by rescuing Ahmed from death for being an interpreter.  And he for being infamous for saving that American.

            “The Covenant” is a Guy Ritchie film so you can expect a lot of action and bloodshed.  This is his first war movie and someone must have told him that a war movie is not a crime movie.  The combat is borderline combat porn, but he actually restrains himself as there is no defiance of the laws of physics and the violence is not graphic.  You do get the usual disregard for reloading and plenty of explosions.  The battles are well choreographed and the two sites are different than you’re used to seeing.  The two fire fights are exhilarating and won’t leave you shaking your head.  The body count is very high.  America, fuck yeah!

            The movie is basically a two actor show and Gyllenhaal and Salim are excellent.  Both are the strong silent type.  In fact, the dialogue is sparse throughout (except when Kinley is cursing out the bureaucracy for not getting Ahmed a visa.)  In some ways, the bureaucrats are the villain of the movie.  It sucks to be married to these two.  Kinley is the stereotyped American who leaves his family behind to serve his country and then when he is finally back after being assumed dead, he returns in a very risky move.  His wife is understanding, of course.  Ahmed also has a family which he risks by becoming an interpreter and then becoming the most wanted man in Afghanistan.  Kinley does play the white savior, but unlike almost all of this trope, the man he is saving did more for him than he can ever repay.  What Ahmed does for Kinley is incredible and is one of the times the movie stretches credulity.  It is clearly not a true story.  And as such, it is predictable.  For those of you familiar with the Spectre gunship, when it is mentioned, you know what’s coming.  America, fuck yeah!

            While not based on an actual soldier – interpreter relationship, the movie is realistic in depicting the dilemma interpreters put themselves in.  If you thing about it, they really are traitors for aiding an army that had invaded their country.  That’s why we should have been committed to saving them when our involvement ended.  The most important message of the movie is we should be ashamed of how we treated them.  Hell, the only way Ahmed gets out is to have an unauthorized rescue mission save him and his family.  Anyone knowing American history knows that it is a bad decision to collaborate with American forces.  Ask the Indians who scouted for the cavalry, the South Vietnamese that accommodated the American military, and the Afghani interpreters.

            “The Covenant” is an entertaining movie for war movie lovers and/or action movie fans.  It’s message that you should pay your debt is done with verve and its lesson that we screwed our Afghani interpreters will make you feel ashamed.  America, what the fuck!



Friday, April 21, 2023

Firebird (2021)


            “Firebird” is a military romance movie.  Peeter Rebane made his directorial debut.  In 2014, he came across Igor Stravinsky’s memoir “The Story of Roman”.  He co-wrote the screenplay with Tom Prior, who plays Sergey in the movie.  The movie had some success at LGBTQ film festivals.

            Sergey is private at an Estonian air base.  He was conscripted and is looking forward to the end of his tour.  He is assigned to assist a newly arrived pilot named Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii).  Both men flirt with Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya), but it is part of their staying in the closet.  The two men fall in love and can’t stop it even though they have a KGB agent snooping around.  If they are caught they could be sent to five years of hard labor.  In a society where telling a joke about Stalin can get you in trouble, homosexuality is strictly forbidden.  They have some close calls, but love, even forbidden love, will out.

            “Firebird” is a simple movie with no frills.  It has an outside the box plot.  Because the second half is outside the military, it is not clearly a war movie. It’s a love triangle where the three main characters are (were) in the military.  By main characters I mean Roman and Sergey.  Luisa is an underdeveloped character and her role as the heterosexual in the love triangle is cursory.  It is predictable as it solves the love triangle by eliminating one of the lovers.  The film benefits from being set in the Soviet military.  This ups the stakes for Sergey and Roman.  Roman takes ridiculous risks to carry on the relationship with Sergey.  The point is that gay men can be willing to risk their careers and prison time for love, just like straight men.  Before you shake your head at the Soviet law against homosexuality, the United States was not much more open to gay relationships in the 1970s, especially in the military. 

            If you find LGBTQ issues to be offensive, this is not the movie for you.  There is a fairly graphic sex scene involving Sergey and Roman.  I had to remind myself that these types of scenes between heterosexuals are common in R-rated films.  The acting is average.  The music is Hallmarkish.  Like I said, the movie is simple, yet it makes a strong statement about gays having to navigate mine fields to be in love.  And we have reached the point where we can have a war movie about a gay relationship.  Another step in the right direction.