Darkest Hour

A-

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some thematic material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Wartime violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 8, 2017

Copyright 2017 Focus
A bitter debate is going on in Parliament. The Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has responded to Hitler’s invasion of other countries with appeasement and many of the politicians are with him. A combination of denial and sun-never-sets-on-the-British-Empire smugness of those who have colonized a quarter of the planet and are situated on the other side of the Channel makes them confident that they can work with Hitler. But it is increasingly clear to at least some of the politicians believe it is time to take a stronger stand. Is there someone they can call on to lead them in that direction?

There is, and he is still in bed, “insuring his fingerprints are not on the murder weapon.” He is Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman, disappearing into the character and giving a dazzling performance worthy of the real-life man he portrays). The very inevitability of Churchill’s selection, no one’s first choice, a man who “has a knack for drawing out the very worst in those who are trying to help him,” according to his devoted but perceptive wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), increases the frustration of the elected officials around him, who continue to plot to undermine his determination to to go to war, if necessary, to fight Hitler’s takeover of Europe. “I’m getting the job only because the ship is sinking,” he says glumly but grimly. “It’s not a compliment. It’s revenge.”

Earlier this year, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” gave us a bracing look at the turning point that ends this film, when certain catastrophic defeat was turned into a victory just by escaping, rescued with the help of a citizens’ armada of boats. That film paid tribute to the ordinary men who retreated to come back stronger. This film gives us another side of the story in a more traditional “great man” portrayal of history and it could not have a better subject. Churchill was a master of language, grandiloquent at a time when people needed to be inspired by a leader of vision, a deep knowledge of history, and shining integrity. The benefit of having a central character in Churchill is that he pretty much spoke in movie dialogue, hyper-articulate, wryly witty, and with an underlying patriotism rooted in compassion, not jingoism.

Churchill knows that it is not enough for him to be right about Hitler. He has to get the support of the other politicians and he has to get the support of the population. He knows what he will be asking them to do will involve unimaginable sacrifice. And there is no time. “We are looking at the collapse of Western Europe in the next few days,” says a general. “Should the public be told?” There is no time. And, as yet, there is no plan for a counter-attack and Franklin Roosevelt, Churchill’s good friend in the United States, tells him that Congress has prevented him from being of help.

Churchill also knows what it is to fail, publicly and miserably. Will he make mistakes again? Clementine assures him that he is wise because he has doubts. Even if Hitler wins, Churchill knows it is better to give him as much of a fight as possible. “Countries that go down fighting come back.”

The compressed time period and the urgent conversations with Clementine, member of Parliament, and the king (superbly played by Ben Mendelsohn) are riveting, bolstered by an urgent score by
Dario Marianelli and masterfully sinuous camerawork by Bruno Delbonnel and editing by Valerio Bonelli. The camera maneuvers through Churchill’s legendary wartime cabinet rooms (a must-visit for London tourists), showing us the cramped quarters and the fierce energy of what is going on.

Oldman disappears into the role, a performance like the famous Karsh portrait come to life. His Churchill is crafty, sometimes impatient, sometimes uncertain, but compassionate, and always sure of what his values are. The Churchills had a famously devoted love match, and Kristin Scott Thomas is impeccable in showing us Clementine’s elegance, and resolve.

“He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,” a character says. And with this film, director Joe Wright mobilized the language of film and presents us with an uplifting reminder of what the right person at the right time can do even under the direst circumstances.

Parents should know that this is a wartime story with tense peril and reference to violence and loss, some strong language, and smoking and drinking.

Family discussion: What should be factors in deciding when to intervene and when to negotiate? Why did the king change his mind? Read My Early Life, Churchill’s autobiography of his youth. Which self will you be today?

If you like this, try: “The King’s Speech,” “Dunkirk,” and some of the other movies about this towering figure of the 20th century, including the “First Churchills” miniseries about his ancestors.

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Last Flag Flying

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout including some sexual references
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and alcohol abuse, smoking, references to drug abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Themes of military service in wartime, sad deaths offscreen
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: November 10, 2017
Copyright 2017 Amazon Studios

Three of the best actors in the world give immense depth and humanity to characters who might so easily have been caricatures in “Last Flag Flying,” about three veterans on a sad personal mission. It’s got a backstory that might be worth a movie of its own. “The Last Detail,” based on the book by Darryl Ponicsan, starred Jack Nicholson and Otis Young as Marines ordered to escort a naive teenaged sailor (Randy Quaid) to serve an eight-year prison sentence for a trivial offense. It was a critical and commercial success due to Nicholson’s performance and a picaresque tone that suited the era. 4 years later, another Ponicsan book about three military men (now long retired from service) on a sad journey with some comic detours comes to the screen, directed by Richard Linklater (“Boyhood”). It is not a sequel, though some of the characters have the same names and some similar histories.

It is 2003. A man carrying a manilla envelope walks into a dodgy little dive bar and orders a beer. The bartender barely glances at him, in the midst of a one-sided conversation with the bar’s only other customer, a regular. “You don’t remember me, do you?” asks the man with the envelope. The bartender, who is also the owner of the bar, takes a good look. “Doc!” he crows. “No one has called me that in years.” Doc is Larry Shepherd (Steve Carell) and the man behind the bar is Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston). They eat pizza, talk about old times, and fall asleep in a booth. The next day, Larry takes Sal to a church, where the Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) is conducting services. The men have not seen each other in decades, but they served together in Vietnam, Nealon and Mueller in the Marines and Shepherd in the Navy.

Mueller is not especially happy to see friends from the days when he was known as Mueller the Mauler, but he invites them to dinner at his home with his wife, Ruth (a splendid Deanna Reed-Foster, warm and wise). It is there that Shepherd explains why he wanted to find them. His son has been killed in action and he wants Mueller and Nealon to accompany him to the funeral. Nealon goes because he wants to do something different. Mueller goes, reluctantly, because he wants to be of service. “They represent a dark period in my life,” he tells Ruth, “a very dark period.” “And you represent God,” she replies.

And so the odyssey begins, with many adventures along the way, and, as Linklater does so well (the “Before” trilogy, “Waking Life”), many wide-ranging conversations, here including discussions of the past and present, the newish technology of the cell phone, sex, sleep, race, order, chaos, war, lies, choices, and consequences. Accompanying them for part of the trip is a Marine who was a close friend of Shepherd’s son (J. Quinton Johnson of “Everybody Wants Some!!!” excellent).

Near the end, Linklater gives us two scenes showing that what might have seemed episodic and slight was deliberate, thoughtful, and meaningful. It is his actors’ respect for the flawed characters they play and Linklater’s own respect for their choices, challenges, and regrets, that show us what we ask of the people who go to war on the other side of the planet because someone thought it would keep us safe, and what we owe them as well.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong and crude language, drinking, smoking, references to drug abuse, references to wartime violence, and very crude sexual references including prostitution.

Family discussion: What should they have told Mrs. Hightower? Why did Larry want to bring his son home? Who would you call for a journey like that one?

If you like this, try: “The Last Detail” and “Taking Chance”

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Martha Raddatz on National Geographic’s “The Long Road Home”

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Michael Kelly(L) portrays Lt. Col. Gary Volesky and Jason Ritter(R), Capt. Troy Demony on set of The Long Road Home at U.S. Military post, Fort Hood, Killeen, Texas. (Photo: National Geographic/Van Redin) Ep1

National Geographic’s new series “The Long Road Home” is based on the best-selling book by journalist Martha Raddatz about soldiers sent to Iraq on a peacekeeping mission in 2004 who were ambushed on a day that came to be known as “Black Sunday.” The series is powerful, inspiring, and deeply moving as it lets us into the lives of those who were there and their families. In an interview, Raddatz talked about how she got the story, what she learned, and what she hopes the series, premiering as we prepare to observe Veterans’ Day, will teach us about the people who risk their lives — and give their lives — for our freedom and for each other.

The news footage from Vietnam on the news every night played a significant role in eroding the support for the war. We do not see that kind of coverage of what our troops are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We did in the beginning. It was it was on all the time and take it from me because I was covering it. But it hasn’t been more recently and never in this way, in the way we tell this story about U.S. soldiers and their families and particularly families. It’s a really realistic, really raw, really warts and all, very nuanced look at war, if you can imagine nuanced war, this has got it.

What does nuance mean when you’re talking about war?

These aren’t a bunch of action figures. There is lots of breaking down doors and things like that. But they’re also very distinct people, regular people, real people. These are not Navy SEALs. These are not elite forces. These are soldiers who went over there thinking they were involved in a peacekeeping mission and found themselves ambushed and the other men in the battalion who reached out to rescue them in whatever vehicles they could find. Some of them are still serving on active duty, and I can’t remember a time when a series has portrayed soldiers still on active duty.

Was that an impediment to you in reporting on the story? Were there a lot of restrictions on what the soldiers were allowed to talk about?

They shared everything they possibly could with me. And one of the most remarkable things about this series is that the Army gave it its blessing and cooperated with us. They allowed us to shoot on base and build a 12 acre set with 85 buildings.

I think in so many ways right now Americans are ready to see this. And the Army is ready to see this. The Army is ready to say, “This is what we did and this is how we fought. This is where we went into places where we were totally unprepared for what was to come.” They saw everything before we shot it, including scenes with anti-war protesters. There’s an entire episode about a soldier who became a very outspoken war protester. So that is the kind of eye-opening experience you have with this series.

We see very clearly in the series that this is a war that’s being fought in the streets and in people’s homes.

It’s about as hand to hand combat as you can get. You look each other in the eye. There are some remarkably intimate scenes with soldiers facing down an enemy.

What have you learned about courage through reporting and telling this story?

Sometimes the people who are most courageous are the ones you never expect to be. You cannot predict it. But I also learned that courage is defined in different ways. It’s not always the ways you think. When we walk into a situation sometimes it takes a little while to find the courage to find that leadership or to find that bravery that keeps them going. Everyone finds it in a different way. And again some people don’t. And that’s the kind of broad spectrum you have.

Why was it important for you to talk to the families as well as the soldiers who were directly involved?

It’s the soldiers who told me to go talk to family because they said, “If you think it’s bad for us you should see the families and what they went through and what they have to experience and just not knowing.” The soldiers know what’s happening; they know what’s coming next. Those families just have to wait and their courage and their bravery every day, starting with that day of the ambush and years that follow this unit is I think really eye-opening for people. One of the wives would not drive into the garage behind the house without driving by the front of her house first just to make sure there was not a car up there that was going to notify her of her husband’s death.

Your work has been in television. What could you do in a book and now in a series re-creating the events that you cannot do in television news?

When I first began reporting on the story, we never had was any video. From the descriptions from the soldiers and the survivors of that battle we can see it come to life in the miniseries. It is the first time I’ve seen that come alive.

What is it that you want people to talk about with their families after they watch this show?

I want people to talk about the cost of war and to understand what it means to go to war. I want people to think about their responsibility to be informed and to have a voice to vote to do whatever it is that involves them in those life and death choices because fewer than one percent of our country serves in the military. Ninety nine percent do not. And the very least people who do not serve can do is understand the consequences.

Originally published on HuffPost.

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Thank You For Your Service

B

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, language and some sexuality
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drugs and drug abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and graphic wartime violence, suicide
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 27, 2017

Copyright 2017 Universal
Thank You for Your Service,” based on the book by David Finkel about returning servicemen and their feelings of dislocation when they try to adjust to civilian life, is so decent, respectful, sincere, and, most of all, so vitally needed that it is difficult to evaluate it as a movie. It follows in the tradition of one of the best American movies of all time, The Best Years of Our Lives, which won nine Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Score, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor Oscars. Like that film, “Thank You for Your Service” follows three servicemen, one disabled by injuries and one not sure how to rejoin the civilian workforce when his last job before the military was as a teenager. But this movie is not nearly as optimistic.

Miles Teller plays Adam Schumann, who tells us in the movie’s first scene that he was a good soldier and he was proud of what he did. He was responsible for his squad and he was responsible for spotting improvised explosive devices, which he looked for under every scrap of trash in the road and learned to feel by instinct. This hyper-alertness to danger served him well in the military, but it was difficult to turn off, especially because some of his experiences left him with intense survivor guilt and post-traumatic stress. He comes home to a loving, wise, strong, and supportive wife (Haley Bennett as Saskia), who tells him that she can handle anything he has to tell her except not telling her anything about his experience. He barely knows his children, at first almost forgetting the baby who was born while he was away. He has no idea how to get a job other than the one he had before his service. But he assures Saskia that everything is “perfect.”

Solo (Beulah Koale) is struggling with a traumatic brain injury that has impaired his memory and cognitive function. He wants to stay in the military because being a part of his team was a major part of his identity, but they do not want him. That’s “Whale Rider’s” Keisha Castle-Hughes as his wife.

And there’s Will Wall (Joe Cole), excited about coming home to marry his fiancee. “No bachelor party,” he tells Adam and Solo. His girl does not approve. But it turns out that she has left him. He is devastated.

The movie’s most wrenching scene comes when the characters are finally willing to admit that they need help and they go to the VA, only to find soul-destroying bureaucracy and endless waits, up to 12 weeks to even see someone who can begin to treat them. The returning soldiers are given pills instead of support. While some people at the VA are sympathetic but overloaded, there are also those like one former commanding officer who tells Adam to buck up so that he does not affect the morale of the others. Real help comes from a phone number passed along by the survivor of a soldier who did not get any support, and from an act of selflessness from one of the vets that is one of the most effective ways to show himself that even at home, he can still serve.

Parents should know that this movie includes intense and graphic wartime violence, characters severely injured and killed, disturbing images, suicide, drinking, drugs, drug dealing, very strong language with crude epithets, and sexual references and situations.

Family discussion: What is the best way to honor the service of returning military? Why was it hard for the soldiers to talk about their experiences?

If you like this, try: “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Captain Newman M.D.” and the book and its predecessor by David Finkel

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Dunkirk

A-

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Wartime violence, guns, bombs, some disturbing and graphic images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 21, 2017
Copyright 2017 Warner Brothers

Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” inspires the most unexpected adjectives for the true story of one of the defining moments of World War II, the rescue operation that saved more than 300,000 men and that defined the resolve of the Allied forces and, even more, of the civilians they were fighting for. You do not expect a war movie to be elegant, intimate, spare in story and dialogue, but this one is. There is almost no exposition or technical talk. It is also spectacularly, heartbreakingly beautiful, with breathtakingly gorgeous cinematography by “Intersteller’s” Hoyte Van Hoytema. And Hans Zimmer’s score is stunning, with a ticking clock (Nolan’s own pocketwatch), propulsive, elegiac, magisterial. You expect a big movie to be packed with stars. But Nolan cast unknown young actors in central roles and major stars in smaller parts.

This is not the usual historical epic.  It is more poem than prose, more experience than narrative.

As the movie briefly reminds us, the German army had pushed the French and British Allies to the coast. It looked like defeat. Through the eyes of one very young soldier who looks almost indistinguishable from the 400,000 others, we see the chaos and terror, shots coming from nowhere (the sound department deserves an award for the visceral noise of the guns), no one in charge. Nolan makes it clear without overdoing it that war is not just hell; it is the chum of sending millions of boys into a meat grinder.

He makes it to the beach where we see the scope and scale, thousands of soldiers standing in line for ships that are not coming.

Nolan has a masterful control of the story in three different strands, operating over different time periods. The great miracle of Dunkirk was the more than 800 small private boats that crossed the English Channel to bring the soldiers home. They are represented here by the invaluable Mark Rylance, representing the essence of “Keep Calm and Carry On.” He sets off with his teenage son and a young friend. That happens over a day. Taking place in just hours, pilots take off to provide support, warned to be mindful of their fuel and make sure they leave enough to get home. And then there are those on the beach, the Army and Navy officers (James D’Arcy and Kenneth Branagh), who know too well the endless triage of war strategy, and the soldiers trying to stay alive. The details are beautifully precise, a nurse handing exhausted soldiers tea, the look in the eye of a soldier trying to decide whether to doom one man to save the lives of dozens, or in the eye of another watching helplessly as a fellow soldier, in despair, walks into the water.

History is written by the victors, according to Winston Churchill, the then brand-new British Prime Minister whose famously inspiring words of determination are read aloud by a soldier at the end of the film. An historian himself, he was of course right. From some perspectives, this story was a loss, not a victory. But ultimately, history is written by the survivors, decades, even centuries later. Nolan’s film could only have been made by a cinema master with the perspective of time and all the history since, and we are fortunate to be here when he did.

NOTE: Nolan, director of the “Dark Knight” films, cast two of his Batman villains in this film, Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy. Those who appreciate what he did with time here will also enjoy his films “Inception” and “Memento.”

Parents should know that this is a wartime story based on historic events with guns and bombs. Characters are injured and killed. A soldier commits suicide and another sacrifices himself to save others. There is some strong language.

Family discussion: Why were the soldiers surprised by the way their evacuation was seen by the British people? Who should decide who has to leave the ship?

If you like this, try: the 1958 film, also called “Dunkirk,” starring John Mills, Richard Attenborough, and Bernard Lee, 2017’s WWII drama “Their Finest,” which includes a depiction of a propaganda film about the Dunkirk rescue, and the upcoming “Churchill”

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