The Promise

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material including war atrocities, violence and disturbing images, and some sexuality
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and prolonged peril and violence including war and genocide, some graphic and disturbing images, characters injured and killed, suicide, execution
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: April 21, 2017
Date Released to DVD: July 17, 2017
Amazon.com ASIN: B0719XBL75
Copyright Open Road Films 2017
Copyright Open Road Films 2017

The massacre was so monumental, the attempt to wipe out an entire culture and ethnicity so savage, that a new word had to be invented to describe it. The word was “genocide,” and while it would be applied many times over the course of the 20th century, it was created to describe the murder of 1.6 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) during the first World War. It is difficult to acknowledge that “The Promise,” a love story set during this period is particularly timely, released the week of the annual observance of the annual day of remembrence and the week of a troubling referendum extending the powers of the current leader.

Writer/director Terry George, served time in prison during the time of The Troubles in Northern Ireland and has devoted his life to telling stories of courage in times of the direst periods of unrest and slaughter, including the Oscar-nominated “Hotel Rwanda” and “In the Name of the Father.” With “The Promise,” he tells an epic story of love and loss in wartime, with Oscar Isaac, channelling Yuri Azhivago as soulful Mikael Pogosian, a young Armenian medical student, Christian Bale as determined American journalist Chris Myers, and Charlotte LeBon (“The Walk”), lovely and stirring as Ana, an Armenian artist and governess and the woman they both love.

As it begins, Mikael has agreed to marry a girl in his village in exchange for a dowry that will pay for medical school in Constantinople (Istanbul), where he stays with his uncle’s family, including Ana, governance to his young cousins. In these early scenes, both in the village and the city, George immerses us in an ambiance of sophistication, culture, tolerance, and prosperity. Christians and Muslims, Turks and Armenians, mostly treat each other with respect and easy comfort, even affection.

But that changes quickly as World War I begins. The Ottoman Empire joins the Germans and begins ethnic cleansing, arresting and deporting the intellectuals, forcing able-bodied men into military service or slave labor, throwing everyone else out of their homes and sometimes outright murder. Mikael’s medical exemption from military service is revoked. He is sent to a labor camp but escapes and returns home to find everyone he knows in danger. Although he is by now very much in love with Ana, he goes through with the promised marriage. Meanwhile, Chris is trying to get the story out to the rest of the world and Ana is trying to protect and help her people. All three are swept up in the tumultuous events as people around them show cruelty they could never have imagined possible.

As devastating as the historic events of the film are, the most powerful moments for today’s audiences are the ones that evoke our current conflicts. The treatment of refugees, including an extraordinary rescue effort from France, is in sharp contrast to news footage of today’s refugees, stuck for years, even decades, in perilous limbo before they can find new home, underscored by a reference to the temporary destination for the Armenians evicted from their villages — Aleppo.

Parents should know that this film concerns war and genocide, with extended peril and violence and some graphic and disturbing images. Characters are injured and killed, including an execution, and there are very sad deaths. There is some strong language.

Family discussion: What does this story tell us about today’s treatment of refugees? About how quickly a country can shift its policies on diversity and inclusion? Is survival a form of revenge?

If you like this, try: “Nahapet,” “Ararat,” and “Map of Salvation”

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Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Epic/Historical Inspired by a true story Journalism Romance War

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

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MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content, drug use and violent war images
Profanity: Constant explicit, and inventive strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: War violence, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images, some scuffles
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie (but a middle-eastern character is played by European actor)
Date Released to Theaters: March 4, 2016
Date Released to DVD: June 27, 2016
Amazon.com ASIN: B019FIFRFA
Copyright 2016 Paramount
Copyright 2016 Paramount

When Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times reviewed the book that inspired “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” the memoir of journalist Kim Barker about her days covering US military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, she wrote:

What’s remarkable about “The Taliban Shuffle” is that its author, Kim Barker — a reporter at ProPublica and the South Asia bureau chief for The Chicago Tribune from 2004 to 2009 — has written an account of her experiences covering Afghanistan and Pakistan that manages to be hilarious and harrowing, witty and illuminating, all at the same time.

It’s not just that Ms. Barker is adept at dramatizing her own adventures as a reporter — though she develops the chops of a veteran foreign correspondent, she depicts herself as a sort of Tina Fey character, who unexpectedly finds herself addicted to the adrenaline rush of war.

And now that book is a movie, and the role of Ms. Barker is being played by non-other than Tina Fey, who also co-produced. As always, her work is whip-smart and original. This is not Liz Lemon goes to war, it is an impressively sensitive dramatic performance.

But Barker’s story has been movie-ized, giving it the “inspired by” rather than “based on” designation, and removing the “r” from the character’s name to create some space. The real Barker was a print journalist, but making her a television correspondent to make it more cinematic. And the various love interests are fictional. It is disappointing that the movie makes the impetus for the assignment a combination of professional and romantic ennui. Barker was a dedicated journalist looking for a big story.

But much of the essence of it is the real deal, starting with Barker/Baker’s plan to spend three months in Afghanistan that turned into three years, and the ramped-up intensity of spending days embedded with the military, frantically editing the story, and then trying to obliterate memory and consciousness with some hard-core partying, only to start over again. Baker is inexperienced but dedicated and smart. She quickly impresses the cynical General (Billy Bob Thornton) who sees embedded journalists as a bother and a risk. And she quickly bonds with the other woman reporter (Margot Robbie), who shows her the ropes and asks very politely if she can sleep with Baker’s hunky security guy.

Alfred Molina is excellent, as always, as an Afghani official, though we should be past the time when European actors are cast as Middle Eastern characters. And maybe we do not need any more stories of Western characters discovering the mysteries of the other side of the world, with illuminating life lessons from exotic people. We don’t want this to be “Under the Tuscan Sun” but with war instead of sun-ripened Italian tomatoes, and it gets uncomfortably close at times. But the thoughtful script from longtime Fey collaborator Robert Carlock keeps the film from making war be just a growth experience for a reporter looking to shake up her life a bit, and the contrast between what the war does to the people trying to tell the story, knowing that the people back home just change the channel anyway give the story a sobering weight.

Parents should know that this movie has constant very strong, crude, and colorful language, drinking, drugs, smoking, wartime violence with some graphic images, characters injured and killed, sexual references and situations, and nudity.

Family discussion: What was the most important story Kim Baker reported? What did she mean when she said it “started to feel normal?”

If you like this, try: The book that inspired this film, The Taliban Shuffle, and the film “The Year of Living Dangerously”

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Drama Inspired by a true story Journalism War

Spotlight

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MPAA Rating: Rated R for some language including sexual references
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense scenes and conversations about horrific abuse
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: November 13, 2015
Date Released to DVD: February 22, 2016
Amazon.com ASIN: B019NB5EVG

“Spotlight” is about the ultimate betrayal of trust from an institution that literally represented the Word of God to many people. And it is about whether we will continue to have institutions that serve the essential function of monitoring the gap between aspiration and actuality, between what people say they are and do and the reality.

Copyright Open Road Films 2015
Copyright Open Road Films 2015

Spotlight is the name for the investigative group of journalists working for the Boston Globe. While their colleagues reported on stories that could be reported and written in days, the Spotlight group had the luxury and the responsibility of taking as much as a year to do the kind of in-depth original research necessary for more complex and difficult subjects.

The staff at Spotlight was let by Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and included Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James).

Like most of the members of the Globe staff they were Boston born and bred, Red Sox fans to the end, and raised Catholic. They had just finished work on a long-term piece when their new editor arrived. He was not Boston born and bred, not a Sox fan, and not Catholic. And perhaps most important, he was not a Boston Globe lifer. He was Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), most recently from Miami. He was an outsider in every way and they correctly suspected that the Globe was just a stop on his career trajectory. (He is now at the Washington Post.) They were not inclined to follow his idea of what stories they should cover.

But when he asked them about following up on a story about a priest who abused young boys, they could not come up with a reason not to other than it was too awful to imagine that it might be true. They begin to investigate. It turns out it was not one priest. It is a city-wide problem. A priest abuses children, is put on “medical leave” and transferred. The families of the boys are paid off and silenced. Then it happens again.

Director Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent,” “Win Win”), writing with Josh Singer, really captures the culture of a newsroom, the stale coffee, the stale-er jokes, but the passionate curiosity that drives them all. This film will be compared to “All the President’s Men” because they are both true stories about young reporters getting huge stories everyone else missed. But the more important comparison is the way both movies capture the numbing work that goes into reporting. The doors knocked on. The doors slammed. And in this case, the nine years worth of diocese phone directories gone over, line by line (this was one of the last of the eras of off-line, analog document searches) to follow the “medical leave” priests took weeks of meticulous checking. It shows us reporting on the cusp of monumental technological change as well, when the paper makes the then-innovative decision to make the underlying documents available to readers online.

The reporters face enormous obstacles, starting with overcoming their own assumptions and then the powerful people who try to stop them. The church is an overwhelming force, politically and culturally. Do readers really want to know? Will the paper lose subscribers and advertisers?

There is no betrayal more devastating than to have the most trusted of institutions, the one most intimately involved in family joys and sorrows to be countenancing the abuse of those most deserving of its protection. But by the end of the film, that atrocity, already known to us, is not as troubling as the idea that news organizations may not be able to bring us the next one.

Parents should know that the theme of the movie is the investigation of widespread child sexual abuse and its cover-up, with sexual references, some graphic, and some strong language.

Family discussion: How did the arrival of an outsider affect the decision to do this story? Do today’s newspapers have the resources and support they need to do in-depth investigations like this one?

If you like this, try: “All the President’s Men” and “Truth” and the documentaries “Deliver Us from Evil” and “Twist of Faith”

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Based on a true story Drama Journalism

Truth

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MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and a brief nude photo
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, pharmaceuticals, both used to deal with stress
Violence/ Scariness: References to torture, tense and angry confrontations
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 23, 2015
Date Released to DVD: February 1, 2016
Amazon.com ASIN: B0192PEOGY
Copyright 2015 Sony Pictures
Copyright 2015 Sony Pictures

Often a movie “based on a true story” confirms and extends our understanding of what happened. This film, based on the “true story” that led to the departure of one of the most respected newsmen of all time, Dan Rather, from CBS, asserts its ambitions with its title and goes on to explore the very nature of truth and our willingness or ability to uncover and recognize it. I did not have strong views about what happened in 2004, just a recollection of the incident as a turning point, with the most respected broadcast journalist in the country being brought down by bloggers, who were able to determine that documents relied on in a story about President George W. Bush were forgeries. In my mind, the story was about the shift from old to new media, where the Davids of the blogosphere could challenge the powerful Goliaths of CBS News.

But in this movie, based on the book by Rather’s producer, Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett, blazingly intelligent and forceful), we see another side of the story, written by James Vanderbilt. This is her version (if there is such a thing as versions) of the truth.

No matter which version of the story you believe, lesson number one of this movie is that you are at your most vulnerable when you feel most powerful. Mapes has just come off the greatest triumph of her career, the Peabody award-winning story about the horrific abuse of prisoners by the US military at Abu Ghraib. She is looking for another great scoop, and as the Presidential election approaches, it looks like she has one. Rumors about special treatment for George W. Bush, both in being allowed to serve in the National Guard and during his time there, have circulated for years, and now there seems to be substantiation, including on-the-record statements by the former Lieutenant Governor and some memos from the younger Bush’s commanding officer. Four document experts were called in by Mapes to authenticate the documents and, with the proviso that as photocopies there was no way to test the ink or paper of the originals to verify them completely, the experts signed off. The other steps taken by Mapes and the staff of reporters, including research expert Mike Smith (Topher Grace, who should be in more movies) and former military officer Dennis Quaid (ditto), are impressive. But it is possible that their supervisors did not ask enough questions and it is certain that moving up the broadcast date at the last minute cut off their ability to lock down all of the story.

And then it all fell apart. Bloggers identified problems with the memos’ fonts that indicated they were created on a computer, not a typewriter, and thus could not have been written in the 1970’s. CBS convened a commission led by a former (Republican) Attorney General to review the story. Their focus was not as much on whether the story was true or not (the memos were just one small part of the story) but whether the reporters had a political agenda.

A lot of people got fired. Smith makes a speech on the way out the door that identifies a culprit more insidious than partisan politics — corporate conflicts of interest. There are times when protection of shareholder value is not consistent with getting the story. The most important question this movie asks is what that means for democracy and for, well, truth.

Parents should know that this movie has very strong language and brief nudity in a photograph. Characters drink and take medicine to deal with stress. There are references to torture and child abuse and there are tense confrontations.

Family discussion: What should Mary have done differently? How did her childhood experiences affect her relationship with Rather and her response to her father? Should she have followed her lawyer’s advice?

If you like this, try two other fact-based films about journalists fighting to expose the truth about powerful people: “All the President’s Men” and “Spotlight

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Based on a true story Drama Journalism

Kill the Messenger

B+

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and drug content
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, including teen drinking, drug dealing
Violence/ Scariness: Gangster-style violence, sad death, suicide
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 10, 2014
Amazon.com ASIN: B00KSPL01K
Copyright 2014 Focus Features
Copyright 2014 Focus Features

Sometimes an honest, crusading, investigative reporter uncovers corruption and deceit and the result is triumph, a Pulitzer Prize, humiliating resignations and criminal convictions of the guilty and an Oscar-winning movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. And sometimes, instead, the result is killing the messenger. Gary Webb was a passionate, dedicated journalist at the San Jose Mercury News who managed to infuriate not only the CIA but his far bigger journalistic rivals. He uncovered a story no one much wanted told and no one much wanted to hear. Jeremy Renner plays Webb in this effort to give him his due.

Although it is set in the mid-90’s, director Michael Cuesta gives the film a 70’s paranoia, one man against The Man vibe that harks back to “The Parallax View,” “All the President’s Men,” “Z,” and “Serpico.” Renner, who also co-produced, brings his coiled energy and electric physicality to Webb, making journalism seem like a full-contact sport. His Webb is a guy who runs up the courthouse steps like Rocky. We see him early on, walking to his desk in the paper’s outpost near the state capital, going past the grand, imposing signs marking the areas occupied by the big national daily papers to his modest little corner. He’s a small fish in a very big ocean. But he has enormous determination, integrity, a sense of something to prove, and a healthy ego.

And then he gets the lead of a lifetime. A beautiful woman (Paz Vega), the girlfriend of a drug dealer, has some information for him that sounds preposterous. She says he “sold drugs for the government.” Seven tons worth. And it leads to the discovery that the government, specifically the CIA, is funneling money to the Contras in Nicaragua by underwriting the drug trade that is pouring crack into the poorest areas in the inner cities. “National security and crack cocaine in the same sentence — does that not sound strange to you?” And there’s a warning. “My friend, some stories are just too true to tell.”

The problem with writing about bad things done by powerful people is that they will use their power to attack whoever is trying to expose them. “Good investigative reporting ruffles feathers.” Sometimes the creature sporting those feathers will use its claws. To use a neologism from the movie, they will “controversialize” whoever is putting their reputations at risk. Webb was not perfect. He had enemies. At first, his newspaper celebrates his journalistic coup. But when his bosses are put under pressure, they buckle. Soon the once-superstar reporter is exiled to Cupertino. Without the support of his family and the chance to do the work that defines him, he has nothing to hold onto.

The story is still a murky and complicated one, despite post-credit updates on revelations confirming Webb’s reporting. Renner is a magnetic presence and he makes Webb’s passion for telling the story honestly and exposing the dishonesty of others almost palpable. Webb’s scenes with his children are especially touching, though it is too bad to see the talented Rosemary DeWitt relegated to a dull “don’t work so hard, don’t take risks” role. A scene near the end at an awards dinner has an emotional punch.  Renner’s performance has enormous integrity, illuminating the murky compromises and betrayals he exposes and the ones that get the better of him as well.

Parents should know that this film has very strong language, drugs, drug dealing, and gangster violence, as well as tense family confrontations.

Family discussion: Who is doing the work that Gary Webb did today? Has the CIA become more accountable as a result of his work? Do we still kill the messenger?

If you like this, try: “Serpico” and Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion and more of the work of real-life reporter Gary Webb

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Based on a book Based on a true story Crime Journalism Movies
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