Tag Archives: corruption

Review: OFFICIAL SECRETS

OFFICIAL SECRETS. Country: UK / USA. Director: Gavin Hood. Screenwriters: Gavin Hood, Gregory Bernstein, Sara Berstein. Based on the book by Marcia and Thomas Mitchell, “The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion.” Cast: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Rhys Ifans, MyAnna Buring, Adam Bakri, Tasmin Greig. Language, English. Runtime: 112 minutes. Release Date: August 30, 2019. Venue, IFC Center. Mostly Indies rating: B+

You probably never heard of the backstory that became Gavin Hood’s latest incursion into political wars, the movie Official Secrets. At the time, I was constantly glued to CNN and other news media outlets and barely heard a peep into it (at least on this side of the pond) and any news item coming from the UK may have been during the late nights, or through BBC America. In short, the true story of Official Secrets concerns the whistleblower actions of Katharine Gun, a Mandarin-Chinese translator working for the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), who in early 2003 came across an email (as did her entire unit) sent by Frank Koza, chief of the NSA, That email, which normally would have vanished into the agency’s intranet, traveled much farther than originally intended. It essentially requested GCHQ to conduct a secret (and illegal) eavesdropping on six non permanent members of the United Nations — among them Angola, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, and Pakistan — to monitor their reaction to the debate on Iraq. The reason for this was because these “swing” nations were critical for the push for the war against Iraq.

Katharine’s reaction to the email is equal parts horror and outrage. Taking a printed copy of the email home with her, she gives it to a friend (MyAnna Barling) who later on passes it on, where it lands as an article in The Observer and into the hands of journalist Martin Bright (Matt Smith) who conducts a research to see if email mentioned in the article is valid. When that becomes the case, the paper publishes the email; however, the US Government is able to deny any involvement. Meanwhile at GCHQ, tensions are mounting as every employee is being interrogated. Knowing that she must do the right thing, She admits to being the one who leaked the email, gets arrested, and sees her life start to fall apart around her as she must now seek to defend her actions while her Kurdish husband Yasar (Adam Bakri) also faces the pressure and threat to be deported.

Movies involving whistleblowers are always fascinating because they portray the almost archetypical conflicted person going against tradition and raising their hand to uncover the man behind the curtain. As far back as All The Kings Horses, and most recently, as The Post, they always, invariably, make for compelling storytelling, stellar acting, and in creating an atmosphere of pure paranoia that often threatens to swallow the characters whole. After all, we live in a world where we now know to the extent that the powers that be may seek to influence those in key positions to steer nations as if they were prized vehicles into a pre-packaged outcome. Official Secrets is a tense as fuck expose story with compelling performances by Keira Knightley (for once not doing a period piece), Matt Smith, and Ralph Fiennes as Ben Emmerson. Stick to the end to see the real Katharine Gun speaking out after she is exonerated by the British Court.

ROJO pictures an Argentina with its eyes wide shut against the climate of political corruption during the 70s.

Dario Grandinetti in Benjamin Naishtat’s Rojo.

ROJO. Countries, Argentina/Brazil/France/Belgium/Germany/Netherlands, Switzerland. Director: Benjamin Naishtat. Cast: Dario Grandinetti, Alfredo Castro, Diego Cremoesi, Rafael Federman, Laura Grandinetti, Andrea Frigerio. Screenweiters: Benjamin Naishtat. Language: Spanish, English. Runtime 108 minutes. Venue: Quad Cinema. Grading: B

From the opening shot, Benjamin Naishtat’s Rojo establishes a world where the normal order of thing has been replaced with something darker and deadly, unseen, but heard of through the grapevine in coded conversations. We see a house,and our eyes inform us, this is just another Spanish-styled house sitting placidly, its doors and windows shut, nothing out of the ordinary. Moments later, someone comes out with items that we understand were up to that moment inside the house. More people come out, each one carrying objects. A man (Diego Cremonesi) appears, this time facing the house, his back to us, as if in calm observation. Meanwhile, several more exit the front door, each one carrying an artifact. A pregnant moment later, the man who’d been silently observing become a participant and goes inside.

Diego Cremonesi interrupts Grandinetti’s world in Rojo.

We then cut to a scene in a restaurant. Sitting quietly, reading the news, Claudio (Dario Grandinetti) who we come to learn is a respected lawyer in this unnamed city. Conversation weaves in and out, indistinct and hushed. With almost no warning but without announcing himself the man who’d been observing the looting of the house at the opening scene is at the restaurant, again observing, but this time with rising indignation. A scene follows: the man would like to be seated at a table, and Claudio, who is clearly not having any dinner because his wife (Andrea Frigerio) has not arrived, is occupying one that the man would like. A confrontation develops between the two, escalating from the mildly annoyed to flat out contentious. Claudio relinquishes the table, gives it to the man… but not before unleashing a tirade of well-modulated insults as a final stab at the man who broke into his bubble of privilege and dethroned him. Violence suddenly explodes, the man is ejected from the restaurant, and Claudio once again returns to the table that was his, where he sits back to smugly wait for his wife who finally arrives, completely unaware of what just happened.

However, the night isn’t over — it’s just begun. On their way home Claudio and his wife are approached by the same man who now shows a gun. What happens next is shocking enough, but it’s Claudio’s reaction that sets the tone for the movie. You see, this is the Argentina of the 1970s, which was then under control of a dictatorship and was on the brink of a coup d’etat. There is a palpable sense of paranoia running through the entire narrative, and while we won’t see the man who opens the movie after his fateful encounter with Claudio, he will actually pretty much dominate the events to unfold much like the dead who do not rest in peace.

All of Naishtat’s movie evolves in ellipticals. It’s really the only way I could express it, because when you live under such repression and even daylight sequences are marred with the fear of being watched and heard, every word, every action carries the huge burden of code, side glances, and innuendoes. Claudio, safely detached for now from his encounter that starts the movie proper, learns that a neighbor has not been seen for a while. Perhaps he is on vacation, a woman says. A colleague approaches him to pitch the purchase of a house — the same house seen at the prologue of the movie — and that purchase comes with a wall of shady undertones. Does Claudio relent? Not really. What importance could that house have? We never know. Like a commercial from the period, where a well-dressed man eating some chocolates blithely shoots another, off-screen, who wanted a piece, and returns to his thoughts without as much as batting an eye, we are in a place where the hand does not connect to the heart; where actions do not think of consequences.

Rojo is a reflective, albeit disturbing look into Argentina’s past that attempts not to pass judgement but to simply observe how people, both from the old and new regime, lived and reacted through that dark period of oppression. When another boy goes missing — missing being the mode of operation in which those who were seen or even suspected of being dissident were dealt with — the reality of fascism comes home and reveals only repetition into the future. Tellingly, the story occurs in the months before the coup; Argentina would be walking dark waters until the early 80s, and finally acknowledge — though, not fully — its participation into controlling its populace through the Triple A.

The great Alfredo Castro, in Rojo’ climactic sequence.

So, it is a bit of irony that we finally see a glimmer of poetic justice arriving under the presence of Detective Sinclair (Alfredo Castro). From the word go he’s set his eye on Claudio, and circles him like a vulture, gathering bits and pieces of information. When we realize his true purpose, but that his knowledge and position prevents him from taking action against the unjust, it is a powerful scene that happens in the middle of nowhere and resonates well past its run, bleeding right into the foreboding ending where Claudio appears to have embraced his own hand in suppression, but now moves about under a mask of normalcy, while his daughter (Laura Grandinetti) will have to contend with the next generation of abusers of power.

in the meantime, all we can do is sit back and watch a nation bathe in the blood of the innocent and walk around with eyes firmly shut. Because when you live in such countries, ignorance is bliss, and knowledge means to carry a load too heavy to bear. Rojo is Naishtat looking at Argentina with a mirror, and what a haunted mirror it is.

GLORY

GLORY
Bulgaria
Director: Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov
Runtime: 100 minutes
Language: Bulgarian

Imagine that you’re a railroad worker living on the outskirts of society, alone, and one day, while doing your rounds, you find a rather large wad of cash. You’d probably think you’d won the jackpot, right? No more hard work, live a life of leisure, or perhaps keep it, and use it for your own purposes, right? Not Tzanko Petrov (Stefan Denolyubov). When the movie opens we see Tzanko stutter doing his rounds, repairing screws on train tracks, and then coming onto a bill, then another, then a huge pile of cash. Next scene, he’s surrounded by officers and the like, having returned the money (although he does keep a small amount.

When the Ministry of Transport gets wind of the event they decide to use this chance to make a stance on government corruption. They label Tzanko a national hero and appoint their PR representative, Julia Staykova (Margita Gosheva) to handle the entire event, Julia comes across as a woman completely and utterly absorbed by her career. She’s abusive to her colleagues, her husband (who stands by her like some kind of modern-day emasculated martyr), and treats her own visit to the fertility doctor with the same self-absorbed attitude while conducting work-related calls on her phone.

Tzanko arrives to the Ministy of Transport for a conference, but a minor accident with food has Julia — a practitioner of image — ordering her male staff to replace their clothes so Tzanko can make his public appearance. A last-minute replacement of Tzanko’s old and unseemly watch with a nicer one, an action consistent with her need to present an image for her benefit, will provide the gas that makes the movie take off. You see, after Tzanko’s conference is over, everyone moves on, no one takes notice of him. The following morning he realizes that he’s still wearing the new watch Julia gave him. The watch, we will learn later, is a family heirloom (Glory is a direct translation of the Bulgarian word Slava, which means heirloom).

Tzanko wants his watch back. It has sentimental value.

His attempts to get in touch with Julia at the Ministry prove fruitless; the man has a crippling stutter that makes pronouncing even simple words a near-impossibility. Julia, who is aware of these calls, dismisses Tzanko — she has other things in her mind and can’t be bothered to look for something so trivial. Events escalate until the movie takes on a darker, nihilistic tone. It seems as though Tzanko is slowly turning into a patsy out of a Kafka story: it seems that no matter where he turns, forces outside of his control seem to be undermining his very moves. Glory makes no attempt to present Julia as anything other than a self-absorbed monster, which is why she, the clear antagonist of the film, lets things go so far until they threaten to spiral out of control and take her down. You almost hope that she gets her comeuppance (don’t worry, she will get it) — that is how awful of a character she is, and that she is trying to have a child at all costs almost makes you wonder what kind of a mother she’d be.

Glory is, while Bulgarian, universal. Anyone who sees this remarkable feature film will recognize the progressive indignation that a forgotten man continues to suffer (when there is no need to), and while it also addresses corruption, it is inherently a story of righting a wrong and what can happen when you treat people as less than human.