2018’s rather drab Entebbe casts minds back to fondly reminisce about mass –murderer Idi Amin, whose genocide made exploitation fodder for this lurid 1980 feature. Played by Alien star Yaphet Kotto, Amin is a mischievous, brutal presence, seen at one point casually opening a fridge to take a bite of human flesh cooling within. There’s no whitewash here, just the dramatization of tabloid headlines. And yet, a plotline about Amin’s relationship with a British journalist, arrested and imprisoned by Amin’s regime in defiance of the UK, feels authentic, not least because the character is played by the journalist in real life. Such a Paul Greengrass-style verisimilitude adds a certain vividness to the proceedings, but there’s also an admirable directness to the way Amin’s hubris and downfall are captured. Whether this happened or not, it’s compelling to watch a film so contemporaneous as a primary source.
The influence of the Paradise Lost documentaries about the West Memphis Three is immense; with digital film-making making it possible for true-life court cases to be examined, dramatized and even influenced through the media, it’s no surprise that true crime is almost as important to Netflix as a genre as rom-coms. Ava DuVernay’s When they See Us is a prestigious example of the form; a dramatization of events concerning the Central Park Five, it’s a glossy and compelling drama split into four sections, each roughly the length of a feature film. The first considers the night a white female jogger was raped in Central Park, and the forced confessions elicited from youths in the area that night. The second concerns itself with the court-case, with Vera Famiga contributing an awesome turn as a prosecution lawyer. The third focuses on the men trying to adjust when they get released from jail, and the fourth on the experience of Corey Wise, played with great power as both a boy and a man by Jharrel Jerome. This is probably DuVernay’s best work to date, rarely hitting a false note and delivering a sobering account of how hidden but inherent racial prejudice can rob innocent people of their lives. White audiences who like to imagine that race is a problem already solved may want to focus on how easily both law and media are bent out of shape by the rush to judgement here, a feeding frenzy fuelled by newspaper ads paid for by Donald Trump. But the big question is; why tell this story, and why now? Documentaries like Paradise Lost have influenced actual outcomes of court cases; the Central Park 5 were released some time ago, but the motivation behind When They See Us seems political; it’s surely no accident the June 2019 release coincides with the start of Donald Trump’s presidential re-election bid, and efforts to mobilise both black and white votes against him start here.
The story of the Miracle on the Hudson is the kind of material that could make a great tv movie; in the hands of Clint Eastwood, it makes for a great cinema experience. Following a similar structure to Flight, Sully opens with Tom Hank’s airline pilot having nightmares about the successful emergency landing he just carried out over NYC. In a fabricated bit of business that drives the story, the airline authorities somehow take a dim view of his heroic behavior, causing a series of flashbacks from various points of view that unravel exactly why Sully’s actions were so extraordinary. Eastwood avoids bloating the material and takes a sober, factual approach to the near-disaster, aided by a perfectly understated performance from hanks and good support from Aaron Eckhart, whose moustache is worth the price of admission. A model of economy, Sully is a meaty drama that contrives to use a dramatic lie to get at an astonishing truth.
A well-upholstered thriller from Steven Spielberg, Bridge of Spies deals with a real-life Cold War drama as James B Donovan (Tom Hanks) gets lured into the murky business of spy exchanges. After a successful courtroom defence of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), Donovan tries to broker a deal in East Germany to exchange the enigmatic Abel for two other spies. Bridge of Spies is packed with absorbing details, and the atmosphere of East Germany is well caught. But it’s the acting that elevates the material; Rylance is electric in a showy role, but Hanks’ contribution should not be overlooked; he brings an everyman quality to his well-spoken lawyer, and provides a happy and empathetic centre even when the diplomatic and espionage twists get very complex indeed.
Like most true stories, Deepwater Horizon takes liberties with a true life story; BP are painted blackly as baddies here, mainly though John Malkovich’s sneering exec, and the oil-workers are all blue-collar cannon fodder, braving the deadly mistakes foisted on them from upstairs. A quick check of the facts reveals a different story, but it’s hard to blame director Peter Berg for playing to the gallery. Mark Wahlberg and Kurt Russell are ideally cast as the rig-workers who find the pressure mounting as a drill-operation goes wrong, and the intensity is well developed until the explosive finale. As with The 33, a far more upbeat story, the public stayed away in droves; a shame, because the film’s sympathy with the plight of ordinary people, risking their lives to make a living, shows that it’s heart is in the right place, even if the facts are slightly askew.
Somewhat erratically released due to the misfortunes of Relativity Media, Masterminds in a return to the ancient comic staple of the idiot bank-heist. From Palookaville to Welcome to Collinwood, it’s a tried and tested route, and Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite)’s film is aided by being based on true events. Reuniting most of the key players from the Ghostbusters reboot (SNL’s Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon and Kristen Wiig), it gives center-stage to Zack Gilifianakis as David Ghantt, a hirsute security-detail employee who is lured into being a stooge by comely ex-employee Kelly (Wiig). The details of the heist are presumably much exaggerated, since they fall on the side of slapstick, and there’s extra life due to support from Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis as a hit man. While not exactly polished due to some cringe-worthy fart-jokes and caricatures, Masterminds may yet find an audience due to some full-blooded pratfalls and a willingness to find humour in some rather dark corners of US life.
Johnny Depp managed to briefly put his finger in the dam of recent bad publicity by pulling off a surprisingly sinister performance as gangster Whitey Bulger in this effective police drama set in Boston. Based on a high-profile case, Bulger is essentially the nemesis to Joel Edgerton’s cop, who discovers that Bulger’s connection to his politician brother (Benedict Cumberbatch) has given him a free pass to build and defend a criminal empire. Adam Scott, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard and Dakota Johnson are along for the ride, and director Scott Cooper never lets the violent proceedings fall into Scorsese-by-numbers territory. And although he’s got less screen-time that the trailers and posters might have you expect, Depp is mesmerizing as Bulger, exuding a genuine malevolence that’s hard to shake off.