Great! Another movie with a Stalinist hero

When, other than under the Third Reich itself, did any major film producer ever release a movie in which the hero is a devoted Nazi? The answer, of course, is never. If any such picture ever hit the theaters, it would be universally denounced as an endorsement of totalitarianism.

Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo

But for some reason the same doesn’t apply to Communists. For decades, Hollywood has made one picture after another in which out-and-out Stalinists were treated sympathetically and their poisonous nature of their political beliefs was totally whitewashed. Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995) depicted the atom spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg not as villains but as victims. Martin Ritt’s The Front (1976) portrayed the Hollywood Ten, all of them card-carrying members of the American Communist Party who were taking orders from Stalin, as First Amendment heroes. Four years ago, Jay Roach’s Trumbo essentially turned Cold War screenwriter Dalton Trumbo – who in real life was a hard-core Stalinist ideologue, an unquestioning supporter of Uncle Joe’s Gulag, show trials, and summary executions – into something resembling a classical liberal.

The real-life Melita Stedman Norwood

The latest contribution this reprehensible genre is Red Joan, based on the life of Melita Stedman Norwood, a London woman whose secretarial job at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association provided her with access to her country’s atomic secrets and who spent decades of her life working for the Soviet Union, first as an NKVD spy and later as a KGB agent. The material she passed to the Russians enabled them to produce a copy of the UK’s atom bomb. Incredibly, not until 1999 – years after the fall of the USSR – were her espionage activities publicly revealed. Also incredibly, she was never prosecuted for her crimes.

Trevor Nunn

Directed by 79-year-old Trevor Nunn (who is best known for directing plays on Broadway and in the West End), written by Lindsay Shapero, and starring Sophie Cookson (as the young spy) and Dame Judi Dench (as her older self), the movie has been shown at film festivals and will be released in the US and UK on April 19. The key point is that Nunn treats this traitor – who in the film is given the name Joan Stanley – as a hero. And reviewers have bought into it. The Hollywood Reporter called Red Joan a “good old-fashioned British spy thriller …with a bewitching female heroine.” It’s “a story of ideals and self-sacrifice that seem impossibly distant in the current day and age.” While stealing state secrets, Joan “demonstrates nothing but courage, intelligence and furious conviction.” She is “every inch a heroine.” Variety, while finding the film “flat,”also had no problem describing Joan as a heroine.

Judi Dench as “Red Joan”

In real life, Norwood was the daughter of Commies – a red-diaper baby – so loyalty to the Kremlin came naturally; the only motive she ever gave for having betrayed her country was that she was, indeed, a convinced Communist, full stop. Apparently in order to give Joan Stanley a more appealing motive for treason, Shapero’s script depicts her as being influenced, in her callow youth, by a couple of appealing friends who are German Jews and devout Communists – and whose Communism, as is so often the case in these movies, is equated with opposition to Hitler. At the same time, Shapero plays down her protagonist’s Communism, investing Joan with the belief (never held by the real Norwood) that giving atom secrets to Moscow would deprive the West of a monopoly on nukes and thus make the world safer.

After perusing the idiotic reviews in the Hollywood Reporter, Variety, and elsewhere, we were pleased to encounter at least one critic who had his head screwed on right. Calling the film “Operation Whitewash,” the Daily Mail‘s Guy Walters described it as “preposterously sympathetic to a woman who betrayed Britain’s most precious state secrets to Joseph Stalin, one of the most evil and murderous men who has ever lived.” Bingo. Why is this so hard for some people to see?

Dreaming of freedom, sneering at freedom

Our topic this week has been Ilinca Calugareanu’s extraordinary documentary Chuck Norris vs. Communism. The film takes us back to Communist Romania in the 1980s, when ordinary people gathered secretly to watch Hollywood movies – and thus got their first precious glimpses of life under freedom.

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Producer Mara Adina, Irina Nistor, Ilinca Calugareanu

In an interview with PBS, Calugareanu, who herself attended these group screenings as a kid, described her film as telling a story “that the world needed to hear, a story filled with joy and magic from a part of the world that most film audiences don’t know much about.” She’s right. In another interview, at a Toronto film festival, she recalls that when she was a child and walked into a group screening and saw the TV set and VCR, the thrill was palpable – you felt as if “you could almost touch freedom and the West.” People who have lived their entire lives in freedom need to be reminded how precious that gift is. To viewers who do appreciate their freedom, this documentary will be a deeply moving experience.

PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 27: Director/writer Ilinca Calugareanu, translator/film critic Irina Margareta, and producer Mara Adina attend The Variety Studio At Sundance Presented By Dockers Day 4 on January 27, 2015 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Variety)
Calugareanu, Nistor, and Adina being interviewed at Sundance

Unfortunately, many Western film critics don’t belong to that category of viewers. It doesn’t help that they are so contemptuous of the action vehicles starring actors like Sly Stallone and Chuck Norris that they can’t bring themselves to even try to appreciate what such fare meant to people living under totalitarianism. One such critic is Scott Foundas, who, reviewing the documentary last year in Variety, actually described it as a “breezily entertaining bonbon” – which is just this side of calling Schindler’s List a “fun romp” or Shoah a “great date film.” To be sure, Foundas was on-point when he compared Zamfir to a Graham Greene character and when he praised Calugareanu for giving her picture “the flair of a good espionage yarn.” And at least he treated the documentary and its mission with a degree of respect, acknowledging the importance of the fact that “the glimpses of the West and Western democracy afforded by American films…did much to counteract the influence of Ceausescu’s powerful propaganda machine.”

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John DeFore

But then there’s John DeFore, who, writing in the Hollywood Reporter, sneered condescendingly about the “jingoistic action films and romantic fantasies” that worked magic on Romanian audiences. DeFore even managed to work into his review the term “cultural imperialism” – giving one the distinct impression that for him, what’s disturbing about Calugarean’s story is not the idea of people living under a real-life dictatorship that sought to brainwash and terrorize them 24/7 but the idea of them being ideologically influenced by such dreaded capitalism-promoting products as Top Gun and Pretty Woman.

Meanwhile, in the Guardian, Jordan Hoffman unhesitatingly panned Calugareanu’s documentary, complaining that it “says everything it needs to say in its first 15 minutes, and then just keeps rewinding the tape….While I’m sure the dissemination of black market tapes truly did have huge social repercussions, there’s a surprising ‘so what?’ effect after the 15th recollection of what it was like to watch Rambo.”

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Jordan Hoffman

That Hoffman should respond so dismissively, so unfeelingly, to such an extraordinarily stirring chapter of modern history tells us a great deal about him. And it’s not pretty. All he succeeds in doing, in his small-minded piece, is to remind us that while there are men and women of remarkable courage in totalitarian countries who yearn for freedom and who strive to do their part to bring down tyranny, there are also pathetic characters in free countries who not only take their freedom for granted but who think it’s cool and chic to mock the very idea of yearning for freedom. 

But what else can one expect from the Guardian?

Hollywood follows Hemingway to Havana

Yesterday we talked about the newest Fast and Furious movie, which according to a January article in the Hollywood Reporter is “the first Hollywood studio film to shoot on the island since the embargo was set in the 1960s.”

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Adrian Sparks and Joely Richardson as the Hemingways

But hey, then there’s the just-released Papa Hemingway in Cuba, which the same publication described in 2014 (when it was being filmed) as “the first full-length feature with a Hollywood director and actors to be shot in the country since the 1959 revolution.” Apparently the key word is “studio”; while the car-chase franchise is owned by Universal Studios, the Hemingway picture was an independent Canadian-American production.

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Bob Yari

The film is directed by Bob Yari, a real-estate mogul turned big-time Hollywood money guy, who has bought himself producer credits on a number of major Hollywood releases (such as Prime, starring Meryl Streep, and The Painted Veil, starring Edward Norton). During his fifteen or so years in the business, he’s landed in more than his share of legal messes; according to the Boston Globe, he’s “perhaps best known for unsuccessfully suing the Academy over not getting producer credit on the 2005 best picture Oscar-winning Crash.” Papa, his only directorial credit other than 1989’s Mind Games, is based on an autobiographical script by Denne Bart Petitclerc, who died ten years ago and who, when he was a young newspaperman, was taken up by Hemingway, then living in Cuba, as a sort of sidekick and protégé. Adrian Sparks is Hemingway, Joely Richardson is his fourth wife, Mary, Giovanni Ribisi is the admiring cub reporter, and Minka Kelly is Ribisi’s love interest; Hemingway’s granddaughter Mariel, who, a half a lifetime ago, played Woody Allen’s love interest in Manhattan, has a cameo. 

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Giovanni Ribisi and Minka Kelly

The reviews, to put it mildly, haven’t been stellar. Variety called the movie “formulaic” and “plodding”; the writer for RogerEbert.com complained that “the storytelling continuously keeps us at arm’s length, never allowing us to fully understand the bond that developed between these men….Here’s a film about one of the greatest writers in history that reduces the iconic man’s mind to the canned insights of a fortune cookie.” Calling the picture “a missed opportunity,” Stephanie Merry lamented in the Washington Post that it “doesn’t leave much of an impression.” Several critics have complained that Sparks utterly lacks Papa’s charisma, and that Ribisi, whose character is supposed to be a starry-eyed twenty-something, is, in real life, 41 years old, with thinning hair.

But almost all of the reviewers have exulted in Yari’s supposed coup – getting the Castro regime to let him film at Hemingway’s Cuban home, La Finca Vigía. Indeed, there’s been plenty of predictably stoogerific commentary about this supposed “milestone.” We’ll look at some of it tomorrow.