Do they still do “compare and contrast” assignments in school? Back in about 6th grade, I remember we would have to read two poems, or two essays, or watch two commercials and then write up a couple paragraphs on how they were alike and how they were different. These days, when the “theory” of writing takes up more time than actually writing in schools, those exercises are probably a relic.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to harp on how everything used to be better back in my day. Sure, we had the Beatles and Stones, but we didn’t have Five Guys or Amazon Prime. All in all, we’ll call it a draw.
Instead, this is a piece about how Hollywood sucks. Not all of Hollywood, and not all the time. But it is often so egregious and unnecessary, and just plain idiotic, that it makes you mad about how much it all, well, sucks.
To illustrate the thesis, I’m going to do a little compare and contrast. Similar story and setting and tone – one a mainstream Hollywood movie, another a Spanish movie from a solid young veteran director who very few people in the USA have ever heard of.
Now, when you read “idiotic” above, you might have thought I was going to whip up on a pile of refuse like London Has Fallen, one of the major, well-publicised Hollywood releases of a week ago. But I already did that in a separate review in which the phrase “mind-numbingly moronic” made an early appearance. No – I’m picking what I consider to be a pretty decent Hollywood effort: the Glenn Ficarra/John Recqua darkly comic Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, starring Tina Fey. Opposing it in this throw down will be Fernando Leon de Aranoa’s A Perfect Day, which may or may not have an American distributor as of this writing.
Both movies are period pieces about foreigners in a battle-scarred land. In Fey’s movie, she plays Kim Baker, a stateside news producer who gets sent to Afghanistan around 2003 when the heightening conflict in Iraq pulls most of the news resources out of an operation nobody really cares about anymore. A Perfect Day takes place in Bosnia in the ‘90s, during the tenuous peace in the brutal civil conflict. Benicio Del Toro leads a ragtag group of aid workers who struggle against all odds to bring a little relief to the battered population. Both movies are darkly comic, wearing a well-earned mantle of research and reality. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is even based on the stories of a real live journalist, Kim Barker (that’s right, they dropped the first R from her last name for the movie – don’t ask me why.)
That’s it for the compare. Now for the contrast.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is pretty good. It is without question Fey’s best performance in a movie and she carries the movie to some mildly interesting places. A Perfect Day, though flawed, is way better.
There are several reasons for this. Somewhat surprisingly, Aranoa’s movie is much tighter, adhering to an Aristotelian standard. It takes place in one 24 hour period and the central plot thread, the repeated attempt to clear a contaminated well, serves as a strong spine off of which its other threads can hang. The American movie is episodic, sort of trundling along from incident to incident over several years with little dramatic momentum. It also has a recurring well problem, but that gets lost in all the other sound and fury swirling about.
I call this surprising because American movies usually invest a lot in plot structure. Where they often fall down is in character, and that is the case here as well. Despite its loose structure, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has surprisingly thin characters. That does not apply to Fey’s lead, but it is hard to focus on a supporting player who really stands out. Billy Bob Thornton’s Marine General has some interesting moments but they are never really developed beyond the moment. Kim’s fellow female reporter, played by a co-billed Margot Robbie, is pretty much a one-note selfish egocentrist, and her love interest, played by Martin Freeman, is mostly a cad. Saddest of all, Alfred Molina’s Afghan official is cartoonish. The best supporting character in the film is played by Christopher Abbott, but more on him in a moment.
All in all, these aren’t dull characters, but they aren’t especially sharp either, and they aren’t especially likeable, since we never get any real sense of their personalities beyond the excitement junkie level.
On the other hand, A Perfect Day has characters fighting a good battle. They are worn down by brutality and bureaucracy, but they still keep cracking jokes and trying to help. Del Toro is a calm centre for the characters, and he is ably assisted by an international cast with standout performances by Tim Robbins, Melanie Thierry, and Fedja Stukan. And there is nothing in the American movie that comes close to the most powerful sequence in A Perfect Day. The aid workers have picked up a young boy from a mixed-religion family and take him back to his home. What they find there, to the haunting sounds of Marilyn Manson’s version of “Sweet Dreams,” constitutes the most powerful scene I have witnessed so far this year. That’s right, the Spanish movie even has a kick-ass punk rock soundtrack.
But here’s the big thing. The big thing that Hollywood, for all its technical expertise and focus group analysis, just keeps on missing. Fedja Stukan. I mentioned him before and you probably said “oh yeah, Fedja Stukan. He was great in that, I forget the name, that really good foreign movie about the…” Then you just moved on. Because you have never seen Fedja Stukan. Never even heard of him. I certainly hadn’t. He’s a Bosnian actor Aranoa found to play the key role of Damir, the aid worker who serves as translator and guide for the rest of the group. Now, there is an almost identical character in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, played by Christopher Abbott. I already praised his performance as Fahim, the Afghan press colleague who serves as Kim’s translator.
Abbott is very good, but he is not as memorable as Stukan, and here’s one possible reason. He’s not an Afghan. He’s an Italian kid from Connecticut. When he played the title character in 2015’s James White, he was much closer to home, and he nailed it. And even though he is a good enough actor to play Fahim, you’re just left asking why, in this day and age, would a director cast the Italian kid from Connecticut to play the Afghan? Aranoa didn’t know Fedja Stukan, but he went out looking for him. And he found him. As a result, Aranoa’s film feels much more authentic than the American movie.
And that’s ultimately what it comes down to. You may even prefer the free-form plot and dark humor of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot to the tight parable-like A Perfect Day. But it will not feel more authentic. There’s an arrogance about American film, which I realise may well extend throughout the rest of the culture. It holds that actors like Abbott and Molina are better suited to play foreigners than the foreigners themselves. I understand that there are box office considerations, and part of my problem is that I am analysing a business as though it were an art form. But until mainstream American cinema learns how to cast more authentically, it will continue to produce movies like Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which have merit but fall short of where they might have been.
FYI, for my next compare and contrast I’m thinking of doing Ardbeg Corryvreckan vs Laphroaig Cairdeas. But that’s only because I just typed the word “whiskey” so many times. And I’m highly suggestible.