In RBG, directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West tell the fascinating life story of Ruth Bader Ginsberg in a relatively routine way. Those who watch a lot of documentaries won’t have their hair blown back by any stylistic flourishes or innovations. Instead, RBG is perfectly content with the wheels that have already been invented: archival footage, talking head interviews, and primary sources like court documentation. With these tools, Cohen and West weave together an inspirational tale of an American trailblazer and outright hero: Ruth Bader Ginsberg, second woman to sit on the supreme court and unabashed defender of the rights of minorities – particularly those of women.
The satire is the most fragile of all the genres. Drama fails or succeeds on the strength of very definite qualities like story, character, and pathos. Comedy has leeway with its execution on account of its casual tone, as even the blackest comedies have a jokey kernel. Strict genre fare or action is even more forgiving: as long as the film hits a few key points, we enjoy the parts that hit, and dismiss the parts that miss (i.e., the recent Mad Max, which is awesome yet fairly bereft of story). But with satire, if certain elements are missing – a unifying vision, a stylistic conceit, or even a single performance – then the product just feels off. So is the case with War Machine, the Netflix film from Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B Entertainment. Though the satirical aspirations of this send-up of the War on Terror are apparent and welcome, there are simply too many missteps.
John Madden’s political thriller Miss Sloane is a contrived sledgehammer of a film. It navigates a complex subject matter from the top of a soapbox, spouting ersatz-Sorkin dialogue at the top of its lungs. Its near-infallible central character is always the smartest person in the room, except when she’s saved by the latest in a long line of plot conveniences. And though the film is stocked with talented actors, they often struggle to elevate the mediocre writing above the superficiality of a PolySci 101 term paper on the second amendment. Miss Sloane delights in its own cleverness and “message”, but seems to have considered making a film a secondary concern.
A few months ago, I wanted to write a news piece about some casting announcements for the new film Trumbo, but I held off. Now, the first trailer for the McCarthy-era film about the blacklisting of the titanic Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (played by Bryan Cranston) has been released, and it looks like we’ve got one of our first serious Oscar contenders. Have a look: