Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: Fathom Events/TCM Series

In preparation for this Fathom Event, I went back to an excellent post written my my friend Michael for his own blog three years ago. “An Appreciation: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” is well worth your time. There are nuances that I found really interesting and anybody who loves Butch and Sundance should love it. I also know that sitting somewhere on the other side of town, Michael was enjoying the same experience I was because there is no way he would miss an opportunity to see this wonderful film on the big screen.

I myself wrote about this film for the final post I did for “Fogs Movie Reviews“, a site that I contributed to for several months before its ultimate retirement. That post was about the three great Westerns of 1969. Today I am going to focus exclusively on the George Roy Hill film. As Ben Mankiewicz said in his intro to the film today, it was the biggest film of 1969.That was an understatement, it made over a hundred million dollars and that was more than twice as much as any other film made that year. I first saw the movie with my friend Don Hayes when his family took me with them to a drive-in theater to see the flick, that was probably late 1969 or early 1970.

The secret of the films success is so easy to identify after watching the movie again, that it surprises me. There are three essential ingredients that make this movie sing. First is the star pairing of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. In old Hollywood, they say you could feel the chemistry of stars in a film. Bogart and Bacall, Tracy and Hepburn, Flynn and DeHavilland all had charisma together that made their films fly. Here is a match between same gendered co-stars that had the same effect. Their only other outing together is the Academy Award winning “The Sting“. That’s a pretty good track record for casting. From the opening sequence, the two of them showed perfect comic timing, playing off of one another’s facial expressions and body language. In the long sequence of the film where they are fleeing the pursuing super posse, they sweat and squirm and kibbutz with a real relationship that seems built on years together as outlaws. Mankiewicz mentioned some of the original choices for the film cast and I can’t imagine Jack Lemmon as Butch but I could see Steve McQueen as Sundance. Lucky for us that we had to wait for that Newman/McQueen flick until 1974.

The direction of George Roy Hill is another piece to the success of the film. Hill has managed a number of films with a nostalgic feel, including “The Sting” and “The Great Waldo Pepper”. He may not have been as stylish as other film directors but he had an eye and an ear that would let the past come to light and I think his creative use of music cues, sepia tones and timing of comic scenes accouts for a lot of the reasons that people can love this movie. The first five or ten minutes of the movie look like the nickelodeon feature that plays behind the titles. When the three main characters head off to Bolivia, they make a stop in NYC near the turn of the 20th century and the photo montage delivers enough information that we don’t need the extended film sequence that had to be condensed for reasons of studio politics. The lighting choices for most of the night scenes feel very distinctive from other films at the time. Of curse he was aided by Conrad Hall’s cinematography.

Finally, the most important ingredient in the whole concoction is the script by William Goldman. He had done extensive research, and for the spine of the story, the opening tag that declares “Most of What Follows is True” is mostly correct. Long time fans of “The Princess Bride” will be able to recognize the attitude of some of these characters. They are non-conformists with a wicked sense of humor and a streak of fatalism about them, for instance when Sundance turns his back on Butch as he kids that he is stealing Etta from him, he mutters “Take her”.  That sounded like the Man in Black and Prince Humperdink all at once. Percy Garris mocking the two bandits turned payroll guards as Morons, is just priceless. Sheriff Bledsoe, played by Jeff Corey, speaks wisdom without the humor when he points out that times have changed and that the two outlaws have outlived their minor legend. Sundance complains about where they have landed in Bolivia, “this might be the garden spot of the whole country.” The gallows humor is abundant and it is one of the most wonderful things that Goldman contributed to the story. Goldman wrote in one of his books that this was one of two real life stories that he thought were instantly compelling and cinematic. Somehow they managed to neuter “The Ghost and the Darkness” but thank heavens this story was brought to life by the right set of artists.

The movie will be playing two more times this coming Wednesday, I can’t think of anything you might be doing that would be more enjoyable for two hours than taking in this film. Get thee to a TCM/Fathom participating theater and set yourself down for the best time to be had in 1969 and so far, 2016.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

A minor disclaimer here, I don’t hate Michael Bay and I also have all the respect in the world for America’s fighting forces. With that said, we can get some of the political stuff out of the way. This movie does not lay the blame for the failure to protect Ambassador Chris Stevens on anyone. It does describe in detail the events of that fateful September 11, eleven years after the same date in NYC. I know there are people in that part of the world who simply want to be left alone to live their lives. Ideally under a government that protects and nurtures them. It is very hard to imagine from the first hand description provided by the men who told this story, how we are going to be able to help them do that and how we are supposed to be able to tell the good guys from the bad. This part of the world is loaded with groups armed to the teeth who want nothing less than absolute control over they fellow man. Libya and Syria are failed states that have a long way to go before diplomacy will be of much benefit.

One of the striking things about the whole incident is how hopeful Americans were, including the Ambassador, and how sad it is that those hopes have largely been crushed. This film shows that it was not a lack of fortitude on the part of the Americans on the ground that are responsible for those failures. This is primarily a salute to the warriors that we have asked to go into these places to try and make a difference. If this were a work of fiction, I know that some people would be criticizing the cliche story points of men separated from their families or the comradery of warriors in battle. The reason those things are cliches however is because they are true and they mean something to the people involved. The actors and director do an outstanding job in this film in presenting men who live for this kind of service but also the way they dread the price that they pay to self actualize this way.

Technically, these guys were not soldiers at the time, they were private contractors doing the job of soldiers. The story shows how the chain of command becomes problematic when this private security team, filled with the best kinds of former military personnel, has to but heads with the CIA and State department officials they are working with. Since they were employees of the agency, they deserve the status of heroes rather than mercenaries, which is a term some have used to describe these kinds of private contractors. The men in this story see their loyalty to the U.S., it’s mission in the area and the people on the ground they are there to protect. John Krasinski and James Badge Dale play the two main figures in the story, Jack and Rone. Their relationship goes back to earlier service but the work they are doing and the co-workers on their team are clearly part of a brotherhood as evidence by the loyalty they show one another. Others at the scene made sacrifices as well and all of them fit well into the stereotype of single minded military guys with hearts of gold. If half the stuff that is shown in this film is depicted accurately, they are heroes many times over.

I started out by saying I’m not a hater of Michael Bay. That does not mean I will defend his “Transformers” movies, they are for the most part, loud mechanical exercises in cinematic excess. He can however build tension, stir patriotism and explode things in a way that make the story he is telling invigorating. It looks like he just needs a good story to make a good movie and here he has one. Back in 2001, he was celebrated for a shot in the trailer for the then upcoming “Pearl Harbor”. It was a point of view sequence of a torpedo bomb being dropped during the December 7th attack. The movie never lived up to the awesomeness of that shot but it was clear that he had a good eye and the technical ability to make something like that feel real to us. We are presented with a couple of similar shots in this film and they work dramatically in the climactic battle that produces the biggest emotional tolls in the film. There are a few of his other excesses on display that show he directed the film but don’t manage to take us out of the experience. John Woo likes flying birds, Michael Bay likes windblown cloth floating over the scenes of mayhem as a serene counterpoint to those events. There is a lot of shaky camera work in the film as well so if you get motion sickness let me recommend that you sit near the back of the theater.

The tension in the lead up to the critical day is thick, but not nearly as deep as the tautness during the firefight. The visualization of what must have happened to Ambassador Stevens is compelling, although the final script of his death is speculative. The fight at the CIA Annex however is well documented by the men who survived it and wrote the book that this movie is based on. It is never clear who is on your side and who is simply waiting to kill you. This was an ongoing conundrum for the tech team in the compound, who needed to know who to shoot and which lives to spare. That’s a tough question to have to ask when there is gunfire and weapons all around you. It looks that the team did the best that anyone could have hoped for under the circumstances. I was incredibly moved by the final screen shots of the film and it was a reminder that what we saw for the previous two hours was not a make believe story, thought up to entertain us, but a dramatization of real events, designed to honor those who gave all for their country and their fellow warriors.