Film Reviews For The Cine-Literate

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Current Reviews

Public Trust

Delivered with some urgency, the new documentary “Public Trust” drills in on threats to a vast but threatened US resource: 640 million acres of public lands and waters – held in trust for the benefit of all Americans. These wild places, mostly in our Western states, are an important part of our national identity, offer solutions to cope with our climate crisis, provide crucial habitat to varied wildlife, and--as a bonus—provide some of the most magnificent landscapes in the world.

“Public Trust,” directed by David Garrett and co-executive produced by Robert Redford, uses as its principal spokesman Montana investigative journalist Hal Herring, who concentrates his vision on three land-based conflicts: the slashing of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, the possible permanent destruction of the Boundary Waters Wilderness in Minnesota, and the potential sale of one of America’s last great wild places, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The film makes the case for protecting these natural monuments, and how extractive industries, focused firmly on profits and privatization, are trying to deprive future generations of a precious heritage.

Since The Antiquities Act was signed into law over 100 years ago by President Teddy Roosevelt, every president except three (Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush) has used their authority under the Act to protect public lands and waters. And despite our increased polarization on nearly every issue these days, there is currently broad bipartisan support for public spaces. According to recent polls, a majority of Democrats and Republicans think Congress should emphasize conservation on public lands.

Combining the essential history of public land preservation, gorgeous location shooting in the region, and extensive research on the issues, the filmmakers conduct interviews with tribal leaders, government whistleblowers, historians, and journalists (like Herring). Featured in the film are activists defending the land: Angelo Baca Dinè (Navajo), a filmmaker and scholar working to protect Bears Ears; Spencer Shaver, a fierce defender of the Boundary Waters Wilderness where he grew up hunting and fishing, and Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, an organization formed to protect Alaska’s ANWR. There is also narratives about government figures tied to oil and gas interests who threaten these resources.

Redford has remarked that “Our country is fortunate to have millions of acres of public lands, including National Parks, Monuments, Wildlife Refuges and Wilderness set aside for future generations,” Redford, but, “sadly, these lands ... are under unprecedented threats from the greed of big corporations... (while) many of our current politicians are also to blame. ‘Public Trust’ tells the story of citizens who are fighting back.”

A prize-winner at a number of recent film festivals, “Public Trust” is available on YouTube beginning on Friday, September 25, one day before National Public Lands Day 2020.

(The film is not rated and runs 96 minutes.)

(September 2020)

A rally to protect Bears Ears National Monument at the Utah State Capitol. Salt Lake City, Utah. From "Public Trust." Photo by Lee Cohen.

UNFIT: DC in the Movies

Within the last year, as the 2020 presidential election approached, there has been a mini-deluge of films and television programs from Democratic activists about the “existential threat” to our democracy by the Trump Administration, a period deemed so outside our political norms that our republic was in peril. Some of these efforts were sardonic, some sarcastic, some earnest, some enraged.

Perhaps feeling their tone was becoming somewhat repetitive, a few Trump critics developed a new cinematic angle of attack, this time focused pointedly on the president’s mental health. “UNFIT: The Psychology of Donald Trump” tries to make the case that Trump suffers from a genuine psychiatric malady called “malignant narcissism” which makes him unsuited for national office.

The director of “UNFIT,” Dan Partland, in an introductory note on the film, acknowledges up front that it will be seen as “partisan and preaching to the converted,” but he insists that, while it may be “preaching to anyone who will listen,” its goal is to “provide language and a framework for lay people to benefit from the decades of science and research that has studied these behaviors.”

One leading voice in the film is Dr. John Gartner, a psychologist and founding member of the “Duty to Warn “ coalition aimed at removing Trump form office because of his mental deficiencies. He is joined by several other psychiatrists and psychologists, as well as commentators often seen on cable TV, figures like Malcom Nance, Anthony Scaramucci, Bill Kristol, and George Conway, co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, producing anti-Trump ads for national distribution. All the talking heads narrate their views behind a parade of clips illustrating Trump’s most daffy statements and egregious lies.

A ready criticism of the film can be made that none of the experts interviewed have ever had a personal interview with the President, so their interpretations amount to hearsay or mere opinion. The filmmakers also acknowledge in advance that lack of personal interaction but argue that there is more than enough in Trump’s incessant observed behavior to make their psychiatric case.

I’m not sure DC viewers will have much to learn from “UNFIT,” but they can be sure to have their political wounds somewhat assuaged while their rage remains intact.

(The film is not rated, runs 83 minutes, and became available on digital streaming platforms on September 1).

(September 2020)

President Trump. here in a sour mood, is psychoanalyzed in the new film "UNFIT." Photo courtesy of Rolling Stone magazine.

Desert One

Forty years after it happened, the story of one of the most daring military rescue attempts in US history comes to the screen. The documentary feature “Desert One” recounts the April 24-25, 1980, attempt to rescue 52 US State Department officials who were taken hostage by Iranian revolutionaries in Tehran in November 1979. The film comes from two-time Academy Award® winner Barbara Kopple (“Harlan County USA” and “American Dream”) who produced and directed the film.

Kopple has incorporated into her film a wealth of recently unearthed archival sources, as well as intimate interviews with President Jimmy Carter, Vice President Walter Mondale, newscaster Ted Koppel, former hostages, journalists, and, most strikingly, some Iranian student revolutionaries who orchestrated the take-over of the US Embassy in Tehran (who were interviewed in Iran).

The film backgrounds the complex planning and intelligence-gathering necessary for the secret operation, which presumed landing eight helicopters into the southern Iranian desert (together with support aircraft) which were to fly to Tehran and rescue those held hostage. A disastrous landing—three copters eventually becoming disabled—led to an aborted “Desert One” and an ignominious disaster. Kopple uses imaginative animation to actualize an operation that was never filmed, while extolling the bold risk-taking and resolve of the enterprise.

Perhaps the most striking element of Kopple’s film is the never-before-heard live satellite phone recordings of President Carter talking to his generals right as the mission unfolds. These undramatic, “just the facts” exchanges turn out to be breath-taking sequences that will have viewers who lived through the period both chilled and sucking in their breath. Those same viewers may be both surprised and touched at the soft and diffident qualities of Carter’s distinctive drawl, veiling a man quelling an inside storm.

The director saw “Desert One” as a patriotic raid, “... a roller coaster ride of a story well worth telling.” Kopple added: “It is a film about U.S. leadership and gumption, our leaders taking responsibility--even when things go wrong.” She also emphasized her decision to recount the Iranian view: “Hearing their side of the story can make us reflect. This is a story that few remember or even know and it might inspire us now.”

The documentary is rated “PG-13,” runs 89 mins., and is available streaming through AFI).

(August 2020)

A grounded attack helicopter is examined by Iranian youngsters in the failed aftermath of the 1980 “Desert One” mission; photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment.


A moody character study might be the best way to describe the new bio-pic “Tesla,” covering the life of the Serbo-Croatian engineering genius and inventor, Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) who, through his adaption of alternating current (AC) to widespread use, helped electrify our world. Here he is incarnated by a grave and humorless Ethan Hawkes, shown with a serious ‘stache and a perpetually wrinkled brow, peering into a world only he seems to fathom.

The plot provides a straightforward inventory of Tesla’s greatest hits in chronological order—contesting his AC against the DC (direct current) of Thomas Edison (Kyle McLachlan), making deals with George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan), designing power plants, lighting the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, inventing the Tesla Coil, collaborating with financier J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz)—all somberly and lovingly shot if not always fully explained.

At intervals, we have a running narration by Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), J.P.’s daughter, who describes Tesla’s experiments and experiences and whose presence comes off as an intermittent tease of an emotive relationship with the scientist which never comes off-–he was a stone bachelor and loner. Her narration, rather than offering much insight, provides another distancing factor to a film that is already detached. FYI: the Anne character, while real, had no personal connection to Tesla, as the film implies. Neither did actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan), a Tesla contemporary, who flits through the film merely as a period marker.

Director-writer Michael Almeryda has had a most varied career in both feature and documentary film, including an intriguing contemporary version of “Hamlet (2000),” also with Hawkes. Filming in New York and Brooklyn over 20 days, he has made “Tesla” look sumptuous on what must be a skinny budget—shooting deep black backgrounds and detailed painted backdrops to construct an effective aesthetic. But, sadly, he just hasn’t found the necessary—uh-“spark”—to make this bio-pic come fully alive.

(Note: In one of those odd movie coincidences, “Tesla” goes over ground assayed recently in “The Current War” (2017), which also told a version of the Edison-Westinghouse-Tesla rivalries with the protagonists played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, and Nicholas Hoult, respectively.)

(The film is rated “PG-13,” runs 96 minutes, and was released on streaming platforms in late August).

(August 2020)

Ethan Hawke as Nikola Tesla in Michael Almereyda’s “Tesla.” Courtesy of IFC Films; an IFC Films Release.