TORONTO - At the Toronto Film Festival, where the war in Iraq and the upcoming U.S. presidential election are on everyone's mind, you can't turn a corner without running into a celluloid opinion.
The first of them, Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven's Gate, is the least likely war movie at the festival this week.
Adapted from the book by Stephen Bach, it shows a young man given the keys to the kingdom. After Michael Cimino won a best director Oscar for The Deer Hunter in 1979, United Artists gave him a blank check to make what he wanted.
He wanted to make the finest western ever. He didn't, but Heaven's Gate is showing at the festival this week as a kind of reminder of what ambitious studio films once looked like.
That said, Final Cut, which includes talks with the UA executives responsible and the actors who served on the tumultuous production (but not Cimino), is also a fascinating reminder of what unchecked hubris looks like. Asked what he thinks about when he thinks about making Heaven's Gate, Kris Kristofferson, one of its stars, chuckles and says: "Iraq comes to mind."
How do you break the ice with Sean Penn? Ask who he's voting for this November. I don't do this. Current events are fused with his new film here, but I chicken out when he arrives for an interview looking as intimidating as you'd expect. Penn enters wearing a sport coat and blue open-collared shirt and the darkest sunglasses you've ever seen. In 20 minutes of conversation he smokes three cigarettes.
His voice is a soft growl, and when people talk to him they tend to adopt the exact tone of his voice, making the room feel like a sideline huddle. Six years ago, he begins, when he first attached himself to his new film, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, he thought he had a study of a man dissolving mentally because of personal and professional failure: "The story of a twisted head placed on basically the body of a good man." The film is based on the true story of a Pittsburgh man who planned to hijack an airplane in 1974 and crash it into the White House.
"But every day that went by on this film," he said, "from trying to get the funding to the casting, it just kept drawing closer and closer parallels. Then came 9/11 and it became apparent that those parallels hit a boiling point."
Those parallels are also bound to obscure another tour de force performance from Penn in this film. Taxi Driver and Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle comes to mind, but Penn finds a place where Bickle intersects with Arthur Miller's Willy Loman. De Niro gives us a delusional would-be assassin; Penn gives us an office furniture salesman driven mad not by violence but by hypocrisy and loneliness. As his wife (Naomi Watts) divorces him, and his best friend (Don Cheadle) draws away, Penn's Sam Bicke hangs on to any sliver of compassion or attention thrown his way; it's one of those performances that makes you cringe with self-recognition.
"It was personal," Penn said. "Nixon himself is more of a figure in the background. It's about the many mechanisms behind Sam Bicke's thinking. That's why I wanted to make it."
The assassination attempt itself is almost an afterthought, I offered. It would be comical if it weren't so sad and tragic. It's about a failed American dream, in short.
"There seems to be a lot more of those now," Penn replied. "Desperation seems to be at an all-time high."
Then the subject of political filmmaking comes up and Penn cuts in quickly: "I don't think it serves political activists to consider myself a political activist. That's not my job. I'm a moderately responsible citizen. If I was more than that, I'd be doing a lot more.
"I've quoted E.L. Doctrow a lot of times who said an artist has a responsibility to address the times they live in. If something speaks to your time and you feel there's an element to it that you have something to add . . . . well, you have to do it. If I think something should be made - and the people who work with me know this - that thing doesn't end up not getting made."
I don't know how director Michael Tucker feels about the war in Iraq or the policies of the Bush administration. I had the chance to find out; I heard him say things that could be taken in support of the war or opposed to it. But after seeing Gunner Palace, his hot-ticket documentary here, I didn't want to know.
If you can ignore the unnecessary narration, his film strives to simply deliver the day-to-day reality of serving in the military and being deployed to a place where the attitude toward you seems to change minute by minute, boulevard by boulevard.
The title comes from the nickname given to the Al Azimiya Palace, the former Baghdad home of Uday Hussein, now serving as a kind of heavily guarded, ultra-ornate frat house for the Gunner Battalion.
President Bush's name never comes up; politics hovers in the background, heard in bursts over radio newscasts. Instead, Tucker lobs straightforward questions at the 19 and 22-year-olds he hangs out with: "What do you do here?" and "What do they think of Americans?" and so on. They talk about the boredom and the confusion, which often are broken with regular explosions of violence.
We see a little of both. We watch troops shut down a street to check a suspicious package that turns out to be a wind-blown shopping bag mistaken for a roadside bomb. We watch Tucker himself walk briskly across a street to sidestep a sporadic firefight.
Tucker says he simply showed up at the gates of Gunner Palace one day and the soldiers took him in. What separates him from other "embedded" journalists becomes evident: The soldiers let down their guard for his cameras.
So do their prisoners. A quick stop to pick up No. 89 on the Most Wanted Iraqis list finds the prisoner combing his hair, arranging his coat, giving himself up patiently. The soldiers treat him almost tenderly. A scene later, we could be watching raucous outtakes from M*A*S*H or a party scene from Three Kings.
There's no large, overriding point to any of these scenes, no quick stamp applied - aside from the simple insistence that this is what it's like to occupy a country. Tucker said he's not worried about the reaction to the film: "There's obvious good in it, there's truth in it, and there are things hard to deny." Eight soldiers interviewed for the film have been killed in combat since he wrapped filming a year ago this month. Two who just returned from Iraq were at the screening. They stood with their hands folded behind their backs and answered questions for 15 minutes. An audience member stood and thanked them "for risking their lives." One of the soldiers just looked down and said, "Right."
John Sayles may be the last honest man in show business. His new film, Silver City, which features Chris Cooper doing a spot-on impression of a certain former governor with a famously malapropistic public speaking style, proves Sayles learned more from his former mentor Roger Corman than just how to make a cheap hit.
He learned how to piggyback on current events, and Silver City hits so many hot-button issues it plays like a crib sheet to the front page of any contemporary daily newspaper.
"We consciously wanted to make a film noir murder mystery with politics that also works as movie," Sayles told me. "Obviously we wanted to get it out by the election. We shot very quickly, and there's no question it's critical of the current administration.
"That said, after Nov. 2, Silver City becomes a detective story again."
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