NYFF Dispatch: “Foxcatcher”, “CITIZENFOUR” and “Merchants of Doubt”

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The final week of this year’s New York Film Festival includes two tense state-of-the-world documentaries and Bennett Miller’s much-anticipated, Cannes-winning thriller.

The new documentary from Food, Inc. director Robert Kenner presents a frustrating contradiction: it’s a film designed to take down corporate America’s slippery lobbyists and think tank “experts” that too often falls into the same glibly mocking traps that it accuses its targets of. Merchants of Doubt literally shows its hand early, employing a Hollywood magician to key its audience into the notion of misdirection—because we might not get it otherwise?—and proceeds to hammer home this too-obvious metaphor for the duration.

To be sure, the material presented here is compelling, and Kenner mounts an effective case to expose the devious ways big tobacco, chemical companies and climate change deniers manipulate the public’s perception via convincing talking heads (many of whom, hilariously, lack any real scientific credentials.) But like Michael Moore at his worst, it’s hard to applaud a film when it’s relentlessly poking fun at its opponents—witness a moment when a trip to the South results in a convenient “hick” tune arriving on a car radio—as if to pat itself, and its smug audience, heartily on the back. When David Bowie’s “Changes” is played, apparently without irony, over a montage of climate change debate, well, I kinda hoped the hole in the ozone layer would swallow me up, too.

Arriving at the tail-end of the festival program, Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour—the third film in her post-9/11 trilogy—has something of the feel of real-time urgency, as though it had wrapped and been secretly shipped to the screening minutes before. Or so that’s the (quite clever) impression the film cultivates. Documenting 2013’s sensational NSA whistle-blowing by former data analyst Edward Snowden, Poitras’ camera is there from first contact through his escape to Hong Kong and subsequent flight to Russia, capturing a sort-of fly-on-the-wall inside view of a media maelstrom. Tense scenes of Snowden, his Guardian journalist advocate Glenn Greenwald and Poitras’ own email exchanges are keenly interwoven to create a tapestry of escalating suspense, not unlike Steven Soderbergh’s global potboiler Contagion. (Maybe it’s no coincidence: Soderbergh executive-produced.)

While it’s difficult to identify just what’s been staged for the camera (and there has to be plenty), the facts remain chilling and the picture successfully conveys its climate of Orwellian fear—not for nothing did my eyes drift to the ceiling of the theater in suspicion that the screening might be bugged. Ultimately, though—aside from some beautifully-composed cityscapes—it’d be valid to question Citizenfour’s value as cinema; sure, the material matters, but wouldn’t it be just as well served by a TV doco?

With a Best Director win at Cannes and consistently high praise doled out at TIFF (though not so much, perhaps, Movie Mezzanine’s), Bennett Miller’s psycho-wrestling thriller Foxcatcher comes freighted with high expectations (not to mention a barrage of ugly awards-season punditry.) Set (fictitiously, as it turns out) in the 1980s, it explores the screwed-up relationship between blue-collar Olympic wrestling schmo Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and his predatory benefactor John du Pont (Steve Carell), a wealthy creep attempting to buy his way into patriotic glory and weird male bonding—or something.

I’d never be crass enough to accuse a director of deliberately making Oscar bait, and yet Miller seems to have a gift—after Capote and Moneyball—for finding and shepherding the kind of material Academy voters love. From Carell’s stunt prosthesis, Tatum’s Cro-Magnon mirror smashing and Ruffalo’s prestige bald patch to the important thematic grappling with class, family and America, Foxcatcher does everything but include a supporting turn from a venerated actress as a Mrs. Bates-style… oh, wait. It’s not that Miller’s craft isn’t impressive—it is, and maybe that’s part of the problem. A scenario as ultimately absurd as this seemed to call for something more outrageous, perhaps the outright comedy that Carell’s genuinely deranged penguin shtick keeps threatening to turn the movie into. Still, it’s a handsome, complex enough film that mostly refuses to commit to easy psychoanalysis—and in middlebrow American cinema, that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Originally published at Movie Mezzanine.

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