Two Days, One Night

I’ve just seen the Dardenne brothers’ brilliant Two Days, One Night (2014)   It’s a film I’ve been looking forward to seeing for a long time, and it didn’t disappoint.     The premise is deceptively simple: Sandra Byas, played by Marion Cotillard,   is a worker in a Belgian solar panel factory who has just returned to work after suffering a nervous breakdown, only to find that her boss has offered her colleagues a bonus of 1,000 euros a month if they agree to make her redundant.

From the management’s point of view this is the cheaper option for a small company operating in a globalised market against Asian competition, and also because in Sandra’s   absence her co-workers have been able to cover her shifts by working overtime.

Sandra finds all this out on a Friday, by which time one of her colleagues has managed to persuade the boss to hold a secret ballot amongst the workforce on Monday morning to decide her fate.     Her only hope of keeping her job is to persuade nine of her colleagues to vote against accepting the bonus and for keeping her on instead.

This is what she tries to do in the course of the ‘two days and one night’ of the title.   As Sandra visits her co-workers one by one she is forced, essentially, to beg them to vote in her favour and vote against their own interests, because if she needs a job,   it is equally clear that all of them are struggling economically and need the bonus. At the same time there is another choice that each of these workers must make: whether to accept the divide-and-rule arrangements imposed by management or act out of solidarity and ordinary humanity to help a fellow-worker in difficulty.

This story is told through a series of beautifully low-key and convincingly uncinematic performances, with Cotillard absolutely outstanding as a fragile young woman forced into a humiliating attempt to assert herself while struggling against depression and her own lack of self-worth.     I won’t say how it all ends, in case you haven’t seen it.   Suffice to say that this is a quiet masterpiece, which the dim careerists who are competing for the Labour leadership by paying homage to ‘business’ and ‘wealth creators’ would do especially well to see.

Because if Two Days and One Night is a film about solidarity in the face of adversity, it’s also a film about work and working lives, and the human consequences of what employers like to call ‘flexibility’ and which some economists have more accurately labelled ‘precarity.’   Sandra is one of those ‘hard-working people’ who politicians claim to love, but her life and the life of her family is threatened by a decision made on purely financial considerations.   In order to compete successfully in the global market, her company needs the ability to lay people off and take them on at will.

Flexibility for the management translates into constant insecurity for the workforce, and     Sandra’s breakdown and depression gives management a lever than can be used against her, since her line manager Jean-Marc tries to sway her colleagues by telling them that she isn’t working well as a result of her illness. Jean-Marc is an invisible presence for much of the film, but he is the one who reports to his superiors and influences their decisions, and therefore exerts an unseen power over the workforce, such as the welder on a fixed-term contract whose renewal depends on what Jean-Marc tells management.

One of the reasons why Jean-Marc is so powerful is because there is no union to counter-balance him.     As far as we can tell, the secret ballot to decide Sandra’s job appears to be an ad hoc and idiosyncratic arrangement between the staff and management.     As a result the workforce is entirely dependent on the vagaries of the global economy and the largesse of their employers.

Sandra’s attempts to persuade her colleagues to vote in her favour are made even more difficult by her painful awareness that all of them need their bonus, because the money they make is not enough to make ends meet.

This, in short, is true precarity: low wages, powerlessness and permanent insecurity in the workplace, and the constant prospect of unemployment and the dole.     It’s a situation that millions of men and women find themselves in to some degree or other across the world, and which has become something of a desired ideal for governments like ours.

Even though the words ‘trade union’ are never mentioned in the film,   Two Days and One Night is a powerful reminder of why we need unions, and what workers lose when they don’t have them.   In this country in particular, we have been taught for many years by Tory governments and the Tory press to regard unions as a historical anachronism and a reactionary obstacle to ‘reform’.       With their new strike laws, Lord Snooty and His Pals are plotting to strip trade unions of the most powerful tool that workers have to defend their pay and conditions and protect their interests.

I wouldn’t recommend a showing of Two Days and Nights at Downing Street: His Lordship wouldn’t be interested.     But   Burnham, Kendall, Cooper et al really ought to see it.     It won’t do much for their careers, but they might learn something about what 21st century working lives are really like, and it might even remind them of what their own party was once supposed to stand for.

 

 

Killing the Messenger

I first came across the name Gary Webb some years ago, when I was researching a section about the Reagan administration’s first ‘war on terror’ in the 1980s for my book on terrorism.     Webb was a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, who stumbled on a story that the CIA-supported Contras were funding their war against the Sandinista in Nicaragua by selling Colombian cocaine in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and that the drug dealers responsible for this were receiving specially lenient treatment from the US Justice Department.

This was not the first time that CIA had been linked to the drugs trade.   Alfred McCoy had once made similar allegations regarding CIA complicity in heroin trafficking during the Vietnam War.   Bob Parry touched on the Contra/Cocaine links in his Contragate investigations during the 1980s.     In 1989 the Senate subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics, and International operations chaired by Senator John Kerry published a report Drugs, Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy, which   concluded that ‘individuals who provided support for the Contras were involved in drug trafficking…and elements of the Contras themselves knowingly received financial and material assistance from drug traffickers.’

These conclusions received little coverage in the US media, which has a long history of ignoring what it doesn’t want to hear, or what the government doesn’t want it to hear. Webb’s story produced a very different reaction.   A talented and dogged investigative reporter, Webb linked the Contra/Columbia/CIA pipeline directly to the crack cocaine epidemic in Californian cities during the 1980s.   Though he didn’t argue that the CIA intentionally set out to produce this outcome, he did argue that it turned a blind eye to the drug trade or directly colluded with it, and helped ensure legal leniency or protection for some of those responsible.

In August 1996 Webb published the first of a three-part series entitled ‘Dark Alliance’, which eventually became a book with the same title.   Partly as a result of the paper’s ground-breaking simultaneous publication in print and on the Internet, his journalistic scoop caused an instant sensation, and Webb briefly became something of a media star.     But instead of following up his investigations, some of the most powerful newspapers in the United States began to attack the series and Webb himself.     They claimed that his sources were unreliable and thin; that he was a fantasist who had exaggerated his story and even made things up.

This campaign was directed primarily by the Washington Post – the same newspaper which broke Watergate, and it succeeded to the point when Webb’s own newspaper   apologized for its editorial errors and effectively undermined its own reporter.

Why did this happen?   Journalistic jealousy may have been a factor, from newspapers that resented the fact that a maverick journalist from a minor provincial paper had uncovered a story of such magnitude.   There was also the US media’s generally deferential and credulous attitude towards its government, particularly when issues of ‘national security’ are converned.   Last but not least, there is also the possibility that the CIA used its own considerable powers to silence Webb by disgracing him.

This is what Webb himself believed.   Whether this campaign was driven by malice and cowardice, it managed to cast sufficient doubt on Webb’s investigation and his own reputation as a reporter, to the point when he was sidelined by his own newspaper and eventually left it.     He was subsequently unable to find   work as a fulltime journalist and unable to support himself.   On December 10 2004 he shot himself.

Inevitably, this death has prompted suggestions that it was actually an execution,   but it is difficult to see who had any interest in killing him, given the comprehensive damage that had already been done to his reputation and his livelihood. Webb’s story touches on   many crucial issues which still remain with us; the secret and unaccountable machinery of covert operations; drugs and foreign policy; the failed and hypocritical drugs war and the mass incarceration of Afro-Americans that has become a consequence of it; the staggering deference of the corporate media.

All these issues are revisited recounted in Michael Cuesta’s excellent film Kill the Messenger, which I saw yesterday in a nearly empty cinema.   It’s a powerful piece of work, driven by a superb performance from Jeremy Renner.   The film references some of the conspiracy movies of the 70s such as The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, in the paranoid and menacing world of unspoken and all-powerful government conspiracies, but it’s an angrier and far more polemical movie.

This is first of all a film about Webb, which upholds Webb’s own belief that the government set out to discredit him, with the compliance of the mainstream press.   Like All the President’s Men, it’s also a film about journalism and the media.   But whereas that film told the story of intrepid and fearless investigation of government malfeasance, Kill the Messenger tells the tragic story of media cowardice, laziness and failure that, as the title suggests, preferred to turn against the man who brought the bad news, rather than consider the alarming implications of what he tried to tell them.

There is nothing to suggest that much has changed in that respect.   Today the mainstream media remains generally as credulous and deferential as it was then, and not only in the US, and bringers of unwelcome news are still liable to be ignored or personally vilified.

This important and courageous film reminds us of the kind of journalists we ought to have and too often don’t, and it is a worthy and moving tribute to a man who, as American heroes go, is far more worthy of admiration than the homicidal sniper whose exploits have broken all box office records.

Kevin MacDonald’s Black Sea

Submarine films are always tense experiences, whether they consist of the black & white war films that I watched as a kid, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or the   claustrophobic U-boat epic Das Boot.   Tension, anxiety and claustrophobia are intrinsic to the cinematic world of submarines, whose components are broadly similar almost to the point of cliché.   Go to a film with submarines in it and you can expect to find a great deal of sweaty masculinity and few if any women.     Expect close up visuals of unshaven men in stained vests in tiny rooms biting their lips and peering nervously upwards; captains in rollneck jumpers peering through periscopes.

You can almost guarantee that there will gushing water, burst pumps and valves; accidents and explosions from depth charges or collisions; metallic bangs and men being tossed about and drowned or nearly drowned;   lots of silent watery shots of submarines cruising through inky depths to the sound of sonar bleeps.   You know that sooner or later the oxygen will run out or nearly run out unless the crew performs some impossible technical feat that is mostly incomprehensible to landlubber audiences.     You understand that at some point engines will fail or get seriously damaged; that the submarine in question will go too deep or too shallow; that there is likely to be a race against time.

You know before you enter the cinema that things will go wrong, because no cinematic submarine ever leaves its port without things going wrong.   These expectations aren’t necessarily a a problem, because submarine flics are a genre like gangster films, and fulfilled expectations are the whole point.

That said, it’s not a genre that you easily breathe new life into, so hats off to   Kevin MacDonald for his nail-biting and utterly compelling account of yet another underwater venture gone badly wrong in Black Sea.     The film tells the story of an ill-starred attempt by a laid-off Aberdonian submarine Captain, played by Jude Law,   to recover a U-boat filled with Nazi gold from the bottom of the Black Sea.

Summarily dumped onto the dole queue by his company after years of service, Captain Robinson thinks he sees a way out of an impoverished dead end life when a mate tells him about the sub.     After getting funding from a dodgy venture capitalist,   he assembles a British and Russian crew of 21st century desperadoes.   Most of them are blue collar divers and submariners who are similarly down on their luck, but they also include a seedy little banker who accompanies the mission on behalf of its financier and a homeless Scots teenager.

Robinson and his crew set off for the Crimea, where they get old of a rusty mothballed former Soviet sub in Sevastopol, and then they’re off.       To say it doesn’t go well doesn’t even begin to describe it.     All the standard ingredients of the submarine flic are present, together with some additional sources of tension in the shape of a psychotic diver, lethal rivalries between the Russian and non-Russian crew, and corporate treachery and malfeasance which I better not say anything more about without revealing more than IU should.

MacDonald orchestrates the underwater tension brilliantly,   but Black Sea isn’t just a thriller.   It’s also a strikingly angry film with a strong political message.     Most submarine films are about men in extreme situations, but Captain Robinson and his crew are already way out on the edge even before they go underwater.   All of them are skilled blue collar workers who have been thrown on the scrapheap and are facing an old age of poverty, unemployment and debt.   Most of them have been shafted or exploited by their employers and recognize the essential truth spoken by one of them that ‘ you’re dogshit in this world if you don’t have money’.

They are desperate and bitter, particularly Captain Robinson, who is played with real passion and conviction by Law in the best performance I have ever seen from him. Robinson rails at corporate greed and the arrogance of bankers, and the presence of the corrupt banker Fraser on the sub provides him with ample opportunity.

You don’t normally expect social comment from the bottom of the sea, but there is a great deal of political invective in Black Sea against corporations, power, powerlessness and global inequality.   In this sense MacDonald’s film recalls another much less-known cinematic genre, which for want of a better title we might call the blue collar-vengeance-against-the system flic.

I’m thinking of films like Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar, Clouzot’s magisterial Wages of Fear, Treasure of the Sierra Madre or some of Raul Walsh’s movies, and also of the worlds that the great proletarian novelist B. Traven depicted in novels like Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Death Ship.  MacDonald apparently got his scriptwriter Dennis Kelly to watch Wages of Fear and Treasure of the Sierra Madre while writing the script.

Kelly has done his homework well, because Black Sea can take its proud place within this tradition. He and his director have come up with a movie that is dark and angry, gritty and tense as hell,   and which is simultaneously a powerful statement about the world we have created.

 

 

Leviathan

I’ve just seen Andrey Zvyagintsev’s extraordinary film Leviathan.   The movie got the best screenplay award at Cannes and has received ecstatic plaudits all round, and in my opinion it deserves them all.   It’s a bleak, troubling, and haunting piece of work, one of those rare films that lingers in the mind long after you’ve seen it.     On one level it’s an indictment of contemporary Russia.   But it’s also a more universal meditation on individual powerlessness and state power – an intention reflected in the reference to Hobbes’ theory of the sovereign state and the social contract in the title.

Set in a small town on Russia’s northwest coast,   the film tells the tragic tale of car mechanic and local handyman Kolya, whose life crumbles to pieces when the local gangster-mayor Vadim buys up his self-built house for a rock-bottom price.   With the help of his lawyer-friend from Moscow Dimitri, Kolya struggles to prevent the sale, or at least get a better price for his land.     But Dimitri has his own agenda regarding Kolya’s beautiful second wife Lilya, and to say things don’t turn out well doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Vadim is one of the nastiest characters to appear on the screen in a long time.   Corrupt, ruthless, bullying and cunning by turns, he almost seems to sweat malice from every pore of his squat, fleshy body.   To some extent he is the ‘leviathan’ of the title, and the archetypal post-Soviet gangster-predator, but it soon becomes clear that he is a product of a society that is institutionally configured to meet the needs of men like him, from corrupt cops and judges to local government officials.

Zvyagintsev has denied that his film is intended as an indictment of contemporary Russia, and has pointed out that it was inspired by a real life incident in the United States in 2004, in which a welder demolished various municipal buildings with a tank before killing himself, after he was the victim of a land expropriation.

Maybe so, but there is something disingenuous about these protestations, or maybe it’s just diplomacy, since 35 percent of the film’s budget came from the Russian Ministry of Culture.       In any case, the film is a remorseless and pitiless analysis of the institutional failings of Russian society, through the prism of a small town.

Vadim may be a local tyrant, but the film places him within a long tradition of state oppression.   In one of its rare moments of black humour, Kolya and his drunken mates use photographs of Lenin, Brezhnev, Gorbachev and Stalin for target practice, and they might also have included the Tsar and Putin himself, whose photograph adorns Vadim’s office.

Because the clear suggestion in the film is that Vadim is the product of a system in which ordinary citizens are powerless before the state and have always been powerless.   In a powerful scene in the early part of the film the drunken Vadim confronts the equally pissed Kolya and shrieks at him ‘ You people have no rights!   You never had any!’

By ‘ you people’ Vadim clearly means all ordinary Russian citizens who are not directly connected to the ‘commonwealth’ which enables people like him to prey on them with absolute impunity, and with the full support of a corrupt judiciary.

With no possibility of confronting the powerful forces that oppress them and block them at every turn, Kolya and his friends are trapped in a situation of absolute powerlessness and absolute despair that Kafka’s Josef K would have been entirely familiar with.     They eke out their lives as best they can, taking refuge in prodigious drinking bouts that almost make you want to shout at the screen to stop pouring vodka and get down to AA.     Rarely have people drank so much or been drunk for so long or so miserably as the characters of Leviathan, who drain one bottle after another in an attempt to remain in a permanent, mind-numbing stupor.

To suggest that this has nothing to do with Russia or Vladimir Putin is nonsensical. Zvyaginstev also takes aim at one of the mainstays of Putin’s support – the Russian Orthodox Church.     One of the key characters is a hypocritical priest who is almost as vile as Vladim himself, constantly mouthing religious homilies and platitudes while he cosies up to the mayor in search of what he and the church can get out of him.

In one of the most powerful scenes in the film the priest delivers a sermon about ‘reawakening the soul of the Russian people’ and condemns the immoral forces that threaten Russia – in a clear reference to Pussy Riot.     The camera pans out across faces lit up with rapt devotion that might be a tableau of ancient Mother Russia, until you see Vadim in the audience looking equally beatific and you realize that the church was built near Kolya’s demolished house as a result of the mayor’s largesse.

This might not be a masked punk band cavorting in a church, but it is a savagely ironic statement in any case.   Within Leviathan there is also a very Russian and almost Dostoevskian lament for the absence of true religious values in contemporary Russian society – and the glaring contrast between the harsh sharkpool that Kolya inhabits and the biblical message of love and compassion.

Its best screenplay award notwithstanding,   the images and cinematography are as much a part of this message as the story itself.   The film is filled with astonishing widescreen images of the Russian coastline, of gutted boats, ruined churches and the skeleton of a large whale that echo the ruin that faces its central character.

All this is part of a breathtakingly ambitious and accomplished achievement that is long and slow, mysterious and enigmatic, but absolutely worth the effort, not only for anyone who wants to understand contemporary Russia, but because so many societies have their Kolyas and their Vadims, and because the general trend of 21st century politics so often seems to favour the latter.