The “True Story Period Piece” has been a staple of TIFF for as long as I’ve been going, and likely much longer. The fact is that Academy voters love true stories—just think of how many acting winners have been of the real-person variety recently, like “The Darkest Hour,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Theory of Everything,” and many more. There’s something considered inherently “prestige” (or "Oscar bait" if you're feeling cynical) about the challenge of bringing a famous true story to life, and there are at least two of them in this year’s program that are going to make pretty big waves when they’re released.
Let’s start with the most modest of the trio, Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book,” a case of a film that’s remarkably conventional and shallow in its treatment of racism, but also an undeniable showcase for two great performers. I walked out of “Green Book” thinking I had just seen one of the biggest eventual hits of TIFF—this movie has what I would call the “10th Best Picture Nominee” potential a la “The Blind Side” and “The Help” in that it’s wildly crowdpleasing with the kind of easy-to-swallow message that a lot of critics will consider pandering and problematic while mainstream America eats it up. I said to someone, “It’s a movie grandmas will love.”
The great Viggo Mortensen plays Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, a walking stereotype of an Italian-American in New York in the early ‘60s. Tony is straight out of extra casting for “The Sopranos” (and the real Tony even guest-starred on the HBO show) in how he carries himself, the way he talks, and the way he handles conflict. We meet Tony working at the Copacabana, where he breaks up a fight and steals the hat of a mob boss—so he can give it back to him, claiming he recovered it, and win favor. The point is that Tony is a tough, self-proclaimed bullshit artist.
He’s the kind of guy who Don Shirley needs on his upcoming road trip through the South. Played by Oscar winner Mahershala Ali, Shirley is virtuosic piano player, traveling in a trio that plays wealthy events through the states below the Mason-Dixon line. Of course, given the era in which the film takes place, Shirley can play these events, but he can’t come through the front door or eat in the same restaurants as those who admire him. The title refers to the Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide that Tony and Shirley use to guide them to safe hotels and restaurants.
Of course, the sorta-racist Tony—in an early scene he throws away two glasses that black workers in his home had recently used but doesn't seem to feel good about it—comes to love Shirley, not only feeling protective of him as his job but as a friend. The “Driving Miss Daisy”-esque narrative arc of “Green Book” is, of course, frustrating as it simplifies real issues into clichéd lessons. There’s nothing challenging about the structure or development of “Green Book,” and there’s a version of this film that takes more storytelling risks and feels more genuine than this one, which has clearly been designed for mass appeal.
Having said that, the two performances at the center of “Green Book” are undeniably charming and effective. Mortensen hasn’t been this playful in years, but the movie really belongs to Ali, who perfectly captures a man who feels trapped by society. He is not only the wrong color for most of the places he’s going in the South, but he is also clearly smarter and more talented than most of the people he meets, as well as holding a few other secrets, including an estranged family, that keep him isolated. Ali takes what could have been a caricature and makes Don Shirley totally genuine. Mortensen is good, but the only real reason to take this trip is Ali.
There is, however, no real reason to take the trip to “Hotel Mumbai,” Anthony Maras’ feature directorial debut about the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. While I will understand when some people respond to the “let’s solve racism road trip” simplicity of “Green Book,” I actually found the racial politics of “Hotel Mumbai” much more problematic as it centers white characters in this terrorist attack, casts them with recognizable faces, and then expects us to care about them more than the dozens of Indian extras getting shot in the background just because. Yes, there is also an Indian-born lead in the always-solid Dev Patel, but the biggest problem with “Hotel Mumbai” is that it is brutal and harrowing and problematic without ever feeling artistically rewarding. You can punish me for two hours, but there needs to be a reason to take the punishment.
“Hotel Mumbai” unfolds on that horrifying day when several young men who had been weaponized by an extremist who promised them glory in the afterlife and money for their families unleashed terror on Mumbai. In multiple cities, these men opened fire with automatic weapons, and threw grenades. Over 100 people would be dead when it was all over. Maras’ film takes place mostly at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, a target given the opulence on display there. Four terrorists essentially take the hotel hostage, and we watch dozens of people get shot as a few—including ones played by Armie Hammer & Jason Isaacs—try to make it out alive. Dev Patel plays a heroic hotel employee.
It’s impossible not to consider the current common purveyor of films similar to this, Paul Greengrass, when watching “Hotel Mumbai,” and the film is clearly designed to give viewers a window into a nightmare that they would never otherwise have a la “Captain Phillips” or “United 93.” The problem is that making this kind of film inherently walks a fine line between art and exploitation, and “Hotel Mumbai” feels like the latter to me.
My last true story of TIFF 2018 is the already widely-acclaimed, and justifiably so, “First Man,” from Damien Chazelle, the Oscar-winning director of “La La Land.” More than just a stunning technical accomplishment, “First Man” does something I didn’t really think was possible in that it finds a new way to tell a very familiar story—that of Neil Armstrong becoming the first man to walk on the moon. For the first time, space travel is not treated as some grandiose, cinematic adventure but what it probably was (the film is based on Armstrong’s book)—an absolutely terrifying nightmare. We see multiple people die in the years leading up to the landing in crashes, and every time space travel is shown in “First Man,” it is harrowing. Close-ups of dials and faces amplify the claustrophobia and the sound design is turned up to eleven as metal screeches and wails. Never before has it been so clear how much these early travelers were risking their lives, rocketing into space in tin cans that wanted to kill them.
The technical accomplishments of “First Man” are something to behold—Chazelle shot it on 35MM with IMAX cameras—but this is a very human story as well. Chazelle frames Armstrong’s journey by starting with the death of his daughter at a very young age. Already a quiet man, Armstrong became even more so after it, never even talking about it with his wife Janet (Claire Foy), and pouring himself into his work. There’s a reading of “First Man” that it’s about a man who had to go to the moon to get over a tragedy no one should ever have to face. It results in a surprisingly moving film, but on a more character, specific level than we usually see in space films. And it’s never showy, especially in Ryan Gosling’s very quiet, subdued performances. It’s one of his best.
On paper, it may not seem like “Whiplash,” “La La Land,” and “First Man” have much in common but Chazelle is clearly fascinated by perseverance, whether it’s in music, acting, or space travel. He makes films about people unwilling to give in even when everything suggests they should. Neil Armstrong was the ultimate example of such a man, a genius and a hero who looked at the dangers in front of him and pushed through to history. The grand irony of the manufactured controversy about the flag-planting in “First Man” is that this is probably the most patriotic film in years. It is a testament to courage and bravery at a time when the country really needed it. And it couldn’t hurt to be reminded of it again today.