Capsule reviews on two new films:
Can Sean Penn's finances be in such a state as to compel him to try to match Liam Neeson's late-career trajectory with such junky action vehicles as Pierre Morel's new "The Gunman"? I hope not. Penn - his eyes looking more hollowed-out than ever - stars as sniper Jim Terrier, who on a corporate assignment in the DRC in 2006 took out the country's minister of mining. To elude capture, he left behind his NGO-volunteer girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca), who promptly fell into the arms of his then-colleague Felix (Javier Bardem). Now he finds himself under attack by mercenaries hired by the unknown corporation that originally ordered the killing (and want any record of it eradicated), and reconnects with ex-teammates Felix, Stanley (Ray Winstone) and Cox (Mark Rylance) to try to unravel the conspiracy and stay alive.
Penn has obviously spent some time in the weight room, but has anybody since Madge been physically attracted to him? As bad as Neeson's filmography has been the past few years, he does retain a certain rumpled appeal. Penn just looks weather-beaten and beaten down. Jasmine Trinca made a major impression last year in Valeria Golino's "Miele" ("Honey"), as a student putting herself through college by helping terminally ill people commit suicide. It's a shame to see her relegated to such a reactive, arm-candy kind of role. As for Bardem, this may be the worst performance of his career. He chews so much scenery as the sneering and rambling Felix, they probably had to pump his stomach after wrapping.
Winstone and Rylance hold their own in small parts. Idris Elba, though, is totally wasted in just a few scenes as a friendly Interpol agent. Morel makes nice use of locations in London and Barcelona (making the latter city feel far bigger than in Woody Allen's self-contained "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"), but has nothing to say about the exploitation of Africa's natural resources (a subject covered rigorously by Rachel Boynton in last year's documentary "Big Men"). In the end, "The Gunman" dies of self-inflicted wounds: too many gory deaths, implausible acts, and unintended laughs.
Let's switch gears now and look at a terrific documentary called "1971," no relation to the feature film "'71" starring Jack O'Connell that's still in release. This picture, expertly directed by Johanna Hamilton, tells the story of the eight everyday Americans who pulled off the never-solved break-in of the FBI's satellite office on the second floor of an apartment building in Media, Pennsylvania, walking out with thousands of files they copied and disseminated to major American media outlets. The files identified the Bureau's "COINTELPRO" program, aimed at fomenting paranoia among such "menaces" as anti-war demonstrators, integrationists, and women's liberation groups. (These included the sending of anonymous letters such as one advising Dr. King to commit suicide.) After the Washington Post (alone among its peers) published the files, the Bureau would for the first time be exposed to public scrutiny in Frank Church's Senate hearings.
Hamilton has landed on-camera interviews with most of the eight members of what they called the "Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI," including working parents who made the choice to risk long prison terms and separation from their children to do their part to combat what they perceived as illegal overreaching and unethical practices by the Bureau. (One of the eight was longtime Haverford physics professor Bill Davidon.) It's fascinating to hear them describe the preparation for and execution of the break-in, the exhilaration and fear immediately afterward, and the five-year (statute of limitation) waiting game that followed. Hamilton interweaves with these first-hand interviews uncommonly credible re-enactments, light on dialogue, that build genuine suspense. She also puts Media in historical context vis-à-vis the FBI, other agents of clandestine surveillance, and the relation of Americans to their government. Johanna Hamilton manages to do this in 81 compelling and entertaining minutes, and announces herself with "1971" as a filmmaker to watch.