The peculiar thing about John Frankenheimer’s work is that it is consistently good. That’s not something one can say about most directors working today. I hope this isn’t a completely odious comparison, but take John Woo. He made the astonishing The Killer in Hong Kong, his last before he migrated to what is now Schwarzennegeria where he made Hard Target and then the breathtakingly conceived and brilliantly executed Face Off. Everything else has been disappointing, including especially Broken Arrow and, I’m sorry to say, Mission Impossible:II, though I must admit to having found something of quality in the very heavily flawed Windtalkers.
Having said that, I must confess that I have been totally Woo-ed and am now hopelessly addicted to everything Woo-lly in cinema; I watch his films repeatedly and can never seem to get enough of his action sequences. All that double-handed gunplay, the backs-to-dividing wall-banter-while-we-reload, the Mexican stand-offs with hammers clicking on empty chambers, the slow motion step through a white dove taking flight, the gun kicked up and caught and fired in a spin — yes, yes, I watch it all, again and again. But ultimately all that action, superbly choreographed and balletic, is only a contrivance and nothing more. Increasingly, his films are like some glossy ramp models: Great bodies, no soul; just the cosmetics.
Vacuity is not something of which one can accuse Frankenheimer. He, too, can pull off tremendous action sequences (the entire car chase in Ronin), but his action is quieter, less in-your-face and far less contrived. I’ve always held his 1965 B&W The Train to be a complete masterpiece in the action/thriller/war genre. He’s made several films since, and having seen most (not all), I’d be hard to put to point to one that I didn’t actually like or which didn’t leave me with something for later. Even The General’s Daughter, arguably a weaker film but only in comparison to his own other work, still holds its own in terms of dramatic tension.
Recently I stumbled on Path to War, a film he made for HBO and which seems to have been largely ignored, for reasons I am quite unable to fathom. It’s not even seriously reviewed at
This is crucial. The achivements of the great Presidents of the United States had an impact well beyond America’s territorial boundaries. America became, under them and after them, the lodestar to follow and the yardstick by which other regimes were measured and found wanting. In a sense, this became a self-fulfilling prophecy: Those who did not adopt the American standard, or at least attempt to, became the ‘enemy’. The tirade against communism is but the most startling instance. Later Presidents were cautious in deploying this argument too prominently on the world stage. 9/11 and Iraq has changed all that, for the worse. The world will never be the same again and neither will the United States of America.
What is happening today is a rank betrayal of ideals that Lyndon Johnson, among others, strived and struggled to integrate into the reality of ‘the American Dream’. Frankenheimer sees this clearly. His film is a calm, dispassionate and studied attempt to understand the man and, perhaps, come to terms with some of the decisions that were taken during his tenure. Frankenheimer does not ‘do’ the war at all. He remains in the White House with just the occasional documentary footage from Vietnam. There are no scenes of war, no graphic violence and not despite this but because of it, the film is both and chilling. Was this really the way we were? How did that come to pass?
The film is long, at over 2.5 hours but you don’t sense it once. Michael Gambon turns in the performance of a lifetime, certainly one that should have got him an Oscar. Alec Baldwin is an appropriately plump McNamara, a sleek-headed man such as those who sleep o’nights. Donald Sutherland’s Clark Clifford had me perplexed at first but he played his character with his usual dexterity, slowly fleshing him out. This film is just not to be missed.
Path to War. Directed by John Frankenheimer * Michael Gambon, Donald Sutherland, Alec Baldwin. HBO Films.
Postscript: Ten minutes after I began watching the film, my 11 year-old daughter came in and sat with me. I expected she’d watch a bit, get bored, and leave. She sat through the whole of it, totally engrossed. She’d ask me questions now and then and we paused while I explained what little I know. It was pretty much a potted history of the Vietnam war. To work a historical theme, without graphic visuals and yet to be able to hold even one that young and at such an enormous physical remove in time and place (we live in Bombay, India) — I can’t think of a better commendation. Thank you and salud, John Frankenheimer.