Some astute fellow from back in the day said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” If only I could recall who that was. Just kidding. The quote comes from philosopher and writer George Santayana who died in 1952 and had quite a way with aphorisms. Santayana made a good point about mankind’s tendency to metaphorically trip over the same rock twice. But I like to say, “Those who cannot remember the past can just watch a movie about it, and if it’s a good one, they can watch it repeatedly.” And that brings us to two new feature films that each take a different approach to recreating or examining significant historical events, and largely achieve their respective goals.
Consider the daring of those who made The Journey. It’s a fictionalized account of the first one-on-one interaction between two sworn enemies on either side of the long and bloody conflict in Northern Ireland at the point when the factions were on the verge of finally brokering peace. This was and still is a volatile topic. Accordingly, there have been quibbles from pundits across the pond (Ireland and Great Britain) about the value and validity of presuming what may have happened during a private moment in October 2006 when Ian Paisley, a Protestant minister and leader of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party, met Martin McGuinness, a Catholic politician and spokesperson for the IRA-backed Sinn Fein party. Despite decades of struggle between their parties and adherents, these two men had never been face-to-face until representatives of the British and Irish governments, including U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, brought the opposing groups together in St. Andrews, Scotland, to begin the peace process.
Things were not going well at the summit until a personal matter and safety protocols led Paisley and McGuinness to share a plane trip to Northern Ireland. Their conversation on the flight would dispel years of enmity and have a major impact on finally ending the ongoing struggle. But no one knows specifically what was said. The Journey, written by Colin Bateman and directed by Nick Hamm, lets us join Paisley and McGuinness in the back seat of a town car as they’re driven to an airport some miles from St. Andrews. The situation forces the ideologues to truly get to know one another as human beings, and though the conversation is imagined by the screenwriter, the dialogue is entirely plausible. More significantly, the actors playing these two pivotal characters — Timothy Spall as the tightly wound, God-fearing true believer Paisley and Colm Meaney as the earthier, more genial and pragmatic McGuinness — are a pair of film and TV vets at the top of their games. (Spall is known for his sterling work in a number of director Mike Leigh’s movies and the Harry Potter films; and Meaney has co-starred in The Commitments, Layer Cake, and two of TV’s Star Trek series.)
The claustrophobic nature of the twosome stuck next to one another for the duration of the ride pays off with fireworks. And a few stops on the way open up the movie beyond the confines of the car. The Journey is further enhanced by solid performances from the late John Hurt (in one of his final roles) as MI5 head Harry Patterson, Toby Stephens as Blair, and Freddie Highmore as the driver assigned to shepherd Paisley and McGuinness to the airport. Intimate yet geopolitically significant, this is an excursion that pays off handsomely, regardless of any caveats about absolute historical accuracy.
The Journey is currently playing at the Clay Theater, 2261 Fillmore Street, 415-561-9921, landmarktheatres.com.
Director Oliver Hirschbiegel made some serious noise with Downfall, his powerful, internationally acclaimed look at the last days of Adolph Hitler. Now, he investigates another crucial moment during Germany’s infamous Third Reich and the life of its notorious dictator via the award-winning docudrama 13 Minutes. This tense, dark, and revealing movie covers the preparation, execution, and aftermath of a failed attempt by one decent German man to assassinate Hitler in November 1939.
Georg Elser was eventually arrested for trying to kill Hitler, and was subjected to painful interrogation and coercion by his Nazi captors. That all plays out onscreen in 13 Minutes, using flashbacks and Elser’s confessional narration to show why he chose to undertake his deadly plot, how he designed and implemented it, what went wrong, and how he was caught. The title of the movie refers to a specific amount of time that passed on the night Elser tried to achieve his objective. Christian Friedel as Elser makes for an effective and quietly noble everyman. And though 13 Minutes is straightforward in its morality and depicts Elser in obviously heroic terms, it is never less than sincere in its point of view and its affection for its central figure. He was a man who deserves to be remembered by history, and 13 Minutes makes it so.
13 Minutes opens July 7 at the Opera Plaza Cinema, 601 Van Ness Avenue, 415-771-0183, landmarktheatres.com.