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The First Law of Poignancy and the Movies: Once you know it’s supposed to be there, it’s not really there. There’s no shame, of course, in emotional manipulation: Every film, good or bad, plays the audience like an instrument. The difficulty comes when you know the chords before the director presses his fingers down. A shot of a solemn soul staring contemplatively off a bridge, even if done skillfully, is less an evocation of the human condition than a cue that the human condition is being evoked.
In Broken Wings, there are lots of shots of people staring off bridges. There’s also a good deal of public-transportation-staring, ledge-staring, and roadside-staring. No doubt the Ulmans, the family at the center of Israeli writer-director Nir Bergman’s first feature, are sitting still, watching, as life passes them by. The inaction begins with the sudden, untimely death of the family patriarch, an event that takes place nine months before the inertia depicted in the film. Broken Wings opens with the waifish, 17-year-old Maya (Maya Maron) expressing her grief through song as she rehearses a tune for a small-time talent show (Sample lyric: “Still have so much to say to you, every day there’s more to tell”). When she’s about to perform, Maya is called away to baby-sit because her mother, Dafna (Orly Silbersatz Banai), a midwife, has to work the late shift at one of Haifa’s hospitals.
Maya resents her role as the family doormat: First her father abandones her. Then her mother leaves her to act as caretaker while her teenage brother, Yair (Nitai Gaviratz), shirks his responsibilities, spending his days passing out fliers in a giant mouse costume rather than go to school. Younger brother Ido (Daniel Magon) gets his jollies by videotaping himself jumping from high places. And youngest daughter Bahr (Eliana Magon) won’t leave for kindergarten unless her mother walks her to school. No wonder the perpetually stressed Dafna splashes water on her face and—yes—stares ruefully into the mirror in virtually every other scene.
The actors, particularly Maron and Gaviratz as the disaffected teenagers, skillfully balance the stoicism and passionate emoting their roles demand. And Bergman’s portrait of grief and coping isn’t completely lacking in subtlety. That the father’s death, not to mention the specifics of how it happened, hardly comes up in conversation is the best clue to the family’s emotional paralysis. Then there are the few quiet, meaningful moments that sketch out a backstory. In one scene, the mother and daughter wearily push the family’s broken-down car down a hill without speaking to each other. There’s such resignation and familiarity in the physical act that it’s clear they’ve done this many times before.
But too often, Bergman seems a bit too calculating, as if the movie’s restraint is a self-conscious ruse. Yair’s running commentary about how we’re all just specks in the universe certainly doesn’t alleviate the feeling that the film’s message is ultimately facile. And the insertion of another family crisis that brings everyone and everything to the boil—yelling, teary outbursts and all—blunts the emotional impact of what came before.
It’s remarkable—but perhaps not surprising—that Broken Wings, rather than a more explicitly political film, nearly swept Israel’s version of the Academy Awards in 2002. In fact, there’s nary a mention of any conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in 87 minutes. Bergman’s point, presumably, is that the Ulmans are so caught up in their own problems that the outside world ceases to exist. It’s hard not to think, though, that with so much pain and suffering in the Middle East, it’s a shame to add some that isn’t genuine.
If the Alamo didn’t exist, some ultraproud Lone Starrer would have invented it. Without a big old origin myth, how would the rest of us know not to mess with Texas? After more than 165 years of spin and countless film representations—including an epically jingoistic one starring John Wayne, as well as the cheesy, larger-than-life IMAX version that’s screened daily in San
Antonio—the 1836 battle has become Texas’ very own passion play, a ritual rather than a real event. The lesson? Remember the part about how Texas is really great. The rest is just details.
Though much has been made about director John Lee Hancock’s efforts to make the latest telling historically accurate—this is the first of the big-screen Alamos, for example, to include Lt. Col. William Travis’ slave—the story’s fans needn’t worry. Rather than myth-busting, The Alamo only buttresses already rock-solid Texan cosmology, focusing more on the 200 men who defended the mission than on the fight to defend it. Oh, and their four leaders.
The film opens with the damage already done. The blood-soaked terrain surrounding the Alamo is littered with the things the Texans carried: symbolically broken glasses and castoff lockets representing the aftermath of the 13-day siege by Mexican forces at the command of Mexican dictator Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarría). After searing his epic conclusion into our minds, Hancock spends the next 90 minutes introducing us to the major players. William Travis (Patrick Wilson) is a preening young buck whose foppishness keeps him from bonding with the rough-and-ready men’s men he’s supposed to lead. And Jim Bowie (Jason Patric) may be the man’s man to end all men’s men, but consumption has a way of slowing even the deadliest blade.
Though it’s an important part of the legend that Travis and Bowie don’t see eye to eye—Travis calls Bowie a “drunken Hottentot,” while Bowie calls Travis a “two-bit dandy”—Hancock emphasizes their similarities. Both of them, as well as the drunkard Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid), are sinners who see Texas as a second chance. Sure, Travis may have abandoned his wife and kid, and Bowie may have sliced out a man’s heart for sport, but Texas, with its freedom and liberty and, one hopes, lack of Mexicans, can redeem any man brave enough to fight. One of the film’s repeated motifs is an orchestral crescendo backed by a stunningly beautiful prairie sunset: What we’re fighting for, men, is the Texas tourism board.
The breezy tone of the first two-thirds of the film emphasizes the folksiness of the protagonists, especially Davy, ahem, David Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton). Thornton plays the Tennessee Volunteer as alternately godlike and humble: One minute, he’s shooting off Santa Anna’s epaulet, the next he’s expressing remorse over killing injuns. Santa Anna’s main crime, in this rendering, seems to be that he’s not a good ol’ boy. Echevarría plays the general as a preening peacock with ridiculously outsized appetites who fusses over the crystal as he offhandedly orders a firing squad to take aim.
But at least Santa Anna is a person, if only a prig. Hancock’s devotion to the Big Four makes his lack of interest in the Mexican forces jarring by comparison. There aren’t any shades of gray when it comes to Santa Anna’s troops: They’re all the same gray. Indeed, it seems that the nameless, faceless, undifferentiated masses of cannon fodder are there just to fill the screen—or to nod reverently when Crockett serenades them with fiddle music. The battle for the Alamo, once it finally comes, isn’t as much a disappointment as an afterthought. The cannonball-POV shots and hand-to-hand combat are entertaining, sure, but the result is thoroughly Hancockian: Hundreds of Mexican soldiers die, leaving not even a solitary pair of broken
glasses behind. CP