It was news to me that they have special military prisons in the States for court martials, dissidence and other forms of unruly behaviour in the ranks, but Rod Laurie’s The Last Castle gives insight aplenty into it. It’s basically prison but more intense, a penitentiary inhabited by only ex-soldiers and ruled over by one stubborn brat of a Warden in the form of James Gandolfini. Robert Redford plays a highly decorated, legendary general who is sent up for insubordination in circumstances that any rational personal should find understandable, but the US Government didn’t see it that way, so here he is. He’s a proud man who doesn’t back down in the face of bullies or tyrants, which immediately puts him at odds with Gandolfini. The warden initially shows admiration for him that turns sour after he can’t tame him to his way of thinking, after a which a sadistic streak emerges and nearly turns into all out warfare behind bars as the two let their personal natures run over into chaos. Redford, being a natural leader, forms ranks of his own from anyone who has the balls to deny authority and leads a minor rebellion, and although it all kind of gets overblown by the end, it’s nonetheless a fascinating and mostly character driven story. Support is given by a fine roster including Mark Ruffalo, Frank Military, Delroy Lindo, Steve Burton, Paul Calderon and the excellent Clifton Collins Jr. as an unfortunate rookie who becomes collateral damage in this very personal war. Gandolfini never ever half assed or phoned in a role, he was always focused, intense and specific and his character here fascinated me. This is a guy who is massively insecure and it’s evident from his behaviour that he didn’t have what it takes to engage in real life war games like the rest of them, therefore relegated to playing toy soldiers in military jail. There’s a bitter resentment in his body language and you get the sense that this guy was ready to snap for a while and the arrival of someone as prolific and headstrong as Redford’s character finally pushed him over the edge. It’s a brilliant performance in a good film that could have done without so much big budget Hollywood fireworks, but is still strong enough in the dramatic aspects to be affecting.
I like examining films about political corruption from decades ago that, if anything, were somewhat ahead of their time and are more potent these days in the age of the internet and social media. Rod Lurie’s The Contender is no exception, and looks at abuse of power by those with a lot of it to wield, and the frequently used and very bratty tactic of bringing up events from people’s past to run smear campaigns on the eve of elections, a dirty trick used heavily by both sides of any power struggle. Joan Allen is fantastic as a US Senator who is a strong candidate for Vice President until a fiery, amoral asshole of a rival played by Gary Oldman digs up dirt from her college days and threatens to derail the whole thing. This is a political drama and as such the script (courtesy of Lurie himself) has a whole truck of bells, whistles and supporting characters to give the film flourish, but at heart it’s a fascinating moral dilemma revolving around Allen and Oldman. The attack on her is vicious, below the belt slander and although not unfounded, it’s unwarranted by someone who is supposed to represent and uphold integrity with their position. The plot thickens when she discovers secrets of her own regarding his character and past, and struggles in herself whether to use this information to bring him down like he did to her, or rise above it and use other less sensationalist strategies to beat him. Her quandary culminates in a decision that many, including myself, would find fairly frustrating given the gauntlet of degradation she’s forced to walk through as a result of Oldman’s actions. That decision may not be what we want to happen emotionally as an audience based on what we’ve seen and felt, but it’s easy to remove ourselves and see why she does this, and view the example she has set for peers by making the hardest of calls. It’s mature, difficult storytelling and I’d forgotten what a thoughtful, prescient film this is. Many people from both sides of America’s divided masses and political parties could learn a thing or two from this story. Allen never overplays the role and uses that quiet observance she’s so good with to bring us closer to her character. Oldman is decked out in a strange curly wig and looks nothing like the sneering shark he becomes when he opens his mouth, it’s an interesting visual character choice. Jeff Bridges plays the President (I’d vote for him IRL) and the cast is stocked with excellent talent including Sam Elliott, Christian Slater, Saul Rubinek, Philip Baker Hall, Mariel Hemingway, Kathryn Morris and William L. Petersen. Great film, and gets more important as each year passes.