Directed and written by Taika Waititi • Produced by
TSG Entertainment • Distributed by Fox Searchlight
Ford v Ferrari
Directed by James Mangold • Produced by Chernin
Entertainment • Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox
A Simple Plan
Directed by Sam Raimi • Written by Scott Smith
Produced by the British Broadcasting Corp. • Distributed
by Paramount Pictures
Jojo Rabbit, written, directed, and produced by Taika Waititi, is a strange movie. It breaks the 74-year-old rule that Hitler must never be portrayed as playful, prankish, or in any other way amusing. Yet that’s precisely what Waititi has done. What’s more, he’s taken on the acting challenge of portraying the monster.
Yes, films don’t come stranger than this, especially when you consider that Waititi is a Polynesian Jew. Kudos to him for entering such fraught territory. He’s already been called out by more than a few critics for pulling aside the polite gentile veil around all things concerning the Führer and the Jews. Such complaints lodged against the film by the politically righteous seem silly to me.
The film’s Hitler is an imaginary one that inhabits the fantasies of Jojo, a 10-year-old boy (Roman Griffin Davis) living in 1945 Berlin who, despite his obvious inexperience, has become a committed Nazi. His joke surname, “Rabbit,” has been bestowed on him by the senior members of his local Hitler Youth brigade. While the other boys are more than ready to obey their superiors’ orders to twist off the heads of squeaking rabbits, Jojo wants no part of the barehanded sacrifice. Although he’s a fervent Nazi who wants desperately to follow orders, when he’s handed a live bunny, he hasn’t the will to comply. Instead, he runs away, spurred on by the sudden appearance of his fantasy Hitler whom he finds unaccountably running beside him. Later, during grenade practice, he drops his Stielhandgranate and it explodes, scarring his face and mangling his leg. He doesn’t complain. It was for the fatherland.
While recuperating at home, he makes some unsettling discoveries that disorient him thoroughly: His mother (Scarlett Johansson) has no respect for Nazism. What’s worse, she’s hiding Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a young Jewish woman, in their attic. He discovers that Elsa is not the horned devil young Nazis were trained to believe. Instead, she’s sweet and funny. More surprising, she doesn’t hold his anti-Semitism against him. Instead, she gently laughs at its absurdity, especially in one so young. Reluctantly, Jojo gives up his prejudice.
Much of what happens in the wake of Jojo’s sentimental education is predictable but nonetheless moving. Yes, the narrative is more than a little saccharine, but Griffin Davis is so cute, one is hard-pressed not to be carried along with Waititi’s film.
As for Hitler and anti-Semitism, I’m reminded of what a politically abrasive friend once said 50 years ago: Hitler, he reasonably pointed out, took the fun out of anti-Semitism. He meant the jibe to be humorous, and it was—in the way a prudently unacknowledged but potent truth is when it unexpectedly rises to the surface in polite company.
The pudeur about Hitler and the Jews that has made the subject politically fraught has always struck me as either an instance of gentile guilt or ethnic cowardice. It seems Waititi has made it his mission to draw back this veil through the use of humor. His film may not be entirely successful, but his mission is nevertheless admirable.
Director James Mangold also has a mission in his film, Ford v Ferrari. He has drawn his narrative from author A. J. Baime’s account of the corporate wrangling between Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) in the ’60s. As one of Ford Motor Co.’s chief marketers, Iacocca campaigned for the company to make a car that would appeal to the younger generation. In the 1950s, Baby Boomers weren’t buying the utilitarian Ford Club Coupe or the Galaxy. They wanted cars that were faster and sexier than the conventional sedans Ford was peddling. The Mustang was Iacocca’s answer, and he was right—the Mustang in its various iterations swept the ’60s market. Emboldened, Ford executives pushed for an even more enticing vehicle: the Mustang GT40, an unapologetically sport version of the vehicle. It was small, quick, and attractively sleek. I recall riding in one my friend drove in the ’60s, courtesy of his indulgent father.
To further amp up the Mustang’s appeal, Ford decided the car needed to win several of the world’s most prestigious auto races, most notably the Le Mans in France, a grueling 24-hour endurance competition. To do so, the Deuce (as Henry II was called) set out to buy Enzo Ferrari’s company. After all, the Italian’s cars had won five Le Mans competitions, and enthusiasts had no doubt Ferrari would continue to do so in perpetuity. But Ferrari wasn’t selling and found the Deuce’s offer highly insulting. Ford executives were “worthless sons of whores,” in Ferrari’s view. They manage a “big ugly factory” that makes “big ugly cars” for a “pig-headed boss,” a man who would never measure up to his father, the real Henry Ford. When these comments found their way to the Deuce’s ears, the battle was on and engines began to roar at the traditionally tame Ford Motor Co.
Mangold’s film underscores this rivalry between the corporate heads and parallels it with rivalries at lower levels. Ford’s executives are none too pleased when the Deuce hires Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a former racer sidelined from competition by a heart ailment. Shelby’s doctor warns him that he’ll reach his personal finish line, much sooner than he’d like, if his pulse ever exceeds 130 beats a minute. So, as his proxy, Shelby hires Ken Miles (Christian Bale), an ornery English driver regarded as one of the best racers in the world. Shelby finds Miles living with his family in Detroit, designing sports cars for the obscenely wealthy. Shelby and Miles team up to build the baddest Ford yet, the aforementioned Mustang GT40. Mangold serves the audience with seemingly endless loops of the mechanical beast zooming in tarmac circles—for those who care about such things.
You can pretty much guess where the rest of Ford v Ferrari’s plot goes, and goes, and goes. The film’s run time is 165 minutes, long enough to wear out its welcome well before the lights come up. Then again, I’m probably not the target audience for this film. Sport cars interested me in my teens and 20s. I recall yearning for a Datsun 240Z when it came out in 1971. I might have bought one, but for my wife’s objections. She balked at its impracticality. Two seats? How would we fit the groceries in? And what about transporting her mom to her doctors’ appointments? She later regretted her misgivings when she discovered that the Z, unlike all but a select few sports cars, appreciated in value over time rather than depreciated. Being a gentleman, I held my tongue.
And now a film from the past. A Simple Plan, released in 1999, is a masterful adaptation of Scott Smith’s novel of greed and treachery. The plot turns upon three ordinary men discovering $5 million in a crashed plane outside Toledo, Ohio, and what the acquisition of such sudden wealth does to them. The narrative casts a pall on middle-class ambition infected by ruthless capitalist aspirations. In their efforts to keep the money, the men come to disregard the rights and even the lives of others.
Directed by Sam Raimi, who’s better known for making three of the more inventive Spiderman films, A Simple Plan stars Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, and Bridget Fonda, who are all very good.
The film draws upon an exalted tradition of money-inspired dramatic treachery. The most obvious influence is the murderous jealousy of Cain against Abel. The other is Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th-century Canterbury Tales, particularly the Pardoner’s narrative, in which three louts come across an elderly man and learn from him the location of a pot of gold. Once they find the treasure, they begin plotting against each other. The author B. Traven adapted this plot for his communist-inflected 1927 novel, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which John Huston adapted for his excellent 1948 film, and which also may have influenced Smith and Raimi.
A Simple Plan is also a rare instance of a movie that is considerably less violent than the novel from which it was adapted. Smith’s 1992 novel features a bloody conclusion of such Grand Guignol proportions that it would strike readers as ridiculous were it not carried off with such skillful control. The story’s three money-finding men agree the only way to hold onto their fortune is to keep it secret from others. Almost as soon as they come to this seemingly sensible agreement, they encounter one challenge after another. They embark upon a bizarre sequence of murders, each of which require ever more secrecy, until they find themselves engulfed by fear, guilt, and recrimination. Talk about the wages of sin. Still, they continue to believe their brutal deeds are justified in order to preserve what fortune has brought their way.
Raimi’s direction enhances the story’s cinematic tension with black crows watching the men ominously from trees from the moment they encounter the downed plane—one is pecking at the dead pilot’s face. A weird metallic score repeats a death knell throughout the narrative. Few films have depicted men caught in the grip of greed so starkly and so convincingly.
Image Credit: Matt Damon in Ford v Ferrari