In honor of Oscar night, here's the underappreciated BATTLESHIP (2012), which asks the question, is Peter Berg the new Howard Hawks? Unlike similar blockbuster directors, he's also an actor, writer and military historian, so there's a sense of real grassroots humility coupled to ballsy cocksureness and team spirit oomph, stuff lacking in the more "family man story"-driven guys like Ron Howard, and a good understanding of pacing and narrative lacking in sugar-addled egotists like Michael Bay. And being a classic Hawksian, I don't mind Navy recruitment ads stretched to Hasbro length if I feel the quasi-fascist thrill created when strong egos finally submerge into the altruistic whole. I also love the use of NOAA to track water displacement for the Battleship quadrants in the original game --man, that's just plan genius.
Of course for most critics, BATTLESHIP was a dog before it hatched: "Imagine, a movie about a board game," they exclaimed to one another. "What on earth is next, Monopoly starring Sean Connery as Mr. Monopoly, and Jonah Hill as 'Thimble'? or maybe Scrabble starring Chris Pratt as 'Triple Word')?" Oh. how they laughed as they unveiled their clever line of fantasy casting before the screening even began --presuming it yet another in a long line of Michael Bay-esque furious and soundful, nothing signifying. CGI-crammed circle jerks and writing their reviews in their head rather than paying attention. They wouldn't have known a gem if Berg shoved it down their throats, and he should have. Expecting shoving of this sort, they closed their throats tight to the genius onscreen like tea-totalers at a funnel time.
Some of the cooler critics stuck up for it. Video and TV airings find and unearth such gems for they arrive with no expectations. And now it's on FX in the exact right spot for it, a Saturday afternoon in February. Now on FX, they have this thing "Movie Download" where two chipper hosts link up clips from making-of extras and drop interesting facts, tidbits and interviews with cast and director between commercials, kind of like folding in DVD extras every other commercial break. A movie like BATTLESHIP is perfect for that approach: commercials and context boost its 'America strong'-ness, and giving us a look at he relaxed keyed up vibe of Berg's set--the vast complicated water action (always difficult when shot on location in real water) and minimal green screen--help contextualize a very refreshing sense of masculine inclusiveness. It's nice to see people having a good time and razzing Berg (which means they like him), rather than cautiously praising Michael Bay as they do in other "Movie Download' events (which means they don't). And so BAM! Ten reasons.
1. Taylor Kitsch
I'm a big fan of this gorgeous young buck; he's everything Tom Cruise thought he was 30 years ago, which is why I always hated Cruise, who thought he wasn't an insecure narcissist. Cruise always played the short guy narcissist with good hair who learns humility. Kitsch on the other hand can play a headstrong narcissistic prick but you know deep down he's not, sort of the way Don Rickles can insult anyone without taking offense because the love is there, while Chevy Chase or someone just comes off vicious and snide, because the love isn't Cruise's competence seemed more like butch posturing or needling little dick overcompensation, yelling in people's faces and repeating phrases over and over like he's not standing on a box or wearing platforms. Following a similar arc to Cruise's, Kitsch's character here also needs to get humble, but that's a fine arc for a young alpha male who looks and acts like it. He blows a big preliminary soccer game with Japan by being a ball hog, leaving us to realize that no one has a harder time passing the ball in hoops then the guy who's best at 3 pointers. Terrible athletes like myself learn to be humble much earlier. When he finally does learn to be a team player, it's galvanizing. By contrast, Cruise made even other peoples' suffering all about him, and when you demand a fanfare for your gaining humility then you already lost it.
Plus, there's that name. Oh my god, it's probably the best pauvres blanc name in the world, except maybe for the actress who plays his girlfriend here, Brooklyn Decker. Between the two of them, oh what trailer parks and Williamsburg flea markets they could name. Imagine they married and she became Brooklyn Kitsch-Decker. I swoon to imagine it.
2. The Navy
Director Berg's the son of a Navy man, and conveys a contagious respect love and awe for real vessels like the John Paul Jones and the Missouri and the men who sail them. Their bulky fit bodies hustling in and out tight spaces with professional grace seasoned grace bespeaks the kind of lived-in experiential detail that can't be faked by everyday extras and character actors, the large amounts of real Naval personnel in the cast, the real ships, the real ship jargon and familiarity with chains of command, it all makes it perhaps the most vivid Naval story since maybe Dmytryk's CAINE MUTINY. And if you can't feel a stirring in your blood when the elderly WW2 battleship vets come strutting in slow motion to reignite the John Paul Jones engines at the AC/DC power chord climax then you're a goddamned Commie spy (THE AMERICANS, on FX).
As a weapons expert / in a sexy black boarding raft / manning a mounted machine gun like she fucking owns it / bobbing up and down in the waves / in shades and blue camouflage / ready for whatever. Absolutely God Damn right.
4. Dirt Bag Aliens:
Memories of past wars function great here as contrast with the war against the aliens, as wits and technology evolve through necessity and inspiration, to become evenly matched, ala America mobilizing after Pearl Harbor (the Japanese and Germans always envied our military's 'every man a strategist'+- intuition and free-thinking, compared to their own 'no one makes a move without an order' kind of fear-based conformity). The aliens' cool gadgets fit their Viking marauder--cum Davy Jones ghost ship barnacle-crusted crew in Pirates of the Caribbean dirt bag skate punk/biker aesthetic, like the combination bowling pall/tire chain free roaming power balls; the way they focus in on perceived threats and weapons but don't really hassle unarmed beings (like the kid playing softball). In fact, they're probably a bit like how the Germans went into France or the cavalry into the Black Mountains. As one guy says "this time they're Columbus, we're the Indians" by which to say their tech is superior to ours so we're going down to Davy Jones unless we learn some new tricks, fast. But I love that they're not so superior we can't even touch them. Resistance isn't as futile as it is in War of the Worlds. They have exploitable weaknesses and crust-punk skater goatees that are like sea urchin spikes, gecko eyes (vaguely reptilian) and slimy hands. But we've got home court advantage, a combination of hastily remembered Sun Tzu sayings, and the best of eastern and western military thought fused together on the sly.
5. Absence of Bad Dialogue (or instantly dated attempts at sass)
A film like BATTLESHIP is something I give three strikes before I change the channel or mosey on. For example, I'll stop watching once I see 1. sassy robot, 2. stuck-in-1981 misogynistic objectification and 3. there's no way that oily little pisher Shia LaBoeuf deserves Megan Fox. So Erich is GONE from TRANSFORMERS, dig? But BATTLESHIP has not one single strike against it. There's no sassy robot spouting instantly dated catch phrases ("where's the beef, ribby ribby"), no clumsy nerdy oaf grinding up on beer ad braindead bimbo hotties like he deserves them, no blithering CPO doing exasperated slow burns, no bullying captain, or snarky adenoidal teen. Everyone's cool, competent, and good at teamwork, as Hawks would say, they're professional men doing a professional job, even the women. The only guy who needs to learn to work well with others is Kitsch - and he learns it quick. There are no sing-a-longs in the cafeteria or objectifying sex scenes against a Trans-Am or fireworks, no shower melt-downs or sulky driving away from the funeral on your motorcycle. The closest thing to a ditherer is the guy up at right--the Robert Wuhl of the team--but he just has trouble getting to the point, whereas he's still an invaluable addition to the team.
6. Col. Greg Gadson
A real life Iraq war ver/amputee, he's not a great actor but that works for the character's understandable surliness; his mechanical legs make a fascinating hybrid with the mechanized suit-wearing aliens (like the lovebirds Melanie Daniels brings to the Brenners) + his interesting rapport with his physical therapist (and Admiral Neeson's daughter and also Kitsch's girlfriend) Brooklyn Decker (she's so hot but he never loses his professional respect, even treating her with the same surly reticence he'd exhibit with any man). Also, his lack of experience as an actor ensures he's not stereotypically drama-class 'heroic' or 'dejected'. He may not reach the heart-wrenching heights of Harold Russell in THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, but we don't want that in a film called BATTLESHIP anyway --he's earned our respect and you feel a real hard-won if cranky courage in the face of the unknown.
7. Japanese-American relations
In the "Movie Download" part they note that the USS Missouri was reactivated for the climactic battle and it's also where the Japanese signed the surrender agreement at the end of WW2. And there's a Japanese captain (Tadanobu Asano) whose ship is, like Kitsch's, wiped out. They must work together to bring the Missouri out of retirement for one last ride - this after fighting on the soccer field the day before. For any WW2 buff, these wounds are still fresh and for historians (like Beg) provide insight into the highly competitive nature of our individual national identities . Coulda been trite, corny, or racist, but instead it's tight, bra.
8. Beautiful Hawaiian scenery
All sorts of great ocean lighting and actors really bobbing around in real ocean makes all the difference. Beautiful greenery on land and blazing blue skies above--it all chills one out. Let's face it, we don't watch BATTLESHIP for art or thought, we watch it to kick back to on a lazy weekend. We don't want a lot of feel bad eco-moralizing or Chicken Little overacting and product placement, dated slang douche chills. We want just enough action to keep us from dozing off and enough strikingly photographed scenery to chill us out without us even knowing it's working (i.e. the XENA effect).
9. Color/Gender Blind Casting
Great race/gender blindness rare in films but keenly observed and real here (one of my favorite new faces, Rami Malek is even in it). Hawaiian baller John Tui is 'the Beast', Kitsch's right hand man and a big ass motherfucker but there's no dumb jokes about him eating a lot or whatever. The black guys don't have to deliver scenes of ogling girls and blasting rap music and goldbricking --they are professionals, in a script that's good enough to not have to rely on all those tedious mixes of nervous blankness (the nonthreatening black friend with no personality), or pimp strut racism. Same with gender: Rihanna's a babe but there's no mention of it; physical therapist Brooklyn is respected by her patient Gadson as an equal, etc.
Steve Jablonsky's unobtrusive score is leagues away from John Williams-style pomp and micro-management and the AC/DC at the end is the perfect touch, a great example of a moment 'earning' its big rock anthem send-off. Creedence Clearwater Revival? "I ain't no military son" is also apt and it's so American that the Navy would rock out to it considering it's anti-draft lyrics. Compare it to that hollowed out cocaine Moroder and Loggins synth crap from TOP GUN and shudder with relief.
Right after the Movie Download screening on FX this past Sunday I watched a TIVO-ed UNDER SIEGE to keep the Navy theme afloat. If that's not a recommendation I don't know what is. Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey seem to be having a ball and Steven Seagal is frickin' hilarious.
Give him all the stars...