Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Tuesday Review: Walker (1987)

    “Get him a new hat.”

    More than any other type or genre of film, biopics tend to be the most tepid and predictable. No matter who the subject may be, they all tend to fall into the same narrative patterns and structures again and again. No one wants to dishonor the person’s memory or present them in too harsh a light, so more often than not they settle for a nice, safe middle-of-the-road feel. Alex Cox sidesteps nearly all of the pratfalls of the traditional biopic in his filmic portrayal of William Walker by completely separating the events of the film not only from the events of history, but from reality itself. Although depicting Walker’s 1855 revolution of Nicaragua, Cox divorces himself from historical accuracy by having such anachronistic details like Zippo lighters, Newsweek and Time magazines, automobiles and machine guns. The point of such details is not to show off the clever wit and imagination of Alex Cox (although it certainly does just that), but to connect the past with the present: Cox shot his film in Nicaragua concurrent to the Contra Wars taking place therein, and what was happening in the present informed much of Walker. You’ll notice that the tagline on the poster above reads “A True Story” instead of “Based on a True Story.” That’s because Alex Cox and his crew weren’t making a film about history; basing their story of William Walker on nothing more than what they saw going on in the world around them. As a result, Walker is a fierce political screech of a film - and, like most fierce political screeches, not entirely coherent. But coherence is not what Cox and his crew were after, being more interested in capturing the feeling and the mindset behind the idea of Manifest Destiny and its aftershock currents still felt to this day.

    Ed Harris plays the title role, and carries much of the movie on the back of his considerable talent. When we first meet Walker, a soldier-of-fortune driven by a will to make the world a better place. He loathes slavery and struggles with navigating the political waters of more belligerent men - which also takes a toll on his bride-to-be, played by Marlee Matlin, so much so that Walker is hesitant to accept an offer from Peter Boyle’s Cornelius Vanderbilt, a multimillionaire who wants Walker to overthrow the Nicaraguan government so he can secure a valued shipping route. When Walker’s fiancee dies, he finally agrees to Vanderbilt’s offer, where he finds so much success he eventually is able to make himself president of Nicaragua.

    Harris does a tremendous job as Walker, effectively and convincingly playing the systematic breakdown of a man whose ambition far outweighs his ability. It’s clear from the moment his fiancee dies that something breaks inside of Walker, and without anything to tie him down he goes completely off the deep end. By the end of the film, Walker will betray all he once held dear, destroying not only himself but everyone around him on his suicidal quest to bring his own brand of democracy to the rest of the world. Roles like this require a certain madness, which Harris conveys beautifully in scenes of quiet, simmering intensity. On the outside he’s calm and collected, but it’s all a carefully constructed façade. On the inside he’s a complete and utter wreck, as explained in an early battle scene where Walker confesses to his dying Lieutenant that he wants to be killed, as that would reunite him with his fiancee. If there’s a fault with the film’s portrayal as a character, it lies with the script, which never really lets us get completely into the mind of William Walker. Once the film goes to Nicaragua and chronicles Walker’s conquest, he becomes less a realized character and more and more a caricature. Due to its satirical nature, every other character in the movie is boiled down to essentially cartoonish levels (played expertly by veteran actors like Rene Auberjonois, Peter Boyle, Xander Berkeley and Miguel Sandoval), but by distancing us from it’s central character the movie begins to fall apart somewhat. It is entirely fitting with the overall effect the filmmakers’ intended, as Walker becomes more and more inhuman with each horrible decision he makes, but it leaves the film not nearly as engaging as it could have been as a result.

    The film is fiercely, almost abrasively political, and goes about making its statements with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer through a plate-glass window: this was a movie made specifically to criticize the U.S.’ involvement in Contra Wars during the eighties, and does so not just through the movie itself, but by playing actual newsreel footage over the closing credits  Cox holds back nothing in his vicious satirical bent; at times, feeling as if he’s taking a swipe at anything and everything dumb enough and close enough to get caught in his crosshairs. As a result Walker loses focus, becoming extremely disjointed as the film ratchets up to its outrageous conclusion. The wild and cartoonish feel also demean Cox’s message, as the wild satirical ramblings of the plot diminishes whatever insight manages to squeeze out from each situation.

    But if Walker weren’t so wild and loose and crazy, we probably wouldn’t be talking about it in the first place. Alex Cox and his filmmakers’ created a wholly unique and vivid biopic, going against the grain and bucking all trends to deliver their angry, satirical screed. Besides, I’ll take messy and wild over boring and flaccid any day.

    * If the historical inconsistencies bother you, then do yourself a favor amd go read a book about the real events. That’s what you’re supposed to do, anyway.

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