Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is an anomaly in the cinema: an epic character study. Some critics have compared it with Citizen Kane, but the differences between the two films are far greater than the similarities. Whereas we see Charles Foster Kane only after his death, through the refracted memories of the surviving people closest to him, There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview lives up to his name: we see him with claustrophobic intimacy, the camera trained on him like a microscope on an amoeba and rarely straying from him throughout the film’s 157-minute running time. We may not always understand him—he is such a forbidding character—but everything about him is there for us to see. By the time the film reaches its terrifying ending—for which the preceding events prepare us obliquely but inexorably—you are clawing for air. Daniel Plainview is not a character who suffers anyone else gladly, including the members of the audience.
Only three other characters in There Will Be Blood make any impression at all: H.W. (Dillon Freasier), Plainview’s adopted son; Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor), a seedy drifter who may or may not be Plainview’s long-lost half-brother; and, especially, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a creepily beatific young evangelist who sets himself up as Plainview’s chief antagonist. (Early in the film, Dano also plays Eli’s twin brother Paul, who acts as catalyst to the plot.) We first see Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) in 1898 as a lone and apparently contented prospector, a man of singular and awesome grit (I won’t reveal how the movie demonstrates this), making his first big strike. The story stops briefly in 1902, to show how Plainview adopts the infant H.W., and ends in 1927, with Plainview as a reclusive, fantastically wealthy oil tycoon. The bulk of the story, however, takes place in 1911, as the imposing, smooth-talking Plainview—the tone and cadence of his voice borrowed transparently from the late John Huston—attempts to bilk the people of California’s desert towns out of their oil-rich lands. The richest oil land is in the town of Little Boston; the richest of that land happens to be the farm owned by the family of Eli and Paul Sunday, as well as the land owned by a pious parishioner of Eli’s.
A number of reviewers have recounted the plot of There Will Be Blood in detail. This is a shame, because There Will Be Blood is a film that the less you know about it before seeing it, the better. The story contains its share of twists, but the crucial point is that Plainview’s actions, his sudden rages and inscrutable logic, must take you by surprise in order to have their intended power. There Will Be Blood has been described as a depiction of the damage wrought on society by unbridled capitalism; a more accurate description, I think, is that depicts the damage wrought on an individual by the pursuit and possession of wealth. I once read a quote to the effect that, whatever your innate characteristics, money brings them out in the extreme. We’ve seen plenty of examples of that phenomenon: J. Paul Getty (perhaps the closest real-life parallel to Plainview), Howard Hughes, Donald Trump, even the $300 million Powerball winner Andrew “Jack” Whittaker. There Will Be Blood can reasonably be called a pathological study of an individual drawn to making money by any means possible. Somewhere toward the middle of the movie, Plainview—in a rare confessional mood—admits that his main reason for seeking wealth is to get away from other people. “I hate most people,” he says. “I look at people, and I see nothing worth liking.” All of his actions, before and after, can be explained by those remarks. There are plenty of indications, large and small, of the gradual dissolution of Plainview’s personality, none more interesting than his handwriting: the elegant, singular artist’s signature on his first prospector’s claim has become a muddy, arrogant scrawl by the end.
Anderson—working, by all accounts very loosely, from Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!—has concocted a masterful screenplay, distinguished as much by its long silences as by its dialogue. (The Coen Brothers’ screenplay for No Country for Old Men is similarly laconic, and to the same effect.) Anderson, cinematographer Robert Elswit and production designer Jack Fisk create an awesomely vast, arid mise-en-scene for the film, and Jonny Greenwood’s foreboding music—supplemented by ironic excerpts from Brahms and Arvo Part—is like a window into Plainview’s bleak soul.
Never has bleakness seemed so monumental as embodied in Daniel Plainview, particularly as Daniel Day-Lewis embodies him. This is the sort of performance that comes along in the cinema perhaps once a decade, if we’re lucky. Day-Lewis gives Plainview a towering presence and a terrifying quickness of life that reminds me somewhat of Forest Whitaker’s performance as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, except that Plainview seems more like a character out of myth—a creature created by Homer or Shakespeare, Balzac or Dickens. Plainview will not be gainsaid in anything, and acknowledges nothing, in himself or anyone else, except self-interest.
Paul Dano’s performance as Eli Sunday is in its own way an amazing achievement, though of necessity on a smaller scale than Day-Lewis’. Dano, with his pie face and broken snub nose, is one of the odder-looking actors in the American cinema, and with that unusual face he can project anything from angelic innocence to the most ruthless, rancorous arrogance. Dano gives Eli a long-striding, pigeon-toed walk that suggests a self-righteous egotism both sedulously cultivated and utterly misplaced. (Without giving anything away, Plainview’s final meeting with Eli put me in mind of a contest between Odysseus and one of Penelope’s suitors.)
One other observation about Anderson’s screenplay: listening to Dano deliver one of Eli’s hellfire sermons, I became aware that at one point he was quoting directly from one of Burt Lancaster’s speeches in Richard Brooks’ film of Elmer Gantry. That was not the first time this past cinematic year that one film quoted another directly; in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, the incarnation of Bob Dylan played by young Marcus Carl Franklin lifts several lines from Budd Schulberg’s screenplay for A Face in the Crowd. Whether this is a new trend among filmmakers, and whether it is intended as hommage or sheer plagiarism, it is a mystery to me.
If you’re not in the mood to spend time with a monster like Plainview, either Juno McGuff or Charlie Wilson—eponymous lead characters of Juno and Charlie Wilson’s War—should prove far more amiable company. Plainview would dismiss them out of hand as a smart-mouthed, abrasive teen who gets pregnant and a Texas congressman who uses his office as an excuse to re-enact Boogie Nights. If the movies have taught us anything, however, it’s that delightful and even inspiring movies—not to mention some truly scintillating dialogue—can arise from flawed characters.
Based on Diablo Cody’s wow of a debut screenplay, Jason Reitman’s Juno begins with its protagonist discovering the awful truth via a battalion of home pregnancy kits. (“Face it, McGuff—your eggo is preggo,” says an unhelpful convenience-store clerk played by the ever-snarky Rainn Wilson.) The father, shy athlete Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), reacts with boyish uncertainty to the news; her father Mac (J.K. Simmons) and stepmother Brenda (Allison Janney) naturally are less than pleased. (“I was hoping it was hard drugs, or something like that!” Brenda exclaims.)
After an off-putting visit to an abortion clinic, Juno decides to have the baby and give it up for adoption. In the local pennysaver, she finds the ad of Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), a childless couple a few notches up the social scale from the McGuffs. “I’m giving you the gift of life—screaming, squirming, pooping life!” Juno says in a characteristic declaration. Juno finds a lot more to like in Mark, a commercial jingle writer and former rock musician with a bitching guitar collection, than in Vanessa, a tightly wound professional woman.
And from there, it’s unfair to tell you anything else. Let’s just say that after one of the characters commits a simple, terrible act of betrayal, Juno’s entire world-view is shaken to its core, and she is ready to learn some lessons about who and what she can rely on.
Juno bears a certain resemblance to a film of this past summer, the late Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress, and Ellen Page is every bit as tart, funny and heart-tugging as Juno as Keri Russell was as Jenna, the heroine of Waitress. Both films are total charmers, but on the whole I prefer Juno, because of the sheer grace of Reitman’s direction and the sharper wit and pathos of Cody’s screenplay. Reitman and Cody find a clever metaphor for the cycle of life—Paulie and his track teammates running through the streets at different seasons of the year—and, however eccentric Cody’s characters may be, they seem just a little more real than Shelly’s, more likely to surprise us and create subtle shifts in our sympathies.
Besides the wonderful Page, who obviously has a golden career ahead of her, I particularly loved Michael Cera, who bears an endearing resemblance to a teenage Harpo Marx, as a hesitant boy taking his first awkward steps toward manhood. Simmons and Janney are equally delightful as Juno’s bewildered parents, who don’t always know what to make of Juno but who always stand up for her, quips at the ready.
If Juno offers us warmly believable characters, Charlie Wilson’s War, directed by Mike Nichols, offers us real people from recent history who seem wilder than the wildest fiction. But that’s Washington, D.C., for you.
Rep. Charlie Wilson, a Democrat, represented the Second Congressional District of Texas in the 1980s. The screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by the late George Crile, has us first meeting Wilson (Tom Hanks) at an awards ceremony at CIA headquarters, where he receives the agency’s highest award. Immediately afterward, we flash back a number of years to see Wilson sitting with two strippers, a Playboy centerfold and a lobbyist in a Las Vegas hot tub, trying to watch a “60 Minutes” report on Afghanistan. From there we are whisked to Wilson’s Washington office, where he surreptitiously asks one of his staffers (all of them female, all making the hot-tub women look lackluster) for a ten-a.m. pick-me-up to give him the courage to deal with a particularly pious constituent. (Did I mention Wilson is also sleeping with that constituent’s daughter?)
According to those who know Wilson, the movie if anything tones him down. Despite his Hugh Hefner-meets-Jack Abramoff lifestyle and an inconvenient Justice Department investigation, Wilson maintained a high reputation among his colleagues and in his district throughout his congressional career. “He had many flaws, and he didn’t hesitate to admit them, but no one ever questioned Charlie’s honesty,” said George Covington, a former Wilson aide, in a column he wrote about the movie. “He may have been many things in his time, but he was certainly not a hypocrite.”
Charlie Wilson’s War can be described as a Washington-Texas version of Schindler’s List, with sharp, satiric wit replacing most of the sorrow and tragedy. Like Oskar Schindler, Charlie Wilson was a smooth operator who had his moral conscience awakened suddenly and forever. In Wilson’s case, it was the suffering of the Afghan people under Soviet occupation that motivated him to use his well-honed skills as a Washington wheeler-dealer in the service of a higher good. Abetting Wilson’s crusade were two people as unlikely as Wilson himself. One was Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a schlubby but brilliant CIA operative, aghast at his superiors’ pompous stupidity, who finds in Wilson the ally he needs in his efforts to kick the Russians out of Kabul. It is the cocky, smart-mouthed Avrakotos, more than anyone else, who educates Wilson as to the real situation in Afghanistan.
That education is done largely without official CIA help, as their first exchange illustrates:
WILSON: What’s our strategy in Afghanistan?
AVRAKOTOS: Well, officially, we don’t have one, but we’re working on that.
WILSON: Who’s “we?”
AVRAKOTOS: Me and three other guys.
The other helpmate in Wilson’s crusade is someone he’s known, in more than one sense of the term, for some time: his constituent Jo Anne Herring (Julia Roberts), a wealthy socialite and conservative Christian activist. Herring is the sort of born-again right-winger who does not let her beliefs interfere with her penchant for double martinis and consorting (socially and otherwise) with liberal Democrats like Wilson. She likes to do things in a big way, and her idea of helping the Afghans—to Avrakotos’ horror—is to hold well-publicized fundraising events. (The first time Herring and Avrakotos meet face-to-face, they growl and snap at each other wittily, as if Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker were the leaders of rival wolf packs.) Yet she is just as fiercely committed to freeing Afghanistan as Wilson or Avrakotos, and her contacts (including the president of Pakistan) and financial resources prove very welcome indeed.
This being an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, it’s no surprise that it combines witty dialogue with a thoroughly persuasive portrait of just how politics and diplomacy work. (It is amazing how much can depend on having a belly dancer available at just the right time.) Taking us from Washington to Texas to the Middle East, Sorkin’s true-life story keeps us thoroughly entertained while keeping the human stakes front and center. It helps that Sorkin has a director and three lead actors who are among the world’s foremost experts in giving witty dialogue just the right spin, and in finding the deep humanity in what at first seems the most alienating eccentricity. Together, this team of pros gives us what will go down--along with Advise and Consent, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and All the President’s Men—as one of the all-time classic films about Babylon-on-the-Potomac. You will leave the theater filled with love and respect for Charlie Wilson, who performed a heroic service for America and for the Afghan people—until, as the film notes with tragic finality, his successors dropped the ball.