Radical political figures attract film-makers. Those figures seem the available equivalents of saints or idealistic heroes; and since a good number of them ended badly they have some of the aura of tragedy. But in most cases such figures are cinematic snares--not because of the character or the heroism, but because of the politics. Warren Beatty's Reds (1981) is the best film he has made, but it never became much more complex than a biography of John Reed's love life against a revolutionary background. Margarethe von Trotta's Rosa Luxembourg (1986) ought to be shown in every film school as an example of director's acuity and magnificent acting, but it wouldn't be of much use in a political school. No one could come away from either the Beatty film or the von Trotta film with a reliable view of the intricate ideas from which the protagonist's life emerged.
We do get from such films, however, some sense of character, character committed to selfless struggle; and that, even if incomplete intellectually, is at least a comprehensible tribute. This much is certainly true of Lumumba (Zeitgeist). The director, Raoul Peck, who was educated in Haiti and Zaire (Congo) and France and is a graduate of a Berlin film school, has long been concerned with Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese patriot. In 1991 Peck made a documentary about him, and now, after some other films, including two about Haiti, he comes back to Lumumba with a long and intense fictional treatment, fictional only in the sense that the story is re-enacted.
Peck begins with the ruthless tone that he wants to pervade the film--not with the assassination of Lumumba and two of his associates, but with the disinterment of their bodies, their dismemberment, and their cremation. Thus we are told that the story does not end with Lumumba's death, of which we have long known, but that he was considered a threat even after his death, that (as with some religious heretics) no relic could be left.
We first see Lumumba in the mid-1950s as a struggling worker in Stanleyville, then as a beer salesman in Leopoldville, then rising in the Congolese National Movement, which strove for independence from Belgium. Then come the beginnings of his conflict with Moise Tshombe, the leader of the mineral-rich province of Katanga, along with Lumumba's jail sentences, including one during which he is being severely beaten by Belgian guards when an officer comes in to say that he is to be released so that he can attend a conference in Brussels. On rolls history: the Congo at last achieves independence from Belgium in June 1960, Joseph Kasavubu is elected president, and Lumumba is named prime minister and defense minister. Two months later, while the country is being torn by internecine angers--the province of Katanga wants to secede for business reasons--Lumumba and two friends are captured on a trip to rally unionist forces. Lumumba is seen as a danger to the Belgian business interests in Katanga, and he is also seen as a risk to other countries because of his Soviet affiliations. (He had asked the Soviet Union for airplanes to help suppress the troubles in Katanga.) He and his friends are transferred to Katanga, where they are executed by the Katangese.
Peck does not sanctify Lumumba: he is shown less as a victim than, for all his courage and resolve, as a leader of some arrogance and high-handedness. The trouble with the film is not canonization but, again, the recurrent defect in pictures about such people. The ideational data are so sketchy that it is as if we were riffling the pages of a complicated book. When soldiers burst into a council room with demands, Lumumba calms them by promising to visit their barracks the next day to discuss matters. Did he go? What were the demands? Did he settle them? We never know. And so on.
Peck is a fluent director, and he has found the perfect actor for the title role: Eriq Ebouaney, who has been seen here in several French films. (The dialogue of this film is mostly in French, with English subtitles.) Ebouaney is so driven with the very idea of Lumumba that no tinge of impersonation touches his performance. The film was not shot in Congo--the recent assassination of that nation's president is just one index of its volatility--but in other African countries.
Lumumba is part of this year's Human Rights Watch Film Festival now on tour, but it will also have individual release (e.g., July 20 in Los Angeles).
Swordfish (Warner Bros.) was a particular disappointment to me. When I read that it was about spies, I thought that the title would be used as it was in Horsefeathers, the Marx Brothers romp of 1932. "Swordfish" was the password that they used to get into a speakeasy. (Harpo found a way to mime it.) This film actually begins with John Travolta discoursing to a group of associates about the aesthetics of Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon (1975), so I thought that we were in for a slew of filmic references; but no Horsefeathers.
What is funny, however, is that Travolta faults the Lumet film for its ultimate lack of realism, and then Swordfish lifts off into a spy story that is sheer fantasy, crudely contrived. It is so desperate for shock that, as it moves along, its chief plot technique is to unmask everything that we have been given to believe. Occasionally there are moments when the screenwriter, Skip Woods, executes a little tap dance, such as the opening film lecture, as a diversion from the jog-jog-jogging along. But for the most (and mostly workaday) part, it is all surprise entrances, sudden revelations that turn out to be false, and explosions, lots of them. Nor has Woods forgotten that old standby, the prophylactic car chase--the horrendous speedings through traffic with shootings and collisions and cars twirling in the air, which, though they take place in crowded cities, never injure a bystander.
The plot deals with a spy ring called Swordfish that abducts a master hacker who is to help the spies in a multi-billiondollar heist that somehow involves the Defense Department's computer files. This hacker has a small daughter who lives with his ex-wife, and the evil ones use threats about the child as a means to persuade him. Travolta is the head of the spy ring, whose headquarters is staffed with the usual thugs and a flock of lovely women. The loveliest by far is Halle Berry, who has a role of her own--or at least a lot of scenes, which she does well enough--and who is becomingly dressed or undressed throughout.
The hacker is played by Hugh Jackman, one of the interchangeables--the flavorless young men who now clutter the American screen. For instance, Jackman and Josh Hartnett of Pearl Harbor could exchange places without any of us really being aware of it. Travolta is wretchedly miscast as the steel-brained mastermind of the caper; he has neither the air of diabolical command nor the nice-guy veneer over cruelty of some villains. Further note: several times during the film Travolta's gang carries out complicated plans that would have taken more time to rehearse than the director, Dominic Sena, was allotted to rehearse the whole film in which they take place.
This article originally ran in the July 2nd, 2001, issue of the magazine.