Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Prestige

The Prestige (2006, directed by Christopher Nolan) is a more challenging, ambitious, and complex film than The Illusionist, to which it can naturally be compared, since both films are about illusionists, magicians, and both appeared around the same time. The Prestige narrates the competition of two magicians, Robert Angier (stage name: the Great Danton) played by Hugh Jackman and Alfred Borden by Christian Bales. The plot is somewhat convoluted and melodramatic. One magician is a better entertainer while the other is a better magician. Each is jealous of the other. Jackman resents Borden because early in their career he tied a knot that may have led to the death of Jackman's wife, an escape artist. He also resents Borden because he is the better magician. They steal secrets from each other, sabotage one another's acts, and become increasingly obsessed not only with success but with prevailing over the other. The story focuses on an ultimate illusion, where Christian Bale's character seems to transport himself across the stage instantaneously. Jackman becomes obsessed with learning how the illusion was performed. He performs his own version of the illusion and uses it to advance his career. Ultimately the film focuses on the corrosive effects of ambition and obsession.

As complex as the film's story line is (there are numerous flashbacks and jumps forward, false and real clues, and so on), it succumbs in the end to a conventional sort of ending, clues to which have been planted throughout. It also resorts to a device better suited for science fiction—the scientist Nicola Tesla appears in the film. His invention of a teleportation device figures into the story. Tesla never invented such a device, though hundreds of patents are attributed to his name. In the film Edison and Tesla are rivals, and Edison sends agents out to spy on his rival. Since the film is about illusionists—performers who seem to perform magic through tricks, sleights-of-hand, and deception—the introduction of a science fiction device into the plot seems contrived and artificial. The film even convinces us that it is sympathetic to one character who turns out to be the real villain—at the end we are convinced to switch our allegiances, though ultimately both the main characters are fairly reprehensible.

Excellent performances by a cast that includes, in addition to Bales and Jackman, Scarlett Johansson and Michael Caine, distinguish the film. David Bowie also appears (as Tesla), though his performance is mannered and affected.

Like The Illusionist, The Prestige is a period and costume piece. It's set in late-19th century England (London) and America.

Whatever the inconsistencies and improbabilities, The Prestige is entertaining. It's a dark study, bitter and bleak in its assessment of its main characters, who do whatever is necessary to get what they want.

The New York Times review observed: "'The Prestige' is a triumph of gimmickry, a movie generous enough with its showmanship and sleight of hand to quiet the temptation to grumble about its lack of substance." In a sense, especially in the final unraveling of the plot, where everything comes clear, the film presents itself as an illusion—we relish the deceptions, are intrigued by the explanations, and are moved by the human consequences.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Thank You for Smoking

Thank You for Smoking (2006, directed by Jason Reitman, with a screenplay by Reitman and Christopher Buckley based on Buckley's novel) is a satire about a tobacco lobbyist, Nick Taylor, played by Aaron Eckhart. He is vice president and lobbyist for the "Academy of Tobacco Studies." His job is to oppose all arguments against the dangers of tobacco. The film scrupulously adheres to his point of view and presents him as a sympathetic character. Although his job is odious, Nick himself is likeable enough, if you can divorce him from his vocation. The film does not always allow you to do this. Nick's name is a pun—Nick for Nicotine, Nick for Old Scratch, Old Nick, Satan.

Nick is the best spin doctor in the business. He can talk his way out of a paper bag. He blithely argues that tobacco is harmless and that there is no evidence of its dangers. He can refute or at least obfuscate his way around every argument the anti-tobacco lobby mounts. But when he sleeps with an attractive young reporter (Katie Holmes), he spills out all his secrets and opinions, and she prints them in an op-ed piece. Nick loses his job and his self-confidence, and his relationship with his young son, who idolizes him, is endangered as well.

Thank You for Smoking is about Nick Taylor's rise and fall and rise. It's also about the power of lobbyists and spinmeisters and their ability to make hardcore facts and years of research seem like so much, uh, smoke. Beyond that, it's about the dangers such lobbyists and the industries they represent for the safety of the American public and of American democracy.

Nick's victory comes when he testifies before a Congressional panel, admitting that tobacco is harmful but at the same time attacking those who want to regulate it. He uses advocacy of free choice and individualism to diverft attention from the dangers of cigarettes. As a result he regains the respect of his son and of his former boss, who offers him his job back. Nick refuses. Instead he starts his own lobbyist firm. It's not that he's redeemed, not in any sense of the word. It's just that he now has the confidence to pick and choose among the nefarious companies that want him to represent the benefits of their odious products in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

Nick has no conscience. You keep wondering when at some point his conscience may rise and assert itself, but the moment never comes. Even when, after losing his job, he testifies before Congress and admits that he knows cigarettes are dangerous, he refuses to advocate that the tobacco industry be controlled or punished. He argues instead for an educated public's ability to choose whether to smoke. The irony, of course, is that with people like Nick arguing that there is no evidence of the dangers of tobacco and of smoking, the public will never be educated enough to make intelligent choices, or will be too confused. When a senator asks whether he wants his son to smoke cigarettes, he dodges the question and instead replies that if when his son turns 18 he chooses to smoke he will buy his first pack of cigarettes.

Humor in this film comes from how it refrains from any kind of editorializing. It takes its approach to its subject as far as it can possibly go. Thank You for Smoking depends on the ability of the audience to realize that the film is not actually sympathetic to the tobacco industry or tobacco lobbyists. It's risky for a film or an artist to rely on audience judgment in that way. I'm sure some audience members are outraged by the film and don't get the joke. And some who get the joke are outraged anyway because they lack a sense of humor. Thank You for Smoking is, in fact, fairly vicious in its attack on the tobacco industry and its willingness to do whatever is necessary to preserve profits. It also bluntly attacks the American public for its ignorance and gullibility, which allow lobbyists and PR hacks like Nick Taylor to do their work.

Thank You for Smoking reminded me of Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," which suggests that the Irish should earn money by selling their children for food. Swift's satire is an attack on how English landlords mistreat and abuse their tenants. It's a work of moral outrage. Every time I have taught it, some student in the class refuses to see anything but the surface of the essay—a student to whom irony and sarcasm and humor have no meaning. Some people are too obtuse for irony.

This modest film is distinguished by a fine soundtrack (with many songs about cigarette smoking—it's amazing how many of them there are ) and effective, colorful cinematography. It's entertaining, it makes you mad as it makes you laugh, and it's full of wit , satire, incisive political and cultural commentary, and memorable characters.

Two of Nick's best friends are lobbyists for the liquor and gun industries. He meets with them once a week. They jokingly refer to themselves as the M.O.D. Squad--"M.O.D. for "Merchants of Death").

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


300 suggests that in 500 BC Spartan soldiers fought pitched battles in BVDs and spandex. They bellowed and beat their chests.

300, one could argue, is a right-wing allegory about American involvement in the Middle East, about the culture wars between the West and the East, about the values of freedom and virtue vs. (as the film would have it) enslavement and paganism. The Spartan force consists of burly European men. The Persian army of Xerxes consists of Africans, Asians, and Arabs. Their self-proclaimed god-king Xerxes, an African, is adorned with jewelry and makeup and is decidedly effeminate. It's not difficult to identify the bad guys in this film.

“Freedom is not free” intones King Leonidas’s wife, echoing George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. As her husband leaves for war, she tells him, “Come back with your shield, or on it.” There is much talk of how the men of Sparta are fighting for freedom, even though Leonidas handpicked them to fight and they seem to have little choice in the matter. Freedom is a key word in this film, a hollow word.

Fighting for freedom in 300 means brutal and vicious battle. It is not enough to defeat your enemies—you must impale them on swords and spears, shoot them with arrows, throw them off cliffs and hurl them down dark holes. You use their bodies to build impenetrable walls of dead flesh.

300 tells the story of the Battle of Thermopylae—the “Hot Gates”--in 480 BC, famous for the heroic resistance of 300 Spartan soldiers against a large Persian army. The film version of the story is decidedly Spartan-centric. In the real Battle of Thermopylae, several thousand soldiers from various armies joined with the Spartans to march against the Persians and to fight in the battle. When the Greek armies were betrayed and doom was certain, Leonidas dismissed and sent home all soldiers but the Spartan 300 and some 700 volunteers from Thebes, which like Sparta had refused to bow to Xerxes. In the film, Athens sends soldiers to fight alongside the Spartan 300, but the Spartans ridicule the Athenians as “boy lovers” and artists ill-suited for war—Leonidas scornfully tells them they are not real soldiers. The burly men of Sparta are full of contempt for the girly men from Athens. The 700 Thebans are omitted entirely. When the last battle is imminent in the film, the Athenian soldiers leave because they do not want to die—that is, they leave as cowards rather than being sent home by Leonidas, which is what happened in the actual battle. The film seems to find it important to portray the Spartans as the only real heroes.

Before the final battle, Xerxes promises Leonidas that, if he does not submit, all Spartans will be enslaved, all evidence of the battle will be destroyed, and anyone who mentions Thermopylae will be killed. To make sure the battle is not forgotten, Leonidas sends a wounded soldier home to Sparta to tell the story. In this way it is preserved for history. Yet the version of the battle enshrined in the film is not accurate. The true story of Thermopylae is still a great one, but the filmmakers felt that focusing on the 300 Spartans and leaving out everyone else would make it even better.

The film is based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller. The visual presentation of the characters and landscape reminds me of a video game or comic strip where there are few colors, mainly shades of black and white and brown, and of course red-- red splashes and blotches and spouts and fountains and squirts of blood abound in this film.

There are numerous imaginative and innovative exercises in animation and cinematography in this film—perhaps emulating Wallace Stevens, the filmmakers want to contemplate 13 ways to kill a Persian soldier. Make that 35 different ways. We follow arrows high into the air in the arc of their flights down into the chest or the face of hapless Persians. We see limbs severed, heads whacked off, bodies eviscerated--all in an obscene balletic dance of gore. One scene is borrowed directly from the end of the Yimou Zhang film Hero, where thousands of arrows shot into the air fall towards the doomed hero.

300 doesn’t stop to tell us what happens to the people of Sparta after the defeat at Thermopylae. Thebes was sacked and burned for its support of Sparta. Presumably a similar fate befell Sparta. The battle at the hot gates did make it possible for a much larger Greek force to defeat the Persians two years later. 300 seems indifferent to those consequences, indifferent to any consequences. A glorious death in a gory and hideous spectacle of blood and violence is what matters. It's self-justifying. And of course there are the profits from the video game based on the film that is already on sale.

If 300 is a commentary on the current state of affairs internationally, it’s bigoted and small-minded and short-sighted. It’s a shallow spectacle and little else.

Also published at BlogCritics: Movie Review: 300

Monday, March 12, 2007


In Breach (2007) Robert Hanssen is the complex riddle that the film never quite manages to solve. This is the point, in a sense. The failure to solve the enigma is intentional. Outwardly, Hanssen is a conservative, quiet, long-term agent for the F.B.I. He is a devout Catholic who attends mass daily. He regards himself as a loyal public servant who has not risen in the ranks of the bureau because he has refused to "play the game." Inwardly, he's a different man. He is a purveyor of pornography (he sends films of himself and his wife having sex to unknown people overseas). He frequents strip clubs. And he is a counter intelligence agent for the remnants of the Soviet KGB who over a period of fifteen years has given over to the Russians more state secrets that any other double agent in American history. The information he provides leads to the deaths of American agents, and in time of war could have resulted in wholesale catastrophe for the United States—for instance, Hanssen tells the Russians where the American President, Vice President, cabinet officers, and members of congress would be sheltered in event of nuclear attack.

Hanssen is absolutely duplicitous. In the film we mainly see him as the pious conservative family man. This is partially because we see him through the eyes of a young F.B.I. agent, Eric O'Neill, who is assigned to work as his assistant and to track his actions. We see of Hanssen what he chooses to reveal to his "clerk"—the term Hanssen uses to describe O'Neill, whom Hanssen orders to address him as "boss" and "sir." Hanssen gradually comes to like his young protégé and begins to attempt to attract him into the folds of the Catholic Church. O'Neill never actually was a Catholic, though he attended a Jesuit school. He describes himself as a lapsed Protestant. Hanssen's attempts to draw O'Neill's wife, born in East Germany, into the church and to convince her to accept what he sees as her ordained role as a bearer of children, causes tension in O'Neill's marriage. She never understands what is going on, and her husband has been ordered by his superior not to tell her that he has been assigned to collect information on Hanssen.

To spy on Hanssen, O'Neill has to become like him and to live the kind of double life than Hanssen himself lives. As Hanssen opens up to O'Neill and begins to invite him to his home and to attend mass with him, O'Neill finds himself liking the man. He can't understand why the F.B.I. would suspect him of wrongdoing because he sees no evidence of it in Hanssen's character. He begins to accept Hanssen's view of the F.B.I. as an organization riven with political machinations and rivalries and incompetence. But when he expresses these concerns to his supervisor, a young woman somewhat older than he who readily admits that she has no private life of her own, she tells him the truth and shows him the evidence. This complicates O'Neill's position further, for now he must feign friendship and respect for this man who has betrayed his country and whose life is a complete deception. And he has to lie to his wife about what he is doing.

The relationship of Hanssen and O'Neill is in many ways the heart of Breach. As the film progresses, that relationship becomes increasingly uncomfortable. There are moments when Hanssen seems suspicious of O'Neill (he is suspicious of everyone), especially early in the film. And in one scene, when Hanssen is unable to reach O'Neill (who is meeting with the team that is gathering evidence on Hanssen), he comes to O'Neill's apartment uninvited, with dinner, and upbraids O'Neill for his absence when he does arrive home, almost as if his intention is to make O'Neill's wife suspicious.

Part of the interest of the film lies in the explanations it does and does not offer for Hanssen's character. He is a brilliant man, truly gifted in designing secure databases. The film portrays his sense of himself as an outsider, as someone whose loyalty and contributions have not been recognized, and revenge against the bureau and the government for his failure to rise in the bureaucracy is perhaps one motive for his betrayals. After he is arrested, Hanssen suggests that ego is a reason—implying that he enjoys attending the meetings where his colleagues wonder about the identity of the mole who is giving secrets away to the Russians. He suggests as well that perhaps he turned on his country to demonstrating the vulnerabilities of its security network (this is not convincing). Ultimately, the film doesn't offer an explanation—Hanssen remains inscrutable. Even as he breaks down at the end of the film, convinced that he is about to be caught, unable to resist dropping off a final batch of information, he remains obscure and complex.

Breach does seem to confirm Hanssen's view of the F.B.I. as an agency of politics and internal squabbling. When we first see O'Neill in the film he is bring chastised by two colleagues for circulating a proposal to update computer security. They see the proposal as his attempt to get ahead, to kiss ass and call attention to himself. O'Neill's supervisor (Laura Linney) tells O'Neill he has a reputation for arrogance. Hanssen himself suggests that an F.B.I. investigation into the presence of an inside informer will not take place because agents don't like investigating fellow agents. His accusation that one must "play the game" to get ahead in the F.B.I. may be true. But the film also portrays a group of F.B.I. agents working diligently to gather evidence that will allow Hanssen's arrest and indictment. Despite its own bloated bureaucracy, despite the betrayals of people like Hanssen, the system does its best to do its work. At what point does bureaucratic bloat or internal betrayal overwhelm the system and cause its collapse? The film argues for the system's weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

After the arrest, O'Neill's supervisor tells him that he will be promoted for his good work. O'Neill announces that he is resigning. Although his reason is not explicitly stated, we know that he does not want to work in a job that compels him to lie and deceive, even if he is doing so in the best interests of his country. The film portrays this decision, I think, as an admirable one, though it does not fully explore the consequences of this position: if someone doesn't take the necessary steps to stop people like Hanssen, the government will be compromised.

Chris Cooper is excellent as O'Neill—this is the best, most nuanced performance I've seen him give. Laura Linney is effective as Eric O'Neill's supervisor.

Breach does not make Hanssen out to be a villain—he's not demonized or stereotyped in a simple way—but it does not deny the seriousness of his treasonous betrayals. Because the film allows us to see past issues of national security and ideology to the complex contradictions of human character, in this case an extreme example of human character, it is successful.

Breach is based on the true story of Hanssen's career and of his arrest in 2001. The former F.B.I. agent O'Neill whose work helped bring about the arrest served as an advisor to the film.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) is difficult to characterize. It is a strangely entertaining film that flouts in its understated way numerous conventions. The loose plot has to do with a famous explorer and oceanographic naturalist Steve Zissou, vaguely similar to Jacques Cousteau. In the film he hires a film crew to chronicle his attempt to find and kill a jaguar shark that ate his partner. His quest for revenge is also an attempt to revive his flagging career and self-esteem. A son whom he has never acknowledged suddenly shows up to join the crew. Bill Murray in his usual ultra suppressed way plays Steve Zissou. Anjelica Huston is his sometimes estranged wife. Wilson plays Zissou's son Ned, while Cate Blanchett plays a reporter writing about the voyage.

Much of the film takes place on a bisected ocean vessel--as if the vessel has been sawed in half, vertically, from stem to stern, so that we get a cross-section view of what is going on in the ship and watch characters moving from one room or deck to another. I was reminded in a strange way of a Lars von Trier film. The Life Aquatic moves casually from one scene to the next. Every element is casual and underplayed and strange. The result is a wonderful sense of whimsy. Murray is the heart of the film's casual atmosphere. Huston, who appears in relatively few scenes, backs him up. She is as droll and dark as she was in the Addams family films.

The only real tension comes in the final climactic scene where Zissou and crew board a submarine and descend to the depths to view the fabled jaguar shark. (The rivalry between Zissou and his son over Blanchett's reporter generates no tension at all, just some weird comic moments). The scene in the sub is handled in a whimsical, off-handed fashion. As the submarine descends, we notice a sign on the inner wall announcing that the vessel can safely handle six passengers at a time, while at least twice that many are aboard. The passengers gaze casually out of the windows, watching the digitally rendered undersea life (the fish are cartoon-like animations). As the shark approaches, the reporter asks whether they are safe in the sub. Zissou answers, "I doubt it." The shark swims menacingly around the sub, then swims away. We see Zissou, surrounded by ex-wife and crew, gazing out into the blackness of the deep, moved by their encounter. For Zissou this moment seems a culmination of his career, but the emotion he displays, for the first time in the film--emotion still subdued and restrained, but clearly deep emotion--is not for the shark or his failure to take revenge on the animal but for the son he never had and never felt he needed until he was lost. Everyone in the sub leans over and hugs or comforts Zissou. The scene described seems absolutely ludicrous, but it is the warm heart of this wacky, strange, charming film from Wes Anderson.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Sentinel

In The Sentinel (2006) a veteran secret service agent who is having an affair with the wife of the President finds himself framed for an assassination plot. The secret service agent who accuses him is his former best friend--former because the veteran agent had an affair ten years earlier with the younger agent's wife. Melodrama fever.

The Sentinel has the entertainment value of an episode of Law and Order. It is entertaining, but not very good. It moves along slowly, the plot twists are predictable, and it's full of holes and dead ends. Kiefer Sutherland strays a short distance away from his Jack Bauer persona to play the younger secret service agent, while Michael Douglas plays the veteran agent. If Douglas' character has gone unpromoted for 25 years, why he is so crafty and effective once he learns he's been falsely accused? Why does an old country store in the middle of rural Virginia have high-speed Internet? Why can the older Douglas outrun the younger Sutherland? Why is the suspect Douglas able to get past numerous secret service agents to reach and rescue the president from the real assassins? A subplot involving Sutherland's father goes nowhere.

This film portrays the White House as a prison for the President's wife—their marriage is a charade—perhaps this is a comment on the Clinton marriage. It's not clear whose fault the sham marriage is. The President himself is a hollow bag of mildly rhetorical air. The world of the film hardly seems to exist outside the main characters. The dramatic tension of the film comes out of the estrangement of the main characters and their reconciliation and, to a lesser extent, from the Michael Douglas affair with the President's wife, played by Kim Basinger. Towards the end, when the assassination plot unfolds, the film generates a small amount of interest and suspense.

Michael Douglas seems unenthusiastic and unconvinced. Kiefer Sutherland vacillates between loud rage and depressive indifference. Basinger seems bored. Everyone lacks conviction. The lackluster half-baked script, the poor direction, and sluggardly editing push this film along towards a conclusion that doesn't come soon enough

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Nothing but a Man

Nothing but a Man is remarkable and unusual. Released in 1964, filmed in black and white, set in an unidentified part of the American South, it focuses on a black man named Duff Anderson. He works on a railroad gang laying rails. Nothing but a Man attempts to show what life is for a young black man in the small-town South in the 1960s. Ivan Dixon portrays Duff. He was a relative unknown when the film was made, and his role in this film was the outstanding role of his career.

A number of actors in this film later became significant figures in the American entertainment industry, primarily Yaphet Kotto, who plays Duff's friend Jocko, and Esther Rolle, who appears briefly in a church service. Abby Lincoln, already known by the time of this film for her beauty, her acting, and her jazz singing, plays Josie Dawson, a young schoolteacher to whom Duff is attracted.

This film is low key and seemingly objective. It displays Duff's life and problems without preaching about them. It has the style of a documentary, following Duff as he works on the rail line, sits in a bar, attends a church service, and flirts with a young woman selling food outside the church. Her name is Josie and she turns out to be the preacher's daughter. When Duff asks her to go out with him, she agrees.

The schoolteacher is one of a number of challenges Duff faces in the film. She is part of a respectable middle-class black family in the small Southern town. Her father and mother disapprove of her friendship with a manual laborer. She has gone to college and is a teacher. He lays rails for the railroad. The differences in social class between Josie and Duff pose a problem that he feels more than she does. While she has a stable job, he works as a laborer, and after he quits his job to settle down with Josie, stable employment is an issue for him throughout the film.

Josie as a character stands between Duff and her father the minister, Reverend Dawson. She speaks critically of her father on several occasions, blaming him for not standing up against the whites at crucial moments. Reverend Dawson himself tells Duff that it is difficult to know how to talk to white people—he apparently sees relations with white people as a matter of diplomacy and negotiation. He may have his own welfare and respectability in mind, but he also cares about the welfare of the black community as a whole—that welfare depends on peaceful relations with the whites, and in the community where Duff lives peaceful relations mean a subservient role for African Americans.

Duff contrasts with Reverend Dawson and other black men in the film as well. He is an individual who wants to live by his own terms. He is not comfortable being deferential to whites. He is also not religious, and this distances him from Josie's father. When he gets a job at a mill, he is bothered by the failure of other black workers to stand up for themselves. He tells them they should not accept mistreatment from the whites. They tell him that they have families to worry about, that they can't afford to make their employers angry. After one of them tells the white employees that Duff is trying to make trouble, Duff loses his job.

Duff is not insolent or disrespectful or aggressive towards white people. He is simply himself. He isn't particularly talkative, and his silences are taken for rudeness. He refuses to be subservient and deferential. He refuses to joke around with white men who try to talk down to him. His refusal to play the game causes problems.

After he loses the job at the mill, he tries unsuccessfully to find other work. He considers picking cotton, but refuses to accept the low wage of $2.50 a day. When his father-in-law helps him get a job at a service station owned by a white man, he loses the job after a carload of white boys threaten to burn the station down if the owner doesn't fire him—when one of them makes a lewd joke about his wife, Duff tells him to watch how he talks, and this leads to trouble. Duff feels that employment that allows him to earn a decent living wage is a key to his hopes for a successful life. It is certainly a key factor in the growing tension between Duff and Josie. He becomes increasingly worried about how he is going to care for her and the baby that is on the way.

A complicating factor is Duff's conflicted relationship with his father, whom he goes to visit at two important moments in the film—once when he is thinking about asking Josie to marry him and again when he has left Josie to look for work in another city. Duff's father is a bitter broken man, afflicted by alcoholism, chronic unemployment, depression, and high blood pressure. He hardly recognizes his son during the first visit, and although there are tentative efforts at friendly talk, he ultimately tells his son to leave. In the second visit, he is so drunk that he can hardly stand, and he suffers a stroke, dying in Duff's car on the way to the hospital. We can infer that Duff's father was afflicted by the same problems that Duff has encountered—difficulty in finding work, unhappiness with the narrow set of roles and behaviors allowed him in a predominantly white society, chafing at an environment of disrespect and oppression. Duff knows that his father represents one possible future for him.

The father-son issue is further complicated when Duff reveals to Josie that he has a son. He sends the boy's mother money each month but goes for two years without seeing the boy. When he finally does visit, he discovers that the mother has left town and left the child in a neighbor's care. He rebuffs Josie's suggestions that he bring the boy home to live with them. He is therefore replicating the same pattern of absent fatherhood that his own father followed.

Nothing but a Man displays all the reasons why Duff might feel beaten down and why he might turn out like his father—drunk, bitter, estranged. Finally, it is his father's death that convinces him not to follow the same path. His love for Josie and his desire not to follow that path lead him to return to Josie with his son in tow, intent on the struggle to make a life with her and to hold his head up, to be a black man in a white world, as difficult as that might be. The implication, as the film ends, is that he will try to set an example and stand up against the whites in the town where he and Josie live.

Nothing Bu a Man at moments is slow and awkward, and there are occasional pauses and plodding moments, a few melodramatic moments. But for the most part it is extremely effective in portraying the limiting forces that Duff faces, and that ultimately he refuses to allow to defeat him. Some might find the end of the film too optimistic, an obligatory happy ending. Instead, the conclusion strikes a necessary note of determination and resolve. Facing the problems he faces—of class divisions, broken family histories and difficult parental relationships, the constrictions of a society that refuses to accept him on his own terms—he is presented both as the representative American black man and as the example of hope and resolve that will lead black America forward. But the film is not a call to arms, by any means, but rather a call for understanding and compassion not just of the man of the film's title but of the society and the forces that oppress and hold him down.

The film makes excellent use of setting—landscapes, cityscapes—to depict the world in which Duff lives. It begins with images of Duff and colleagues driving spikes as they lay new railroad tracks. Several panoramas of junkyards superimposed against the skylines of a large city, further superimposed against Duff's face, help explain the forces that oppose him. The film never names the part of the South in which it is set. Characters mention the North, and it is clear that the action is taking place somewhere in the South. But the cinematography focuses us on the locations and the places where the characters work and live—the school where Josie works, the cotton field where Duff briefly considers picking cotton, the mill and the gas station and the pharmacy. It therefore evokes a vivid sense of place without specifying where the place is. The film's "place" is, ultimately, a generic South whose name does not matter. For a low budget black and white film, the cinematography in Nothing but a Man is impressive and highly effective. So too is the low-key soundtrack, drawn from 60s era Motown—it tells us what the characters are listening to, gives us a sense of their emotional states of mind and their musical interests, locates the film in a particular timeframe, but it does not dominate the film nor does it, as is the case with some later films about African Americans (Hustle and Flow is an example), in any way become a substitute for the problems the characters grapple with.

The setting of Nothing but a Man emphasizes the world of the industrial white man—of finance, industry, technology—that excludes and oppresses and ultimately challenges Duff to be the "man" that the movie shows him struggling to be.