Culver City Observer -

MOVIE REVIEW SPECIAL: Two Emotional Juggernauts -

Room and Truth


October 22, 2015


When Emma Donoghue’s emotional telling of the story of a boy named Jack and his Ma hit the bestseller list in 2010, Donoghue already had a screenplay in the works. Wanting to challenge herself, and feeling the emotion that leaps off the page and into one’s very soul in reading the heart wrenching, gripping and ultimately joyous tear-jerker, Donoghue was at the ready when Hollywood came calling. Initially set completely within the confines of a tiny, windowless (but for an unreachable skylight), cement lined 11x11 room, on paper ROOM is told through the mind’s eye of five-year old Jack. But on screen, director Lenny Abrahamson together with cinematographer Danny Cohen take Donoghue’s screen adaptation which translates the interior monologue of a five-year old and elevate and expand the emotional heartbeat beyond that of Jack, filling the screen with dynamic indelible imagery and emotion, all brought to life by Brie Larson and newcomer Jacob Tremblay.

As we slowly learn, Ma has lived in ROOM for seven years; Jack for five. He was born in ROOM. It is the only world he knows. But Ma knows of the big outside world, a world from which she was stolen, only to be imprisoned in ROOM. To Jack, every item in ROOM is a friend. Wardrobe, Table, Chair, Sink, even Toilet. Ma has helped create this imaginary world for Jack as a means of mutual survival. She trades favors with her captor “Old Nick” in exchange for food and clothing, a tv and “Dora the Explorer” videos for Jack.

Shielding Jack from the truth of their situation until he becomes a “big boy” with his fifth birthday, the tide begins to turn for Ma and Jack as the young boy slowly begins to understand about the world, and then accept what he must help Ma do in order to become part of that big world.

A fan of Donoghue’s novel from the start, and always wary of film adaptations of literary works, I had doubts as to how effective an adaptation of ROOM would be. I must admit, knowing that Donoghue herself had written the screenplay gave me hope, but that typically plays like a double edged sword with the author often becoming too precious with the novel and not expanding the story for visual aesthetics. Such is not the case with Donoghue. The script is emotionally expansive and thanks to Abrahamson’s visual construct, physically expressive and expansive as well.

Initially, there is the feeling of tedium as those unfamiliar with the novel may find themselves becoming agitated and annoyed at the slow repetitiveness unfolding. But with the first appearance of Old Nick during a late night appearance in the one room bunker, and no exposition or real dialogue to establish time and place, curiosity is unlocked and the audience is open to the possibility of post-apocalypse or war torn scavenging outside the locked door. And then expository dialogue kicks in as Ma begins to tell Jack stories of the real world. From that point on, the pieces come together quickly and in captivating fashion as not only are Ma and Jack in survival mode, but so is the audience. We feel their trauma and their joy.

And “feeling” the raw emotion of ROOM comes from powerful performances, starting with Jacob Tremblay. This is his film. Had Abrahamson miscast the role of Jack, the film would have fallen flat. As it stands, it soars with wide-eyed wonder and purity, thanks to young Jacob, and only gets better as the story progresses and (SPOILER ALERT, BUT ONLY IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE BOOK) Jacob has the chance to interact with people and not furniture and appliances. Experiencing the world through the wide eyed wonder of Jack is pure joy. On the flip side of that though, is the closed mindedness we see in the form of William H. of Macy's character Robert and the inability of Ma (now going by her given name of Joy) to adapt as well as an inability to come to terms with her loss of control over every iota of her existence. These serve as perfect counters to Jack and Tremblay’s performance.

The dynamic of Tom McCamus's Leo with Jacob Tremblay's Jack enchants. (Leo is Grandma’s boyfriend since her divorce after Ma’s disappearance.) Little Jacob Tremblay is angelic innocence, uplifting the film and the viewer, something which is also metaphorically celebrated with Cohen’s lensing, most notably in some of Tremblay’s scenes with McCamus. At the same time, the fear Tremblay delivers in an escape sequence is palpable. Great turn by Wendy Crewson who oozes tabloidesque sleaze with the very way she manipulates Donoghue’s brilliant dialogue for the “news reporter.” Great subtext and commentary. A notable performance also comes from Amanda Bruce who, as Officer Parker, in a key scene as being the first individual contact Jack has with the outside world, resonates with genuine emotion. Joan Allen delivers a particularly emotionally resonant performance as Jack’s grandmother.

Disappointing, however, is Brie Larson. (I know. Shoot me.) And it’s not that her performance is bad. Larson delivers a powerful take as Ma. But, I see no growth in her as an actress; rather, there is a a lot of emotional piggybacking by Larson to her work in “Short Term 12.”

Superlative is the word to describe cinematographer Danny Cohen's lensing and lighting. The physical POV drives the emotional tonal bandwidth of the film, while lighting and lensing within ROOM itself achieves a feeling of claustrophobia from Ma's perspective but one of endless space and height from that of Jack; the open-ended wonders of all that the world has to offer.


Who doesn’t know about Dan Rather’s 2004 fall from grace as one of the most respected investigative reports and journalists in television history. From revered war correspondent to the voice of CBS news post-Walter Cronkite to hard-hitting anchor of “60 Minutes”, Rather was a face and a voice we could trust; until he reported a story about George W. Bush and his military career. For those that don’t know what happened to Rather, in a nutshell, news segment producer and long time Rather colleague and friend Mary Mapes, spearheaded a story investigating allegations that Bush used the family name and connections to avoid military service in Viet Nam and instead serve stateside in the Texas Air National Guard in 1968. Despite vetting of the story by Mapes and her team in developing it for “60 Minutes”, there were some apparent oversights in investigation and “rushing to beat the competition” that were sufficient to raise the ire of the Bush family and the conservative right wing, prompting threats of litigation against CBS and all concerned. (Of note is that at the time the story broke, John Kerry was leading Bush in the polls by a slim margin.) Jumping into damage control mode, CBS fires Mapes and her team and Rather is forced to resign.

Based on Mary Mapes’ 2005 book, “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power,” writer/director James Vanderbilt dives head first into the media maelstrom creating a clean, clear and concise timeline of events, focusing in key moments in Mapes’ investigative process, e.g., six documents from Bush’s commander Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian which subsequently become the focus of “typewriter font” investigations, authentication processes, specific phone calls by Mapes with military corroborations, etc., as well as touching on Mapes’ own backstory and difficult childhood with an alcoholic and abusive father, thus setting the tone for her own paternal relationship with Dan Rather.

TRUTH boasts another juggernaut by Cate Blanchett that is buoyed by an incredibly strong adaptation of Mapes’ book, eliciting all the intricate minutiae and ethics of not only investigative journalism, but the absurdity of corporate blinders. As Mary Mapes, Blanchett mesmerizes with steely, albeit at times frenetic, resolve. The emotional and ethical stoicism Blanchett delivers - and that defiant confident stare - are killer. And yet, when Mapes knows her well designed story and argument is falling apart, Blanchett adds little tics of body language that show the confidence cracking and fear seeping in; the head tilts down, the eyes no longer meet those of the challenger - as if she's trying to regroup her thoughts and grasp for new argument while adding a bit of shame at not being perfect or perhaps at jumping the gun. The nuance is sparkling.

As part of Mapes’ producing team, Mike Smith and Lt. Col. Roger Charles, Topher Grace and Dennis Quaid, respectively, these two just feed on one another to delicious result. Both are calm in the eye of the swirling storm, particularly Quaid who perfectly captures the military mindset and ability to see beyond. Elisabeth Moss is a bit grating as another key team Mapes player, Lucy Scott, and rubbed me the wrong way, but that's not to say her work isn't solid and effective. No surprise here, when it comes to positions of authority, as always Bruce Greenwood is the man, and as CBS honcho Andrew Heywood he doesn't disappoint. His dialogue delivery when the story and the CBS reputation is drowning, is dripping with caustic disdain that really gives the audience a look into the machinations of networks.

And then there's Robert Redford. While his performance as Rather is stellar - particularly the affected speech pattern of Rather which Redford nails without turning it into a mockery or imitation - sad is that Rather comes off as a buffoon. Where is the hard hitting combat journalist that put him into the anchor chair? We see none of that. Anyone who goes into this film remembering the Dan Rather "that was" will be saddened when the curtain is pulled back and we are met with nothing but a shell, a figurehead, blurred by bourbon, no longer taking interest or responsibility in the art of investigation itself. He believes his own "Teflon coated" press about himself. While the industry insiders have always known things like this about not only Rather, but others similar, to see the reveal - not just hear about it or read about it - but to see it, serves as a great expose on the news industry on the whole. Sure - let's have 3 or 4 straight bourbons and then go do an interview. And let's not prepare on our own as was once done, but rely on others to feed questions and notes. Sad commentary that Vanderbilt has meticulously constructed and displayed for all to see and Redford is the perfect person to fill the role.

Compounding Redford's performance and the portrayal of Rather is that of Stacey Keach as Lt. Colonel Bill Burkett, the purveyor of the smoking gun that both made Mapes’ story and then destroyed it. Again, another fascinating thread in the tapestry and one that posits even more questions and thought for an audience, placing even more pressure on the news media to return to the days of true investigation, vetting and truth.

Even though we know the ultimate outcome of the unfolding events, Vanderbilt keeps us on edge, building tension at every turn while delivering a subtext that serves as commentary on the sometimes rampant obfuscation of the truth on every level.

With blinders off, we clearly see that “truth” is not what is the truth, but what one chooses to see and believe and bend to their own will. Can you handle the truth of TRUTH? Powerhouse!


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