a theatre, film & pop culture review
Last Days in Vietnam covers the final weeks of the Vietnam War, as the North Vietnamese Army closed in on Saigon, while the South Vietnamese desperately attempted escape. Meanwhile, American soldiers and diplomats confronted a moral dilemma – whether to heed White House orders to evacuate U.S. citizens only, or risk punishment and save the lives of as many South Vietnamese as possible. I didn’t see this doc, but the pundits are saying it’s not in the running.
Nor did I see The Salt of the Earth, which recounts photographer Sebastião Salgado’s 40 years of travel across the world, as he witnesses an ever-changing humanity, including international conflicts, starvation, and exodus. In this doc, he embarks on the discovery of pristine territories, wild fauna and flora, and sweeping landscapes as part of a massive photography project celebrating the planet’s beauty. This film doesn’t have much of a shot either.
Finding Vivian Maier is an intriguing, yet frustrating look at a stunningly talented street photographer whose work wasn’t realized until her death. Vivian Maier was a nanny who feigned a French accent (though she was born in the U.S.), donned out-of-date period clothing, and who took her young charges into Chicago’s more troubled neighborhoods so that she could shoot startlingly intimate portraits of the city’s inhabitants. While the art is indeed worthy of any attention this film brings to it, Maier, an eccentric and near-complete mystery to those who knew her, is the more fascinating subject here. But directors Josh Maloof and Charlie Siskel never dig deeply enough into this troubled woman’s life. Instead, mental illness and family trauma are only hinted at, and the bulk of the narrative is spent hemming and hawing about getting Maier’s work shown. A too-sporadic portrait of a little-understood artist, Finding Vivian Maier isn’t focused or showy enough to win here.
Citizenfour, two-time nominee Laura Poitras’s documentation of a week spent in a Hong Kong hotel with journalist Glenn Greenwald and the notorious Edward Snowden, centers on Snowden as he unloads his chilling revelations of the government’s spying on citizens. This quiet film’s calmness is unnerving and it captures moments of a generally confident Snowden’s rattled nerves. But it also feels uncomfortably biased in favor of Snowden’s actions, so while Citizenfour is the definite frontrunner here, there is also a chance that voters, reflecting the reaction of the rest of the country, will be split on whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor, thereby diminishing the film’s chances.
And there’s also Virunga to contend with. Orlando von Einsiedel’s outstanding documentary, about a British oil company’s exploitation of Congo’s Virunga National Park’s natural resources plays – much like previous Oscar winner The Cove – as a heart-stopping thriller. The only film here also to be nominated for the DGA and PGA awards, it acts as a sensational exposé of human rights and environmental injustices while simultaneously crafting intimate portraits of the Congo’s heroes – a group of brave, dedicated individuals that risk their lives to save the last of the world’s mountain gorillas in the midst of civil war and corporate greed. The gorillas, as well, are captured with such level of detail and honor that they become distinct personalities that cower at the distant gunfire and wrap their arms around their human protectors. This is perch-on-the-edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting work that is alternately infuriating and uplifting. There is no doubt that this smart, activist piece of filmmaking is far and away the most deserving winner and could easily take home the Oscar should Citizenfour divide voters.