The Wide Blue Road is an early film by Gillo Pontecorvo, the director who gained international fame a decade later with The Battle of Algiers in 1966. For those who have seen the later film, a monument of political cinema, the first word to come to mind is likely to be “uncompromising,” so it’s hard to think of The Wide Blue Road without considering how compromised it was, at least in the conditions of its production. Working in Italy in 1957, in the waning years of the neo-realist movement, Pontecorvo hoped to make his film in that style, shooting in grainy black and white, using non-actors, and improvising with the script.
It didn’t turn out that way. The producers insisted on bankable stars and color photography. Pontecorvo’s simple fisherman and his wife are embodied by Yves Montand and Alida Valli. Imagine Jude Law playing the Ernest Borgnine role in a remake of Marty, or Nicole Kidman shedding her elegant garmenture to take on the part of a Bronx fishwife. That’s how ridiculous this casting sounds, in theory.
In practice, it’s wonderful–reminding us of what great actors these stars were. Montand is sullen, brooding and magnetic–it’s probably this movie, coupled with his Hollywood star turn right after it in Cukor’s Let’s Make Love, that made Jean Luc Godard seek him for his own political parable, Tout Va Bien (1971). And Valli seems to miss her customary glamour so little, that her flouting of it may be the most political act in the movie.
The personal is political, we’re told. But the political cinema, with few exceptions outside the realm of documentary, tends to conflate the two to such an extent that the political becomes strictly personal. Pontecorvo’s point in this clearly didactic film is to promote the collective above the individual: Montand’s fisherman refuses to join a cooperative, choosing to try to support his family on his own. The film shows how this decision corrupts him–he uses explosives to expedite his catches, not only compromising his personal integrity, but hurting the very community he’s turned away from. Despite the starkness of the film’s message, its drama undermines some of its didacticism; it’s the same problem Bertolt Brecht, last century’s most influential political dramatist, kept coming up against. We see the fisherman’s motives–understand his pride, see the personal circumstances that force him into action–and therefore can’t help sympathizing with him, at some level. The didactic point remains clear, but loses its dramatic force, and the film raises an old question, the one Brecht devoted his life to: Can drama, with its narrative allegiance to personal conflict, ever really be political?
The last thing the Hollywood spy thriller wants to be is political, but what interest the genre has comes largely from the fact that it can’t help but be. Though the antics of the spies are usually about as socially relevant as the frolics of the gangs in caper films, these movies are forced to present reworked fictions of real political scenarios, if they bid for any resonance whatever. What they’ve tended to do is either elect situations marked by perceived consensus among their intended audiences, like Hitchcock’s anti-fascist spy thrillers in England of the ’30s or Hollywood’s anti-Soviet spy thrillers of the Cold War; or try to allegorize the politics out of existence, as in post-Cold War movies like some recent James Bond films or Spy Kids, where the villains often play like generic foreigners.
What’s striking about Spy Game, on the surface, is how directly it presents its political backgrounds, and how extensive they are. The movie is admirably ungainly in conception. It starts in a Chinese hospital, cuts to a Chinese prison, jumps to a CIA facility in 1991, then flashes back to Vietnam soon after the war, Berlin before the Wall came down, and Beirut in the strife-ridden ’80s. Most Hollywood movies seem narrowly linear in design–it’s in the making, it seems, that they get so hopelessly messed up. But nobody could ever have thought this movie was plotted straightforwardly, and despite its jumpy, superficially elliptical visual style–the director is Tony Scott–it’s cleaner in execution than in conception.
Robert Redford plays Nathan, a retiring CIA operative who learns, on his last day of work, that the agency plans to sell out another agent and let him die in China, so as not to endanger trade negotiations between the United States and China. That agent is Tom Bishop, played by Brad Pitt, whose mentor Nathan was. The plot consists of Nathan filling in the other agents about Bishop’s background–hence the flashbacks–while working against them behind the scenes to secure Bishop’s rescue. This structure defers, at least for a while, the inevitable personalization of the story materials, since we don’t see Nathan and Tom together in the story’s present tense. What may play to some audiences as a lack of feeling could, for others, convey a fickle political sophistication. After all, the structure suggests, as well, the pervasiveness of U.S. power in the geopolitical landscape–in Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
But if it is sophistication of some sort, it doesn’t last. Like many such films, this one feigns demystifying the workings of the CIA, while actually justifying covert operations as politically necessary. Before the movie turns into Saving Private Bishop in its last half hour, it lays out a detailed version of CIA procedures, including manipulations of fact and collusion with the media. The interrogation takes place in a room that is glass-walled at one end and two-way mirrored at the other, reflecting the movie’s take on the agency as both an insular star chamber and an open, essentially democratic institution. Pitt’s Bishop is a bit hard to pin down; it’s difficult to tell whether the cliché he’s enacting is that of amoral renegade or disillusioned, and predictably re-illusioned, idealist.
Does the CIA–during those years or now–represent the interests of national security or international imperialism? The movie raises the question, probably less because of any acute social awareness than just because that is the question. Nathan argues for the democratic value of the agency as protector of freedom; Tom rejects it as corrupt and self-interested. We don’t know whether this is dialectics or waffling–especially since, in the end, there’s a turnaround: Courtesy of Nathan, Tom sees what’s good in the agency–which becomes a kind of white-collar branch of the military–and Nathan sees what’s flawed, if he hadn’t already.
These reversals keep the movie from being didactic, or at least they’re meant to. They also keep it, finally, from being political. That’s what they’re doing there.
Brecht’s idea was to undermine conventions of bourgeois drama through formal eruptions: bursts of song, or blasts of artifice. These so-called alienation effects would, in theory, throw spectators outside the illusion of the drama, and promote intellectual responses instead of emotional ones. With his quick cuts, veering cameras, dizzying swish pans, quasi-expressionist compositions, and hysterical montages counterposing extreme close-ups against extreme long shots, Tony Scott has the style of a simple-minded postmodern Brecht. From Brechtian aesthetics came the idea that in art, regardless of content, formal rupture was somehow by definition politically progressive. The style of a director like Scott–and it’s a highly conventional style in contemporary Hollywood–uses formal ruptures for emotional kicks. Brecht is yesterday. Where do we go from here?
Pontecorvo was never a Brechtian, maybe because he saw how amenable Brechtian techniques were to conventionalization or commercialization. He never assumed that emotional distance was a prerequisite for political response. The Battle of Algiers, a masterpiece, reverts to the emotional directness of Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945), which is in many ways its model. The Wide Blue Road, a great movie, seems to be working toward that quality of directness. In the later film, Pontecorvo solves the problem of the personal, like Rossellini, by dispersing the story across a range of characters, and he solves the problem of didacticism by seeing, not “both sides,” as the Hollywood model dictates–which really means not having a politics–but as many sides as possible, in the light of one’s own convictions.
No lover of film will regret the producer’s imposition of color on Pontecorvo. The color in The Wide Blue Road is unaffectedly ravishing–equal to that of the great colors in cinema, though perhaps closest in its mixture of vibrancy and mutedness to the footage Welles shot for It’s All True in 1942. The blue of the sea is breathtaking. This is not because Pontecorvo wants to turn the sea into a pretty postcard, or treat it as an exotic locale. It’s because he loves it and wants to see it plain.
Perhaps that’s what political cinema, above all, is meant to do: to see clearly.