Local cinemas this week

History is written by the victors. So what should we make of this version?

Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan

Kriv Stenders’ (Red Dog) new film is undoubtedly one of the year’s big local releases, most notably for its ambitious intent. It stands as a revisionist testament to the role of the Australian forces in the Vietnamese War (awkwardly, we lost) while emphatically celebrating our side’s fighting spirit and courage. Fair enough to the latter – though did anyone ever doubt the soldiers were brave? At the end of its account of a major skirmish in that war, 1966’s Battle of Long Tan, a credits roll lists all the names of the 18 killed – War Memorial style. Tragically, they were all young volunteers and conscripts. 245 Vietnamese also perished, but there’s no list of names for them – just the somewhat churlish statement that “both sides claimed victory.” And then this: “Only recently,” it’s stated, was the Australian soldiers’ valour recognised by the government, alluding to the widely-held belief (now hotly disputed by historians) that our returning Vets were officially overlooked, ignored and misjudged. And, according to doubtful mythology, “spat on” instead of being given welcoming homecoming parades.

The film is a relentless, frenetic extended shoot-out, and as in all filmed battles, it’s difficult to work out what’s happening for most of its 118 minutes – especially as it’s in dense jungle with poor visibility (Queensland stands in for Phuoc Toy Province). There are brief respites to sketchily introduce a few characters and allow some exchanges of black gallows humour, manly demonstrations of mateship and some good old Aussie insubordination. The soldiers are played by some of our nation’s A-listers (Travis Fimmel from VikingsRichard Roxburgh from everything, Luke Bracey from Hacksaw Ridge plus Daniel Webber and Anthony Hayes), all impressively, but there’s next to no background given to any of them, and too little plot to allow characters and back stories to be fleshed out. Sweethearts and mums back home get a mention – just so you’ll spot the one youngster who will die pointlessly at a moment of maximum pathos a mile off.

There are no Vietnamese names in the credits or the 50 pages of production notes. All we ever see of them are swarming hoards of dark figures screaming menacingly as they charge out of the jungle and fall dead, picked off by the Aussies, who are all crack shots. Two terrified Viet Cong faces are briefly shown – both black-clad women, clearly combatants of some sort. One of our A-listers chivalrously lets them live. 

Questioned at it’s Sydney Film Festival premiere, the director maintained his film was “apolitical.” Interestingly, Clint Eastwood, whose politics are widely derided as a capital C conservative, made one of his paired Iwo Jima movies – both of which focus on the damage war does to men – completely from the perspective of the enemy Japanese soldiers. So where does that put this film? Stenders argues that the Vietnamese version is for them to tell, and fair enough… theirs is an incredible story of a tiny nation defending their country from a massively resourced and far more powerful invader (us). In his film (our version of those events), they may as well be zombies from The Walking Dead.

By the time I was called up in 1970 as a 20-year-old destined for Vietnam, both Australia and the US were in a collective psychological melt-down over their role in the war. Barely out of my teens I didn’t understand much either, though I can remember the prospect of danger and adventure excited me. If I’d seen Stenders’ film then, I might have bought its blinkered posturing, one-sided myth-making and macho “war-maketh-the-man” twaddle. To peddle those sort of delusions in 2019 seems odd at best, odious even about a war that was so unjustified. And it does those who fought so gallantly on both sides no favours at all. MA15+ from Aug 8. Local cinemas include Palace Norton St, Central, Burwood, and Dendy Newtown  ★★

Palm Beach

Old friends and former band members gather to reminisce, down expensive booze and consume copious quantities of expensive seafood in this cosy portrait of growing old set in Sydney’s affluent Northern Beaches – aimed squarely at audiences in the same age-bracket as its stars. All have “issues.” Frank (Bryan Brown) misses the wildly successful business that made him a Palm Beach plutocrat, his best mate Leo (Sam Neil) is neurotically obsessed over an ancient affair with Frank’s wife, while Billy’s (Richard E Grant) career as a musician peaked decades ago and now he writes jingles for incontinence products. All have wives and partners (Greta Scacchi, Heather Mitchell and Jacqueline McKenzie) but their their problems get somewhat less attention; those of their adult offspring (Matilda Brown, Charlie Vickers) hardly any. Their patter is affectionate and amusing until the bickering and grudge-settling starts. That leads to recriminations and fisticuffs, and it’s always fun to watch old people fight – especially as you know it will lead to one big happy group hug.

Most of the negative commentary online about this centres around the characters’ class and race. They’re all greying, entitled, wealthy, white men – a demographic so despised and unfashionable right now that it’s hard to understand why two seasoned media pros like director Rachel Ward and writer Joanna Murray-Smith ever pitched such a project – much less were given the finance to make it. But the criticism misses the point. It is possible to make compelling satiric dramas about rich white people – think TV’s Billions or Succession. Even the original Big Little Lies (the novel) was set in nearby Whale Beach and Avalon. But Palm Beach isn’t them – there are no sharp edges, and the only issues any of the characters face is a very mild dose of affluenza. It’s a major disappointment from Ward after the tough and sinewy Beautiful Kate. Yes it’s supposed to be just a piece of baby boomer froth, but it’s hard to care a hoot about any of this lot. M from Aug 8. Inner west cinemas include Palace Norton St, Central, Broadway and Dendy Newtown ★★

Also showing:

Late Night stars Emma Thompson as Katherine Newbury, a smart but tyrannical host of a late night network TV variety show and Mindy Kaling (also writer, below) as Molly, the token diversity hire for her all-white (and, improbably, all-male) writers room. It’s ruled by Tom (Reid Scott, Dan from VEEP) here playing a similar cringe-worthy character. In fact much of the sharp-tongued humour will be familiar to fans of that HBO hit show, although mercifully, it is way less cruel.

When Katherine’s boss (Amy Ryan) informs her she’s about to fired because of a 10-year ratings slump, you can probably guess who will turn the show around and save the day… However it’s breezy fun watching that happen in ways that, for the most part, avoid the familiar sit-com tropes. But first you will have to believe that in the year 2019, a female network head would sack the only woman host of a late night variety show and replace her with a obnoxious, white dude – known only for his off-colour jokes and anti-PC shtick. Yeah, right, that would happen… But most of us have such low expectations of mainstream American comedies now that when something smart and sharp comes along and hits its hot-button issues of day (workplace sexism, diversity, racism, the inclusiveness cult) squarely on the nose, it’s guaranteed to get a leg up. Then again, in a week when I’ve struggled to give any of the new releases more than two stars, I could be over-compensating… M from Aug 8. Inner west cinemas include Palace Norton St, Central, Burwood and Dendy Newtown ★★★★

Reviews – Russell Edwards