In Theaters

It’s been said that one of the most valuable currencies we possess is our personal integrity. It’s a measure of who we are as individuals, of how genuine we are with ourselves and with others. It’s important for how authentically we each interact with our world. Now imagine this principle applied on a national scale or even on the scale of an international alliance. It speaks volumes about a people and its leadership in its dealings with those outside its borders or territories. But what happens when that collective integrity gets called into question? The authenticity and honor of an entire country (or group of countries) could thus become suspect. It’s that sort of scenario that provides the backdrop for the chilling new fact-based biopic, “Official Secrets” (web site, trailer).

In 2003, British intelligence specialist Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) became an unexpected and unlikely player on the world’s geopolitical stage. As an employee of GCHQ, the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters, Gun routinely processed and translated classified information filtered through the agency, a position that, despite its high-level intelligence sensitivity, she initially saw as “just a job.” However, in the run-up to the Iraq War, as a concerned citizen, she became troubled over the country’s obviously forced efforts to make a case for the conflict. She became incensed watching the rhetorical drum-beating being stirred up in daily media reports featuring U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush.

British intelligence specialist Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) becomes troubled about her country’s potential involvement in the impending Iraq War when she uncovers a disturbing memo in the new fact-based biopic, “Official Secrets.” Photo by Nick Wall, courtesy of IFC Films.

Surprisingly, Gun’s reaction came across as somewhat out of character. Having never been overly politically active, her interest in this issue seemed uncharacteristically disproportionate. Such vehemence even became something of a cause for concern for her husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), a Turkish Kurd who was applying for U.K. residency at the time. But this was nothing compared to what was to follow.

While at work one day, Gun came across a memo written by the chief of staff at the “regional targets” division of the National Security Agency, the super-secret American intelligence organization. The memo stated that the U.S. was enlisting Britain’s help in collecting compromising information on wavering United Nations Security Council members to blackmail them into voting in favor of an invasion of Iraq. Outraged, Gun could not stand by and watch the world rushed into an illegal war that would result in countless numbers of fatalities and injuries on both sides of the conflict.

The revelation of this initiative was enough for Gun to take action. But doing so involved taking a tremendous chance: As a GCHQ staffer, she swore an oath to defend the U.K.’s Official Secrets Act, a law designed to prevent the disclosure of highly sensitive information, one with severe penalties for violations. The law even placed stringent requirements on suspected violators when it came to sharing disclosed information with their attorneys, potentially compounding the charges that could be leveled and making a viable defense difficult. However, even with those possible consequences, Gun decided to move ahead, believing that she could cover her tracks well enough to keep her from being traced. She thus funneled a copy of the memo to contacts in the antiwar movement, who, in turn, shared it with reporter Martin Bright (Matt Smith) of the London-based newspaper The Observer.

London newspaper reporter Martin Bright (Matt Smith) exposes a blockbuster government scandal in the run-up to the Iraq War in director Gavin Hood’s latest offering, “Official Secrets.” Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Making a case for this story with The Observer was challenging, given its stated support for the war. But, after verifying the validity of the information with colleagues Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) and Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode), Bright proceeded to report on the memo with the paper’s blessing. The revelation became a blockbuster story, despite official claims that the memo in question was a fake, a propagandist ploy created by antiwar advocates. Nevertheless, The Observer stood by its story as the U.S. and the U.K. attempted to force the hand of the U.N. Security Council and take the world to war.

With such an embarrassing story now circulating publicly, the British government in general and the GCHQ in particular aggressively sought to discover the source of the leak. A concerted investigation within Gun’s division began, one that led to the scrutiny of all of its employees. As staff members were grilled by management and investigators, Gun could not stand by and watch her colleagues take the heat for what she did. She decided to confess, an act that began a nightmare of harassment that impinged upon all areas of her life – firing, criminal charges, prison time and the possible deportation of her husband.

When British intelligence specialist Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley, left) comes under investigation for leaking top-secret government information, it also jeopardizes the pending legal residency status of her Turkish Kurd husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri, right), in “Official Secrets.” Photo by Nick Wall, courtesy of IFC Films.

Gun took a tremendous risk in doing what she did. But, given the soft public sentiment about the war, she was not without sympathizers, particularly in the legal arena. With the aid of attorney Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes) and his colleagues, Gun began planning a novel legal defense, one that contended the U.K. had engaged in an illegal war, a claim that, if successful, could exonerate her of the Official Secrets Act violations leveled against her. It was an effort that involved further investigation by Bright and his associates, as well as veiled admissions by government officials who could no longer condone the directives of their higher-ups. What came from it was stunning, but it’s amazing what integrity can compel when it’s put to the test.

In an age when integrity seems like it’s in increasingly short supply, Gun’s story shows us just how important it is – and how perilous our circumstances can become when it’s carelessly disregarded. That’s especially true when it comes to the fulfillment of the questionable agendas of a few with little or no regard for the majority that could be adversely affected. Indeed, without it, we can all too easily see what we get.

British journalist Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode) investigates questionable claims of weapons of mass destruction while on the ground in Iraq in the new fact-based biopic, “Official Secrets.” Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Voluntarily stepping up to play the role of whistleblower is often difficult, even under modest circumstances. So, in a situation where the stakes are as high as they are here, it takes an acutely clear sense of one’s integrity to approach the plate. And that, in turn, calls for a willingness to overcome our fears and live heroically. That was certainly the case where Gun was concerned, as she was ready to risk it all for a principle. She set quite the example in that regard, and we should be grateful for her efforts.

The irony here is that, in many ways, Gun seemed an unlikely candidate for taking on such a challenge. By her own admission, she initially didn’t even view her position as anything more than just a job. But, when the ugly truth became revealed, she could not turn a blind eye. She needed to live her own truth, even if it didn’t seem like it was in line with her typical self. Her beliefs and actions thus launched her in an entirely new direction in her life, one reflective of her destiny for the betterment of ourselves and those around us. And, if that’s not the ultimate expression of integrity, I don’t know what is.

While standing trial for violations of the Official Secrets Act, British intelligence specialist Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley, standing, background) awaits a verdict while her attorney, Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes, left), pleads her case in “Official Secrets.” Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

This somewhat rote but nevertheless compelling biopic tells the inspiring story of someone who was willing to put it all on the line for an idea. It’s a story not especially well known outside the U.K. (for reasons that become apparent in the film), yet it’s one with a message that we should all take to heart, a cautionary tale for those who might be a little too willing to dismiss it. Knightley delivers a knock-out, award-worthy performance as the unlikely heroine, backed by a superb supporting cast and the fine direction of filmmaker Gavin Hood. Regrettably, like the story it’s based on, “Official Secrets” hasn’t received much attention, but it’s definitely a worthwhile view.

Being true to ourselves isn’t always easy. Owning up to actions, policies and practices that don’t fit with what we claim to be the case takes a certain kind of courage and a willingness to admit the truth, no matter how unflattering, distasteful or hypocritical it might be. But, if we’re to live with ourselves, we must follow through with this, because, if we don’t, the consequences could end up being far worse than anything we might imagine, the kind of fallout that makes a little embarrassment pale by comparison.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

The Consequences of Ignorance

It’s all too easy to become so focused on what we want that we may fail to think things through. What’s more, the ante for this can get significantly upped when we examine the ramifications for taking no action. Now imagine what can happen when such a scenario unfolds on a national scale. Under such circumstances, there may be a tendency to act rashly, something that can have dire consequences, a situation detailed in the compelling new documentary, “One Child Nation” (web site, trailer).

Chinese-born filmmaker Nanfu Wang didn’t think much about the one-child-only “family planning” policy of her homeland until after she immigrated to America and became pregnant herself. Having been born in 1985, six years after the policy took effect, she grew up accepting it as just the way things were, much like nearly all of her countrymen. But, once outside of China, free from the restrictions she would have faced if she had stayed, she began to contemplate the nature – and wisdom – of the policy.

The policy, adopted in 1979, was instituted to ward off a projected famine due to China’s skyrocketing population. In prior years, food shortages resulted in many deaths by starvation. And, with population growth projections in place at the time, it was believed the problem would only worsen, perhaps even leading to cannibalism. Given that, the new policy was introduced to stave off that apparent inevitability, with strict enforcement measures in place to ensure compliance. Restricting families to one child only was seen as a way to avoid tragedy and raise the standard of living for the average household, not to mention a legally dictated civic responsibility.

To help promote the policy, the government and the ruling Communist Party launched an aggressive and ubiquitous propaganda program to drill it into the minds of the Chinese people. The landscape was plastered cheesy, Maoist-style billboards, placards and signage, and the message was emblazoned on playing cards, matchbook covers and all other manner of printed material. The policy was also promoted through traveling stage shows, choral performances and music videos, as well as in the classroom songs taught to schoolchildren. There was no escaping it.

And that included the watchful eye of authorities, too. Women who gave birth were frequently force-sterilized after having their allotted child. Those who became pregnant a second time were often involuntarily forced into abortions, some of them late term in nature with the fetuses carelessly disposed of in trash heaps. Those who actually gave birth a second time generally had their children taken or killed, sometimes even by the very midwives who delivered them. Others found themselves desperately having to hide their offspring to avoid detection and seizure by officials. Mothers of twins faced similar treatment, having to settle for one child only, with the other murdered or confiscated by authorities. While some exceptions for second children were made for families in underpopulated rural areas, as was the case with Nanfu’s family, these instances were far from the rule. To call the practices barbaric was an understatement.

To complicate matters, most Chinese families wanted to have boys, and those who gave birth to girls often abandoned their daughters, surrendering them to orphanages or leaving them in baskets in public places like markets in hopes that someone would take them. This practice was so pervasive and well known that Nanfu’s brother, Zhihao, freely acknowledges this, admitting that, if he had been born a girl, he probably would have been left on someone’s doorstep.

In 1992, when China authorized the adoption of “orphans” by Western nations, the policy developed yet another shameful wrinkle – the emergence of a lucrative market in black market babies. Would-be parents in countries like the U.S., Canada and Spain thus found adoption opportunities available to them that previously didn’t exist. Unfortunately, given the criminal operations proliferating in China, those overseas parents couldn’t be guaranteed that they would be adopting bona fide orphans; many were girls abandoned by their birth families, twins snatched from their siblings or children simply grabbed off the streets whose backgrounds conveniently couldn’t be verified (if any attempt to do so was even made).

After years of burgeoning unanticipated problems, China discovered an even bigger issue: By limiting families to only one child over the course of two generations, the country has been left with an enormous population gap, a severely diminished working age citizenry that is bound to be incapable of financially supporting the nation’s elderly retirees. And this doesn’t even take into account a smaller consumer market or an insufficient number of laborers to fill all of the available jobs. Consequently, in 2015, the nation began to aggressively promote a two-child policy, one that officials hope will eventually undo the damage inflicted by a 35-year shortsighted social experiment.

While many contend that China’s one-child policy was instituted with the best of intentions, that it was an essential move to avoid an impending disaster, there are those who argue that its implementation wasn’t adequately thought through. Its draconian nature, critics say, went too far and ended up creating even more problems than it was meant to solve. While some might legitimately claim that hindsight is 20/20, there are those who would contend that the outcome was sought at any cost, without due consideration for the consequences. In a scenario like this, the program was so focused on results that no attention was given to the fallout – the pain and emotional suffering of those forcefully subjected to the policy, the criminal activity that arose from it, and the extensive, potentially irreparable damage to the nation’s population demographics. But stopping a juggernaut like that was nearly impossible, especially since it had been allowed to become so ingrained in the nation’s psyche. In fact, to counteract the effect, China has had to introduce its new two-child policy with almost equal vigor to its predecessor – and again employing a propaganda program not unlike what preceded it.

Some might wonder why China’s population didn’t rise up against this policy. But, when one considers the government’s violent response to the peaceful 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests, it’s easy to see how citizens would fall into line. When faced with severe sanctions for failure to comply with the policy, most of the nation’s population capitulated, often saying “What choice did I have?” Few would probably argue with their reactions under the circumstances.

Regrettably, this illustrates what can happen when we give away our power, when we allow our beliefs and actions to become distorted by the pressure placed upon us by others. Admittedly, it’s easy (and arguably unfair) for those of us not under the thumb of that kind of burden to say what we think the affected should do. But this scenario nevertheless shows how perilous the circumstances can become if we continue to allow ourselves to follow a path such as this.

The impact of this lingers even now after the policy’s abandonment. Many Chinese citizens still believe that the one-child policy was the right thing to do, including Nanfu’s mother, Zaodi, who was allowed an exemption to give birth to a second child. This is even more evident among government authorities who were responsible for enforcement, such as highly decorated family planner Shuqin Jiang, who insists that the policy was necessary, despite whatever “sacrifices” might have been made along the way. Of course, it is possible to make up for the mistakes; redemption is indeed possible. The two-child policy, for example, is an attempt to restore the population shortfall, even though the degree of damage that was done by its predecessor may take quite some time to rectify (and perhaps not even completely).

But what’s perhaps more meaningful are the individual efforts that have been launched to try to make up for past missteps. These initiatives in and of themselves may not have widespread impact, but they illustrate changes in the zeitgeist that could eventually take hold and help to reshape the prevailing perspective to prevent atrocities and shortsightedness from recurring. For instance, midwife Huaru Tuan, who delivered Nanfu, acknowledges the immorality of some of her actions in the past – the abortions, the forced sterilizations, the killings – and today has devoted herself to assisting couples with infertility issues. She admits that this won’t make up for what she calls her “sins,” but she hopes that, with each child she helps an otherwise-infertile couple to bring into the world, she helps to make up for the lives she took because she was simply following orders.

When a nation’s survival is on the line, as China claimed was the case in 1979, it may be easy to embrace desperate measures. And the one-child program may have staved off the tragedy it was meant to prevent. But is it wise to cavalierly adopt policies that could potentially raise all manner of other issues in the process? That’s what “One Child Nation” attempts to draw into sharp focus, offering us a powerful cautionary tale about what can happen when actions stem from inadequate thought.

Nanfu Wang’s insightful, sometimes-gruesome, often-appalling look at China’s failed policy details the horrendous emotional damage inflicted upon all those the policy touched, as well as the negative social implications that arose from it both at present and for the future. Yet the director skillfully restrains herself from taking an adversarial position with her interview subjects, letting their own words speak for themselves, for better or worse. This impressive offering earned the film the Grand Jury Prize in the Documentary Category at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

When it comes to our family, emotions are often charged, even under ideal circumstances. So when that part of our life is intruded upon by a cold, impersonal force that dictates terms to us about how we handle its affairs, we might well feel imposed upon, perhaps even violated. Such was the case for the citizens of China for 35 years, a situation whose enduring implications are felt even today.  We can only hope we heed the message of this film – and never make those same mistakes again.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Applauding a Life of Creativity

When we look upon the works of artists of any stripe, we often gape in awe, admiring their output and wondering how they came up with their creations. We may even somewhat enviously say to ourselves “I could do that.” But, if so, why aren’t we? Do we lack the talent or resources? Are we intimidated that we won’t measure up? Or are we just unmotivated? If we really want it happen, we can do it, but we need to get ourselves in gear. Perhaps all it takes is a little inspiration, the kind served up in the uplifting new documentary, “Love, Antosha” (web site, trailer).

Actor Anton Yelchin (1989-2016) was seemingly born to entertain. As the child of Soviet figure skaters Irina and Viktor Yelchin, the Leningrad-born Antosha came to the U.S. when he was six months old as  rising anti-Semitism began to threaten the family’s security and well-being. After their arrival in California as officially sanctioned refugees, a young Anton began to show a talent for acting. In home “movies” made by the youngster, Anton did more than just aimlessly goof off in front of the video camera. He told stories and proudly proclaimed credit for all aspects of his productions. He was clearly on his way.

Not long after he began taking acting lessons, Anton’s teacher told his mother that he was ready to go on auditions. Irina and Anton were surprised – this was something they were primarily doing for fun – but they decided to follow the coach’s advice. And it worked. Before long, Anton was picked for several commercials and then small television roles. His success with these projects, in turn, led to frequent movie work all throughout his teens and into his twenties.

Yelchin quickly developed quite a filmography. He became known for parts in pictures like “Hearts in Atlantis” (2001), “Alpha Dog” (2006), “Charlie Bartlett” (2007), “Fright Night” (2011), “Only Lovers Left Alive” (2013), “Experimenter” (2015), “Green Room” (2015) and “Thoroughbreds” (2017), as well as all three installments of the latest “Star Trek” franchise reboot (2009, 2013, 2016) portraying iconic Starship Enterprise navigator Ens. Pavel Chekov. He also landed spots on TV series like ER (2000), Curb Your Enthusiasm (2004) and NYPD Blue (2004), as well as the Steven Spielberg-produced mini-series Taken (2002). Through these roles, Yelchin worked with some of the biggest names in the business, including actors Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, John Cho, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, Jennifer Lawrence, Jodie Foster, Kristen Stewart, Martin Landau, Jon Voight, Willem Dafoe, Bryce Dallas Howard, Frank Langella, Anthony Hopkins, Larry David, Mel Gibson, Leonard Nimoy, Felicity Jones, Robert Downey Jr., David Duchovny, Jake Gyllenhaal and Peter Dinklage, as well as director J.J. Abrams. That’s impressive company for any performer, especially for someone as young as he was.

In addition to his acting work, Yelchin was an accomplished musician, becoming proficient on the guitar after only a handful of lessons. He went on to perform in clubs in greater Los Angeles, earning quite a following. On top of that, he became adept as a photographer, model, writer and voice-over performer, having contributed to a number of animation and video game projects in the “Smurfs” franchise. And, if that weren’t enough, he was an aspiring filmmaker, having become well versed in film history and a variety of cinematic styles. Yelchin was truly a Renaissance man at a tender age with a bright future ahead of him.

But Anton was not without his challenges. He suffered from cystic fibrosis, a condition that required him to practice a regular and rigorous regimen of breathing exercises to stay healthy. He also had an ability to so immerse himself in his roles (particularly those of a dark nature) that he sometimes seriously worried those who cared about him. However, that ability to go within and to get in touch with himself is what made him so effective as a performer, one who completed nearly 70 film and TV roles in his brief career.

Even with such a full plate, Yelchin still managed to find time for those near and dear to him. He adored his parents, especially his mother. He was close to many of his co-stars, especially Kristen Stewart and Jennifer Lawrence, as well as Martin Landau, who saw Anton more as a contemporary than someone decades his junior. But, perhaps more importantly, he stayed life-long friends with many of his childhood acquaintances, preserving the closeness of those relationships, something that often falls by the wayside among Hollywood types when they become famous.

Considering everything Yelchin had to offer professionally and personally, he was deeply loved by those who knew and worked with him. Which is why his death at age 27 in a freak accident was so tragic. When his parked vehicle began rolling backward in his home’s steep driveway, he became pinned between it and a security fence, cutting off his breath, a fatal condition for someone with cystic fibrosis. One of the brightest lights in Hollywood went dark in an instant, cutting short one of the most promising careers in the business.

Those who struggle to express themselves creatively may think it unfair that one individual can be so artistically gifted. But Yelchin had a burning desire to do it all, so much so that many of his colleagues observed that it seemed like he never stopped working (pursuits that Anton himself probably didn’t even see as work). His creativity seemed to know no bounds. In addition to everything he accomplished, he had many ideas in mind for projects to come at the time of his death. Most notably, Yelchin was preparing to direct his first film, “Travis,” an homage to the Martin Scorsese classic “Taxi Driver” (1976), one of Anton’s favorite movies. Many elements of the production had already come together, including the financing, an increasingly challenging feat in today’s filmmaking landscape. He was eminently capable of envisioning his dreams, believing in their validity and seeing them come into being. It would have been interesting to see what he would have come up with.

In fulfilling these attainments, Yelchin proceeded fearlessly, unencumbered by whatever perceived limitations might stand in his way. To have accomplished as much as he did in such a short time is truly astounding, something that never would have happened if he had allowed himself to be deterred by obstacles. This is particularly true where his health was concerned. He was not about to let his condition bog him down, even if meant having to undertake an arduous treatment program in order to remain physically – and thus artistically – viable.

Based on his output, to say that Anton was a visionary is truly an understatement. His creativity seemed to come to him naturally, and this quality became reflected in his portrayals, even as a youngster. For example, in his first professional role on the TV series ER as a child grieving the loss of a parent, he was called upon to cry on camera, something that’s difficult enough even for seasoned veterans. Not for Yelchin, though; he came through as though he had been doing this sort of thing for years, a natural on the set in every sense of the word.

Given Anton’s life experience and the challenges he faced on various fronts – escaping the growing threat to his safety in his homeland, his chronic health condition and perhaps an unsettling awareness of his future – it’s obvious that he deeply and sincerely appreciated the gift of life. He made this apparent in many ways, such as the endearing notes, messages and greetings he sent to his mother, effusively expressing his gratitude for the life that she gave him. And, because of this, it’s clear he felt it important to make the most of what time we have in this existence, to live our lives and to creatively express ourselves to the fullest extent possible. He set a high standard, but he gave us all an impressive and inspiring measure to emulate.

A career cut short by tragedy may not seem like it would provide much material for a filmmaker to work with, but, when it comes to the prolific output of Anton Yelchin, there’s plenty to draw upon – and to look back upon in awe and melancholy. Director Garret Price’s new documentary shows just how much living Yelchin packed into his 27 years, with so much more left in the tank that he never got a chance to express. This bittersweet tribute to a multitalented (and underappreciated) artist features a wealth of clips from Yelchin’s many film and TV appearances and his many musical performances, along with a star-studded array of interviews from those who worked with him, those who knew him as a friend and the parents who adored him. Despite some occasionally sluggish pacing in the first 30 minutes, the film nevertheless manages to evoke a curious mixture of wonder, sadness and fondness in recognition of someone taken too soon. “Love, Antosha” is currently playing in limited release in theaters specializing in independent and documentary films.

When we reach the ends of our lives, one would hope that we’d approach the finish line without harboring any regrets, especially when it comes to things we wish we had done. Indeed, there are perhaps no more tragic lines than those that begin with the words “If only I had….” Even though Anton Yelchin’s work may not have been complete at the time of his death, he certainly packed more into his short lifetime than many of us might do over one several times its length. He showed us the joy and fulfillment that comes from aggressively engaging in such pursuits – so that we don’t end up lamenting what we left unfinished.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Back on the Radio!

Join host Frankie Picasso and me for the next Movies with Meaning segment on The Good Media Network’s next Frankiesense & More broadcast, next Tuesday, September 24, at 1 pm Eastern. For the video version, tune in on Facebook Live by clicking here. And, for the audio only podcast edition, check out The Good Media Network’s home page by clicking here.

Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.