As entertaining as the The Book of Bobba Fett sometimes is, it ultimately has too many ideas for its own good.
*Full spoilers for Book of Bobba Fett and the rest of Star Wars Canon*
Book of Bobba Fett is a tough show to generalise about. My reaction constantly cycled from “this is really cool” to “this is really dumb”. Whilst the story veered so wildly that the only way I can really discuss it is by breaking it down into into chunks.
The first two episodes pick up from the stinger at the end of the Mandalorian season 2 in which Bobba Fett (Temuera Morrison) and Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen) seize control of the Jabba the Hut’s criminal empire. We see them managing that empire, whilst fending off challenges from those who would have liked to have seen the status quo on Tatooine remain. This is intercut with flashbacks to the aftermath of Bobba’s escape from the Sarlac Pit, in which he falls in with Tusken Raiders. The ‘present day’ (as it were) sections meandered without obvious stakes or directions. The flashbacks were far more successful. As the Native American writer Jordan Maison argues in an excellent essay for Gizmodo, these episodes provide “the single most genuine look at Indigenous cultures in a galaxy far, far away to date”. They also give Morrison a chance to re-establish Bobba as a resourceful, stoic figure. The Tusken’s lack of English also makes room for some visual story telling.*
However, Bobba’s time with the Tuskens is wrapped up at the very start of episode 3 with their untimely fridging. For a couple of episodes that leaves us to track how events develop on Tatooine in the ‘present’. We might expect this to allow for the pace to build. Instead, we get several strange digressions. Most jarringly the introduction of the “Mods”, a group of Quadrophenia inspired yoofs driving bright coloured speeder bikes around Mos Espa. A pair of Hutts turn up and then leave again. Finally, we reach the gasp subduing revelation that the big bads of the series are the fish-themed Pyke crime syndicate from Solo.
Then the Book of Bobba Fett takes a surprising shift away from being about Bobba Fett. Din Djarin (Pedro Pascal) is reintroduced for what is essentially s.3 ep.1 of the Mandalorian. And for one glorious episode it all just works. Even though the events it shows are almost mundane, we see how heartbreakingly adrift Din is without Grogu. Slotting an episode of Mandalorian into the Book of Bobba Fett like this worked. However, fitting in a second one becomes awkward. In the penultimate episode, we meet Grogu, Ahsoka and Deepfake Luke Skywalker again, whilst Bobba is upgraded from absent to a non-speaking role in his own show. The consequences and weight of the Mandalorian s.2 finale is essentially wiped out by Grogu choosing his attachment to Din over being a jedi. The same scenes also demonstrate that these CGI replicas of characters work fine for individual moments, but are offputting and unconvincing but are no substitute for a human actor in scenes where they have to convey nuance and generate empathy.
Then we are on to the all action denouement in which Bobba and his allies fight the Pykes for control of Tattoine. This features a rancour saving the day, Grogu and Din being reunited, the Mods and the people of Mos Pelgo reaching an understanding, and the ruthless bounty hunter Cad Bane getting his comeuppance.
None of this is bad but it is messy. The show felt lackadaisical in the moment and then rushed in hindsight. Characters and plot threads are built-up, dropped and sometimes picked up again seemingly at random. We jump from Book of Bobba Fett into the Mandalorian with just a bar of music to warn us. An arc which should have taken Grogu a whole season is done in part of an episode. We are given enough time with the Mods for them to be distracting but not long enough to become acclimatised or attached to them. Despite being the co-lead of the show, Fennec is not given an arc or even a coherent motivation.
Nowhere is this confusion more obvious than in how the series deals with its central character. Morrison ably depicts Bobba as a man of warmth, compassion and honour. In short, very much not the guy Vader singles out for a warning against disintegrations! The Tuskens are presented as the agents of this redemption. His time with them supposedly teaches him that “everyone needs a tribe”. However, the script doesn’t sell this transformation. We don’t see him trying to be the ruthless old Bobba and this backfiring amongst the Tuskens, nor do we see scenes where he has to wrestle with his new intentions and his old instincts. His face turn just sort of happens through rapid onset osmosis.**
It is also a shame given how central the Tuskens are set up to be that they essentially disappear from the start of episode 3 onwards. Their absence leaves a thematic and emotional void at the centre of the show, which it only fills by cannabilsing the Din/Grogu relationship from the Mandalorian.
The lack of focus is not fatal. Too many ideas are probably preferable to too few. However, the Book of Bobba Fett left me with the uncomfortable sense that solid storytelling had been replaced with an onslaught of accumulated cool things. This approach is not sustainable basis for an ongoing franchise. To keep going Star Wars needs to open up dramatic possibilities as quickly as it explores them. Regrettably, the Book of Bobba Fett did the opposite.
* It’s perhaps to be expected that Star Wars is at its best when its storytelling is primarily visual. It’s relationship to dialogue has often been strained. Think “somehow Palpatine returned” and “I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere”!
** Just a thought but maybe they should have left Bobba as a villain. He could serve as an antagonist and dark mirror to Din Djarin.
It’s been a terrible almost two years but at least we have had some good films right? I’ve been lucky in looking at this list, there’ve been no films I’ve actively disliked or regretted seeing.
I’m counting a film as eligible for this list if it came to cinemas and/or streaming services in the UK after the announcement of the first lockdown on March 23rd 2020.
Mild spoilers ahead!
This isn’t a bad film but nonetheless I didn’t take to it. It feels self-indulgent, the stakes are unclear, and it feels like most of the runtime is the lead mansplaining things. There are also some pretty big issues with historical accuracy. All the indications is that Mankiewicz did not fall out with Hearst over politics but that Hearst fell out with Mankiewicz over his drinking, and that Welles did not try to usurp credit for the film. While it makes sense for filmmakers to have a fair amount of creative licence when dealing with real events, if the twin ideas powering the story are both wrong, then why not just tell a fictional narrative?
That said the minute or less where Hearst (played by Charles Dance) quietly and without drama totally and completely casts Mankiewicz out is chilling and almost justifies the film in and of itself.
41. In the Heights
This was probably a victim of my expectations because I came to this having recently discovered Hamilton. Still the songs are mostly forgettable and the different plot threads don’t really tie-up in a satisfying way.
40. An American Pickle
Does have some good jokes and touching moments. However, it’s mostly for naught because this film raises big questions about family, faith, tradition and the immigrant experience, without having anything to say about them.
39. The Suicide Squad
There is the core of a much better film buried inside this rather childish one.
38. The Green Knight
Craft over substance. Though admittedly the craft is impressive.
37. Happiest Season
This feels like it would be a better film if it didn’t feel constrained by the need to stick to the conventions of a feelgood Christmas film, which ultimately pushes it towards a rather facile conclusion. That said it’s not really for me and Dan Levy steals scenes with panache.
36. Free Guy
If you’d described this film to me, I’d probably have expected to hate it. So, it’s something of a minor triumph that the reviews and word of mouth were good enough to get me to the cinema to see it, albeit only using my Odeon unlimited card. It still wasn’t really for me but it had its moments.
Also, worth noting that CGI heavy action sequences work an awful lot better if they’re supposed to be set in a computer game!
My takeaway from this film was that I’ll forgive Marvel almost anything because their films are so entertaining. This one wasn’t and that made the flaws really stick out. I especially missed the usual Wedonesque quippy dialogue, the absence of which was conspicuous enough that I didn’t feel like I was watching something from the MCU. I did enjoy spending time with some of the Eternals, unfortunately just not the characters the film ultimately spent the most time with. Ultimately, I think the problem is that whilst Chloe Zhao has a really strong and interesting directorial voice, it doesn’t really gel with the MCU.
34. No Time to Die
I found this rather antiseptic. It didn’t help that repeated delays for Covid meant that the marketing had to keep being ramped up and down, meaning that virtually all the big action moments were in the many trailers. That said I felt it would have been really lifted if there had been an action set piece that really hit home.
A more fundamental problem, is that having established a world populated by 3D characters whose motivations matter, it gives us a villain whose personal stake in the story feels jarringly detached from his generic mwa ha ha ha evil plot.
33. The Matrix: Resurrection
Did I like this film? It’s hard to say! Did I understand what the hell was happening? No. Does it deliver impressive or even legible action sequences? No. Does it have a cracking cast? It sure does! Does it make good use of them? Alas not.
Despite all the ways it fails as a conventional film, there is something compelling weird about it. Plus, the long meta section at the start where Lana Wachowski uses a Warner Bros film to have a go at Warner Bros handling of the Matrix franchise is entertaining.
32. Don’t Look Up
For my money, this is the best of Adam McKay’s informal trilogy of satirical films. Whereas the Big Short and Vice would have been better as one of John Oliver’s presentations on Last Week Tonight, this fictional story feels a better fit for a feature film. Pus the central conceit of imagining if the world responded to the plot of Armageddon the way we have to climate change is pretty biting. That said I imagine the decision to intermix that with a broader satire on populist conservatism means it will alienate anyone it might of convinced and will be left preaching to the converted.
31. The Vast of Night
A neat little sci-fi story about UFO sightings in small town America in the 50s. Does seem like someone took the script for a radio play and filmed it instead. The visuals do feel pretty superfluous and it would probably feel more atmospheric without them. Maybe consider putting a towel over your TV screen!
30. Those Who Wish Me Dead
Taylor Sheridan has what I think of as the ‘Aaron Sorkin problem’. He’s a good enough screenwriter that he gets to direct his own scripts despite being a rather workmanlike director. This thriller set amidst forest fires is still diverting though.
29. Gunpowder Milkshake
At this point, John Wick knockoffs are basically a genre in and of themselves. And this won’t be the last example on this list. This one is slightly elevated by its impressive cast. That said apart from one refreshingly strange sequence where the central character has to fight-off a group of assassins despite having had her arms paralysed, Gunpowder Milkshake isn’t really bringing anything new.
28. The Mauritanian
Speaking of Aaron Sorkin, another Guantanamo set legal drama rather overshadows this film. However, if you can look past this, this rather quieter story based on real-life is worth your time.
27. Black Widow
It’s cliché to say that MCU films tend to start strong and then sag a bit when they get to their CGI third act. Black Widow takes this disparity to a whole new level. The opening sections are essentially an extended Bourne pastiche mostly shot on location and, best of all, introduces Florence Pugh as a new Black Widow. Then we get a very strange set of green screen nonsense where nothing seemsreal, least of all Ray Winstone’s Russian accent. I also found the thematic arc sat rather poorly with what we’ve seen of Natasha’s story up till now. Still a good film but not vintage Marvel either.
26. Raya and the Last Dragon
The orphaned heroine of this film must find five pieces of a shattered gem, so dragons can be resurrected in order to defeat monsters known as Druun and the five tribes of Kumandra can be reunited into a sort of child-friendly Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. As that short synopsis probably indicates Disney wasn’t exactly breaking new ground in terms of plotting, themes or characters. That said it is very competently done and it’s nice to see Disney drawing on South-East Asian mythology and aesthetics for a change.
25. The Courier
I wrote a fuller review of this here but I think it’s a pretty effective meditation on things left unsaid.
I’ve slightly cooled on this since I first saw it on account of the rather convoluted plot. That said watching its set pieces on imax was quite a reintroduction to cinemas after they’d been closed for months.
Unquestionably, the most visually spectacular film of the year. Delivers a completely convincing rendering of strange alien worlds. Will have you swearing that its footage of giant sand worms was shot by the BBC Natural History unit and not something made by a visual fx team. The rest of the film almost keeps up but doesn’t quite. The tone can sometimes feel a bit chilly and some fairly key aspects of how this sci-fi universe works are left unexplained. Those quibbles aside it’s still a phenomenal achievement by Denis Villeneuve.
22. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
There’s a rather jarring mismatch between how this film is directed and shot, which might charitably be described as “stagey” and less charitably as “cheaply” and “badly”, and the quality of the performances it showcases, especially from Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. Their depictions of two people who stubbornly refuse to compromise with the world to very different effects are as awe inspiring as any of the visual effects in Dune.
A worthy Best Picture winner, mixing incredibly naturalistic and understated performances, many of them from non-professional actors, with spectacular vistas of the American countryside. That said I would personally have preferred something which plotwise had more of a beginning, a middle and an end.
19. Spider-man: No Way Home
This live action remake of 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (I jest, mostly) is a continuity challenge even for Marvel as it involves keeping things straight not only within their own cinematic universe but several others as well. The reward is that they can tell a story which is at once bigger than anything they’ve done before without being any less personal. I have gripes, including the perennial complaint about it degenerating into a messy CGI heavy third act, but they mostly land it despite everything that could have gone wrong.
It’s to its credit that even though I saw a lot of spoilers whilst waiting for my booster to kick-in, this still had plenty of surprises for me. Likewise, it managed to pick-up plotlines from films I didn’t really care about and get me to emotionally invest in them. Finally, having a film where the aim is to save not defeat the villains is quietly subversive.
18. Palm Springs
Covid lockdowns where every day just seemed to repeat itself were arguably the ideal time to revisit the Groundhog Day-esque time loop sub-genre. This one manages to be sweet but not cloying whilst managing a sort of mellow humour thanks in no small part to its very likeable leads.
Pixar does what it does. Long may it continue!
16. Les Misérables
Not based on the Victor Hugo novel but set in the same part of Paris a hundred and fifty years later, where now everything is great. JK! This is pretty much like an antidote to Emily in Paris as far as depictions of the French capital go. It’s a pretty harrowing account of police corruption and brutality inspired by events leading up to an actual riot. Thebanlieue where it takes place is depicted in grim terms, neglected by anyone outside its boundaries, and exploited by corrupt local politicians who are vying for influence with organised criminals and the thuggish police. A local Islamic organisation which may or may not be the Muslim Brotherhood is shown as the only half-way benign force at play.
In case, you’ve not already guessed, this is definitely not a film to watch if you’re looking for something light or cheery.
15. Last Night in Soho
Anything Edgar Wright does is worthy of attention and this high-concept horror is probably his best film since Hot Fuzz. This story of young woman facing either madness or glimpsing the past is a wonderfully visceral exploration of the dark side of nostalgia. Also, notable for featuring the final performance from the late, great Dianna Rigg.
14. Tick, Tick… Boom
This adaptation of Rent author Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical musical could be a tough sell for anyone not as immersed in Broadway history as it is. Yet even if you miss the easter eggs as consistently as I did, there’s something magical about the way it uses songs to be contemplative and sombre without ever really slowing down. It’s also a testament to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s direction that even though this is based on a stage show, it not only doesn’t seem like a play on screen but is actually hard to imagine without the options film provides.
In both these action-comedies, middle-aged dads respond to their families being victims of crime by starting a war with a crime gang, which rapidly spirals out of control.
Nobody is set in the US and from the John Wick team, deploying a similar action style but with Bob Odenkirk at its centre. He effectively evokes both a past his prime and aimless suburban guy and a remorselessly effective special ops assassin within the same character. Lots of details like his stubble or wiry frame can in different contexts a guy whose gently fading away or one whose tougher than he appears.
Whilst Nobody feels very precisely made and dependably entertaining, Riders of Justice is – and I don’t mean this as a criticism even though it sounds like one – all over the place. Mads Mikkelsen’s central character is not immediately relatable. His cold, robotic, pragmatic demeanour is exactly not what his daughter needs following the death of her mother, but makes complete sense when you see him in action scenes. The strange group of IT nerds he finds himself allied to are dysfunctional in a way which shifts from lovable to annoying very quickly. The humour is very dark and very strange. What makes the film such a delight though is seeing all these very different elements come together into something delightful.
10. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
The MCU has been the largest fish in the movie pond for a decade now. That had naturally leads to occasional speculation about when it might slip from its perch. 2021 could perhaps look like evidence of that beginning. Eternals and Black Widow were fairly underwhelming. No Way Home is a huge hit but is basically backward looking. Yet Shang-Chi is pretty compelling evidence in the opposite direction.
Not only did it bring a new hero to the screen for the very first time and used a relatively contained story to take us into a fresh corners of the fictional universe, it also showed signs that Marvel is continuing to refine its formula and address its weaknesses. Tony Leung’s electric performance as the Mandarin is one of the best examples of the work they’ve done creating villains with depth. Plus, it has the best choreographed and most grounded action scences we’ve yet seen from Marvel and it’s not until the very end that they let themselves go and lapse into OTT CGI.
Undoubtedly the most fun film on this list.
9. The Man Standing Next
This spy thriller stars Lee Byung-hun, last seen (or more accurately unseen) in Squid Game, playing one of the most controversial figures in Korean history. In 1979, Korea’s spy chief, Kim Jae-gyu, shot and killed his boss and mentor, General Park Chung-hee, the country’s military dictator. The Man Standing Next produces an incredibly tense and claustrophobic interpretation of what led Kim to his desperate decision.
An excellent film even if the English subtitling leaves something to be desired.
8. Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised)
The Harlem Cultural Festival took place the same summer as Woodstock. Yet despite a line-up including Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight, it was basically forgotten about for decades for reasons that seem to have had everything to do with race. Summer of Soul uses tapes literally found in a draw to not only recreate these remarkable concerts but evoke the times that produced them.
I suspect that even if you didn’t know that this story about a Korean-American family trying to make farming work is grounded in writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s own experiences, you’d probably sense that in how real it all feels. He manages to convey the toughness of this situation without lapsing into melodrama or creating an obvious villain.
5. One Night in Miami and 6. Judas and the Black Messiah
The obvious reason to bracket these two films together is that they deal with similar themes and take place in roughly the same period of history. However, I think the most noteworthy thing about them is being able to convincingly depict charismatic historical figures.
To illustrate why this is both difficult and important, let’s return to Mank, which I promise I do not have it in for. For most of its runtime Welles is treated like the Prince in Hamlet. It’s not until the very end he appears. At which point he appears played by Tom Burke. It’s not a bad performance, you believe and understand his motivation. But it doesn’t give you any sense of what about him beguiled not only audiences but also studio execs to the point that they gave a guy in his early twenties who’d never made a film before, free reign to make Citizen Kane.
By contrast, in Judas and the Black Messiah, you absolutely see why Fred Hampton was so inspiring for his followers (and so terrifying for the FBI). In her directorial debut, Regina King, manages to do the same thing four times over, convincing you that you’re in the presence of Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and NBA player Jim Brown.
4. Another Round
This features, against some very stiff competition, probably the best performance of Mads Mickelson’s career. This story about a group of teachers trying to maintain a minimum blood alcohol level could easily become an inditement of drinking but Another Round captures its appeal as well and ultimately leads to a very ambiguous ending.
2. A Quiet Place Part II and 3. the Sound of Metal
Even though they are incredibly different films, they both use sound (and silence) in a similar way not only to build tension but also to how the world appears to someone who can’t hear easily.
1. Memories of Murder
[Technically this was released in the UK back in 2004 but it does seem like thanks to Parasite’s Oscar win its 2020 release was actually the larger of the two.]
The implicit set-up of most detective stories is that you will see a brilliant investigator track an equally capable criminal. Memories of Murder gives us a more frightening proposition: what if there is a serial killer on the loose and the police supposed to be protecting you from them are a bunch of useless knuckleheads, hired not for their ability to apprehend criminals but because they are game for beating up the student protestors challenging the military regime.If you’ve seen Parasite you won’t be surprised that Bong Joon-ho ably balances horror, intrigue and farce.
The Courier is a very talky film, I suspect you could mostly follow it with sound turned off.
This commitment to visual storytelling is a product of its storytelling and setting. The film takes place in the early sixties and follows Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), a middle-class, middle aged, British machine parts salesman. A combination of his regular business trips to the Eastern Bloc and generally unassuming nature draw the attention of the CIA and MI6. They have a prized source: high-ranking Soviet military intelligence office, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), who is offering them invaluable information on Khrushchev’s nuclear strategy. To protect Penkovsky, rather than using one of their own officers to contact him, the British and American spies turn to Wynne, a self-described “amateur” at espionage and a reluctant one at that. He uses his work trips to Moscow to inconspicuously meet with Penkovsky and bring back troves of secret files.
The social media ads for the Courier have branded it “a slice of James Bond action”. This is borderline false advertising. It lacks any fighting or shooting, is mostly sombre and is decidedly unglamorous. It may be from the same era as Connery’s early outing. However, it is set in the spartan surrounds of Soviet Moscow and a London of beige business suits, white bread sandwiches, gold courses and Powell-Pressburger pronunciations. The focus on human drama and the psychic toll of spying more obviously recalls Le Carré (RIP, legend). However, to my surprise the contemporary writer it most reminded me of was Terence Rattigan: the supreme playwright of stifled emotions and uncomfortable silences.
Part of why this comparison occurred is likely that chunks of the Courier are basically family dramas. Yet the comparison still holds for the scenes set in the Soviet capital. Indeed, especially in them. The emphasis on things unsaid only heightens, when the pressure to avoid speaking openly not only comes from social convention or character flaws, but also the KGB’s listening devices and lip readers. Hence, even though there is plenty of exposition, the more salient a story point is the more likely it is to be shown visually.
We literally see that Penkovsky is deeply enmeshed within the Soviet system. The film opens with him fulsomely applauding a speech celebrating the USSR’s strides in missile technology. We see that amidst the sea of faces in the audience for the Bolshoi, it is Penkovsky’s that Khruschev recognises and with whom he exchanges a nod of recognition. Yet when we see him alone, we witness small signs of his contempt for the system he serves surfacing. Crucially, we can also see how repressive that system is in the incredible caution he shows about before allowing even these subtle lowerings of his mask as a loyal apparatchik. Whilst, this is all eventually conveyed in dialogue between Penkovsky and Wytte, these conversations do not take place until about halfway through the film. By this point, it has already been communicated to the audience much earlier by things we see on screen.
This is a smart approach, which makes use of the excellent cast, that includes not only Cumberbatch and Ninidze, but also Jesse Buckley, Rachel Brosnahan, Zeljko Ivanek, and Anton Lester. It takes skilled actors to strike the balance between sufficiently minimising the expressions and movements which reveal what their character really thinks and feels to the point they are hidden from the other characters in the scene, yet are still distinctive enough to be what their characters reveal, such that visible to an audience seeing their expressions and movements and gestures in close-up on a 250 m2 screen.
[As an aside on the topic of casting: it was refreshing to see the Soviet characters played by actors from the former Soviet states speaking to each other in Russian, rather than by Anglophone actors delivering English dialogue, whilst affecting somewhat Slavic accents.]
[Yes, I have seen Black Widow. Why do you ask?]
However, for all that I think emphasising visual storytelling was the right decision for the Courier, its execution definitely could have been better. The camera work can lack subtlety and originality. For example, in a scene where Wytte is a passenger in the back of a car being driven from Moscow Airport, his sense of being under oppressive surveillance depicted by him seeing his driver studying him in the rear-view mirror.
There are other weaknesses too. The tension tends to dissipate whenever the plot returns to this side of the Iron Curtain. Hence, it probably would have been a better film if it had centred Penkovsky rather than Wytte. It is also not done any favours by the obvious comparisons in terms of setting and subject to films Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the Lives of Others. This company makes the Courier’s otherwise respectable thematic depth, feel underwhelming.
That said it is still an engaging film about an important piece of history performed by a talented cast. The emphasis on letting us see events play out gives it a cinematic edge. Indeed, I would suggest that if you have a story like this one that could be told in a podcast or a book, then making full use of the visuals is a major – perhaps the major – reason to still put it on the big screen.
In Tenet, celebrated director Christopher Nolan adapts for the big screen a previously unknown novel co-authored by Ian Fleming and Rod Serling. Or at least you could be forgiven for thinking that.
After an unnamed American special services agent (John David Washington) is almost killed during a mission by a bullet that appears to fire out of a wall and back into a gun, he is pulled into a conspiracy centring on “inversion” – the ability to make objects travel against the flow of time.
This set-up allows Nolan to de facto realise his aspiration to direct a Bond film. This is a tale of espionage that shoots between glamorous locations on different sides of the world, whilst going long on smart suits, gadgets and, most of all, action.
That said whilst it is obviously a pastiche, it is never just one. We may be watching tropes which have been deployed many times before, but by hurling high-concept sci-fi at them, Nolan shatters any sense of familiarity they might engender. You may be able to trace the influences on the fight sequences, gun battles and the truly astonishing car chase through Tallinn. However, none of those feature participants moving opposite ways through time. That is something genuinely novel and, given Nolan’s technical mastery, spectacular.
Indeed, they may be the best action set pieces he’s ever produced including “the bat bike” sequence in the Dark Knight.
I am not sure if it has the thematic richness of some of his other work, precisely because it often takes multiple viewings – and hearing about other’s interpretations of the film – for that richness to reveal itself. However, even if it does not, I will hardly be disappointed. I think we all deserve a bracing blast of premium popcorn cinema about now.
Boseman’s version of T’Challa is so powerful that it will endure undiminished, even despite his death
A colleague responded to the news that the actor Chadwick Boseman had died of cancer aged just 43 by posting to Instagram of her son – who’s maybe eight or nine and white British – in costume as the Black Panther giving a crossed-armed Wakandan salute. This is one of many reminders, that the role of T’Challa had not merely made Boseman famous: it had turned him into an icon.
His face, his character and his costume are recognisable the world over. Of the five highest ever grossing films at the US box-office, 3 featured Boseman playing T’Challa. There was a time when Black Panther was the only film ever to have a cinematic release in Saudi Arabia. One of its central action set piece was filmed in Korea whilst I was still living there. In the run up to the film’s release it seemed like the country was plastered with the image of Boseman in the Black Panther armour astride Busan’s Diamond Bridge.
That an African-American actor playing an African character, drawing inspiration from comics authored by the most influential African-American intellectual in decades, amongst an overwhelmingly black cast, brought to the screen by a mostly black crew became such a global phenomenon shattered Hollywood’s assumption that whiteness was uniquely universal. Therefore, T’Challa will have had a special resonance for black audiences seeing someone like them not only take centre stage, but do so in our culture’s mightiest epic. However, that’s not my experience to explain but I want to note that it’s there and that it matters – a lot.
That said, as I’ve already discussed this portrayal had abundant appeal to non-black audiences as well. I hesitate to speak for all white people, but I doubt many of us spent much of Black Panther wishing Martin Freeman’s Agent Ross and his dodgy American accent had been given more screentime. The film – and Boseman starring role in it – demonstrated that blackness and Africaness were only a barrier to mainstream appeal if studios made it one.
Boseman was crucial to making this possible. Marvel’s original plan had been to have the Wakandans speak with British or American accents, until Boseman – perceiving that this would rather uncut the idea of the kingdom as a part of Africa that had been allowed to develop free of the stain of colonialism – told the studio this was a “dealbreaker” for him.
Indeed, Boseman played an unusually decisive role in shaping his character. T’Challa made his first appearance in the MCU in Captain America: Civil War which was shot before Ryan Coogler was chosen to write and direct Black Panther. The Russo brothers, Civil War’s directors, were reluctant to impose their vision on the central character of someone else’s film. Therefore, they asked Boseman to read some of the comics and then relied on his interpretation of T’Challa. It is, therefore, to Boseman’s considerable credit that T’Challa not only immediately felt like a fully rounded character but that his evolution across three further films felt perfectly natural.
That evolution is interesting and unusual because it is as much ethical as it is emotional. The young king is reliably noble, but his sense of this demands of him shifts. In Civil War, he goes from seeking retribution for the murder of his father, to seeing a parallel between this motivation and that which has propelled the film’s villain to commit his atrocities. In his stand-alone film, he is initially guided by the inherited assumption that as king his role is to ensure Wakanda stays isolated from the violent world around it. This is very directly challenged by the return to the kingdom of a cousin who the previous king and Black Panther – T’Challa’s father – had abandoned in the US as child to experience the cruelty and injustice that American society visits on people with dark skin. T’Challa rejects his cousin’s demand that Wakanda conquer the rest of the world, but accepts his charge that its isolationism has been an act of moral cowardice. He responds by opening the kingdom up to the world and sharing the fruits of its technological and social progress.
A different actor might have depicted T’Challa with an effortless suave or swagger. Boseman was more subtle than this. He always injects a note of unease into T’Challa’s interactions. The earnest young king feels the weight of his kingdom upon him and is reluctant to relax lest he let it slip.
Paradoxically, this makes it easier for us in the audience to imagine him commanding the authority necessary to see off a dangerous demagogue, rallying people for an apparently hopeless fight against an alien invasion and undoing millennia of aloofness from the outside world. There’s a whole sub-genre of management advice devoted to the benefits of leaders showing vulnerability. And Boseman’s T’Challa is a perfect fictional representation of this. He is nervous because he wants to do the right thing, hence it functions as a visible sign of his moral convictions. Similarly, his guardedness is a sign of his honesty. We instinctively know that character like Robert Downey Junior’s Tony Stark deply glib, frenetic, oversharing as a defence mechanism, grabbing attention away from unacknowledged feelings and unsavoury motives. Boseman thereby uses dignified reserve to convey trustworthiness.
This not only adds credibility to his character, but makes their dramatic arc work. If a character’s evolution is primarily about shifting ethical values, then for the audience to feel this has dramatic weight, they must sense that morals are crucial to the character.
Hence when having been almost killed by his cousin, T’Challa finds himself on the ancestral plane and confronts his father about abandoning a child, we are not only getting the personal drama of a man whose spent his life fearing that he will fail his father, realising that in fact his father has failed him, but Boseman shows us the drama of a statesman making the historic decision to embrace a shift of moral paradigms.
I submit that it is no coincidence, that the two films in which Boseman’s T’Challa plays the largest role – Civil War and Black Panther – are also the smartest and most thematically rich entries in the MCU canon.
The subtlety, humanity and gravitas of his acting, combined with an inherently interesting character to create a magnificent performance. His death will inevitably mean it is viewed with a twinge of sadness. However, none of its power will be diminished. If anything it is likely that Boseman will now become even more emblematic: the James Dean of generation that feels some of the weight of responsibility that T’Challa does and rebels with cause.
Thanks to Boseman, T’Challa will be a name to conjure with across the globe and down the generations.
In 1789, Alexander Hamilton became America’s first Treasury Secretary. That presented him with the immense challenge of enabling the new republic to repay the immense debts it had wracked up winning the Revolutionary War against Britain. These came to the enormous sum of $75 million. In order to avoid a default, he not only raised a huge range of taxes, but introduced policy innovations which some credit as laying the foundation for America’s Federal Government, banking system and industrial economy.
In 2020, Disney struck a deal with Lin-Manuel Miranda for the right to put a live filming of his hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton on their streaming service. It cost the House of Mouse the enormous sum of $75 million.
This equivalence between an entire nation’s debt and the royalties for a play speaks to two things: 1) inflation and 2) what an enormous success Hamilton has been. Even though its premise sounds like the basis for a Producers style fraud, it won 11 Tony Awards, endorsements from world leaders and runs in Broadway and the West End which only coronavirus could break. However, this hype had perversely made it rather inaccessible. Demand for tickets to the stage shows was so great that you had to book them months in advance at a price one could only afford via financial engineering worthy of the show’s protagonist. However, its arrival on Disney + brings it to an even larger audience.
As part of that latter group, I am immensely grateful. Yes, there is certainly a loss of intensity and immediacy relative to seeing the show live, but even on the TV screen it is still entrancing. I’m not musically literate enough to tell you how Miranda manages to deliver banger after banger, but he absolutely does.
However, if I may engage in some ill-informed speculation, Miranda’s counter-intuitive decision to tell Alexander Hamilton’s story using hip-hop, an art form which didn’t emerge until almost two centuries after his death, gives Miranda’s work a range of advantages.
Some of these are practical. To see one of them, compare Hamilton with Les Miserables. Both plays regularly require characters to deliver exposition about history and politics through lyrics. However, in Les Mis this sounds cringeworthily out of place. Hamilton can almost entirely avoid this distracting dissonance between form and function because the gap between rap and regular speech is narrower than that between speech and song.
Rap is also an apt vehicle for depicting the more combative side of politics. Public debate in eighteenth century America was at once more refined and nastier than it is today. Yes, it was an era when politicians were often classically trained rhetoricians who communicated through erudite essays and pamphlets. However, as the historian Alan Taylor observes: ‘We often hear pundits declare that our politics have never been more polarized. In fact, politics were even more divided and violent in the era of the founders, when one minister worried that the “parties hate each other as much as the French and English hate” each other in time of war. In one town, when a Republican neighbor died, a Federalist declared, “Another God Damned Democrat has gone to Hell, and I wish they were all there.”’ Taylor tops this point off by noting contemporary reports that three-quarters of duels arose from political disputes.
Rap is of course also rich in poetic pugilism. A denunciation and a diss track, or a debate and a rap battle, are fundamentally pretty similar. In fact, two of Hamilton’s best tracks depict meetings of George Washington’s Cabinet as rap battles between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.
However, the greatest advantage of having eighteenth century characters rapping and singing hip-hop is that it is so anachronistic. It immediately and totally disabuses the audience of our preconceptions about what a period piece will be like. Freed from these constraining expectations, Miranda can create a musical of astonishing brio and bravado. It is defined by its big dramatic moments but is also wickedly funny. This latter quality is perhaps best depicted by a set of tracks which depict King George III (played by Jonathan Groff AKA Special Agent Ford from Mindhunter) as America’s psychotically entitled ex delivering lines like: “And when push comes to shove // I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love!”
It is also a wonderfully multi-layered. Take just one line. “I am not throwin’ away my shot”, which first appears as the chorus line for the third song and then recurs multiple times throughout the show. At different points ‘the shot’ represents: a single bullet in a dueller’s pistol, a shot of spirit, Hamilton’s ambition, the narrowness of the new nation’s path to survival and a nod to “Lose Yourself” by Eminem.
The room where it happens
Obviously, for all its richness and complexity, it cannot possibly convey the same historical detail as the 800-page book it is based on. Plus, it is historical fiction rather than history. And even when it is dealing with historical facts, its representation of them is frequently abstract rather than literal; as we have already mentioned no one in the 18th century rapped. There does seem to be a bit of a dispute about the interpretation of history it presents. I have not really studied this period in any detail, so mostly avoid that discussion. That said, I do want to say two things in its favour on that score.
First of all, it is commendably sophisticated in the way it thinks about history. Indeed, at points it manages to deal with historiography as well as history. As it recounts past events it also comments on how they are remembered. Indeed, there are two tracks built around gaps in the documentary record. Both serve not only to acknowledge this uncertainty to the audience, but also illustrate important moments for characters.
In addition, having worked in politics for a while – admittedly at a rather less elevated level than the characters in Hamilton – the depictions of politicians ring true. For example, Jefferson and Maddison gleefully throwing copies of the Reynolds Pamphlet into the audience, captures well the unsightly joy of a team of politicos realising their opponent has screwed up. I suspect this feeling of authenticity is why it seems to resonate so much with politicians.
There is also a substantive question underlying all the theatrics: Hamilton is a musical meditation on the place of personal ambition in politics. Miranda’s version of Alexander Hamilton is a pathological striver. This serves to make him into a great man but also a tragic figure.
The drive to distance himself from a childhood in St Kitts and Neves marinated in bereavement, humiliation and disaster propels him not only to travel all the way to New York, but to rise socially; it also imbues him with the desperate energy which makes him so charismatic; and ultimately it is what leads him to become a Founding Father: in a new nation, to command the ship of state, he first had to build it.
Yet Hamilton’s own sister-in-law explicitly likens him to Icarus: a figure whose non-stop ascent destroys him. Growing up amidst constant death and loss leaves him haunted and conditioned to expect not to survive. This fatalism in turn feeds into recklessness. He is wracked by survivors’ guilt and crushed by the weight of his own and others’ expectations; too harassed to ever be comfortable or content. His opponents are able to exploit these doubts and drive him to catastrophically bad decisions. These repeatedly put him in conflict with Aaron Burr – who is depicted as sharing Hamilton’s hunger for power but not his ideals – with disastrous results for them both.
The eye of the hurricane
In a celebrated lecture delivered in Munich in 1919, the great sociologist Max Weber, addressed an audience of students. He spoke to the backdrop of a world overturned by the First World War. People were rising up, empires were falling, and young, scrappy and hungry countries were being born. Like Hamilton and his drinking buddies singing “My Shot”, these students could be forgiven for thinking: “Don’t be shocked when your history book mentions me”. Therefore, Weber turned to poetry to instil realism in them:
I wish I could see what has become of those of you who now feel yourselves to be genuinely ‘principled’ politicians and who share in the intoxication signified by this revolution.
It would be nice if matters turned out in such a way that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 102 should hold true:
Our love was new, and then but in the spring, When I was wont to greet it with my lays; As Philomel in summer’s front doth sing, And stops her pipe in growth of riper days.
But such is not the case. Not summer’s bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness and hardness
What Miranda manages in Hamilton is to somehow turn Weber’s dictum that “politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards” into a musical romp where the hope for the growth of riper days and the polar night of icy darkness and hardness both get their dues.
This version of Hamilton as sung by the Muppets is a pure joy
Fiction will almost certainly have a lot to say about coronavirus: the initial cover-up in Wuhan is ripe for a Chernobyl style docu-drama, the frenetic scenes on hospital wards will be fantastic fodder for medical procedurals, odd couples forced to quarantine together will doubtless become a rom-com staple, and a legally enforceable “stay at home” orders will add believability to horror films which would otherwise be undermined by asking the question “why don’t they just leave?”
Staged depicts a very different version of the crisis. Indeed, it captures a reality many of us have experienced but seems almost impossible to present in an entertaining way. Let’s call it the paradox of the pandemic: the defining characteristic of day-to-do life amidst the most dramatic events of a lifetime has, in the main, been dullness.
The show – told in 15-minute episodes almost entirely filmed in the ensemble’s homes – follows the cast of a play mothballed due to the virus. Their director tries to encourage his two leads – Michael Sheen and David Tennant playing fictionalised versions of themselves – to continue rehearsing over Zoom. Like most videocalls for work it does not go well.
That the central characters are all comfortably off creative types means that they are almost entirely shielded from the true horror of the pandemic. All they need to do to is to stay in their nice homes. However, the very simplicity of that requirement starts to become a problem. They are high achievers who have grown used to the adulation of audiences. Therefore, they don’t really know how to cope when an endless series of videocalls and chores begins to substitute for having a real purpose. That leaves them bored, aimless and confused.
What writer/director Simon Evans – who also stars as writer/director Simon Evans – grasps is that this frustration can be mined for comic tension. That the characters are so filled with anxious energy yet have nothing to do with it, gives a natural reason for them to become irritable and do silly things that wind each other up. And with a cast as charismatic as Staged has, it is great fun to watch them bicker.
At the same time it is deeply relatable. It helps in this regard that the show was entirely written and produced whilst still under lockdown. It’s almost entirely set in the characters homes and is mostly dramatised video calls. This gives it an authenticity which will likely be hard to recapture later on. We should treasure it as a record of the absurdity millions of us have endured amidst tragedy. Well for that and Judi Dench telling Tenant and Sheen to “stop fucking about!”
A long time ago in a Galaxy far, far away: Palpatine died, Vader redeemed himself at the price of his life, the Death Star was destroyed, and the Empire was overthrown. But of course, Star Wars fans know there is no happily ever after: Sideous will be reborn, Ben Solo will take up the mantel of Vader, new planet killing weapons will be built and they will serve the First Order.
But even before all of that: what sort of world’s did the heroes of original trilogy create? That is the question the characters of the Mandalorian have to grapple with. They live in the gap between the fall of the Empire and the rise of the New Republic, which is a space dominated by warlords and gangsters, where the Jedi are but a legend, and the choices necessary to survive preclude simple allegiance to either the light side or the dark.
This is an environment the titular Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) appears well adapted to. He is perpetually encased in a helmet and armour, which literally and metaphorically separate him from the people around him – less ‘the Man with No Name’ than a man with no face.
He is a bounty hunter, and a formidable one at that, bound by a “Guild Code” which makes it taboo to ask the kind of questions which might lead to reflections on the morality of his line of work. That is until a client pays him to hunt down an unusual quarry and maintaining this amoral outlook becomes impossible.
It is glorious. Some of the best TV and the best Star Wars I have ever seen. Here are some of the reasons it works so well.
1. The music
This might seem like a random place to start but bear with me: it perfectly distils the feel of this series.
Each episode is scored by Ludwig Gorannson – who also wrote the orchestral music for Black Panther.
Now, Star Wars has always drawn inspiration from Westerns. So, it is natural for the Mandalorian to tell a story with the tropes and conventions of the Western genre set in the Star Wars universe. Gorannson’s music reflects this dual character, creating something which sounds like the product of a collaboration between John Williams and Ennio Morricone. It is luscious but also dripping with menace. It bears listening to all by itself.
Gorannson is far from the only very capable person working on the Mandalorian.
It is the first live action Star Wars TV show and it had pride of place in the virtual shop window of Disney + at its launch. So, the ‘House of Mouse’ has put a reported $100 million behind making it a success.
That allows for a cast featuring not only Pascal but also – amongst others – Giancarlo Esposito, Taika Waititi, Gina Carano, Ming-Na Wen, Richard Ayoade, Amy Sedaris, Nick Nolte – voicing a 3ft foot orange alien, which somehow still looks like Nick Nolte – and Werner Herzog. Yes, that Werner Herzog!
However, it is Pascal who is most impressive. He is not only depicting a character who is honour bound always to wear a helmet – meaning he has to depict the character without using his face – but also one who is modelled on the taciturn Clint Eastwoodesque cowboys, so he’s not got much dialogue either. Therefore, he has to lean heavily on physicality to create the character. Generally, when he makes a movement it is sharp and deliberate – an effect accentuated by the armour he’s wearing.
3. It looks phenomenal
Disney have also been able to attract Jon Favreau, the director of Iron Man and the Jungle Book, to co-write and act as showrunner, as well as directing several episodes. As you would expect given his pedigree – and the calibre of the other talent behind the camera – it looks fantastic. Better than a lot of the films. A succession of different planets and spaceships are lovingly rendered; CGI never looks like CGI and they have the capacity to put some impressive action set pieces on the screen convincingly.
Having invested in visuals, the filmmakers able to let them to do a lot of the storytelling. For example, at one point a simple turn of Mando’s helmet will convey that he has decided to take a mission. This style of course, suits the story’s protagonist.
It also provides a conspicuous contrast with a lot of sci-fi shows. The Mandalorian never subjects us to clunky dialogue that goes like: “ever since the War of the Two Planets, the Neptunium and Plutonian kings have been locked in a struggle for the heart of Rohana, the princess of Titan, a beautiful fish creature with a talent for lockpicking. Now in order to impress her, each man has sent a challenger to compete in the zoidbergaloid races of venus…”. (Or, perhaps worse still: “somehow, Palpatine returned”!)
It turns out that being rather spare with its dialogue makes for leaner storytelling that moves at a brisker pace and better episodes overall.
5. Excitement and tension
The action sequences in the Mandalorian take advantage of the possibilities provided by the Star Wars universe – among them droids, jet packs and tie-fighters – but can use them in ways that more align with its crunchier sensibility. For example, in the opening sequence the Mandalorian defeats an opponent by crushing them in a set of sliding blast doors.
These sequences benefit from being located in a notably nasty and unpredictable universe, where it seems well within the realms of possibility that something unpleasant could happen to characters we care about. That helps dial up the tension.
6. Baby Yoda
Let’s address the mudhorn in the room: Baby Yoda (or to give him his official name “the Child”) became an internet sensation for a reason. With his huge eyes, twitching ears and haphazard walk, he is quite possibly the cutest creature ever to emerge from sci-fi.
That might seem incongruous in an otherwise dark show. However, this mismatch is what makes him a narrative necessity. In a deeply corrupt part of the galaxy, his adorable wide-eyed innocence serves to upend the status quo.
7. Making sense of Star Wars
So far, it appears that in story terms the Mandalorian is at most perpendicular to the Skywalker saga, it does provide an important thematic connection between the original and the most recent trilogies. It depicts the continuing appeal of the Empire to some and, by extension perhaps, why there would be support the arrival of the First Order.
One of the villains asks our hero: “Look outside: is the world more peaceful since the revolution? I see nothing but death and chaos.” The seedy and violent worlds the show depicts, do not allow that point to be easily dismissed.
It not only shows us those who sympathise with the Empire but also those who distrust the democracy which has taken its place. An imperial army slaughtered the Mandalorian’s people, but it does not follow from this that he or the other victims of the old regime, we meet have faith in the democracy which has replaced it.
At one point, when he is clearly troubled by a particularly odious group of ne’er-do-wells, the head of the bounty hunter’s guild suggest with a complete lack of conviction: “well, if it bothers you, just go back to the core and report them to the New Republic”. The Mandalorian wearily dismisses that option as “a joke”. The Mandalorian thus depicts the sense that a tyranical order might be preferable to no order at all.
This marks a departure for Star Wars has generally shown the lure of the dark side from the point of view of characters for whom it offers incredible power. In the Mandalorian, we see its appeal from a different – and more relevant angle: that of those who see no realistic prospect of escaping the darkness, so hope that the right kind of darkness will grant them relief from a life of terror.
There is a strong argument for not overdoing news at the moment. Personally, though, I find that its less about the quantity of news I consume than the quality of the sources. If they enlighten rather sensationalise then I find that helpful.
Both Radio 4’s More or Less and Gimlet’s Science Vs have been exemplary in this regard. What they have in common is a tone defined by apparently genuine curiosity, which they assume the audience shares. The teams behind them not only want to tell you what we know but also how we know it. This allows them to adopt an authoritative tone, which offers clarity without obscuring genuine uncertainty. It also helps that these shows can take the virus seriously without taking themselves seriously.
Recent events have also played to strengths of Inside Briefing from the Institute of Government. A lot of more conventional politics podcasts are essentially about inter and intra party competition and have struggled as those themes have temporarily been side-lined. A focus on public policy and the machinery of state currently feels both more relevant and more edifying.
In terms of specific episodes, Talking Politics’ interview with Nate Silver is a little out of date but definitely still worth a listen. Silver is not an epidemiologist, but someone who predicts politics and sports. So, he thinks about the models used to try and anticipate the spread of the virus in very broad terms. So, this is a very clear overview of the topic.
Speaking of overviews, China Talk’s episode on the politics of coronavirus ably relates what happened in Wuhan at the very start of the outbreak to the broader political climate in the country.
If you’ve not come across Tim Harford’s work before, he is essentially a social science communicator who combines the story telling acumen of Malcolm Gladwell with the intellectual rigour of someone who is..well…not Malcolm Gladwell. He uses these talents to full effect in Cautionary Tales. Each episode unpacks the reasons behind a disaster such an airship crashing, the wrong film being announced as an Oscar winner or a con man tricking an entire platoon of soldiers into assisting with a bank robbery.
By contrast, as the name implies, Chernobylfocuses in on that single (and singular) disaster. It is an accompaniment to the HBO/Sky TV drama about the disaster and is essentially a series of extended conversations with Craig Mazin, the show’s writer. It is frequently answering the question: did that really happen? To which the answer is usually: yes, it did.
Both were made before the coronavirus arose as an issue but given their themes will definitely give you a perspective on it.
Getting a break from coronavirus
At the moment, most of the podcasts I’d normally turn to for light listening have started running lockdown or virus themed episodes. So, I have been finding my escapism in some surprisingly dark podcasts.
In February last year, a group of masked men broke into the North Korean embassy in Madrid in the middle of the night and took the staff apparently under the impression that this would provide cover for a diplomat to defect. Instead, they left with just a few laptops and USB drives, pursued by the Spanish, Americans and most, dangerously, the North Koreans. A fascinating episode of NK News covers Free Joseon, the shadowy group behind the attack. The renegade band of characters populating this story and their “antics” are like something out of a Le Carré novel.
The second series of Monster on the Zodiac killings handles the perennial problem of true crime podcasts about unsolved cases not having satisfying conclusions by turning the focus back around on the audience. It becomes less about who the killer is than why this case still holds such a fascination and why for many people it is such a destructive one. A bonus episode on ‘the Accused’ develops this idea even further by examining how the desperation to unlock the riddle led to multiple different people being seriously discussed as suspects despite a near total lack of credible evidence against them.
Finally, Intelligence Squared has an interview with Kate Murphy about her book “You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters”. Which was interesting enough to persuade me to go out and get the book.
Despite the huge ramifications of her decisions, only so much is publicly known about “patient 31”. We do not know her real name or many details of her life before February this year. Nor despite extensive investigations by public health authorities, do we know how she contracted the covid-19 virus.
However, we do know she is a 61-year-old woman and lives in Daegu, a South Korean city of two and a half million people. We know that on Feb 6th, she was involved in a car accident that led to her being hospitalised and that whilst she was there, she developed a fever. We also know that on Feb 17th, she tested positive for Covid-19, making her the Republic of Korea’s 31st confirmed case of the virus.
Most crucially, we know she was a member of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus and that she attended the church’s services on February 9th and 16th, the latter time despite the fact her fever had already began presenting itself. Finally, we know that this was a decision that would have catastrophic consequences.
As her designation implies, coronavirus had been present in Korea before “patient 31”. However, most sufferers had either travelled to Wuhan and been in direct contact with someone who had. It was in short, thanks to a world-class public health infrastructure, broadly contained.
Then “patient 31” brought it into contact with the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. It spread first amongst “patient 31’s” congregation, then amongst Shincheonji members across Korea, and then to members of the general public they had contact with. As of March 20th, 5,000 coronavirus infections had been traced back to “patient 31” and the Shincheonji Church, more than half the total number reported in Korea.
There are particular factors which made Shincheonji an effective vector for spreading the virus. Its congregations are unusually large and during services they sit close together on the floor. It is also a secretive organisationthat is often branded a cult in part because it teaches that the Bible is full of secret metaphors which only be interpreted by its founder, a self-proclaimed messiah named Lee Man-Hee. Due to its suspicion of outsiders, it initially obstructed the health authorities’ efforts to trace and isolate potentially infected people.
That said, virtually all religious worship involves bringing people from different households into close proximity. So, it is to my surprise that I see some Christians agitating to physically congregate despite the risk of creating many more “patient 31s”.
Leading us into temptation
An Ohio churchgoer recently earned herself worldwide internet notoriety by telling a TV reporter on the way out of a service, that she was not worried about catching or passing on the virus because she was “covered in the blood of Jesus”. This might seem lurid but of the 39 states in the US to have implemented ‘stay at home’ orders, 12 specifically exempt religious gatherings.
Nor is this a purely American phenomenon. In the Philippines, despite official disapproval from the Government and the Catholic Church: “Some…penitents flagellated themselves and prayed outside closed churches…to commemorate the death of Jesus on Good Friday.”
Even here in the UK, where churches have almost uniformly conformed to, or even gone beyond, official advice to physically distance, there are still voices calling for a more relaxed approach. Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, used a recent opinion piece for the Telegraph to argue that church closures were a mistake because in difficult times “we should be providing, rather than withdrawing, resources for strengthening and supporting people’s faith”. He emphasises the need for any gatherings to be social distanced – but nonetheless argues for churches to opened, and asks rhetorically, why this would be ‘any more dangerous than shopping in a supermarket or travelling on the London Underground?’
I submit these positions rest on a set of three misconceptions:
1. There is no religious immunity from this virus
Seeking exemptions from lockdowns for religious gatherings makes little sense, because, bluntly, viruses do not comprehend, much less respect, sacred spaces.
Any Christian tempted to imagine that what happened to the Shincheonji church was God enacting his wrath on a heretical cult – or at least a sign they did not enjoy his protection – and that, therefore, it could never happen to a more mainstream Christian church is ignoring one very basic fact: something remarkably similar has already happened to a mainstream church.
In February, a group of about 2,500 worshipers from around the world gathered for an annual prayer meeting at an evangelical church in the French town of Mulhouse. A regional public health official likened what happened next to an “atomic bomb explosion”.
One of the worshipers, must have been carrying covid-19. Within days of it finishing, dozens of attendees began displaying flu like symptoms. And from there it kept spreading. For example, a nurse who had been to Mulhouse carried it into a hospital, where 250 patients and staff became infected.
This one prayer meeting has now been linked to thousands of infections, hundreds of deaths and disease clusters on three continents.
That faith is not an effective anti-viral should not surprise us. God offers an assurance of salvation, yes. But this is spiritual, not physical.
Believers have been wrestling with the implications of this fact since at least 1755. In that year, a powerful earthquake and tsunami struck Lisbon on the morning of All Saints Day. The result was that when every church in the city collapsed or was destroyed by fires, they were packed with worshipers. So not only were the faithful not spared but they bore the brunt of the tragedy.
In fact, as two millennia of martyrs attest to: having faith not only does not reliably repel physical danger but can actually attract it!
I would, however, be remiss not to point out an important distinction between what happened in Mulhouse and in Daegu. As far as I can see, the French church did nothing wrong. At the time their gathering took place there was no guidance in place discouraging such events or advising physical distancing.
“the solid fact remains that Christians do not make Easter through our worship…Jesus rose from the dead, and even if it were never acknowledged en masse, it would remain the fixed point around which time itself turns.”
What goes for Easter, goes for any Sunday. If, for reasons beyond our control, we cannot attend church for a few weeks or months, we do not cease to be Christians. We have never held those with serious illnesses to this standard and I see no reason why, in the context of coronavirus, we should be holding the broad mass of churchgoers to it now.
This is even more the case given that our ability to gather together without physically being in the same space is greater than ever before. Services can be livestreamed; study groups can meet via video calls, and messaging apps can broadcast prayer requests far more widely than a preacher in a pulpit. Clearly these options are not open to everyone – and even the most tech literate are unlikely to find virtual church a perfect substitute for the experience of an in-person service – but as a stopgap measure they substantially mitigate the impact of closures for many.
Of course, churches do more than hold services: they are also vital pillars of the community. But here too there are grounds for optimism. Bishop Nazir-Ali’s accusation that the church has withdrawn its support in the nation’s time of need because its premises are closed to the public is wide of the mark. Not only have churches made replicating their Sunday services online the norm, they have continued to be a huge source of charitable and pastoral support: parish priests have become temporary hospital chaplains, church buildings have become mask factories and congregations have taken on a central role in providing mutual aid.
It is a truism that a church is not just a building, but the lockdown has proven it afresh.
3. Love our neighbours
There is, however, an even more basic principle at stake. As has been reiterated many times by now: maintaining physical distance is not only that it prevents you catching the virus, but that it prevents you passing it on to anyone else. The practice combines concern for yourself with concern for others. For example, had Patient 31 demonstrated it, then she would have shielded literally thousands of people from harm. It is a way to “Love your neighbour as yourself”, which is after all one of the two commands Jesus declared the greatest.
This is why I take issue with Bishop Nazir-Ali equating the risks of going to church with the risk of going to the supermarket or taking the Tube to argue for opening churches. Not only does it ignore the fact that, both those activities are currently so dangerous that TfL and supermarket staff are dropping dead; it also, fails to grapple with physical distancing being a way to love our neighbours.
Not only does it ignore the fact that both these activities are currently so dangerous that people who work on the Tube and in supermarkets are dropping dead, it also fails to grapple with physical distancing being a way to love our neighbours.
It is not something in which Christians should be aiming merely to match prevailing standards. We must instead seek to be exemplary physical distancers.
After all, Jesus spent much of his earthly mission curing disease; if we are cavalier about spreading it, we are directly contradicting the example he set for us.
Our faith demands that we never risk the lives of our neighbours for the sake of our worship. Following regulations designed to protect the health of the population is not the same as capitulating to an oppressive regime trying to supress our faith. Rather, it is modelling God’s love to those around us.
When I first published this post, it stated that the Greers Ferry Church is Arkansas had met in contravention of social distancing guidelines. In fact, the virus spread at a service prior to the state’s stay at home order being instituted. Apologises to everyone connected with that church.