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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Movie: 300

In the previous post, I mentioned that I'd attended a private screening of 300; here is a review of sorts.

Some preamble and disclosure: I have been meaning for a while to post reviews of movies that I've particularly enjoyed, not because I assume that I have anything amazingly important to say about them, and not to promote them per se (any more than I would when talking enthusiastically with friends in a pub about a movie that I've enjoyed), but for the same reason that I blog in the first place: to put myself in a position where what I write will be visible publicly and with my name on it because doing so shapes my writing in a way that nothing else does. Reviewing movies is an obvious topic for me because I enjoy cinema. I've been meaning to start doing so for a while, in fact I very nearly did after watching Children of Men, which I found rather moving. I feel the need to write this preamble as a disclaimer of sorts because the situation is unusual for me (I've rarely attended a pre-release screening, and never with the director present) and because the possibility of a perception of bias, indeed the possibility of actual bias, bothers me. I fully intended to write about it - whether I liked it or not - when I accepted the invitation for bloggers to attend. I loved the film, it is even possible that my appreciation was enhanced by the exclusive nature of the screening and the presence of the director, whose own enthusiasm for his work was obvious. What bothers me is:

  • that part of me feels as though I "should" blog about it (the invitation came to me as a blogger, albeit a less "influential" one than the promoters perhaps had in mind) because not doing so would be rude, despite the invitation being on a no-strings basis
  • in particular that a film where there is at least the possibility of [the perception of] bias is the one where I am first overcoming inertia and actually writing a review; perhaps I should simply view this as a helpful expedient, had I not accepted this invitation, I'd still not be reviewing films
  • that in publishing a review of a film where I had more and earlier access to than the general public (if IMDB is to be believed, it doesn't open in the UK until March 23, and the director will not be present for Q&A at public screenings, of course) I'll be publishing a review of an experience not available to the public generally; granted, professional reviewers seem comfortable with this as a neccessity (to be commercially interesting, reviews must be written and published before cinematic release).
Clearly I'm taking this all too seriously. Suffice it say that this review may be biased by my having attended free of charge, well in advance of public release, with a Q&A with the director. There was even free grog.

So, the film.

It is a movie adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novel of the same name, which in turn tells the story of a group of 300 volunteer Spartan soldiers who took on the Persian army of ~1 000 000 at a narrow pass (the "Hot Gates") at Thermopylae in 480BC. According to the director (Zack Snyder), the adaptation is very close, with the notable exception of the addition of the Spartan Queen and therefore of scenes featuring her. The film (I assume through following the novel) introduces several historical inaccuracies, however the gist remains real enough; a minute force of Greeks, notably 300 Spartans, undertakes a suicidal mission which provides the bulk of the Greek states with the time, and perhaps even some inspiration, to subsequently defeat the Persian army. Even when the 700 Thespians are factored back in, the ratio comes in at about 1:1 000; this makes even the 1:20 ratio at the Battle of Long Tần appear unimpressive. Granted, the Aussies were a little more successful in that latter battle.

The film itself is, per its graphic novel inspiration, visually stunning. It is pretty violent, but no more so than the story would appear to require. The colour, film grain and lens proximity choices (there are long shots, but not many) are spot on and make for a gorgeous look. The soundtrack was flawless and, as Snyder suggested, was played loud in the preview; whether audiences will get the same treatment after release remains to be seen. With the exception of an opening shot (the arrival of a Persian messenger), the entire movie was shot on bluescreen, apparently at Icestorm in Montreal (where The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne was shot entirely indoors, entirely on HD, on green rather than blue of course).

The extensive blurb (press-kit?) provided to people attending the screening includes "Facing insurmountable odds, their valor and sacrifice inspire all of Greece to unite against their Persian enemy, drawing a line in the sand for democracy". During the Q&A, this was mentioned and Snyder acknowledged that the Spartans weren't exactly democratic, that perhaps freedom was a better word to use. It seems to me that the reference democracy holds, despite the fact that the Spartans themselves were not particularly democratic, for a number of reasons:
  • freedom and democracy, in any form, tend to be correlates; freedom is an essential precondition for any form of democracy, some form of democracy often arises where people are somewhat free; to the extent that the Spartans' action sustained freedom, it sustained an essential condition for democracy
  • a line in the sand (well, on a map) really was drawn by this action and, in that it happened to protect Athens, that was a line in the sand for democracy just as much as it was for freedom, or for Sparta; had this line not been drawn, the Persians would have crushed Athens, and Athenian democracy with it.
Also, the primary (well, loudest) arguments against regarding Sparta as democratic (apart from the fact that they didn't think of themselves this way anyway) are about the status of women, slaves and resident aliens. Note however that women have had the vote in most western democracies for less than a century, resident aliens today ordinarily have not merely no political rights, but severely constrained economic rights and, while no western democracy openly tolerates slavery (any more), the status of lawfully highly-indebted low-wage earners is somewhat more constrained than that of their better off country-men and, of course, actual (if illegal) slavery is in evidence throughout the world. Further, as western democracies tend to be "representative" rather than "radical", it can be argued that they are actually oligarchies rather than democracies. Advancing this argument is clearly ad hominem on my part and does demonstrate that the Spartans' action supports democracy; my point is rather that many of the people who reflexively object to the depiction of the Spartans' action as supportive of democracy are likely to be implicitly viewing Sparta, and for that matter Athens, as lesser societies than current-day western democracies when, perhaps, the comparison paints current western democracies in a rather less favourable light than those objectors imagine.

Anyway, I greatly enjoyed the film and wholeheartedly recommend seeing it. I will seek brevity in future reviews.