John Hanlon Reviews

Film Reviews

12 Years a Slave

Genre: Drama

Director: Steve McQueen

Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard

MPAA-Rating: R

Release Date: October 18th, 2013

“She didn’t lose it. We did that to her.” –Peter Quinn

So notes Quinn (Rupert Friend) in one of this  episode’s most heartfelt remarks. At the end of the third season’s premiere (last week’s episode), visit this Saul (Mandy Patinkin)—Carrie’s friend, health confidante and personal ally—turned his back on her to protect the CIA. Without naming her directly, buy information pills he noted to a Senate committee that one of his agents had an affair with Congressman Brody (Nicholas Brody) and had a history of mental illness– two things that stood in the CIA’s way of doing its job in protecting our country from terrorist threats. This episode, more than anything else, showcased the consequences of that situation.

It began with Carrie (Claire Danes) repeatedly knocking on Saul’s front door, seeking answers about why he threw her under the bus. He wasn’t home leaving his poor wife Mira (Sarita Choudhury) to confront the obviously heartbroken Carrie. When she didn’t get the answers she wanted, she inevitably ran off to a reporter to tell her side of the story. This  brought her into conflict with Saul’s new right-hand man, Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham), who is willing to do whatever it takes to protect the CIA.

When he informs Saul that he’s going to stop her, we can see the resignation on Saul’s face. In last week’s episode, he had six enemy combatants targeted despite his hesitation. He even betrayed Carrie knowing it would nearly destroy her. Now, he’s willing to have her locked up in a psychiatric ward to protect the agency. At some point—and I sure hope it’s sooner rather than later— I suspect that he’ll stand up for his own beliefs and run the agency the way he wants to.

The highlight of the show for me was the introduction of Fara Sherazi (Nazanin Boniadi), a CIA specialist who has worked for the agency for a total of eight days. Because of the CIA’s diminishing resources, she was assigned to help trace terrorist-tied funds back to Iran.  The character receives blunt instructions from Saul—who privately refers to her as “a kid in a head scarf”— to find a way to trace the money. His cantankerous attitude shows how much pressure he’s facing and how unforgiving he can be along the way.

After Quinn makes a veiled threat to one of the bankers who Saul and Fara have called in, the duo receive all of the paperwork they requested. When Fara asks why the bankers changed their minds and released the documents, Saul notes that the answer to that question is best left hidden.

The weakest portion of the episode surely involved the chronicles of Dana, who seems to go out with all of the wrong guys. Her last boyfriend accidentally killed someone and her new one is locked up in a psychiatric hospital. She seriously needs some dating tips. With Brody (Damian Lewis) out of the picture right now, the writers seem to be struggling with how to handle the family’s affairs and it shows.

Overall, this episode moved the story forward ending with a broken Carrie— after being forced to take her medication— sitting in a lonely living area, where she can barely communicate with others. When Saul walks in, she barely has enough energy to tell him off. It’s going to be difficult to repair their relationship but I assume that the writers have a plan to get her out of the psychiatric hospital and back into action sooner rather than later. I’m hoping they do.

Grade: B-
It was supposed to be a quick trip for Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and
a 30-something New Yorker who in 1841 went on tour in the South playing the fiddle. It turned into a nightmare as this free black man was kidnapped and turned into a slave, a story that has now been adapted into the heartbreaking film 12 Years a Slave.

The story starts out with Solomon’s quaint life in New York, where he is a happily-married free man with two young children. He is respected and even beloved in the community but such memories are forgotten when he takes up the opportunity offered by two strangers to go on tour playing music. Along the way, his life changes and he is forced into slavery. Without the papers declaring him a free man, he is left to rot in a cold prison until he can be sold like a piece of meat.

The scenes that follow powerfully show the grotesqueness of slavery. Stripped naked and sold, Solomon clings to his past life while suffering through the present. A slave trader ironically named Freeman (Paul Giamatti) says “My sentimentality extends the length of a coin” and his feelings are shared by many others. They are certainly shared by a psychotic plantation manager named Tibeats (Paul Dano), whose inhumanity is on clear display.

During his twelve years of captivity, Solomon confronts a wide variety of experiences. From his attempt to run away (which ends with him witnessing a hanging firsthand) to being asked to torture a fellow slave, he sees a world that few could ever survive. There are inevitably kind-hearted people he meets along the way (including a scruffy Brad Pitt) but most of his experiences are raw and difficult to watch.

Showing a wide-ranging series of situations, 12 Years a Slave powerfully brings this difficult subject to the big screen. It succeeds by showing the inhumanity of the practice while dwelling on how normal it once seemed to those who witnessed it firsthand. Some of the most heart-breaking scenes shown here feature sick acts of violence—including a man in a noose struggling to remain standing in order to survive for hours on end— while others (including children) think nothing of it. The barbaric practices seemed normal to them.

From start to finish, the acting here makes this story stand out. Of particular note are Michael Fassbender, who plays a demented slave owner who rapes one of his slaves, and Lupita Nyong’o, the victim of his attacks. Both will likely be awarded for their powerful performances during award season. Credit should also be given to Ejiofor, who captures the changing emotions of his character. Solomon is indeed a complex character who often must hide his educational background and his emotional state to survive. Educated men don’t survive long in the slave trade, he is told, and neither do people who can’t let go of the families they’ve lost. (“Your children will soon be forgotten,” one female slave owner tells the newest addition to the plantation.)

Films like 12 Years a Slave are difficult to watch but powerful to experience. It’s an important story that never shies away from its harsh depiction of slavery. Easily one of the year’s best films, director Steve McQueen has succeeded in telling an incredible true story without cleaning it up to make it more palatable to more general audiences. This film stands as it is and should be applauded as a cinematic achievement.

Review by: John Hanlon