This would have been a difficult review for me to write, even if I wasn’t running on two or three hours of sleep. By and large, this movie was missing as lot of elements that I typically need in order to feel entertained by a film. That being said, I tried to put myself in the correct frame of mind to evaluate Beasts of No Nation, the latest output from Director/Producer Cary Joji Fukunaga, perhaps best known for his work on several episodes of True Detective. Beasts of No Nation, at a minimum, is a film that should make you feel uncomfortable. With yourself. With the state of affairs in the world. It made me a bit uncomfortable with who I am as an avid movie-goer and amateur reviewer. More on that later.
Beasts of No Nation is about a 2.25 hour journey through the life of a child-soldier caught up in the violence and civil unrest of an unnamed African country. In many ways, I was not certain that this was the story of one child abandoned by the world, but a movie that synthesized elements from various accounts of the misfortunes that befall many of these younglings. It is an important story to be told and for the world to see. There are many, many story elements that invoke memories of other films. The Princess Bride, Julius Caesar, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Hotel Rwanda, We Were Soldiers…the list goes on. However, this dynamic works against the film, as I rarely ever felt like I was seeing something that had not been done before. In fact, I believe that most of the educated world is aware of the general theme of this story and the political and social implications of the world’s failure to largely address it. Saying this makes me feel like a jerk, but it is an accurate representation of my impression of the film. If the purpose was to further raise awareness of the plight of children like Agu, teh film’s main protagonist, I am not certain that this film is a blazing torch that shines a light on these issues. For large parts of the film, I was just bored.
The movie is beautifully shot. A lot of me feels that this is not something that I needed to see in a movie theater (this is a NetFlix produced and published property, by the way). But there are some absolutely gorgeous shots of tundra and savannah’s in Africa that might have been served well by an IMAX screen. Nicely applied lens-flare, without going Abrams-over-done, tips that despite the ugliness of the day, even this world can have a beautiful sunset or sunrise to behold.
The best thing going in the film is Idris Elba. His portrayal of The Commandant is wonderfully crafted and an excellent example of why method actors make such strong Oscar contenders. Most of humanity, despite our most base needs and desires, consists of relatively complex people. Grasping a character like The Commandant, who has all of those complexities snarled into an entangled complex behind the eyes that only renders as a 2-dimensional personality outwardly is a difficult thing to do. It is a persona that only rarely displays the acts of brilliance that set them apart from other men, and when portraying that kind of a character, those moments have to be performed near perfectly. Elba does just that. The battle scene where he rallies his troops with only words, leading his men into battle while walking down the middle of the street, bearing no arms himself, feels like a scene out of the American Revolutionary War. In fact, in addition to Elba’s performance, the film does an excellent job of showing that the non-sanctioned military forces are not a mere collection of savage guerilla rebels. They have a complex chain-of-command, they have regulations and process, and there is training and a promotion system.
As much as I feel badly about the general malaise I experienced throughout large swaths of the film’s duration, I do recognize that this piece is of great social importance. It is a story that needed to be told. It is often misunderstood that many of the perpetrators of war-crimes in African insurgencies are committed by children who are pressed into service with no option, and often before their real parents could build a strong moral character and value system into them. I also really liked the one scene early in the movie where it is shown that the sanctioned government forces are often just as guilty, if not more so, for their part in the ongoing tragedies. The (essentially) direct to NetFlix delivery method quickly puts the movie into the hands of consumers who are much more likely to watch it out of simple convenience than be convinced to go see it at a theater.
Where this movie really stumbles for me is that I felt like it was not very well paced. After the first 15 minutes or so of the film, I was largely disengaged until I got to the bottom hour of the show. In that last hour they rip several band aids off every five or ten minutes. I wished they had spread those out a bit more and moved some elements further up in the film. It is a real slog for that one hour block. In many ways, I wished this movie had been more like an episode of Arrow; I wished they had spent some time showing where Agu was now and how he might be struggling to integrate with society as an adult, and then make the rest of the movie be flashbacks using the first 15 - 20 minutes of the theatrical release along with the last hour.
In summary, these are the big takeaways that yield my final score –
Pros: beautiful cinematography, Idris Elba’s award-worthy performance, insightful portrayal of the social aspects of these wars, socially important story that needs telling
Cons: not terribly entertaining, themes have been done before, this specific story has been told before a few times, not very well paced