Monday, August 29, 2016

Birthday Take: Richard Attenborough in "Gandhi" (1982)

Ben Kingsley in Gandhi
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Richard Attenborough
Born: August 29, 1923
Died: August 24, 2014 (90 years old)
Nomination: Best Picture (won)

The Take

There is a famous story regarding Gandhi when director Richard Attenborough won Best Picture in 1983. He famously quipped that he was surprised to have beaten E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. Considering how well the sci-fi film has aged, many are likely on his side, considering that even the box office spoke for itself. Steven Spielberg was arguably at his cultural peak with a string of now iconic films. It was even a miracle that Spielberg was a genre filmmaker who constantly popped up in the Best Picture category. Of course, one could look back at 1982's film releases and roll their eyes at how obvious Gandhi's win was. After all, it was "the important film," which was full of messages and one of Ben Kingsley's most beloved performances. It was a prestige picture through and through. Still, one cannot help but take Attenborough's side, even if he meant it jokingly.
There's no denying the impact that the real life Gandhi had on international audiences. He was a nonviolent protester who went out of his way to make a difference. To an extent, he is one of the definitive cultural icons that most people would know by name. It makes sense then that Attenborough would want to make an epic around him. With an interesting story that subverts the common story of rebels being violent (and in the case of Oscars, mostly white), it likely spoke to a desire for a more peaceful way of society solving its matters. To that extent, Gandhi is a film that deserves some recognition. On another front, there is one thing that never quite clicked with me.
Gandhi is an inactive character, and I do think that it makes for kind of boring cinema. If you were to ask me, I do think that the first hour or so of Gandhi is pretty strong story telling. It depicts the life of a man coming to terms with his identity and finding ways to become a better man. It may not be the highest paced action, but it present a compelling story that works on a fundamental level. It is in the back half where the story goes from reverent to simply being pointlessly exploitative of his hunger strike. I get that it's something that the real Gandhi did and by default would be an inactive role, but consider the life of the man you're filming. He has done a lot of wonderful things. To spend a lengthy running time on him sitting around and starving makes for a bit of a dull narrative. 
In all honesty, the rest of the film does an exceptional job of making you understand why Gandhi was important. The film is full of memorable moments that bring his character and integrity to life. It's just that the film loses sight of that and maybe plays on his inactive side for too long. I get the need to make this biopic epic, but it ends up subverting the film's intent into something more cynical. It makes it feel like it's supposed to be more important than it is. Considering the wraparound device of Gandhi's assassination, the story already feels big. It doesn't need to rely on an inactive hunger strike to convince us of the lengths that this wonderful man would go to change the world. Kingsley is great and Attenborough is otherwise reverential, but otherwise that piece of the puzzle has always kept me from admitting that this is a great movie.
In a sense, Gandhi suffers from that issue of being a prestige movie with an important theme. Attenborough's reverence gives it some class, but one cannot help but wonder what would happen if the story was more streamlined in an interesting way. Maybe then we could look at the life of Gandhi and notice his achievements as being something influential. As it stands, its win in large part feels like it was done mostly because E.T. is a genre picture, and as of 2016 no sci-fi film has ever won Best Picture. What's odder is that a fantasy film (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) beat it to that mantle. Was Attenborough wrong when joking that E.T. should've won?  Maybe not. Still, I think that this is a touchy subject in that Gandhi is a good movie that could've been great. It's just that it tried to feel important at the wrong times. Thankfully, Kingsley's performance otherwise holds up.

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