Thursday, June 4, 2009

Theater of War

One of the best documentaries I've seen this year.


Starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline

Directed by John Walter

4 stars (out of 5)

By Andrea Warner

Most of us have only a passing knowledge of Bertolt Brecht, the pioneering German playwright who is perhaps most famous for his masterpiece, The Threepenny Opera. In the documentary Theater of War, director John Walter takes those loose threads of familiarity and weaves a complex, stirring, and at times genuinely brilliant tapestry of Brecht as an artist and rebel born desperately ahead of his time.

The film follows the action behind the scenes during the 2006 New York remounting of Brecht’s damning condemnation of people’s complicity in conflict, Mother Courage and Her Three Children. Written in 1939 while the committed Marxist was in exile from Nazi Germany, Mother Courage is the story of a war profiteer who refuses to acknowledge the moral cost of her livelihood and its effect on her family or herself. Big names like Meryl Streep (in the titular role) and Kevin Kline (as the Cook) contribute suitable star wattage, with Streep also anchoring the film with snippets of her performance and candid interviews.

Most fascinating, though, is Walter’s decision to position Theater of War within the context of New York City in 2006, just as North America begins its populist revolt against the Iraq War. Stimulating interviews with Tony Award-winning playwright Tony Kushner (who adapted Mother Courage for the production in question) and Tufts University professor Jay Cantor grapple with one pervasive question: Why are we so tied to what ultimately destroys us?

It is while parsing this all-too-human need for self-destruction that Theater of War is most successful — an electrical jolt to the neurons of apathy, and a call for reaction in the absence of action.

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