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Craven: Seen At Sundance

02/03/11 7:55AM By Jay Craven
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Portrait by Todd R. Lockwood
(HOST)  Commentator, filmmaker and teacher Jay Craven recently returned from a trip with six Marlboro College students, to the Sundance Film Festival.  He's still thinking about several of the films he saw there.

(CRAVEN)  The funny and affecting picture, "Submarine" tells the story of a teenaged Welsh boy, Oliver Tate, who falls hard for a tough girl who delights in watching clumsy Oliver flub his every move.  It's the best boy-coming-of-age-picture I've seen since "Rushmore."

Jeff Nichols' highly original "Take Shelter" follows the downward spiral of a blue-collar construction worker. "Boardwalk Empire" co-star Michael Shannon keeps the picture from edging into melodrama as he travels his character's twisting journey to a hopeful yet unsentimental resolution.  

Sundance documentaries are always strong. This year's award-winner, "Hell and Back Again," captures, with gut-wrenching immediacy, the tale of 25 year-old Marine Sergeant Nathan Harris who takes a Taliban machine gun bullet in southern Afghanistan - then returns home to North Carolina where he struggles to conquer the physical and mental fallout of war.

Vermont documentary filmmaker Eugene Jarecki's new film, "Reagan,"played Sundance and will premiere February 7th on HBO.  Jarecki skillfully separates Reagan the myth from the actual man. He charts the former actor's small town beginnings as the son of an alcoholic father who was driven to make his mark - first in Hollywood and then as a rising political star.  The film shows Reagan as a sportscaster and pitchman for General Electric, where his visits to GE workers across the country provided a political platform - but ultimately got him fired.

Scenes of Reagan as California governor, chiding peace demonstrators, reminded me how he skillfully blended his charismatic optimism with righteous anger, like when he later seized the microphone during a New Hampshire primary debate and ordered Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall" dividing Germany.  The film also recalls how Reagan gave amnesty to 3 million illegal immigrants, presided over a peaceful end to the Cold War, and energized a nation that became dispirited under Jimmy Carter.

I missed not getting more insight into Reagan's role in the day-to-day White House.  Some journalists and former officials say he was largely out-of-the-loop for complex policy discussions, preferring to have simple options framed by advisers. When asked about this, Jarecki cited evidence that Reagan was active in the arms-for-hostages episode that rocked his presidency. But questions remain.

Jarecki's film concludes that Reagan was a paradox - originally an FDR Democrat who went on to inspire contemporary conservativism.  A president who urged distaste for big government but expanded deficits and turned America into a debtor nation. A former lifeguard who acted on a life-long impulse to save people in distress - but seemed unmoved by the plight of AIDS victims and the poor.  A patriotic American who saw 14 senior staffers indicted for illegally selling weapons to Iran and moving funds to the Nicaraguan Contras.

A single documentary can't fully treat the complexity of this man and his enduring impact.  Jarecki has given us a splendid starting point.  This is one picture where I can't wait to see the sequel.

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