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7500 and The Vast of Night

click to enlarge Don't call me Shirley.

7500

Don't call me Shirley.

7500. In the first review I ever published in this vaunted publication — years before the collapse — I wrote of Shia LaBeouf that I would "rather watch Joseph Gordon-Levitt make a sandwich or pick up his dry cleaning." The intervening years (or decades or centuries) have softened both my rhetoric and my feelings about LaBeouf. But I always have and always will show up for JGL. His choice of roles may not be unassailable and there may be a few misses on his CV, but he has never appeared in anything boring and has consistently challenged himself. He brings unabashed curiosity, eternal youth and ageless pathos to his roles, making him a compelling presence. Were it not for his name above the title of 7500, it's debatable whether I would have made the time.

That is due in large part to the enduring impact of Paul Greengrass' United 93 (2006), the defining hijacking movie of a generation. Released on the heels of the events it dramatizes, it's both a chest-tightening thriller and a chilling reminder of the power of human conviction to create and avert tragedy. While 7500 (emergency code for an airplane hijacking) shares little stylistically with that earlier work, the common context is impossible to ignore. And, despite strong performances all around, a distinct aesthetic, taut narrative and a nervy, difficult emotional through-line, the latter cannot help but be compared somewhat unfavorably to the former. Still, it is yet another example of a streaming platform putting forth a modestly sized, somewhat experimental production (a German one, in this case), thereby further subverting the status quo of only a few months ago.

And, of course, JGL, who in this instance plays Tobias Ellis, an American pilot working for a German airline. On the night depicted in the movie, he is the first officer on a flight from Berlin to Paris. Also on board, Gökce (Aylin Tezel), with whom he has a child and a happy life. Shortly after take-off, a group of men hijack the plane, storming the cockpit and injuring Tobias. He is able to subdue one and fend off the rest, but this only sets up a cat and mouse game, with the remaining hijackers alternately attempting to break down the cockpit door and threatening the lives of the passengers. Tobias, now a literal gatekeeper who must weigh the lives of the many against the lives of the few, attempts to negotiate while also imploring the passengers to overwhelm their assailants. Told almost entirely from the confines of the cockpit, it's a harrowing 90-minute ride that relies primarily on Gordon-Levitt to propel it and carry almost all of its emotional weight. Writer/director Patrick Vollrath uses measured, intelligent camera placement and economical dialogue to keep the story grounded in the authentic while also bringing visual interest and intensity to a sort of warped closed room mystery. It isn't revelatory but it dares to be tragic and ambiguous at the same time, and Gordon-Levitt gives the sort of performance I was hoping for. R. 93M. AMAZON.

THE VAST OF NIGHT. In the last decade it has become increasingly rare to see a "mainstream" (maybe just American) movie and feel like one was present at an arrival. I'm a curmudgeon, I know, but it feels like the days of breakout cinematic artists have been attenuated by the anointing of would-be auteurs by the studios; the corruption of artists by the promise of a wider audience and lots and lots of money. I blame nobody for taking on the challenge of a Marvel movie but it deprives the audience of seeing artists' imagination at work, what they can create without limitless resources. It's one of the things that makes The Vast of Night special: Director Andrew Patterson feels like a creative force with patience, foresight and a point of view. And with this noteworthy movie he proves how much one can do with those attributes and a little support. (Mind you I felt similarly about Evan Glodell's 2011 Bellflower and we haven't seen much of him since. So, grain of salt.)

The Vast of Night, though, is an incredibly ambitious period piece that, while nodding to its influences and maybe over-flourishing, remains concise, controlled and utterly original. It's got monologues over a black frame, extended tracking shots, unbelievably long single takes and it never feels forced, never falters in its pace, aesthetic or the intensity of its storytelling.

It's about an almost-swaggering proto-nerd radio DJ (Jake Horowitz) and a science obsessed, 16-year-old telephone switchboard operator (Sierra McCormick) in late-1950s New Mexico attempting to trace a mysterious audio transmission, all in the course of one evening. But don't get lost in the set-up; more important to know it's unlike anything else, especially anything that's been made in the last several decades, and hopefully marks the beginning of a long series of similarly delicious, intoxicating work from Patterson (and his dynamite cast and crew). PG13. 91M. AMAZON.

John J. Bennett is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase and prefers he/him pronouns.

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John J. Bennett

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