‘The Assistant’ May Be The Most Horrific Film of 2019

The Assistant” features a music score by Tamar-kali, an American rock singer-songwriter and composer who is based in Brooklyn, New York. The interesting thing is, we only hear her score at the very beginning and the very end of this film. Truth is, “The Assistant” does not need a music score to highlight the endless tension of the working environment these characters we see here work in as the feeling of suffocating intensity is intensely palpable throughout. This is saying a lot because some filmmakers thrive on a music score to make the unbearable seem even more so, but like “The China Syndrome,” this film does not need it as writer and director Kitty Green shows how certain workplaces can be so toxic to where no further illustration is required to make this point clear.

“The Assistant” follows Jane (Julia Garner), a junior assistant at a film production company, through a single day at her job which has arriving at the office before the sun comes up, and leaving long after it has set. We watch as she performs numerous tasks which are menial at best, and it is no surprise to see the job leaves her endlessly stressed and exhausted as it consumes her life to where anything and everything outside of it plays a very distant second. She even forgets her father’s birthday, and her mother chides her for it. But perhaps the most shocking thing about this scene is how Jane manages to get the smallest amount of free time to make any personal calls while at work. During this moment, I kept thinking her boss was wondering where the hell she was and why she was not at her desk. Seriously, I have worked jobs which were similar to this one.

We quickly learn Jane has been working this job already for five weeks, so she has since been initially and brutally humbled by her boss who runs his company with an iron fist. Still, there is a bit of humanity left in Jane as we see her barely maintain her composure after her boss verbally abuses her for talking to his wife. From there, she is forced to apologize to him via email for her behavior, and her male colleagues (played by Jon Orsini and Noah Robbins) instruct her in the best way to write such an apology. Through scenes like this, it does not take much to see these guys have long since been schooled by their bully of a boss, and they feel obligated to help Jane out when she is in a tough position.

Not once do we ever see the face of Jane’s boss as he is quick to pass by her on the way to his office, and we only get to hear his voice either behind closed doors or through the unsparingly vicious phone calls she has with Jane. There is no doubt this boss is meant to represent Harvey Weinstein, the man who ruled Miramax and The Weinstein Company through endless brutality and intimidation and is now in prison for his horrific offenses which include sexual assault and rape. Just the thought of this boss is enough to keep Jane and her fellow colleagues on edge throughout as any mere mistake can cause him to fall into a full-blown rage. He’s like the creature in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” as what you don’t see is far scarier than what you do. Besides, this boss probably looks as appealing as Harvey ever did (that’s to say, not at all).

But the most brutal scene in “The Assistant” comes when Jane speaks with the company’s Human Resources director, Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen), about a new girl who has just been employed. Her name is Sienna (Kristine Froseth), and she has been put up in a room at The Peninsula, a high-end hotel in the heart of Beverly Hills. Jane never got this kind of treatment when she was hired and cannot help but wonder if Sienna is in some kind of danger. But instead of being taken seriously, Jane is instead berated by Wilcock for bringing this to his attention, reminding her of how many people she beat out to get the job she has (the number is in the hundreds). But as Jane leaves, Wilcock assures her she has nothing to worry about as, in a line which has long since been spoiled by the film’s trailer:

“You’re not his type.”

It is in this moment in which Green shows how the safeguards designed to protect employees from horrific abuse have long since failed them as those with all the power rendered them useless. As a result, you realize in a very depressing way how someone like Harvey Weinstein managed to get away with so much abuse for decades. Yes, karma did come around to kick him in the buttocks, but the fact it took so long to do so does not speak well of the world at large.

Green also shows how those employed in such a suffocating working environment get by even as they are micromanaged to such a blistering degree. Every character we see here has long since been indoctrinated into a situation which they have been led to believe will eventually move them up the show business ladder.

At the center of “The Assistant” is the unforgettable performance by Julia Garner. As Jane, she fully inhabits this character to where you see how she has since been indoctrinated into her position to where any abuses and humiliations from her boss have long since humbled her in ways no one should ever be humbled by. Still, the “Ozark” actress makes us see there is still some humanity left in her. The question is, will she have any of it left by the time the end credits begin to roll? We watch Jane as she observes a certain silhouette in her boss’ window, and her resignation to the things she is unable to control shows how this film was destined to end with a depressing climax. And in the end, how else could it have ended?

“The Assistant” would make an unforgettable double feature with “Swimming with Sharks,” George Huang’s 1994 film about a naïve young writer named Guy (Frank Whaley) who, just out of film school, gets a job as an assistant to influential movie mogul, Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey), who quickly turns out to be the boss from hell. Both films show how this abusive behavior has been normalized for far too long as many industry hopefuls have been cruelly led to believe this treatment is a rite of passage into a realm which seemingly promises both wealth and power. It came out just after Harvey Weinstein’s sexual predatory acts were revealed for all the world to see, so it plays like a documentary which has been smothered from public view for far too long. Now that people like Harvey are out of the picture, I wonder if things will change for the better. The sad fact is, this kind of behavior has been seen as acceptable for far too long, so who knows?

While “The Assistant” is a fierce indictment of Hollywood, it would be a mistake to think this abusive behavior is relegated to one industry. While Hollywood may be one of the main epicenters of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, the abuses they address do not start and stop there as other business we know and have been led to believe are morally superior are as vulnerable to such abuses. Political commentator Tomi Lahren went out of her way to shame Hollywood for enabling Weinstein and people like him, but she did this from a news channel (in this case, Fox News) which went out of its way to pay millions to those who accused Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes of horrific abuse.

Simply put, judge not lest ye be judged. If you need someone to blame, throw a rock in the air. You will hit someone guilty.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Frost/Nixon’ is Ron Howard’s Best Film Since ‘Apollo 13’

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WRITER’S NOTE: This review was originally written in 2008.

Frost/Nixon” started off as a play which was incredibly well received and went on to have a very successful run on Broadway. It has now been brought to the screen by director Ron Howard, and he ends up giving us one of his best movies to date. Like “Apollo 13,” he takes the outcome of an event which we all know about and he turns it into riveting cinema. Also, unlike John Patrick Shanley who cast different actors in his movie version of “Doubt,” Howard retains the two actors from the original stage production, Michael Sheen and Frank Langella. This is one of the very best movies to come out in 2008, and it makes sense it is coming out at the end of the year instead of the middle of it.

“Frost/Nixon” starts at the point where Nixon has resigned as the President of the United States. David Frost, just coming off of one of his talk shows, sees the image of Nixon waving goodbye before entering the helicopter which took him away from political life forever. When it is gauged as to how many witnessed Nixon’s resignation on television, Frost sees a golden opportunity in attempting to get an interview with Nixon, something which must have seemed incredibly unlikely at the time. Along with his producer John Brit (Matthew Macfadyen), he travels to America to set up the interview with a major network, but they all turn him down. As a result, he decides to fund the whole thing himself at great personal risk, and he and John hire Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell) to prep him for interview and research all the available facts on Nixon.

I liked how “Frost/Nixon” really got into the specifics of how the interviewed was prepped and researched. You might think prepping any interview wouldn’t necessarily be that hard, let alone the interview of a former President of the United States, but it is never as easy as it looks. They prep for months in advance, but Frost’s producer, as well as Bob and James, do most of the grunt work while Frost goes to parties promoting a movie he has worked on. When they finally get around to filming the interview, Frost suddenly realizes the gravity of the situation he has put himself in as the interview may very well destroy his credibility forever.

The movie becomes completely riveting when it focuses on the exchanges between Frost and Nixon in the interview and outside of it as well. Nixon proves to be a smooth operator who takes advantage of Frost as the interviewer appears to be laid back and almost completely oblivious to the seriousness of this interview. We see people from both camps focusing on the interview from other rooms, trying to control what comes out of their guy’s mouth. The intensity immediately increases when Frost starts off the interview with the question, “Why didn’t you burn the tapes?” By that, Frost meant the tapes which all but implicated Nixon’s role in the Watergate scandal.

The last part of the interview these two men do together represents some of the most riveting and intense scenes in any movie of 2008. The fact there are no guns or explosions here says a lot about Howard and the actors managed to accomplish here. The audience, even if they knew the outcome of these interviews, was so intensely drawn into this part of the movie when I saw it at Arclight Cinemas to where you could hear a pin drop during the last exchange, and the gasps from the audience were very audible. I watched it and hoped at the same time that I had remembered to silence my cell phone so it wouldn’t go off during the movie’s final round. It would have destroyed the moment if Daryl Hall & John Oates had started singing “I Can’t Go for That” (my current ring tone) out of my cell phone.

As Sir David Frost, Sheen is brilliant in making him look like a lot of fun to be around without ever seeming overly smug or easily dismissive. His transition from the casual interviewer to Nixon’s grand inquisitor is very convincing, and he makes you feel the increasing stress Frost is going through. Like his close confidents, we desperately want him to get hard on Nixon and not be so soft. When Frost finally does come around, he caps off his interview by getting in Nixon’s face and never backs down from the overbearing stature Nixon imposes on him. Sheen manages to capture all of Frost’s mannerisms and the way he talks without simply impersonating him. Having previously played Tony Blair in “The Queen,” he is great at giving a different face to people we have come to know so well, and in getting at the heart of who they are outside of the media’s perception of them.

With the role of Richard Nixon, I think it’s safe to say Langella gives the performance of his career here. Like Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s “Nixon,” he never ever tries to impersonate Nixon in this performance. Had he, it would have destroyed his performance and the movie. Langella doesn’t even try to look like Nixon either. What he does instead is dig deep into the heart and soul of Nixon to where he gives the former President a strong sense of empathy. Ever since he came to my attention in Ivan Reitman’s “Dave,” Langella has been the king of quiet menace in just about every movie he has appeared in. The menace of Nixon is always below the surface under the guise of a man always reminiscing about a past he can never get back. When Nixon finally caves in during the last interview he has Frost, Langella gives the man a sorrowful dignity as he realizes what he has done will forever haunt him unless he confronts for what it is.

Langella also makes you believe and understand what Nixon meant when he says no one can ever fully understand what it is like to be President. Nixon is never excused for what he did, nor should he be, but there is some leeway we should give him as he has experienced something the majority of us will never get to experience – being President of the United States. The Oscars better not ignore Frank Langella the same way they ignored Howard for “Apollo 13.”

\Howard almost seems like an odd choice to direct “Frost/Nixon,” and he beat out a lot of directors like Martin Scorsese and Mike Nichols to get the job. It almost seems unbelievable his career has spanned as many decades as it has, but it’s probably because many of us still have the image of him as Richie Cunningham on “Happy Days” burned forever into our heads. His last film as a director was “The Da Vinci Code” which proved to be quite sleep inducing, and yet still made tons of money. It almost made you forget what a great director he can be, and “Frost/Nixon” wakes us up from the Da Vinci coma we fell into unexpectedly.

“Frost/Nixon” is better than you would ever expect it to be, and it is one of Howard’s very best movies to date and one of the very best of 2008.

* * * * out of * * * *