PARK CITY, Utah — One thing to remember about giving oneself up to a film festival’s many offerings is that the experience creates concordances, patterns, inner rhymes. My second day at this year’s Sundance — the 30th annual edition, ending Jan. 26 — I saw two movies about spies, one fictional, one non. As you might guess, it was the documentary, “The Green Prince,” that seemed too far-fetched to believe. Less expectedly, it was the more hopeful of the two, but the other film, “A Most Wanted Man,” is based on a John le Carré novel, so disenchantment is in its blood.
“The Green Prince” is the story of Mosab Hassan Yousef, the oldest son of a Hamas leader and a mole for Israel’s Shin Bet security agency. Right there are enough ironies and anxieties to fuel a Hollywood thriller or an ambitious cable series, but director Nadav Schirman tells an additional tale, that of the friendship between Yousef and his Shin Bet handler, Gonen Ben-Itzhak. The latter looks like a fullback for a Russian football squad but reveals surprising depths. As time went on, Ben-Itzhak grew to respect his source’s complex but essentially humanitarian motives, broke the rules for him, and ultimately (after being relieved of his duties) broke agency silence to protect Yousef’s safety.
Schirman tries to gussy up this tale with as many cinematic tricks as possible, and he re-creates many of the meetings from the point of view of imagined surveillance cameras or spotter planes. It’s a risky, not altogether successful strategy. Audiences can spend so much time subconsciously trying to tell real from reel that they resist investing in the story.
Or they would if Yousef and Ben-
Itzhak weren’t such compelling narrators of their own drama. Documentaries can overdo the talking-head sequences — “Dinosaur 13,” a tale of paleontology and injustice also playing at Sundance, practically drowns in them — but “The Green Prince” has two talkers whose belief in the rightness of their actions energizes everything they say. The film ends up offering a small window of brotherhood between Palestinian and Israeli that, tellingly, can’t take place on Israeli soil.
The le Carré, “A Most Wanted Man,” is a chillier, more dyspeptic view of the spy game, set in Hamburg and featuring warring factions of German intelligence, shady Palestinian philanthropists, Chechen martyrs, and a CIA consultant played by Robin Wright with bad hair. Oh, and Rachel McAdams as a left-wing lawyer, but who knows where she’s from, since her accent is vaguely left of France and north of the Canary Islands. As Gunther Bachmann, head of an anti-terrorism unit that officially doesn’t exist, Philip Seymour Hoffman does strange things with his voice, too, but they’re phlegmy and guttural and in keeping with the exhausted moralism of le Carré-land. It’s the kind of movie where the sleek president of a money-laundering Eurobank (Willem Dafoe) can turn out to be one of the good guys, if only by default.
Any Sundance can be many things: the films that set your senses on fire, the hyped productions that disappoint, all the movies you didn’t get to see.
The filmmaker is Anton Corbijn, the superstar photographer turned director (“The American,” “Control”) who here makes his most commercial film to date. “A Most Wanted Man” is methodical and intensely gripping for the first hour, and a pretty good suspense drama for the second; Corbijn has yet to learn how to vary, sustain, and build dramatic pacing over a film’s long haul. Still, this is clearly European le Carré rather than Hollywood, with a greater interest in process, disappointment, and existential blondes. Corbijn loves the bone structure of an actress like Nina Hoss almost as much as he loves the post-modern architecture of Hamburg; both offer a tensely beautiful framework over which he can stretch le Carré’s games and countergames. Among those, by the way, is one of Bachmann’s moles, a young Arab man (Mehdi Dehbi) who turns out to be the son of the spymaster’s quarry, and thus another of Sundance 2014’s Green Princes.
Because its lineup arrives unseen and unknown, any Sundance can be many things: the films that set your senses on fire, the hyped productions that disappoint, all the movies you didn’t get to see. My own list of the latter feels longer than usual, since I had to leave this year’s festival halfway through. “The Overnighters,” “The Skeleton Twins,” “Land Ho!” — I have heard you buzzed about on Park City shuttles, I have read the impassioned tweets following your screenings, and I will have to wait to see you in theaters.
But of course Sundance is mostly about the movies you do see, and of the 20 films I caught in five days, there are the ones I’m still chewing on, eager to write about and urge you to see when they’re properly released. Above all, the best of this fest, like “Boyhood,” the new film from Richard Linklater, moved me in ways difficult to quantify.
Over the course of his career, Linklater has played obsessively with what might be called durational realism, from the epic monologues of “Slacker” to the 18-year sectional life drama that is the “Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight” series. “Boyhood” may be the director’s most radical experiment yet: Starting in 2001 and shot intermittently over 12 years, the movie follows Mason Evans Jr., played by Ellar Coltrane, as he ages from 6 to 18 — from childhood to the edge of adulthood.
We watch Mason transform from a dreamy child, slightly out of step with the universe, to a kid holding himself back as he watches his mother (Patricia Arquette) cope with single parenthood and a lousy second marriage while his father (Ethan Hawke) dithers about growing up. Mason moves on to a mumble-mouthed adolescent pushing the boundaries of experience, and on again to a young man striding to his own rhythms, with his own passionate thoughts about where he’s going. In a sense, “Boyhood” is a prequel to Linklater’s earlier work, in that you could easily imagine Mason getting out of college and heading overseas with a Eurail pass. That’s right, this is “Before ‘Before Sunrise.’ ”
But that glib connection only diminishes the momentousness of what Linklater achieves here. It’s not only Mason we see grow from cherubic innocent to lanky seeker. His older sister (played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei) also passes through the Seven Stages of Modern American Childhood, and Arquette as their mother morphs as well, through hairstyles and career shifts, thickening into middle age along with her ex-husband. For the parents, ideals are exchanged for practicalities; for their children, faith in the world of their parents subtly transmutes through bafflement and teenage numbness into a reliance on the soundness of their perceptions and thenceforth into their own ideals. (That will eventually become practicalities, and so forth and so on, the wheel turning cruelly and beautifully forever. But that’s another Linklater movie, and I don’t know if there’s a budget for it.)
The film’s especially unerring, I think in its last third, when Mason is a thoughtful but spacey alt-teen, his natural artistic bent finding expression in photography while all the adults in his life, from Mom to teachers to his McBoss hector him to straighten up, fly right, get some discipline, finish his assignments, clean his room, mail in his college applications. “Boyhood” is a reminder of what it is to be a young person expanding his or her soul unseen by all the adult control freaks who want only the best for you, even as they have no idea who you actually are. It’s about the prison of expectations and the outrageous thrill of jailbreak, the art of putting yourself together without having a clue how to do so. It’s time-lapse drama — one of those stop-motion flowers exploding into bloom but with a person instead of petals. If there hadn’t already been a movie called “Life Itself” at the festival, that title would be perfect.
But there was another Sundance film with that title, this one looking to the past while “Boyhood” chugs into the future. It, too, was more emotionally overpowering than you’d expect given its subject, the late movie critic Roger Ebert. Beautifully directed by Steve James, whose “Hoop Dreams” was one of Ebert’s favorites and who here returns the favor, “Life Itself” reminds us that a person’s life can easily spill over the edges of his job description and that, in Ebert’s case, he was much more than all thumbs.
The movie captures his youth as a classic old-school newspaperman, and a Chicago newspaperman at that. It covers his battles with alcoholism early in his career, his struggle with catastrophic illness and debility toward the end, and his fights with Gene Siskel in the middle. “Life Itself” includes outtakes from Siskel and Ebert’s syndicated “Sneak Previews” show where the two rip into each other with an intensity of purpose that’s both funny and appalling. Ebert had an ego, and James knows his film isn’t complete until we see it. He also addresses the charge that Siskel and Ebert dumbed down film criticism into a binary thumbs-up/thumbs-down judgment call, and he finds those charges warranted to some degree yet also not.
But Ebert also had passion, depth of knowledge, a sense of fairness, and a born writer’s facility with language; he wanted to share the best that movies had to offer because he knew the best ones could not only change how you saw the world but what you did in it. “Life Itself” teaches us a few things: Gene Siskel was a swinger who palled around with Hugh Hefner; Martin Scorsese credits Ebert’s support with saving his life and career in the late 1970s. The scenes shot in the final months of the critic’s life are quietly heroic, Ebert responding to endless physical disasters with a growing purity of affect, his wife, Chaz, shouldering a burden that would stagger you or me, and still the film shows the couple snapping at each other every so often, just to remind us they’re human.
That’s what makes a great documentary rather than a very good one: James comes to his subject with respect and affection, but he understands that a documentarian’s job is to assemble the paints and then let the portrait somehow paint itself.