The Ninja Film Review: Five Stories, One Theme

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The Ninja Film Review: Five Stories, One Theme

Ninja filmmakers from olden times.

I've been watching some films lately. They aren't 'freebies', which I watch a lot of. They're paid films, in the sense that they show up on our Netflix subscription service. I thought I'd report on them, because you can probably find them on your streaming service as well. Taken together, they make a theme. This was accidental on my part, but perhaps it's an indication of where filmmakers' thinking is going these days. If so, perhaps we should take it seriously.

Because most of these films are about war, in one way or another, and all of them are about ethical thinking. Maybe the directors are trying to tell us something.


The first film, Experimenter (2015), deals with the work of Stanley Milgram. You may not know who Stanley Milgram was. Let me tell you about him.

Milgram was a super-bright pioneer in the field of social psychology. His most infamous experiment, usually just called the Milgram Experiment, was conducted in 1961 to see if he could get random volunteers to administer painful electrical shocks to perfect strangers just because a Yale University 'expert' in a lab coat told them to. Milgram and his sponsors actually thought, 'Heck, this is enlightened New Haven, Connecticut. They won't do this, they're not that stupid.' Boy, were they surprised: 65% went all the way, even when they heard the victim screaming in the next room. (Of course, he wasn't being shocked. He was just playing a pre-recorded and quite melodramatic tape while calmly eating his sandwich and musing on the foibles of humankind.)

Milgram got a lot of flak for this experiment, mostly because people didn't want to know that the proclivity for state-sponsored violence existed everywhere, even in places where you'd hoped they knew better. And yes, of course Milgram, the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, was studying how the Holocaust happened. Milgram died too young (51), but he left us quite a legacy in the thinking department. He also did the first experiment that led to the discovery of the Bacon number.

Experimenter is a superior piece of independent film making. You know you're going to have fun a few minutes in, when the elephant shows up in the Yale hallway. It gets better from there. Star Trek fans will enjoy the William Shatner imitator – Shatner played Milgram in a TV adaptation called The Tenth Level. (That's a freebie, enjoy.) There's a great line in Experimenter complaining about The Tenth Level: 'Why did they make you a goy?' Peter Sarsgaard, who plays Milgram in Experimenter, is not Jewish, but plays a Jewish character. Shatner, who played Milgram in The Tenth Level, is Jewish, but his character was not. Okay, maybe a labored joke.

But the film is not. It's very clear what you need to learn from this film: it's important to be part of the 35% – the ones who would not push that button. Keep this in mind as I review the rest of the films.

Secrets of War

Next, Elektra, Doglet and I watched Oorlogsgeheimen (Secrets of War) (2014), a Dutch film for young people. You'll have to read the subtitles unless you speak Dutch, but it's worth it. Great acting by the kids. Seriously. The story is by a leading Dutch YAF (Young Adult Fiction) writer, Jacques Vriens.

The story is about three kids, some caves, and World War II. As usual, the Nazis and their collaborators are the bad guys. And yes, war destroys everything: childhood, trust, and sometimes lives. War can create circumstances so dire that kids don't have time to grow up before they discover that mistakes can be deadly. But you know what? These kids make some amazing choices. The two boys discover ways to trust each other and avoid inheriting the insane attitudes of the adults.

I won't give the plot away. I'll just tell you to ignore all those naysayers on the web who say, 'We know all that.' No, you don't. You don't know all that, at all.

Have you tried the Milgram Experiment? How many buttons would you push? Go watch those kids.


Now, for more than a week, we watched Okkupert (2015), the first season of a Norwegian TV series about climate change, energy, and domestic terrorism. They'd better have a second season; this one was dynamite. What's that you say? Yes, yes, you'll have to read the subtitles unless you're fluent in Norwegian. Even the Russian terrorists don't like Norwegian: one of them yells at the Prime Minister to 'speak English!'

I refuse to spoil this if you haven't seen it yet, but here's the setup: Jesper Berg and his environmental party are running Norway. They're tired of the fjords melting, so they've turned off the oil pipelines and are developing a clean energy, appropriately called thorium. The EU cries foul, and in a fit of collective stupidity that is breathtaking but not at all unbelievable, sends the Russians in as muscle to force the Norwegians to keep pumping.

Poor Jesper Berg (played by the astounding Henrik Mestad): people just keep getting shot in front of him, and he gets kidnapped and poisoned and separated from his infant son. And he's such an ethical man. Okay, he and his (female) chief of staff do get too drunk at the Christmas party and have a one-night stand, but it's Norway and its cold and they are both thoroughly ashamed of themselves afterwards. Which I find utterly endearing. Berg has it rough, though – and so do we. Who do we root for? The people who try their best to prevent a war in which Norway would be hopelessly outgunned? The resistance who want the Russians out before Norway turns into Chechnya? One side we don't sympathise with are the Americans. Thank goodness that actor played the ambassador as embarrassed. You should be, buddy: they fought at Bunker Hill so you could act like a jerk? Come on.

Okkupert is about ethical choices. And Jesper Berg's one of the 35%, but he's getting close to having Had Enough.

Brothers in War

I wasn't prepared for this documentary. I thought we'd just learn a little bit more about what was happening while we were in high school. But Brothers in War (2014) just made me really angry. I don't recommend it, but I want to tell you about it for a minute.

The film follows a group of soldiers from Charlie Company, 9th Infantry Division, during their 1967 tour of duty in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. They made a lot of home movies, which are shown. There is also some newsreel from the time, and the survivors are interviewed. I expected to like them: these men are near-contemporaries, only a few years older than I am. They could be my neighbours.

What made me angry was right in the middle of the film, when one of the ex-soldiers told on camera how, after a good friend was killed in combat, he was supposed to put a Viet Cong prisoner aboard a chopper. Instead, he shot him in the head.

This man is in his 60s. And he told that as if he were proud of it.

Why this is disturbing: he's had a long time to think about it. I understand why he did that, though I don't agree with it. (But then, I'm a pacifist and I don't believe they had any business in the Mekong Delta in the first place.) But why hasn't he learned better in over 40 years?

These people are definitely not in Milgram's 35%. And now I know I might run into them at the Walmart. It's exactly the same feeling as I had back in the winter of 1981, when I stood watching the homeless people's impromptu choir in the little train station in Cologne. They'd let them in out of the snowstorm and the folks – most them with mental issues and/or drinking problems – rewarded the train people with some carols. As I stood there listening to 'Stille Nacht', a well-dressed older man came over to me.

'Back in the Third Reich, we knew what to do with people like that,' he said to me. I stared at him and moved away.

Not in New Haven, indeed. Watch this one at your own risk.

The Railway Man

Last film: The Railway Man (2013), which was a total surprise. (I didn't know about the book. You probably do, if you're British.) And yes, Colin Firth, Hiroyuki Sanada and Soren Sarsgaard are amazing in this. I'll give kudos to Nicole Kidman, too. Those are wrenching emotions and they must take a lot out of the actors. But they were right on the money.

If you don't know, the film's about a former POW from the River Kwai who has PTSD, and who seeks out the man who tortured him. No spoilers here, in case you don't know the true story yet, but Eric Lomax turns out to be one of the 35%. The biggest surprise for me, though, was Takeshi Nagase, the Japanese interpreter.

Nagase was definitely one of the 65% – the ones who push the buttons. But then he did an astounding thing – the thing those Vietnam veterans didn't do: he got better.

I felt so grateful when the film was over. Yes, I thought. Finally, a 'war' film that's about peace. That was worth my time.

The New York Times reviewer called this film 'stodgy' and 'high-minded'. I blow my nose in the critics' general direction. And to people who said they were 'disappointed' because the film wasn't 'new'? Or that it 'only' showed waterboarding? Only…waterboarding…

I'm kind of worried. What kind of percentages would Stanley Milgram get today, in the age of Gitmo? Maybe it's a very good thing that there are filmmakers out there who aren't listening when people say, 'We know that already.' No. You. Don't.

Pay attention. The lesson you learn might save your soul.

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