Peter Berg is an odd creature. I first knew him as the hip, mush-mouthed Dr. Billy Kronk on Chicago Hope and the washed-up, similarly-named Terry Conklin in the underrated boxing satire The Great White Hype.
But he’s much more notable these days as a director, turning in some of the most consistently interesting genre work of the new millennium.By “interesting” I don’t mean “good”. Berg’s films are bursting at the seams with ambition, but he’s only been able to find material worthy of his talents once.
His work should be studied in film schools as proof that no director can elevate a crap script to greatness. Witness 2003’s The Rundown, about as nondescript a piece of action writing as I’ve ever seen.
But Berg gives it his all, casting plucky actors like The Rock and Rosario Dawson, choreographing colossal action sequences that look like they could level a whole town, giving Christopher Walken one of his most amusing late-career weird monologues (about the Easter Bunny, no less) and even throwing in an Arnold Schwarzenegger cameo. The movie as a whole doesn’t add up to much, but dammit if Berg didn’t try.
His new film The Kingdom largely follows that template. The script by Matthew Michael Carnahan just isn’t very good, but every second shows Berg determined to polish that turd until it’s a diamond!
Witness the opening credits sequence, which sums up 80 years of U.S./Saudi foreign policy with an impeccably designed, Adbusters-esque animated newsreel. It’s the first of many times that Berg tries to give a generic action film relevancy beyond massive gunfights and witty one-liners, but it never feels like anything more than an episode of CSI: Riyadh as directed by Paul Greengrass.
The film follows an FBI team investigating a devastating terrorist attack on a U.S. facility in Saudi Arabia. They encounter resistance at every turn from the Saudi government and the cartoonishly evil attorney general. Good prevails and evil is vanquished.
Typical of Berg’s devotion to his craft, every role is filled with a fine actor, from marquee draws like Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner to character greats like Danny Huston and Richard Jenkins. He thinks big, devoting time to heady material about diplomacy and national sovereignty and cultural differences, blah blah blah.
In the end, though, Carnahan’s script is all about kickin’ ass, and that’s what The Kingdom does moderately well (though it falls far short of the commercials’ promises to “leave you breathless for the last 15 minutes!”). This will probably play best on TNT or USA on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
The best parts of The Kingdom are cameos that remind us of Berg’s best work, the movie and TV series Friday Night Lights. The 2004 film is represented by a brief Tim McGraw appearance, who gave the second best surprisingly disturbing acting debut by a country music star ever (the first, of course, belongs to Dwight Yoakam in Sling Blade).
Kyle Chandler and Minka Kelly, two of the stars of the show, pop up in a scene each. Friday Night Lights, the show and film, perfectly illustrate what Berg’s many strengths.
The film is about as sociological a movie as I’ve ever seen. It was promoted as a football movie, but it’s more like a 1970’s Robert Altman slice of life that uses high school football as a jumping off point to examine life in a rural Texas community in the late 1980’s. Using perfect performances and Tobias Schliessler’s truly breathtaking cinematography, the film is strangely intimate and epic, painting a very specific time and place in a universal way.
The film did well at the box office but didn’t break any records, so everyone was surprised when Berg resurrected the material as a pilot for NBC two years later. But what seemed like a long shot is now an unqualified masterpiece that makes the movie seem like a rough sketch in comparison.
No show, or film for that matter, has ever depicted small town life with more heart, humanity and honesty. There’s not a weak link in the cast, with special consideration going to Connie Britton’s inexplicably Emmy-ignored turn as the head coach’s unflappable wife.
Friday Night Lights’ appeal was perfectly summed up by Salon’s Heather Havrilesky, who wrote last month that it “has so much heart and sweetness, so much love for normal people with big dreams, that it has the power to give you a lump in your throat every single week.”
Though the first season failed to bring in huge ratings, NBC is giving it another shot this year and I honestly think I’ll be devastated if it fails. There isn’t a better show on TV.
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