Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Angels and Demons

Remember the old episode of Seinfeld when Jerry suspects that his dentist may have converted to Judaism for the express purpose of being given licence to crack self-deprecating Jewish jokes? When asked by a friend if Jerry was insulted by his dental practitioner's shallow conversion, he wryly replies "I'm not offended as a Jew. I'm offended as a comedian." The same can be said of Ron Howard's latest cinematic outing Angels and Demons. My brother cautioned me about the movie's potentially problematic themes; After seeing the movie, I can confidently assert that I am not offended as a Catholic - I am offended as a devotee of cinema.

As more formidable pundits than I have previously noted (Ross Douthat and Thomas S. Hibbs), Angels and Demons is a far better cinematic experience than Ron Howard's previous screen adaptation of Dan Brown's more inflammatory novel, The Da Vinci Code. This caveat being offered, to say this is a better movie, is a far cry from conceding it is a good movie.

The "plot" (if such an incredible scenario can even be honored with that distinction) involves a conspiracy by an ancient secret society of scientists called the Illuminati bent on destroying the Vatican by smuggling an anti-matter bomb deep within the bowls of Vatican city while a contentious papal enclave is underway. Symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is called on by the church to unravel a series of ancient clues, each bringing him closer to the Illuminati's secret meeting hall in the hopes of discovering the bomb before it turns Saint Peter's Square into a mini Hiroshima. Oh, did I mention there's also an assassin for hire thrown in for good measure who has somehow managed (without explanation) to kidnap the four top bishops in consideration to sit on the throne of Saint Peter who are being assassinated each hour at pre-assigned locations?

Howard takes several departures from the novel, the most notable being that most of the book's hostile diatribes against the church are toned down or omitted altogether, and the church is treated with refreshing reverence in the end. Of more interest to me was the decision to change the ethnicity of the assassin from a radical Islamicist to a suave European hitman. Apparently, the feelings of Catholics are less important than the tender sensibilities of fanatic Muslims.

The movie's fatal flaw, as is with both of Dan Brown's books featuring Robert Langdon, is Brown's infuriating hubris. He insists that though the books are set against fictional backdrops, the rest of his claims are historically accurate, and a gullible public seems to eager to believe him. However, as with The Da Vinci Code, even a cursory examination by a layman quickly turns Brown's dubious claims into ashes.

1 - Brown claims the Illuminati was formed by Galileo after his house arrest by the Vatican.

Fact - The Illuminati was not founded by Galileo, nor was it even founded in Italy. The society was formed almost 100 years after his death in Bavaria by Adam Weishaupt and was later disbanded by the Bavarian authorities in 1785.

2 - Brown's inspiration for the kidnapping and murder of the four Vatican officials by the Illuminati was an act of retaliation for an actual historical event called "The Purge", during which the church executed four prominent members of the group and discarded their bodies throughout Rome.

Fact - There is absolutely no historical record of this event ever happening. The imprisonment of Galileo was a political move to counter the ever-growing prominence of Lutheranism throughout Europe, and not a move to silence his heliocentric view of the universe. There were no persecutions of scientists after Galileo's imprisonment, and despite their disagreements, Galileo was admired and had an otherwise cordial relationship with Pope Urban VIII.

3 - The first clue that leads Langdon on his race through the streets of Rome is found in a secret book written by Galileo.

Fact - There is unanimous agreement among even the foremost experts on Galileo that no such book was ever written or ever existed.

Perhaps the most glaring of all the film's inaccuracies is the pivotal thematic element that drives it - the very clues Langdon races to discover that reveal the location of the next clue. Each statue or obelisk that Langdon finds shows a finger or arrow pointing the way towards the next clue. In reality, all of the signs are pointing in the opposite geographical locations that Brown's novel, and Howard's movie, claim.

Despite all this, it's a fun movie. Like the Da Vinci Code, it's well paced and masterfully scored by Hans Zimmer. You can't help but find yourself entranced by Langdon as he unlocks yet another code or mystery, only to race through the jam packed streets and crowded public areas to thwart the efforts of the Illuminati. The locations - such as Saint Peter's Square - are stunning, and Ron Howard is no novice behind the camera, delighting us with wonderful aerial shots and behind the scenes glimpses of the Vatican and the intricacies of a papal enclave.

My dad and I went to see it together, and perhaps my assessment is overly generous due to the fact that my pop and I haven't gone to see a movie together in close to 15 years, and it was fun to be out with him on a guys night at the movies.

Like me, Dad had mixed feelings about the movie, but there was one thing we both were agreed on - Columbo would have unraveled the whole mess in 30 minutes.



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