by RISHI AGRAWAL and JAMES BRIGHAM
300 is the first confirmed blockbuster of 2007, and divided critics and the Commentary Track writers as well. Since our opinions on 300 were widely divergent, we thought it would be great to write some kind of joint review. We decided to blatantly rip off the format from the Crosstalk feature on The Onion’s A.V. Club. Don’t expect this too often (if ever again)- only when two of our writers disagree on a fairly major film. Besides, we needed something to pass the time while waiting for Spider-Man 3 to come out.
RISHI: I’d like to start off by summarizing my viewpoint here. I think that 300 has some interesting visuals, but otherwise, the film fell completely flat for me. I did not find the storyline in the least bit compelling and many parts of the film were downright ridiculous.
So, James, the first point that you made that I want to take issue with is your contention that 300 is just as good as Gladiator or Saving Private Ryan. I’ll admit that some of the action sequences are comparable, but I really think that 300 is missing the human element. The characters in other action films lived and breathed on the screen. They had backgrounds and personalities. I actually sympathized with them to some degree.
Here is the premise that I am starting with. I need to care about the people in the film that I am watching. Of course, there are exceptions, but for this film, let us assume that the premise holds. I certainly can’t sympathize with a group of people who throw babies off cliffs and send their most beautiful women to be raped by ugly deformed men. And the film is certainly not constructed for us to identify with the Persians. Besides, I don’t actually know anything about these characters except for King Leonidas and that one father and son. Do any of the other characters even have names? I just can’t bring myself to recognize the plight of 300 anonymous Spartans. So, I guess my first question for you is to give me a reason, any reason, to care about any of these characters. By the end of the film, I was completely apathetic to whether they lived or died.
JAMES: I will agree that the majority of the Spartans lack the characterization necessary to make them sympathetic on an individual basis. I would assert that 300 is not supposed to be about caring for these soldiers on such a level, but instead is meant to evoke astonishment at their combined accomplishments and create sadness at their eventual demise as an entire military unit. The drama is found in the way the Spartans unite in vehement opposition to the Persians attempting to squelch out their society’s identity. That’s why the movie’s called 300 and not Leonidas’ Heroes or Dilios: A Soldier’s Story. As was said in the film, the important thing here is that the world would forever remember that few stood against many. Any juicy characterization the audience received beyond that was just icing on the cake of an already tasty premise.
In comparison, Saving Private Ryan isn’t really that different from 300 in the amount of effort put forth on the writer’s part to flesh out the core military unit being followed. Honestly, besides Tom Hank’s Captain Miller and Damon’s titular Private Ryan, was any character from that World War II epic given anything beyond the barest of ornamental traits? You’ve got the fat guy, the sniper, the Italian guy, the Jewish guy, the scared guy, etc. Sure, you might remember the actors who played them, but the characters’ solo stories were pithy compared to the riveting chronicle they underwent as a united group. Forced into a seemingly unbeatable scenario, an armed force eventually overcomes the enormous odds in spite of their depleting numbers. Sounds familiar, yes?
RISHI: I don’t want to get too deeply into a discussion about Saving Private Ryan for fear of looking foolish; I honestly don’t recall the film that well except for the opening and closing battle sequences. But, one point I do want to make is that, even if the characterizations were not deep, it still showed people from different backgrounds coming together for the sake of a common cause. All we have in 300 are completely anonymous cookie-cutter soldiers. I simply cannot cheer for a society that represses individuality and expects everyone to behave in a certain way. I admit that the accomplishment of the Spartans is somewhat impressive, but their way of life goes against everything I believe as a human being. You seem to think that these soldiers can evoke at least some sympathy when taken as a group, but these are horrible human beings. Unfortunately, the Persians, as portrayed in the film, are not much better. They are shown to be exploitative and perverse. They are not shown to be exotic or mysterious, but completely alien. So my reaction to their little war is apathy.
Another premise that I generally believe about art, any kind of art, whether it be poetry or film or painting, is that contrast and juxtaposition makes everything stronger. If you show me a great battle scene, I am impressed. Follow that with another great battle scene, and I might enjoy it. And then, if you constantly throw more and more battle scenes at me, then I get bored. The entire film is the same. On the other hand, if you show me a battle scene and then give me a dramatic moment, I relax a little. I am ready to be impressed by the visuals once again, having caught my breath. The film makes a few attempts to break up the action, with the subplot between Queen Gorgo and the traitor Theron. I will agree with your assessment in your original review that those scenes felt a little flat, but I did like them because they offered me something besides an unending cavalcade of blood. I think it would be terribly easy to chalk up this deficiency to personal taste, which I am not denying as a factor. But, my next challenge to you is to defend this style from an artistic or aesthetic viewpoint.
JAMES: Before we go spelunking down that tunnel, allow me a moment to address the generalized / vilified aspects of the Spartans. Films about war, by their very nature, have to sometimes suppress the individuality of the assembled soldiers in order to properly explain and express the larger battle. Huge blocks of anonymous people marching against, shooting at, or being slaughtered by other sizable crowds of guys is nothing new to cinema. Properly capturing the scale of war and the enormity of the devastation unfortunately necessitates reducing the majority of its participants into being anonymous faces. Anti-war films typically humanize the soldiers in order to motivate the audience into caring for their fates and then either kills them or grievously wounds them, psychologically or physically. This technique prompts us to question the importance of the war’s goal when compared to the loss of so many lives, each with a deep series of connections to the world around them.
300 doesn’t do much of this because it’s not an anti-war film; it’s a foray into the creation of myths and, as such, it’s unconcerned with many of the character building notions modern screenwriters use on a daily basis. The proof of the pudding is in the heroes’ actions, which is why so much screen time is spent on the gloriously over the top battle scenes. That’s why the film keeps upping the ante for the Spartans by sending more waves of troops and increasingly outlandish opponents. Initial reports of this victory likely ballooned to resemble the visuals seen in the movie because each Spartan citizen inflated the players and the actions as the story was told and retold. There’s also something to be said for artists that continuously seek to beat their previous high scores at the movie arcade. If John Woo gives me a dazzling gunfight with twelve guys in a restaurant, I’m not going to be pissed if he wants to have a later shootout in a warehouse with forty gangsters and cops. The reason? He’s good at filming this stuff and making it exciting. I think Zack Snyder’s work in 300 is comparable in this respect. I will admit, however, that you and I are likely diametrically opposed in regards to the appeal of such a strategy.
Let me ask you something, do you really think Robert Rodriguez did a better job of bringing Frank Miller’s unique visuals to the big screen? I know you’re a comic book reader, so I’d hazard to guess you have some familiarity with both properties, if only from internet research. Would you even consider the notion that Sin City, while innovative, didn’t go as far as 300 did to preserve the power of the comic images when transferring the material between mediums?
RISHI: I would consider the notion, but first, I am going to dodge the question. Generally speaking, I like to regard movies in their own right without consideration to the source material. A book and a film are such different mediums that it strikes me as somewhat futile to look at them in the same way. Comic books are somewhat easier to compare, since a comic book is, at its most basic level, pictures and dialogue. With the rise of the comic book movie, we are seeing a lot more interest in the source material. Almost every good comic book movie has made some changes to the original, and, in the best films, those changes are actually preferable. I don’t think directors should get bonus points for being faithful to the original vision. If the movie is good, I don’t care if it bastardizes the comic book, so to speak.
So, instead, I am going to talk about why I liked Sin City better than 300. I think I have harped on the lack of individual characters and quieter moments in 300 quite a bit, so I will push those issues aside for now. But, I think Sin City was superior on a visual level as well. I always think that black-and-white with spots of color provides a great contrast on screen. I always think of it as the Pleasantville effect, and there’s something about it that draws me in. Rodriguez knew when to push the visuals to their limits, and when to let them sit there quietly. Even though it has been much longer since I’ve seen Sin City, I can remember more individual scenes than in 300. However, I admitted, even at the beginning of our conversation, that 300 is a visually interesting film. I still think Sin City is visually superior, but I will say that 300 comes awfully close.
Well, James, I have a couple last questions for you which are fairly simple. First of all, it seems that I enjoyed the scenes with Queen Gorgo a little more than you. It at least gave us a glimpse of what these Spartans were fighting for. What would you have liked instead? My second question is unrelated to the rest of our conversation, but I have to ask: what was the deal with the rock music?
JAMES: Allow me a moment to shake the coolness of a Pleasantville / Sin City crossover out of my head. You just blew my mind. Annnd it’s gone.
My opinion of the Gorgo scenes actually seems to fall slightly out of sync with that of the majority of readers online (at least on the sites I frequent). They’re apparently not in the original series and it’s generally thought of as a weak plotline tacked on specifically to provide respite from the otherwise non-stop action pieces and to cater to a wider variety of moviegoers, specifically the female demographic. Although I’ll agree that those sections pale in comparison to the drama from the front line, I dug how nicely Lena Headey and Dominic West played off each other. West was downright hissable as the slimy defector and I think a lot of people in the audience were psyched to see Headey’s character finally turn the tables on him.
Now if that same moment had been accompanied by the furious shredding of an electrical guitar, I’d think you’d have consensus across the board that 300 ruled on every level. Or not. Honestly, I’m hard pressed to defend the sudden injection of modern instrumentation in a film set during ancient times. It was a little cheesy, but if I like cheese on a burger, why not a movie? Mmm…celluloid. Now I want a sequel more than ever – or a quarter pounder. I can’t decide which.