Late one night in 1992, Rob Bindler was coming out of a bar in his hometown of Longview, Texas, when he saw bright lights and activity at the car lot across the street. What he found was a contest sponsored by the local Nissan dealership. The rules were simple: Contestants had to keep one hand on a hard-body pickup truck at all times, round the clock. The last man standing drove it home.
Bindler, then an NYU film student, saw the makings of a movie in the situation. “Whenever I told people the idea,” he says in a phone interview, “I got a litany of questions, ranging from ‘why?’ to ‘how?’ ” Yet he noticed that people always wanted to know more. In 1995, he took two cameramen and some video cameras back to Longview to get the competition on film.
The result is a thoroughly engrossing documentary called Hands on a Hard Body, which will be screened Tuesday at a benefit for the Nashville Independent Film Festival at the Regal Green Hills Commons 16. Bindler will attend with his buddy, fellow Longview townie Matthew McConaughey, who put up some of the money for the filmwhich cost less than the $15,000 pickup being offered as a prize.
The real prize is the movie. In its insight into the aspirations of working Americans, Hands on a Hard Body serves as a true-life companion piece to Jonathan Demme’s flaky early comedies about ambitious small-town dreamers. In brief, telling interviews, Bindler quickly sketches the 24 contestants in terms of why each wants the truck. One woman is sick of her bicycle; another hopes to sell the truck and give up one of her two jobs. The returning champ simply wants to prove his mettle.
Bindler never mocks their reasoning. Instead, he delves into the local car culture that fuels their dreamsthe idea of the truck as transportation, livelihood, status symbol, and escape. The dwindling contestants, meanwhile, fight delirium, exhaustion, and paranoia, while bonding through a kind of battle fatigue. What follows is a remarkable study of ever-changing group dynamics in a grueling 72-hour pressure cooker.
According to Bindler, the cameras didn’t bother the contestants, who usually welcomed any break in the tedium. The crew members even made “gentlemen’s bets” about the outcome, he says. But in the end, nobody was able to predict the winner, whose identity is a real surprise. “I think that shows in the film,” the director observes. “I really didn’t know what story I was trying to tell.”
Hands on a Hard Body is getting a test release in cities such as Nashville, where it opens Nov. 20; if all goes well, it’ll open wider in January. Bindler says the Longview contestants who’ve seen the film love it. “I wanted to be able to watch the movie with all those people and not feel ashamed,” he explains in a soft drawl. Plus, it has been greeted enthusiastically at advance screenings across the countryeven in pickup-unfriendly New York. That doesn’t surprise the director.
“The only person in New York with a pickup truck is going to be a working man,” Rob Bindler says. “And he’ll understand what this movie is all about.”
When director Edward Zwick first saw the script that became The Siege, it was a fairly conventional thriller about terrorism, populated by the kind of frothy-mouthed Arab villains that pop up all too frequently in a cinema without easy enemies. Zwick, though, was fascinated by a brief scene toward the end, in which the U.S. Army sweeps into an ethnic neighborhood in Brooklyn and begins herding Arab Americans into internment camps. What an opportunity, Zwick thought, to make an action film with a strong message about civil liberties.
In truth, The Siege isn’t much as a political statement, but it’s not bad as a suspense flick. Denzel Washington stars as an FBI agent in charge of domestic counter-terrorism. When New York City suffers a series of bombings perpetrated by a seemingly nameless Arab enemy, Washington’s agent is offered help he doesn’t wantfrom a mysterious CIA operative (Annette Bening) and a bullish Army general (Bruce Willis).
Bening is frankly awful here: She over-enunciates like a deglamorized Sharon Stone. Willis is even worse, with his cold glares and rapid, meaningless jargon. To be fair, though, they don’t have much to work with. Willis’ general quickly becomes a rabid authoritarian, and Bening’s motivations change so frequently that she might as well have “plot device” sewn onto her sweaters. What makes the film compelling is Washington, whose off-the-cuff strategizing and slow-burn frustration seem palpably real as the body count starts mounting.
Then the Army invades, and The Siege moves into more theoretical realms that are often as dry as a civics class. The movie has made headlines because of protests by the Arab American Anti-Defamation League, which have puzzled the well-meaning Zwick. His puzzlement would end if he watched the last hour of his film a little more closely. Except for his zealous Arab villain (whose agenda is never properly explained) and his comic-relief Arab FBI agent (the underused Tony Shalhoub), his portrait of the Arab community amounts to a faceless, exotic mob, practicing a strange-looking religion and shaking their fists.
If Zwick really wanted to make a movie about human-rights violations in the name of public safety, he could’ve dropped his camera in the modern-day West Bank, where Palestinians have been abused and dangerously marginalized because of the actions of a minority of radicals. That would have been a brave filma complex updating of Battle of Algiers, not a stingless Twilight Zone episode.
But whatever Zwick may say from his soapbox, The Siege was never intended to be a nuanced sociopolitical potboiler; it’s an action film with message-heavy accents, and most audiences are likely to see the escalating racial tension as a superficial plot twist. At one point in the film, Willis’ general warns that the military is “a broadsword, not a scalpel.” The Siege is neitherit’s a sledgehammer. It has a powerful impact, but it doesn’t leave much of substance behind.
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