Q & A

By Marc S. Sanders

Sidney Lumet is a favorite director of mine.  Maybe it’s because I simply get caught up in good crime dramas and legal thrillers, like Dog Day Afternoon, 12 Angry Men, and The Verdict.  Maybe it’s because I appreciate the genuineness of Lumet’s technique.  The man’s career seems to follow a documentarian theme throughout New York City’s boroughs, politics, courtrooms and especially the various precincts of its police force.  Corruption is the angle that Lumet looks for, and Q & A from 1990 is another such example.

The title refers to the routine transcript that a district attorney will ask a witness following an incident.  So, after the first two minutes of the picture have concluded with New York cop Mike Brennan (Nick Nolte) shooting a Hispanic at point blank range, execution style, outside a seedy nightclub, a fresh-faced D.A. named Al Reilly (Timothy Hutton) is recruited in the middle of the night to collect Mike’s statement on the incident and wrap it up quickly, as his supervisor Kevin Quinn (Patrick O’Neal) strongly urges.

Mike is a celebrated cop with tall tales to share of how he strong arms suspects.  Everyone seems to like his relaxed way of tossing around racist vulgarities in his anecdotes.  No demographic is left out with how he speaks.  In fact, the name calling is shared among the whole precinct in a very casual way.  The two detectives assigned to the shooting that Mike was involved in, Sam “Chappie” Chapman and Luis Valentin (Charles S Dutton, Luis Guzman), seem to take it in stride as well.  They guffaw with the rest of the crowd when Mike describes how he roughs up street hoods who don’t cooperate. 

Al was once a cop as well, and his father before him was a “hero cop” to the boys in blue too.  He’s more than willing to let this incident go the quick routine, but then he soon realizes how corrupt Mike is and how much of a stronghold he has on the precinct and the various walks of life within the city from the Italian mob, to the Hispanic drug runners, to the transvestite hookers and the Jewish lawyers.  They all fall under his thumb.  Nolte’s stature and bombastic voice tell you that Mike carries a large thumb no matter how blatant his crookedness may appear. 

“Chappie” may be regarded by Mike as the “whitest n—er” he knows, but he’d never even think of turning his colleague in.  That’ll be the day he quits.  He proudly announces he’s blue first and black second. Luis, the Hispanic partner regarded as a “n—er with straight hair, is scared to move forward.  He’s got kids.  Kevin Quinn needs this to just move on.  The shooting of a lowlife Hispanic is not worth risking his advancement in politics.  Al is challenged and turns to his Jewish mentor, Lee Richardson (Leo Bloomfield) for guidance, who can help him get this pushed up the ranks and nab Mike for his atrocities, while circumventing the racist and antisemitic nature of Deputy District Attorney Quinn. 

It gets more complicated for Al, as his ex-girlfriend, Nancy (Jenny Lumet, Sidney’s daughter) is now attached to an important witness to the crime.  Bobby Texador (Armand Assante) is a Hispanic drug dealer who can not only pin Mike for the crime but also incriminate others within the system.  He’s just not so willing to sing.  Al is in a difficult quagmire that circles back to pension left for his mother per his father’s prior service.  He’s also wracked with how to handle Nancy.  They broke up simply because his reaction upon learning that her father was a black man did not go so well.  Even Al, born of virtue, is corrupt of prejudice.  Perhaps Lumet’s screenplay suggests the message that intrinsically we are all at least a little too stereotypical or partial for our own good.  It comes with our sensibilities and maybe it’s a mindset we best unlearn.  The most obvious challenge for Al is that he is subjected to intimidation from his boss Quinn, and especially Mike.  You don’t want Nick Nolte in your face.  That’s for sure.

I can’t lie.  Having watched the film for the first time, I was only looking at the plot and story development of Q & A.  I wasn’t seeing the bigoted culture sewn in among the masses.  Afterwards, I watched Siskel & Ebert on You Tube and they focused on the racist themes and casual name calling among the characters.  It never occurred to me while I was in the moment of watching the movie.  I don’t know what that says about me.  Maybe I’ve grown as comfortable with racist name calling as these characters have.  I don’t talk this way.  I may laugh at Cards Against Humanity or Family Guy.  For these cops to talk among themselves, casually using prejudiced connotations for African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Homosexuals, Transvestites, Jews and Italians within the melting pot of New York City with such nonchalance is more telling of Q & A, than the corruption that unfolds over the course of the picture.  Understanding what Siskel and Ebert found within the script granted me much more appreciation for Lumet’s film, because the twists of the plot and the overpopulation of characters was becoming too convoluted for me.

The strengths of the movie come from the cast performances, especially Nolte and Assante.  Nolte has played many roles where he’s the brute.  Here though, he’s downright despicable with his slicked back hair, tall stature, his thick “I’m your buddy” mustache, and his Irish Catholic character background that announces his superiority to all others.  Armand Assante is an unusual kind of drug kingpin.  He plays Bobby Texador with much self-awareness knowing he can be killed not only for what he knows about this particular shooting but other inside information he can share as well.  He’s a guy who will rise above any threat though.  This guy might be a criminal, but he hardly needs an attorney to negotiate on his behalf.

The trio of Nolte, Assante and Hutton works because each of the men are so different from one another.  These guys wouldn’t work well on a baseball team together.  They wouldn’t even socialize at parties.  Lumet writes these characters so far apart from each other, that loyalty can’t exist between any of them.

A lot of the characteristics of the film are consistent with many other achievements within Lumet’s repertoire like Night Falls On Manhattan and Serpico.  Those are better films.  When plot details reveal themselves in Q & A, I found myself rewinding to the beginning of a few scenes to fully comprehend what was just said. After a while, I gave up interest in the twists.

There was a choice of musical style that left me unsure as well.   Ruben Blades conducted the score for the film and a pop/rock song follows the prologue over the opening credits.  It later resurfaces as things are coming to a head near the end of the film.  Especially for the seedy and unglamourous approach that I love in Sidney Lumet’s films, I wasn’t enthusiastic on this style to heighten the dramatic crescendos.   It felt a little too Miami Vice, when I believe Lumet was aiming for his audience to get mad at the corruption that overtakes a system grounded in law and order. 

Q & A is a must see for fans of Sidney Lumet.  I’m glad I finally saw it.  It’s been on my bucket list for quite a while and I could not find it anywhere on any platform or medium.  (At the time of this writing, it’s available for free on Hulu.)  It’s definitely raw in its character creatures of a New York City from the 1990s, and it’s honest how the rite of passage to be a cop is to roll with the punches of racially lampooning your ethnicity.  It’s the only way to survive among the masses.  Fortunately, the cast plows through with that ugly nature to deliver something authentic.  When the film dives into its conspiracies for the sake of the plot, however, it’s a little too muddied for me to appreciate.  Watch the film for the characterizations.  Heck, watch it for the plot developments because if you can make out everything that’s happening and why, I’d love for you to explain it to me.

ORDINARY PEOPLE

By Marc S. Sanders

Psychiatry is regarded as a stigma within the world of Ordinary People.

Robert Redford’s Oscar winning directorial debut centers on a troubled high school student named Conrad (Timothy Hutton in an Oscar winning role) who finally gets the gumption to see Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch) following a suicide attempt brought on by the guilt he carries when he could not rescue his older brother, Buck, in a stormy boating accident. His parents, Beth and Calvin (Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland), accept this action with differing viewpoints.

For Beth it’s shameful and unnecessary to see a doctor. Her stance is made all the more clear when her own mother frowns upon this, especially with this doctor being a Jew. On the other hand, Calvin looks at it as an opportunity for a breakthrough. This doctor could really be good for Conrad. Beth is embarrassed when Calvin has a few drinks at a neighborhood dinner party and shares these developments with some friends.

For a WASP community, seeing a psychiatrist is not regarded well. It shows that Beth’s image of a perfect lifestyle is tainted. Any problems they have should be resolved in the home. What never occurs to Beth, however, is the resentment she fails to hide for her second son. There’s nothing breaking through Beth’s exterior to allow her true feelings to come out. By contrast, Conrad gradually lets his inner struggle loose and the film shows that it helps, as challenging as it could be.

In 1980, the prior year’s Best Picture winner was Kramer vs Kramer. Three years later it would be Terms Of Endearment. Hollywood was recognizing an audience’s interest in the domestic life. The Vietnam War was now in the past. Reagan economics were taking over and middle-class America seemed to be doing well. Redford’s adaptation of Judith Guest’s novel with a screenplay by Alvin Sargeant showed what was happening behind closed doors. Dramatic moments occur and they can offer a terrible shock in the moment but as days move on, so does everyone around you. You make efforts to do so as well, but you’re still weighed down by that one moment of loss.

Redford directs Hutton with quiet moments of anguish. Quick cut flashbacks offer a glimpse of what’s running through Conrad’s mind. Fortunately, it doesn’t run too long and upstage Hutton’s performance. Timothy Hutton is astonishing with his twitches and stutters and struggle to simply sit still. His blank stare of his blue eyes covey his deep depression. When a girl classmate takes notice of him, you feel the remedy of his sessions starting to make a difference. Where his mother refuses to recognize his need for love, someone else does and you feel better about yourself as well.

There’s always a reason to live. Dr. Berger reminds Conrad of that. Judd Hirsch is right for his role against the waspy wealth of Conrad’s upbringing. He encourages a “not giving a shit” attitude to how people perceive Conrad. We all want a mother’s love, but it doesn’t always work out that way. We want to be accepted at school. That might not work out either. With his sloven stature and chain-smoking manner, Hirsch is very convincing in reminding Conrad to say it’s okay to tell someone to fuck off, and most importantly to stop punishing himself for saying it.

Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland work incredibly well at conflicting with each other while also convincing us that before this terrible accident they likely complimented one another perfectly. Yet, as the film explains, life gets messy. The question is how best to respond when the mess appears and stays with you. Conrad finds the benefits in seeing a therapist like Dr. Berger. Beth will hear nothing of the idea. A magnificent scene done with one tracking camera comes out of nowhere while Beth and Calvin are playing golf with relatives. A slight mention of their son by Calvin gradually explodes into what really sets Calvin and Beth apart from one another. All of their sub conscious thoughts explode on a crowded golf course in front of the community they’ve absorbed their history and marriage within. Redford gets the best beats out of his actors because the shields that maintain their personas will only hold for so long. It’ll break down at a time when it’s never opportune or convenient. This scene occurs near the end of the film as we see Conrad’s recovery, while Beth and Calvin are still mired in both individual and shared heartache and resentment. It’s a crescendo moment that the film builds to for these characters.

Within film discussions, Ordinary People is often sadly regarded as the film that once again denied Martin Scorsese of a well-deserved Oscar (for arguably his greatest work Raging Bull). I don’t think that’s fair, however. Some might say Ordinary People may be dated. However, now that I’ve finally seen the film, I can’t deny it’s importance. Mental health has become more apparent through all kinds of different social classes. Yet we still hide ourselves, and are encouraged to shelter ourselves under a facade of happiness. That can’t always be true for any of us. We, as humans, all suffer. We all feel pain or embarrassment or sadness. If anything, a piece like Ordinary People reminds us that we are all typical, and must succumb to dealing with issues far beyond our mental capacity at one time or another.