300 Spartans; 117 Minutes; 2007; 17 Year-Old Viewers: $127 Million

Zack Snyder’s 300, from a screenplay by Mr. Snyder, Kurt Johnstad and Michael B. Gordon, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, set a first-week box-office record for 2007—which is one of the two reasons I ventured to see it at a noontime showing at a local non-IMAX theater. The second reason was that my late mother Themis was a Spartan, as were her two brothers—my uncles—Leonidas and Sophocles. (How much more ancient Greek can one get?) I have neither seen nor reviewed most of the first-week box-office champions in recent years, because, in most instances, it would be like shooting fish in a barrel; and I must report that 300 was as pathetically puerile as I had expected. Yet I can’t say that it wasn’t at least minimally entertaining. Indeed, there was a subtextual strangeness about the spectacle that would have made the ghost of Leni Riefenstahl nod in recognition. The ghost of my late mother, on the other hand, would have found the movie unacceptably immoral, of all things, particularly when Queen Gorgo of Sparta (Lena Headey) “gives in” to the loathsome Spartan politician Theron (Dominic West) as the price for getting the council to send reinforcements to King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and his 300 brave Spartan warriors at Thermopylae.

Ah, but what Spartan warriors: 300 gym-hardened Aryan musclemen in leather Speedo swimming trunks behind their metal shields, arrayed against polyglot Persian hordes of many shapes, colors and sizes, led by a giant, jewel-pierced Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro). There is the predictable rhetoric about free men battling against an army of slaves, but never in my wildest ethnic imaginings did I suppose that Greeks were a different species of the animal kingdom than Persians. After all, Alexander the Great—one of my earliest heroes—seemed to get along with the Persians after he conquered them.

And then you have the Nazi militaristic ethos as a subtext in an early sequence in which a Spartan baby is about to be tossed off a cliff when it is deemed unfit to grow up into a warrior. The well-known advice of a Spartan mother to her soldier-son—“Come home with your shield or on it”—is put into the mouth of Queen Gorgo to her own Thermopylae-bound husband, King Leonidas.

At one point, a Spartan hunchback volunteers his services and begs the King to let him prove his valor. But then how did a Spartan male baby grow up to such a disabling and deformed adulthood? The hunchback explains that his softhearted mother took pity on him and hid him from the authorities. Leonidas asks the hunchback to pass a physical test required for all his warriors, and the hunchback fails dismally. Leonidas tactfully rejects the heartbroken applicant.

Eventually, the hunchback is bribed by Xerxes with promises of earthly delights (Persian hootchie-kootchie dancers!) to betray Leonidas and his stubborn Spartans by revealing a secret pass in the mountain range where the Persians can outflank the Spartans. The theme of betrayal looms large in this retelling of the last stand at Thermopylae. First, Spartan holy men, perverted by Persian gold, preach a gospel of appeasement toward the Persians. Then Theron and his corrupt band of lily-livered politicians complete the process of “letting down the troops.” (The allegorical parallels with the Iraq quagmire may or may not have been intentional: Who can tell what the mobs of American moviegoers actually make of this cinematic salute to total war to keep us all free?)

In any event, Iranian newspapers have already taken up the cudgels against 300 as an instrument of American foreign policy. “Hollywood declares war on Iranians,” read one Tehran newspaper headline, according to Nasser Karimi in an Associated Press report in the National Herald of March 17, 2007. Still, the rumored bootleg DVD’s in Iran may be revelatory, what with all the licentious antics of the pre-Islamic Persians in the good old days, as seen in a cartoonish movie like 300.

Trouble Agent

Billy Ray’s Breach, from a screenplay by Adam Mazer, William Rotko and Mr. Ray, based on a story by Mr. Mazer and Mr. Rotko, turns out to be as fully absorbing a cat-and-mouse game of deception and betrayal as Mr. Ray’s debut film, Shattered Glass (2003), based on the real-life story of Stephen Glass, a writer for The New Republic who was exposed for faking his stories. However, the stakes in Breach are much higher, since the movie involves an F.B.I. agent, Robert Hanssen, who committed the most treasonous acts in the nation’s history. For 22 of the 25 years he served with the F.B.I., he sold a large number of vital secrets to the Soviet Union for large amounts of money. He was arrested on Feb. 18, 2001, only months before the demolition of the World Trade Center completely overshadowed his Cold War acts of espionage for the once-menacing Soviet Union. The country now had a whole new set of enemies to confront.

The genesis of Breach evolved slowly from the recollections of a young federal agent, Eric O’Neill, who had been recruited by his suspicious superiors to become Mr. Hanssen’s assistant in a new job invented by the F.B.I. ostensibly to “promote” Hanssen, but actually to keep him from retiring and thus escape them before they could get the goods on him.

It was actually Eric’s brother, David, who persuaded him that his three-month assignment with Hanssen would make an exciting movie. Producers Bobby Newmyer and Scott Strauss of Outlaw Productions quickly bought the rights to Mr. O’Neill’s story, hired the screenwriter team of Mr. Mazert and Mr. Rotko to write the script, and eventually brought in writer-director Mr. Ray aboard to direct.

Ultimately, the movie soars because of the inspired casting of Chris Cooper as Hanssen. Mr. Cooper delivers a multifaceted performance as a remarkably complex human being, by turns sour and disgruntled, warm and vulnerable, a devout Catholic and a proselytizing convert to Opus Dei. When Hanssen discovers that Eric (Ryan Phillippe) is a former Catholic seminarian whose faith has begun to lapse, he persuades Eric and his skeptical East German wife, Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas), to attend Mass with him and his equally devout Catholic wife, Bonnie (Kathleen Quinlan), and their children.

Eric soon becomes restive with his assignment: to prove that Hanssen is a scandalous sexual deviant. This is the cover story that Eric’s superior, Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney), has planted with Eric to keep him from blowing his cover. When Eric expresses his doubts that the singularly devout Hanssen is guilty of any sexual misconduct, Kate tells him of the F.B.I.’s real suspicions, which they have as yet been unable to prove. The story is told in flashback, so that we know the end before we know the beginning—and still, Mr. Ray and his cast and other collaborators manage to generate considerable suspense. On the one hand, we want O’Neill to succeed in what he is doing; on the other, we come to share Eric’s ambivalence, if not outright disgust, at exploiting another human being’s feelings so as to entrap him. It is a dirty business all around. And the last shots of the two men in their soul-weary states make Breach a memorably humanistic landmark in the cinema.

Trois’Company?

Jean-Claude Brisseau’s Exterminating Angels, from his own screenplay (in French with English subtitles), confronts head-on the problematic neutrality of the male gaze on extensive female nudity and lovemaking, whether self-masturbatory or à deux or even à trois. Mr. Brisseau postulates an alter-ego voyeur, a fictional director named François (Frédéric van den Driessche), who is casting a film that’s concerned with the paradoxes and peculiarities of female sexuality. In his 12th film in a career that began back in 1975, Mr. Brisseau has earned a reputation for pushing the envelope of eroticism comparable to that of Catherine Breillat. I have seen only one of his previous films, Secret Things (2002), the litigious making of which forms the ostensible subject of the ultimately noirish Exterminating Angels.

This is to say that there are angels and ghosts in Mr. Brisseau’s latest opus, along with a satanic aura that goes with this territory. The story itself begins with the director’s audition for actresses willing to appear in the nude for extended periods. The first dozen or so applicants turn him down flat, but he finally finds three without any inhibitions, Charlotte (Maroussia Dubreuil), Julie (Lise Bellynck) and Stéphanie (Marie Allan).

The problem is that the director’s insistence on his objectivity and non-involvement in the wild spectacles he unleashes clashes with the inescapable narcissism of the very good-looking, God-playing spectator himself. He is warned by his wife, Nathalie (Sophie Bonnet), that he is only asking for trouble with his project, and in the end he is punished after a fashion for his hubristic undertaking. At the very least, Mr. Brisseau honors the infinitely varying psyches of his female subjects. One may scoff at his voyeuristic self-indulgence, but when you come right down to it, isn’t that what the cinema is all about, one way or another?

300 Spartans; 117 Minutes; 2007;  17 Year-Old Viewers: $127 Million