In ‘The Midnight Sky,’ George Clooney Offers Season’s Greetings From the End of the World

Netflix’s Christmas offering is a surprisingly touching sci-fi drama, ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ is a stunning swan song for Chadwick Boseman and ‘Official Secrets’ is a gripping whistleblower movie

Adrian Hennigan
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George Clooney, who stars in and directs the Netflix movie "The Midnight Sky."
George Clooney, who stars in and directs the Netflix movie "The Midnight Sky."Credit: Philippe Antonello/AP
Adrian Hennigan

We can only assume the executives at Netflix stopped listening after the first few words of the original film pitch – “There’s this old guy with a white beard, working in the Arctic Circle…” – when they decided to release “The Midnight Sky” just in time for Christmas. Either that or they’re trying really hard to position themselves as the “anti-Hallmark” with this sci-fi drama, which is set in the year 2049 after an unseen cataclysmic event destroys most of Earth.

I’m sure plenty of people will find George Clooney’s latest movie a tad too sentimental or soporific for their tastes, but I was ultimately rather touched and moved by this adaptation of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2016 novel “Good Morning, Midnight.”

Clooney also stars in this lavish-looking pic as – wait for it – Augustine Lofthouse, a terminally ill scientist-astronomer who, as if to prove that deadly irony wasn’t invented in 2020, may end up being the last man standing on our dying planet.

He’s manning the Barbeau Observatory in the icy northern wastelands – which at least suggests it wasn’t global warming that did for us. And while his age isn’t specified in the film, the novel says Augustine is 78, describing him as a man who “had never been satisfied and never would be.” A grinch, in other words. The fact that Clooney’s full-on beard and aging makeup make him look rather like Mel Gibson after a particularly heavy bender only adds to that grinchy effect.

The film flits between two settings: the abandoned Arctic observatory where Augustine works and is shocked one day to find he has company in the shape of a 7- or 8-year-old girl called Iris (the cherubic-like Caoilinn Springall, to add to the festive theme); and the Aether, a spaceship he’s desperately trying to contact as it returns to Earth after a successful two-year mission to a moon orbiting Jupiter. The good news is that this satellite, K-23, could be another viable place for humankind to live; the bad news is, well, I refer you to those earlier paragraphs.

Felicity Jones and David Oyelowo in "The Midnight Sky."Credit: Philippe Antonello/AP

The five astronauts on the Aether include mission leader Ade (David Oyelowo), comms specialist Sully (Felicity Jones, whom I shall spend my entire life confusing with Daisy Ridley) and pilot Mitchell (Kyle Chandler – and isn’t Coach Taylor just the type of dependable soul you’d want on your space mission?). But while the action set pieces on the spaceship have probably all been done before – especially the inevitable “perilous space walk,” last seen in Netflix’s mission-to-Mars series “Away” – they’re staged so beautifully and effectively that you soon forget those feelings of déja vu.

There are plenty of longueurs between those expensively staged set pieces but, funnily enough, these were the moments I enjoyed the most. Maybe I just have a soft spot for Clooney because of his association with Nespresso, which I credit with single-handedly getting me through 2020, but he’s such an old-school presence that I could literally watch him reading the phonebook and still find him compelling. Which is just as well, because he does spend an inordinate amount of time here doing very little.

This is clearly his most ambitious film to date as a director – a big-budget space odyssey that looks stunning whether it’s earthbound (the Arctic scenes were shot in Iceland and look so convincing, I had to put a coat on halfway through) or in space.

And yes, while there’s a twist you can practically see coming all the way from Jupiter, damned if it didn’t reduce me to a blubbering mess by the film’s conclusion.

Even though the movie is set in 2049, the bad news for musicians is that no music appears to have been written in the intervening three decades. At least, I assume that’s why Clooney’s character is listening to “Tennessee Whiskey” by Chris Stapleton – the 2015 hit serves as an obvious reference to both Augustine’s drinking habit and the thick beard he shares with the singer (not literally; that’d just be weird) – while a key cosmic set piece plays out to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” The joke is that only the youngest crew member doesn’t recognize what would by then be an 80-year-old classic, though I’m not sure any of them would be quite such fans.

Kyle Chandler in "The Midnight Sky."Credit: Philippe Antonello/AP

For me, the film is a fascinating mix of “The Thing” (sans alien), “The Revenant,” “Gravity” and “Silent Running,” the 1972 Bruce Dern sci-fi classic I’ve never truly recovered from seeing as a child. But the film it probably has most in common with, given the relationship at its core, is actually Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” from 2014 – though Clooney’s film won’t give you a headache trying to work out what the heck just happened. Instead, if you let it, “The Midnight Sky” will offer a feast for the eyes and give your tear ducts a good workout in the process.

You should also spare a thought for Ethan (“Grandson of Gregory”) Peck, the actor with probably the toughest job in Hollywood: playing a younger version of George Clooney. Not bad, Ethan, but don’t expect a call from Nespresso anytime soon.

‘Official Secrets’

I love pretty much any movie or TV series set in the world of journalism (yes, even Ron Howard’s “The Paper” and Russell Crowe’s remake of “State of Play”), but one that combines journalism and a real-life whistleblower story is as close to celluloid heaven as it gets for me.

I’ve been waiting a very long time for “Official Secrets” to reach Israel (Gavin Hood’s film had the misfortune of coming out here at exactly the same time as the coronavirus, scuppering its theatrical release) – and it was well worth the wait.

This British thriller recounts the story of – and yes, this was her real name – Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), who for two years worked as a spy at Britain’s main “listening post,” called GCHQ. However, when her department was asked to source intel that would help the Americans apply pressure to the nonpermanent members on the UN Security Council, ahead of the 2003 vote on invading Iraq, she took a stand and decided to leak the document.

From my understanding of events, “Official Secrets” is a pretty accurate representation of what happened next – including a quite brilliant scene in which a copy editor at The Observer newspaper (the weekly sister paper to The Guardian) makes perhaps the mother of all spell check errors and makes it onto the homepage on The Drudge Report due to her faux pas. If you needed any proof that this film is set in England, a reporter’s response to the error is to ask the now-distraught copy editor if she’d like a cup of tea.

Keira Knightley as whistleblower Katharine Gun in "Official Secrets."Credit: Nick Wall / Classified films Ltd

The scenes at the newspaper and subsequent legal battles are far more convincing than the initial scenes at GCHQ (“Andy, where’s my Pyongyang report? Just get it done!”), but Knightley proves once again that she’s more than just a pouty face. She’s playing a principled, brave woman here, exhibiting just the right amount of fear for her actions: pretty much the first thing she does when she realizes The Observer has published the story is to run to the toilet and throw up (in all fairness, I have a similar reaction whenever I see the cover of The Daily Mail).

Rhys Ifans has great fun playing the paper’s Washington correspondent, while it’s always a pleasure to see Ralph Fiennes on screen – here as human rights barrister Ben Emmerson, representing Gun and spotting a potential flaw in the state’s case when she’s prosecuted for breaking the Official Secrets Act.

Knightley’s casting in the lead role did make me think of another great British film about the second Iraq war – but this time, one that plays it as farce. If you’ve never seen “In the Loop,” Armando Iannucci’s 2009 comedy about the “sexing-up” of the decisive dossier about WMDs, you should watch it in a double bill with “Official Secrets.” Along with “Four Lions,” it’s hands-down the funniest British film of the century and barely a day goes by without me having one of its lines in my head. Aptly enough after Knightley’s excellent performance in the gripping “Official Secrets,” it was “Shut it, ‘Love Actually!’”

By the way, while I’m talking about great British films that have been out for a while, I would also strongly recommend a stunning documentary called “Maiden.”

It’s about the first-ever all-female crew to took part in the grueling (to put it mildly) Whitbread Round the World Race in 1989, and does for women yachtsmen (you see how sexist the sport is?) what “The Queen’s Gambit” did for young female chess players. Kind of. I finally caught up with “Maiden” over the weekend and it completely blew me away. You can watch it on Yes and Hot VOD, among others, and unlike that black-market purchase of hydroxychloroquine you made over the summer, you will not regret it.

‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’

In a normal year, “The Midnight Sky” and Netflix’s other big December releases – David Fincher’s wonderful “Mank” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” – would be accumulating awards buzz after initially wowing in movie theaters. No such luck this year, which is a real shame since all three would have been delights to experience on the big screen.

Of course, the real tragedy about “Ma Rainey” isn’t the lack of a major theatrical release but the death of its male star, Chadwick Boseman, at the depressingly young age of 43 this summer. The fact he was receiving treatment for colon cancer while filming this drama just makes his performance all the more remarkable.

Boseman was a mesmeric presence in the likes of Jackie Robinson biopic “42” and, most famously, the Marvel superhero extravaganza “Black Panther.” He was easily the best thing in the otherwise insipid James Brown biopic “Get on Up,” too.

So, it’s no real surprise that he’s electrifying here in George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of the 1982 August Wilson play about legendary Black blues singer Ma Rainey.

Chadwick Boseman as Levee in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."Credit: David Lee/AP

The film both looks and sounds fantastic, but it’s Boseman’s wonderfully charismatic turn as trumpeter and budding songwriter Levee that truly stands out. (Denzel Washington was originally set to play the role back in 2013 when HBO first bought the screen rights, but he ultimately settled for a producing credit here and a starring role in another Wilson adaptation, “Fences,” in 2016.)

Boseman captures both the charming and haunted sides of the talented musician – and when this particular Levee breaks late on, it’s a stunning, jaw-dropping moment that deserves to win him a posthumous Oscar next year. He’s also a contender for a best supporting actor nomination for his brief but powerful turn in Spike Lee’s Vietnam War drama “Da 5 Bloods,” and it will be a major surprise if he isn’t honored for at least one of those performances.

“Ma Rainey” would be essential viewing for Boseman alone. But this deceptively simple story, about a group of Black musicians rehearsing and cutting a record with Ma Rainey (an unrecognizable Viola Davis) in 1927 Chicago, is one of the most engrossing 94 minutes you’ll spend on Netflix this year.

Viola Davis in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."Credit: David Lee/AP

The mood switches from boisterous to bleak in the blink of an eye, with Davis’ character a fierce, belligerent woman determined to claim what’s rightfully hers in a white, male-controlled world. You may not particularly care for Ma Rainey as she denigrates Levee and refuses to let him cut his own version of the eponymous track, but you’re left in no doubt as to why she has to act tough (perfectly illustrated in the crushing finale that’s no less powerful for its predictability).

“This’d be an empty world without the blues,” the title character says halfway through. Yet while the music definitely gives the film an extra edge, it’s the performances of Boseman, Davis, and a supporting cast that includes Colman Domingo and Glynn Turman, that truly make it sing.

“The Midnight Sky” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” are out now on Netflix. “Official Secrets” is available to download on Cellcom tv, Yes VOD and Sting TV from Thursday, and airs on Yes Movies Action on Friday at 9:30 P.M. and Hot Cinema 1 on Friday at 10 P.M. It’s also available on CinemaTime from December 27.

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