It’s been easy sport since the 2002 publication of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film to lambaste David Thomson for losing touch with the modern cinema. There’s his continuing aversion to horror filmmakers (appraisals of Joe Dante, Mario Bava and John Landis are elided in favor of useless entries for barely average hacks like Arthur Hiller, Taylor Hackford and Jack Clayton), a tendency to simply list titles in lieu of anything interesting to say (as if there is no such thing as the IMDb nowadays) and, most amusing of all, that three-sentence dismissal of Wes Anderson: "Watch this space. What does that mean? That he might be something one day." He’s already something quite more than, say, Brendan Fraser, but that didn’t stop Thomson from honoring the Encino Man with four paragraphs of listless prose (by the way, that’s one more paragraph than Sergio Leone received).
As is often the case with old critics, Thomson has gone curmudgeon; though I still read him, he’s only engaging when he’s enraging. This would be excusable and maybe even fun if his offenses were merely well-written tear-downs of artists I happen to like. The problem, though, is that these erudite screeds are frequently riddled with factual errors and clouded judgment. Recently, Thomson considered the admittedly erratic trajectory of Matt Damon’s career: he’s gone from wizened ingenue to movie star to serious actor to action star to a guy who seems to have no idea what to do with his Hollywood clout. Studios are undoubtedly courting him for tough guy parts, hoping to cash in on that Bourne thing (and is that "thing" proprietary to Damon or 2nd Unit Director Dan Bradley?), but Damon seems more interested in playing enigmas (i.e. when he’s not fooling around with Clooney & Co.). He could very easily abuse his stardom and chase $15 million – $20 million paydays for a few years, but, instead, he’s proceeding with extreme caution. The work obviously means something to him.
Subtlety is a big part of what makes Damon a critic’s darling, but suppressed, self-deluded characters, be they inexpressive (The Good Shepherd‘s Edward Wilson) or manic (Tom Ripley), bore old man Thomson. He complains of Damon’s "numb, stricken look", which the actor certainly employs in Syriana and The Good Shepherd. If Thomson had stopped there, I might’ve excused his essay as filler; but then he goes and lumps The Talented Mr. Ripley into this group, which makes no sense at all unless one is desperate to prolong an argument that wasn’t really tenable in the first place. For Thomson, the apex of Damon’s young career is his performance in Courage Under Fire, where he is "thin, twisted and utterly beyond being trusted". As someone who considers that film to be Ed Zwick’s finest hour on the big screen (the made-for-television Special Report remains the director’s finest achievement period), I agree completely. What’s inexplicable, though, is Thomson’s selectivity: aside from "thin", how does that description not apply to Damon’s portrayal of Tom Ripley? Has he watched the movie recently? Once you get past the Jude Law’s flamboyance (which does kinda dominate one’s first viewing), Damon’s and Minghella’s Ripley begins to yield something far more profound than the simple menace of Highsmith’s character. How could anyone who’s witnessed this incredibly brave performance believe that Damon is "doomed to be all-American"?
This brings us to Thomson’s entry on David Mamet, which might be the dumbest thing this very smart man has ever written. Let’s get the factual errors out of the way first: Thomson cites Joan of Bark: The Dog That Saved France as Mamet’s next film when even the untrustworthy IMDb lists Redbelt as "filming" (as it has been for weeks, which Thomson or his research assistant could’ve confirmed with a single phone call, email or Google search – and if you want to claim he’s technically correct, I’d entertain the notion if he’d mentioned Redbelt once in his essay), and seems to believe Mamet directed Edmond (that honor would go to Stuart Gordon, but he makes horror movies and, therefore, does not exist in Thomson’s blinkered universe).
If only this were the extent of Thomson’s foolishness. Unfortunately, the primary thrust of his piece is to discount Mamet as a writer in full. Here’s Thomson on the value of American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross: "If I had to say what they’re about, it would be men talking. Not quite doing or revealing anything – just talking." And he’s right. There’s not a whit of nuance in those plays. Mamet has nothing to say about the male obsession with professionalism, personal pride and legacy. They are but surface – mindless constructs slapped together for the pleasure of the Pulitzer Board. If they ceased to be performed today, the culture would be no poorer.
I’ll give Thomson a smidgen of credit: at least he didn’t dismiss Mamet on vulgarian grounds. And it’s immensely valuable to have someone throwing down in defense of the screenplay for Hoffa (one of Mamet’s best, but horribly mis-directed by Danny DeVito). But how could a fierce Bush-hater like Thomson fail to see that Spartan is one of the most devastatingly subtle critiques of post-9/11 American foreign policy? Well, I guess he’d have to be interested in subtlety, which his Damon profile demonstrated he clearly is not. And while I’ll give him The Winslow Boy as a pointless restaging of Terence Rattigan’s relentlessly straightforward play (even though I do not agree), why no mention of what might be Mamet’s best film as a writer-director to date, State and Main?
Look, Thomson has conditioned me like an abused housewife ("He’s a good man!!!"), so I’ll keep reading his increasingly out-of-touch missives as long as he keeps tossing them off. Anytime he holds forth on Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks, it’s an event. But it’d be nice if he could occasionally sit back, take a deep sip of Cabernet and not instinctively judge his subjects based on long-held prejudices, because I have a feeling that he’d be really into what Damon and Mamet are up to right now if he bothered to stay current.
*I’ve had difficulty buttoning essays before, but read that last paragraph and tell me it isn’t an embarrassment for a writer of Thomson’s caliber?