I love handheld camera work in the movies I watch. I LOVE IT. If you told me the only movie I could watch for the rest of my life was The Bourne Ultimatum, I would be totally fine with this.
Shit, if you said the same thing about Cloverfield I probably wouldn’t be particularly upset. But sometimes I do worry about that style. Sometimes I worry that this illusion of authenticity is bad for society in the long run. Now, the two movies I have listed already are good movies with interesting themes. But there are plenty of worse movies that use a similar handheld, ‘you’re there except that you aren’t’ style of shooting. Recently, Safe House was elevated from ‘shitty movie’ to ‘absolutely worth watching’ by handheld cinematographer Oliver Wood’s expertise, and Chronicle went from an interesting teen movie to an extremely interesting look at teens, superheroes, surveillance, and modern media.
In both films, the intensity of the action was upped by the film’s chosen visual style, to the point where I actually could feel my heart pounding at a climactic moment in Chronicle (which never happens outside of Bourne and Christopher Nolan movies). Similar things happened with the aforementioned older films. Cloverfield was as intense as it was because it put the viewer inside the fear a New Yorker on the ground of a terrorist attack felt in 9/11. The Bourne Ultimatum was posited in such a realistic style because the filmmakers wanted you to believe the criticism of the government present in that film was aimed directly at the real president, George W. Bush. This style of filmmaking is done for the purposes of simulated realism, particularly because it is influenced by films that are influenced by documentaries.
When French New Wave cinema came around in the late 1950s and 1960s, many of the rules of traditional filmmaking were destroyed. Handheld camera work became more acceptable, as did previously unbreakable rules like crossing the axis and using jump cuts. Films like Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless broke all the rules, and all American directors wanted to do was the same thing. When William Friedkin made The French Connection in 1971, he was greatly influenced by French New Wave cinema, notably the aforementioned Breathless and Costa Gravas’ film Z. Friedkin wanted to shoot his film in a more documentary style, so he would block out his scenes with the actors alone, and then bring in the camera crew and tell them to simply react to the scene. His camera operator, Enrique Bravo, was an experienced documentary filmmaker, having documented the Cuban Revolution from Fidel Castro’s side, so this was no issue for him.
Friedkin and Bravo would do whatever it took to get the necessary shot with as little set up as possible, from handheld work to using a wheelchair as a dolly, or shooting one of the more infamous car chases in history without any fucking permits. On the director’s commentary track for the film, Friedkin continually discusses his attempts to make the film as realistic as possible, and he often mentions how the film crew was merely reacting to the actors. In his eyes, he views the film as realistic as it could be. Until he remembers that The French Connection is based on a real case, and strays from facts often, at which point Friedkin repeatedly mentions that everything in the film is simply his “impression of the case,” which basically means “well, I had to up the badassery a little.
Everybody wants to see Popeye Doyle shoot a dude in the back.” The concept of reality is now more fluid than it has ever been. Facts don’t matter as much as they used to, and your perception of them often matters more. When speaking to Ron Suskind of the New York Times Magazine in 2004, an unnamed Bush aide said, ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'' WHICH IS TERRIFYING, and leads to the question of when faking reality for the viewer’s perception is legitimately bad for the viewer, or on a grander scale, bad for society itself. Recently, a film called Act of Valour was released. It is about a team of Navy SEALs, and the idea behind the film was initially that it would be a high-budget recruitment video.
This idea still remains, although somewhere along the lines it was decided to turn the training video into a narrative film to be released for the common moviegoer’s consumption. The narrative in the movie consists of the depiction of a number of various, real acts of valour being strung together. But when it was decided the movie would be released for the masses a fictional, world-threatening narrative had to be added. The directors of the film, Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh are faced with the same quandary Friedkin had years ago: they have made a film based on real events, but have strung them together in a fictional manner using the most realistic filmmaking style they could come up with. In interviews, McCoy and Waugh act essentially the same way Friedkin did, explaining that the film is as realistic as anything that has ever been made, except for the fact that it’s not real at all.
This movie features handheld camera work, and even a camera the directors dubbed the “helmet cam,” which is more or less the Call of Duty viewpoint. This movie will not be remembered in the pantheon of great action cinema, but what matters is that it has been seen, to the point where it was the number one film at the box office on its opening weekend. And a film explicitly promoting world-threatening war can’t be good for anybody, particularly when it is also pretending to be real.