Saturday 15 December 2018

Review: Hume film fails to provide a full picture of complex peacemaker

Praise: This week's RTÉ documentary on John Hume, left, included a tribute from Bono, right. Photo: David Conachy
Praise: This week's RTÉ documentary on John Hume, left, included a tribute from Bono, right. Photo: David Conachy

John Boland

When a documentary's first interviewee is Bill Clinton, closely followed by Jimmy Carter and Bono, you know you're watching something very important, especially when you also get to hear from Bertie Ahern, Tony Blair, Enda Kenny, Gerry Adams and John Major.

This was the line-up for John Hume in America (RTÉ1), a 90-minute account of how the Derry politician helped to bring peace to Northern Ireland. Indeed, the only crucial person missing was the now 81-year-old man himself, who has been suffering from dementia for some years and whose ill health, an end caption informed us, prevented him from on-screen participation.

Someone, though (probably producer-director Maurice Fitzpatrick), should have brought more clarity to a film that will have bemused younger viewers who have little knowledge of the Troubles and its history. We heard much from the great and the good about Hume's crucial role in forging ties with influential Irish-American politicians, but the bloody conflict back home wasn't given any real historical or political context. Instead we heard much insider, though not terribly interesting, stories from former Irish diplomats and advisers who were based in the US and who had observed at first hand Hume's cajolings and manoeuvrings in his bid to achieve an end to violence and a lasting peace between both sides.

Yet in a film that had such a starry cast of politicians and pop stars, there wasn't one memorable soundbite from any of them, though near the end I was intrigued by Hume's former deputy Seamus Mallon when he observed that Hume tended to go off on "solo runs" that could be "very disturbing" and that he was a man who "could not take criticism well, wouldn't take it at all" and who "always preferred to be on his own".

This provided a glimpse of a more complex individual than the film was willing to countenance, and in the end we ended up knowing very little about the person it had come to praise.

At the outset of Better Call Saul's fourth season (Netflix), we saw shyster lawyer Jimmy McGill asleep in bed with his colleague and lover Kim Wexler. As the camera lingered over them, we noted that Kim's right arm was in a cast and that her face was scarred by cuts, though it took a while for devoted viewers to recall that in the last season a tired and stressed Kim had crashed her car.

This is the way of Better Call Saul, which doesn't offer handy recaps of previous occurrences for newcomers and also takes its time over every scene it shows. This could be tedious but instead, in the hands of Vince Gilligan and co-creator Peter Gould and their brilliant cinematographer, it's absolutely riveting. These people, you sense, know exactly what they're doing.

And so a scene, for reasons not yet clear, Jimmy's taciturn acquaintance Mike, a quietly dangerous man if ever there was one, impersonated a company worker and drove around a vast warehouse in a buggy, was utterly compelling throughout its mostly dialogue-free eight minutes.

And Gilligan and Gould are dab hands, too, at confounding our expectations. There was a suburban scene in which a middle-aged man was delayed from starting his car by a young son who needed his bicycle chain fixed. When he finally put his key in the ignition, you expected an explosion but it didn't happen.

Jimmy, meanwhile, has been slowly but inexorably changing from the loveable rascal of the opening seasons. By now, he's on his way to becoming Saul Goodman, the amoral fixer with whom Walter White hitched up in Breaking Bad. This was signalled by the final scene in which he allowed blameless lawyer Howard to think himself complicit in the death of Jimmy's brother Chuck. "Well, Howard," he said, "I guess that's your cross to bear" - a line that would never have been said by the fundamentally decent Jimmy of old and that caused Kim to shoot him a troubled glance.

Breaking Bad ran for 62 episodes over five seasons, and already a fifth season of Better Call Saul is in the works, which will bring it to 50 episodes. It might even overtake Breaking Bad in episodes, which would probably be overstretching it, but so far I'm not complaining.

Given the inventive skills of Gilligan and Gould and the marvellous playing by Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy, Rhea Seehorn as Kim, Jonathan Banks as Mike, as well as terrific supporting characters, I remain just as hooked now as when it began over three years ago.

Creedon's Road Less Travelled (RTÉ1) ended its three-week run with a trip from Dublin to Belfast - or, as the host himself put it, "just me and my Cortina meandering northwards".

And so he meandered into Balbriggan, where he found a Nigerian preacher conducting a Pentecostal service in a GAA club. Then he meandered into Drogheda, where he learned how the town's viaduct got built. After that he meandered up to Dundalk, where he met the sons of a one-armed soccer player who had brought fame to the town.

Finally, he meandered into Hillsborough Castle, where he met Tony Blair's former press secretary Alastair Campbell, who possibly hangs around such places hoping to be interviewed - certainly you can hardly turn on the radio or TV without Alastair being there. Anyway, he informed John that Brexit was a "catastrophe", which was useful to learn.

As for myself, I meandered back to John's nightly show on Radio 1, where he's always congenial company and plays some damn good music, too.

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