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Last night I randomly opened Netflix and noticed that the card for Michael Clayton was right there on my homepage. I couldn’t sleep and thought, what the hell, I’ll watch a few minutes of Michael Clayton and go to sleep. Which is how I learned that Michael Clayton is apparently on that list of movies that I am constitutionally incapable of turning off. Gilroy’s incredible script—and the performances it draws from Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, and especially George Clooney, who has some the best reactions of his career in this film—just pulls me all the down into this story of ethics in a morally bankrupt job. It was light outside before I went to bed.
I’m sure you have a few of these. Movies that, when you see them on cable when you’re staying at a hotel, or when you spot it playing over someone’s shoulder on an airplane, you just have to watch through to the end. Yet you’ll rarely actually make the active decision to watch this movie during your free time. It’s just that it exerts and almost gravitational attraction for you if it passes in front of you.
A couple weeks ago I stumbled across the interview scene in Crimson Tide. I definitely did not have have time to watch that movie, and yet watching a young Denzel Washington carefully navigate the instability and prejudice of Gene Hackman’s old-school submarine captain reminded me why this is one of my all-time favorite movies. It’s an incredibly smart, well-written movie (albeit with some breathtaking examples of gross machismo, in the tradition of all great Simpson and Bruckheimer productions) about race, professionalism, and generational change… that also happens to be one of the most tautly-paced submarines thrillers ever made.
A quick aside here: I am haunted by the storyline around Viggo Mortensen’s character, who is longtime friend of Washington’s young executive officer and who utterly and completely fails to have his back throughout this film. I’m not sure there’s a more 2018 thing in this movie than the white best friend completely abandoning his black XO when subjected to the least bit of pressure from the rest of the sub’s officers. It’s a chilling subplot in this 1995 movie that saw clearly how ostensibly meritocratic institutions respond when white male-led, good old boy hierarchies face real pushback and challenge from the minority professionals rising through their ranks. Mortensen’s character throws Washington under the bus and basically greenlights a mutiny because he’s told he’s being “disloyal”. Meanwhile, the most steadfast yes-man serving under Hackman turns out to be Washington’s critical ally because he actually believes in the institution of the Navy and its rules, and places that above personal loyalty to the people that institution has historically rewarded.
Scenes like that elevate Crimson Tide above being a Clancy-esque military potboiler. The Hunt for Red October, for instance, is a great submarine thriller but it's also a story of a lot of smart, honorable, and competent men learning they're all on the same side and working together. Crimson Tide—when you take away then tense showdowns, or the deadly battle between submarines—is a movie about our frailties and our empathy. While the movie is clearly a product of the early 90s and post-Cold War euphoria, its unsparing but sympathetic look at its characters is what has let it age into greatness.
Anyway, what are the movies that you are compelled to watch through to the credits when you stumble across them? Why do they have such a hold on you?
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/7xmbje/what-are-the-movies-you-cant-stop-watching