It’s easy to blow raspberries at the epic The Promise, in which Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale compete for the same woman against a backdrop of the Armenian genocide. But only a handful of narrative films have even touched on the Turkish-led massacre of a million and a half Armenians in the early 20th century (which Turkey still officially denies), so The Promise deserves at least a fair synopsis.
Oscar Isaac plays an Armenian apothecary named Mikael Boghosian, who leaves his small southern Turkish town in 1914 for medical school in Constantinople, using his future wife’s dowry to finance his education. The young innocent is dazzled by the big city — and also by his nieces’ willowy dance teacher, Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), who’s the girlfriend of “famous American journalist” Chris Myers (Christian Bale).
For a while, Armenians and Turks sit side by side in apparent harmony. (You can recognize the Turks because they’re darker and wear fezzes.) But there are ominous signs. Mikael’s medical-school pal, Emre (Marwan Kenzari), invites him to a party at the mansion of Emre’s father, an openly bigoted government official, where the Turks consort merrily with German soldiers. (The Germans launch into a chorus of “Deutschland Über Alles,” which they do with little provocation in movies like this.) Then war breaks out and the Turks begin rounding up Armenian “spies” and “traitors” — and, pretty soon, women and children who need to be marched into the desert and slaughtered for their own protection.
Assaulted when he tries to rescue Armenian shopkeepers, Mikael is tended to by Ana, who goes on to make love to him, unaware that he is betrothed. (Mikael starts to say something but it has gone too far and he presumably needs his tongue for other purposes.) She is about to tell Chris that she loves Mikael — but then Mikael, attempting to use his fiancée’s dowry to free his imprisoned uncle, gets smashed on the head and shipped to a work camp, where, six months later, a former Armenian clown blows himself up along with a sadistic Turkish officer (a good sight gag) and Mikael escapes to his hometown, where his honest mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) forces him to honor his promise to marry Maral (Angela Sarafyan) and the couple slips off to a remote farm to have babies.
The idyll lasts until Mikael hears that Ana and Chris are nearby helping thousands of Armenian orphans escape to the safe haven that is Aleppo, Syria. (The irony here might well have been intended.) The tension between Mikael and Chris is thick, but they table their differences as the Turks move in and the bloodshed begins. There are convolutions ahead — massacres, diplomatic interventions, executions — before the threesome end up in the famous battle at Musa Dagh, a Turkish mountain where Armenian resisters and their families mount a violent defense as the cavalry (a French ship captained by Jean Reno) chugs towards the coast.
It’s worth asking why so many movies with disasters — natural or man-made — have love triangles at the center. My guess is that filmmakers feel they need to ground so inconceivable a horror in something that audiences can relate to. At least director Terry George and his co-writer, Robin Swicord, are several cuts above the Roland Emmerich template, where hundreds of millions perish while Jake Gyllenhaal tries to summon the words to tell Emmy Rossum that he, you know, likes her. For one thing, Mikael, Ana, and Chris keep their focus on saving orphans, their longings and jealousies expressed in stray love-gazes and bitchy asides. For the viewer, though, attention is divided between praying that the Armenian people will not be exterminated and wondering which man — both admirable — Ana will choose. I guessed (and wrote in my notebook) exactly how the love story would be resolved a half-hour before the climax, a feat that fills me with both pride and disappointment. The chief flaw of The Promise is that there isn’t a single development that you can’t see limping toward you from a great distance.
Another problem is that Oscar Isaac’s character is so insipid. The actor has made a specialty of transforming himself for every role, changing his look, his rhythms, perhaps his very essence. But he’s a little old and much too bright to play so callowly starry-eyed. Bale does better as the prickly crusading journalist, but you can sense that this is akin to pro bono work — it’s for a good cause. Le Bon is, as her name would suggest, delectable, but her achievement is mainly not provoking unintentional laughs.
Finally, no attempt is made to illuminate the peculiar reasons that the Turks used to justify the wanton killing, among them the misguided conviction that the Armenians would throw in their lot with the Russians and/or other enemies of the German-Turkish alliance. Apart from that chorus of “Deutschland Über Alles,” there’s no suggestion of the scale of the German atrocities — one way the Turks were able to proceed with their genocide unmolested.
Does The Promise work on its own simpleminded melodramatic terms? Yes, although for budgetary reasons (I assume) the weeks-long battle at Musa Dagh comes off as a skirmish over a couple of days.
But how much more confidently I could recommend it if George had told the story with some artistic cunning! For guidance, he could merely have looked to his own 2004 Hotel Rwanda, in which Don Cheadle played Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of a four-star, French-owned hotel who became a kind of Oskar Schindler of Rwanda. What’s fascinating is how Rusesabagina begins as a flatterer and briber of officers who come to ogle Western women — and how he ends up using those same talents to keep his family and hundreds of Tutsis taking refuge in his hotel from being dragged out and murdered. The film is no masterpiece — again, George can’t illuminate why a million people were murdered by their own countrymen. But as we focus on Rusesabagina’s almost farcically desperate attempts to forestall tragedy, we have a vision of genocide as a virus with its own terrible momentum. (Because I mentioned Oskar Schindler, I should note that Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List transcends melodrama by being the story not of victims and victimizers but of an ordinary man’s inability to do nothing in the face of evil. Much more fascinating!)
It should be noted that the late investor Kirk Kerkorian is credited as the executive producer of the film and was the driving force in its financing. In the late ’60s, he won a controlling interest in MGM for the purpose not of making movies but of stripping the studio of its real-estate assets and driving it into the ground. (He hired the odious James Aubrey to help.) Kerkorian was an architect of Las Vegas’s megacasino industry, and so MGM as we knew it became the MGM Grand Hotel. His efforts on behalf of his Armenian heritage are laudable, but his legacy to cinema is lamentable.