Screenplay: Terry George, Robin Swicord
Directed By: Terry George
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale, Charlotte Le Bon
The last two years have been especially great at bringing us cinematic masterpieces focusing on untold stories. Stories that are often neglected, erased, and sometimes, terrorized. But thankfully, we’ve reached a place where the Hidden Figures are revealed — a place where The Promise to keep our culture alive is explored. And it’s films like this that are intended to remind us of the fact that as long as we’re breathing, these are the stories that need to be told.
Not to turn this into a personal diary entry, but as someone who could easily say way too much about any given topic due to a knack and ridiculous adoration for literature/media analysis, there’s always been a topic too close to my heart that I’ve never been able to find the proper words for. And that topic is the story of my people — the Armenian Genocide. A genocide that also affected Assyrians and Greeks. A historical event that for years has resulted in viscous debates. A part of our history that’s never been properly explored. A part of our history that’s preluded genocides like the Holocaust where Hitler himself uttered the words “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Asides from the fact that my ancestors have suffered brutally, perhaps, the reason this part of history is so difficult to explore is due to the refusal of acknowledgment — Turkey’s defiance against making amends for the brutal actions of the Ottoman Empire almost 102 years ago. Some wounds don’t heal through time, without proper atonement and constant erasure, they perpetually linger — haunting our every thought when stung with the memories, the conversations, the stories. Wherever we go, whatever we do, the pain of our ancestors doesn’t leave us — the fire doesn’t leave us. Perhaps it’s naive of me to say, but Germany has acknowledged their wrongdoings in regards of the Holocaust and that’s admirable. I imagine it makes it easier to move forwards. And thankfully, nazism is disdained by more people than it is welcome. (Unfortunately, not all, but still an incredibly admirable amount).
I apologize in advance that my words will not be perfect. If I’m being completely honest, this isn’t an easy review to write. I’m good at writing through my tears when it comes to almost anything, but this isn’t one of those situations. It’s too real and I cannot properly convey the weight of this tragedy through this review, but I hope that at least to a certain degree, it’s enough.
The Promise was captivating, holding nothing back in terms of storytelling, but refraining from too much gore in order not to trigger members of the audience that may be unfamiliar or sensitive to violence. With the right amount of gruesome moments exhibiting the horrors of the genocide, The Promise managed to evoke the right amount of uncomfortable agony. Through its breathtaking cinematography, potent direction, and poignant performances, The Promise succeeds in telling the profound story of Armenians beautifully.
The film isn’t without its flaws — the distasteful love triangle being its undoing, but as an Armenian, it’s still a blessing. While I could have gotten behind the story involving Mikael (Isaac), Ana (Le Bon), and Chris (Bale), it was the addition of a fourth love interest that brought in the eye rolling. (A thing that should not have happened during a film of this caliber.) I get it. It made sense, but there were thousands of other ways to go about the dowry. In a TV series, I might have been okay with it, but in a two-hour film, it was not needed and wasted precious time. Presumably, film makers are still under the impression that this trope is gripping, but when it comes to telling riveting stories, it makes me and many others turn away. And as much as it pains me to admit it, I can understand the backlash it is facing amongst critics because it’s been proven time and time again, that a piece of media doesn’t need a love triangle to be intriguing.
Yet, though I went into the film irritated at the possibility of a love triangle, I wasn’t too upset by the outcome of the trio. The reality is that in order for human beings to grasp the truth behind tragic events, a connection needs to be established with the characters. When we look at them, we must see versions of ourselves. Because who else would care about the light and dark if we didn’t know Han, Luke, and Leia? A galaxy far far away would be just that, far far away, insignificant, forgotten, and bland. (I’m sorry, I had to bring in a Star Wars reference.) And in spite of the retched trope, the characters made it easy to care for them. For instance, Chris had his moments of outburst, almost making it a no brainer to root for Mikael and Ana, but Bale doesn’t miss a beat in his attempt to make sure the audience knows this character cares profoundly. And it was that intricate detail, which allows us to see that in spite of the fact that both men are pining for the same woman, they acknowledge that there are greater issues at hand. They must be selfless and brave. They must survive to help those who aren’t able to help themselves.
And when the film concludes, none of that matters, instead what’s crystallized is the strength in a small race — the courage to survive in order to keep legacies alive. And our stories, no matter how simple or perplexing, deserve to be heard. The stories matter because the weight of the loss is on full display once we know the hearts — somebody lost a sister, while another lost a mother, who was also a wife and a daughter. These characters become reflections of ourselves, and our loved ones thereby, making it seamless to form attachments.
There’s a lot to take away from the film, an overwhelming amount especially if the story of the Armenian Genocide is new to a viewer. Even if no part of the story resonates, if by some chance, the message isn’t received, no one can deny Oscar Isaac’s impeccable work as Mikael Boghosian. Isaac’s no stranger to exceptional performances –his Golden Globe for HBO’s Show Me A Hero proves that — but it is never easy to play a role like this and not have challenging moments that could potentially fall through. And unsurprisingly, Isaac rose up to challenges superbly, mastering the Armenian accent without once overdoing it while conveying a multitude of emotions through single expressions. Where Isaac needed to crumble, he did so organically, breaking down to a point where it’s clear that he’s embodied the character to the bone.
I once read that very rarely do you watch a performer on-screen and worry for the actor’s state of mind behind it, and when Mikael gripped the lifeless bodies of his loved ones, Isaac’s performances were unforgettable — the raw, heart shattering breakdown was delivered through a full-range of emotions, almost reaching a state of haunting paralysis. And where he needed to expose the momentary engulfment in love’s embrace, the ever-present tinge of sadness in his eyes interwoven effortlessly with innate, sincere adoration and vulnerability made his character compelling. There was not a moment where he was silent, for even without words, when you looked into Isaac’s eyes, he continued to reveal a whirlwind of nuanced emotions. (Plus, when he actually spoke Armenian in the end, I couldn’t help but cheer at how naturally he managed to do so. Kudos for that.) Oscar Isaac is without a doubt, the films M.V.P., and the character could not have been more acutely casted.
The Promise has a colossal amount of heart. Whether it’s the painstakingly familial moments showcasing the raw horrors children went through only to survive with honor, or the reminder that not all Turkish people wanted to inflict harm through Marwan Kenzari’s Emre Ogan, there’s a great deal to appreciate about the film’s means of storytelling. And I could especially appreciate the significant portrait The Promise painted about the press. We don’t always agree on media or its means of reporting the news, but as Bale’s character showcases, without these stories, who would know about the genocide? Whatever opinion one has of the film, it would be impossible to walk out not wanting to learn more about the Armenian Genocide, and by extension any other genocide that has been concealed. And today especially, it’s a reminder of what’ is happening in our world while our heads are turned — refugees are still tortured in ways we cannot even bear to imagine, racism, prejudice, nazism is still at large in areas of the world effecting too many souls. But where there’s darkness, there’s always a bit of light — people who are willing to listen, people who are willing to the right thing, people who are willing to fight the good fight. People who are willing to promise that they will continue telling these stories.
William Saroyan said it best in the notable quote that has effortlessly become an anthem for us.
“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.”
- I loved the details that went into the spectacle of what occurred during the 40 nights in Musa Dagh.
- There’s this one scene where Isaac’s Mikael is hiding from the Turkish soldiers and you see him cling onto his cross for dear life — a gorgeous example of show don’t tell. A gorgeous display of the Christian faith Armenians have kept strong. Mikael’s fears were so palpable in that moment, my heart was in shambles.
- There are parts of the film where depth can be found only through intricate analysis, and sometimes, viewers who aren’t as detail oriented as I am, aren’t looking to do too much work. And for this reason, there are parts of the film that could have used more simplistic script adjustments to tell the story of the genocide as opposed to the romance. Because I’ll be frank, there are parts of the film where related to romance, which made this hopeless romantic (me) feel nothing, and that’s saying something.
- Christian Bale undoubtedly deserves a round of applause, too. Years later and Bale still manages to embody characters in a way very few actors after him are able to do. The nuanced performances as Chris Myers made the complex journalist an incredibly fascinating man to get to know.
- I really appreciated the fact that our heroes not only had a Turkish alley, but also that a Jewish man came to Chris’ rescue and fought to ensure his life. When we come together accepting our differences and choosing love above all, great things can happen in the world. This may have been the part of the film that’s left me most in awe.
- I also appreciated the detail of Mikael adopting Yeva and that each of the orphans who had survived were present at the wedding. It’s the little things, my friends. It’s the little things. They mean the most.
Please be sure to watch the film and tell all your friends to as well. Proceeds go entirely to charity. What were your thoughts on The Promise? Let’s discuss, vent, talk things through. If there’s a scene that wasn’t covered that you want my opinions on, let me know in the comments below. Note: only civil, kind, constructive criticism, and discussions are welcomed here — anything beyond that will be deleted so don’t waste your time. This isn’t a war zone, let’s not make it one.