Yes, this movie came out two years ago, and I have been anxious to see it for three, but such are the privations of living in paradise: we are not exactly the market for this kind of film. (My husband protests that the world slights "San Diego intellectuals," but our effort to identify even one candidate for this title resulted only in the smug guy who runs D.G. Wills.) But Netflix instant is a great democratic leveler, and now the movie is available on it. Everyone else who cares has already seen it, but what can we who dwell amid the swaying palms and rolling surf do about that?
As one of my friends observed when it came out, it's hard to make a compelling movie about people whose main activities are reading and thinking. Given this structural obstacle, this one was not too bad. But maybe its inability to get beyond not-too-bad suggests that movies cannot be "philosophical" by depicting the activity of philosophy, and are better off illuminating philosophy's questions by indirect means. The movie-fication of Arendt's understanding of Eichmann and evil was basically accurate and coherent, but her arguments are all conveyed via her monologues to her absolutely rapt students (these lectures are all of five minutes long! no wonder the students can manage to look so intensely absorbed) or in harangues to her cocktail party guests. These scenes alternated with absurd shots of Arendt lying on a couch chain-smoking with her eyes closed, to indicate "thinking." (Side note: These characters in this movie smoke as much as the characters in Cheever drink. Mid-century America really must have been the greatest time to be alive for lovers of permanent mild chemical stimulation.) (Experiment in living: if I lie on my couch and chain-smoke for four hours a day for the next year, will my dissertation write itself into brilliance? I'm sure I would enjoy testing this, but less sure I would enjoy the results.)
An important part of the movie is friendship and conversation, but the cheesiness of the dialogues is directly proportional to the clarity of the monologues. This seems to be a product of research almost too well done, since much of the dialogue is taken from Arendt's letters, and sounds unnatural when put into conversation. This is especially true of the exchanges between Arendt and Mary McCarthy, who comes off as a very sophisticated airhead. But it's even true of the tender conversations with her husband, who is clearly intended to come across as a serious thinker in his own right and a kind of philosophical muse to Arendt, but who actually only repeats one tired point for the entire movie (it was illegal to kidnap Eichmann and try him in Israel) even when this point's relevance is long past. It is never clear how Arendt's friendships provide more than moral support, encouraging her to keep going under adverse conditions, but not really contributing substantively to her thinking. When she is shown arguing with her friends, it's a battle of wills: she insists that Eichmann is mediocre and not an anti-Semite, her friends insist the opposite. Then someone swoops in and changes the subject before they come to blows. There was only one scene where it seemed that one of Arendt's friends says something she did not think of herself: when Kurt Blumenfeld explains that the generation of children born after the Holocaust blamed their parents for not resisting because they didn't grasp the totalizing, systemic nature of the Final Solution, and that the testimony of survivors at the Eichmann trial was intended to reveal this to them. This point was connected to the backlash against Arendt's claims about the complicity of European Jewish leaders, but I'm not sure this is clear in the movie. At some point very late in the film, she does admit that "resistance was impossible," but it's not clear what this means given how much the movie dwells on Arendt's own escape from France.
Another reason I think the depiction of Arendt's friendships falls flat is that the movie indulges pretty shamelessly in national stereotyping. There were the gregarious but intellectually shallow Americans (McCarthy, the New School prof, Norman Podhoretz and Lionel Trilling) contrasted with the brooding, profoundly insightful Europeans (Arendt, Blucher, Hans Jonas until he defects to the stupid side, and even Arendt's secretary), and in this case, it added a third type: the passionately nationalistic but self-deluded Israelis (Blumenfeld, Hausner, the non-appearing Ben-Gurion). Much is made of how ignorant Americans are of foreign languages, and the students in "Advanced German" whom Arendt teaches sound like they'd barely pass a first-year course. When Podhoretz and Trilling oppose Arendt's Eichmann articles, they're dismissed as opportunistic naifs who never had to personally flee Nazis and so have no credibility. The multi-lingual Arendt with her dark personal experience of the rise of totalitarianism is the only person who can be right about Eichmann. This clearly poses a difficulty with explaining why other German Jews with comparable personal experiences and linguistic abilities like Blumenfeld, Jonas, and Gershom Scholem (seemingly merged into Blumenfeld's character in this film) also objected to Arendt's book. And the answer the movie gives us is basically that they're stubbornly over-committed to Zionism. This is forgivable because they've been though a lot, what with the Holocaust and all, but ultimately, they are just too angry and close-minded to see clearly. Reason is on Arendt's side, passion is on theirs. (Which, incidentally, seems incompatible with her younger self's incomprehensible but apparently seductive soliloquy about "passionate thinking" to a clownish Heidegger in one of the Heidegger flashback scenes that this movie really could've done without.)
And, to be fair, I suspected in advance that the film would demonize Arendt's detractors while turning her into a paragon of free thought against their venal attempts at censorship, and was watching for confirmations of my suspicion. Most of the movie is not this lame. But the depiction of Blumenfeld's and Jonas's intractable, unreasoning opposition after Arendt's articles are published was pretty flimsy. Surely Arendt was not the only person in the world to think seriously and unhysterically about evil and totalitarianism? If, as the movie suggests, her main qualifications to think seriously about this were contained in her life experiences (a claim which real-life Arendt rejected) and the rigor of her education, then Blumenfeld's and Jonas's claims should be as strong. Plus, there is a scene where sinister Mossad agents ambush Arendt at her country house demanding that she retract her book (over whose printing they have no control) and threatening to ban it in Israel (which they also can't do). And she bravely stands up to these fascist thugs (see, Jews can be fascists too, especially if they are Israeli) and says no! That's straight-up agit-prop.
Even though I think it tries to avoid this, the movie depicts "philosophy" as consisting in feeling agonized over something in your personal life, lying around, producing a deep thought, and then browbeating the public with your thought. This requires great courage, because the more brilliant your thought is, the more strenuously the public will oppose you. I suspect that it's really just too hard to visually depict the reciprocal relationships between reading, talking, thinking, and writing, and that the best way to experience them short of actually living them is not to watch a movie about people who thought but to read the books their thoughts are in. I'm not actually sure how this movie would even be interesting to anyone who hasn't read Arendt, or that it alone would pique anyone's interest in reading her. But I can see the appeal of a visual depiction for those who already love Arendt.