Gilbey on Film: Gentlemen Broncos is an overlooked classic

If only studios had more faith in their own movies.

Much has been written about the very real difficulty of getting obscure or uncommercial films out into the public domain, but even mid-budget pictures from proven directors can be smothered in early infancy.

If there isn't any faith in a film, this will be reflected in the way it's treated by the studio and/or the distributor. Maybe the critics will collude in the film's early demise. Spying a runt of the litter, smelling the whiff of preordained failure, large parts of the media will not give it the same attention afforded to a glossy, well-oiled prestige picture such as Up in the Air.

In this instance, the "runt" to which I'm alluding is Gentlemen Broncos. While never destined to be a hit of Avatar proportions, it had on its side a director with cult appeal (Napoleon Dynamite's Jared Hess), some recognisable faces with indie cachet (Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords, plus Sam Rockwell and Mike White), and the clout of a distributor, Fox Searchlight Pictures (the "specialist" division of 20th Century Fox), with a proven record of crossover hits including The Full Monty, Little Miss Sunshine and Juno.

But Gentlemen Broncos died on its US release last October. Was it too bizarre? A picture that features three different films-within-a-film, all partly concerning a futuristic warrior's quest for his stolen gonads, could certainly have that charge levelled against it. But the movie -- about a poor, teenage fantasy writer whose submission to a short-story contest is plagiarised by a science-fiction novelist -- is heartfelt, visually arresting (in a Michel Gondry, sticky-backed-plastic kind of way) and rambunctiously funny. An original film, but not an inaccessible one.

It was deemed to have tanked on its opening weekend, when it grossed $31,000 on 12 screens, after which Fox Searchlight drastically scaled back plans to widen its release. If a movie flops in the US, it is as good as dead, and it's unlikely to receive a leg-up from its UK distributor. (The situation can sometimes be reversed if the film is travelling in the opposite direction across the Atlantic, as in the case of Croupier.) And so it was that Fox Searchlight in the UK showed zero enthusiasm for plugging the picture's release here in April.

But then, why wouldn't it? This was only a quickie release, a formality to promote the film's appearance on DVD a few days later. No point spending money pushing a product that it had already decided to bury. Most UK critics responded in kind by throwing their own handfuls of dirt onto the coffin, with the Telegraph and Standard isolated in their praise.

The slapdash treatment didn't stop there. Even with the DVD release date approaching, a critic writing for, ooh, let's say the New Statesman, might find that the PR company responsible for getting the film seen would actively brush off no less than seven requests for a review copy. Fortunately, the might of Fox Searchlight and its appointed PR agents was not omnipotent, and I happened to catch Gentlemen Broncos on a long-haul flight a few weeks back.

If I tell you I watched it twice on the way out, and once on the return leg, and that it has even made me feel I should take another look at Nacho Libre, Hess's previous film, about which I was lukewarm . . . well, what more recommendation do you want?

Gentlemen Broncos is a jubilant, uninhibited film, with a nutty sense of the fantastic and a genuine faith in the transformative power of the imagination. I must mention the genius of Jemaine Clement's performance as the clench-jawed SF legend Dr Ronald Chevalier, an icon of self-important buffoonery to rank alongside Garth Marenghi and Alan Partridge.

Chevalier's writing class, in which he focuses exclusively on the importance of giving the right name to your story's "protag", is already a contender for the most delicious scene of the year, just as Clement himself vies only with Nicolas Cage (in Bad Lieutenant -- Port of Call: New Orleans) for the title of Most Fearlessly Extravagant Comic Turn of 2010.

Also significant is someone who had nothing whatsoever to do with the film's production -- the New Yorker's Richard Brody. Search "Gentlemen Broncos" on the magazine's website and you will turn up 12 blogs, reviews and mentions of the film; all are credited to Brody.

Brody has seemingly devoted most of the past eight months to getting the word out about its brilliance, defending it from its (many) detractors, patiently explaining to them the deeper complexities that have eluded them, and generally refusing to let the movie die as its distributor would wish. He gives critics a good name.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories