Movie Review - The Way Back

The Oscar-nominated film The Way Back was adapted by acclaimed director Peter Weir from the book by Slavomir Rawicz. Rawicz was a Polish Army Lieutenant imprisoned in a Siberian prison from which Rawicz claimed he and six others escaped in 1941 and literally walked 6500 kilometers or 4000 miles from the Soviet Union to British-controlled India arriving in 1942.
The subtitle to Rawicz's book is "The True Story of a Trek to Freedom" and at the beginning Weir dedicates this film to the real men depicted in it. The problem is that those men may not be real at all. In 2006, BBC News reported that the so-called trek never happened, at least not for Rawicz. Records show Rawicz never escaped but was instead given amnesty. Then, in 2009, Witold Glinski also questioned Rawicz's story.
This powerful story of a group of men who escaped from a Gulag in Siberia during a blizzard and traveled thousands of miles through the Gobi Desert, Tibet, and the Himalayas with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, the shoes on their feet and the desire to be free in their souls, this powerful story may be a lie. The question becomes, even if it is a lie, does that take away its power. My answer is no. Even if this story is a lie, I still believe in its power.
This past year, critics of certain documentaries, which have also had their veracity questioned like the Oscar-nominated Exit Through the Gift Shop or the so-called other Facebook movie Catfish, have said ultimately that the veracity doesn't matter. Whether Rawicz's story happened to him in the real world or in this case it was merely a construction for the silver screen, it doesn't matter. The feeling I felt as I sat and watched it remains the same.
What I felt is that despite the insanity and the impossibility of making this specific journey on foot with no supplies, this specific journey felt evermore sane and evermore possible due to the determination and shear desperation of the men seen here. The performances of the actors, led by British player Jim Sturgess (21 and Across the Universe), are what convinced me. These actors as characters had to do a lot of walking and by the end you feel it. You not only see it through fantastic makeup led by Edouard F. Henriques but also through every motion of these men's bodies, specifically their eyes. You see their struggles, their fears and their absolute weariness.
Movie-goers will see this and they may feel this as well, and this in turn may make them not like the movie. Other critics may dismiss this film as no better than a travelogue bookended or framed by a motivating force that has a lame payoff, but, even as that, the film is still very much effective. The simplistic writing, the brilliant makeup and acting and the amazing cinematography elevate this film beyond recent travelogue or nature survival films like 127 Hours or Into the Wild.
For those who doubt the truthfulness of this account, there is some detachment. Unlike David Fincher's The Social Network, which took liberties with real people and real situations without changing names, Weir at least goes with pseudonyms, which still may be lifting from the book. For example, Sturgess plays Polish prisoner Janusz who is obviously the fictionalized version of Rawicz.
Janusz was arrested for treason due to his opposition to Stalin and the Nazi-Soviet regime. He's immediately thrown into the brutal, dog-eat-dog, near deathly environment of the Siberian work camp, which is a prison with no walls. Being so close to the tundra, his captors think that there'd be no point to fences because who would be foolish enough to try escaping into an arctic wilderness with nothing but the coat on your back.
While in the gulag, Janusz meets five other prisoners from various countries in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. One is Valka, played by Colin Farrell (Tigerland and The New World), who is probably the most brutal and the most dog-eat-dog of the men who break free. It's not ironic at one point to see the men scare off a pack of wolves only to become a pack of wolves themselves. We see how brutal and how like dogs they can be.
Valka never tries to be the leader, or the alpha dog, of the pack. That role remains with Janusz, but there are moments where Valka certainly asserts himself, doing what he feels he has to do either for survival or even for country. There is a pervasive sense of patriotism for the men that it is only matched by a growing sense within them of compassion and comraderier for one another.
This is manifested through the introduction of Irena, a 17-year-old, Polish orphan, played by Saoirse Ronan (Atonement and I Could Never Be Your Woman). She opens the men up not only to her but also to each other, and it's through her that the men start talking and relating. Not only does she break the ice, she helps them to cross it. She bridges gaps with all the men but two in particular are particularly touching.
Her connection to Voss, played by Swedish actor Gustaf Skarsgard (Patrik Age 1.5 and Evil), is sweet and probably the most heartbreaking, as he's her first link to the escapees. Her relationship with Mr. Smith, the American prisoner who comes along, played by Oscar-nominee Ed Harris (The Truman Show and Apollo 13), is as much of a journey as the escape is. It's tough yet beautiful.
Similarly beautiful is the location scouting, art direction and ultimately the camerawork here. Russell Boyd's cinematography as the frozen landscapes give way to warmer mountainsides and barren sands flows naturally and with the exception of two bad edits in the form of really hard cuts, Weir's direction is fairly fluid.
The trek across the desert is seemingly the longest sequence in the film. It drives home the point that what they went through was arduous and difficult. The effects of mother nature and her violence and at times obfuscation infuse some very interesting if brief action into the plot. Not as action-oriented as Ed Zwick's Defiance (2008), but a great WWII-era film about survival.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for violent content, depiction of hardship, a nude image and brief strong language.

Running Time: 2 hrs. and 13 mins.


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