A Promise Only Partly Kept

In my last blog post, I said that I would be going back to my usual articles about history. Well, it seems I’ve only partially kept my promise. I mean, I am reviewing a movie about history, and I have to talk about that history to explain the movie. That counts, right?

In a similar vein, The Promise was supposed to be Hollywood’s definitive take on the Armenian genocide, a horrible event in world history that few people know about, in large part because of a very successful century-long cover up by the Turkish government. It was supposed to go down as one of the great historical drama films, the 21st century’s answer to Schindler’s List. Instead, we got a movie that is definitely about the Armenian genocide, except when it’s not, and definitely a very good movie, but not a great one.

Odds are fairly strong that many of the people reading this blog had never heard of the Armenian Genocide, so I’m going to try to summarize the main points as well as I can.

The Ottoman Turkish Empire once dominated the eastern Mediterranean; in the 16th century, it wrapped around the coast from Algeria to Hungary, ruling over most of the Middle East, North Africa, and southeastern Europe. This empire was incredibly diverse, home to Arabs, Turks, Persians, Slavs, Greeks, Armenians, Jews, and many, many other groups. Islam was the official religion, and the Ottoman Sultan claimed the religious title of Caliph, or successor to the Prophet Mohammed and leader of all Muslims. However, there were also a great many Christians in the Empire, who only had limited freedom and were subject to discrimination.

In the 19th century, western powers such as Russia, France, and the UK began intervening in the weakening Ottoman Empire’s affairs, carving out valuable lands as colonies, helping minority groups such as the Greeks, Romanians, Bulgarians and Serbians achieve independence, and forcing the Ottomans to give Christian minorities greater rights. To save itself, the empire attempted to modernize, becoming a constitutional monarchy dominated by political reform movements such as the Young Turks. When World War I broke out, the Ottomans joined Germany and the other Central Powers, declaring war on the Russians, French and British. The Sultan, acting as Caliph, declared the war a jihad, hoping that this would encourage all Muslims from around the world to rally to the Ottomans’ aid. This didn’t happen, and the war went very poorly for the Ottoman military. Rather than face their failings, the Turkish leadership accused the Christians of the Empire of spying for the enemy, and began a series of mass arrests.

This was to be the start of a downhill slide into madness, as the Ottoman military rounded up millions of Armenians, Greeks, and other Christians. Many were forced to work as slaves, and most were simply massacred. Most scholars estimate 1.5 million Armenians, half a million Greeks, and 150,000 to 300,000 Assyrians were killed. Yet, more than a century later, the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge that this genocide ever happened. Generations of Turks have grown up being taught in schools that such talk is nothing but lies by anti-Turkish Westerners. Sure, Turkey claims, there were people killed on both sides, but nowhere near the numbers claimed. Investigative reporters and scholars who go to Turkey trying to dig up evidence of the genocide are penalized for doing so by Turkish authorities. As a NATO member, key U.S. ally, and one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations in the Middle East, Turkey has been able to bully many governments around the world from officially calling these events a “genocide”, including that of the United States.

Even Hollywood has been cowed by Turkey into remaining silent; prior to The Promise, two previous attempts by American filmmakers to make a movie about the genocide were shut down after Turkish pressure. Even The Promise almost wasn’t made. It was only through the intervention and funding provided by wealthy Armenian-American Kirk Kerkorian that it was able to be finished and released.

To its credit, the film does a remarkable job portraying these historical events. It is very intelligent and even-handed in its portrayal. We see these horrors through the eyes of ordinary people, caught up in events much larger than themselves that they can’t fully understand. We see both sides’ points of view, we see the life that Armenians had in the Empire before these horrible events, and we are shown that not all Turks supported the genocide, with some trying to do what they can to resist. We see how different people responded to being attacked by their neighbors and hunted by the military. We see tragedy and acts of heroism. It’s all very powerful, and I won’t deny crying during certain scenes.

Which is why it was so jarring and infuriating when all of it came to a screeching halt time and time again throughout the movie for the romance subplot. Look, I get that these horrors of history are very dark and very disturbing. Having something to break it up was important for the audience’s sake. But did they have to go with the love triangle? The most overused cliche in the past decade? It’s not even a well-executed or interesting love triangle subplot!

Our main character is Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac), an Armenian pharmacist in a small village who is able to go to medical school in Constantinople because of a dowry he received when he promised to marry a local girl (Angela Sarafyan). Upon his arrival in the Empire’s capital, he meets Emre Ogan, a young, privileged Turkish medical student (Marwan Kenzari); Ana Khesarian, a beautiful teacher who has traveled the world and is looking to settle down (Charlotte Le Bon), and Chris Myers, an American reporter (Christian Bale).

Ana and Chris are clearly an item, and they are clearly living together, even though they are not married. In 1914. Okay, that doesn’t ring true.

Then, Mikael and Ana fall in love. Mikael refuses to marry Ana because of his promise to marry the local village girl back home. But he apparently has no problem sleeping with Ana? Wait, what? And Chris seems to be mostly okay with this and is totally best friends with Mikael? None of this makes sense!

By the way, I’m not kidding when I say the film stops to focus on the love triangle. It literally feels like the movie is interrupting itself to say, “Oh, yeah, sorry, I know you just saw lots of people dying, but we need to drop everything so we can see how these lovebirds resolve their drama.” It’s just so frustrating, because the movie does so well when it’s focused on the main plot and so poorly when it’s focused on the subplot.

Look, I want to like this movie more than I do. It has powerful scenes, intense drama, well-executed action, good special effects, and great cinematography. Even the acting is exceptional from everyone involved. It’s just that the one subplot throws everything off. It’s like a rock chained to a bird’s legs as it flies, keeping it from soaring as high as it could.

The Promise is a good movie, but it just feels like it could have been a great movie if it weren’t for the one crucial flaw. But I’m not here to review what the movie could have been.

7 out of 10.

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