Terry George's The Promise has the rare good fortune of turning up in theaters just weeks after another film showed how necessary a movie like this is. The second star-driven war-adventure film of 2017 to set a cross-cultural love triangle against the horror of the Armenian Genocide, The Promise would outclass its forerunner, The Ottoman Lieutenant, even if it weren’t manifestly better in its story and acting and more arresting in its sweep.
The Ottoman Lieutenant, more a romance than a reckoning with history, never quite brings itself to admit that the Armenian Genocide actually happened — instead, it presents the Ottoman Empire in the era of the First World War as a land torn generically by war, one whose people at least had the good fortune to be tended to by Hera Hilmar’s plucky American nurse, who will treat anyone, regardless of which god they serve. Much of that film concerns her dueling suitors, and the final shot is a howler: In the highlands near Mt. Ararat, a parade line of wounded and dying Turks and Armenians lie on their gurneys as the camera cranes out and Hilmar dashes purposefully from one to the next. Civilization has crumbled, faiths are clashing and the Turks have set in motion the extermination of some 1.5 million Armenians, but the movie urges us not to worry — she's got this.
Nobody's got the situation under control in The Promise, a handsome but lumpish film whose creators are too honest to lie to us about individual heroism. George and Robin Swicord have also built their screenplay around three conflicted lovers, but here the history overwhelms the romance. Nobody in The Promise has to point out that their love problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, because that crazy world is forever trying to kill them and everyone they care about. Rather than sweat over who’s crushing on whom, the protagonists endeavor to survive, offer aid to refugees and let the world know the truth about a campaign of mass murder that, to this day, the Turkish government still won’t officially acknowledge.
Oscar Isaac stars as Michael, an Armenian man who in 1914 leaves his village in the mountains to study medicine in Constantinople. When the killing starts, and Turks are attacking Armenians in the streets (a scene reminiscent of George’s Hotel Rwanda), it takes him agonizing minutes to bring down an assailant. He's assisted in this by Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), an Armenian ballerina, who chucks cabbages at the killers' heads. The movie's an epic, but the characters are human-scaled; their desperate actions are refreshingly un-aestheticized.
Called to arms in the late reels, Michael can't bring himself to shoot the Turks advancing on an encampment of Armenian refugees. Instead, he dedicates himself to treating the wounded. Principled pacifism here is as noble and moving as it is in Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge, but George handles it in just heartbeats — and without the sense that he’s aroused by the violence the pacifist rejects.
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Isaac does get one action-hero moment, a scene that finds him fleeing soldiers, leaping onto a train and then vaulting over the side of a bridge to splash into one of those lakes that's always there when movie swashbucklers take the railroad. But the sequence is fleet and scary, all blue-black night, lashing rain and searing spotlights, and it's centered on a moment of horrible discovery. As he clings for his life, Michael hears a wailing beneath the locomotive clatter. This is early in the film, before the full scale of the genocidal campaign has been revealed. Michael at first can't believe it: The boxcar is packed with Armenian prisoners. The finest thing in the film is Isaac's face as Michael at last comprehends the enormity of the crime and then resolves to do something about it.
He's just one man, though. What can he do to free a hundred starving prisoners while rocketing along mountain train tracks?
Michael and Ana do what good that they can, which is mostly unspectacular: cleaning wounds, shepherding refugee children. The third edge in the love triangle is an American reporter played with a lighter-than-usual step by Christian Bale. Ana’s paired with him at the start, but then falls for Michael once hell is raining upon them. The men, remarkably, never puff themselves up to fight over her — they’ve got refugees to save. War tears Bale’s reporter from their lives for much of the film, but they’re brought back together in a scene of tense (and historically significant) escape.
Refugees pour down a mountainside to the sea and French lifeboats as shells rain down around them. As drama and spectacle, it’s not quite first-rate — I rarely feared for these characters or believed that I knew their souls, and George is too much of a humanist to wring real-life tragedy for cineplex suspense. But as a moral corrective and a call to decency it moved me. How rare is it that so much movie money has been spent not on killing but on saving lives, on demonstrating — here through a corny yet moving coda set decades later in the United States — that, in a crisis, acts of kindness shape the world for the better for generations to come?