Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Quezon’s Game: Righteous in the Philippines

Probably only former First Lady and Chair of the Philippine Red Cross Aurora Quezon is more revered in Filipino history than her husband, President Manuel Quezon, the man responsible for negotiating his nation’s independence. Her countrymen were horrified when she was assassinated by the Communist Hukbalahap terrorists (quick, let’s elect a president who shares their ideology)—and with good reason. She reportedly endured her husband infidelities in order to encourage his humane policies, including an unlikely scheme to provide transit and sanctuary for European Jewry fleeing National Socialist death camps. The President’s righteous campaign gets the big-screen treatment in director-cinematographer Matthew Rosen’s Quezon’s Game, which opens this Friday in New York.

In the late 1930s, Pres. Quezon was riding high in polls. Although he had already accepted a party of refugees from Shanghai, his greatest concern is lowering American tariffs. Ominously, an SS officer has been assigned to the German embassy, but Quezon and the Philippines remain squarely aligned with the U.S. In fact, his informal kitchen cabinet includes U.S. High Commissioner Paul McNutt and the American military attaché, an Army Colonel on the fast-track, by the name of Dwight David Eisenhower. Nevertheless, as word reaches the Philippines of the National Socialist oppression and murder of the Jews, Quezon is stirred to action (an impulse supported by the First Lady).

Inconveniently, since the Philippines was not yet independent, its immigration policies were still controlled by Washington DC, where Roosevelt was to wary of riling up the opposition of segregationist Congressmen and the State Department was rife with anti-Semites (probably the ambassador to the UK was the most notorious). Of course, getting exit visas and transit permits from Germany was no small order either. However, they had no trouble getting names of potential emigres, thanks to the small but organized local Jewish community.

Quezon’s Game suffers from many of the problems that commonly afflict high-minded historicals, starting with the portrayal of its protagonist, which is more akin to a Quezon passion play than a flesh-and-blood drama. However, it also has many of the hoped-for merits.

Both Raymond Bagatsing and Rachel Alejandro act like they are perched on pedestals as the Quezons (and understandably enough). On the other hand, David Bianco is terrific as Ike (shockingly so). He looks the part and has the proper military bearing. James Paoleli also convincingly humanizes McNutt (and Americans).

Yet, some of most engaging and humanistic work comes from Billy Ray Gallion, portraying Alex Frieder, the leader of Manila’s Jewish community. Plus, Natalia Moon has a pleasantly sultry scene as a big band vocalist at Quezon’s opening soiree. It looks like a big, well-crafted period piece, even though it is often not immediately apparent why Rosen’s constantly shifts from color cinematography to black-and-white.

There is no doubt Quezon’s Game is pro-Ike, pro-McNutt, anti-FDR, and anti-MacArthur, which makes it rather interesting from a political standpoint. The film does not always cast America in a favorable light, but its knocks are fair and it can’t be dismissed as kneejerk anti-American, because of its treatment of Eisenhower and McNutt. (Frankly, given where we are as a country, maybe it is time to re-examine and re-embrace Ike’s legacy of leadership, but that’s getting slightly off-topic.) It almost seems like the film ends prematurely, since our knowledge of the impending Japanese occupation looms over every scene, but it is still a logical time-period to discretely focus on. Recommended as a sturdy dramatization of a historical episode that ought to be more widely known, Quezon’s Game opens this Friday (1/24) in New York, at the AMC Empire.