Friday Flicks January 31: “Quezon’s Game”

M.V. MoorheadJanuary 31, 2020
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Opening this weekend at Harkins Metrocenter 12, AMC Westgate 20 and Cinemark Mesa 16:

Quezon’s Game—Directed by veteran cinematographer Matthew Rosen, this historical epic from the Philippines is sort of Schindler’s List, Manila-style. It’s about the efforts, in the late ‘30s, by Filipino President Manuel Quezon to bring more than a thousand German Jews to his country — then still a U.S. commonwealth — to rescue them from the rising threat of the Nazis.

According to this film’s account, fictionalized to fill in the gaps of a rather sketchy historical record, Quezon was a suave, unflappable charmer. He was able to draw certain members of the American contingent in Manila into his risky project of flattering, cajoling and shaming the necessary visas out of the U.S. government in the face of American anti-Semitism not much less virulent than that of the Nazis (the film pointedly reminds us that Jewish refugees aboard the German ocean liner St. Louis were denied entry into Cuba, the U.S. and Canada in 1939). He also gets plenty of resistance from both allies and rivals in his own government.

Although Quezon was awarded, long after his death, a Wallenberg Medal in 2015 for his actions, this is a too-little-remembered episode of humanitarian heroism, and Quezon’s Game deserves credit for raising awareness of it. There’s a certain visual glamor to the picture as well, with lots of guys standing around in impeccable white suits smoking cigars — although, startlingly, a disclaimer at the end tells us that “no tobacco was consumed during the filming of this picture.” If true, this is the film’s most convincing illusion.

There’s no denying that Quezon’s Game is limited by its tight budget. Rosen struggles to generate a persuasive sense of period, and the casting, especially of some of the iconic American figures like Eisenhower and MacArthur, has the best-we-could-do feel of community theatre. Some of the dialogue is wince-inducing as well, as when a young Nazi officer, asked how he likes the Philippines, replies “It’s OK.”

All that said, Quezon’s Game is a compelling labor of love, in part because it’s a thrilling story, but also because of the leading man. Quezon is played by the Filipino TV star Raymond Bagatsing, a handsome, sly-eyed fellow who brings the part an impressive urbanity; he also has a fine chemistry with Rachel Alejandro, who plays his stormy, angrily adoring wife Aurora.

As with Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler or Don Cheadle’s Paul Rusesabagina in 2004’s Hotel Rwanda, Bagatsing’s characterization of Manuel Quezon shows us that sometimes it isn’t the violent avengers who come to the rescue; often it’s the schmoozers, the genial, gregarious glad-handers who save the day. Some documentary interview footage alongside the end credits clinches the movie’s case: Manny Quezon was a mensch.