SIFF 2014: ‘A Patriotic Man’ Movie Review

by Warren Cantrell on May 25, 2014

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[SOLID ROCK FIST UP]

(Finland: ‘Isänmaallinen mies’)

It’s saying something about an athlete when they no longer argue about whether or not they should cheat, and instead focus on the particulars of how they will see that nefarious business through. Just such a moment occurs in A Patriotic Man, when two members of Finland’s Olympic cross-country ski team snipe at each other and squabble over which of them will enjoy the team’s limited supply of blood for doping. It’s a poignant scene, for it takes place about halfway through the picture, when the audience (like the film’s characters) has effectively forgotten that cheating and deceit are the norm. Part of what makes this movie great is the realization that when a person competes at this level, when hundredths of a second mean the difference between a medal and national disgrace, such heated arguments no longer seem out of place.

Director Arto Halonen does a very clever thing with his movie, however: he brings the audience along for the entire ride. If A Patriotic Man had started with the blood doping argument, it might have seemed shocking, as indeed it should be. Yet Halonen’s picture introduces the audience to the lead, Toivo (Martti Suosalo), before any of this. Toivo is a paunchy 50-something year old with no professional prospects and a bit of a drinking problem. In possession of a fairly ordinary, average life with a snarky wife and mostly-grown-up son, Toivo’s world is turned upside down when a doctor informs him that his blood, the very accessible type O-Negative, has a shockingly high red blood cell-count.

This revelation doesn’t mean a hell of a lot to Toivo, who is hardly the picture of health and athleticism, yet for those looking for an added boost to their ski trial times, Toivo’s blood is more valuable by the ounce than gold. The year is 1980, and members of Finland’s national ski team are looking for any advantage so that they might medal at the Olympics in Lake Placid. Managing members of Finland’s cross-country ski team approach Toivo, and offer him a job on the squad’s support staff lugging skis and baggage, yet behind the scenes, they explain that his real job will be to act as a mobile blood bank. They outline how, with a transfusion, his elevated red blood cell-count will boost the aerobic capacity of the ski team’s athletes, giving Finland an added edge during competition.

Not wanting to be a part of anything illegal or immoral, Toivo initially refuses, yet is convinced to participate when the team managers tickle his sense of national pride. There’s also the pull of the stunning ski prodigy, Aino (Pamela Tola), the national celebrity who Toivo had a crush on long before he joined the team. One compromise leads to another, and yet another, until Toivo is in for pennies as well as pounds, and has abandoned any pretenses about his actions or those of the team he’s on. The film is a fascinating exploration of slippery slope ethics, and the lines that people not only cross, but leap over, in the name of competition and ultimate victory.

Part of the film’s poignancy is drawn out of its context, for while the events portrayed are more than thirty years old, the issues at play are as relevant as ever. Sophisticated performance enhancing drugs, methods, and techniques are all on display in A Patriotic Man, which inevitably forces one to ask how bad it must be nowadays if this is how rampant things were more than three decades ago. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, there was never really a conversation about whether the Finnish team SHOULD cheat, but rather heated discussions about HOW all the doping would be best utilized and hidden. The characters in the film are unapologetic about the unequal playing field, and what is necessary just to compete with other nations (let alone win).

No, everyone is juicing: it’s just a matter of cheating alongside everyone else to keep up. Which leads to one of the toughest questions of A Patriotic Man: is it really cheating anymore when everyone is doing it? To take that a step further, if cheating is the norm and you can help your country’s Olympic team win with a little blood, aren’t you the asshole to refuse? Arto Halonen’s picture asks this of his audience, and does a magnificent job crafting an engaging picture that is hesitant to offer any simple answers.

And while it seems like an easy enough rabbit hole to fall down, Toivo always seems to understand the stakes of what he’s doing, and is never let entirely off the hook. On a number of occasions, actor Martti Suosalo seems to convey with just a passing glance or wince a complete understanding of his actions, and what effect they will have not just on him, but also his family and his nation at large. These moments could have been over-played, or used too deliberately to hammer home a point, yet Halonen makes great use of his lead (and the cast as a whole) to craft a very thoughtful picture.

A brisk 95 minutes, and currently showing at the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival, about the only thing A Patriotic Man is missing is a score (or appropriate source music), which would tie the scenes together a bit more and give the story more historical context. In all, though, this is a very engaging and relevant picture that tells an unpleasant version of a story many of us have come to know far too well.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and his own site, 10rant.com. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing. Mr. Cantrell is happily unmarried, and without any children, pets, or plants.

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