Review: ‘Quezon’s Game’ finds its way to the heart of the truth through make-believe
Manuel L. Quezon III | Jun 03 2019
Quezon’s Game opened May 29, and people have been asking me what I thought of the film after attending the premiere earlier this month. I happen to have a good opinion of the director-writer, Jay Rosen and his wife, whose passion-project this film is. As far as I’m concerned, may their tribe—and those of producers like Star Cinema, which has taken a gamble by producing the film—increase. We have too few historical films and I don’t see how we will develop this genre unless more films of this sort are made.
But because I love historical films, I tend to be hypercritical about them. That’s the privilege of being a member of the audience, and what’s more, just because it’s about Quezon shouldn’t automatically mean I should try to self-censor my opinions. So when I was asked to weigh in on the film, I thought, why not—so long as I really say what I feel (and this is just me, this isn’t a family point of view; we’re all too far opinionated as a family to have a party line on this or any other topic).
Let me start with what seems to me especially difficult about making a movie on this topic and with the main character being MLQ.
Here’s a basic problem: you’d have to be pushing eighty to have reached Quezon and his times, since he died 75 years ago come this August. There are very few people who are still in that position—and because of the passage of time, even their memories may have become fuzzy with the passage of the decades. Because of the ravages of time and our climate, we have to rely on snippets of films(most of them without sound) in archives abroad. Hardly anyone alive is old enough to remember his voice; to have seen his famous glare, or the way he gestured during a speech; or saw him review a parade, or who can say they saw him smile oreven wave to a crowd. For that matter, to see him and the people of his era in old films and pictures deprives us of something we take for granted: seeing people and places in color, even for a few seconds.
This film isn’t unique in working within the limitations of time and budget and sacrificing pinpoint-accuracy for something that can be done within limited means. Limited resources, however, doesn’t mean the filmmakers should get a free pass for every judgment call they had to make. Can a movie about past events disregard the facts, and play fast and free with the details, and still be right? The truth is, all historical films do—if they didn’t, they’d be documentaries instead of entertainment.
The gold standard these days when it comes to historical dramas is Jerrold Tarog but even in his films on Antonio Luna and Gregorio del Pilar he had to sacrifice accuracy. Compare a photograph of then-Major Manuel L. Quezon with this publicity still of Benjamin Alves playing his role in Goyo:
Until around 1909, Quezon had what one writer described as “wonderful twirling moustachios” but Jerrold probably decided he’d better get rid of MLQ’s ‘stache because people might wonder why a Mexican bandit wandered into one of his films. Nor does Alves look like MLQ much at all, but there’s more to a role than physical resemblance. Making period films here at home always involves trying to do more with less and the less can be quite comical. Who can forget that even in Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s acclaimed Rizal, our national hero, apparently, was executed by a bunch of anorexic Iranians?
And of course even the West can reduce us to comedy. Forced to finish production in Sri Lanka because of threats of a lawsuit from one of the major figures in the EDSA Revolution, HBO’s A Dangerous Life, which featured Gary Busey as a journalist covering the fall of Ferdinand Marcos, had a climactic scene of Sri Lankans leaping about like lemurs, chanting “Cur-ry! Cur-ry!”
Filipinos were amused by this and aghast over the enormous prosthetic nose of Laurice Guillien who played “Curry” Aquino, or the way Cardinal Sin, played by the late, great, Rolando Tinio, turned out to be as skinny as Palito. But the film, for my generation, at least, contained a scene which silently portrayed in a few seconds, the fall of the Great Dictator better than any historically-based scene or dialogue could ever manage: Ruben Rustia, as Marcos, pausing by his presidential desk as he was about to flee, bending down, and kissing it. Here was a case of artistic license saying more than any factual scene ever could. In those fleeting seconds the finality of the fall of an entire regime was captured.
Definitely you can say Bagatsing makes for a more authentic-looking Quezon. But it’s his acting that carries the film: he plays the role with such flair that in fact there are only two flaws in his portrayal. The first is probably due to a lack of materials to study: like the actor who played Littlefinger in Game of Thrones, sometimes it seemed Bagatsing couldn’t decide on what accent to use for his character, so his MLQ alternates between sounding Filipino or semi-American (MLQ’s accent is the type so extinct we last heard it in the diction of the late President Diosdado Macapagal: heavily inflected with Filipino-Spanish; if you go to Corregidor and beg the people in charge to play the Light and Sound Show put together by the late National Artlst Lamberto Javellana, you can get a good sense of how Quezon sounded, because Javellana knew him: he pronounced “General MacArthur,” for example, “Gen’rral Macarthah”).
The truth is, to carry through an authentic accent might be distracting to modern-day ears and possibly lapse into parody if the actor wasn’t careful. The second fault has nothing to do with Bagatsing at all: Quezon wouldn’t have been caught dead in the clothes provided by whoever was in charge of wardrobe for the production. (Then again, most of the other characters wouldn’t have dressed like that, either: you’ll find a lot of people wearing vests when in those days no one wore vests in the daytime, because who uses vests in a tropical climate?)
Rachel Alejandro as Aurora Quezon is, as always, a total pro except she is playing a character who never existed. By this I mean—and it’s no fault of hers—her portrayal of everything, from the mannerisms and behavior and even the clothing and hair, has absolutely nothing to do with the real Mrs. Quezon. It’s not as if it would have been easy to study for the role; film clips are rare, though a few exist like this view of her listening to her husband give a speech; recordings of her are even rarer, and just as it would have been tough for Bagatsing to copy Quezon’s accent, to portray Mrs. Quezon’s voice and Baler accent would have been exceedingly tough to do, and might easily slip into a caricature, too.
If this movie were a school report I think it’s clear by now I’d give it an “F.” But as a film, I’d give it far higher marks, and not merely for effort. Let me walk you through three scenes which I don’t think will spoil the movie for you, so you can see what I mean.
In one scene, Quezon has a talk with his wife, who is terribly worried that the stresses of the job are killing her husband. Up to that point, the portrayal of their marriage seemed to me completely inauthentic: they are portrayed as a quarreling couple with the wife throwing jealous fits in the manner of our movies over the past 40 years. But they weren’t a modern couple and what’s more, her character wasn’t the harsh, dramatic type we see in our local films. She belonged to an era you would have seen in LVN or Sampaguita pictures: the long-suffering, patient, soft-spoken wife, quietly enduring her husband’s infidelities until her husband recognized the error of his ways and returned to the spouse who never ceased loving (and praying) for him. Not that she was simply a martyr; she was an effective partner whocould convince him where others failed, for example.
And it’s that context that was captured quite well in that scene, where Bagatsing’s MLQ walks Alejandro’s Aurora on why he needed to keep on pushing his policy on Jewish refugees against all opposition; at one point, she remarks, “I know when I married you that you are married to the country, first,” which was what she genuinely believed. She even plastered it (the Latin means “None higher than his country”) on the bookplate she placed on every book in her library.
In this single scene, the writers, director, and artists managed to get to the heart of their partnership and by so doing, finally did justice to the characters portrayed. There is another scene, which people unfamiliar with her life story may not get, but it shows the filmmakers did research. At one point she’s shown sleeping in a little nipa house: there was actually such a nipa house in Malacañan Palace. There was also a guest house across the river (today we know it’s concrete replacement as Bahay Pangarap), where she liked to stay because she frankly hated the Palace and much preferred a cottage to it.
In another scene, Sergio Osmeña, who was then Vice President, has a meeting with Quezon and frankly confronts him about the misgivings many of their fellow politicians harbor about being so welcoming to the Jews. There’s a couple of things that provide useful background to this scene. The two men, Quezon and Osmeña, were not just political allies, off-and-on political rivals, but, in a way that is now extinct, old friends dating back to the time both were poor obscure country bumpkins studying in the big city.
This meant that ambition motivated both men, and while one might be president today, and the other his veep, it didn’t always have to be that way: but still, both men understood each other, because they had spent nearly 40 years by this time, fighting for the same thing: independence. One major difference was that one was healthy (Osmeña would live on until 1961) and the other, a dying man (Quezon would be dead by 1944, about seven years after the period portrayed in this film).
Back to the scene: Osmeña lets down his guard and asks Quezon why he’s being so stubborn, and Quezon tells him why: one of them is that he wants to live long enough to see independence happen. For a public figure, a sense of looming mortality is quite a motivation to stick to a purpose. I remember my father telling me, after we watched the movie Gandhi, which featured a scene in which Gandhi was exasperated by the single-minded insistence of Mohammed Ali Jinnah on the independence of Pakistan, that few films portrayed the kind of stubborn dedication that can arise in people with TB: Jinnah, like Quezon, had Tuberculosis and died of it, too.
Along the way, they discuss Osmeña’s real purpose for their meeting, which is to receive instructions for economic negotiations he’s about to conduct in Washington (this was a true event and Osmeña did succeed in his mission). Quezon reminds him of what’s at stake, and gives him two examples of why they had to accomplish what they’d set out to do as young men, which was achieve independence. Now Audie Gemora is far too animated a personality to play the more composed, quiet, Osmeña, but there are flashes of brilliance in his portrayal. There is a moment where, talking with fellow politicians, you see the suppressed ambition suddenly spark back to life: a couple of seconds where you can see him practically salivate over the potential of regaining political supremacy. It is a truthful moment. Hopefully, you’ll spot it.
Then Bagatsing-as-Quezon tells Gemora-as-Osmeña two stories.
The first example Bagatsing-as-MLQ gives, is a story about how even when they visit the White House, they have to use the bathrooms for colored folks. The truth of the matter is even more interesting than its fictional portrayal. For generations, Filipinos worked in the White House in their capacity as Navy Stewards whooperated and served in the White House Mess (that’s kitchen, to us non-navy types). The reason Filipinos served as such was that the U.S. military’s officers felt it was improper for them to be served by African Americans when the entire U.S. Armed Forces were segregated. So, they hired Filipinos to replace the African-Americans. Which is to say that the story of the White House bathroom, while vivid, appears in the film purely for effect: Quezon and his family would, in May 1942, upon arrival to establish the government-in-exile, were overnight guests in the White House, so a color ban couldn’t have applied.
The second example, though, was absolutely true. Bagatsing-as-Quezon reminds Osmeña that even now, during the Commonwealth, Filipinos weren’t allowed in the Army Navy Club at the Luneta and that it had a sign, “No dogs and Filipinos allowed.” We know this to be true because the late Teodoro M. Locsin (Teddyboy’s father) wrote, more than once, of this sign in the prewar Manila of his youth; and in the 1990s a documentary featured an interview of former Vice President Emmanuel Pelaez recalling that as a young law student, he was bodily thrown out of the Army Navy Club after daring to enter its premises.
I once wrote an article for the Philippine Tatleron how even dance clubs were segregated until the 1920s, when Quezon and Governor-General Francis Burton Harrison invaded a dance hall to put an end to the racial line that required Filipinos and Americans to dance separate from each other. Both examples given by Quezon in this scene, while one seems fictitious and the other genuine, strike home because they were connected to an essentially true and important point: we were never considered equals in a colonial system built on racism. After all, in the 1920s even Time Magazine described us as “little brown crickets.”
I am divided as to my choice of the third scene. Both of my choices are scenes that are pure inventions. One has Quezon dropping by the American High Commissioner, Paul V. McNutt’s (quite well played by James Paoleli) place, but their chat is interrupted by an American official (I wish I knew the name of the actor: he plays the kind of antipatiko White American colonial know-it-all to perfection: such types did exist once upon a time) barging in to lecture McNutt on the stupidity of his taking the side of the Jews when God knows what will happen if the Philippines fills up with Jews. Bagatsing fumes off to one side as the conversation takes place. The scene is an essential one in communicating to the audience the motivations (ignoble ones) of the Americans who opposed helping the Jews.
My other candidate for an informative scene is one in which Bagatsing-as-Quezon finds his options hemmed in by growing opposition from all sides, Filipino and American. He decides to circumvent the opposition by doing something he actually introduced and perfected during his political career: to appeal to public opinion. Again, the scene is entirely fictional, though some of his words are taken from an actual speech he delivered in Marikina when he donated some of his own land for a dormitory for the Jewish refugees. There is an accompanying scene of a protest rally in defense of the Jews—there was one such rally, a truly rare thing, in indignation over Kristallnacht, in which the Nazis unleashed a round of persecutions of the Jews, burning shops and synagogues and arresting Jews. It is one of the best performances of Bagatsing in the entire movie.
But, alas. Quezon’s Gamehas its fair share of howlers. The craziest one is where a fairly competently-played (by David Bianco) Dwight D. Eisenhower, who at the time was assigned to the Philippines as Douglas MacArthur’s deputy in the Military Adviser mission to the Philippine government, has a brief meeting with MacArthur. The MacArthur in the movie seems to have wandered in from his retirement community in Subic where he’d spent the decades since the closing of the U.S. bases getting high on pot when he wasn’t guzzling Pale Pilsen. This version of MacArthur even has a beachcomber’s beard to match, when MacArthur was never anything but cleanshaven. The scene is so absurd that the Eisenhower actor even has to waste a line: “Why General, I almost didn’t recognize you with that beard,” to which the potbellied retiree mumbles something like, “Yeah, go figure, I’m retired yannow,” which is only partially right: by that time, MacArthur had retired from the U.S. Army but he was still a Filipino Field Marshal, and still military adviser. This was a scene that will send the eyebrows of anyone with even the slightest bit of knowledge shooting off into permanent orbit in outer space. Why? Why? Why, God, why?
Another howler of a scene was one of the most ridiculously wrong in the film if you look at it from the point of view of facts and real events. A ball is held for the sole purpose of trying to strike a deal with the “German Ambassador”—when there was no such thing, because, still not independent, all that foreign governments had in the Philippines were consuls. The whole scene is a surreal combination of Rick’s Café Americain from the movie Casablancawith extras, including a fellow in Nazi S.S. uniform, who seem to have wandered in from an Indiana Jones movie. Everything about the scene is wrong: no one would have behaved the way they do, or talked the way they do, or do any of the things they do, in the scene. At one point Bagatsing makes a proposal to a perspiring fat Nazi more suitable to a Mafia movie in New York (and a terrible one at that). At another point, the sneering S.S. officer takes turns baring his teeth at the “ambassador” and at Bagatsing. There never would have been such a party with people behaving that way but… but… there were Nazis in Manila, and while nothing happened in the way of this scene, you’d have to have half an hour of back-and-forth that might get out of hand or end up utterly boring, just to explain the dynamics involved.
Which brings us to that old observation that no one likes movies about people having conversations in rooms. But let me take a step back and walk you through what the film is supposed to be about. I’ve prepared a Timeline of the Rescue of Jewish Refugeesso you can get a sense of actual events, and how they played out, and some useful background, so we don’t have to go into it in depth, here. I hope you’ll read it, either before or after you watch the movie (or both!), but basically, it sets out to untangle how Manuel L. Quezon, then President of the Philippines, the Jewish community in Manila, which included the Frieders, Jewish-American brothers who owned a cigar factory here, and the U.S. High Commissioner, Paul V. McNutt (who, in those pre-independence days, served as a kind of U.S. ambassador), worked together to do something hardly any country was willing to do: take in refugee Jews who were racing against the clock to get out of Germany and start a new life wherever the Nazis couldn’t reach them.
Make no mistake: the Jews who couldn’t escape faced death. Here is a chilling set of statistics compiled by Ber Kotlerman: a set of 20 letters was found in the Quezon papers, all of them written by Jews in 1938-39 asking to be allowed to come to the Philippines. All except one of the letter writers died in the concentration camps. The equally chilling explanation comes from Philip Frieder in that same year: hundreds of applications for visas had been received, he said, but because of a lack of funds, none could be approved.
The unique status of the Philippines is what allowed this rescue project to happen. American immigration laws were tight, but as a Commonwealth, the Philippines had its own authority to decide who would be allowed to step foot in the Philippines. This meant that American consuls abroad, if told that the Filipinos would accept Jews, could issue visas that otherwise weren’t available if refugees wanted to go to the United States itself. Quezon decided on who could enter the country, and McNutt as the representative of the U.S. government in the Philippines could tell consuls abroad to issue visas.
As practical politicians (McNutt was a former governor of Indiana and at the time in which this movie was set, widely-discussed as a strong candidate for the presidency in the forthcoming 1940 U.S. elections), both knew there was a fine line in the laws of both their countries that they had to follow, and an even finer line in terms of what public opinion would tolerate.
This is where requirements came in. To be given a visa, a refugee would have to have skills or a background considered advantageous by the Philippines, and be assured of having a job and financial support from the Jewish community in the Philippines; so not everyone could be given a visa and even the visas issued would have to be kept to a number that eventually settled on 1,000 individuals a year, for 10 years.
This, then, was Quezon’s game. As the film tries to show, this rescue project wasn’t happening in a vacuum. Actually, Quezon’s dilemma was three-fold, in the year 1938.
First, it was the first mid-term election, ever. His administration would be judged on its performance and the results would be revealed in how his candidates fared in November.
But even if he did well, it might mark his becoming a lame duck. As it was, there were already suggestions to amend the Constitution to restore the senate and allow presidential re-election.
Second, Filipino businessmen were getting cold feet about independence and American businessmen were inclined to either sell off and pull out, or keep the Philippines in some sort of permanent relationship with America. The opinion of businessmen could not be ignored, particularly in an election year that required them to healthily donate to the administration’s campaign.
Third (and this was related to the second), the jockeying to succeed Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was already in his second term, had begun. American High Commissioner Paul V. McNutt was considered a potentially strong candidate for the presidency. But there was also the possibility that the Republicans might win: and if so, as opponents of Philippine independence they could, quite possibly, reverse the plans for independence. So Quezon’s gambit was two-fold: to propose moving the date of independence earlier, or, if the Republicans looked like they might win, to compromise with a permanent association but with independence: in other words, dominion status, like Canada.
On the while, while there are a lot of details that the film gets wrong, the basic issues are vividly exposed in this movie, as were the various motivations of the people involved: knowing what was at stake. When a humanitarian—a moral—crisis confronts the world, nations and individuals are called upon to make choices. When people in authority have to make those choices, they have to balance thinking of the next election and the next generation. What would you do, in such a situation?
The movie begins and ends with that question, actually. “Did I do enough,” Bagatsing-as-Quezon asks his wife. The story unfolds in a way that in a matter of hours, gives you a version—not the textbook version, but an imaginary version—of who did what, and how. This is a film about flawed people trying to rise above their own limitations. It’s worth your time and money, but don’t watch it to learn history. Be entertained with a story that tries its best to get to the heart of the truth by means of make-believe; because the things that matter aren’t in dry catalogs of facts but in understanding what moves and motivates people, from the famous to the obscure.