I, Tonya: Movie Review

The Winter Olympics are dominating television right now, which meant, I thought, it was a perfect time to see I, Tonya. I think pretty much everyone knows the basic contours of the Tonya Harding story. She was an ice skater, the first woman in the world to successfully land, in competition, a triple Axel. She was also a poor woman from a poor family. Her mother was trashy, and swore a lot; so was she. Nor was she an elegant skater. She was an athlete, a jumper, a concentrated ball of fierce energy. And, as such, she received lower scores than other skaters did. But then, just before the Lillehammer Olympics in ’94, when an assailant attacked her main rival for Olympic gold, Nancy Kerrigan. Harding’s ex-husband (and then-boyfriend) Jeff Gillooly was criminally charged with setting the whole thing up, and claimed Harding was complicit. Although she was able to compete in Lillehammer, the ‘incident’ ended her skating career.

That’s the broad outline; I, Tonya, rather unreliably, provides the details.  Harding (superbly played by Margot Robbie) claims that both her mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) and Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) physically abused her. Both characters, in the movie, deny it. (The film is told as a lengthy flashback, intercut with scenes in which several of the characters directly address the camera). Gillooly claims that Tonya knew what was going on, but that he did not intend for Kerrigan to be assaulted; that the physical attack was entirely the doing of his friend, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), who used his money to hire a hit person, Shane Stant (Ricky Russert). The film doesn’t really resolve any of these disputes, and we’re never sure how much we should trust Gillooly. It generally depicts events from Tonya’s perspective, and because we can see the events taking place, we mostly believe her. I doubt anyone seeing the film would doubt, for example, that Gillooly beat her up, despite his denials, because we see him doing it. Those scenes are well-shot, well-acted, brutal, tough to watch. We believe them. So while the film purports to be agnostic about the truth or falsehood of those details, the director Craig Gillespie, stacks the deck. We believe what we see.

Ice skating is something of a hybrid, half sport, half art form, and some top skaters have the balletic grace of dancers. (I don’t, in any way, diminish what extraordinary athletes top skaters really are; just that athletic skill is only one judging criterion). This is a film about class and gender construction as much as it’s about skating, or history. Tonya Harding is depicted as white trash, as a poor, uneducated, foul-mouthed, abused woman from a white trash background. (I love the various crappy houses Harding and Gillooly live in, along with Eckhardt and Golden. At one point, visiting the home of her coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), she remarks about a house ‘with a living room!’ Told by a skating judge that she needs to wear a fur coat to the rink like the other girls do, Harding shoots a bunch of rabbits, skins ’em, and sews herself a rabbit-skin coat. (Harding insists that that really happened).

She’s trashy, common, tacky, tawdry. Those are all words denoting social class, and the film makes a point of showing how class-conscious the skating world is. Tonya’s as welcome there as a fart in church. And it hurts her, of course, because skating is also a judged sport. She’s an astonishing athlete, and she thinks that should correlate with victory. And of course, to some degree it does. She did make two Olympic teams, she did win national championships. But she feels it, the way her accomplishments are diminished by her unconventional (for skating) unbringing. (I loved the early scenes in which we see eight-year old Tonya, dragged to practices and tournaments by her chain-smoking, foul-mouthed mother, and I loved young McKenna Grace’s performance as the young Tonya. What a fine child actress! She was great in Gifted too.) The movie’s music emphasizes class as well. It’s all hard-core classic rock, Heart and Bad Company and Laura Brannigan and Siouxie and the Banshees. It’s the kind of music Tonya grew up on, and loved. And it’s, sniff, not quite the thing for ever-so-classy figure skating.

It’s not just that Tonya is lower-class. That correlates directly to the way in which skating constructs gender. Skaters are princesses, demurely (whisper it) sexy, in an unthreatening way. Figure skating hides the amazing dexterity and skill of its performers. They have to dance, too, and just as we never are meant to comment on, or even notice, the extraordinary coordination it takes for a ballerina to dance en pointe. In both cases, pure beauty, is divorced from or at least distanced from sweaty, painful effort. (While also being as hard a thing, physically, it’s possible to imagine human beings doing). By the same token, Tonya’s calling card was her triple Axel. She did a tougher jump than anyone else even tried, and she landed it, and she threw in some triple flips and triple salchows while she was at it, and if you found the performance lacking in artistry, f-you.

It’s hard not to like her, honestly. It’s hard not to root for her. But the glory of Margot Robbie’s performance is that she’s completely unafraid to show us Tonya’s less likable features. (Best scene in the movie, best-acted, best lit, is a locker room scene where we see put on some blush. Totally amazing.) The Gillooly plan (according to the film) was to intimidate Nancy Kerrigan, to send her a death threat (like the ones Tonya received), to throw her off her game, but not to physically harm her. Tonya seems fine with psychological warfare, to the extent that she even thinks about it. She’s self-absorbed like any great athlete can be, entirely focused on the moment, on tonight’s performance. She can be whiny and she can be selfish and she can be massively insecure. And she doesn’t just drop F-bombs; she relishes them.

In Stan’s performance, Gillooly comes across as a nice guy, sincere, a good salesman, reasonably intelligent, devoted to the one great love of his life; a pretty good partner for her, really, when he’s not beating her up. (If he did.) (He totally did.) And that becomes part of the secret of Tonya. She was badly, physically, constantly, unremittingly abused. Her mother beat her, and then her husband took over the job. She responded by becoming one of the great athletes of her generation. It’s impossible not to admire that about her, while also being horrified and appalled on her behalf.

Incredibly, this horrific story is also, astonishingly, funny. It’s one of the darkest comedies I know, but it is a comedy; there are scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny, in a horrifying sort of way. A lot of the comedy comes from Hauser, who is absolutely terrific as Shawn Eckhardt, Jeff Gillooly’s incomparably stupid best friend. Eckhardt tells everyone (including a thoroughly unimpressed FBI) that he’s an international espionage expert. (All the while, he lives with his Mom). He knows people. He has ‘guys.’ He’s four steps ahead of everyone, don’t you know? All the while, seriously, there are smarter bricks in the walls of my house.

His astonishing dimness is, believe it or not, exceeded by his idiot friend, Shane Stant. And, again, we’re treated to a small but beautifully creepy and moronic characterization, by Ricky Russert, an actor I had never heard of before. The scene where he whacks Kerrigan is amazing, as he wanders cluelessly around the halls and dressing rooms of a skating rink, slack-jawed but determined. And then he finds her, smashes her leg. And Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) screams in agony. And a funny scene becomes horrifying.

It’s a funny film, in which women are abused, and it never takes their abuse less than completely seriously. That’s a tough balancing act; I cannot applaud Gillespie enough for walking that tightrope. It’s also a seriously intentioned film about unreliable narrators, about the difficulty in discerning truth from a welter of contradictory stories about subjective memories. I admire that too. You feel tremendous sympathy for Tonya Harding. You feel terrible for her, and you want her to overcome the difficulties posed by her class and upbringing and the damage done to her by those who loved her most. And yet, when she gets her just desserts, you can’t help but think, ‘yep, that seems fair.’

But let me do this as well, ask some annoying questions about the film’s depiction of social class in mid-nineties America. I think the film is largely sympathetic to Tonya, and largely unsympathetic to the hoity-toity skating establishment. (With the one exception of Diane Rawlinson. Quietly, Nicholson’s performance helps us see another side. She’s not as flashy as Robbie or Janney, but she’s terrific). Don’t we associate ‘lower class’ with ‘dim-witted?’ Don’t we assume that lower-class people are there because they’re not bright enough to rise? And doesn’t this film perpetuate that, to at least some degree, through its depictions of Eckhardt and Stant?

Maybe. And maybe not quite. As a counter argument, I would point to Eckhardt’s diction. The character speaks fairly intelligently. He uses better grammar than Gillooly, and he has a wider vocabulary. It’s not until the FBI are actually interrogating him that you realize how astoundingly dumb he really is. So, I don’t know.

It’s a lovely film, in its own violent, brutal, profane way. The director takes lots of chances–especially with tone–and they pretty much all pay off. And, Oscar night, I’m rooting for Margot Robbie and for Allison Janney. Disappointed in you, CJ. What a fine performance.

A week of movies: Reviews of The Commuter, Den of Thieves, 12 Strong

I had some time on my hands this week–big writing project done, and health improving–and decided to take full advantage of MoviePass, and see some flicks. I tend to love January movies anyway. I know, it’s Dump Month, when studios release a bunch of movies they don’t believe in and don’t know how to market. But I’m a movie nut. I’ll see pretty much anything, and generally find something to like in them all.

First off was The Commuter. Liam Neeson continues to reinvent himself as a septuagenarian action movie star, and power to him. Of course, it’s a little disconcerting seeing Oskar Schindler beating up bad guys. What’s the great line from The Simpson’s? “Oskar Schindler muy bueno. Señor Burns es el diablo.” Still, he’s a compelling actor, and generally sympathetic. Why not play an old tough guy with, you know, a certain set of skills?

The Commuter was directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, a Spanish director with a knack for action and a real visual flair, and the movie begins with a terrific montage, showing insurance salesman Michael MacCauley dragging himself to catch his train and work in the Big City, day after endless day. It’s a fascinating sequence, engaging our sympathies for the guy, but also showing, uh, a certain drabness to his routine. And then, in the movie’s first scene, he’s fired from his job. He’s 60 years old, his son’s going off to college, and he just lost his job. Man, do we feel for him. Great beginning to a thriller.

The movie that follows is one of those movies, like Speed, that manages to be an exciting, well made thriller, extremely satisfying as long as you overlook the fact that the movie’s central premise is completely preposterous. Michael is on the train, heading home, like every day, when Joanna (Vera Fermiga), approaches him with a proposition. There’s someone on the train that doesn’t belong. This person needs to be identified, and a tracking device placed in his/her baggage. If Michael can do it, he’ll get $100,000. If he can’t, his wife and son will be murdered. Good luck.

And so we see Michael, who we learn is a former policeman, trying to chat oh so casually with his fellow commuters, to figure out who doesn’t belong. And he figures out some ways to narrow it down, and meanwhile, some of the people, as you might imagine, take exception. Violently, in one case. And Michael gets beat up, and still has to continue.

I found it quite compelling. It’s just a very exciting thriller. Of course, it’s also immensely stupid, but that’s not a drawback for certain kinds of movies. I thought it was a creatively conceived, satisfyingly executed, exceptionally enjoyable really dumb movie. I tell you, you could do a lot worse. The ending is particularly idiotic, but you know, I went with it. Willing suspension of disbelief. If you’re in the mood for pure escapism, I recommend it highly. Just don’t expect art.

Next up was Den Of Thieves, a cops v. robbers heist movie, starring Gerard Butler. Butler plays an LA cop, with the reliably American tough guy name of Nick O’Brian, with the LA County Sheriff’s department. Meanwhile, Pablo Schreiber (Liev Schreiber’s half-brother), is Ray Merriman, a former Special Forces soldier who has turned his skills to a life of highly profitable crime. So it’s Nick vs. Ray, the head of a bunch of renegade cops and the head of a bunch of renegade former soldiers. And the baddies are trying to pull of a particularly intricate bank job, and the cops are trying to stop ’em. Meanwhile, Curtis “Fifty Cent” Jackson played Enson, a member of the robbers’ gang who is also sort of helping the cops.

What a bad movie. Here’s my problem with it: the police are so unlikable, so violent and thuggish and mean, I couldn’t root for them. Basically, I was cheering for the robbers the whole way. This, despite the fact that in the first scene in the movie, we see this same gang of robbers gun down four cops for no particular reason. It doesn’t matter. Their plan is clever, and they’re disciplined and competent, and we’re on their side. And we never once see the police doing, you know, police work. Canvassing, talking to witnesses, examining a crime scene. Never happens. It was kind of like on the old Batman TV show: “who did this? It has to be the job of . . . the Joker.” They just decide they know who the bad guys are, kidnap one of them, and beat him up until he spills. And then engage in all kinds of supposedly intimidating macho posturing. They’re awful.

Plus, Nick is particularly awful. His wife is divorcing him (she apparently has some objection to him sleeping with his string of hookers/strippers/barmaids), and he decides it’s a great idea to to a party thrown by her New Guy and shove him around. After that scene, I only stayed in the theater so I could see Pablo Schreiber’s character shoot him. Which I also knew wasn’t ever going to happen.

Part of the problem is Gerard Butler, an actor, ahem, somewhat lacking in nuance. Fifty Cent is a lot better actor, as is Schreiber. Anyway, the bad guys pull off the big job, and the cops chase ’em down, and then–it’s LA–everyone gets stuck in a traffic jam. Now, the bad guys are former Special Forces–they have really big guns, with armor piercing shells that can cut through engine blocks like hot knives through butter. And the cops are really heavily armed too. And there are maybe thirty cars between the robbers’ getaway car and the main cop cars. So Nick and his guys run down the lane between all these cars, and the robbers open fire, and they all have this big firefight, right there on the street, with all these civilian cars everywhere. Final death toll: cops 2, robbers 4, innocent bystanders, 77, more or less. Probably. Yikes.

This is a completely terrible movie. And the only reason to see it is maybe if you’re a huge Fifty Cent fan. Even then, honestly, I wouldn’t bother. He’s gotta be in something better.

Final movie: 12 Strong. It’s a war movie, with lots of ‘splosions and gun battles and scenes in which Chris Hemsworth rides into combat against tanks on horseback. Hemsworth and Michael Shannon and Michael Peña play US soldiers, right after 9/11, tasked with meeting up and supporting a group of anti-Taliban Afghani soldiers, led by a General Dostum (Navid Negahban), in attacking a Taliban stronghold. It was a very entertaining and exciting movie, well acted and quite compelling, and six months from now I’ll have forgotten I ever saw it. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. A good popcorn movie is rare enough, they should be cherished when they come across our radar. I just think it’s a shame that something as tragic and awful and consequential as the war in Afghanistan got such insubstantial Hollywood attention. Chris Hemsworth is a fine actor, capable of a bigger challenge, I think. Instead, if I remember this movie at all, it’ll be ‘that movie where Thor won the war in Afghanistan.’ So why are we still there?

What’s my problem with it? It’s based on a real event, and the actual soldiers who fought there are worth our attention, obviously. They were genuinely heroic, and certainly did things, out of patriotism, that I wouldn’t be capable of doing. Why not make a movie about them?

Except, you know, it all felt . . . perfunctory. I’ve never fought in combat, but my understanding is that military assault rifles need to be reloaded periodically, that even American weapons don’t come with unlimited magazines. And while the Taliban are surely convincing bad guys, I’m not convinced that, whatever their failings, a complete inability to shoot accurately is among them. And while the soldiers in the actual battle did ride on horseback, I’m not sure I like the chances of horseback riding cavalry against tanks and armored personnel carriers. And Taliban rocket launchers might (I just say might) be better employed against enemy armies than against cliff faces. And so on. It’s a very well executed Hollywood action movie. Part of me believes that Afghanistan deserves a better treatment than that provided by a well-executed Hollywood action movie.

Still, the actors were all really good, and the movie was exciting. My wife and I enjoyed it. Recommended, with caveats.

I also saw Hostiles. Reviewed elsewhere here. That movie was genuinely terrific. Redeemed January all by itself. But it’s not always about good movies. And that’s okay too.

Winchester: Movie review

The Winchester Mystery House is a favorite tourist attraction in San Jose California, where my wife grew up. When we’d go visit her family, we sometimes took it in. It’s a very strange house, a mansion, one of those ‘eccentric millionaire’ extravaganza’s, like the Hearst Castle, or, in Orem, the Bastian home. The Winchester was constructed by Sarah Winchester, wife of firearms business mogul William Winchester. After his death, in 1884, she continued to build, until her death in 1924. She supervised the construction personally, did not employ an architect, and the result is a seven story mansion that can best be described as haphazard. The house was, in many respects, ahead of its time, with working indoor toilets, forced air heating, a unique communications system, and elevators.

Mrs. Winchester was said to have believed the house to be haunted by the ghosts of those killed by Winchester rifles. She was, in short, a strange but fascinating woman, and both she and the house seem well worth a movie treatment. Especially with the right actress playing Mrs. Winchester. Dame Helen Mirren strikes me as an ideal choice.

The film we saw last night, Winchester, was, in nearly every respect, a disappointment. Its Rotten Tomatoes score was 13%, a score I found unsurprising. The German twin brother directing team of Michael and Peter Spierig took the fascinating psychological drama of Mrs. Winchester, and turned it into a paint-by-numbers gothic horror flick, all jump cuts and spooky music. The cast, beginning with Dame Helen, were wasted, and included the marvelous character actor  Jason Clarke, Australian actress Sarah Snook, and a couple of superb actors in minor roles: Angus Sampson as Winchester’s construction foreman, and a wonderfully sepulchral young actor I’ve never heard of before, Eamon Farron, as a particularly malevolent ghost. The Spierigs had a wonderful story to tell, and the right cast to tell it, and apparently could think of nothing better to do with it than make a creepy schlock-fest.

Because, lurking beneath all the creaking doors and grotesque imagery, is a fascinating meditation on America’s obsession with firearms. Mrs. Winchester kept detailed records of every person killed by a Winchester rifle. By her own admission (and to her shame), her records were inevitably incomplete, but they haunted her. The scenes where Mirren shows Clarke (playing a psychologist sent to evaluate her for the company’s board), her detailed ledgers, every gun death obsessed over, were completely compelling. She believed that by continuously building and rebuilding her mansion, she was welcoming the ghosts of gun victims. She would invite them into her rooms, then nail the doors shut (with 13 nails, exactly, every time), allow them room and space to find peace and transition to the spirit world. In the meantime, she would express her remorse and heartbreak over their deaths. What an astonishing continuing act of penance and contrition! Would that the makers of AR-17s felt a tiny fraction of that measure of repentance.

Snook plays Mrs. Winchester’s niece, Marion, who lives at the mansion as a particularly fierce defender of her aunt’s eccentricities. But her son, Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey), is badly affected by the ghosts, and most especially by the mansion’s latest apparition, Ben (Farren), a mass shooter gunned down by police. Ben’s a particularly powerful and evil ghost, with, we’re given to understand, the spectral power to bring about the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Except, of course, Clarke’s psychologist (Dr. Price, if it matters), has kept the bullet that his wife used to shoot him, resulting in a near-death experience, and giving him, see, the ability to both see and banish ghosts. By shooting it. With a Winchester rifle. And the very bullet his wife used. None of that makes a lick of sense, and was frankly more risible than spooky.

But imagine a psychological thriller, again starring that mansion, Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, in which we never actually saw any ghosts? In which the existence of ghosts was implied, but not made overt? In which we’re never sure just what’s going on, but in which Mrs. Winchester really does believe, and continues her manic building project as a kind of expiation? And a movie that really did plumb the depths of her feelings of guilt? And, of course, our shared guilt as Americans? Because nobody else does this, right? Just lets whoever have whatever guns they want? And proclaims its unique Christian heritage, while arming the world?

It’s a shame. Winchester is just another scary movie.  We’ll all have forgotten it existed three months from now.  But, my goodness, there’s a wonderful movie lurking beneath it. Wrong directors, perhaps, wrong studio heads, wrong production company? Who knows. It’s just a shame. Sarah Winchester deserves better.

The Nunes memo

It’s out. The famous Devin Nunes memo, memorialized by the #releasethememo hashtag popular on the Right, is now out, over the vehement objections by the Justice Department and the FBI. It’s been declassified by President Trump, and has been publicly released. I’ve read it; everyone’s read it. It’s not very long, so reading it takes maybe five minutes. I’m not going to link to it, though, because it’s not remotely hard to find, and I’m not driving traffic there.

Okay. Conspiracy theories involve forming tiny scraps of evidence into a single narrative, while ignoring mountains of evidence inconvenient to that narrative. Fact is, we humans do that, take this insight and that observation and form a gestalt. I hear a rustling sound and smell something musty, and conclude ‘there’s a sabre-tooth tiger in them woods over yonder.’ And we all grab our spears. Human evolution selected for gestalt-creation, is what I’m saying.

But it lets us down. And sometimes we make fools of ourselves. That wasn’t a tiger, it was a squirrel, and no, President Bush did not blow up the Twin Towers, and Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. Conspiracy theories make even very bright people seem stupider than they in fact are, because the piles of evidence conspiracy theories ignore are so massive.

The Devin Nunes memo, in other words, is the central document in a particularly idiotic conspiracy theory.

During the last Presidential election, a research organization called Fusion GPS was hired by political opponents of Donald Trump’s to do opposition research on him. They hired a former British spy named Christopher Steele to do those parts of the research involving ties between Trump and Russian. Steele was a good choice. He had lots of anti-Putin Russian contacts, and was well-regarded as an intelligence agent. He sent over several preliminary findings, some of which were fairly salacious, many of which were, by his own admission, not well corroborated. Those findings form the document that has become known as the Steele dossier. Steele became so alarmed by what he was finding–specifically that the Russians were trying to influence the US Presidential election in favor of Donald Trump–that he took his information to the FBI. And US intelligence services accepted the dossier, though it wasn’t a particularly important source for their own investigation. They had already gotten most of it from other sources. Anyway, once the Republicans who initiated this oppo project went down in flames, the Democrats took it over, and paid Fusion GPS for it.

The Nunes memo alleges that the Steele dossier was the only source used by the FBI when they renewed a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant for Carter Page, who was named by Trump’s campaign as a foreign policy advisor. This is, apparently, a horrible violation of Page’s civil liberties. And the FISA warrant was only renewed because the Justice Department and FBI are unified in opposition to President Trump. So they’ve invented a phony Russia scandal to attack his Presidency. See, an FBI agent named Peter Strzok triggered the entire counterintelligence investigation because of his personal bias against Trump, as suggested by his inappropriate text messages saying so to his mistress, fellow FBI employee Lisa Page (no relation to Carter).

Where to start?

To begin with, Carter Page is exactly, precisely the person Congress had in mind when they passed FISA. He is exactly the person on whom US intelligence agencies should be conducting surveillance. In 2013, the FBI was investigating a Russian spy ring run by a guy named Victor Podobnyy. Podobnyy recruited Page. He was captured in a wiretap saying this about Page:

He writes to me in Russian [to] practice the language. He flies to Moscow more often than I do. He got hooked on Gazprom thinking that if they have a project, he could be rise up. Maybe he can. I don’t know, but it’s obvious that he wants to learn lots of money. …… I will feed him empty promises. … You promise a favor for a favor. You get the documents from him and tell him to go fuck himself.

It’s more fun if you say it in a Russian accent.

Podobnyy also was quoted as saying he thought Page was an idiot. That’s not really relevant. Point is, a Russian spy recruited Page three years before Trump made him a foreign policy advisor.

Then, during the campaign, Page flew to Moscow to talk to top Russian officials about, what? Lifting sanctions. Which is what the Russians wanted from Trump to begin with. I thought Rachel Maddow summed it all up beautifully last night:

That memo is a House Republican effort to try to make you believe that either the third or fourth renewal of that surveillance warrant against Carter Page is a terrible scandal. How could anybody approve that? There are multiple reports that President Trump fervently believes this memo is what he needs to end the Robert Mueller investigation, because this memo will make America believe that only terrible, what, Clinton stooges would support the third or fourth renewal of a foreign agent surveillance warrant on the guy who’s been on the FBI’s counter-intelligence radar since at least 2013 when he played a starring role as the enthusiastic idiot in a convicted Russian spy ring in New York who then later turned up multiple times in Moscow denouncing the United States, praising Vladimir Putin, and trying to get Russian business deals for himself. With Russian state run companies. While meeting with Russian government officials.

If it’s a scandal that that guy, Carter Page, recruited by Russian spies, an enthusiastic endorser of Vladimir Putin, a guy who flew off in the middle of the campaign to talk to Russian government officials about relaxing US sanctions on Russia, if it’s a scandal that that guy got a FISA warrant renewed, then I’m a sword-swallower.

But the memo puts the FBI in a tough position. Of course they had lots of reasons to want to surveill Carter Page. But many of those came from foreign intelligence sources, who nobody wants to compromise. The Steele dossier isn’t particularly important, but it’s also not wrong; Steele had sources for all of it, and while it should certainly be viewed skeptically, its existence is also not any kind of scandal. So Steele was one of the sources used to apply for a FISA warrant. Big deal.

And the Peter Strzok/Lisa Page stuff is just ridiculous. Strzok and Page didn’t like Donald Trump and didn’t want him to become President. They also didn’t like Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton, and didn’t want them to become President either. Strzok and Page were having an affair, and much of their relationship apparently involved snarky political texts back and forth. They were all-purpose mockers, deeply cynical about the entire American political system. That’s not an unreasonable position.

There is no deep state anti-Trump conspiracy. There are, however, lots of people who think Donald Trump is a sick, sad joke of a President. FISA powers were certainly not abused in relation to Carter Page–he’s exactly the guy who should have been surveilled. But FISA is questionable law, and I wish it included more civil liberty safeguards.  I’m also pretty sure Oswald shot JFK. And Bin Laden’s guys flew the planes. And Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. When the history of Russia-gate is written, the Nunes memo will be a footnote. Because it’s nuts.

Hostiles: Movie review

A cast, a crew, a director all work unfathomable hours on a film project. They believe in it, or come to believe in it; they think the story and the script are first-rate, and that the film they’re making is going to be excellent. Post-production finishes, and the cast and crew gather in a theater and see it for the first time. And it’s great; austere, deeply tragic, haunting, powerful. And then the studio looks at it, has no idea how to market it, and it gets dumped into theaters in January, when everyone in the world is watching the Oscar films that were released in two theaters in late December. No buzz, no hype, and the terrific film you were working on gets no buzz, and little audience.

That’s the story of Hostiles. It’s a wonderful film. It’s sad and haunting and beautiful, and features absolutely stunning acting performances in all the major roles. Based on seeing it, I would vote for Rosamund Pike for Best Actress and Christian Bale for Best Actor and Wes Studi for Best Supporting Actor in a heartbeat. And when I saw it, the theater was all but empty, and when I told my son about it, his response was “that Western? That was good?”

As the film begins, a frontier woman, Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), is teaching grammar to her young daughters. Her husband is outside their home, doing chores. A rampaging Comanche war party attacks, kills her husband and daughters. Holding her baby to her chest, she runs into a nearby woods, as the Comanche shoot at her. She barely makes it, finds a hiding place, tries to stay quiet. They miss her; she’s alive. Then she looks down at the infant, and realizes that a spare bullet has killed it. And she falls apart.

Cut to US cavalry Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), on patrol. He’s rounded up an Apache, and takes him back to the fort, mistreating him all the way. While there, his commanding officer, Colonel Biggs (Stephen Lang) give him new orders. A Cheyenne chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) has been imprisoned in New Mexico for seven years. He’s dying of cancer, and wants to go home to Montana, and the President of the United States has granted him clemency for that purpose. Blocker is to take a small company of men and escort Yellow Hawk home.

Blocker doesn’t want to do it. He is a seasoned Indian fighter, close to retirement, and loathes those he calls, indiscriminately, ‘savages.’ He’s lost too many friends, fought too many battles, taken too many lives. No. But Biggs is adament, and tells him that refusing this order will cost him his pension. And so Blocker reluctantly obeys his orders, and agrees to go.

Bale’s performance as Blocker is just riveting. He’s a complex, troubled, haunted man. He despises the Cheyenne, yet speaks their language fluently. He reads by the campfire every night; Caesar on the conquest of Gaul, in Latin. He is a brilliant cavalry commander, and a man of faith, however battered. And so he puts together a small team of soldiers, a mix of men he respects and has fought with–Sgt. Metz (Rory Cochrane), even more damaged and war-weary than Blocker, and Cpl. Henry Woodson (Jonathan Majors), an African-American with whom Blocker has fought and who he respects immensely. They’re joined by Lt. Rudy Kidder (Jesse Plemons), a newby straight from West Point, and Phillipe DeJardin (Timothee Chalamet), not only new to the service, but a Frenchman new to America entirely. Along with Yellow Hawk, they’re accompanied by Black Hawk (Adam Beach), his son, Elk Woman (Q’Orianka Kilcher), Black Hawk”s wife, and two younger female family members.

And so they set off, and quickly discover the burned out Quaid farm, and in the charred interior of the house, Rosalie, driven half-mad from grief. She has somehow retrieved her dead children, and dressed them, but she insists that they’re alive, that the soldiers keep quiet so as not to wake them. When the soldiers attempt to dig graves, she fights them, insisting that she will dig all the graves for her family, and tries to until her strength gives out entirely. And Blocker is able to treat her respectfully, kindly and solicitously. Pike’s performance is completely convincing and completely heart-breaking. She brought me to tears more than once. And so the soldiers take her with them on their journey.

One of the many things I loved about this movie is that this group of disparate characters were all superbly rendered, completely realized individuals. Rory Cochrane’s depiction of a brave man ravaged by untreated PTSD was stunning, as was Majors as a man determined to maintain absolute professionalism despite the weight of his own loaded history.

The Comanche return, and casualties are suffered, and Blocker comes to respect Yellow Hawk and Black Hawk, and their insight and expertise. And Elk Woman befriends Rosalie. Alliances are formed, friendships tentatively embarked upon. But Sgt. Metz’s problems run too deep for any of them to cope with, and we sense how precarious is his hold on his sanity. Plemons is excellent too, as a man in over his head, but trying desperately to cling to some humanity.

And I can’t say enough about Wes Studi. He’s honestly one of the great American actors, one of those actors who the camera loves. I first fell in love with him as Magua, in Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans, and have followed his career ever since. His performance as Yellow Hawk is utterly compelling; you can’t take your eyes off him. He’s dying, but he retains his dignity and authority. He’s imprisoned, but still a wily tactician. And he’s capable of tremendous empathy. It’s a special performance by a marvelous actor.

And that story, the marvelous cinematography and haunting music and superb performances are all in the service of a history lesson of the first order. This is a film that helps us feel, not just witness but deeply and powerfully feel the savagery and violence and tragedy and deeply distressing brutality of the history of the American West, and the ill-treatment to which our forebearing Americans subjected those native to these shores. It’s a film about the cost of colonialism, about the cruel inhumanity of the American pursuit and acquisition of the wealth of our beautiful continent. Blocker, as created by Bale, represents the American propensity for viciousness required for the kind of conquest we felt entitled to pursue. It’s not just a marvelous film, it’s an essential one. And I, for one, was grateful to have seen it.

Darkest Hour: Movie review

Due to what has to be pure serendipity, two of the nine movies nominated for Best Picture this year cover the same few days in May, 1940: Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which came out earlier this year, and Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, recently released. Together, the two movies make a compelling case for those few days as one of the great turning points in history. The appointment of Winston Churchill as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the decision to resist Hitler at all costs even as France and the rest of Europe went up in flames, and the desperate gamble of sending pleasure craft and fishing boats from England to Dunkirk to evacuate Britain’s last 300,000 professionally trained soldiers, combined to make possible the UK’s survival as a nation, as the last bastion of democratic decency left in a world gone mad. One shudders to think of the cost of it had any of those gambles failed.

Essentially, Dunkirk takes a micro-narrative approach to filmmaking, by focusing on a few individual stories within the larger story; a pilot, fighting off Luftwaffe planes trying to sink rescue vessels, a single soldier trying to find his way to freedom, and an ordinary citizen captaining a boat on its way to the rescue. It’s an extraordinary movie, not least because of Nolan’s compression of time. He manages to tell three stories simultaneously, one describing events that lasted an hour, one, a day, and one, a week. And the stakes, of course, are extraordarily high. 300, 000 men will almost certainly die if not evacuated.

And yet, the stakes in Darkest Hour are higher still. It’s one of those movies about a single moment, a movie about a single character making a single, momentous decision, with everything else in the movie subordinated to that decision. (The Post is structurally similar, though of course, about a different time and set of issues). The decision, in this case, is whether Winston Churchill (astonishingly rendered by Gary Oldman), with the rest of Europe under Hitler subjugation, will seek peace terms in order to save those 300,000 lives. Churchill’s instincts are to radically mistrust Adolf Hitler. (Those instincts, of course, are entirely correct). But essentially his entire war cabinet is lined up against him. Most especially, the man who probably would have been a more sensible choice for Prime Minister, Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), adamantly insists that peace must be pursued. And what cost? Halifax, in the movie, doesn’t seem to care.

The film’s depiction of Halifax is, in fact, something of a distortion of history. Halifax was appalled by Kristalnacht, opposed (in a measured, quiet way), to Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, and willing to commit British forces to defend Poland. His peace overtures to Germany were based on his feeling that it was the only way out of an impossible situation. By June of 1940, he had fully committed to the war effort, and when appointed as ambassador to the United States, served with great distinction and success.

But this is a Hollywood biopic, and as such, somewhat uninterested in nuance. It’s about Churchill, depicted here as uncertain of his path, but also as unequivocally heroic. Oh, sure, he can be rude to the help, faltering in his speech, and his eating and drinking habits were undeniably unhealthy. But he saw clearly the danger posed by Hitler. The problem is, so did everyone else, and the question was, what to do it about it. As it turned out, Churchill’s rather harebrained scheme of sending hundreds of small civilian boats to rescue the soldiers at Dunkirk succeeded far beyond any reasonable expectation. Earlier in his career, during WWI, his far more strategically justifiable Gallipoli campaign, had failed more catastrophically than it probably should have. Luck evens out over time.

Wright’s filmmaking is inventive, especially his use of long subjective angle tracking shots, as we see the British populace from Churchill’s p.o.v. from his car. The camera gets less busy, of course, in all the scenes with Churchill, but then it’s got Oldman to keep our attention. I thought Kristin Scott Thomas was underutilized in the thankless role of Churchill’s wife, Clemmie. More successful was the film’s depiction of Churchill’s favorite typist, Miss Layton (wonderfully played by Lili James). Initially intimidated by his gruffness, she became a reliable associate and cheering section.

Still, it’s a fine film, featuring a wonderful performance, and I’m looking forward, on Oscar night, to seeing Oldman earn his reward. And this movie, combined with Dunkirk, serve the admirable purpose of telling audiences in 2018 something about a particularly crucial era in history. Well done indeed, to everyone involved with it.

 

Trump’s Wall

It occurred to me the other day, watching news shows discussing immigration, that I had never heard anyone refer to Donald Trump’s wall without pejorative adjectives. It’s never The Wall, or even Trump’s wall. It’s always ‘Trump’s stupid wall,’ or ‘Trump’s idiotic wall,’ or ‘Trump’s moronic wall.’ I do it too. When Donald Trump was campaigning for President, one of his big applause lines involved the wall, a big wall he wanted to build between the United States and Mexico. And then he’d add “and Mexico’s gonna pay for it.’ That was never going to happen, of course, but he still wants it, I think out of sheer ego and stubbornness. I’m a liberal; like most liberals, I think it’s dumb, and want Democrats in the Senate to oppose it.  When, in the middle of the government shutdown negotiations, Chuck Schumer agreed to fund building the wall, trading it for a clean DACA bill, it felt like a punch in the gut. We have to be against the wall. I mean, don’t we?

In the early New Deal era, British economist John Maynard Keynes came to the US, and Harry Hopkins showed him around. As the story goes, Hopkins showed him a WPA project, in which a whole gang of guys dug ditches with shovels. “See,” Hopkins said, “shovels. It’s a job stimulus project.” “If this is a stimulus project,” Keynes replied, “you should have given them teaspoons.” The point is, to stimulate the economy, there’s value in make-work projects. As long as people are working, and getting paid for it, essentially any job has stimulative value. The wall may be worthless from a policy perspective, but hey, people are getting paid, that money will circulate; it’s a stimulus project. (Then, a year or two later, we can pay other people to take it down! Double stimulus!).

And let’s be honest, Democrats haven’t always opposed building physical barriers on the Mexican border. Hillary Clinton voted for a fence. Other Dems have voted for other ‘border security’ projects. As much as Republicans want to paint Democrats as the pro-illegal-immigration party, no President deported as many undocumented people as Barack Obama did. Pretty much every Democrat running supported some combination of ‘pathway to citizenship’ and ‘secure our borders.’ When thousands of refugees showed up in the US from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, most of them children, the US didn’t exactly welcome them with open arms. I support our country accepting many many more refugees and many many more immigrants, from all over the world. Millions. But mine is not the majority opinion of the Democratic party.

The wall is, let’s be frank, idiotic public policy. First of all, just building it is a logistical nightmare. Much of the border between the US and Mexico is a river. We can’t build a wall in the middle of a river, and we obviously can’t build on the Mexican side. We’re gonna put a big ugly dangerous wall right on the river’s edge? Construction can’t even begin until someone sorts out thousands of eminent domain cases. A lot of the border is inhospitable building terrain. Plus, build a fifteen foot wall, and folks will show up with sixteen foot ladders. Plus, a large percentage of people who are here illegally arrived by plane, and then overstayed their visas. The Trump wall won’t help with that. It’s a stupid, useless idea, expensive and wasteful. The thing it’s meant to accomplish isn’t worth accomplishing, and the wall won’t accomplish it anyway. Bad idea all around.

Immigration is good. The US wants more, not fewer immigrants. Immigrants are an economic plus. It’s way too hard to get a green card, and much much too difficult, after immigrating, to earn American citizenship. The arguments against immigration, and I’ve heard all of them, are either factually wrong, racist, or irrelevant.

Quick tangential drug policy digression: Mexican drug cartels are dangerous, violent and destructive. We need to amend American drug policy to drive them out of business. Right now, what we’re doing about drugs is interdiction; we’re trying to stop drugs from entering the US. In other words, we’re artificially constricting supply of a commodity. Reduce supply, and if demand stays constant, you’re artificially raising prices and profits. In other words, we’re battling Mexican drug cartels by making them richer. This strikes me as, uh, counterproductive. End drug policy digression.

So we’re all against the wall, except for those Democrats who have, in the past, supported building physical barriers. We’re against the wall, except we also grant its central premise–the need for ‘border security.’ We like the DACA kids, but hate illegals. And everyone, right and left, opposes ‘amnesty.’ So can’t we liberals at least be consistent? Or, you know, brave? I would fall down at the feet of any Democratic politician who came out for amnesty, for increased immigration, for issuing many more green cards and who urged us to take in, I don’t know, five million refugees from Central America, Africa, Syria and Libya. Want to see economic stimulus? Want job creation? Increased immigration will do it.

No, the wall has become symbolic, right and left. I think the people who cheered Trump when he talked about it love the idea of it. The world is changing. White people seem to be losing power. By golly, when I was in high school, the idea was, you got a job at the local RCA plant, building radios, or the local Otis plant, building elevators, and you worked there for forty years, got married, bought a house, and then you retired. Meantime, you coached Little League, and supporting Scouting, and joined the Elks Club. And the people in charge were the same kinds of people who had always been in charge. And everyone on TV was white. (I remember the first time I saw a black person on a TV commercial. For Proctor and Gamble, as I recall) All of that is changing. America doesn’t look the way it looked, and the RCA factory shut down, and so did Otis, and they’re offering job training, on computers. Computers! And your brother-in-law is a drug addict, became one after his back surgery. And the President had a Muslim name and dark skin. He looked wrong. Whether he did a good job or not–he did–wasn’t relevant. Build a wall! Stop it! Block it all out! Make it all go away.

Trump ‘said it like it is.’ That’s astonishing, given how much he lies, but what he was offering was solace, a comforting fantasy. And the wall was the key to his appeal. It stood for something. a barrier to change.

And I’m an old white guy, and I get it. But I also love the world today. If a wall gets built, I want to be there when it falls. I want a piece of it, like everyone wanted when that other idiotic wall got built in Berlin. I like multi-cultural, post-racial, gender bending, feminist, post-modern America. I want more change, faster. I want more, not fewer, gay friends and trans friends and professional female friends. I want more change, faster.

Trump supporters want the wall for symbolic reasons. Liberals oppose it, also for symbolic reasons. Whether an actual wall gets built–it shouldn’t–may be kind of beside the point.

This is what it looks like when a racist runs the government

The federal government shut down on Friday, and remains shut down today. I’m going to assume that you are generally familiar with the whys and wherefores of it. Shortly stated, It involves a dispute between Republicans and Democrats over immigration policy. I watched the Sunday political talk shows this week, and of course, spokespeople from the White House, plus Republican senators, all blamed the Democrats; this is the ‘Schumer shutdown,’ as the ineffable White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders put it. (Points for alliteration, at least!). Meanwhile, all the Dems were calling it the ‘Trump shutdown.’ Watching the pols shout ‘j’accuse!’ at each other made for an unpleasant Sunday, honestly. And, of course, both sides were intent on blackening the other side’s motivation, intent and basic integrity. Again, unpleasant.

But let’s not give in to the trap of declaring ‘a pox on both their houses.’ This really is a moral argument more than a political/procedural one. And one side, and one side only, is on the side of the angels.

Procedurally, of course, it’s the Republicans who have the better argument. It takes 60 votes to open a Senate debate, without which no budget can pass. Chuck Schumer heads up the Democratic caucus, and for the most part, it is Democrats who are refusing to vote to open.  (There were a few defections on each side). Democrats are holding the budget hostage over the issues of DACA and CHIP. (They have to–that’s the only leverage they have). The shut-down could end today. A wrench has been thrown into the Senate’s gears, and it was Democrats who threw it. Let us at least concede that much. Couldn’t they all just get along better? Pass a budget, and get on with their lives? Yes, they could. Democrats could give up this lonely, quixotic fight. But that would require a certain moral accommodation, a certain lowering of moral standards. It’s an accommodation they are (not yet) willing to make.

But the fact that Schumer (along with Dick Durbin and Lindsay Graham and Jeff Flake and a few other Senators on each side) are genuinely making an effort to break this impasse isn’t actually the problem. Schumer put it best when he said that working with President Trump is like “negotiating with jello.” Trump famously goes along with whoever speaks with him last, and it appears that immigration hard-liners have his ear, especially advisor Stephen Miller (quite likely the most repellent figure in Washington), John Kelly and Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark).

But this entire embroglia is and always was completely unnecessary. President Obama fought for years to solve the problem of the Dreamers. Young people, who were brought to this country as tiny children, by their parents, in violation of US immigration laws, are vulnerable. In every way that matters, they’re Americans. They’re working, going to school, serving in the military. They should simply be made citizens, and that’s what Obama wanted for them, but he couldn’t get that through Congress, though there exists a bill, the DREAM act, that would accomplish it, and which would pass if Republican Congressional leadership would bring it to a vote. (Plenty of Republicans are good people of conscience, and Dreamer supporters). So Obama used the power of the Presidency to, at least, protect those kids from deportation. And deporting them makes no sense whatsoever. Their homes are here. They know no one in their parents’ countries of origin. Mostly, they don’t speak the language of those countries. Obama’s actions, DACA, gave them a reprieve.

And then, on September 5, Donald Trump signed an executive order reversing DACA.

There was absolutely no reason for President Trump to strip those young people of the DACA protections President Obama extended them. It was an act of utterly gratuitous cruelty. That action, unnecessary and unprincipled and without moral foundation of any kind, is what precipitated this crisis. Democrats have one, tiny bit of leverage they can use to force a vote on the Dream Act. They have to do it, for moral if not for political reasons.

And why did Trump do it? Why did he hold Dreamers hostage like this; what larger political purpose did this despicable act serve? Why, he wanted to put pressure on Democrats to agree to a whole bunch of restrictions on immigration. He talks a lot about ending ‘chain migration.’ He wants to end the diversity visa lottery program. His clearest comment on his reasoning came a few days go; the ‘shithole countries’ comment.

Bluntly stated, Donald Trump wants fewer brown people in this country, and more people with white skin. ‘Norwegians.’ And he’ll go to any lengths to achieve it. This what it looks like when racists govern. This is what happens when the reflexive, xenophobic, inchoate discomfort with people with darker skin influences the policies of an older white man with a long track record of racism. This is what the United States would look like under the alt-Right. This is a power play by racists. This is Klan tactics, and Klan strategizing. This is the savagery of racism, the violence of racism, the barbarism of racism, the barely-contained ferocity of racism.

Someone has to stand against racism, and Democrats are what we have.

Unpack the code. Mr. Trump may rail against political correctness, but the fact is, most decent people are repulsed by statements of open racism, and even Teflon Don can’t just say ‘I hate brown people.’ They talk about ‘illegals.’ They say they’re simply standing up for ‘rule of law.’ It’s not immigrants they oppose, or immigration, but illegality. (If that were the case, illegal Hispanic immigration would be an easy problem to solve; just issue more green cards. Watch immigration hardliners recoil from that suggestion). They oppose ‘amnesty.’ Let’s be blunt; all those words, ‘illegals’ and ‘amnesty’ most especially, are barely concealed racist language. Sometimes, hardliners will even admit it. The seamier pages of Breitbart and other neo-Klan websites talk about ‘racial purity’ and the ‘end of the white race’ quite openly. Stephen Miller wrote Trump’s bizarrely dark and violent inauguration address. He’s been consulting with Breitbart throughout this crisis. The racism of this administration, of this President, of many of his advisors, and of key Republican legislators is not far under the surface, not all that well hidden.

And their intentions were laid bare in a political ad that was released by the RNC last weekend. I’m not going to link to that ad, nor am I going to tell you how to find it: I won’t drive traffic there. But this was the key line: “Democrats who stand in our way will be complicit in every murder committed by illegal immigrants.” The ad essentially accuses Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi of murder. On the Sunday shows, White House spokespeople tried to distance the President from the ad. That’s a little tricky when we can hear the President’s voice at the end of it saying “I’m Donald Trump and I approved this message.”

This President–perhaps driven there by his advisors, perhaps driven there by his own paranoia and suspicion and darkest of dark fantasies–lives in a world in which brown-skinned people are The Enemy, where they’re murderers and rapists, where they’re shithole people from shithole places, where their only interest in America is destructive, America conceived of as a place where they can mooch off ‘hard-working’ (code for white) Americans. And Donald Trump has shut down the federal government to pressure the only people standing against him to accept policies that would hasten deportation, increase deporation, criminalize millions of people’s families, shatter those families, and ultimately, whiten America.

He’s also holding sick children hostage. Reauthorizing CHIP, another Democratic priority, is also in the mix.

We’ve all known for a long time that Trump was racist. But he hasn’t always governed as one, or spoken as one. Like most would-be despots, he has a sentimental side. And so, from time to time, he’ll talk about treating DACA kids with ‘love.’ But he can be worked on, and Stephen Miller and Jeff Sessions and Tom Cotton and John Kelly have his ear.

Please, Senator Schumer. Please. Don’t back down. You really are our only hope.

S***hole Nations

The big issue of the day is immigration reform, and passing a much needed bill will require bi-partisan cooperation. And so meetings have been held, negotiations continue. In the midst of those conversations in the Oval Office, President Trump expressed frustration over a Democratic discussion of immigrants from such nations as Haiti, El Salvador, and various African nations. And the President, with that delicacy and elegance of expression that seems never to desert him said ““Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”  And then suggested that we should seek more immigrants from Norway.

And the internet blew up.

As did mainstream media. I watched the coverage of this story on several networks, as well the indispensible commentary provided by late night comics. It was kind of astonishing. Over and over again, the President was condemned as racist. And that’s without euphemisms of any kind. They used the word ‘racist.’ Time and time again, commentators were calling the President himself racist. In other words, it wasn’t ‘this comment was racially insensitive,’ or something similarly anodyne. It was ‘President Donald Trump is racist.’ Clearly a line has been crossed. A decision has been made. The attitude expressed by the President cannot be normalized. It must be condemned. This President has revealed himself (obviously not for the first time) as openly racist.

Which suggests to me an opportunity. Obviously, politics is compromise. Democrats want a clean DACA bill; Republicans want more money for border security, meaning Mr. Trump’s infamous wall. And in the meeting in which the President expressed himself so intemperately, a compromise was agreed to by the 6 Senate Democrats and Republicans in a bi-partisan working group. They presented it to the President with, I think, some expectation that he would go along with their agreement; just the day before, after all, he had said ‘I’ll support whatever these people (those senators, in other words) come up with.’ But the unctous and repellent Stephen Miller (this White House’s Uriah Heep), got to him first. Trump rather famously agrees with whoever talks to him last. So. No deal. And then came this repugnant Trumpian burst of racism.

But, okay. Does not this suggest a possible window of opportunity? Because the DACA compromise bill agreed to by the bi-partisan working group was a dreadful bill. It would have ended the diversity lottery (which doesn’t let enough qualified immigrants into the country, but at least allows some), it wouldn’t have allowed immigrants to sponsor this families, plus it would have provided at least some money for the wall. So, stuff for Democrats, stuff for Republicans, usual procedure. Except they can’t pass it without 60 votes. And if you’re a Republican, and you vote against, say, a clean DACA bill, aren’t you aligning yourself with this toxically unpopular President? On this issue? Not sure I’d want to run for re-election with that baggage.

Anyway, let’s admit this; there are some mighty screwed up nations on earth. It’s unkind and unfair to call them what POTUS called them, but I also wouldn’t particularly want to live there. The term of art is ‘failed states,’ and there are a few around the world: Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Syria. Do we want immigrants from those countries? Aren’t they likely to be (gasp) terrorists?

Here’s a working definition for a functioning state: its government has a monopoly on the applied use of violence. In the United States, if you decide to kill someone, you will be arrested, tried, convicted and imprisoned. The state reserves to itself that right. And since we get to vote for the people who run our country, we want it that way. We want to watch the constabulary like hawks, but we also want them to exist and to do their jobs.

The failed states I mentioned above are all embroiled in horrific civil wars, and all lack a central, respected state authority. And yes, they’re all havens for terrorism. (Have you noticed: terrorists come from screwed up places?) But their people want the same things most people want. They want their families to be safe. They want their kids to get educations, and to have opportunities. Can you even imagine how hard it is to escape a war zone? Can you imagine how much courage and determination it takes to get your kids out of a dangerous neighborhood, to find a refugee camp, to escape roving violent gangs, to find some kind of refuge anywhere?

Those are the people we want in our country, Mr. President. We want people who work hard, who are dedicated to their families, who are willing to sacrifice for the sake of their children. We want people like my grandfather, with his third grade education and indomitable work ethic. He was a highly intelligent man (best chess player I ever met), who never had the opportunity for success he desperately wanted for his children.

We want people from Haiti. We want people from Syria. We want people from Libya. We want Somalis. We want people from failed states, frankly. This isn’t liberal weenie moralizing. I mean, yes, it’s also the right thing to do, to accept into our country, the richest in the history of the world, impoverished children and their parents. We should do it because it’s right. But. Mr. President, if you genuinely want to put America first, fine. Accept more people from shithole countries. They’ve already demonstrated their courage and determination and creativity. That’s exactly who we want.

And just between the two of us, Mr. President, you absolutely don’t want more immigrants from Norway. You’re a conservative Republican. Norwegians are used to living in a country with socialized medicine and free college tuition. You don’t want Norwegians, because they’ll all vote for Democrats.

The Internationalists: Book Review

I just finished reading a terrific book, but I’m not sure how to approach telling you about it. If I tell you that it’s a densely written, impeccably researched book about international law, intellectual history, and foreign relations, I could make it seem boring. But I don’t want to mislead anyone either. In fact, the writing style is lively and engaging, but that’s not the main reason to read it. You should read it because it will rock your world, or at least, your understanding of the world in which we live. The book is The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World, and the authors are Yale law professors Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro.

Let me start here. In 1928, essentially every nation on earth signed a treaty named the Kellogg-Briand Pact, after the American Secretary of State, Frank Kellogg, and the French Foreign Minister, Aristide Briand. That treaty, signed with much fanfare and enthusiasm, outlawed war. Since 1928, as you may have noticed, the world has seen a few wars, including, like, the Second World War. As a result, Kellogg-Briand is generally seen as ridiculous, a big, sad, unfunny joke. It’s not really taught anymore in classes on 20th century history, and rather ignored by experts in international law. The point of this book is to argue that Kellogg-Briand was massively consequential, exceptionally important, a pact that literally changed everything. Before I read the book, I had heard of Kellogg-Briand, mostly in the context of ‘look what silly nonsense weenie liberal eggheads got up to just before the most destructive war in history, what a laugh.’ Having read the book, I now find Hathaway and Shapiro’s argument completely convincing, and that realization has completely changed my opinion about 20th century history, the world we live in how, and the entire field of international law.

Hathaway and Shapiro begin by discussing the work of a Dutch scholar, Hugo Grotius, who in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries formulating a legal defense for war. Grotius did not act in a vacuum. of course, and what his writings really accomplished was simply to codify the ways nation-states already acted. War was simply the primary way in which nations resolved disputes. If you wanted territory held by a neighboring state, you sent an army across the border, and took it, and if you were able to do so, you held it, ruled it, used its resources for your own national purposes. You generally didn’t invade other countries without a pretext of some kind. You would, almost always, compose some lengthy rationale for your invasion, laying out all your grievances and complaints and the diplomatic steps you had taken to resolve matters peacefully. But you did send troops in, and if they were successful, the other countries on earth let you get away with it.

They use as an illustrative example, American President James K. Polk. The United States had a long-standing dispute with Mexico, over borders, and over negotiated reparations payments the US claimed that Mexico owed. All those complaints were carefully articulated in a war manifesto. (Hathaway and Shapiro, and their students, have compiled a remarkable database of over 300 war manifestos from throughout history, all round the world.) Having observed the legal niceties, Polk sent troops into Mexico, in what we call the Mexican War. As a result, the US added California, Utah, Nevada and much of Arizona, Texas and New Mexico to its territory. This conquest was justified by international law, as per Grotius. Nobody disputed it at the time, and nobody really seriously suggests that we, for example, give California back to Mexico. Might made Right.

It’s important to note two things. First, Polk did not say ‘man, if we took California’s ports and harbors, it would open up trade with the Orient.’ That happened, but it was not one of the rationales for war listed in Polk’s manifesto. And certainly, war manifestos could be self-serving and meretricious. But none of that mattered. Two nations had a dispute. The legal, justifiable way in which nations resolved disputes, according to the top legal analysis available, was through war. And after wars were fought, sovereignty over territory changed. California is, today, fully American. And everyone in the world was okay with that.

Everything changed in 1928. War was made illegal. The idea of invasion as a way of resolving disputes between nations became illegal. Every nation on earth, pretty much, agreed. And so, because war had been outlawed, Old World Order invasions and incursions became widely regarded as morally and legally invalid.

Did that fact deter Adolf Hitler? No, it did not. Nazi Germany still invaded Poland. But that invasion was seen as invalid, illegal, a contemptible act by an outlaw regime. That’s why the surviving Nazi leadership were tried at Nuremberg. (I found the lengthy discussion of the Nuremberg trials absolutely riveting.) It’s certainly true that most of the Nazis on the dock at Nuremberg were tried for war crimes. But in the Old World Order, according, again, to Grotius, war crimes couldn’t exist. Whatever any soldiers did in wartime was considered legally acceptable. Post-Kellogg-Briand, in the New World Order, perpetrators of war crimes could be tried and executed for their misdeeds. And, of course, the German government could be condemned for invading Poland, France, Czechoslovakia, Russia. That was no longer the legal way for nations to resolve disputes.

Kellogg-Briand, therefore, is not some nugatory piece of pacifist fantasy. It created the New World Order. When Russia invaded Crimea recently, that act was condemned as illegal, and Russia paid the price in economic sanctions. Some of the sanctions imposed damaged the economies of the European nations who imposed them. That ultimately didn’t matter. That invasion was a criminal act, a violation of international norms and laws and treaties. And the world acted in response.

One consequence of all this is that the numbers of nations on earth have increased. When the United Nations building was first built, its designers had to decide how many seats were needed for delegates. There were then 51 nations represented; the architects, after consulting with experts, decided to add another 20, just in case, bringing the total to 71. Today, the United Nations has 193 members, and all the seating the architects intended for audiences are needed for delegates.

But it makes sense. If Might Makes Right, then smaller countries would be swallowed up by more powerful nations all the time. The Old World Order created the conditions under which  colonialism could flourish. Not anymore. Since Kellogg-Briand, the numbers of nations has dramatically increased.

The end of legally sanctioned war did not mean the end of illegal, unsanctioned violence, of course. Terrorism and civil war still cause massive amounts of destruction and death. But violence has been greatly reduced. And even something as patently foolish as the American invasion, under President George W. Bush, of Iraq, shows the ways in which Kellogg-Briand affects the waging of war. The US couldn’t invade Iraq alone. That would be illegal. It needed to be done by the international community, by coalition forces. Then the war would be a response by the world to a rogue, outlawed nation. That was the legal rationale, at least, though it still strikes me as the most feeble kind of rationalization. But that’s frequently true of most war manifestos historically.

Anyway, I thought this book was exceptional, and I’m very glad I read it, and I strongly recommend it to you. It’s a paradigm-shifting book, a book that helps you understand the past, recognized what’s happening in the present, and forecast the future. And for a book by legal scholars, it’s intelligently and engagingly written. As Edwin Starr so memorably put it: “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” A sentiment which isn’t quite true, but is surely worth keeping in mind.