Category Archives: History

The Legend of Tarzan: Movie Review

Let’s face it: the Tarzan tales, as created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, are fundamentally colonialist, ethnocentric, and racialist. They’re about a white man, an English aristocrat, who, though raised by apes, becomes an African leader, then eventually, a member of the House of Lords. Blue blood rules; blue blood, in fact, could be said to be divinely appointed to rule. Primitive African tribes survive thanks to his protection; animals, no matter what their genus or species, obey his commands. All of which make a modern movie treatment of Tarzan, uh, problematic.

The new Tarzan movie, The Legend of Tarzan, seems at least to have recognized that this is a problem, though its solutions are at best half-baked and at worst appalling. It tries three solutions. First, in structure and tone, this movie follows the template and structure of superhero movies. Second, Jane (Margot Robbie), Tarzan’s wife, isn’t so much an imperialist white woman, condescending in her treatment of natives. She’s an African–she was raised in an African village; the Africans she knows are dear friends, equals in every sense. And third, the movie puts Tarzan in a specific historical context. Every superhero needs a super villain, and we get a good one here, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), agent to loathsome Belgian King Leopold II.

In fact, the movie is set in the Belgian Congo, the private domain of Leopold, an area rich in minerals, including diamonds. It’s important to note that the Congo wasn’t colonized by Belgium, the nation. It was owned by Leopold, a private investment by a monarch. Anyway, in the movie’s version of events, in 1866, Leopold’s plans for the Congo have faltered, because he’s broke. So his henchman, Rom, works out an elaborate plan. Rom meets a Congolese chief, Mbonga (Djimoun Hounsou) who, he has learned, hates Tarzan. So Rom promises to capture Tarzan, and trade him for diamonds, which Mbonga’s tribe has in profusion. This will pay the salaries of the mercenary soldiers that Leopold has hired to serve as the Force Publique, his own private army. Thus allowing Leopold to control and exploit and enslave the native population.

But an American journalist, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) is suspicious of Leopold, and wants John Clayton, Earl of Greystoke (otherwise known as Tarzan, played here by Alexander Skarsgård) to bring him with him to Africa. And Jane, Tarzan’s wife, really wants them to go. She was raised in Africa, where her father taught English–her closest friends are African. She considers herself African. And, in the brief glimpses of Tarzan’s origin story the movie provides, we learn that she met Tarzan when she found him half-dead, nursed him back to health, and taught him English.

So Tarzan, Jane, and Williams return to her village, where Rom and his soldiers lie in wait. They nearly kidnap Tarzan, but do kidnap Jane. This works just as well for Rom’s purposes. His plan is to deliver Tarzan to Mbonga, and he knows that Tarzan will do anything to rescue his wife. So Rom and Jane (and many soldiers), sail down a river towards Mbonga’s camp, and Tarzan follows, making good time by swinging from tree vine to tree vine, and getting reacquainted with his ape family. And Williams follows along, with Jackson’s grumpy weariness providing comic relief.

Along the way, Williams learns all about Leopold’s plans. He’s built a series of forts in the Congo, and rail lines for transport, and he has recruited this fearsome private army of brutal mercenary thugs. Williams is able to document everything.

Mbongo and Tarzan finally do confront each other, in what I frankly thought was the best scene in the movie. Mbongo hates Tarzan, because he killed his teenaged son; Tarzan killed the kid, because the kid killed Tarzan’s beloved ape mother. The two men, as they fight, realize how similar they are, and how destructive and unworthy their enmity. And reconcile. The scene works because Hounsou is so terrific, and it plays to Skarsgård’s rather limited strengths as an actor. The movie could have ended then, and been quite satisfying, I think, if you could have included some way to rescue Jane.

But it’s a summer blockbuster. It’s a big budget superhero movie. It has to end in a big noisy fight. And so, we move on, to a big final set piece. Rom has to deliver a trunk full of diamonds to the mercenary captain, and Tarzan has to rescue Jane. And while we’re at it, the riverside town where the mercenaries are all going to land has to be destroyed. And so, Tarzan summons armies of lions, wildebeest, alligators and hippos which attack and destroy this Force Publique stronghold. Summoning animals to fight for him is Tarzan’s main superpower, you see. It’s a ridiculous scene, of course, though not badly staged or filmed or edited, and it culminates satisfactorily, with Jane getting rescued, Tarzan reunited with her, and Rom being eaten by alligators.

And finally, Williams issues his report of Leopold’s intended atrocities to the British authorities. I think we’re meant to see that report as putting an end to the worst of the King’s atrocities, though the British lords who receive the report seem, in the movie, to greet it with decided equivocation. Still, like any superhero movie, the good guys win, the bad guys lose, and moral justice prevails.

Except, of course, nothing like that occurred. First of all, Leon Rom wasn’t eaten by alligators in 1886; he decorated his house by Stanley Falls with the skulls of murdered Congolese, and died a wealthy man in Brussels in 1924. Williams did deliver a report of Force Publique atrocities, but it was widely ignored. And the nefarious plans for the brutal subjugation of the Congo that Williams discovers? The forts, the rail lines, the savagery of Leopold’s private army? All of that happened. Leopold grew fantastically wealthy (though mostly through rubber, not diamonds), while treating the native peoples in the region with unprecedented viciousness. Best estimate; 10 million murdered. Ten million people. That’s just an estimate; it might have been fifteen million.

(Things haven’t improved. The Congo has been, since 1998, the site of the bloodiest of civil wars, with millions dead. All unpleasant vestiges of colonialist exploitation and enslavement).

Tarzan, of course, is a fictional character, and this movie tells a fictional story. That’s fine, I don’t actually think Iron Man exists either. But this Tarzan ties itself into historical events, and employs historical characters; Leon Rom, George Washington Williams, King Leopold II. And it shows Tarzan defeating Rom, and Williams defeating Leopold. And those things never occurred. Which means I left the theater with a distinctly queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Tarzan is a problematic character nowadays. Making a straightforwardly Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan movie in 2016 would seem a bit like remaking one of those ’40s comedies in which husbands spanking their wives was treated as jolly fun. Uh, no, not anymore. But this movie strains at a colonialist gnat and swallows a genocide camel. It struck me as bizarrely ill conceived. It’s a movie that relies on its audience knowing absolutely nothing about African history. I found it insulting and infuriatingly obtuse. You can’t just do that, just sweep the wanton and brutal murder of fifteen million people under the carpet, because they get in the way of your big CGI movie climax.

It’s a shame, too, because it’s an attractive enough movie, and there are scenes that work well. Hounsou is terrific in too-small a role, and I can’t say enough about Margot Robbie’s sensational Jane. Robbie is the most open-hearted of actresses, absolute in her commitment to the role, and courageous in her acting choices. Sam Jackson does wonderful Sam Jackson things, and all the Tarzan stuff was well executed; the yell, the flying in trees, a scene where he rolls around felinely with lions. Through some combination of gym time, anabolic steroids and CGI, Skarsgård looks terrific, though his performance never quite grabbed me. And, as usual, Christoph Waltz was a sensational villain.

And I can understand the impulse to turn Tarzan into a superhero. But they placed him in a specific historical context, which they then got horribly, unforgivably wrong. As we left the theater, my wife and daughter gave it a B-minus. As a, you know, movie, I’d agree. But I’m not inclined to forgive it. F.

 

Mass shootings, and the limits of human kindness

I have been thinking about mass shootings, these recent, all too familiar horror shows, and the men who perpetuate them, and something about these shooters and their targets occurred to me. I haven’t seen this anywhere else, but that may just be my own ignorance. It’s quite possible that the phenomenon I describe has been broadly reported, and I just hadn’t previously noticed. I am not a journalist, and I am not a psychologist. But I thought I’d pass it on.

The more we read about the shooting in Orlando, the clearer it becomes that Omar Mateen, the shooter, had been to the Pulse nightclub many times before. At least four Pulse regulars told the Orlando Sentinel that Mateen was at least a semi-regular there. Said one, “Sometimes he would go over in the corner and sit and drink by himself, and other times he would get so drunk he was loud and belligerent.” Another said that he talked with Mateen, about his father and his wife. Pulse was itself more than a regular nightclub. Barbara Poma, the club’s owner, opened it as a place of refuge for the Orlando LGBT community, a place of acceptance and celebration. Mateen also was a regular on local gay dating websites. Was he a self-hating closeted gay? Was he punishing something in himself when he opened fire?Mateen’s home was in Port St. Lucie, some 125 miles from Orlando. He did not, in short, pick a place at random. He drove two hours to get there. He went to a nightclub that was particularly and uniquely accepting of gay people (people like him?), a place he had visited many times before.

It’s been just about a year since the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. Dylan Roof, the 21-year old shooter, went to a Bible study session at the church, and joined in the Bible discussion before opening fire. That’s strange, isn’t it? He sat with a group of Christians, and spent an evening discussing the scriptures. And then he pulled out his gun.

In San Bernardino, California Syed Farook was an employee of the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health. A few weeks before he opened fire, his co-workers had thrown a baby shower for Farook, his wife, and their new baby. He shot them at a Christmas party. Again, he knew the people he shot. They were at least co-workers, and could surely have been described as friends.

Adam Lanza, the shooter in Newtown, Connecticut, targeted his old elementary school. He was an awkward kid, struggling with diagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome. His struggles, though, began in Jr. High. He liked grade school; it was high school that was a nightmare. But in grade school, he met teachers and administrators who were willing to give him the individual attention he needed. Is it fair to say that he may well have shot up the one place that had treated him with kindness?

When we talk about mass shootings, we talk about them as random events, as unpredictable as tornadoes. But that doesn’t seem to have been true. At least some shooters seem to be attacking places familiar to them, places where they were known. In fact, it seems to me that in at least these cases, the shooters went after places where they were particularly treated with kindness, places where they may have been accepted.

It’s been over fifteen years since the Columbine shooting, but it strikes me as relevant. Harris and Klebold, the two Columbine kids, didn’t attack a random public place; they attacked their high school. And it’s easy to see that in cliched terms–they were outsiders who went after their popular/jock tormentors. But they weren’t friendless losers.

When tragedies occur, it’s easy to jump to conclusions. It’s easy to tie these kinds of horrific events to our own ideologically predilections, or our pet political theories. So Mateen and Farook were both ‘terrorists,’ and much of the subsequent commentary have focused on their possible links to ISIS. And ideology may have played a part in their rampages. Or, we fight over mental illness. ‘You’d have to be crazy to do something like that,’ we say. And we liberals recoil, because ‘they’re mentally ill’ seems like code for ‘we’re not going to agree to any gun control legislation.’

Again, I’m not a psychologist. But consider this. Mass shooters target people they know, or at least some of them do, some of the time. They seem to target people who treated them kindly, or at least where they could have a reasonable expectation of acceptance and compassion. Maybe that didn’t happen. Maybe they grabbed their assault rifles because they were enraged because they expected kindness, and didn’t get it.

But I don’t think so. I think that for damaged people, kindness can be seen as imposing an obligation that cannot be repaid. I think it’s possible that being accepted, and treated warmly, may be resented, may add to an overwhelming burden of guilt and misery and pain. It may lead to the point of crisis.

Some of these killings had an ideological component. Mateen declared his allegiance to ISIS in a 9-1-1 call right before opening fire. Farook and his wife had ISIS connections. Roof was affiliated with white supremacist groups. Surely these radical ideologies were part of the mix. But to say ‘they were terrorists’ is a short-cut to an explanation, and an explanation that fits our existing preconceptions. Yes, Dylan Roof was a racist creep. He was also a human being, and a deeply troubled, damaged one. His racists beliefs may have provided him some tiny, false comfort. But something in his mind led him to violence. Something triggered it. And he didn’t choose a target at random. He chose, as targets, people who were nice to him. And I think it’s possible that their niceness, their humanity, is what drove him to commit acts of violence.

There’s a toxic mix of intentions and compulsions and pain that drives these guys. (And they’re all guys, pretty much all of them are men. Well, aside for Farook’s wife). Obviously, one part of the mix is easy access to weaponry. They shoot because getting guns is easy, and getting ammo, that’s easy, and pulling a trigger is ridiculously easy. The effort-to-mayhem ratio is preposterous. And yes, some mass killings were achieved with box cutters, and others with truckloads of fertilizer. But those sorts of events are rarer, because the effort-to-mayhem ratio is so much more balanced. It takes planning to buy a gun, of course, but shooting it can be much more a matter of impulse and caprice.

And I think kindness may be part of it. Kindness is the ultimate expression of humanity. Kindness requires that we see and acknowledge other people as our brothers and sisters on this planet. For someone in terrible psychic pain, it may impose an obligation they cannot abide. And then ideology provides a convenient, easy rationale for violence.

Or not. I may be completely wrong about all of this. I am not a psychologist; I have no training in this field, no expertise. I do think it’s interesting, though, that the San Bernardino ‘terrorist’ shooters did not target random strangers, but the people who had just thrown them a baby shower, that the Orlando shooter drove 125 miles to shoot up a nightclub built on the values of acceptance and refuge, that Roof shot up people with whom he had spent an evening talking scripture. Damaged, hurting, desperately unhappy people committed acts of terrible violence. Let’s acknowledge that as part of our shared human condition.

 

A look at Republican foreign policy

Donald Trump is going to be the Republican nominee for President, a job for which he is manifestly unqualified, and particularly when it comes to foreign policy. Last week, Hillary Clinton gave a big speech on foreign policy, which included her harshest criticisms yet of Mr. Trump’s positions. Secretary Clinton impressively pointed out not just where she disagreed with Mr. Trump’s positions, but how unpresidentially unjudicious is his basic temperment.

Every Sunday morning, I watch This Week with George Stephanopoulos, so that y’all don’t have to. Although This Week drives me crazy sometimes, I watch it just to get a sense of mainstream Beltway opinion, which is, of course, frustrating and empty-headed and political. But it can be amusing, too, the rehashing of that eternal human comedy: who’s up, who’s down, who’s winning, who’s losing, and what does it all portend?

Anyway, Stephanopoulos wanted a Republican response to Hillary’s Trump take-down, and so they got Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to provide it. Corker is, at least officially, a Trump supporter, though over the course of his interview with Stephanopoulos, it became clear that he disagrees with Trump on essentially everything. But he obviously couldn’t say that–he was on the show to support Trump. So he tap-danced, not very nimbly. It got pretty funny.

Did Corker, for example, agree with Trump’s recent comments about Judge Curiel?  “I think we need to move beyond that, and he has a tremendous opportunity to disrupt the direction Washington is moving in, and create tremendous opportunity.” That’s an actual quote: Trump has a ‘tremendous opportunity’ to ‘create a tremendous opportunity.’

Stephanopoulos: “can you make a positive case why Trump will make a good Commander-in-Chief?’

Corker: “Yeah.”

That’s it. That’s Bob Corker’s defense for the idea that Donald Trump is tempermentally qualified to be commander-in-chief. One word. ‘Yeah.’

Stephanopoulos didn’t let him off the hook. He bored in, asking again for Corker to make the case for Trump. Corker started off with another ‘yeah.’ Then this: “well, he has an opportunity to transition. He’s talking to people that I respect greatly: Secretary Baker, Dr. Kissinger. Two of the greatest foreign policy experts in our nation. So he’s talking to the right people. So he has an opportunity to transition. . . ”

In other words, Trump can become stronger on foreign policy, if he’s willing to change, and listen to Jim Baker and Henry Kissinger. Yikes.

But what got really interesting was when Corker pivoted to attacking Hillary Clinton. I think that’s why he was on the show, to savage her:

Look, I listened to the speech, and I think her team believes that her service as Secretary of State makes her vulnerable. . . if you think back to the decisions she made in 2011, they were really disastrous. She played a central role in really creating a home for where ISIS resides today. If you look at the Libya incursion, which I think will be a textbook case for what we ought not to do in making foreign policy decisions. And then if you look at the precipitous leaving of Iraq, and look at encouraging the moderate opposition in Syria, and never following through. I think they feel that she’s very vulnerable, and that’s why these attacks are being made.

When it was pointed out that attacking Hillary Clinton didn’t really constitute supporting Donald Trump, Corker danced some more.

So here’s what I have seen, in many of the statements that he’s made recently, it’s a degree of realism in our foreign policy. For years, we’ve had neo-cons on the one side, we’ve had liberal internationalists on the Democratic side, and I think that bringing that maturity back into our foreign policy is something that’s important. That doesn’t mean us being isolationist. But it does mean selective engagement. It’s bringing a maturity, looking at our US national interest, realizing who our friends are, things like throwing aside Mubarak so quickly, after decades of relationship, and not figuring out a better way for him to be eased out.”

All right. Sorry for the long block quotation. Anyway, according to Bob Corker (and, apparently, James Baker and Henry Kissinger), Donald Trump represents a ‘new maturity’ in our foreign policy. And as evidence of Secretary Clinton’s comparative immaturity, we have her ‘throwing aside’ Hosni Mubarak ‘so quickly,’ after ‘decades of a relationship.’

When Corker talks about the events of 2011, he’s referring to the Arab Spring uprisings, which began in December 2010 in Tunisia, and continued throughout the next year or so.

So, what caused the Arab Spring? Widespread dissatisfaction with local regimes, with their corruption and violence, with dictatorship as a way of life, and with horrific unemployment and poverty throughout the region. It went fast, driven in part by social media. By the end of February 2012, rulers had been forced from power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, with civil uprisings in Bahrain and Syria, and with major protests in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco and Sudan. Such dictators as Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Moummar Gadaffi in Libya, and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt fell from power.

Essentially, Corker is saying that during Clinton’s tenure at State, the US mishandled the various opportunities and difficulties posed by the Arab Spring. Surely, though, Corker is aware of how limited our options were back then. These were exceptionally popular uprisings, against brutal and corrupt dictators. Really, the best the US could have done was see, in each case, if among the protestors, there were  pro-Western, pro-democracy elements, which we could aid and support. Those elements did exist, in each of those countries. But they were very much in the minority.

So, in Libya, the Gaddafi government was overthrown, with help from UN forces. But within a few months, a civil war broke out between pro-Western forces and Islamist groups. That civil war continues–Libya is today, essentially, a failed state. In Egypt, after Mubarak fell, the military took command. Elections were held, which were won by the Islamist Mohammed Morsi. After a year, Morsi was deposed by the military, leading to a military dictatorship today. Again, not a great outcome. What better outcome was available?

What would have been nice would have been for pro-democratic, pro-Western forces to have won in each of those countries, leading to non-violent Muslim governance akin, perhaps, to Turkey. But the US had very little ability to control events back in 2011.

So to take the preposterous scenario Corker outlines, in which the US was able to keep our old pal Mubarak in power a while longer, that was simply never possible. Mubarak was toxic; utterly loathed. Egypt was being run by Egyptians.

It is absolutely true that the West intervened militarily in Libya in 2011, that NATO’s intervention didn’t work very well, and that Libya is a failed state today. The point of that intervention was to protect civilian lives. In Oct. 2011, NATO withdrew. In retrospect, that may have been an error. But, of course, we wanted Libya to be governed by Libyans. The US had no desire to nation-build yet again. The attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi didn’t help. The fact is, we tried to intervene on humanitarian grounds, and the result was a humanitarian nightmare. It’s fair to criticize Secretary Clinton for the failures of policy in Libya. What isn’t clear is what policies might have worked better.

In making the case for Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy expertise, it’s not just that she was once Secretary of State. It’s that she was Secretary of State during the Arab Spring, when the Middle East exploded in a whole variety of revolutions, counter-revolutions, uprisings and civil wars. There was very little the United States could have done to direct or even influence the way those events played out. We did try to intervene when possible, with mixed results. She was the US main foreign policy official in the most complicated and difficult era the Middle East has seen in my lifetime. She tried to manage events. For the most part, those events proved unmanageable.

It’s fair to offer criticism of her record. But when Bob Corker offers as a counter-proposal something as ludicrous as propping up the dessicated remains of Hosni Mubarak for a few more days, it’s fair to dismiss his complaints entirely. If retaining dictators in power is what constitutes this new ‘maturity’ in foreign policy Corker claims to see in the proposals of Donald Trump, then, I’m sorry, but I’m not interested. Trump’s foreign policy, as he’s described it so far, would involve starting trade wars with China and Mexico, offending Muslims world-wide, and ending the US commitment to NATO. That’s not maturity–it’s infantile.

What Hillary Clinton will bring to the table is a maturity born of humility, a sense of just how limited America’s ability is to change the course of history. That seems like a valuable resource, her experience and maturity and habit of thoughtful reflection. Especially given the alternative.

 

 

 

Captain America: Civil War. Movie Review

Captain America: Civil War is generally being lauded as one of finest comic book movies, like, ever. It’s at 90% on Rottentomatoes.com, and not only have critics embraced it, but it’s become a big popular hit. Like the best of the Marvel movies, it combines humor and well executed action sequences. More than that, it’s smart. It’s not just escapist fare. Comic book characters can be ridiculous, of course, what with all the spandex and ridiculous names, but the fact is, they’re about violence, about warfare, about terror as a tactic; they have surprising contemporary relevance. And this movie deliberately plays on that awareness.

And that’s also why I found this movie so off-putting. It’s not that I’m opposed to comic book movies paralleling contemporary politics. I think that’s great. I just find the conclusions drawn by this movie to be facile and obvious. And I found the film unwilling to interrogate the darker implications of its own narrative.

All right. Let me explain where I’m coming from here. This Captain America picks up the Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) story thread from previous Avengers’ movies, and places that story at the center of a conflict between Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). It starts with a battle in Nigeria, between what appear to be terrorists and a team involving Captain America and several other Avengers–Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). As the battle progresses, a building explodes, killing a dozen civilians. Turns out, the UN and the US governments are both getting fed up with superhero battle collateral damage, as well they might. An international conference to decide what to do about it is convened, and is likewise attacked. A peace-making king is killed. And this attack appears to have been made by Captain America’s old friend Bucky.

At one level, it makes sense that Cap would be at odds with the other Avengers over Bucky. Captain America, remember, is really a character from the 1940s, as is Bucky. Somehow Cap was frozen, his body recovered and revived. By us, Americans, good guys. Bucky, though, was also saved, but by bad guys, Hydra. Cap and Bucky are childhood friends. Of course Cap feels a tremendous loyalty to Bucky.

But this isn’t the same Bucky that he remembers. Hydra gave him enhanced powers, and also a psychological trigger, a phrase which, when spoken, causes him to surrender his ability to make decisions. At one point, Tony Stark calls him the Manchurian candidate, and that’s dead-on. Bucky’s a decent, good guy. Also a time bomb. And the one thing Cap prizes the most–his freedom, his ability to choose–Bucky does not have.

So that’s one issue in the film: what do we do about Bucky? But it relates to another, more profound one. Oversight.

The Nigerian disaster clarifies how tired the world is getting of collateral damage caused by superheroes. So the United Nations decides to form a ‘superhero oversight committee.’ That committee will decide where and how the Avengers will be deployed, and to what end. It will hold them accountable for damage caused in battle. The committee will exercise some degree of political control over superhero actions.

Initially, it seemed odd to me that rugged libertarian individualist Tony Stark would agree to political oversight, and that supersoldier Captain America would not. But we need to remember Tony’s background. The United States of America has never experienced a military coup, and I think it’s unlikely we ever will. That’s how ingrained in our military culture the idea is of a civilian heading our chain of command. The President of the United States is an elected official, and also commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Our military respects that.

Well, Tony Stark is a product of America’s military-industrial complex. That’s his background. And he’s a thoughtful and intelligent man. He recognizes how essential it is that the Avengers appear legitimate; that this issue of superhero collateral damage erodes that legitimacy. And so he signs on, and agrees to sell this oversight committee–the Tribunal– to the other Avengers.

Again, it seems initially strange that Steve Rogers, super-American-military-hero, a product of American military culture, would be the one who rejects the Tribunal. But here’s the thing; he’s Captain America. He is, quite literally, the embodiment of American exceptionalism. And Americans don’t take direction from international bodies.

We just don’t. Sure, we conduct diplomacy, and we make treaties, and try to live up to our international obligations. But allow a foreign body to dictate what our soldiers do? Never.

I think I can make a case for the idea that Steve Rogers, once he realizes just what his abilities can allow him to do, decides that he and only he can be allowed to decide what and who he’ll fight for. He’s only going to be morally accountable to himself, to his own conscience. But I think I can also make a case for Captain America, superhero, representing America, the world’s only superpower. And Americans don’t allow other nations to tell us what to do militarily. And that means that he will not surrender his autonomy to an international Tribunal.

Thinking about this movie, I was reminded that last Saturday, Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was killed by an American strike drone, in Pakistan. Mansour was unquestionably a bad guy. Still, that’s the world we live in, one in which an Afghani political leader can be killed by Americans, in Pakistan, and we Americans applaud. And President Obama announced the killing with some grim satisfaction for a job well done. We’re Americans. We get to do that; kill people in other countries without any accountability or oversight from anyone official. I don’t doubt that President Obama, if he was in fact involved in the decision, did not make it lightly. Still, we are America. We are exceptional, and we are the one nation on earth for whom killing a foreign leader in a foreign country is considered legitimate by much if not most of the rest of the world.

This film should, I suppose, be applauded for putting a political science debate, about oversight and accountability and violence and warfare and the legitimacy of the use of force at the center of a comic book action movie. I do not applaud it, though, for, in my mind, so unquestioningly putting American exceptionalism at the center of that debate. We’re Americans. We get to kill bad guys living in other countries. No due process, no trial, our President just gets to decide to do that; kill guys we designate as terrorists (no doubt legitimately), as worth killing. Yay for us. This movie took one of the most thoughtful and interesting characters in the Marvel universe, Steve Rogers, Cap, and use him to articulate a case for American exceptionalism–not just for America as exceptionally moral, but America as exceptionally empowered. Captain America is the living embodiment of American values. And this is a movie where Cap rejects oversight, and is applauded for it by the subsequent events of the movie.

I do think that the screenplay is trying for greater nuance and complexity than my admittedly simplistic explication allows it. Early in the movie, we see the way Hydra (who pretty much has to represent International Terrorism) mistreated Bucky and also five other enhanced baddies. The main bad guy, Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), looks like he’s about to free those five supergoons. I thought the movie was setting up a final confrontation between the Avengers and the five Hydra super-villains. But Zemo just kills them off, instead choosing to use Bucky to instigate a final fight between Iron Man and Captain America. That’s actually a more interesting dramatic choice than the obvious one–Avengers vs. Hydra Creations. I do think it’s a film that tries to deal with the contemporary and political complexities the creation of this oversight body suggest.

To me, though, the film fails,and to at least some degree ends up letting Cap off the hook. I’ll grant that it doesn’t quite go as triumphalist as I feared. No flag waving, no final pro-American jingoism. It still does, ultimately, defend American exceptionalism. Couldn’t it deconstruct our own tortured politics just that tiny bit more thoughtfully? Couldn’t we leave the theater feeling just that tiny bit more conflicted?

The Heavy Water War: TV review

If you’re looking for some terrific television to Netflix, I have a recommendation for you. It’s called various things: The Heavy Water War, The Saboteurs, Kampen om Tungtvannet. It’s a six part miniseries, which also happens to be the most popular television program in Norwegian broadcast history. It was recommended to us by a friend, and my wife and I decided to watch the first episode. We found it so compelling, we ended up bingeing the whole thing. It’s in several languages, so you’ll have to read a certain amount of subtitles, but I promise you, it’s worth your attention. We were completely riveted.

It’s about the Allied effort to destroy a Norwegian factory that was the main European source for heavy water: deuterium oxide. Heavy water was, in the 1940s, a significant element in nuclear energy research, including nuclear reactors attempting to produce isotopes to use in building nuclear weapons. In short, heavy water was needed by the German nuclear program. There was only one place they could get it from: Norway. And so, for the Allied forces, it became a matter of some urgency to prevent the Germans from getting it.

So the series cuts back and forth between essentially four locations. First, Ryukan, a small town in Norway, built by a waterfall, next door to the Vemork power station, where the heavy water was produced. We primarily focus on Axel Aubert (Stein Winge), an executive with Norsk Hydro, the power company that owned the factory. Aubert was in charge of the Vemork plant, tasked with increasing production–this was a lucrative contract for the company. But his wife, Ellen (Maibritt Saerens), desperately lonely, is also deeply concerned that his professional actions might constitute collaboration with the German enemy. Which is a fair thing for her to worry about. And of course, everyone there is under constant Gestapo scrutiny.

Second, cut to England, where a Norwegian scientist, Leif Tronstad, the man who designed the Vemork facility, puts together his Norwegian team of saboteurs. Their training is supervised by Major Julie Smith (Anna Friel), a tough-as-nails military planner, who, over time, finds herself falling in love with Tronstad, and he with her (though both are married to long-absent spouses). They never act on their mutual attraction, but that tension underlies their scenes together. Third, we follow two teams of Norwegian saboteurs, code-named Operation Grouse, and then, when that failed, a second group, called Operation Gunnerside. The Norwegians in Grouse were meant to parachute into the bleak Northern mountains, then rendezvous with a British team coming in with gliders. But the gliders malfunctioned, and the captured British commandos were executed by the Gestapo. The Grouse men were able to ski clear, but had no supplies, and had to survive in some of the most desolate terrain on earth. At one point, they find some moss, boil it up, and choke it down; that’s all there is, until a lucky kill of a reindeer. Eventually, they did meet up with their Gunnerside colleagues; their combined teams skiied in, blew up the Vemork plant, then skiied 300 kilometers east to safe haven in Sweden.

The fourth main story the series follows takes place in Germany, and follows Nobel laureate Werner Heisenberg (Christoph Bach), as he attempts to unlock the secrets of the atom, and built a nuclear reactor. And, of course, Heisenberg’s work on the German atomic program is one of the central enigmas of the whole history of science and politics.

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to direct Copenhagen, Michael Frayn’s wonderful play about Heisenberg and a meeting in Copenhagen between him and Niels Bohr in 1941. (There’s also a 2002 film version, starring Daniel Craig and Stephen Rea). Directing that play was one of the great experiences of my professional life. Of course, if there’s one word that popularly captures Heisenberg more than any other, it would be ‘uncertainty.’ Did he, prior to 1945, solve the mystery of how to build a bomb? If he had made such a discovery, would he have shared it with the Nazi authorities who were so ubiquitous in his lab?

For what it’s worth, The Heavy Water War does include a shorter version of the meeting with Bohr. The suggestion is that Heisenberg wanted Bohr to know (and to pass on to the Allies) the fact that he was, in fact, working on building a reactor. The series goes on to further suggest that at one point, Heisenberg did have the creative and intellectual breakthrough he needed to figure out how to build an atomic bomb. And that he erased it. Loyal and patriotic German though he was, Werner Heisenberg was also a decent and loving human being. Eventually he could not bring himself to give Adolf Hitler the bomb.

If this is the case, then the Allied efforts to destroy the heavy water factory were not necessary. But there’s no way they could have known it. Certainly, from an Allied perspective, if there was any possibility that the Germans might be on the way to completing an atomic bomb, and if preventing them from getting heavy water might forestall that possibility, then their actions had to one of the war’s highest priorities. Norwegians are immensely proud of the fact that it was Norwegian saboteurs who destroyed the Vemork plant, and who sank the ferry that was shipping the last of its heavy water to Germany. They should be proud. And the story of those two great operations, Grouse and Gunnerside, is a powerful one, beautifully told in this series.

But did they prevent the Germans from building (and subsequently deploying) a nuclear device? This series should be applauded for suggesting that no, we don’t know the answer to that question, but probably not. Probably Heisenberg either couldn’t build it, or, more likely, decided not to.

In any event, this series does a tremendous job of telling a powerful and important historical story. And it does not shy from certain central moral ambiguities. Even after Vemork blew, a ferry full of heavy water was shipped out from Ryukan. The Allies knew that ferry needed to be destroyed. It was a passenger ferry, and carried a number of civilians, including families with small children. Nineteen civilians died. Those deaths, Julie Smith argues, were military necessities. Yes. But she’s crying when she makes that argument; not quite convinced.

And yes, it’s a very good thing that Hitler never had the Bomb. And a good thing that the Allies did have it. Hitler would have deployed it, over a civilian target. As we Americans did, over a civilian target. As President Obama just reminded us, speaking in Hiroshima.

I’m not going to re-litigate Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But we must mourn. Our hearts must be filled with compassion, with humility, with a profound sense of loss. Maybe, strategically, the decision was inevitable. But as President Obama reminded us, sixty million people died in World War II. And that war made little distinction between civilian and military targets. Every one of those losses, every single one, diminishes us. Every life was precious, every one beloved. Surely, at least, our response must be ‘never again.’

 

 

 

The Statesman and the Storyteller: Book Review

The period of American and world history from 1894-1904 marks, in a very real sense, either the anomalous beginnings of American imperialism, if you don’t think the US has remained particularly imperialistic, or the America’s debut on the world stage, a spotlighted position we have yet to repudiate or give up, if you rather think we haven’t given it up at all. Mark Zwonitzer chooses to examine that wonderfully contested history by focusing on two men, John Hay and Samuel Clemens. Hay and Clemens were about the same age, and came from similar backgrounds; small towns lining the banks of the Mississippi. They both arose to prominence and wealth from humble beginnings, and were deeply devoted to their wives and children. Both men lost children, and were prostrated by grief. Both emerge, in Zwonitzer’s narrative, as admirable men. And they remained friends, cordial, though infrequent correspondents. But as Hay once wrote: “No man, no party, can fight with any hope of a final success against a cosmic tendency; no cleverness, no popularity, avails against the spirit of the age.” As Zwonitzer puts it: “John Hay had learned this lesson early, and accepted it as an article of faith. He was not a man to fight a ‘cosmic tendency,’ and this served him well. Sam Clemens was less sure of this lesson. He learned it the hard way, and as you will see in the story that follows, kept unlearning it.”

John Hay was one of two personal secretaries to Abraham Lincoln, along with his close friend John Nicolay. After Lincoln’s assassination, Hay and Nicolay wrote the first biography of Lincoln, a multi-volume work that established the pattern for subsequent Lincoln biographies. Hay also was a poet of some distinction, especially known for a collection called Pike County Ballads; humorous verse written in dialect. Hay made his fortune the old fashioned way; he married into it. This gave him the freedom to pursue a career in government, and he eventually became US Ambassador to the Court of St. James, and finally, US Secretary of State under Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. He was, in short, the Secretary of State during the Spanish-American War, and the diplomat who laid the political framework for the building of the Panama Canal.

Sam Clemens, of course, was primarily known, both in his lifetime and today, by his pseudonym, Mark Twain. As the book begins, Clemens was embarked on a desperate quest to salvage his family finances, a world-spanning lecture tour. This is the Mark Twain of the popular imagination; the cigar-smoking, white-suited contrarian, the witty, somewhat cynical humorist. He was, in 1894, dead-broke, having blown a sizeable fortune on an ill-conceived printing device. He insisted, as a point of honor, on clearing the entire debt himself, without resorting to bankruptcy proceedings. But proceeds from the tour were disappointing, as were sales from his published account of the voyage. (Although he did finally pay off his creditors, he never really did learn his lesson; he was still making bad investments practically on his deathbed).

Zwonitzer’s book cuts back and forth between the two men over the last ten years of Hay’s life, during that period when Hay was accommodating and enabling and administering the colonialist impulses of Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt. Hay was an able administrator, in part because he was almost ego-less about it. His job was to serve as an extension of the President, and it was a job he devoted himself to, even at the cost of his health. And so Hay made himself indispensable, as the United States intervened in Cuba, appropriated Puerto Rico, swallowed Hawaii whole, captured Guam and Samoa, and ignored the democratic wishes of the freed Philippines, waging a savage war of conquest, so as to Christianize a nation full of Christians, and to govern a people too stubborn to realize they were ungovernable. And that’s without mentioning the US actions in Panama, actions applauded, at the time, as lacking even the tiniest vestige of legality.

John Hay was surely one of the most able men ever to serve as Secretary of State. He was certainly one of the most consequential diplomats in US history. And I wouldn’t say that Zwonitzer’s book demonizes him; quite the contrary. At the same time, his legacy is a troubling one. Teddy Roosevelt was an extraordinary man and a remarkably impactful President. He also believed in (and wrote books arguing for) the inherent racial superiority of Anglo-Saxon peoples, and the God-given requirement that that superiority gave white men: to govern. One of the saddest chapters in the book describes the Filipino diplomat, Felipe Agocillo, who came to Washington desperate for some kind of recognition of the capable, functioning government established by his boss, Emilio Aquinaldo, and hoping for some Filipino representation, at least, on the commission that would decide his country’s fate and future. He was never so much as allowed to present a letter to that effect to John Hay. His people were incapable of self-governance. Too brown of skin. Period. The Philippines would be administered from Washington.

And Sam Clemens, as he traveled with his ailing family from Italian villa to English country estate to US rental property, kept in touch with world events. And though he couched his criticisms in bitter irony, Mark Twain’s writings reveal how heartsick and furious he was with it all. Twain knew better than to publish all his writings from that period–in any event, he’d promised his beloved wife, Livy, that he would exercise some restraint. Even so, it’s remarkable, to see how willing Clemens was to take on the ruling ideology of his own age, how furious he was with the hypocrisy of American Christians and the complacent American acceptance of the most heinous war atrocities committed by our troops.

When most Americans think of the Spanish-American war, we generally think of two things, if we even give that particularly obscure conflict any attention at all. First, we may be able to dredge some memory of the phrase ‘Remember the Maine,’ though we likely don’t remember what that was about. And second, we might remember Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders capturing San Juan Hill. We don’t choose to think about our utterly unjustified invasion of the Philippines, or the brutal savagery of our war against the subsequent insurgency. We don’t think about water boarding, or the way US commanders justified the slaughter of eleven-year-olds, or our massacres of women and children.

Mark Twain was there. He was horrified and appalled on our behalf. Here’s what he wrote about it, in The War Prayer:

O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it — for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

We’ve forgotten John Hay, and though we still remember Mark Twain, we’ve generally forgotten the lonely, righteous anger of Sam Clemens. Mark Zwonitzer reminds us of them both, and the ways in which they were connected. And the specific points on which they differed, as friends. What a splendid achievement.

Truth: Movie Review

This movie flew under my radar. I saw it on my Netflix DVD queue, thought I’d give it a whirl, despite the fact that it was basically a flop. And I understand why it flopped. It deals with a news story from 2004, one that I think the American public never understood all that well, and has basically stopped caring about. That issue is now called “The Killian documents scandal,” an inelegant sobriquet. And although the film deals with that scandal intelligently and with conviction, and explains everything pretty clearly, it also has a discernible point of view which it hopes we’ll agree with at the end. I did. So did my wife. Not sure how much it matters.

In the fall of 2004, Mary Mapes (beautifully played here by Cate Blanchett), a producer with CBS News, again picked up the thread of a news story she had been looking at in 2000. It had to do with the military service of George W. Bush with the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam war. Together with a retired Marine Lt. Colonel, Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), and two reporters, Mike Smith (Topher Grace) and Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss), Mapes tracked down those few documents regarding the President’s service that the Bush camp was able to produce.

Mapes was one of Dan Rather’s (Robert Redford’s) producers. In the news business, the producer writes the story, works with the on-air talent to conduct the interviews, and edits what airs. Mapes was convinced that Bush had essentially been AWOL for a substantial part of his military commitment, and that his superiors hadn’t pursued it, because Bush was the son of a Congressman. She also believed that highly placed Texas politicians had pulled strings to get Bush a cushy National Guard assignment. Most of the other National Guard recruits were, like Bush, sons of political power brokers; also in the Guard were several star players for the Dallas Cowboys football team. Some National Guard companies did serve with distinction in Vietnam. But the Texas Air National Guard never did serve overseas, and was unlikely ever to have done so. It was a cozy sinecure. And the film does a nice job of explaining all that.

While working on the story, Mapes came into the possession of photocopies of a number of memos written by Lt. Colonel Jerry Killian, since deceased. Killian was Bush’s commanding officer during his Guard service. They were given to her by an elderly retired military officer named Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach). Because they were photocopies, and because the language of the memos suggested a familiarity with the period and with military protocols from the early 70s, Mapes decided to use them. She did send them to four separate document authenticators, two of whom declared them authentic, and two of whom said they couldn’t without seeing the originals. The documents made up a small part of the overall story, and Mapes used them without hesitation.

After the story aired on Sixty Minutes, however, a number of bloggers with an expertise in the documents field questioned the documents’ authenticity. Many people suggested that the Killian documents were the clumsiest of forgeries, using proportional spacing, a feature not generally available on typewriters in 1972. The documents, they said, had probably been created on Microsoft Word. Eventually, the Killian documents, which were not really an important part of the original news story, dominated coverage of it. Eventually, Mapes was asked to resign, along with several other CBS News employees. Including, of course, Dan Rather.

This movie argues, with great clarity and passion, that the documents could have been genuine, and that the larger story, about the President’s military service, had been ignored. To the extent that anyone today cares about the Killian documents, I think it’s fair to say that the consensus opinion is that the documents were forgeries. Burkett admitted to having lied to Mapes about where he obtained them (a painful scene, with Keach splendidly elderly and humiliated).

What I suspect is that the only people who really care about this are hard-core conservatives, who see it as confirming the ‘liberal-media-out-to-get-conservatives’ narrative. I think that most folks have forgotten this was ever a thing. If we see Dan Rather on Rachel Maddow’s show, we may remember ‘wasn’t there a controversy involving him?’ And when we saw that there was a film about ‘the Dan Rather thing,’ we gave it a pass.

I liked it better than that. Not that everything in the movie works. There’s an awkward, earnest scene late in the film in which Topher Grace (who’s great in this) gives a speech outlining a conspiracy theory in which Viacom (in need of legislative support), pressured CBS to fire Mapes and Rather. That’s all possible, of course. Likewise, the chance that, upon seeing the 60 Minutes piece, that Karl Rove orchestrated a campaign to discredit the one part of the story that could most effectively be discredited, the documents. (Karl Rove! Surely not!).

In the TV miniseries, The People vs. OJ Simpson, which my daughter and I have been watching, there’s a scene where Sarah Paulson, playing Marcia Clark (the main OJ prosecutor) goes into a bar and is challenged by one patron, who says ‘the police framed OJ.’ Clark goes ‘okay, let’s talk about that,’ and then goes through all the evidence to show exactly the convolutions the cops would have had to go through to frame OJ, just how extraordinarily baroque that theory is. And the bar patrons just sit there, astonished and persuaded. There’s a similar scene in Truth, in which Mapes demonstrates just how far-fetched the idea of creating a forgery was.  I found it similarly convincing. But I cared a lot less.

And that’s weird. The one show is about a murder trial; the stakes high enough for the families of the victims, but the whole thing didn’t really affect us at all. And the situation in Truth involves the election of a President, a much more consequential thing. But I cared about the OJ scene a lot more than I cared about the analogous scene involving Bush’s military service. The one feels like political/historical esoterica. The other feels more personal. Same scene, different impact.

Bush is gone, out of office. We’re in a new political season, a much stranger one. Watch Truth, then watch the news. It’ll shock you how much things have changed. And how very little.

The Trump/Kaufman hypothesis

I have a theory. Just tossing it out there. I don’t have, you know, any, like, evidence to support this theory. But I can say that the line of coincidences and correlations and suggestions is getting longer all the time. So, bear with me, and try to keep an open mind.

I think Donald Trump is actually Andy Kaufman.

That’s right. I think that the legendary comedian, Andy Kaufman, is playing a part, has taken on the persona of a billionaire reality TV star and is currently running for President of the United States.

It would certainly be in character for Kaufman. Most of his act was a put on. For much of his career, an aggressively untalented and obnoxious lounge singer named Tony Clifton would open for him. But Kaufman was Clifton; he played both characters. He pretended to be a wrestling ‘heel,’ and made up a feud with professional wrestler Jerry “The King” Lawler. (In fact, they were friends). And he wrestled women, as part of his act.

Kaufman’s act was a convoluted deconstruction of comedic convention, whether it involved his intentionally bad Foreign Man impressions (which he’d follow up with a spot-on Elvis), reading The Great Gatsby on-stage, or announcing his conversion to Christianity and engagement to a gospel singer. Kaufman never really did stand-up. His entire act was a long, extended piece of performance art. He was the original reality TV star.

So how out of character would it be for Andy Kaufman to take parts of his Tony Clifton characterization, turn him into an obnoxious billionaire, and run for President?

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Andy Kaufman can’t be Donald Trump, because he died in 1984. But did he really?

  1. In 2014, a woman claiming to be his daughter showed up to the Andy Kaufman Awards show in New York, insisting that her Dad had faked his death and was still alive.
  2. Andy Kaufman’s brother, Michael, insists that Andy is still alive, and that he has been in contact with him.
  3. A video of Kaufman was found in 2013, showing him living in New Mexico.
  4. He was Andy Kaufman. Why wouldn’t he fake his own death?

Other evidence: Donald Trump was born in 1946; Kaufman in 1949. Close enough. Trump is listed at 6′ 3″, while Kaufman was also tall, at 6′ 1″. Close enough. Trump is famous for his combover; Kaufman was balding at the time of his death or disappearance. They both had roundish faces, prominent noses.

More to the point, though, look at the Trump campaign. The essence of the campaign is precisely similar to Kaufman’s comedy. Trump takes ideas to their logical possible extreme, then bluffs his way through the resulting mayhem. He’s not a conservative Republican, he’s playing one, on TV, for political purposes, and it gets him in all kinds of trouble. And, of course, it’s also really funny.

So: ‘should women who have chosen to have abortions be punished, legally?’ Well, if abortion is the wanton taking of human life, then the answer to that is obviously yes. But the pro-life movement is trying to win hearts and minds; they can’t, you know, say that. So Trump, hilariously, changed his position on abortion five times in three days. Genuine confusion? Or satire?

On every issue, Trump (or Kaufman) does this. Republicans always propose tax cuts. So what does “Republican” Trump do? Proposes a tax cut so massive as to be completely bonkers, while still insisting he’ll pay off the deficit in 8 years. Macroeconomic ignorance? Or supply-side deconstruction?

What would a billionaire businessman do in foreign policy? Well, the one thing he knows is how to make deals. So he’d look at our free trade agreements first, and promise to renegotiate them, more favorably for us. Trade wars? I don’t care about no stinkin’ trade wars.

Plus, you know, the wall. That wonderful, surreal, Kaufmanesque wall, to keep the Latkas of the world out. Which Mexico will happily, happily pay for.

Last week, the comedy kept building. Trump pretended to take a hard, serious look at NATO, and ended up concluding ‘we should get rid of it.’ Same with South Korea;  ‘what are we getting out of protecting Seoul? Why shouldn’t Japan have nukes? And Saudi Arabia, why not?’ And then, when Europe and Asia and the rest of the world collectively lose it, he plays Mafia don: ‘if you want our protection, it’s going to cost you. Pony up.’ That’s Trump’s foreign policy. “I’m going to make ’em an offer they can’t refuse.”

You can’t say that Andy hasn’t thought the characterization through.

Look at the way Andy Kaufman treated women. One of the things Kaufman was most known for was wrestling women. Of course, his wrestling matches were, again, purely performance art. One of his first ‘opponents’ was Laurie Anderson, for heaven’s sake. As Bill DeMain put it, “despite Kaufman’s over-the-top parody of a trash-talking, chauvinistic jerk, a lot of people believed the whole thing was real. Just like they believed wrestling was real.” And they sent hate mail by the bucketful.

Sound like anyone we know?

So we need to ask. Andy. Did you hear about this one? Tell me, are you locked in the punch? Andy are you goofing on Elvis, hey, baby?

Are you having fun?

I’ll admit, there are a couple of problems with my theory. First of all, if Andy Kaufman has been playing Donald Trump for years, what happened to the real Donald? I suppose it’s possible that Ivana smothered him with a pillow, but proving it could be tricky. Second, although Kaufman’s absolute commitment to his various comic bits was impressive, surely he’s looking forward to the reveal?

And the reveal pretty much needs to happen soon. Doesn’t it?

Please?

Spotlight: Movie Review

In 2001, the Boston Globe published a series of articles detailing the way the Catholic Church covered up for pedophile priests caught sexually abusing children. Spotlight tells the story of the journalists who researched and wrote that story. I love movies about intrepid journalists, and Spotlight can really only be compared to the best of them, films like All the President’s Men and The Year of Living Dangerously. It’s been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and is favored to win. It’s a masterpiece of ensemble acting. I can’t really recommend it strongly enough. It does, however, raise a very interesting and important question, regarding truth and fiction and how we structure stories based on historical events.

All right. Here’s what the film tells us. Reporters at the Globe had heard rumors of priests molesting children for years. Everyone was also pretty well aware that the Church, and specifically Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, the archbishop over the Boston diocese, a very well respected figure in the community, would much rather not see a story in the city’s leading newspaper about pedophile priests. Had Cardinal Law known about and covered up for guilty priests? No one particularly wanted to find out.

Then the Boston Globe got a new editor-in-chief, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), hired from Miami. A Jewish editor with a fine track record, but not a Bostonian, not Irish-Catholic, an outsider. Initially, the reporters and editors are suspicious of Baron. One of the main story lines has to do with the way Baron gains the respect of the paper’s reporters.

The Globe had an elite team of reporters, the Spotlight team, three reporters and one editor, tasked with taking on big, complex stories, and given the time and resources to really dig deeply into important issues, with no mandate to publish anything immediately. For the most part, the movie deals with the Spotlight reporters: Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Mike Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James), and their editor, Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton). So that’s the first decision made by the filmmakers–to focus on four main characters, not a single protagonist. Robinson reported to a higher editor, Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), so Bradlee becomes another key player. The Spotlight team looks like a terrific place to work; each reporter has his/her own strengths, and Robby, their putative boss, isn’t afraid to dig in and work alongside them; an outstanding boss. They clash a little bit, but it’s about process and deadlines, not the substance of what they’re doing. You get the impression of four smart, dedicated people, who respect each other, and work well together. You sense that Matt Carroll was a particularly strong researcher, that Pfeiffer was a particularly effective interviewer, that Rezendes was good at negotiating the legal system. And Robby was plugged in, to the power structure of the city, its shakers and movers.

So that’s the second choice made by the filmmakers. The heart of the film has to do with the mechanics of researching and reporting, not really interpersonal conflicts. Three men, one woman, but not a hint of sexual or romantic tension between them (a filmmaking choice I applaud). Just four people who are really good at their jobs, working on the story of their careers.

The story is, of course, explosive, especially in solidly Catholic Boston. And Robby is warned throughout to expect pushback from the Church hierarchy. So is Baron. He’s given a courtesy visit with Cardinal Law (the terrific Len Cariou), who tells him that the city works best when its most important institutions work together. And Baron politely responds that he thinks a newspaper works best when it’s most independent. He and Law agree, cordially enough, to disagree. And then Baron’s Spotlight reporters write a story that couldn’t possibly make the Cardinal (and the Church he represents) look worse.

Because the facts of the case, as they’re gradually revealed, couldn’t possibly be more horrifying. We learn the details of the story as the reporters learn them, and–this was at least my experience–are as devastated as the reporters are. At one point, the reporters conclude that there were 13 priest/pedophiles molesting children in Boston. Bradlee is skeptical–there’s no way there could be that many. Then, in a conversation with an expert on pedophilia, they’re told that the actual number is almost certainly much higher, in the 90s. And their investigation expands, and they confirm that number. And then the number continues to grow, into the hundreds. It’s devastating.

But what’s kind of astonishing is how little the Catholic Church or Cardinal Law does to impede the investigation. Robby is told by several of his powerful friends in Boston that this is an explosive story, that he shouldn’t pursue it. And initially, he wants to publish a more limited story. It’s Baron that urges the team to continue to expand their investigation, to look into the institution of the Church itself.

They’re not reluctant to do it for reasons of piety. They just know they have a powerful story, and want to publish. Their boss, the newpaper’s editor-in-chief, is the one who pushes them to delay publication, to get the whole story, to implicate Cardinal Law and the Church itself. And the Church’s response? Pretty limited; even a bit supine. No threats of legal action. No strikes by the paper’s largely Irish Catholic work force. Not even a response by Church spokespeople.

There is pushback and resistance. It comes from rank-and-file Catholics in the city; a clerk at the City Records office, for example. He’s a bit surly towards Rezendes. To put it in structural terms, this is a film with four protagonists, and no real antagonist at all. Unless the film’s villain isn’t a person. Unless it’s just . . . Irish Catholic Boston cultural pressure. Subtle and quiet.

That’s the most important decision made by the filmmakers here. They could invent a bad guy. They could have upped the pressure exerted by the Church. But that didn’t particularly happen, I think, and they wanted this film to hew pretty closely to what did actually happen.

That’s a decision I applaud. It makes the film perhaps slightly less dramatic than other Hollywood ‘based on a true story’ type films. I generally think historical truth–to the extent that it’s discoverable– is more interesting and can be more dramatic than more overtly ‘dramatized’ versions.

Hollywood loves ‘true’ stories. And in almost every sense, Spotlight does not feel like a Hollywood film. I rather shudder to think of the missteps this film, blessedly, avoids. (Manufacturing a romance between Pfeiffer and Rezendes comes most immediately to mind; blarg). The result is a film that honors some terrific journalists, and that forces us to confront the reality of the horrible events those journalists exposed. It’s really beautifully done. Kudos.

 

 

Movie Review: Bridge of Spies

Stephen Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies was always the other movie in town. You know what I mean? When my wife and I wanted to see a movie, it was always ‘should we see Bridge of Spies, or should we see . . . ‘ It looked like a really good movie. It’s Spielberg on American history; always something he does well. It had a screenplay by the Coen brothers. It starred Tom Hanks. There was no reason not to see it. But somehow, we missed it, week after week.

I wish now we’d seen it. It’s a terrific film, a deserving Best Picture nominee.  And it occurred to me that it’s one of the few truly excellent films about the Cold War that I’ve seen. But there’s something about it that does feel rather ‘other film in town.’ It’s a structural issue in the film itself.

The film begins in 1957, with the capture of a Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Tom Hanks plays Jim Donovan, a New York insurance attorney, but with a background as one of the attorneys at the Nuremberg trials. He’s asked to defend Abel, but it’s made clear to him by everyone–his law partners and the trial judge included–that his defense is meant to be perfunctory; that it’s not any part of his task to actually get the guy off. But Donovan’s the real deal, a terrific attorney, and a genuine true believer in what America’s supposed to stand for, including rule of law and due process. He can’t quite win the case, but he comes darn close, and he does argue successfully against the death penalty, saving his client’s life.

Cut ahead to 1960, and Francis Gary Powers, the American U2 pilot, shot down over the Soviet Union. Cut ahead two more years, to ’62, and as the Berlin wall is under construction, Donovan is asked to travel to East Berlin to negotiate a prisoner exchange: Abel for Powers. As he arrives, he learns of an American grad student, Fredric Prior (Will Rogers) caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and, preposterously, accused of espionage. And so Donovan decides to exceed his mandate and trade Abel for both guys. Who are held by different authorities–Soviet and East German. And all very much against the wishes of Donovan’s CIA handlers.

These are all terrific conflicts. The Cold War environment. The willingness of the CIA to let Prior freeze in an East German prison. The mysterious functionaries, Russian and German, Donovan has to deal with. It’s a great story, about a genuinely heroic American negotiating complicated moral terrain while keeping true to his own best sense of himself and his country. I liked the whole film. I loved the testy exchanges between Donovan and his various antagonists, US and Commie.

There isn’t anything not to like about the movie. It introduces us to a heroic American most people have never heard of–all to the good. It explores a history that we continue to find fascinating. It’s also an exceptionally well-made film–tautly paced and beautifully filmed.

I just can’t help but notice that the stakes aren’t actually all that high for Donovan, the protagonist. There’s a great scene early in the film where he meets with a CIA agent, who wants to know what he’s learning from Abel. Donovan says he can’t tell him: attorney-client privilege. The CIA guy says, ‘we’re in a war, if you’re a patriot, you have to tell me anything that might affect American interests.’ And Donovan asks him this: ‘your name is Hoffman, right? You’re of German ancestry? And I’m Irish, both sides. So what makes us both Americans? We both agree on the same set of rules. We call it the Constitution. So, no, I will not violate attorney-client privilege.’ It’s a terrific scene, and it tells us everything we need to know about Donovan.

But mostly, the stakes aren’t very high for him. As he walks to a meeting at the Soviet embassy in East Berlin, the ruined city seems dangerous and menacing. It’s beautifully acted and filmed. But he’s really not actually in much danger. He’s a remarkable man, and I applaud Spielberg for telling his story. But his task doesn’t really endanger him. Or at least, not much. In fact, throughout the East Berlin scenes, we’re told repeatedly that he’s suffering from a head cold. And that does complicate things for the poor guy. But that’s all.

So it’s a very interesting and engaging film, and I liked it very much indeed. And I couldn’t be more thrilled that it’s up for an Academy Award. But I don’t think it’s going to win. It’s an A-minus film, and one I’m glad we finally saw. Films don’t have to have a protagonist up against life-threatening odds. Sometimes a threat to his integrity can carry a film. That’s what happens here.