Gathering sheep and whacking the beard: The Good Shepherd (**1/2) & 638 Ways to Kill Castro (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2007)

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If spending an evening with the CIA is your idea of good times, have I got a double bill for you. (Break out the hoods and the water buckets; we’re in for a bumpy night!)

First up, Robert De Niro takes the director’s chair in his 2006 CIA epic, The Good Shepherd, recently released on DVD. Matt Damon stars as Edward Wilson, whose career as an agency spook begins with his enlistment into the OSS during WW 2 and continues through that organization’s metamorphosis into the CIA.

The film opens in 1961, at the time of the Bay of Pigs invasion. When we are first introduced to Wilson, it is quickly established that he is an officious and dedicated Company man. As the story begins to jump back and forth in time we begin to get a peek at what lies beneath Wilson’s somewhat inscrutable veneer.

We witness a looser and more outgoing Wilson during his college days at Yale in 1939, as he is inducted into the infamous Skull and Bones society. As part of the initiation ritual, he is directed to regale his fellow Bondsmen with the deepest, darkest secret from his past. The club members get more than they bargain for as Wilson relates a harrowing childhood memory of bearing witness to his father’s suicide. Moments before taking his own life, his father hands down a credo about “trust”, which becomes the key to unlocking Wilson’s motivations and inner workings for the remainder of the film.

Therein lays the problem with The Good Shepherd. There is an awful lot of internalizing going on (for 2 hours and 47 minutes). De Niro’s plus as a director (not surprisingly) is his willingness to give his actors plenty of room to breathe and inhabit their characters. His minus as a director is his willingness to give his actors plenty of room to breathe and inhabit their characters, if you catch my drift. There are some pacing issues with the film. Not that I was expecting car chases and stuff blowing up real good. After all, the reality of espionage does not necessarily lend itself to flash cuts and pop music montage. It’s generally a somewhat somber, mundane and unpleasant business.

Eric Roth’s script has its moments, but gets murky when it comes to the intrigue. It is tough to keep track of who is doing what to whom, and why (and at times, for whose “side”?). Granted, perhaps that is part of the point; torture is torture and murder is murder, no matter how one attempts to rationalize (a point that Steven Spielberg more than sufficiently bludgeoned us over the head with in Munich) but I GET it, already.

Perhaps the most fatal flaw in the film is Matt Damon’s unconvincing “aging”. There is not much discernible physical transformation between Wilson’s collegiate years and middle age. (Maybe some better prosthetic work could have helped?). At any rate, I just wasn’t buying it, and found it to be a major distraction. Damon is a fine actor, but I think he may have been slightly miscast here. History buffs may still find the film worth a look.

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History buffs (and conspiracy-a-go-go enthusiasts) will definitely want a peek at British director Dolan Cannell’s documentary, 638 Ways to Kill Castro (just out on DVD). Mixing archival footage with some knowledgeable talking heads (including a surprising number of would-be assassins-it’s hard to believe this many lived to tell their tale!), Cannell traces the evolution of Cuban politics via a recap of literally hundreds of attempts by the U.S. government to knock off Fidel over the years.

The number in the title (638) is derived from a list compiled by a couple of former members of Castro’s security team (they are among the interviewees). They even go so far as to crunch the numbers by U.S. presidential administration. In case you’re curious, here’s the breakdown (aren’t you glad I take notes?): Eisenhower-38 attempts. Kennedy-42. Johnson-72. Nixon-184. Carter-64. Reagan-197 (Ding Ding! We have a winner!). Bush (the 1st)-16. Clinton-21. (We assume they haven’t had a chance to tally the latest Bush’s numbers, although Cannell slyly bookends his film with footage of Junior’s smug and condescending “Cuba libre!” proclamation.)

The film begins its timeline in 1959, the year that the CIA received the first official go-ahead to take Castro out. The initial schemes sound like they were hatched by Wile E. Coyote and his Acme Intelligence Agency. The plans ranged from relatively benign subversion (making his beard fall out, spraying a TV station with LSD while Castro was on air, a contingency to accuse Cuba of zapping John Glenn’s space capsule with “magnetic rays,” had Glenn not made it back to Earth) to more ominous (a poisoned diving suit, booby trapping shellfish in Castro’s favorite scuba diving spot with dynamite, and most famously, planting poisoned and/or exploding cigars into his humidor).

Although Cannell initially appears to be playing for yucks (especially with the exploding cigar type shtick) the underlying theme of the documentary soon becomes much more sobering. The most chilling revelation concerns the downing of a commercial Cuban airliner off of Barbados in 1976 (73 people were killed, none with any known direct associations with the Castro regime). One of the alleged masterminds was an anti-Castro Cuban exile living in Florida, named Orlando Bosch, who had participated in numerous CIA-backed actions in the past.

When Bosch was threatened with deportation in the late 80’s, a number of Republicans rallied to have him pardoned, including Florida congresswoman Ileana Ross, who used her involvement with the “Free Orlando Bosch” campaign as part of her running platform. Her campaign manager was a young up and coming politician named…Jeb Bush. Long story short? Then-president George Bush Sr. ended up granting Bosch a pardon in 1990. BTW, Bosch had once been publicly referred to as an “unrepentant terrorist” by the Attorney General. (Don’t get me started.)

This is a fascinating film; the only criticism I would give it is the director’s “wacky” approach (that kooky CIA and their nutty ideas!)-it doesn’t quite match the subject matter at times. My favorite quote from the doc sums it all up quite nicely-when asked to explain the decades-long obsession about Castro by one administration after another, one pundit cracks “There’s just something about (Castro’s) Cuba that affects these administrations like the full moon affects a werewolf. There’s no real logic at work here.”

Stereotyped in America: Crash (*1/2) & The Landlord (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 16, 2006)

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I’m going to risk crucifixion here and confess that I only recently got around to viewing Crash, Paul Haggis’ 2005 Oscar winning meditation on racism in America. (Perhaps I was shamed into screening it after Michael Richard’s recent star turn on YouTube).

Crash takes the premise of 1993’s Falling Down and expands on it exponentially. Instead of one disenfranchised white guy going off the deep end and raging through L.A. as he blames every person of color he encounters for his own personal failures, Crash serves up an Altman-sized, multicultural cast of self-pitying whiners running around L.A. pissed off at everybody else. They hail from all ethnic and socioeconomic strata, they are all fuming about their (real or perceived) victimization by one societal injustice or another and (yeah, you guessed it) they are all on a ‘crash’ course, about to collide.

Structurally, Crash is a close cousin to P.T. Anderson’s (vastly superior) Magnolia, and operates on the same conceit. We are asked to accept an absurdly implausible series of “coincidences” in order for the story (or in this case, Today’s Lecture) to work.

The cast is talented, the performances are earnest and the film is slickly made, but the mind boggles as to how this condescending, contrived, PC-pandering mess earned a Best Picture Oscar. The Message (people are people and bigotry is colorblind) has been delivered numerous times before…and with much more panache (see review below).

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The late great Hal Ashby only directed a relative handful of films, but most, especially his 70’s output, were built to last (Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Bound for Glory, Shampoo, Being There). In The Landlord, Beau Bridges is a spoiled rich kid who worries his parents with his “liberal views”, especially when he buys a run-down inner-city tenement, with intentions to renovate. His subsequent involvement with the various black tenants is played sometimes for laughs, other times for intense drama, but always for real. The social satire and observations about race relations are dead-on, but never preachy or condescending (are you listening, Paul Haggis?). Top-notch ensemble work, featuring a young Lou Gossett (with hair!) giving a memorable dramatic turn. The lovely Susan Anspach is hilarious as Bridge’s perpetually stoned and bemused sister. A scene featuring Pearl Bailey and Lee Grant getting drunk and bonding over a bottle of “sparkling” wine is a minor classic all on its own. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore-honest, bold, uncompromising, socially and politically meaningful, yet (lest we forget) entertaining.

Borderline cinema: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 30, 2006)

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The spirit of Sam Peckinpah lives on (sans slo-mo) in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. First-time director Tommy Lee Jones casts himself as a contemporary Texas cowboy named Pete who befriends a Mexican “vaquero” (the namesake of the movie’s title). Estrada is an illegal looking for steady work and a brighter future here in the land o’plenty. Jones utilizes flashbacks to illustrate the growing kinship between the two compadres, who bond in the usual “cowboy way”- drinkin’ and whorin’, sleeping under the stars, and reaching a general consensus that A Cowboy’s Life Is The Life For Me (as a great man once sang.) In the key vignette, Estrada confides that, if “something” should ever happen to him, he wishes to be buried in his home town. In half-drunken sentiment, Pete vows to see it through if the unthinkable happens. Guess what happens next?

When Estrada is mysteriously killed, Pete becomes incensed by the indifference of the local authorities, who seem reluctant to investigate. When he learns through the grapevine that his friend was the victim of negligent homicide, thanks to a bone-headed border patrol officer (Barry Pepper), he goes ballistic. He abducts the officer, forces him to dig up the hastily buried Estrada, and informs him that the three amigos are taking a little horseback trip to Mexico (and it ain’t gonna be anything like Weekend at Bernie’s).

Much unpleasantness ensues as the story evolves into a “man on a mission to fulfill an oath” tale…on the surface. Despite the simplistic setup, astute viewers will begin to realize that there is a deeper, mythic subtext; this is one of those films that can really sneak up on you. Although my initial reaction was more visceral than philosophical (I didn’t find any of the characters particularly likeable, it started to feel overlong, and I was repulsed by some of the more graphic scenes) I eventually realized that I had just been taken on an Orphic journey, and it suddenly all made sense. The film gives you hope that, despite the rampant cynicism that abounds in this world, there is something to be said for holding true to a personal code that covets friendship, loyalty and a deep sense of honor.

Incitement to mutiny: Sir! No Sir! ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 18, 2006)

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There have been a good number of excellent documentaries examining various aspects of the Sixties protest movement (The War At Home, Berkeley In The Sixties and the more recent Weather Underground), but none focusing specifically on the members of the armed forces who openly opposed the Vietnam war-until now. Sir! No Sir! is a fascinating look at the GI anti-war movement during the era. Director David Zeigler combines present-day interviews with archival footage to good effect in this well-paced documentary. Most people who have seen Oliver Stone’s Born On The Fourth Of July were likely left with the impression that paralyzed Vietnam vet and activist Ron Kovic was the main impetus and focus of the GI movement, but Kovic’s story was in fact only one of thousands (Kovic, interestingly, is never mentioned in Ziegler’s film). While the aforementioned Kovic received a certain amount of media attention at the time, the full extent and history of the involvement by military personnel has been suppressed from public knowledge for a number of years, and that is the focus of Sir! No Sir!.

In one very astutely chosen archival clip, a CBS news anchor somberly announces that there appears to be some problems with “troop morale” in Vietnam (while in the meantime, behind closed doors, the US military was apparently imprisoning dissenting GIs left and right under “incitement to mutiny” charges, sometimes just for being overheard expressing anti-war sentiments). All the present-day interviewees (Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine vets) have interesting (and at times emotionally wrenching) stories to share. Jane Fonda speaks candidly about her infamous “FTA” (“Fuck the Army”) shows that she organized for troops as an antidote to the somewhat creaky and more traditional Bob Hope USO tours. Well worth your time. The film would make an excellent double bill with the classic documentary Hearts and Minds (available from Criterion).