Category Archives: Conspiracy a-go-go

Blu-ray reissue: Seven Days in May ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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Seven Days in May – Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray

This 1964 “conspiracy a-go go” thriller was director John Frankenheimer’s follow-up to The Manchurian Candidate (the cold war paranoia force was strong in him!). Picture if you will: a screenplay by Rod Serling, adapted from a novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II.

Kirk Douglas plays a Marine colonel who is the adjutant to a hawkish, hard right-leaning general (Burt Lancaster) who heads the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The general is at loggerheads with the dovish President (Fredric March), who is perceived by the general and some of the other joint chiefs as a “weak sister” for his strident support of nuclear disarmament.

When Douglas begins to suspect that an imminent, unusually secretive military “exercise” may in fact portend more sinister intentions, he is torn between his loyalty to the general and his loyalty to the country as to whether he should raise the alarm. Or is he just being paranoid?

An intelligently scripted and well-acted nail-biter, right to the end. Also with Ava Gardner, Edmund O’Brien, and Martin Balsam. No extras (Warner has a rep for skimping on them), but a great transfer.

Kleptocracy Now: A Top 10 List

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 14, 2017)

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“To assess the ‘personality’ of the corporate ‘person’ a checklist is employed, using diagnostic criteria of the World Health Organization and the standard diagnostic tool of psychiatrists and psychologists. The operational principles of the corporation give it a highly anti-social ‘personality’: it is self-interested, inherently amoral, callous and deceitful; it breaches social and legal standards to get its way; it does not suffer from guilt, yet it can mimic the human qualities of empathy, caring and altruism.”

– from the official website for the film, The Corporation

I don’t know about you, but my jaw is getting pretty sore from repeatedly dropping to the floor with each successive cabinet nomination by our incoming CEO-in-chief of the United States of Blind Trust. It seems that candidate Trump, who ran on an oft-bleated promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington D.C. bears little resemblance to President-elect Trump, who is currently hell-bent on loading the place up with even more alligators.

When I heard the name “Rex Tillerson” bandied about as Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, it rang a bell. I knew he was the former head of Exxon, so it wasn’t that. Then I remembered. Mr. Tillerson was one of the “stars” of a documentary I reviewed several years back, called Greedy Lying Bastards (conversely, if I hear the words “greedy lying bastards,” bandied about, “Trump’s cabinet picks” is the first phrase that comes to mind).

So with that in mind, and in keeping with my occasional unifying theme, “Hollywood saw this coming”, I was inspired to comb my review archives of the last 10 years to see if any bellwethers were emerging that may have been dropping hints that the planets were aligning in such a manner as to set up a path to the White House for an orange TV clown (the “self-interested, inherently amoral, callous and deceitful” kind of orange TV clown).

All 10 of these films were released within the last 10 years. I’ll let you be the judge:

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The Big Short Want the good news first? Writer-director Adam McKay and co-scripter Charles Randolph’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’ eponymous 2010 non-fiction book is an outstanding comedy-drama; an incisive parsing of what led to the crash of the global financial system in 2008. The bad news is…it made me pissed off about it all over again.

Yes, it’s a bitter pill to swallow, this ever-maddening tale of how we stood by, blissfully unaware, as unchecked colonies of greedy, lying Wall Street investment bankers were eventually able to morph into the parasitic gestalt monster journalist Matt Taibbi famously compared to a “…great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” Good times!  (Full review)

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Capitalism: A Love Story – Back in 2009, Digby and I did a double post on this film, which was Michael Moore’s reaction to the 2008 crash. Here’s how I viewed his intent:

So how did we arrive to this sorry state of our Union, where the number of banks being robbed by desperate people is running neck and neck with the number of desperate banks ostensibly robbing We The People? What paved the way for the near-total collapse of our financial system and its subsequent government bailout, which Moore provocatively refers to as nothing less than a “financial coup d’etat”? The enabler, Moore suggests, may very well be our sacred capitalist system itself-and proceeds to build a case (in his inimitable fashion) that results in his most engaging and thought-provoking film since Roger and Me […] at the end of the day I didn’t really find his message to be so much “down with capitalism” as it is “up with people”.

Digby gleaned something else from the film that did a flyover on me at the time:

But this movie, as Dennis notes, isn’t really about saviors or criminals, although it features some of both. It’s a call for citizens to focus their minds on what’s actually gone wrong and take to the streets or man the barricades or do whatever defines political engagement in this day and age and demand that the people who brought us to this place are identified and that the system is reformed. Indeed, I would guess that if it didn’t feature the stuff about capitalism being evil he could have shown this to audiences of all political stripes and most of the latent teabaggers would have given him a standing ovation.

If the film manages to focus the citizenry on the most important story of our time then it will be tremendously important. If it gets lost in a cacophony of commie bashing and primitive tribalism then it will probably not be recognized for what it is until sometime later. As with all of his films, he’s ahead of the zeitgeist, so I am hopeful that this epic call to leftwing populist engagement is at the very least a hopeful sign of things to come.

She called it. “Someone” did tap into that populist sentiment; but sadly, it wasn’t the Left.

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The Corporation – While it’s not news to any thinking person that corporate greed and manipulation affects everyone’s life on this planet, co-directors Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott deliver the message in a unique and engrossing fashion. By applying a psychological profile to the rudiments of corporate think, Achbar and Abbott build a solid case; proving that if the “corporation” were corporeal, then “he” would be Norman Bates.

Mixing archival footage with observations from some of the expected talking heads (Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, etc.) the unexpected (CEOs actually sympathetic with the filmmakers’ point of view) along with the colorful (like a “corporate spy”), the film offers perspective not only from the watchdogs, but from the belly of the beast itself. Be warned: there are enough exposes trotted out here to keep conspiracy theorists, environmentalists and human rights activists tossing and turning in bed for nights on end.

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The Forecaster – There’s a conspiracy nut axiom that “everything is rigged”. Turns out it’s not just paranoia…it’s a fact. At least that’s according to this absorbing documentary from German filmmaker Marcus Vetter, profiling economic “forecaster” Martin Armstrong. In the late 70s, Armstrong formulated a predictive algorithm (“The Economic Confidence Model”) that proved so accurate at prophesying global financial crashes and armed conflicts, that a shadowy cabal of everyone from his Wall Street competitors to the CIA made Wile E. Coyote-worthy attempts for years to get their hands on that formula.

And once Armstrong told the CIA to “fuck off”, he put himself on a path that culminated in serving a 12-year prison sentence for what the FBI called a “3 billion dollar Ponzi scheme”. Funny thing, no evidence was ever produced, nor was any judgement passed (most of the time he served was for “civil contempt”…for not giving up that coveted formula, which the FBI eventually snagged when they seized his assets). Another funny thing…Armstrong’s formula solidly backs up his contention that it’s the world’s governments running the biggest Ponzi schemes…again and again, all throughout history.

And something tells me that we ain’t seen nuthin’ yet…

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Greedy Lying Bastards – I know it’s cliché to quote Joseph Goebbels, but: “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.” That’s the theme of Craig Rosebraugh’s 2013 documentary. As one interviewee offers: “On one side you have all the facts. On the other side, you have none. But the folks without the facts are far more effective at convincing the public that this is not a problem, than scientists are about convincing them that we need to do something about this.” What is the debate in question here? Global warming.

Using simple but damning flow charts, Rosebraugh follows the money and connects dots between high-profile deniers (“career skeptics…in the business of selling doubt”) and their special interest sugar daddies. Shills range from media pundits (with no background in hard science) to members of Congress, presidential candidates and Supreme Court justices. Think tanks and other organizations are exposed as mouthpieces for Big Money.

Sadly, the villains outnumber the heroes-which is not reassuring. What does reassure are suggested action steps in the film’s coda…which might come in handy after January 20th. (Full review)

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Inside Job I have good news and bad news about documentary filmmaker Charles Ferguson’s incisive parsing of what led to the crash of the global financial system in 2008. The good news is that I believe I finally grok what “derivatives” and “toxic loans” are. The bad news is…that doesn’t make me feel any better about how fucked we are.

Ferguson starts where the seeds were sown-rampant financial deregulation during the Reagan administration (“morning in America”-remember?). The film illustrates, point by point, how every subsequent administration, Democratic and Republican alike, did their “part” to enable the 2008 crisis- through political cronyism and legislative manipulation. The result of this decades long circle jerk involving Wall Street, the mortgage industry, Congress, the White House and lobbyists (with Ivy League professors as pivot men) is what we are still living with today…and I suspect it is about to get unimaginably worse.  (Full review)

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The International Get this. In the Bizarro World of Tom Tykwer’s conspiracy thriller, people don’t rob banks…. banks rob people. That’s crazy! And if you think that’s weird, check this out: at one point in the film, one of the characters puts forth the proposition that true power belongs to he who controls the debt. Are you swallowing this malarkey? The filmmakers even go so far as to suggest that some Third World military coups are seeded by powerful financial groups and directed from shadowy corporate boardrooms…

What a fantasy! (Not.)

The international bank in question is under investigation by an Interpol agent (Clive Owen), who is following a trail of shady arms deals all over Europe and the Near East that appear to be linked to the organization. Whenever anyone gets close to exposing the truth about the bank’s Machiavellian schemes, they die under mysterious circumstances. Once the agent teams up with an American D.A. (Naomi Watts), much more complexity ensues, with tastefully-attired assassins lurking behind every silver-tongued bank exec.

The timing of the film’s release (in 2010) was interesting, in light of the then-current banking crisis and plethora of financial scandals. Screenwriter Eric Singer (no relation to the KISS drummer) based certain elements of the story on the real-life B.C.C.I. scandal.             (Full review)

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The Queen of Versailles In Lauren Greenfield’s 2012 doc, billionaire David Siegel shares an anecdote about his 52-story luxury timeshare complex in Vegas. In 2010, Donald Trump called him and said, “Congratulations on your new tower! I’ve got one problem with it. When I stay in my penthouse suite, I look out the window and all I see is ‘WESTGATE’. Could you turn your sign down a little bit?” (how he must have suffered).

While Greenfield’s portrait of Siegal, his wife Jackie, their eight kids, nanny, cook, maids, chauffeur and (unknown) quantity of yippy, prolifically turd-laying teacup dogs is chock full of wacky “you couldn’t make this shit up” reality TV moments, there is an elephant in the room…the family’s unfinished Orlando, Florida mansion, the infamous “largest home in America”, a 90,000 square foot behemoth inspired by the palace at Versailles. Drama arises when the bank threatens to foreclose on it, along with the PH Towers Westgate. So does the family end up living in cardboard boxes? I’m not telling.

However, there is a more chilling message, buried near the end of the film. When Siegel boasts he was “personally responsible” for the election of George W. Bush in 2000, the director asks him to elaborate. “I’d rather not say,” he replies, “…because it may not necessarily have been legal.” Any further thoughts? “Had I not stuck my big nose into it, there probably would not have been an Iraqi War, and maybe we would have been better off…I don’t know.” Gosh, imagine a billionaire having the power to “buy” the POTUS of their choice. Worse yet, imagine a similarly odious billionaire becoming the POTUS. Oh.   (Full review)

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Welcome to New York While it is not a “action thriller” per se, Abel Ferrara’s film is likewise “ripped from the headlines”, involves an evil banker, and agog with backroom deals and secret handshakes. More specifically, the film is based on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal. In case you need a refresher, he was the fine fellow who was accused and indicted for an alleged sexual assault and attempted rape of a maid employed by the ritzy NYC hotel he was staying at during a 2011 business trip. The case was dismissed after the maid’s credibility was brought into question (Strauss-Kahn later admitted in a TV interview that a liaison did occur, but denied any criminal wrongdoing).

I’m sure that the fact that Strauss-Kahn was head of the International Monetary Fund at the time (and a front-runner in France’s 2012 presidential race) had absolutely nothing to do with him traipsing out from the sordid affair smelling like a rose (as of this writing, we don’t know the veracity of intelligence reports alleging shenanigans in a Russian hotel room that involve a “certain” President-elect, so I won’t draw any parallels…just sayin’).

It is interesting watching the hulking Gerard Depardieu wrestle with the motivations (and what passes as the “conscience”) of his Dostoevskian character. It doesn’t make this creep any more sympathetic, but it is a fearless late-career performance, as naked (literally and emotionally) as Brando was playing a similarly loathsome study in Last Tango in Paris. Jacqueline Bisset gives a good supporting turn as the long-suffering wife.   (Full review)

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The Yes Men Fix the World – Anti-corporate activist/pranksters Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (aka “The Yes Men”) and co-director Kurt Engfehr come out swinging, vowing to do a take-down of a powerful nemesis…an Idea. If money makes the world go ‘round, then this particular Idea is the one that oils the crank on the money-go-round, regardless of the human cost. It is the free market cosmology of economist Milton Friedman, which the Yes Men posit as the root of much evil in the world.

Once this springboard is established, the fun begins. Perhaps “fun” isn’t the right term, but there are hijinks afoot, and you’ll find yourself chuckling through most of the film (when you’re not crying). However, the filmmakers have a loftier goal than mining laughs: corporate accountability; and ideally, atonement. “Corporate accountability” is an oxymoron, but one has to admire the dogged determination (and boundless creativity) of the Yes Men and their co-conspirators, despite the odds. It’s a call to activism that is as timely as ever.          (Full review)

After my date with tragedy: Jackie ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 24, 2016)

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In his 2009 Vanity Fair article, “A Clash of Camelots”, Sam Kashner gives a fascinating account of the personal price author William Manchester ultimately paid for accepting Jackie Kennedy’s invitation to write an authorized account of JFK’s assassination. Death of a President sold well, but by the time it was published in 1967, Manchester had weathered “…a bitter, headline-making battle with Jackie and Bobby Kennedy.” Among other things, Kashner’s article unveils Manchester’s interesting take on Jackie K. herself:

On April 7, 1964, Jacqueline, dressed in yellow Capri pants and a black jersey, closed the sliding doors behind her in her Georgetown home, and Manchester came face-to-face with the president’s widow for their first official meeting. “Mr. Manchester,” she said in her soft, whispery voice. Manchester was struck by her “camellia beauty” and thought she looked much younger than her 34 years. “My first impression—and it never changed—was that I was in the presence of a very great, tragic actress.… There was a weekend in American history when we needed to be united in our sadness,” he later wrote, and Jacqueline Kennedy had “provided us with an unforgettable performance as the nation’s First Lady.”

That particular aspect of Jacqueline Kennedy’s persona – the “very great, tragic actress” – is a tragedian’s dream, an opportunity seized by director Pablo Larrain and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim, who take it and run with it in the speculative historical drama, Jackie.

The film is fueled by a precisely measured, career-best performance from Natalie Portman in the titular role, and framed by a (fictional) interview session that the recently widowed Jackie has granted to a probing yet acquiescing journalist (Billy Crudup), which serves as the convenient launching platform for a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards.

Most of the narrative focuses on the week following the president’s assassination, as Mrs. Kennedy finds herself immediately thrown into the minutiae of moving her family and belongings out of the White House, planning her husband’s funeral, and preserving his presidential legacy; all while still reeling from the horror and shock of what happened in Dallas just days before (which I’m certain would be enough to completely crack anyone).

Therein lays the genius of this film. Who among us (old enough to remember that day) hasn’t speculated on what it must have been like to be inside Jackie’s head on November 22, 1963? You wake up that sunny fall morning, you’re beautiful, glamorous, admired by millions, and married to the most powerful leader in the free world. By that night, you’re in shock, gobbling tranquilizers like Pez, standing in the cramped galley of Air Force One in a daze, still wearing that gore-spattered pink dress, watching the Vice President being sworn in as the new POTUS…while realizing you are already getting brushed to the side.

No one but Jackie herself will ever truly know what it was like to be inside her head in the wake of this zeitgeist-shattering event, and she took that with her to her grave. That gives the film makers much creative leeway, but there are still many points grounded in reality. For example, it’s no secret that Jackie fiercely (and famously) guarded her privacy; so the insinuations that she shrewdly cultivated her image (in one scene, she demands the right of final edit for the journalist’s article) are not necessarily exaggerated.

That said, the narrative (and crucially, Portman’s performance) is largely internalized; resulting in a film that is more meditative, impressionistic and personalized than your standard-issue historical drama. Two films came to mind while I was watching Jackie that I would consider stylistic cousins: Francois Girard’s 1993 Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould and Satoshi Kon’s 2001 Millennium Actress; the former for its use of episodic vignettes from its subject’s life to construct a portrait, and the latter for doing the same, but with the added similarity of using a journalist’s interview for a framing device.

Larrain also evokes Kubrick, in his use of classical-style music, meticulously constructed shots (with lovely photography throughout by cinematographer Stephane Fontaine) and deliberate pacing. The film ultimately belongs to Portman, who may not physically resemble Jackie, but uncannily captures her persona, from her “soft, whispery voice” and public poise, to her less-guarded side (replete with chain-smoking and sardonic wit). There is excellent supporting work from the aforementioned Crudup, Peter Sarsgaard (as Robert F. Kennedy), and a cameo by the always wonderful John Hurt (as Jackie’s priest).

Understandably, the question of “why now?” could arise, to which I would reply (paraphrasing JFK)…why not? To be sure, Jacqueline Kennedy’s story has been well-covered in a myriad of documentaries and feature films; like The Beatles, there are very few (if any) mysteries about her life and legacy to uncover at this point. And not to mention that horrible, horrible day in Dallas…do we really need to pay $15 just to see the nightmare reenacted for the umpteenth time? (Spoiler alert: the President dies at the end).

I think that “we” do need to see this film, even if we know going in that there was no “happy ever-aftering” in this Camelot. It reminds us of a “brief, shining moment” when all seemed possible, opportunities were limitless, and everything was going to be all right, because Jack was our king and Jackie was our queen. So what if it was all kabuki, as the film implies; merely a dream, invented by “a great, tragic actress” to unite us in our sadness. Then it was a good dream, and I think we’ll find our Camelot again…someday.

Mr. Robot goes to Washington: Snowden ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 25, 2016)

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“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”  

       -from “1984”, by George Orwell

Reality can be a tough act to follow. As I noted in my 2008 review of the biopic, W:

No one has ever accused Oliver Stone of being subtle. However, once audiences view his highly anticipated film concerning the life and times of George W. Bush, I think the popular perception about the director, which is that he is a rabid conspiracy theorist who rewrites history via Grand Guignol-fueled cinematic polemics, could begin to diminish.

If the Bush administration had never really happened, and this was a completely fictional creation, I would be describing Stone’s film by throwing out one-sheet ready superlatives […] But you see, when it comes to the life and legacy of one George W. Bush and the Strangelovian nightmare that he and his cohorts have plunged this once great nation into for the last eight years, all you have to do is tell the truth…and pass the popcorn.

Such is the conundrum for Snowden, writer-director Oliver Stone’s new biopic about Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency subcontractor who ignited an international political firestorm (and became a wanted fugitive) when he leaked top secret information to The Guardian back in 2013 regarding certain NSA surveillance practices.

The “tough act of follow” is Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning 2014 documentary, Citizenfour. In 2013, Snowden invited Poitras, along with Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, for a meet at the Hong Kong hotel he was holed up in. This was the culmination of months of email exchanges between Snowden (sending encrypted text under the pseudonym of “Citizenfour”) and Poitras. Poitras found herself in the unique position of being a (circumstantial) “co-conspirator” in the story she was filming. The result was a gripping documentary that played like a paranoia-fueled thriller.

Now we have Oliver Stone, a filmmaker often accused by detractors of infusing his own politically charged, paranoia-fueled conspiracy theories into historical dramas like JFK and Nixon, diving head first into one of the most polarizing public debates of recent years: is Edward Snowden a hero…or a traitor? It seems to be a marriage made in heaven. Surely, this should be a perfect impetus for the return of that fearless, rabble-rousing Oliver Stone of old…speaking truth to power through his art, consequences be damned.

This is actually a surprisingly restrained dramatization by Stone, which is not to say it is a weak one. In fact, quite the contrary-this time out, Stone had no need to take a magical trip to the wrong side of the wardrobe. That’s because the Orwellian machinations (casually conducted on a daily basis by our government) that came to light after Snowden lifted up the rock are beyond even the most feverish imaginings of the tin foil hat society.

In other words, you couldn’t make this shit up, either.

After opening with a cloak-and-dagger vignette set in 2013 on the streets of Hong Kong, Stone flashes back to 2004, where we see a younger, gung-ho Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) humping it through a grueling Special Forces training course. His Army reservist career is cut short after he breaks both legs in an accident. A few years later, still determined to serve his country, he finds a more ideal fit working at the CIA, where his (apparently) sharp computer hacking skills land him a position as an info tech. Stone follows Snowden’s various job relocations, from D.C. to Japan; eventually ending up at the NSA subcontracting firm Booz Allen in Hawaii (where he famously “did the deed”).

Stone alternates between the personal bio, which includes Snowden’s longtime relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) and the increasingly furtive interview sessions with Snowden in the Hong Kong hotel room in 2013 by Guardian journalists Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), while Poitras (Melissa Leo) dutifully continues filming. Gordon-Levitt uncannily captures Snowden’s vibe; although by the time credits roll, he remains a cypher. Then again, Snowden has said, “This really isn’t about me […] It’s about our right to dissent.”

Stylistically, the film felt to me like a throwback to cerebral cold war thrillers from the 1960s like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Defector, Funeral in Berlin, and The Deadly Affair. This may not be by accident; because one of the core themes of the screenplay (adapted by Stone with Kieran Fitzgerald from Luke Harding’s The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man, and Anatoly Kucherena’s Time of the Octopus) is that we are, in fact, in the midst of a new “cold war”…in cyberspace.

As Snowden’s (fictional) mentor “Corbin O’Brien” (one of the more interesting creations in the film, especially as played by a scene-stealing Rhys Ifans) tells him, “The new battlefield is everywhere.” True that. It’s happening every day, all around us. It used to be a novelty, but it seems like my bank is issuing me a new credit card about every 6 months anymore, due to some nebulous “security breach”. Or how about the “DC Leaks” story…hacktivists with alleged Russian ties breaking into White House accounts at will?

But the question becomes, of course, how much of our privacy should we, as tax-paying citizens, be willing to sacrifice in the name of national security? As Greg Lake once sang:

Knowledge is a deadly friend, if no one sets the  rules                                      The fate of all mankind, I see, is in the hands of fools 

Luckily, we have filmmakers like Stone and Poitras, journalists like Greenwald and MacAskill, and whistle blowers like Edward Snowden, who do not suffer such fools gladly. Big Brother is watching us, but now we feel emboldened to ask: What are you lookin’ at?

SIFF 2016: Action Comandante **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 21, 2016)

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Nadine Angel Cloete’s documentary is a profile of anti-apartheid activist Ashley Kriel, who was gunned down by police in 1987 (at age 20) and name-checked by Nelson Mandela in his 1990 post-prison release speech. While obviously meant to be an inspirational piece, the film falls curiously flat; a crucial portion of the tragically short-lived Kriel’s life story seems to be MIA. His formative years are covered; his awakening as a community activist (at an unusually young age), and the shady circumstances surrounding his death are examined…but what happened in between? All we learn is that he left his hometown for several years, and returned a seasoned freedom fighter. Within a short period, he was dead. The end. Exposition regarding that transformation from activist to guerilla is much too sketchy. Kriel’s story is undoubtedly an important part of South Africa’s freedom struggle, but as told here, it feels incomplete.

SIFF 2016: If There’s A Hell Below **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 14, 2016)

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For the first two thirds of this conspiracy thriller, which concerns a clandestine meeting between a journalist and a government whistle-blower, writer-director Nathan Williams masterfully utilizes the desolate moonscape of Eastern Washington to create an almost unbearable sense of tension and dread (a la Spielberg’s Duel, or the crop dusting sequence in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest). Unfortunately, he jinxes his streak with a lazily constructed third act. Still, it’s an audacious debut that portends considerable promise for any future endeavors…which I am looking forward to.

Synchronicity: Criterion reissues The Manchurian Candidate ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  March 19, 2016)

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Would I block you? I would spend every cent I own, and all I could borrow, to block you. There are people who think of Johnny as a clown and a buffoon, but I do not. I despise John Iselin and everything that Iselinism has come to stand for. I think, if John Iselin were a paid Soviet agent, he could not do more to harm this country than he’s doing now.

 –from The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

That’s Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver), in response to Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury), the wife and political handler of Senator John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory), who has just asked him if he would have any objection if her McCarthy-esque husband’s name were to be “put forward” at an upcoming political convention.

Thank god that’s from a movie, because, well…could you imagine what kind of chaos would ensue in this country if someone who is widely perceived as a “clown and buffoon” were somehow jockeyed into a position of high office…perhaps even the highest office? I mean, that’s purely something that could “only happen in the movies”, amirite? Anyone?

Here’s what I know. Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He’s playing the members of the American public for suckers. He gets a free ride to the White House and all we get is a lousy hat. His domestic policies would lead to recession. His foreign policies would make America and the world less safe. He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president and his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill.

-from Mitt Romney’s recent speech regarding Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency

Who said that? Mitt Romney? Really? He denounced his own party’s steamrolling frontrunner in the race for the Republican presidential nominee? I suppose I see some parallels between Donald Trump and the fictional Senator Iselin, but let’s keep this in mind…director John Frankenheimer’s Cold War thriller was made 54 years ago. And the story itself is set in the early 1950s, at the height of the Red Scare.

Those were different times! Back then, the political climate was informed by fear and paranoia. You actually had politicians publicly calling each other commies, fergawdsakes. What is that line in the film, where Senator Jordan is explaining to Senator Iselin’s stepson Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) the chief reasons for the political enmity between himself and the insufferable tag team of Raymond’s Red-baiting stepfather and control freak mother…?

One of your mother’s more endearing traits is her tendency to refer to anyone who disagrees with her about anything as a communist.

Yes, that was it. See? That was then, but this is now. Donald Trump doesn’t go that far.

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump on Saturday blamed supporters of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders for protests that shut down his Chicago rally, calling the U.S. senator from Vermont “our communist friend”.

-from The Raw Story (March 12)

Oh. But, in the film, it’s the candidate’s wife who is described as a Red-baiter, so let’s not get carried away. Because if that were the case, this would be getting downright spooky.

[Bernie] Sanders is a communist. I was born in a communist country, so I know when I see them or hear them.

-Donald Trump’s ex-wife Ivana (from Page Six, March 15)

All right…now it’s getting downright spooky.

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Speaking of “spooky”, in January of 2011, in my armchair psychologist’s attempt to answer “Why?” regarding yet another mass shooting, I explored the pathology of the perversely “All-American” phenomenon known as the “lone gunman” via what morphed into a rather wordy genre study.

In the piece, I posed some questions. What is the motivation? Madness? Political beef? A cry for attention? What is to blame? Society? Demagoguery? Legislative torpor? The internet? Then, prompted by last year’s horrible Charleston church shooting, I felt compelled to republish a revised version of that piece.

In the intro to that revised posting, I noted an unsettling similarity between something Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump said in his official campaign kickoff speech to what the Charleston shooter had allegedly said to his victims just one day later:

“When Mexico sends its people (to America), they are not sending their best… (Mexican immigrants) are bringing drugs and they are bringing crime, and they’re rapists.”

 -from Donald Trump’s speech announcing his presidential bid, June 16, 2015

“(African-Americans) rape our women and you’re taking over our country.”

-Charleston shooter’s statement to his victims before opening fire, June 17, 2015

Was it coincidence, or was it cause-and-effect? I drew no conclusions then, nor do I now. At any rate, my point is…one of the films I analyzed in the post was The Manchurian Candidate, which is now available in a newly restored 4K Blu-ray edition from Criterion.

The story is set after the Korean War. Frank Sinatra stars as former POW Major Bennett Marco. Marco and his platoon were captured by the Soviets and transported to Manchuria for a period, then released. As a consequence, Marco suffers from (what we would now call) PTSD, in the form of recurring nightmares.

Marco’s memories of the captivity are hazy; but he suspects his dreams hold the key. His suspicions are confirmed when he hears from several fellow POWs, who all share very  specific and disconcerting details in their dreams involving the platoon’s sergeant, Raymond Shaw. As the mystery unfolds, a byzantine conspiracy is uncovered, involving brainwashing, subterfuge and assassination.

I’ve watched this film maybe 9 or 10 times over the years, and I must say that it’s held up remarkably well, despite a few dated trappings. It works on a number of levels; as a conspiracy thriller, political satire, and a perverse family melodrama. Interestingly, each time I revisit, it strikes me more and more as a black comedy; which could be attributable to its prescient nature (perhaps the political reality has finally caught up with its more far-fetched elements…which now makes it a closer cousin to Dr. Strangelove and Network).

Indeed, I found myself laughing out loud at lines like “Yak dung…tastes good, like a cigarette should!” and “…having been relieved of those uniquely American symptoms of guilt and fear, he cannot possibly give himself away” (both delivered by scene-stealer Khigh Dhiegh, as the droll Manchurian brainwashing expert). Sinatra is assigned one of the most quotable lines: “Mr. Secretary-I’m kinda new at this job, but I don’t think it’s good public relations to talk that way to a United States senator…even if he is an idiot.” The intelligent screenplay was adapted from Richard Condon’s novel by George Axelrod.

Good performances abound, but Lansbury is the standout, with a magnificent turn as one of cinema’s greatest heavies. Harvey is heartbreaking as the tortured Raymond. Sinatra is, well, Sinatra (i.e. uneven). It’s been well-documented that he was never a fan of doing multiple takes; frankly it shows and works against him here, particularly whenever he lapses into that Rat Pack patois (he recounts a dream as “one swinger of a nightmare”). It’s not enough to sink the film, but those moments do take Sinatra out of his character.

As usual, Criterion packs in some worthwhile extras. They port over the 1997 commentary track by the director that was done for the original MGM DVD release, as well as an 8-minute round-table between Frankenheimer, screenwriter Axelrod and Sinatra that was recorded in 1987. New supplements exclusive to this edition include a recent 11-minute interview with Lansbury (engaging as ever at 89), a 21-minute interview with historian Susan Carruthers, and an enlightening 16-minute appreciation by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, who gleans a few subtexts I’ve never picked up on.

That’s one mark of a truly great film-the more times you watch it, the more you’ll see.

Spy vs. acronym: Spectre **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 7, 2015)

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In my review of Sam Mendes’ 2012 James Bond adventure, Skyfall, I wrote:

I’m sure you’ve heard the old chestnut about cockroaches and Cher surviving the Apocalypse? As the James Bond movie franchise celebrates its 50th year […] you might as well add “007” to that short list of indestructible life forms. […] Love him or hate him, it’s a fact of life that as long as he continues to lay those gold-painted eggs for the studio execs, agent 007 is here to stay.

Mendes set the bar pretty high with his first stab at the venerable legacy; in fact I was impressed enough with his Bond installment to include it in my top 10 films of 2012 list. Unfortunately, as it turns out, Mendes may have set the bar too high; or perhaps by saying “yes” to Spectre (Bond #24, if you’re counting) he baited the sophomore curse. Whatever the reason, I found 007’s new outing to be a bit shaky, and not quite so stirring.

Unless you live in a cave, I’m sure you’re aware that Daniel Craig is back on board, as are Skyfall screenwriters John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, joined this time out by Jez Butterworth, who co-scripted the 2010 political thriller Fair Game (my review). The story picks up with Bond still grieving the loss of his mentor, M (Judi Dench). As foreshadowed in the previous installment, 007 now answers to a freshly anointed “M” (Ray Fiennes), with whom he is already at loggerheads (as we know, he’s a great agent in the field, but has “issues” with authority figures). An enigmatic “last request” from the late M sends Bond gallivanting off to Mexico City for an unauthorized hit job. This sets up the traditional jaw-dropping action sequence opener, which doesn’t disappoint (…yet).

The plot gets a little murky from here; Bond next heads for Rome, long enough to, erm, pump the lovely widow (Monica Bellucci) of a nefarious hit man for information regarding a shadowy international cabal of assassins, spies, terrorists, extortionists, gypsies, tramps and thieves who generally engage in Very Bad Things, and crash one of their board meetings…where he is recognized and called out by its CEO (Christoph Waltz) and subsequently run out of town and dogged all over Europe and North Africa by a hulking henchman named Hinx (Dave Bautista). He is soon joined on his escapade by the lovely daughter (Lea Seydoux) of yet another recently departed nefarious hit man.

Back in London, M is embroiled in an interagency scuffle with (to my recollection) a new character in the Bond canon, “C” (Andrew Scott). “C” is the type that our friends across the pond might refer to as a “smug git”. He views M and his agents as anachronisms; much too “analog” in an age where there are so many high-tech surveillance/operational alternatives (you get the impression that this guy would feel right at home with the NSA).

One of the main problems with the film is that it never quite gels for either of these two distinct narratives; when Bond’s exploits in the field and M’s political woes back at the home office do finally converge, it feels tricksy and false in a curiously rushed third act.

It frequently seems as if this film wasn’t being directed by a “person”, but rather by an evenly divided focus group of Bond fans; half of them the adrenaline junkies who really dig the gadgets and the babes and the chase scenes and the shit blowing up, and the other half (like yours truly) who have applauded Bond 2.0’s sense of grittiness, intrigue, and character development that (arguably) flirts more with John Le Carre than Ian Fleming.

But by trying too hard to please everyone, you end up with both sides getting short shrift. The action fans will probably start looking at their watches every time the story moves back to HQ (I couldn’t help noticing that many people at the full house promo screening I attended chose those moments to take their restroom breaks), and those longing for a bit more complexity may view the action pieces as distracting and perfunctory this time out.

Ultimately, Spectre plays more like a “greatest hits” collection than a brand new album.

Speaking of which…Sam Smith is obviously a talented fellow and has some great pipes, but “Writing’s on the Wall” has got to be, hands down, the most ponderous and overwrought Bond theme of all time. It goes on longer than the Old Testament. Seriously:

If you managed to make it through that entire video, please accept my condolences. You deserve a palette cleanser now, so here are my picks for the Top 5 Bond movie themes:

“A View to a Kill”performed by Duran Duran

“For Your Eyes Only”performed by Sheena Easton

“Goldfinger”performed by Shirley Bassey

“Live and Let Die”performed by Paul McCartney

“You Only Live Twice”performed by Nancy Sinatra

A sad sequel: The American Assassin on Film II

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 20, 2015)

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“When Mexico sends its people (to America), they are not sending their best… (Mexican immigrants) are bringing drugs and they are bringing crime, and they’re rapists.”

 -from Donald Trump’s speech announcing his presidential bid, June 16, 2015

“(African-Americans) rape our women and you’re taking over our country.”

-Charleston shooter’s statement to his victims before opening fire, June 17, 2015

 We don’t have all the facts, but we do know that, once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun.”

-from President Obama’s speech on the Charleston Church shooting, June 18, 2015

“I’m just saying…”

-the author of this post, just now.

Back in January of 2011, in my armchair psychologist’s attempt to answer “Why?” regarding yet another mass shooting, I explored the pathology of the perversely “All-American” phenomenon known as the “lone gunman” via what morphed into a rather comprehensive (wordy?) genre study I dubbed “The American Assassin on Film”.

In the piece, I posed some questions. What is the motivation? Madness? Political beef? A cry for attention? What (beside the perp) is to blame? Systemic racism? Society? Demagoguery? Legislative torpor? The internet? At any rate, in the wake of the latest in this never-ending series of horrific incidents, I feel compelled (sfx *world-weary sigh*) to republish that essay (with a few revisions and additions), just for the sake of my own sanity…and possibly yours.

(The original version of the following essay was posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo January 15, 2011, in reaction to the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords on January 8, 2011)

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I need some attention;  I shoot into the light  

 –from “Family Snapshot” by Peter Gabriel

 Although the senseless massacre in Tucson last Saturday that snuffed out six lives and left a congresswoman gravely wounded is still too recent to fully process, I think that it is safe to say that a Pandora’s Box full of peculiarly “American” issues have tumbled out in its wake: the politics of hate, the worship of guns, and the susceptibility of mentally unstable and/or socially isolated individuals to become even more so as the culture steers more toward being “plugged-in”, rather than cultivating meaningful, face-to-face human contact.

The irony of this situation, of course, is that by all accounts, Representative Giffords is a dedicated public servant who thrives on cultivating meaningful, face-to-face human contact with constituents; her would-be assassin, on the other hand, is a person who had become withdrawn from friends and family, living in an increasingly myopic universe of odd obsessions and posting incoherent ramblings on his personal web pages. While many of us in the blogosphere (including this writer) admittedly could easily be accused of living in a myopic universe of odd obsessions and authoring incoherent posts-I think there is an infinitesimally microscopic possibility that I would ever go on a shooting rampage (I don’t own any weapons, nor have I ever felt the urge to pick one up).

This prompts a question-what is it, exactly that possesses a person to commit such an act-specifically upon a politician or similarly high-profile public figure? Political extremism? Narcissism? Insanity? One from column “a” and one from column “b”? And even more specifically, why have a disproportionate number of these acts over the last 150 years or so appear to have taken place right here in the good old United States of America, home of the free, land of the brave? Digby blogged earlier this week about Anderson Cooper’s interview with Bill Maher on his AC360 news magazine. Maher made this observation:

“This is the only country in the world that shoots its leaders at the rate that we do. The last time I think a leader was shot in Britain was 1812. Canada has had 15 or 16 prime ministers. How many have been shot? Zero. (America is) a very well-armed country…with a lot of nutty people. And that’s a very bad combination.”

An astute observation, I might add. But Maher’s statement can also be read as an oversimplification, which leaves a fair amount of unanswered questions hanging in the air. I don’t pretend to be an expert on such issues-that’s why I’m just the movie guy around here, and not one of the highly respected political pundits who 99.999% of the visitors to this site are here to read and engage in intelligent discourse with.

That being said, I will level with you and admit that it’s been very difficult for me to take my “job” as the resident movie critic very seriously since last weekend. I have found this event to be profoundly disturbing, and it gives me a very bad feeling about where this country is headed. Is this the beginning of the end of the American political system as we know it, or, or we are smart enough to use this as a teachable moment, a catalyst for a new age of enlightenment? It’s up to us. And if that particular concern trumps me pretending to care about how faithful the new Green Hornet film is to the ethos of the old TV show, so be it.

There’s an old adage says, “Write about what you know.” So I’ll climb off the soapbox now and go to my “safe place”, which is where I am most comfortable. Since I truly am struggling to make sense of this whole thing, or to at least come to an understanding of how “we” have reached this point, I thought I would use a touchstone I can easily relate to-movies. That is because when you focus on films within a specific genre, released over your lifetime (in my case, fifty-odd years) hopefully you can get a picture of where we used to be, in relation to where we are now, and maybe even figure out how we got there.

With the exception of The Conspirator (my review) I can’t recall any films that offer significant character studies of the assassins responsible for the deaths of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield or McKinley.

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So for the purpose of this study, I will start with a relatively obscure low-budget noir from 1954 called Suddenly, directed by Lewis Allen. Frank Sinatra is surprisingly effective as the cold-blooded leader of a three-man hit team who are hired to assassinate the president during a scheduled whistle-stop at a sleepy California town. They commandeer a family’s home that affords them a clear shot. The film is primarily played as a hostage drama. Here, the shooter’s motives are financial, not political (“Don’t hand me that politics jazz-that’s not my bag!” Sinatra snarls after he’s accused of being “an enemy agent” by one of his hostages).

Some aspects of the story are eerily prescient of President Kennedy’s assassination 9 years later; Sinatra’s character is an ex-military sharpshooter, zeroes down on his target from a high window, and utilizes a rifle of European-make (there have been a few unsubstantiated claims over the years in various JFK conspiracy books that Lee Harvey Oswald had watched this film with a keen interest). Richard Sale’s script also drops in a perfunctory nod or two to the then-contemporaneous McCarthy era (one hostage speculates that the hit men are “commies”).

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There’s certainly more than just a perfunctory nod to Red hysteria in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 cold war paranoia fest, The Manchurian Candidate, which was the last assassination thriller of note released prior to the zeitgeist-shattering horror of President Kennedy’s murder. Oddly enough, Sinatra was involved in this project as well.

Sinatra plays a Korean War veteran who reaches out to help an old Army buddy he served with (Laurence Harvey). Harvey is on the verge of a meltdown, triggered by recurring nightmares about his war experiences. Sinatra’s character has been suffering the same malady (which today would be readily identified as PTSD), although not quite as intensely (both men had been held as POWs by the North Koreans). Once it dawns on Sinatra that they may have been brainwashed during captivity for very sinister purposes all hell breaks loose. In this narrative (based on novelist Richard Condon’s thriller) the assassin is posited as an unwitting dupe of a decidedly “un-American” political ideology; a domestic terrorist programmed by his Communist puppet masters to kill on command.

After the events of November 22, 1963, Hollywood took a decade-long hiatus from the genre; it seemed nobody wanted to “go there”. But after Americans had mulled a few years in the sociopolitical turbulence of the mid-to-late 1960s (including the double whammy of losing Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King to bullets in 1968), a new cycle of more cynical and byzantine conspiracy thrillers began to crop up (surely exacerbated even further by Watergate).

The most significant shift in the meme was to move away from the concept of the assassin as a dupe or an operative of a “foreign” (i.e., “anti-American”) ideology; some films postulated that shadowy cabals of businessmen and/or members of the government were capable of such machinations. The rise of the JFK conspiracy cult (and the cottage industry it created) was probably a factor as well.

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One of the earliest examples of this new sub-genre was the 1973 film, Executive Action, directed by David Miller, and starring Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan. Dalton Trumbo (famously blacklisted back in the 50s) adapted the screenplay from a story by Donald Freed and Mark Lane. The narrative behind this speculative thriller about the JFK assassination, which offers a possible scenario that a consortium comprised of hard right pols, powerful businessmen and disgruntled members of the clandestine community were responsible, is more intriguing than the film itself (which is flat and very talky), but the filmmakers at least deserve credit for being the first ones to “go there”. The film was a flop at the time, but has become a cult item; as such, it is more of a curio than a classic.

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1974 was the banner year, with two outstanding offerings from two significant directors-The Conversation, written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and The Parallax View, directed by Alan J. Pakula and adapted by David Giler, Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and Robert Towne from Loren Singer’s novel. The Conversation does not involve a “political” assassination, but does share crucial themes with other films here (it was also an obvious influence on Brian De Palma’s 1981 thriller, Blow Out, in which a movie sound man inadvertently captures a recording of a car “accident” that may have actually been a political assassination).

Gene Hackman leads a fine cast as a free-lance surveillance expert who begins to obsess that a conversation he captured between a man and a woman in San Francisco’s Union Square for one of his clients is going to directly lead to the untimely deaths of his subjects. Although the story is essentially an intimate character study, set against a backdrop of corporate intrigue, the dark atmosphere of paranoia, mistrust and betrayal that permeates the film mirrors the political climate of the era (particularly in regards to its timely proximity to the breaking of the Watergate scandal).

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The Parallax View, on the other hand, takes the concept of the dark corporate cabal one step further, positing political assassination as a viable and sustainable capitalist venture, provided that you can perfect a discreet and reliable algorithm for screening and recruiting the right “employees” (and what could be more “American” than that?).

Warren Beatty stars as a maverick print journalist investigating a suspicious string of untimely demises that befall witnesses to a U.S. senator’s assassination in a restaurant atop Seattle’s Space Needle. The trail leads him to a shadowy organization called the Parallax Corporation. There are allusions to the JFK assassination; it uses the “assassin as patsy” scenario, closing with a slow, ominous zoom out on a panel of men bearing a striking resemblance to the Warren Commission, sitting in a dark chamber solemnly reciting their “conclusive” findings on what has transpired (although we know better).

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There are two more significant films in this cycle worth a mention-Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1975) and William Richert’s Winter Kills (1979). Pollack’s film, which was adapted by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and David Rayfiel from James Grady’s novel “Six Days of the Condor”, puts a unique twist on the idea of a government-sanctioned assassination; here, you have members of the U.S. clandestine community burning up your tax dollars to scheme against other members of the U.S. clandestine community (there’s no honor among conspirators, apparently). Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson and Max von Sydow head an excellent cast. The film conveys the same dark atmosphere of dread that infuses The Conversation and The Parallax View.

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Winter Kills is arguably the most oddball entry in the cycle; Richert adapted his screenplay from Richard Condon’s book (remember that Condon also wrote the source novel for The Manchurian Candidate).

Jeff Bridges stars as the half-brother of an assassinated president. After bearing witness to the deathbed confession of a man claiming to be a heretofore unknown “second gunman”, he reluctantly becomes involved in reopening the investigation years after the matter was supposedly put to rest.

The film is an uneven affair (it can’t settle on whether it is a genuine conspiracy thriller, or a self-conscious parody of byzantine conspiracy thrillers) but is eminently watchable, mostly thanks to the interestingly diverse cast. John Huston chews major scenery as Bridges’ father (a Joseph Kennedy Sr. type). Also on hand are Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Sterling Hayden, Ralph Meeker, Toshiro Mifune, Richard Boone, and Elizabeth Taylor.

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The obvious bookend to this particular cycle is Oliver Stone’s controversial 1991 thriller, JFK, in which Gary Oldman gives a suitably twitchy performance as Lee Harvey Oswald. However, within the context of Stone’s film, to say that we have a definitive portrait of JFK’s assassin is difficult, because, not unlike Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Hercule Poirot, Stone suspects no one…and everyone.

The most misunderstood aspect of the film, I think, is that Stone is not favoring any particular prevalent narrative. Those who have criticized the approach seem to have missed the fact that Stone himself stated from the get-go that his goal was to provide a “counter myth” to the “official” conclusion of the Warren Commission, which has become known as the “lone gunman” theory.

It is a testament to Stone’s skills as a consummate filmmaker that the narrative he presents appears so seamless and dynamic, when in fact he is simultaneously mashing up at least a dozen possible scenarios. The message is right there in the script, when Donald Sutherland’s “Mr. X” advises Kevin Costner (as New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison) “Oh, don’t take my word for it. Don’t believe me. Do your own work…your own thinking.”

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There was a mini-“revival” of the cycle during the 2000s, in the form of Niels Mueller’s 2004 true crime drama, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, and Gabriel Range’s 2006 “speculative thriller”, Death of a President (my review).

The Assassination of Richard Nixon, based on thwarted assassin Samuel Byck’s bizarre scheme to kill President Nixon in 1974, is the superior of the two films; but their respective “lone gunmen” share a similar pathology. Nixon’s would-be assassin Byck (Sean Penn) is the classic angry white male; a loser in marriage and career who cracks up and holds the President responsible for his own failures.

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*SPOILER AHEAD* In Death of a President, the (fictional) assassin of President George W. Bush (a troubled 1991 Gulf War vet who lost his son in the second Iraq war) also holds the POTUS responsible for his personal problems (interestingly, this character is African-American; an anomaly within the typical American political assassin profile).

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Even though it doesn’t fit quite so neatly into the “political assassination” category, no examination of the genre would be complete without a mention of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). In my review of the 2008 film, The Killing of John Lennon, I wrote:

There is a particularly creepy and chilling moment of “art-imitating-life-imitating-art-imitating life” in writer-director Andrew Piddington’s film, The Killing of John Lennon, where the actor portraying the ex-Beatles’ stalker-murderer deadpans in the voice over:

“I don’t believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention, I believe that one should become a person like other people.”

 Anyone who has seen Scorsese and Shrader’s Taxi Driver will instantly attribute that line to the fictional Travis Bickle, an alienated, psychotic loner and would be assassin who stalks a political candidate around New York City. Bickle’s ramblings in that film were based on the diary of Arthur Bremer, the real-life nutball who grievously wounded presidential candidate George Wallace in a 1972 assassination attempt. Although Mark David Chapman’s fellow loon-in-arms John Hinckley would extrapolate even further on the Taxi Driver obsession in his attempt on President Reagan’s life in 1981, it’s still an unnerving epiphany in Piddington’s film, an eerie and compelling portrait of Chapman’s descent into alienation, madness and the inexplicable murder of a beloved music icon.

So what is it that (the fictional) Travis Bickle, and real-life stalkers Arthur Bremer, Mark David Chapman, John Hinckley (and possibly, the Tucson shooter) all have in common? They represent a “new” breed of American assassin. They aren’t rogue members of the government’s clandestine community, “patsies” for some deeper conspiracy, or operatives acting at the behest of dark corporate cabals. And although their targets are in most cases political figures, their motives don’t necessarily appear to be 100% political in nature.

More often than not, they are disenfranchised “loners”, either by choice or precipitated by some kind of mental disturbance. Many of them fit the quintessential “angry white male” profile; impotent with rage at some perceived persecution (or betrayal) by specific people, ethnic groups, or society in general. One thing we do know for sure, and the one thing they all share as U.S. citizens, is that they had no problem getting their hands on a firearm. I know-“Guns don’t kill people. People do.” So what about that other issue that has come up-the possibility that inflammatory vitriol from high-profile demagogues can trigger homicidal rage from someone who is already starting to crack?

There are at least two films that have breached this scenario, if perhaps only tangentially-Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976) and Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio (1988).

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*SPOILERS AHEAD*   In Network, written by the late great Paddy Chayefsky, respected news anchor Howard Beale has a complete mental meltdown on air, announcing his plan to commit public suicide, on camera, in an upcoming newscast. When the following evening’s newscast attracts an unprecedented number of viewers, some of the more unscrupulous programmers and marketers at the network smell a potential cash cow, and decide to let Beale rant away in front of the cameras to his heart’s content, reinventing him as a “mad prophet of the airwaves” and giving him a nightly prime time slot.

Eventually, some of the truthiness in his nightly “news sermons” hits a little too close to home regarding some secret business dealings that the network has with some Arab investors, and it is decided that his program needs to be cancelled (with extreme prejudice). And besides, his ratings are slipping, anyway. So the network hires a team of hit men to assassinate him on air. Obviously, this film is satirical in nature, through and through, but the idea of a media demagogue precipitating his own demise by hammering away with inflammatory on-air rants night after night is, in a fashion, oddly prescient of our current political climate.

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Talk Radio, on the other hand, does have some grounding in reality, because its screenplay (by Stone and Eric Bogosian) is based on a play (co-written by Bogosian and Tad Savinar), which itself was based on a non-fiction book (by Stephan Singular) about Denver talk show host Alan Berg, who was ambushed and shot to death in his driveway by members of a white nationalist fringe group in 1984. Berg was an outspoken liberal, who frequently targeted neo-Nazis and white supremacists in his on-air rants. Bogosian reprises his stage role as “shock jock” Barry Champlain, who meets with the same fate.

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Finally, there is one more film that sort of squeaks into this category-Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991). Jeff Bridges plays a successful late night radio talk show host whose career literally crashes overnight after a disturbed fan goes on a murderous shooting spree at an upscale restaurant after he hears the DJ exclaim, “They must be stopped before it’s too late…it’s us or them!” as part of a (tongue-in-cheek) anti-yuppie diatribe on his show. One can’t help but be reminded of the Limbaugh apologists who always attempt to douse any criticism of his vile hate rhetoric with the tired old “He’s just an entertainer!” meme.

So what can we learn about last Saturday’s shooting by analyzing these particular films, if anything? Frankly, I don’t feel any more enlightened about the “whys” behind this senseless violence than I did when I started this exercise. Perhaps Bill Maher was not “oversimplifying”, after all, as I postulated earlier. Maybe the equation really is as simple as “A well armed country + A lot of nutty people = A bad combination”. Is change even possible? Maybe we’re already on the right path by continuing to engage in the dialogue we’re engaged in and asking the questions we’re asking. Then again…like the man said: “Don’t take my word for it. Don’t believe me. Do your own work…your own thinking.”

SIFF 2015: The Forecaster ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 23, 2015)

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There’s a conspiracy nut axiom that “everything is rigged”. Turns out it’s not just paranoia…it’s a fact. At least that’s according to this absorbing documentary from German filmmaker Marcus Vetter, profiling economic “forecaster” Martin Armstrong. In the late 70s, Armstrong formulated a predictive algorithm (“The Economic Confidence Model”) that proved so accurate at prophesying global financial crashes and armed conflicts, that a shadowy cabal of everyone from his Wall Street competitors to the CIA made Wile E. Coyote-worthy attempts for years to get their hands on that formula.

And once Armstrong told the CIA to “fuck off”, he put himself on a path that culminated in serving a 12-year prison sentence for what the FBI called a “3 billion dollar Ponzi scheme”. Funny thing, no evidence was ever produced, nor was any judgement passed (most of the time he served was for “civil contempt”…for not giving up that coveted formula, which the FBI eventually snagged when they seized his assets). Another funny thing…Armstrong’s formula solidly backs up his contention that it’s the world’s governments running the biggest Ponzi schemes…again and again, all throughout history.

An eye-opener!