Category Archives: Conspiracy a-go-go

On mad kings, Mueller’s report, and Altman’s Secret Honor

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 20, 2019)

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It’s been déjà vu all over again this week. In my 2008 review of Frost/Nixon, I wrote:

There’s an old theatrical performer’s axiom that goes “Always leave ‘em wanting more.” In August of 1974, President Richard Nixon made his Watergate-weary exit from the American political stage with a nationally televised resignation soliloquy and left ‘em wanting more…answers. Any immediate hopes for an expository epilogue to this 5-year long usurpation of the Constitution and Shakespearean tragedy were abruptly dashed one month later when President Gerald Ford granted him a full pardon. Like King Lear, the mad leader slunk back to his castle by the sea and out of public view. […]

[Actor Frank Langella] uncannily captures the essence of Nixon’s contradictions and complexities; the supreme intelligence, the grandiose pomposity and the congenital craftiness, all corroded by the insidious paranoia that eventually consumed his soul, and by turn, the soul of the nation.

Speaking of the devil, on Sunday CNN premiered the concluding episode of Tricky Dick, a 4-part docuseries about Nixon’s life and political career (recommended-CNN always repeats broadcasts, so don’t despair if you missed it first time around).

It was followed by an hour-long panel discussion about the lessons learned, hosted by Anderson Cooper and featuring journalist Carl Bernstein (who famously broke the Watergate story for the Washington Post with Bob Woodward), former Nixon White House lawyer John Dean, presidential historian Timothy Naftali and former Watergate Special Prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste. When Cooper asked him about the legacy of Watergate, Ben-Veniste said:

“As I said in my book, written shortly after I left the office [as Special Prosecutor] …For the future, the lessons of Watergate are wonderful, in that the system worked–in this circumstance…but they almost didn’t work. For the future, does it take something more than what we have experienced in Watergate [regarding] the type of evidence: demonstrative, incredibly powerful evidence of criminal wrongdoing for a President of the United States to be put in a position of either resigning, or certainly [being] impeached and convicted?”

That was a loaded question, coming as it did 4 days prior to the official (belated) release of the (almost) full Mueller report to the United States Congress and the American people. Of course, everyone on that panel was fully aware that the exhaustive 2-year investigation looking into possible foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election, possible collusion with the Trump campaign, and possible obstruction of justice by Trump and/or members of his administration after the fact was about to come to a head.

Carl Bernstein was more succinct, offering this take:

“The system worked in Watergate. But it worked ultimately because there was a ‘smoking gun tape’. It’s very questionable whether the system would have worked without that gun.”

Bernstein was referring to Nixon’s self-incriminating statements regarding a coverup and obstruction of justice…captured for posterity via a secret recording system the President himself had arranged to be set up in order to document all his Oval Office conversations.

And so here we are, 45 years after Nixon resigned, and the media, members of Congress and concerned citizens find themselves poring over the 400 pages of the Mueller Report (replete with “limited” redactions) as they ask themselves the other $64,000 question:

Is there a “smoking gun” buried somewhere in here…or a reasonable facsimile thereof?

At least one Congressperson has stepped up to the plate and said (in so many words) “Smoking gun?! Try a field howitzer!” Taking an extraordinarily fearless and principled stance amid the disappointing backpedaling and hand-wringing angst emanating from many of her colleagues, senator and presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren was interviewed Friday night by Rachael Maddow on MSNBC, and did not mince any words:

 “This is about point of principle […] This isn’t about politics. This isn’t even specifically about Donald Trump himself. It is about what a President of the United States should be able to do and about the role of Congress is in saying: ‘No. A president does not get to come in and stop an investigation about a foreign power that attacked this country, or an investigation about his own wrongdoing.’ Equal justice under law, no one is above the law; and that includes the President of the United States. It is the constitutional responsibility of Congress to follow through on that. […]

Because it matters, not just for this president, it matters for the next president, and the next president after that, and the next president after that. I get it…in dictatorships, the government coalesces around one person in the middle and does everything to protect that one person. But that’s not where we live. We live in a democracy, and it is controlled by a constitution. And the way we make that democracy work is with checks and balances. And a president who says, “I don’t have to follow the law, and nobody can touch me on criminal acts” -that’s not right.

The Constitution says that the House and the Senate can do this. […] And every member of the House, and every member of the Senate should be called on to vote: Do you believe that constitutes an impeachable offense? I do believe that the evidence is just overwhelming that Donald Trump has committed these offenses, and that means that we should open proceedings in the House. And then the House can take a vote.”

Nixon famously stated in the David Frost interviews, “I’m saying that when the president does it…it’s not illegal.” Mind you, he made that statement several years after he had resigned from the office of the president in shame, ending a decades-long political career in the most humiliating manner imaginable. Yet he never publicly apologized for any of the questionable actions he engaged in while serving as the President of the United States.

If that pathology reminds you of somebody else…perhaps a specific “somebody” currently occupying the White House, you will not be surprised to learn that there is a disturbingly prescient link between Richard M. Nixon and Donald J. Trump, in the form of this letter:

 

December 21, 1987

Dear Donald,

I did not see the program, but Mrs. Nixon told me you were great on the Donahue show.

As you can imagine, she is an expert in politics, and she predicts that whenever you decide to run for office you will be a winner!

With warm regards,

Sincerely,

(signed) Richard M. Nixon

 

Nightmare fuel.

How ironic that Nixon, the man who many historians posit lost his 1960 presidential bid because he was not as telegenic as JFK and never did get the hang of the medium (even once he eventually became the leader of the free world) was nonetheless canny enough to recognize a master manipulator of the idiot box when his wife saw Trump on a TV show.

Howard Beale: “Why me?”

Arthur Jensen: “Because you’re on television, dummy.”

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Which brings me to why I felt this was the perfect week to pull out my dusty DVD of Robert Altman’s brilliant (and underappreciated) 1984 film adaptation of Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone’s one-man play Secret Honor (****) to take it for a spin on current events.

Originally titled as “Secret Honor: The Last Testament of Richard M. Nixon” when it opened in 1983 at Los Angeles Actors’ Theater, the film is a fictional monologue by Nixon, set in his post-presidential New Jersey office. Part confessional, part autobiographical, and (large) part batshit-crazy postcards from the edge rant, it’s an astonishing piece of writing; a pitch-perfect 90-minute distillation of Nixon’s dichotomy.

Philip Baker Hall (most recognizable from the Paul Thomas Anderson films Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia) pulls out all the stops in a tour-de-force turn reprising his stage role.

His Nixon is at once darkly brooding and explosively feral, pacing his claustrophobic office like a caged animal, swigging Chivas Regal and alternately pleading his “case” before an unseen Court of Public Opinion and howling at the moon (not dissimilar to how late night TV satirists envision Donald Trump pacing the Oval Office, wolfing cheeseburgers and unleashing Tweet storms from the Id).

Nixon, who is taping his monologue on a cassette recorder (in a blackly comic reference to his purported technical ineptitude, he spends the first several minutes of the film fumbling and cursing while trying to figure out how to work it) largely speaks in the first person, but oddly switches to the third at times, referring to his “client” whenever he addresses “your honor” (it’s no secret Trump often refers to himself in the third person).

The word salad soliloquies Nixon utters as he prowls the long dark night of his soul in arctic desolation share spooky parallels with the word salad soliloquies that Trump bellows as he prowls podiums in the full light of day at his public rallies.

Nixon frequently rants at his “enemies”. He is particularly obsessed with “those goddam Kennedys”. This is one of the more revealing insights into Nixon’s psychology contained in Freed and Stone’s screenplay; Nixon, ever self-conscious about his modest Quaker roots, is obviously both resentful and envious of the Kennedys’ privileged patrician upbringing, Ivy League education, movie-star charisma, and physical attractiveness.

He also lights into the other usual suspects in his orbit: Henry Kissinger, President Eisenhower, liberals, “East coast shits”, Jews, the FBI, and the media (you know…the “deep state” and “fake news”).

In rare moments of lucidity, he sadly recalls the untimely deaths of his brothers (Arthur, who died in 1925 at age 7, and Harold, who died in 1933 at age 23, both from TB) and speaks tenderly to the portrait of his late mother (although it gets weird when he refers to himself as her “loving dog”…and promptly begins to bark).

Hall is mesmerizing; while he doesn’t physically resemble Nixon, he so expertly captures his essence that by the end of the piece, he is virtually indistinguishable from the real item. It takes substantial acting chops to carry an entire film; Hall has got them in spades.

Film adaptations of stage plays can be problematic, especially in a chamber piece. But since this is, after all, Robert Altman…not to worry. He cleverly utilizes the limited props to his full advantage; for example, the four CCTV monitors in the office pull double duty as both a metaphor for Nixon’s paranoia and a hall of mirrors representing his multiple personalities (shades of the symbology in Pete Townshend’s rock opera Quadrophenia).

It also helps that Hall’s performance is anything but static; he moves relentlessly about the set (in a supplemental interview on the Criterion DVD, Hall recalls the original running time of the play as 2 ½ hours…I can’t begin to imagine the mental and physical stamina required to deliver a performance of that intensity night after night). DP Pierre Mignot deserves major kudos for his fluid tracking shots.

Watching the film again in context of all the drama and angst surrounding the release of the Mueller report, I was struck by both its timelessness as a cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked power and corruption, and its timeliness as a reminder of what democracy looks like at its lowest ebb-which is where we may be now. Time to wake up.

As Oliver Stone reminded us in the closing credits of JFK: What is past is prologue.

Nursery crimes: Three Identical Strangers (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 28, 2018)

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From whence it follows, that one thing cannot have two beginnings of existence, nor two things one beginning; it being impossible for two things of the same kind to be or exist in the same instant, in the very same place; or one or the same thing in different places.

-John Locke, from An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

It’s a well-known secret that Elvis Presley had a stillborn twin brother. As biographers have noted, Jesse Garon Presley nonetheless remained “with” Elvis until his own death 42 years later. Family and friends recounted that during times of stress or bouts of depression, it was not unusual for him to have long conversations with his “missing half.”

There is one inarguable bond between multiple birth siblings. First and foremost, there is an empirically evident biological closeness, particularly with identical siblings, who literally come from the same zygote and thereby share 100% of its genetic material.

However, once you push beyond obvious similarities like physical resemblance and shared mannerisms, you quickly enter the realm of the theoretical. For example, do some (like Elvis) have a kind of unbreakable “psychic” connection from the womb until death? Are some “pre-programmed” by nature to share the same likes, dislikes, aesthetic taste, etc.-even after they’ve left the nest and gone their separate ways to live their adult lives?

Consider the long strange trip undertaken by Robert Shafran, Edward Galland, and David Kellman, three young men who grew up in separate families within the same 100-mile radius yet were blissfully unaware up until the age of 19 that they were identical triplets.

As recalled by one of the brothers in British filmmaker Tim Wardle’s mind-blowing documentary Three Identical Strangers, it was initially a case of random chance back in 1980 that led him to discover that he had a twin brother. However, the “twins” would not be such for very long; once the media picked up on this irresistible human-interest story, it was but days before kismet put the cap on a perfect hat trick: for then there were three.

The triplets were given up at birth in 1961 by their single mother. Separated immediately, they were placed with three families through the auspices of a New York City adoption agency. While it is not unusual for the identity of the biological parents to be withheld, it was somewhat unusual in this case that (for reasons unveiled as the film unfolds) even the three sets of adoptive parents were not told that their respective adoptees had siblings.

Interestingly, the families the three were placed with were socioeconomically disparate to a fault: one blue collar, one middle class, and the other well-moneyed. Even more remarkable then that the 19-year-old triplets not only bonded so quickly but discovered that they had grown up sharing many of the same predilections; ranging from a love of wrestling, smoking Marlboro cigarettes, and even being attracted to the same type of woman.

Blessed with strapping good looks and exuding enough positive, goofy energy to power a small city whenever they were in the same room together, it’s hardly surprising that they became instant media darlings (archival footage demonstrates them working their charm offensive on Tom Brokaw, Phil Donahue and Paula Zahn).

They were not shy about cashing in on their celebrity; they moved into a N.Y.C. apartment together, eventually opened a SoHo restaurant (“Triplets”) and were feted by the likes of Madonna (who landed them a cameo in Susan Seidelman’s 1985 film Desperately Seeking Susan). Each bro found the love of his life, adding “happily married” to their collective fairy tale.

Their story could’ve (should’ve?) ended there; a perennial feel-good 6 o’clock news kicker if you ever heard one. But that would be assuming that we don’t live in a cruel, unfeeling universe that can randomly taketh away…as casually as it can randomly giveth.

Here’s where my review potentially becomes…complicated. I could tell you what happens next, but then, I’d have to kill you. And I don’t even have your address. Besides, I am a man of peace and don’t own a firearm, so it’s an ineffectual, existential threat…at best.

Here’s what l’ll do for you. If you have no plans to see this film, just go ahead and Google the story (it’s a doozey). But, if you do plan to, and you enjoy documentaries that unfold like the best riveting conspiracy thrillers do, chock full of unexpected twists and turns, I’d recommend that (like me) you go in completely “cold”. Granted, some of those deeper questions vis a vis “psychic connections” and such between identical siblings are not answered, but Wardle’s film does have a lot to say about “nature vs. nurture”, scientific ethics, celebrity culture, and the unshakable bonds of familial love.

SIFF 2018: The African Storm **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018

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Writer-director-producer-star Sylvestre Amoussou’s political satire (a cross between The Mouse That Roared and O Lucky Man!) is set in the imaginary African republic of Tangara. There are no Marvel superheroes in sight, but there is the nation’s forward-thinking President (Amoussou), who issues a bold decree: he is nationalizing all of his country’s traditionally Western-controlled businesses and lucrative diamond-mining operations. Naturally, the various multinational corporations concerned immediately bring in their “fixers”, who employ every dirty trick in the playbook to sow political upheaval, public discord, and outright violence throughout the tiny nation. Undeterred, the President continues to rally, even daring to denounce (gulp) the IMF and The World Bank. Can he pull this off? I really wanted to love this plucky anti-colonial parable, but…it’s overly simplistic, to the point of cringe-worthy audience pandering.

Ich bin ein Netflix-binger: Babylon Berlin (***½) & Mute (*)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 3, 2018)

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How do I describe the genre-defying Netflix series Babylon Berlin?  Does “cop-on-the edge” / conspiracy thriller/ historical drama/ musical-fantasy pique your interest? Nein? How about: The Singing Detective meets Seven Days in May at the corner of Berlin Alexanderplatz and Cabaret? Does that help-or does it at least make your ganglia twitch?

You see, it’s very simple to follow:

It is 1929 Weimar Republic-era Berlin. There are contingents of German Communists, Monarchists, and National Socialists fighting among themselves; meanwhile the German police are investigating contingents of Russian White, Trotskyite, and Bolshevik emigres, who are fighting among themselves. The German police are also investigating a porn film ring…and themselves. There’s an Armenian crime lord with an interesting variety of ways to make you talk.

Nearly everybody is jockeying and scheming and blackmailing each other to get dibs on a train car believed to contain a fortune in gold bars. Oh-and there’s something about the possibility of a military coup, and a magic ring.

There’s actually nothing about a magic ring, but as “Babylon” in the title infers, there’s lots of sex and drugs and Reich ‘n’ roll to hold your interest, should the byzantine political milieu make your eyes glaze over. Truth be told, the politics take a back seat to an array of fascinating characters to follow, led by two terrific lead performances from Volker Bruch and Liv Lisa Fries. Bruch plays vice squad Inspector Rath, a WW1 veteran suffering from PTSD (he keeps ampules of morphine handy for countering “the shakes”).

Rath’s fate becomes significantly intertwined with that of Fries’ character, Charlotte. Charlotte is a “flapper” (she dances a mean Charleston!) who lives with her highly dysfunctional family in the Berlin slums. She scrapes by as best she can while she yearns to one day break the Berlin police department’s glass ceiling by becoming a homicide detective (needless to say, that’s an uphill battle for an ambitious young woman in 1929).

There are nearly as many characters to keep track of as in a Tolstoy novel. However, with the luxury of 16 episodes, most are nicely fleshed out. I do want to mention two more standout performances. First, Peter Kurth’s turn as Chief Inspector Wolter, a complex, morally ambiguous career cop who could have popped right out of a James Ellroy story.

I’ve become an instant fan of Severija Janušauskaitė, as Countess Sorokina, a Mata Hari-like character who spies for the Soviet secret police when she’s not busy performing her drag cabaret act or juggling love affairs with a Trotskyite leader and a right-wing German industrialist. It’s a meaty role, and the Lithuanian actress tackles it with aplomb (speaking of the cabaret acts…Roxy Music fans should be on the lookout for a Bryan Ferry cameo).

It was a bit of a coup for Netflix to secure the domestic broadcast rights (it premiered last October on Germany’s Sky 1 Network). Co-directed and co-written by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, The International, Drei), Achim von Borries, and Hendrik Handloegten, the production is based on the first volume of Volker Kutscher’s “Gereon Rath Mystery Series”.

Babylon Berlin is also said to be the highest-budgeted non-English language TV series to date. The lavish sets, stylish production numbers and large-scale action sequences seem to bear this out, giving the narrative a Dr. Zhivago-style historical sweep.

Still, it’s the intimate moments that are most absorbing. While the viewer never loses sense of the huge sociopolitical upheaval in Germany at the time, the filmmakers wisely remember that whether the story’s characters are good or bad, rich or poor, it’s those teasing glimpses of our shared humanity (flawed or not) that compel us to keep watching.

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Unfortunately, one could say exactly the opposite of Mute, another recent addition to the Netflix catalog: in this case, the story and the character development takes a back seat to the slick, shiny production design. The sci-fi mystery-thriller is the latest feature film from Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie and the director of the 2009 cult favorite Moon).

Oddly enough, this story is also set in Berlin; however we now move forward in time 100 years from the 1920s (give or take a decade or two). In the umpteenth take on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner model, we are presented with an eye-filling cityscape of deco-futurism, replete with flying cars, vaguely punkish fashionistas, and an overdose of neon.

Alexander Skarsgård plays Leo, a (wait for it) mute bartender working at a Berlin strip joint. A brief flashback in the film’s opening attributes his condition to a childhood mishap, in the course of which Leo received a serious throat injury and nearly drowned. Leo is dating one of the waitresses, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). We get the impression right off the bat that Leo may be a little more devoted to the relationship than Naadirah; while she is affectionate, something about her demeanor when she is with Leo seems tentative.

We don’t get much time to mull that over, as Naadirah suddenly and mysteriously disappears. We don’t get much time to mull that over either, because the narrative abruptly shifts to a pair of shifty American surgeons (Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux) who run a black market clinic (most of their clients appear to be mobsters who require the odd slug to be removed, with no questions asked).

The pair are suspiciously reminiscent of Hawkeye and Trapper John in the movie version of M*A*S*H. Not only do they crack wise while cutting into patients, and go by similar nicknames (“Cactus Bill” and “Duck”), but Rudd constantly wears a parka and sports a 3-day growth and 70s-style ‘stache-all clearly modeled on Elliot Gould’s “look” in the aforementioned Altman film.

Frankly, keeping myself amused with playing “spot the influence” was the only thing that kept me from dozing off from that point forward…otherwise, I kept waiting for something to happen. Like a cohesive narrative. The two story lines meander aimlessly until eventually converging in the 3rd act. While it does bring a symmetry to the story, it’s too little, too late.

It’s like Jones was afflicted by ADD while constructing his screenplay (co-written with Michael Robert Johnson). It roars out of the gate like it’s going to be a character study (with no character development), quickly shifts to a mystery (but with no tension or suspense), then toys with Tarantino-esque flourishes (sans any of the flourish).

It is pretty to look at; but great production design alone does not a good story make. Skarsgård is a fine actor (he filled his mantle last year with a Golden Globe, an Emmy, a SAG award, and a Critic’s Choice Award for his performance in HBO’s Big Little Lies), but he is given little to do (much less anything to say, as he is playing a mute) aside from staring into space…and occasionally beating the crap out of someone. The same goes for Rudd and Theroux; both good players, but they’re stuck with a poor script.

It’s puzzling why this has been positioned as “sci-fi”. Aside from the futuristic vision of Berlin, and the flying cars, there’s no sense of integration with the setting-it is simply a backdrop. There is a reference to Jones’ aforementioned Moon, with that film’s star Sam Rockwell doing a cameo (he pops up, in full Moon character, as part of a court hearing playing on the TV in the bar where Skarsgård works). The only good news about Mute is that I didn’t have to buy overpriced stale popcorn, or circle endlessly for a parking space.

Shadowy men on a shadowy planet: Wormwood (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 30, 2017)

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“Sir, I am unaware of any such activity or operation, nor would I be disposed to discuss such an operation if it did in fact exist, sir.” – Captain Willard, from Apocalypse Now

 “Boy…what is it with you people? You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth?” – Joe Turner, from Three Days of the Condor

“Conscience doth make cowards of us all.” – From Hamlet, by William Shakespeare

When you peruse the history of the CIA (wait a sec…did I just hear a “click” on my phone?), at times it is indistinguishable from a campy 60s TV parody of the agency. Was there really a CIA psychotropic drugs research program called “MK-Ultra” (aka “Project Artichoke” and “Project Bluebird”) or am I conflating it with an episode of “Get Smart”?

Unfortunately, the MK-Ultra program would prove all too real for bacteriologist and former military officer Frank Olson. Olson had served as a captain in the Army’s Chemical Corps in the 1940s, which helped him snag a post-service civilian contract job with the Army’s Biological Warfare Laboratories (based out of Fort Detrick, Maryland).

Eventually Olson was recruited by the CIA to work with the agency’s Technical Services Staff, which led to his acquaintance with some of the architects of the aforementioned MK-Ultra research program. While on a retreat with a group of CIA colleagues in November of 1953, Olson was offered a drink that was spiked with an early form of LSD (unbeknownst to him). Just 10 days later, on the night of November 28th, 1953, Olson fell to his death from the 13th floor of a Manhattan hotel.

The NYPD called it suicide. And that was that. At least…that was the story at the time.

There is a lot more to this tale; specifically regarding what ensued during those critical 10 days between Olson’s LSD dosing at the retreat, and the evening that he died at the hotel.

Uncovering the details behind Olson’s demise has become an obsessive 60+ year quest for his son, Eric Olson. Eric’s relentless pursuit of the truth, a long slow white Bronco chase through the dark labyrinth of America’s clandestine community, makes for a hell of an interesting story in and of itself. This was not lost on documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, who delves deep into the mystery with his new Netflix docudrama, Wormwood.

Wormwood is essentially a 4-hour film divided into 6 episodes; with this sprawling running time, Morris has given himself lots of room to “delve”. Now, I feel that it’s my duty to advise you up front that “delving” into a mystery is not necessarily synonymous with “solving” it. So if you go in expecting pat answers, wrapped with a bow, I’m saving you 4 hours of your life now (and you’re welcome). However, if you believe the adage that it is not about the destination, but rather about the journey, feel free to press onward.

Morris has made many compelling documentaries, from his crtically acclaimed 1978 debut Gates of Heaven, to other well-received films like The Thin Blue Line (1988), A Brief History of Time (1991), and The Fog of War (2003).

Interestingly, in this outing Morris eschews his trademark “Inteterrotron”, which gives  a sense that the interviewee is “confiding” directly to the viewer. Instead, Morris plunks himself across a table from his subjects and grills them, like they’ve stumbled into Sam Spade’s office. However, he does reprise his “reality thriller” formula (mixing interviews with speculative reenactments) which he essentially invented with The Thin Blue Line; although it has been so-often imitated that it now seems cliché.

While Morris’ penchant for this Rashomon-style construction in past projects has drawn criticism, it’s a perfect foil for Wormwood; because if there is one central takeaway from the series, it is this: when it comes to plausible deniability, the CIA has 50 shades of nay.

The “official” story as to what happened in that hotel room in September 1953 has been, shall we say, “fluid” over the years (all versions are recounted). Adding to the frustration for Olson’s surviving family members (as Eric Olson points out in the film), under current laws, any citizen may file a lawsuit against the U.S. government for negligence, but never for intent. Oops! Please pardon our negligence, just never mind our culpability.

The question of “culpability” feeds the conspiracy theory elements of the film; which Morris relays via the dramatic reenactments. These segments feature a melancholic Peter Sarsgaard, whose almost spectral characterization of Frank Olson haunts the proceedings like the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

This is no accident, as Morris and Eric Olson himself make frequent analogies to Shakespeare’s classic tragedy about a son who investigates the truth behind his father’s suspicious death (hence the title of the film, taken from an aside by Hamlet, who mutters “Wormwood, wormwood” in reaction to the Player Queen’s line in the play-within-the play “None wed the second but who killed the first.”).

The Bard would be hard pressed to cook up a tale as dark, debased and duplicitous. Morris sustains a sense of dread recalling Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and The Conversation. Of course, those were fiction; Olson’s story is not. Shakespeare wrote: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Wormwood not only confirms this, but reminds us why we need folks like Eric Olson and Morris around to cast light into dark corners where the truth lies obscured.

Blu-ray reissue: Day of the Jackal ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 9, 2017)

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The Day of the Jackal – Arrow Video Blu-ray (Region “B”)

“Conspiracy a-go go” films don’t get any better than Fred Zinnemann’s taut political thriller. Adapted from Frederick Forsyth’s eponymous 1971 bestseller, this 1973 film (set in 1962) takes you on a chilling “ride-along” with a professional assassin (Edward Fox) who is hired by a French right-wing extremist group to kill President Charles de Gaulle. It’s a real nail-biter from start to finish, intelligently written and well-crafted.

While undoubtedly not his intent, Zinnemann’s documentary-style realism regarding the hit man’s meticulous prep work and coolly detached social engineering methodology at times plays like a “how-to” guide (shudder). Arrow’s print is the best I’ve seen of this film. Among the extras: a new interview with a Zinnemann biographer, and Kenneth Ross’ entire original screenplay (CD ROM content).

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)

If you really must pry: Top 10 films of 2016

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 31, 2016)

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It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years since my pal Digby graciously offered me a crayon, a sippy cup and a weekly play date on her otherwise grownup site so I can scribble about pop culture. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everybody who continues to support Hullabaloo and wish you and yours the best in 2017! ‘Tis the season to do a year-end roundup of the best films I reviewed in 2016. Alphabetically, not in order of preference:

The Curve – It’s tempting to synopsize Rifqi Assaf’s road movie as “Little Miss Sunshine in the Arabian Desert” but that would be shortchanging this humanistic, warmly compassionate study of life in the modern Arab world. It’s essentially a three-character chamber piece, set in a VW van as it traverses desolate stretches of Jordan. Fate and circumstance unite a taciturn Palestinian who has been living in his van, with a chatty Palestinian divorcee returning to a Syrian refugee camp and an exiled Lebanese TV director. A beautifully directed and acted treatise on the commonalities that defy borders. (Full review)

Eat That Question – If there’s a missing link between today’s creative types who risk persecution in the (virtual) court of public opinion for the sake of their art, and Lenny Bruce’s battles in the actual courts for the right to even continue practicing his art, I would nominate composer-musician-producer-actor-satirist-provocateur Frank Zappa, who is profiled in Thorsten Schutte’s documentary. Admittedly, the film plays best for members of the choir. If you’ve never been a fan, the largely non-contextualized pastiche of vintage clips will likely do little to win you over. Still, if you’re patient enough to observe, and absorb, the impressionistic approach manages to paint a compelling portrait.  (Full review)

Hail, Caesar! – Truth be told, the narrative is actually a bit thin in this fluffier-than-usual Coen Brothers outing; it’s primarily a skeleton around which they are able to construct a portmanteau of 50s movie parodies. That said, there is another level to the film, one which (similar to the 2015 film Trumbo) depicts the Red Scare-induced fear and paranoia that permeated the movie industry in the 1950s through the eyes of a slightly fictionalized real-life participant (in this case, a Hollywood “fixer” played by Josh Brolin). George Clooney hams it up as a dim-witted leading man who gets snatched off the set of his latest picture (a sword-and-sandal epic bearing a striking resemblance to Spartacus) by an enigmatic organization called The Future (don’t ask). It’s supremely silly, yet enjoyable.  (Full review)

Home Care – The “Kubler-Ross Model” postulates that there are five distinct emotional stages humans experience when brought face-to-face with mortality: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. All five are served up with a side of compassion, a dash of low-key anarchy and a large orange soda in this touching dramedy from Czech director Slavek Horak. An empathic, sunny-side-up Moravian home care nurse (Alena Mihulova) is so oriented to taking care of others that when the time comes to deal with her own health crisis, she’s stymied. A deft blend of family melodrama with gentle social satire. Mihulova and Boleslav Polivka (as her husband) make an endearing screen couple.   (Full review)

Jackie – Who among us (old enough to remember) hasn’t speculated on what it must have been like to be inside Jacqueline Kennedy’s head on November 22, 1963? Pablo Larrain’s film fearlessly wades right inside its protagonist’s psyche, 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. 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. The question of “why now?” might arise, to which I say (paraphrasing JFK)…“why not?”  (Full review)

Mekko – Director Sterlin Harjo’s tough, lean, neorealist character study takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Rod Rondeaux (Meek’s Cutoff) is outstanding as the eponymous character, a Muscogee Indian who gets out of jail after 19 years of hard time. Bereft of funds and family support, he finds tenuous shelter among the rough-and-tumble “street chief” community of homeless Native Americans as he sorts out how he’s going to get back on his feet. Harjo coaxes naturalistic performances from all. There’s more here than meets the eye, with subtexts about Native American identity, assimilation and spirituality.  (Full review)

Older Than Ireland – “They” say with age, comes wisdom. Just don’t ask a centenarian to impart any, because they are likely to smack you. Not that there is any violence in Alex Fegan and Garry Walsh’s doc, but there is a consensus among interviewees (aged from 100-113 years) that the question they find most irksome is: “What’s your secret to living so long?” Once that hurdle is cleared, Fegan and Walsh’s subjects have much to impart in this wonderfully entertaining (and ultimately moving) pastiche of the human experience. Do yourself a favor: turn off your personal devices for 80 minutes, watch this wondrous film and plug into humankind’s forgotten backup system: the Oral Tradition.  (Full review)

Snowden – Oliver Stone had a tough act to follow (Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning 2014 documentary, Citizenfour) when he tackled his biopic about Edgar 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, but he pulls it off quite well. 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 the most feverish imaginings of the tin foil hat society. Stylistically speaking, the film recalls cerebral cold war thrillers from the 1960s like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, with a nuanced performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  (Full review)

The Tunnel– Kim Seong-hun’s film is a (no pun intended) cracking good disaster thriller from South Korea, concerning a harried Everyman (Ha Jung-woo) who gets trapped in his car when a mountain tunnel collapses on top of him. Now, I should make it clear that this is not a Hollywood-style disaster thriller, a la Roland Emmerich. That said, it does have thrills, and spectacle, but not at the expense of its humanity. This, combined with emphasis on characterization, makes it the antithesis of formulaic big-budget disaster flicks (typically agog with CGI yet bereft of IQ). There’s more than meets the eye here; much akin to Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, Seong-hun uses the “big carnival” allusions of the mise-en-scene outside the tunnel to commentate on how members of the media and the political establishment share an alchemist’s knack for turning calamity into capital.  Full review)

Weiner – Co-directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg were given remarkable access to Anthony Weiner, his family and campaign staffers during the course of his ill-fated 2013 N.Y.C. mayoral run. Their no-holds-barred film raises many interesting questions prompted in the wake of the former congressman’s “sexting” scandal (which led to his resignation from the U.S. House of Representatives in 2011)…the most obvious one being: should ‘we’ be willing to forgive personal indiscretions (barring actual criminal offenses) of those we have voted into office? After all, if making boneheaded decisions in one’s love life was a crime, there would be barely enough politicians left outside of prison to run the country. Then there’s this chestnut: WTF were you thinking?! If you’re curious to see the film because you think it answers that one, don’t waste your time. However, if you want to see an uncompromising, refreshingly honest documentary about how down and dirty campaigns can get for those in the trenches, this is a must-see.   (Full review)

# # #

And  these were my “top 10” picks for each of the years since I began writing film reviews over at Digby’s Hullabaloo (you may want to bookmark this post as a  handy quick reference for movie night).

[Click on title for full review]

2007

Eastern Promises, The Hoax, In the Shadow of the Moon, Kurt Cobain: About a Son, Michael Clayton, My Best Friend, No Country for Old Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, PaprikaZodiac

2008

Burn After Reading, The Dark Knight, The Gits, Happy Go Lucky, Honeydripper, Man on Wire, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Visitor

2009

The Baader Meinhof Complex, Inglourious Basterds, In the Loop, The Limits of Control, The Messenger, A Serious Man, Sin Nombre, Star Trek, Where the Wild Things Are, The Yes Men Fix the World

2010

Creation, Inside Job, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Little Big Soldier, A Matter of Size, My Dog Tulip, Nowhere Boy, Oceans, The Runaways, Son of Babylon

2011

Another Earth, Certified Copy, The Descendants, Drei, Drive, The First Grader, Midnight in Paris, Summer Wars, Tinker/Tailor/Soldier/Spy, The Trip

2012

Applause, Dark Horse, Killer Joe, The Master, Paul Williams: Still Alive, Rampart, Samsara, Skyfall, The Story of Film: an Odyssey, Your Sister’s Sister

2013

The Act of Killing, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Computer Chess, 56 Up, The Hunt, Mud, The Rocket, The Silence, The Sweeney, Upstream Color

2014

Birdman, Child’s Pose, A Coffee in Berlin, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Kill the Messenger, The Last Days of Vietnam, Life Itself, A Summer’s Tale, The Wind Rises, The Theory of Everything

2015

Chappie, Fassbinder: Love Without Demands, An Italian Name, Liza the Fox Fairy, Love and Mercy, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Song of the Sea, Tangerines, Trumbo, When Marnie Was There

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.