Category Archives: Historical drama

SIFF 2021: The Spy (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 17, 2021)

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Swedish director Jens Jonsson’s WW2 drama is based on a “rumored” story regarding famous Norwegian-Swedish actress Sonja Wigert. After Sonja (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) shuns the advances of German occupied Norway’s reichskommissar Josef Terboven (Alexander Scheer), he arranges to have her father arrested by the SS (as spurned Nazis do). Swedish intelligence offers to help free her father if Sonja agrees to get chummy with Terboven so she can gather intel (they are eager to find out if/when the Germans plan on invading Sweden).

The film drags in the first half, which is essentially a series of fetes and elegant dinners where Sonja flirts and mingles with high-ranking Nazis, but eventually delivers on its “spy thriller” billing with added layers of subterfuge and intrigue. While not destined to be mentioned in the same breath as Mephisto or The Last Metro, The Spy is a stylish (if workmanlike) genre entry. The screenplay was written by Harald Rosenløw-Eeg and Jan Trygve Røyneland.

Blu-ray reissue: The Grey Fox (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 28,2020)

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The Grey Fox – Kino Classics

I was overjoyed to finally retire my dog-eared VHS copy of Philip Borso’s underappreciated 1982 gem. Filmed on location in Washington State and British Columbia, Borso’s biopic is a naturalistic “Northwestern” in the vein of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller; an elegiac portrait of a turn-of-the century “west” that is making an uneasy transition into modernity (which puts it in a sub-genre that includes Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country or Richard Brooks’ Bite the Bullet).

The film is based on the real-life exploits of “gentleman robber” Bill Miner (who may or may not have been the progenitor of the venerable felonious command: “Hands up!”). The Kentucky native was a career criminal who spent about half his life as a guest of the State of California. First incarcerated in his early 20s, he was released in 1880 and resumed his former activities (robbing stagecoaches). The law caught up with him and he did a long stretch in San Quentin. When he got out of stir in 1901, he was in his mid-50s.

The Grey Fox picks up Miner’s story at this point, just as he is being “released into the 20th-Century” from San Quentin. Miner is wonderfully portrayed by then 60-year-old Richard Farnsworth. Jackie Burroughs is excellent as well, playing a feminist photographer who has a relationship with Miner. John Hunter’s screenplay weaves an episodic narrative as spare and understated as its laconic and soft-spoken protagonist.

Kino’s Blu-ray features a new 4K restoration, highlighting DP Frank Tidy’s fabulous cinematography (he also shot Ridley Scott’s debut 1977 feature film The Duellists, one of the most beautiful-looking films this side of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon). This is a film well-worth your time, whether this is your first time viewing or you are up for a revisit. (Full review)

Mockery of a sham: The Trial of the Chicago 7 (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 24, 2020)

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Don’t say I didn’t warn you. From my 2008 review of The Trial of the Chicago 10:

I understand that Steven Spielberg is currently in pre-production on a dramatized version of the story, written by Aaron Sorkin and tentatively titled The Trial of the Chicago 7. Rumor has it Sacha Baron Cohen will play Abbie Hoffman, which is a perfect match on many levels (if someone can prove to me that his alter-egos “Ali G” and “Borat” don’t have deep roots in the political guerilla theater of the 60s, I’ll eat my Che cap). With the obvious historical parallels abounding vis a vis the current government’s foreign policy and overall climate of disenfranchisement in this country, I say the more films about the Chicago 7 trial that are out there, the merrier.

Flash-forward 12 years. I’d venture to say that the “historical parallels” between the Nixon and Trump administrations are even more pronounced in 2020 than between the Nixon and Bush Jr. administrations in 2008, not to mention the “overall climate of disenfranchisement in this country” (which is widely considered to be at an all-time low). And I still say “…the more films about the Chicago 7 trial that are out there, the merrier.”

Spielberg saw something shinier, but The Trial of the Chicago 7 has emerged from the other side of Development Hell largely unscathed, with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin now in the director’s chair and Sacha Baron Cohen sporting Abbie Hoffman hair (funnily enough, Cohen has also unleashed his new Borat film-in time for the upcoming election).

For you young’uns, here is the back story: In September 1969, Abbie Hoffman and fellow political activists Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner were hauled into court along with Black Panther Bobby Seale on a grand jury indictment for allegedly conspiring to incite the anti-Vietnam war protests and resulting mayhem that transpired during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. What resulted is arguably the most overtly political “show trial” in U.S. history.

No, your calculations are correct…there were originally “8” defendants, but Bobby Seale was (for all intents and purposes) “banished” from court early in the proceedings after heated verbal exchanges with presiding judge Julius Hoffman. After draconian physical restraint methods failed to silence him (Seale was literally bound, gagged and chained to his chair at one point), Judge Hoffman had him tossed out of the proceedings altogether.

His crime? Demanding his constitutional right to an attorney of his choice, for which he eventually served a 4 year sentence for contempt. The remaining seven defendants’ outspoken defense attorneys, William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, also rubbed the judge the wrong way and were cited for contempt (although they never served any time).

The trial dragged on for months, resulting in each of the seven being acquitted of conspiracy. Two defendants were acquitted completely; and the remaining five were convicted of “crossing state lines with the intent to incite a riot”. However, all the convictions were reversed by a U.S. appeals court in 1972 (the Justice Department wisely decided to let it go at that point). None of the seven served time for the contempt charges.

Contextually, there was a lot going on with that trial; from a dramatist’s point of view there are any number of angles to riff on. On the most superficial level, there is the political theater aspect of the proceeding…an opportunity that wasn’t lost on a couple of the more flamboyant defendants (i.e., self-proclaimed “Yippees” Hoffman and Rubin) who took the ball and ran with it (much to the chagrin of exasperated Judge Hoffman, who was dispensing “contempt of court” charges like Halloween candy by the trial’s end).

But there was also something broader in scope and more insidious at play here; namely, the “war” that President Richard M. Nixon had all but declared on America’s counterculture, which he perceived to be his greatest nemesis (his “enemies list” is legend). More specifically, Nixon was wielding the Justice Department as a truncheon to beat down and suppress the antiwar movement (or “radical Left protesters”…if you will).

If certain elements sound depressingly similar to 2020, that is an opportunity that wasn’t lost on Aaron Sorkin. I am aware of detractors who feel Sorkin wields his prose like a truncheon in The Trial of the Chicago 7. Negative reviews I’ve read tend to whinge on about how he belabors those historical parallels…but that is precisely what I like about it.

A great cast helps. As I noted earlier, Cohen is an inspired choice to play Abbie Hoffman. In the guise of his alter-egos Ali ‘G’ and Borat, Cohen has used elements of political guerilla theater rooted in the ethos of 1960s activist street performers like The Diggers and the San Francisco Mime troupe. Likewise, Hoffman himself frequently staged rallies using guerilla theater techniques, most notably in 1967 when he and fellow activist Allen Ginsberg joined thousands of anti-war protesters in an attempt to “levitate” the Pentagon.

Jeremy Strong (so good as the coke-addled heir in HBO’s Succession) is excellent as Hoffman’s main partner-in-disruption Jerry Rubin. Frank Langella makes a convincingly cantankerous Judge Julius Hoffman. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is on hand as Federal prosecutor Dick Schultz (who has taken issue with the film’s portrayal of himself and elements of the trial) and Michael Keaton plays it straight in his cameo as Ramsay Clark. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (featured in HBO’s Watchmen) is a standout as Bobby Seale.

In addition to Cohen, the impressive UK contingent of the cast includes Mark Rylance as defense attorney Kunstler and Eddie Redmayne as activist Tom Hayden. Interestingly, Sorkin focuses on a yin-yang clash of methodology between Hayden and Hoffman throughout the trial. In my 2009 review of The Baader-Meinhof Complex, I observed:

It is this part of the story that I found most fascinating. It demonstrates how (although doesn’t go to any length to explore why) such radical groups inevitably self-destruct by becoming a microcosm of the very thing they were railing against in the first place; in this case, disintegrating into a sort of self-imposed fascistic state that became more and more about internal power plays and individual egos instead of focusing on their original collective idealism.

This aspect of the story strongly recalls the late German filmmaker Rainier Werner Fassbinder’s 1979 political satire, cheekily entitled The Third Generation, in which he carries the idea of an ongoing disconnect between the R.A.F.’s core ideals and what he portrays as little more than a group of increasingly clueless, bumbling middle-class dilettantes who bear scant resemblance to the original group of hardcore revolutionaries, to ridiculous extremes.

By playing up the Hoffman vs. Hayden “more radical than thou” stalemate, Sorkin is doing something similar here—pointing out how messy “revolutions” can get; in this case as demonstrated by the disparity of backgrounds and approaches taken by each the (originally) eight defendants.

While all shared a common idealism and united cause, several of them had never even been in the same room before getting lumped together and put on trial as a group of “conspirators” by their government. Dystopian nightmare fuel…but the good news is our justice system worked, and the convictions were reversed.

Then again, as many have said—American Democracy (borne of revolution, mind you) is “messy”. So far, our checks and balances have kept it from collapsing. But we have come “this close” many times. At least twice in my lifetime…during the aforementioned Nixon administration (which ended in his resignation as a result of the Watergate debacle) and right here and now. But there is a time-proven way to keep it shored up:

Get out the vote.

 

(“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is currently playing on Netflix)

Blu-ray reissue: The Last Valley (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 18, 2020)

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The Last Valley – Kino-Lorber

Films set in Germany during The Thirty Years War are a niche genre…but as far as films set in Germany during the Thirty Years War go, one could do worse than this nearly forgotten but worthwhile drama from writer-director James Clavell.

The “outsider” is a recurring theme in Clavell’s work; and this tale is no exception. In this case the “outsider” is a two-headed beast in the form of an apolitical war refugee (Omar Sharif) and the ruthless Captain (Michael Caine) of a small contingent of mercenaries who both stumble upon a “hidden” valley whose residents have somehow managed to remain unscathed by the ravages of war and the Plague.

The Captain is ruthless (he would just as soon slit your throat as look at you) but also pragmatic; he decides against his initial impulse to kill Sharif, pillage the sleepy hamlet and move on after the quick thinking and silver-tongued Sharif convinces him it would be better all-around to spare the residents in exchange for putting his battle-weary soldiers up for the winter. The villagers, who seem malleable and complacent at first, come to reveal their own brand of pragmatism. A well-mounted period piece that also works as a timeless observation of human behavior in survival situations.

Kino-Lorber’s transfer of this 1971 film is excellent (although it does not look restored) and the audio quality is decent, which serves John Barry’s rousing score quite well. The only extra is a new commentary track, by a trio of film historians. It gets overly chatty at times with three people, but for the most part the observations are enlightening.

You will go to the moon: A NASA film festival

By Dennis Hartley

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

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50 years today, on July 20, 1969 Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the moon. I know-you’re suffering from tribute fatigue; don’t worry, I’ll keep this short. And yes, I’m aware that while we figured out how to put a man on the moon, your cell phone service still sucks; it has been duly noted.

For those of us of “a certain age”, that is to say, old enough to have actually witnessed the moon landing live on TV… the fact that “we” were even fucking able to achieve this feat “by the end of the decade” (as President Kennedy projected in 1961) still seems like a pretty big deal to me.

Of course, there are still some big unanswered questions out there about Life, the Universe, and Everything, but I’ll leave that to future generations. I feel that I’ve done my part…spending my formative years plunked in front of a B&W TV in my PJs eating Sugar Smacks and watching Walter Cronkite reporting live from the Cape.

It is in this spirit that I have curated a NASA film festival for you. In alphabetical order:

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Apollo 11– This 2019 documentary (currently in theaters and airing on CNN) was a labor of love for director Todd Douglas Miller, who also produced and edited. Miller had access to a trove of previously unreleased 70mm footage from Apollo 11’s launch and recovery, which he and his production team was able to seamlessly integrate with archival 35mm and 16mm footage, as well as photos and CCTV. All audio and visual elements were digitally restored, and Miller put it together in such a way that it flows like a narrative film (i.e., no new voice-over narration or present-day talking heads intrude). The result is impressive. I’ve only seen it on cable, but I could imagine it is spectacular in IMAX. If you missed it, good news-it airs again tonight on CNN at 6pm and 8pm (PST).

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Apollo 13– While overly formal at times, Ron Howard’s 1995 dramatization of the ill-fated mission that injected “Houston, we have a problem” into the zeitgeist still makes for an absorbing history lesson. You get a sense of the claustrophobic tension the astronauts must have felt while brainstorming out of their harrowing predicament. Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton have good chemistry as crewmates Lovell, Swigert and Haise, and Ed Harris was born to portray Ground Control’s flight director, Gene Kranz.

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The Dish– This wonderful 2000 sleeper from Australia is based on the true story behind one of the critical components that facilitated the live TV images of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon: a tracking station located on a sheep farm in New South Wales. Quirky characters abound in Rob Sitch’s culture-clash comedy (reminiscent of Bill Forsythe’s Local Hero). It’s not all played for laughs; the re-enactment of the moon-landing telecast is genuinely moving. Sam Neill heads a fine cast. Director Sitch and co-writers Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, and Jane Kennedy also collaborated on another film I would recommend: The Castle (1997).

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The Farthest–  Remember when NASA spaceflights were an exciting, all-day news event? We seem to have lost that collective feeling of wonder and curiosity about mankind’s plunge into the cosmos (people are too busy looking down at their goddam phones to stargaze anymore). Emer Reynolds’ beautifully made 2017 documentary about the twin Voyager space probes rekindles that excitement for any of us who dare to look up. And if the footage of Carl Sagan’s eloquent musings regarding the “pale blue dot” that we call home fails to bring you to tears, then surely you have no soul.

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For All Mankind– Former astronaut Al Reinert’s 1989 documentary was culled from thousands of feet of mission footage shot by the Apollo astronauts over a period of years. Don’t expect standard exposition; this is simply a montage of (literally) out-of-this-world imagery with anecdotal and philosophical musings provided by the astronauts. Brian Eno composed the ambient soundtrack. A mesmerizing and unique tone poem in the vein of Koyaanisqatsi.

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In the Shadow of the Moon– The premise of this 2007 documentary (similar to For All Mankind) is simple enough; surviving members of the Apollo moon flights tell their stories, accompanied by astounding mission footage (some previously unseen). But somehow, director David Sington has managed to take this very familiar piece of 20th century history and infuse it with a sense of joyous rediscovery. In the process, it offers something rarer than hen’s teeth these days…a reason to take pride in being an American.

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The Right Stuff– Director and writer Philip Kaufman’s 1983 film (based on Tom Wolfe’s book) is a stirring drama about NASA’s Mercury program. Considering the film was modestly budgeted (by today’s standards), it has quite an expansive scope. The rich characterizations also make it an intimate story, beautifully acted by a dream cast including Ed Harris, Sam Shepard, Dennis Quaid, Scott Glenn, Barbara Hershey, Fred Ward, Pamela Reed, Lance Henriksen, Scott Wilson, Veronica Cartwright, Jeff Goldblum, and the late Levon Helm.

BONUS TRACK!
Singing us out…the barbershop space rock stylings of Moxy Fruvous.

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.

Often inclined to borrow somebody’s dreams: Wild Nights With Emily (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 13, 2019)

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Do you like poetry? Do you like song mashups? Here’s an interesting mashup for you:

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,

I never realized the lengths
I’d have to go
All the darkest corners of a sense
I didn’t know

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here –

Just for one moment –
Hearing someone call
Looked beyond the day in hand
There’s nothing there at all

Two of those verses are taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson (circa 1861). The other two verses are lyrics from a Joy Division song (circa 1980). Can you tell which is which?

Well…if you are more cultured than I (which is highly likely) or know anything about poetry (which would be more than I know) it’s plain as the nose on your face that verses 1 and 3 are from a 19th-Century poem, and verses 2 and 4 come from a 20th-Century song.

I made this association while conducting extensive background research for my review of Madeline Olnek’s Wild Nights With Emily (OK, I Googled “Emily Dickinson poems”, and that was one of the first search results. Happy now?). I was struck by Ms. Dickinson’s magnificently dark and timeless…Goth-iness. I mean “Wrecked, solitary, here”? I could totally hear (the wrecked, solitary, and late) Ian Curtis crooning the words.

Who was this intriguing woman of letters who toiled in relative obscurity for the 55 years she strolled the planet (1830-1886), seeing only a dozen or so of her 1,800 poems published during her life, but is now revered and studied and mentioned in the same breath as Whitman, Frost and Eliot? Was she really (as legend has it) the brooding, agoraphobic spinster who wears a Mona Lisa expression in that lone Daguerreotype portrait-or did she feel life was a banquet, and most poor suckers were starving to death?

Luckily for those of us who flee in terror at the prospect of sitting through a scholarly cinematic treatise soaking in the mannered trappings of a genre that a longtime friend of mine dismisses with a snort as “hat movies”, Olnek concocts kind of a mashup herself by mixing material from Dickinson’s poems and private letters with a touch of spirited speculation regarding details of her private life (think of it as well-researched fan fiction).

This lighter tone is assured by casting SNL veteran and comic actor Molly Shannon, who tackles the lead role with much aplomb. Her performance suggests an Emily Dickinson who indeed may have spent most of her adult life house-bound and somewhat socially isolated, but perhaps not so completely bereft of passion and joy as historically portrayed.

Most of that passion and joy manifests itself in the scenes depicting Emily’s longtime “close friendship” with her sister-in-law Susan (Susan Ziegler), the woman who some biographers and historians have theorized to be the key romantic figure in Dickinson’s life; confidant, mentor, muse, and (assumed) secret lover. This is complicated by the fact they live next door to each other (at least in the film), adding door-slamming “Oh no! Your husband/my brother is home early-get dressed!” bedroom farce to the proceedings.

There are echoes of Comedy Central’s costume drama parody Another Period throughout, exacerbated by an appearance from Brett Gelman-one of that show’s more recognizable cast members. Gelman does a nice turn as Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an early advocate of women’s rights and prominent staff member of The Atlantic Monthly who was a mentor (of sorts) to Dickinson (oddly, even though they formed a long friendship and exchanged many letters-he never pushed her hard to get published while she was still alive; but he did co-edit the first two posthumous collections of her poems).

Another key figure in Emily’s orbit is Mabel Loomis Todd (well-played by Amy Seimetz). Mabel is an interesting character; the de facto heavy of the piece, she also serves as the film’s narrator. Mabel Todd was the longtime mistress of Emily’s brother Austin (Kevin Seal), who (if you’ve been paying attention) was married to Susan, Emily’s longtime secret lover. Todd was also an editor and writer, who ended up co-editing the aforementioned posthumous collections of Dickinson’s poems with Thomas Higginson (which is a bit weird considering that Emily and Mabel never met in person).

This is about as far from an Oscar-baiting prestige biopic one can get, but as movies about writers and poets are a hard-sell to begin with (not enough explosions, car chases, CGI characters or Marvel superheroes to capture the general movie-going public’s attention) Olnek made a wise choice to think outside the box. Wild Nights with Emily may not be the flashiest film in theaters now, but it’s the only one with poetry in its soul.

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In plain sight: The Invisibles (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 16, 2019)

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There has certainly been no shortage of historical dramas and documentaries about The Holocaust and the horror that was Nazi Germany from 1933-1945 (on television, stage, and screen). It’s even possible that “WW2 fatigue” is a thing at this point (particularly among post-boomers). But you know, there’s this funny thing about history. It’s cyclical.

You may remember this little item? From an August 30, 2018 Washington Post article:

Ian M. Smith, a Department of Homeland Security analyst who resigned this week after he was confronted about his ties to white nationalist groups, attended multiple immigration policy meetings at the White House, according to government officials familiar with his work.

Smith quit his job Tuesday after being questioned about personal emails he sent and received between 2014 and 2016, before he joined the Trump administration. The messages, obtained by The Atlantic and detailed in a report published Tuesday, depict Smith engaging in friendly, casual conversations with prominent white supremacists and racists. 

In one email from 2015, Smith responded to a group dinner invitation whose host said his home would be “judenfrei,” a German word used by the Nazis during World War II to describe territory that had been “cleansed” of Jews during the Holocaust. 

“They don’t call it Freitag for nothing,” Smith replied, using the German word for “Friday,” according to the Atlantic. “I was planning to hit the bar during the dinner hours and talk to people like Matt Parrot, etc.,” Smith added, a reference to the former spokesman for the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party.

Hot funk, cool punk, even if its old junk…it’s still Reich and roll to me. Cyclical.

With Mr. Smith’s sophomoric wordplay associating “judenfrei” with “Freitag” being a given, there is nothing inherently amusing and everything troubling regarding his friend’s casual resurrection of the word “judenfrei”. It’s a word best relegated to its historical context; I can otherwise think of no reason it should otherwise pop up while shooting the breeze with friends.

One could surmise that the lessons of history haven’t quite sunk in with everyone (especially those who may be condemned to repeat it). So perhaps there cannot be enough historical dramas and documentaries reminding people about The Holocaust and the horror that was Nazi Germany from 1933-1945, nu? Or am I overreacting and being judgmental about Mr. Smith and his friend? After all, I don’t know these guys personally.

Perhaps the email exchange was an anomaly. Okay-so it’s documented that at least one of the people Mr. Smith pals around with is “a former spokesman for the Neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party.” Still-should I give them the benefit of the doubt?

Could it be true what President Trump said when asked why he never condemned the Neo-Nazis who incited the violence in Charlottesville in 2017 (resulting in the death of peaceful counter-protestor Heather Heyer) -that there were/are “…very fine people on both sides”?

After carefully weighing all the historical evidence put before me, I can only conclude that…there were no fine Nazis in 1920 (the year the party was founded), no fine Nazis since 1920, nor are there likely to be any fine Nazis from now until the end of recorded time.

That said, every German citizen who remained in-country throughout the 12-year Nazi regime was not necessarily a card-carrying party member. There were Germans who were quite appalled by Hitler’s strident (and eventually murderous) anti-Semitic policies from day one.

In fact, some Germans were so sympathetic to the plight of the Jews to the point of assisting them to remain “hidden in plain sight” for the duration of the war, at great personal risk to themselves and their families. In that context, you could say that these particular Germans were (in a manner of speaking) “very fine people” (with Oskar Schindler being the most well-known example).

In 1943, following a mass roundup and arrest of the city’s remaining 30,000 Jews (who were already suffering forced labor) Berlin was officially declared “judenfrei” (last time I’ll use that ugly word in this piece…I promise). Or so the Nazis thought. 7,000 Jews managed to evade arrest and go into hiding; out of that number, 1,700 survived the war.

For his 2017 docu-drama, The Invisibles (currently making its U.S. debut in limited engagements) director Claus Räfle was able to track down four of those 1,700 persevering souls and convince them to get in front of his camera to share their stories for posterity (and none too soon; two of the four have since passed away as of this writing).

Räfle inter-cuts the contemporary witness interviews with dramatic reenactments (a la the films of documentarian Eroll Morris), voice-over narration, and archival footage of wartime Berlin to a (mostly) good effect (the acting vignettes do fall a little flat at times).

Still, as previously evidenced in Claude Lanzmann’s shattering 1984 Holocaust documentary Shoah (recommended, if you’ve never seen it), there is no amount of skilled writing, acting, or historical recreation that matches the power of a simple close-up as someone shares their story. And each of these witnesses (Hanni Levy, Cioma Schonhaus, Ruth Gumpel, and Eugen Friede) offers a survival tale you couldn’t make up.

There is not only considerable drama and suspense in their stories, but a certain amount of irony and dark humor. For example, one of the women recalls how she dyed her hair blonde, to pass as a “regular” German on the street. While this cosmetic revision undoubtedly saved her life from the Nazis, it nearly got her killed when Russian troops reached Berlin (the soldiers didn’t initially believe her when she insisted, “Please don’t shoot me! I’m Jewish!”).

It saddens me to think that within the next 25 years, all the voices of the Shoah will be forever silenced by the inescapable scourges of time and human biology; as I pointed out earlier, only two of the survivors profiled in Räfle’s film are still with us (Levy and Friede). A cynic might say the stories of these two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, but I for one am grateful for the privilege of hearing them told.

As for those who still insist there is no harm in casually co-opting the tenets of an evil ideology that would foist such a horror upon humanity, I won’t pretend to “pray for you” (while I lost many relatives in the Holocaust, I’m not “Jewish” in the religious sense, so I doubt my prayers would even “take”), but this old Hasidic proverb gives me hope:

“The virtue of angels is that they cannot deteriorate; their flaw is that they cannot improve. Humanity’s flaw is that we can deteriorate; but our virtue is that we can improve.”

Amen.

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.