Category Archives: Politics

Blu-ray reissue: 1984 (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 14, 2019)

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1984 – The Criterion Collection

Nobody said a good film couldn’t be a total downer. Case in point: Michael Radford’s distressingly convincing vision of a bleak dystopia. Released (appropriately enough) in 1984, the film is a faithful adaptation of George Orwell’s cautionary 1948 novel.

John Hurt is excellent as downtrodden Everyman Winston Smith, who risks what little he’s got to be happy about by seeking a little happiness with his defiantly anti-authoritarian lover, Julia (Suzanna Hamilton). In a totalitarian society where any form of passion outside blind devotion to the state is considered an unpardonable crime against conformity, it’s only a matter of time before Big Brother summons them to answer for their sins. The film also stars an oddly inert Richard Burton.

Criterion’s new 4K restoration showcases DP Roger Deakins’ purposely de-saturated cinematography, which (quite literally) helps sets the bleak tone of the film (Deakins supervised the transfer). You have a choice of two music scores-one by The Eurythmics and the other by composer Dominic Muldowney. Extras include new interviews with director Radford, DP Deakins, and David Ryan (the author of George Orwell on Screen).

On Winter Kills (***), conspiracy a-go-go and that day in Dallas

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 23, 2019)

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“Strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us. […]

 If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. […]

We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth […] But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

President John F. Kennedy, from his Robert Frost tribute address (October 23, 1963)

Why are uneven anniversaries the less popular rest stops along the time continuum? For example, “56th anniversary” is not as sexy as “50th anniversary…or “60th anniversary” (this could explain why “51st Anniversary” is one of Jimi Hendrix’s more obscure songs).

Regardless, time marches on, the Earth continues to revolve around the Sun, and then (with apologies to Pink Floyd) one day you find ten years have got behind you, and so on and so forth and eventually we’re just history and a highlight film, over and out, bye now.

Still, we seem to need anniversaries. Why? Well, according to The Awareness Centre:

It’s a chance to reflect on a relationship or a cultural identity, to come together to remember a person who’s died, or to celebrate a joyous event.

Whatever the anniversary, it gives us a chance to look back over the years since the event we’re marking and reflect on how it has shaped us. Remembering the past (but without letting it rule us) can be an important part of understanding who we are.

Obviously, the “us” can apply to the collective, as well as the personal. Being of “a certain age”, there is one “collective” anniversary that I never fail to note…November 22.

“Where were you when Kennedy got shot?” has been a meme for anyone old enough to remember what happened that day in Dallas on November 22, 1963…56 years ago this past Friday. I was but a wee military brat, attending my second-grade class at a public school in Columbus, Ohio (my dad was stationed at nearby Fort Hayes). Our class was herded into the main gym for an impromptu all-school assembly. Someone (probably the principal) gave a brief address. It gets fuzzy from there; but I think that we either sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” or recited the Pledge of Allegiance, then got sent home early.

My 7-year-old mind could not grasp the profound sociopolitical impact of this tragedy; but I have come to understand it in the fullness of time. From my 2016 review of Jackie:

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.

Sadly, anyone who follows the current news cycle knows we’re still looking for Camelot.

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They will run you dizzy. They will pile falsehood on top of falsehood, until you can’t tell a lie from the truth – and you won’t even want to. That’s how the powerful keep their power. Don’t you read the papers?

From Winter Kills (screenplay by William Richert)

The Kennedy assassination ultimately precipitated a cottage industry of independent studies, papers, magazine articles, non-fiction books, novels, documentaries and feature films that riff on the plethora of conspiracy theories that continue to flourish to this day.

This is despite the fact few stones remain unturned…and there was that Warren Commission report released in 1964; an 888-page summation concluding JFK’s alleged murderer Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. This “conclusive” statement, of course only fueled more speculation that our government was not being completely ah…forthcoming.

At any rate (and speaking of anniversaries) 2019 marks the 40th anniversary of one of the more oddball conspiracy thrillers based on the JFK assassination…Winter Kills, which has just been reissued on Blu-ray by Kino-Lorber. Director William Richert adapted his screenplay from Richard Condon’s book (it’s worth noting that Condon also wrote the conspiracy thriller The Manchurian Candidate, which was adapted for the screen twice).

Jeff Bridges stars as the (non-political) half-brother of an assassinated president. After witnessing the deathbed confession of a man claiming to be a “second gunman”, he reluctantly gets drawn into a new investigation of his brother’s murder nearly 20 years after the matter was allegedly put to rest by the findings of the “Pickering Commission”.

John Huston chews the scenery as Bridges’ father (a larger-than-life character said to be loosely based on Joseph Kennedy Sr.). The cast includes Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Sterling Hayden, Ralph Meeker, Toshiro Mifune, Richard Boone, and Elizabeth Taylor.

The film vacillates between genuine conspiracy thriller and a broad satire of other byzantine conspiracy thrillersbut is eminently watchable, thanks to an interesting cast and a screenplay that, despite ominous undercurrents, delivers a great deal of dark humor.

I own the 2003 Anchor Bay DVD, so I can attest that Kino’s 4K transfer is a definite upgrade; accentuating cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s exemplary lens work. Unfortunately, there are no new extras; but all bonus materials from Anchor Bay’s DVD have been ported over, including an entertaining commentary track by director Richert (the story behind the film’s production is nearly as over-the-top as the finished product).

Is Winter Kills essential viewing? It depends. If you like quirky 60s and 70s cinema, it’s one of the last hurrahs in a film cycle of arch, lightly political and broadly satirical all-star psychedelic train wrecks like The Loved One, The President’s Analyst, Skidoo, Candy and The Magic Christian. For “conspiracy-a-go-go” completists, it is a must-see.

Here are 5 more films that either deal directly with or have a notable link with the JFK conspiracy cult. And while you’re watching, keep President Kennedy’s observation in the back of your mind: “In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

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Suddenly – Lewis Allen’s taut 1954 crime thriller/film noir stars a surprisingly effective Frank Sinatra as the cold-blooded leader of a three-man hit team who are hired to assassinate the (unnamed) President during a scheduled whistle-stop at a sleepy California town. They commandeer a family’s home that affords the hit team a clear shot.

The film is primarily played as a hostage drama. It should be noted that in this case, the shooter’s motives are financial, not political (“Don’t hand me that politics jazz-that’s not my bag!” Sinatra snarls after he’s accused of being “an enemy agent” by one of his hostages). Richard Sale’s script also drops in a perfunctory nod or two to the then-contemporaneous McCarthy era (one hostage speculates that the hit men are “commies”).

That said, some aspects of the story are quite eerily prescient of President Kennedy’s assassination 9 years later; Sinatra’s character is an ex-military sharpshooter, zeroes down on his target from a high window, and utilizes a rifle of a European make. Most significantly, there have been more than a few claims over the years in JFK conspiracy circles suggesting that Lee Harvey Oswald had watched this film with a keen interest.

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

Sinatra plays a Korean War vet who reaches out to help a buddy he served with (Laurence Harvey). Harvey is on the verge of a meltdown, triggered by recurring war nightmares. Sinatra has been suffering the same malady (both men had been held as POWs by the North Koreans). Once it dawns on Sinatra that they both may have been brainwashed during their captivity for very sinister purposes, all hell breaks loose.

In this narrative (based on Richard Condon’s novel) the assassin is posited as an unwitting dupe of a decidedly “un-American” political ideology; a domestic terrorist programmed by his Communist puppet masters to kill on command. While many of the Cold War references have dated, the film remains a solid and suspenseful political thriller (Jonathan Demme’s 2004 version was an interesting take, but I much prefer the original).

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

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

One of the earliest examples was this 1973 film, directed by David Miller, and starring Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan. Dalton Trumbo (famously blacklisted back in the 50s) adapted the screenplay from a story by Donald Freed and Mark Lane.

A speculative thriller about the JFK assassination, it offers a scenario that a consortium comprised of hard right pols, powerful businessmen and disgruntled members of the clandestine community were responsible.  Frankly, the premise is ultimately more intriguing than the film itself (which is flat and talky), but the filmmakers at least deserve credit for being the first ones to “go there”. The film was a flop at the time, but has become a cult item; as such, it is more of a curio than a classic. Still, it’s worth a watch.

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The Parallax View – Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 thriller takes the concept of the dark corporate cabal one step further, positing political assassination as a sustainable capitalist venture, if you can perfect a discreet and reliable algorithm for screening and recruiting the right “employees”.

Warren Beatty gives an excellent performance as a maverick print journalist investigating a suspicious string of untimely demises that befall witnesses to a U.S. senator’s assassination in a restaurant atop Seattle’s Space Needle. The trail leads him to a clandestine recruiting agency called the Parallax Corporation.

The screenplay by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (based on the 1970 novel by Loren Singer, with an uncredited rewrite by Robert Towne) contains obvious allusions to the JFK assassination; e.g. it has the “assassin as patsy” scenario, and features a closing scene with a slow, ominous zoom out on a panel of men bearing a striking resemblance to the Warren Commission, sitting in a dark chamber solemnly reciting their “conclusive” findings on what has transpired (although we know better).

The supporting cast includes Hume Cronyn, William Daniels and Paula Prentiss. Nice work by cinematographer Gordon Willis (aka “the prince of darkness”), who sustains the foreboding, claustrophobic mood of the piece with his masterful use of light and shadow.

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

The most misunderstood aspect of the film, I think, is that Stone is not favoring any prevalent narrative; and that it is by the director’s definition a “speculative” political thriller. Those who have criticized the approach seem to have missed that Stone himself has stated from the get-go that his goal was to provide a “counter myth” to the “official” conclusion of the Warren Commission (usually referred to as the “lone gunman theory”).

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

 

It can’t happen here: The Edge of Democracy (****)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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“That’s my man right there…love this guy…the most popular politician on Earth.”

 – President Obama in 2009, upon meeting then-Brazilian president Lula da Silva

“They say he’s the Donald Trump of South America…Do you believe that? And he’s happy with that. If he wasn’t, I wouldn’t like the country so much. But I like him.”

– President Trump in 2019, commenting on current Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro

Politics ain’t beanbag (as the saying goes). It can be a nasty business. Latin American politics have a particular rep for volatility; historically an ever-simmering cauldron of violent coups, brutal dictatorships, revolving door regimes and social unrest. In my 2012 review of Lula: Son of Brazil, Fabio Barreto and Marcelo Santiago’s stirring yet frustrating biopic about the former president of Brazil Luis Inacio Lula da Silva I wrote:

[…] Luis Inacio Lula da Silva’s life journey from dirt-poor shoeshine boy to benevolent world leader (he served as president from 2003-2010) seems tailor-made for the screen, with the major players in his life plucked straight out of Central Casting […] You have the Strong Saintly Mother (Gloria Pires), the Drunken Abusive Father (Milhem Cortaz), and the Childhood Sweetheart (Clio Pires, pulling double duty as The Young Wife Who Dies Tragically). […]

 We watch Lula (played as an adult by Rui Ricardo Diaz) come of age; he graduates from a technical school, gets a factory job, loses a finger in a lathe mishap, and marries his childhood sweetheart. His first marriage ends tragically, after which he begins (at the encouragement of his brother and to the chagrin of his mother) to gravitate toward leftist politics. […]

 By the time he becomes a union official in the late 70s, he finds himself at loggerheads with the military-controlled government of the time. After officials identify him as one of the prime movers behind a series of major work strikes, he is arrested and jailed. After prison, the increasingly politicized Lula helps create Brazil’s progressive Worker’s Party in the early 80s, and then…and then…the film ends.

 Ay, there’s the rub, and the main reason why political junkies may find this slick, well-acted production inspiring on one hand, yet curiously unsatisfying on the other. […]

 I found myself  wondering “what happened next?!”, and asking questions like: What did he do to earn declaration as Brazil’s most beloved president, with an approval rating of 80.5% during the final months of his tenure? What inspired President Obama to greet him at the G20 summit with “That’s my man right there…love this guy…the most popular politician on Earth”? […]

The film left me hanging like a chad on a Florida ballot. But, as Fate would have it I was listening to Democracy Now while driving to work the other day (as progressive pinko NPR-listening Lefties often do) and lo and behold –I found out “what happened next”:

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show in Brazil, where former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was freed from prison Friday after 580 days behind bars. Lula’s surprise release came after the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled to end the mandatory imprisonment of people convicted of crimes who are still appealing their cases. Lula has vowed to challenge Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro in the 2022 elections. During a rally on Friday soon after his release, Lula warned about Bolsonaro’s ties to violent militias.

 LUIZ INÁCIO LULA DA SILVA: [translated] “Bolsonaro was democratically elected. We accept the result of the election. This guy has a mandate for four years. Now, he was elected to govern the Brazilian people, and not to govern the militia in Rio de Janeiro. … I want to build this country with the same happiness that we built it when we governed this country. My dream isn’t to solve my problems. Today I’m a guy that doesn’t have a job, a president without a pension, not even a television in my apartment. My life is totally blocked. The only thing I’m certain of is that I have more courage to fight than ever before.”

 AMY GOODMAN: Lula was serving a 12-year sentence over a disputed corruption and money laundering conviction handed down by conservative Judge Sérgio Moro, an ally of current far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. After that, he became the justice minister. Lula has long maintained his innocence. Earlier this year, The Intercept revealed Moro aided prosecutors in their sweeping corruption investigation, known as Operation Car Wash, in an attempt to prevent Lula from running in 2018 election. This cleared the path for Bolsonaro’s victory. At the time of his imprisonment in April 2018, Lula was leading the presidential polls.

 Wow. If Lula pulls it off in 2022, it would be the political comeback story of the century. But that chapter is yet to be written. The current political reality in Brazil is somewhat tenuous, precipitated in part by the ascension of the aforementioned President Bolsonaro.

President …who? Here’s a refresher from the New York Times, dated March 19, 2019:

President Trump hosted Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian president, at the White House on Tuesday, and it was something like looking in the mirror.

 Like other authoritarian leaders Mr. Trump has embraced since taking office, Mr. Bolsonaro is an echo of the American president: a brash nationalist whose populist appeal comes partly from his use of Twitter and his history of making crude statements about women, gay people and indigenous groups.

 “They say he’s the Donald Trump of South America,” Mr. Trump marveled during a speech to the Farm Bureau in January, noting that Mr. Bolsonaro had been called the “Trump of the tropics” since taking office this year. “Do you believe that? And he’s happy with that. If he wasn’t, I wouldn’t like the country so much. But I like him.”

“Something” changed in Brazil’s sociopolitical sphere in the 8 years that elapsed between 2010, when the progressive populist Lula left the presidency with an unprecedented 80.5% approval rating, and 2018, when far-right candidate Bolsonaro won the election.

In her extraordinarily intimate documentary, The Edge of Democracy (now available on Netflix) Brazilian actress and filmmaker Petra Costa suggests there is something much more insidious at play in her country than a cyclical left-to-right shift. Costa’s film delves into the circumstances that led to the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff (Lula’s hand-picked successor) and Lula’s imprisonment (which began in April of 2018).

Costa begins with a recap of the military dictatorship in Brazil that began with a 1964 coup and effectively ended in 1989 with the first election of a president via popular vote in 29 years, then moves on to cover Lula’s 8-year tenure (2003-2010), which brought a great deal of positive social change in the country through various progressive programs.

However, the honeymoon began to sour during the presidency of Lula’s successor Dilma Rousseff. Elected in 2011, Rousseff (a former member of a leftist guerilla group that fought against the military dictatorship-which led to a 2-year imprisonment from 1970-1972 during which she endured torture) largely upheld the ideals of her predecessor, but was impeached and removed from office in 2016 as a result of the “Car Wash” scandal.

What separates this film from an informative but dry episode of Frontline is Costa’s deeply personal perspective. The 36-year-old director points out that she is approximately the same age as Brazil’s hard-won democracy, and makes no bones about the fact that her parents were passionate left-wing activists who openly railed against the dictatorship.

But the real coup for Costa (no pun intended) is the amazing accessibility she was given to President Rousseff and ex-President Lula during times of particularly high drama in their lives. This lends urgency and adds a “fly on the wall” element to the palace intrigue.

There is something Shakespearean about the rise and fall of the two leaders, which gives the film the feel of a byzantine political thriller. There is also a Kafkaesque element. In one scene, a visibly scandal-weary Rousseff candidly alludes to the protagonist in “The Trial” with a heavy sigh. “Do you really feel like ‘Josef K’?” someone asks. “Yes,” she replies with a sardonic chuckle, “I feel just like Josef K…but Josef K with an attorney.”

The film’s most dramatic moments derive from the footage Costa was able to get while she was essentially holed up for 3 days with Lula at a trade union hall while he vacillated over turning himself in. When Lula announces he is ready to face the music, a crowd of his supporters tries to stop him from doing so, forming a human blockade between him and the police outside the hall waiting to arrest him.

As you watch Lula give an impassioned speech to his supporters (many of them in tears) to explain his decision and reassure them everything will be fine, you understand why people are so drawn to him.

This is the most powerful documentary about South American politics since Patricio Guzman’s The Battle of Chile. It is also a cautionary tale; we have more in common with Brazil than you might think. As Costa observed in an interview on Democracy Now:

“…Brazil has the third-largest incarcerated population in the world. It’s a huge crisis, similar to the United States. And we need an urgent judiciary — like, prison reform and judiciary reform that will make our judiciary system more efficient. I think the mistake that many people fall into is thinking that constitutional rights can be abused to have a more efficient system. The danger with that is that today Lula’s constitutional rights can be abused, tomorrow mine, tomorrow yours. And where do we stand as a democracy?”

Where do WE stand as a democracy? As politicians say, “that’s an excellent question…”

Trial and error: When They See Us (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 8, 2019)

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We all want justice, but you got to have the money to buy it
You’d have to be a fool to close your eyes and deny it
There’s a lot of poor people who are walking the streets of my town
Too blind to see that justice is used to do them right down

All life from beginning to end
You pay your monthly installments
Next to health is wealth
And only wealth will buy you justice

— Alan Price, “Justice” (from the soundtrack for the film O Lucky Man!)

ANTRON McCRAY: [played by Caleel Harris] I lied on you, too.

RAYMOND SANTANA JR.: [played by Marquis Rodriguez] Yeah. Me, too. I’m sorry, man.

YUSEF SALAAM: [played by Ethan Herisse] They made us lie. Right?

KEVIN RICHARDSON: [played by Asante Blackk] Why are they doing us like this?

RAYMOND SANTANA JR.: What other way they ever do us?

— From a scene in the Netflix miniseries When They See Us

The wheels of justice sometimes move in mysterious ways. Via NBC earlier this week:

Former Manhattan prosecutor Linda Fairstein resigned from Vassar College’s board of trustees Tuesday amid a new wave of backlash over her role in the infamous Central Park Five case.

Fairstein’s role in the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of five teenagers of color in 1990, after a white woman was attacked in Central Park, has come under new scrutiny after director Ava DuVernay released a Netflix miniseries about the case, “When They See Us.”

The so-called Central Park Five — Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam — were vindicated 13 years after the crime when a serial rapist confessed to the attack.

[Fairstein]…ran the district attorney’s sex crimes unit at the time of the case. The Netflix series prompted the #CancelLindaFairstein hashtag on social media and calls for her prior cases to be re-examined. […]

“The events of the last few days have underscored how the history of racial and ethnic tensions in this country continue to deeply influence us today, and in ways that change over time,” Bradley said.

Unfortunately for those five young men (ages from 14 to 16 when they were arrested and charged), the extant “social media” platforms throughout the course of their controversial high-profile trials back in 1990 were still relatively old school: phone calls, telegrams, post cards, letters to the editor, graffiti, flyers, rallies, demonstrations, etc.

Those with the biggest bullhorns tended to have the biggest wallets (and the most dubious agendas). For example, if you had $85,000 handy you could place full-page ads in four NYC dailies:

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From the Guardian:

On the evening of 19 April [1989], as 28-year-old investment banker Trisha Meili, who was white, jogged across the northern, dilapidated section of Central Park, she was attacked – bludgeoned with a rock, gagged, tied and raped. She was left for dead but discovered hours later, unconscious and suffering from hypothermia and severe brain damage.

The New York police department believed they already had the culprits in custody. […]

[The five young men] would all later deny any involvement in criminality that night, but as they were rounded up and interrogated by the police at length, they said, they were forced into confessing to the rape. […]

Four of the boys signed confessions and appeared on video without a lawyer, each arguing that while they had not been the individual to commit the rape, they had witnessed one of the others do it, thereby implicating the entire group. […]

Just two weeks after the Central Park attack, before any of the boys had faced trial and while Meili remained critically ill in a coma, Donald Trump, whose office on Fifth Avenue commanded an exquisite view of the park’s opulent southern frontier, intervened.

He paid a reported $85,000 to take out advertising space in four of the city’s newspapers, including the New York Times. Under the headline “Bring Back The Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!” and above his signature, Trump wrote: “I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. They must serve as examples so that others will think long and hard before committing a crime or an act of violence.”

But I don’t want to make this about Donald Trump…even if he is an unavoidable part of the story. Fortunately, neither does director/co-writer Ava Duvernay. That said, Duvernay does not avoid him altogether in her 5-hour Netflix miniseries When They See Us, a dramatization of the events. Trump has several “cameos”, in the form of archival TV interview footage (no actor in a bad toupee is required; she wisely lets him hang himself).

In fact Duvernay and co-writers Julian Breece, Robin Swicord, Attica Locke, and Michael Starrbury forgo focusing on the racist demagoguery and media sensationalism that fueled the rush to judgement in the court of public opinion prior to the trials; opting to explore the deeply personal tribulations of the five accused young men and their families.

The result is a shattering, sobering look at the case and its aftermath; from the inside out, as it were. The story opens the night of the incident; you see how fate and circumstance swept Yusef (Ethan Hiresse and Chris Chalk), Kevin (Assante Blackk and Justin Cunningham), Anton (Caleel Harris and Jovan Adepo), Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez and Freddy Miyares) and Korey (Jharrel Jerome) into the wrong place at the wrong time.

The quintet’s Kafkaesque nightmare begins once the scene shifts to the police station. They’ve been singled out from 30-odd young males alleged to have been roaming Central Park en masse, harassing bikers, runners, and passers-by at random (only two of the five knew each other prior to that night).

They’re taken into separate interrogation rooms for questioning. Pressured by sex crimes unit D.A. Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) to squeeze out confessions ASAP (“Every black male who was in the park last night is a suspect” she declares), the detectives proceed to pull out every old dirty trick in the book.

It’s painful to watch the lopsided match of seasoned interrogators exploiting the boys’ fear and confusion in such a cold and calculated manner. Duvernay reveals every iota of the deepening panic and despair on the young actors’ faces by holding them in long, tight closeups. Inevitably, they all break under the pressure of verbal intimidation and strong-arm tactics.

As we follow the boys’ hellish trajectory through the system-interrogation, detention, trials, sentencing and incarceration, you not only get a palpable sense of what each of them was going through, but how their families suffered as well. You also get a sense of a criminal justice system that does not always follow its provisos-like that part regarding “equal justice under the law” (especially when it comes to people of color…needs work).

While the story of the Central Park 5 does have a “happy ending” (bittersweet), Duvernay does not pull any punches regarding that what befell these kids should never, ever have happened in the first place (especially in an allegedly “free society”).

It was a perfect storm of overzealous law enforcement, socioeconomic inequity, systemic racism, and media-fueled public hysteria that put those innocent young men behind bars. I should warn you-watching this miniseries will break your heart and make you mad. As it should.

SIFF 2019: Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 25, 2019)

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Janice Engel profiles the late, great political columnist and liberal icon Molly Ivins, who suffered no fools gladly on either side of the aisle. Engel digs beneath Ivins’ bigger-than-life public personae, revealing an individual who grew up in red state Texas as a shy outsider.

Self-conscious about her physicality (towering over her classmates at 6 feet by age 12), she learned how to neutralize the inevitable teasing with her fierce intelligence and wit (I find interesting parallels with Janis Joplin’s formative Texas years). Her political awakening also came early (to the chagrin of her conservative oilman father).

The archival clips of Ivins imparting her incomparable wit and wisdom are gold; although I was left wishing Engel had included more (and I am dying to know what Ivins would say about you-know-who).

SIFF 2019: I Am Cuba (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 1, 2019)

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There is a tendency to dismiss this 1964 film about the Cuban revolution as Communist propaganda. Granted, it was produced with the full blessing of Castro’s regime, who partnered with the Soviet government to provide the funding for director Mikhail Kalatozov’s sprawling epic. Despite the dubious backers, the director was given a surprising amount of creative freedom.

On the surface, Kalatozov’s film is in point of fact a propagandist polemic; the narrative is divided into a quartet of rhetoric-infused vignettes about exploited workers, dirt-poor farmers, student activists, and rebel guerrilla fighters.

However it is also happens to be a visually intoxicating masterpiece that, despite accolades from critics over the decades, remains relatively obscure. The real stars of the film are the director and his technical crew, who will leave you pondering how they produced some of those jaw-dropping set pieces and logic-defying tracking shots!

SIFF 2019: The Realm (*1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 1, 2019)

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In this conspiracy thriller, a low-level Spanish politician becomes an unwitting fall guy for the systemized corruption in his district. He decides to blow the whistle on his backstabbing colleagues before he is forced to resign his post. It’s a good premise and has a promising start, but the narrative becomes more and more preposterous, to the point of self-parody. I sensed the film makers were aiming for Three Days of the Condor…but unfortunately what they ended up with was this 2-hour turkey.

SIFF 2019: Putin’s Witnesses (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 18, 2019)

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While watching this extraordinarily intimate behind-the-scenes look at Vladimir Putin as he (sort of) campaigns for the Russian presidency in 2000, I began to think “OK…the guy who made this film is now either (a.) Dead (b.) Being held at an undisclosed location somewhere in Siberia or (c.) Living in exile…right?” I was relieved to learn that the correct answer is (c.) – Director Vitaly Mansky is currently alive and well and living in Latvia.

In 1999, Manksy (a TV journalist at the time) was assigned to accompany Putin on the campaign trail; hence the treasure trove of footage he had at his disposal for creating this unique time capsule of a significant moment in Russian history.

The most amazing sequence doesn’t even involve Putin…Mansky and his cameras are right there in the living room of noticeably unwell outgoing president Boris Yeltsin as he anxiously watches TV coverage with his family on election night in 2000. When former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev pops onscreen in an interview, Yeltsin (likely half in the bag) flies into a rage, yelling at the TV and demanding that it be turned off (Armando Ianucci couldn’t have written a funnier scene).

SIFF 2019: Cold Case Hammarskjold (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 18, 2019)

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Initially, Mads Brugger’s documentary promises to be straightforward investigative journalism regarding the mysterious 1961 plane crash in Zambia that killed UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarsjkold. But around the halfway mark, Brugger pivots, now claiming (admitting?) it may all just be a wild conspiracy theory. Either way, it’s a riveting political thriller (and if true-very disconcerting). I was reminded of Orson Welles’ (more playful) semi-documentary ‘F’ for Fake, which teases the viewer’s perceptions regarding what it’s “about”.

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.