Category Archives: Politics

The spy who came in from the beltway: Breach ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 3, 2007)

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Early in 2001, the FBI capped off its investigation of the most serious national security breach in U.S. history by arresting Robert Hanssen, who had used his access as the Bureau’s top Soviet counter-intelligence expert to sell classified information to the KGB. That case is dramatized in Breach, a superb new film starring Chris Cooper (in an Oscar-caliber performance) as Hanssen and directed by Billy Ray, who previously helmed Shattered Glass (another true tale dealing with deception and betrayal).

The film opens just a few months prior to the arrest. A young, ambitious field agent, Eric O’Neill (Ryan Philippe) is tasked to work in Hanssen’s office as his assistant, while surreptitiously reporting on his boss’s activities (O’Neill has been told that Hanssen is under suspicion of engaging in “sexual perversion” while on the taxpayer’s dime).

The officious, guarded and inherently suspicious Hanssen is a tough nut to crack; when O’Neill introduces himself on his first day of work, Hanssen barks “Your name is Clerk, and my name is Sir” before slamming his office door shut. However, as O’Neill ingratiates himself into his boss’s life, he is surprised to find him admirable in many ways; he appears to be a true patriot, a good Catholic, and a dedicated “family man”. O’Neill can’t seem to dig up any dirt on the increasingly puzzling “perversion” charges.

When he confronts his real boss (Laura Linney) with his doubts, she lets the cat out of the bag and admits that he has been the victim of a ruse to ensure he could gain Hanssen’s trust. Hanssen, she tells him, is actually under investigation for something more ominous; he is suspected of selling information to the Soviets, possibly over a period of 20-odd years. The degree of damage from this breach is so devastating, that “We (the intelligence community) might as well have all stayed home (all those years).”

Some may find the film bereft of nail-biting suspense; but real-life espionage isn’t always as intriguing as a Le Carre novel or exciting like a Bond film. When the credits roll, Hanssen remains a cipher; although we are shown enough to quash any agent 007 comparisons (unbeknownst to his wife, he videotaped their lovemaking and got his jollies mailing copies to cronies-the very antithesis of suave and sophisticated, I’d wager). If Hanssen recalls any fictional character, it would be a protagonist from a Graham Greene novel (typically a bitter, world-weary public servant, mulled in Catholic guilt).

The film abounds with excellent performances; it’s certainly the best work Philippe has done to date. Dennis Haysbert and Gary Cole lend good support, and Bruce Davison (as O’Neill’s father) makes the most of a brief, poignant scene with Philippe.

Touch me, I’m sick: Sicko ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 7, 2007)

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Oh, Michael-you are such a pill.

Our favorite cuddly corn-fed agitprop filmmaker is back to stir up some doo-doo, spark national debate and make pinko-hatin’ ‘murcan “patriots” twitch and shout. Unless you’ve been living in a cave and have somehow missed the considerable amount of pre-release hype, you have likely gleaned that I am referring to documentary maestro Michael Moore’s meditation on the current state of the U.S. health care system, Sicko.

Moore grabs our attention right out of the gate with a real Bunuel moment. Over the opening credits, we are treated to shaky home video depicting a man pulling up a flap of skin whilst patiently stitching up a gash on his knee with a needle and thread, as Moore deadpans in V.O. (with his cheerful Midwestern countenance) that the gentleman is an avid cyclist- and one of the millions of Americans who cannot afford health insurance.

Moore doesn’t waste any time showing us the flipside of the issue-even those who are “lucky” enough to have health coverage often end up with the short end of the stick as well. A young woman, knocked unconscious in a high speed auto collision and rushed to the ER via ambulance, was later denied coverage for the ambulance ride by her insurance company because it was not “pre-approved”. She ponders incredulously as to exactly how she was supposed to have facilitated “pre-approval” in such a scenario (as do we).

The film proceeds to delve into some of some of the other complexities contributing to the overall ill health of our current system; such as the monopolistic power and greed of the pharmaceutical companies, the lobbyist graft, and (perhaps most depressing of all) the heartless bureaucracy of a privatized health “coverage” system that focuses first and foremost on profit, rather than on actual individual need.

I know what you’re thinking-kind of a downer, eh? Well, this is a Michael Moore film, so there are plenty of laughs injected to help salve our tears. Most of the levity occurs as Moore travels abroad to the socialized nations of Canada, Britain, France and Cuba to do a little comparison shopping for alternate health care systems.

Much of the vitriol and spite aimed at Sicko seems to have been triggered by this aspect of the film. Indeed, the film has only been open for a week, and already the wing nut comment threads are ablaze with about a million variations on “Well if you think it’s so much better than America then why don’t you just move there you big fat Commie traitor.” (In his typically sly fashion, Moore leads into his Cuba segment by weaving in footage and music from vintage Communist propaganda films; knowing full well that those with small minds will take the bait and completely miss the irony.)

The classic Moore moment in Sicko arrives as he sails into Guantanamo Bay with a megaphone and a boatload of financially tapped Ground Zero volunteer rescue worker veterans who are all suffering from serious respiratory illnesses. After learning that the Gitmo detainees all enjoy completely free, round the clock medical care on the taxpayer’s nickel, he figures that the state of the art prison hospital wouldn’t mind offering the same services to some genuine American heroes. Of course, the personnel manning the heavily armed U.S. military patrol boats in the bay fail to see his logic, and they are unceremoniously turned away.

Undeterred, he decides to give the Cuban health care system a spin (while they’re in the neighborhood-why not?) They are welcomed unconditionally, and receive prompt and thorough care. Is it a propaganda move by the Cubans? Probably. Does Moore conveniently fail to mention the minuses of the Cuban health care system (or the Canadian, British and French systems for that matter)? Sure-but who cares?

The pluses greatly outweigh the minuses, especially when compared to the current health care mess in our own country (at least he’s showing enough sack to step up and give people some alternatives to mull over). Moore makes his point quite succinctly-the need for health care is a basic human need. It should never hinge on economic, political or ideological factors. As one of his astute interviewees observes, it is a right, not a privilege.

In fact, this may qualify as the least polemical of Moore’s films to date. Consequently, it may disappoint or perplex some of his usual supporters, especially those who always anticipate that a Moore film will give them a vicarious “let’s go stick it to The Man” thrill ride.

Things are not so black and white this time out; the issue at hand is too complex. I don’t think there is any filmmaker out there right now who could sum it all up (tidy solutions and all) in less than 2 hours, but Moore has done an admirable job of scratching the surface, and most importantly, he manages to do so in an entertaining and engaging fashion. After all, isn’t that why we go to the movies?

Children of Morons: Idiocracy **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 10, 2007)

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If the 2007 Super Bowl commercials and ever-escalating voter participation in shows like American Idol are any indication, the dumbed-down “future” of America depicted in Mike Judge’s lightweight allegory, Idiocracy, is perhaps only belaboring the obvious.

Army librarian Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) loves his cushy job. It’s the perfect gig, because, as he tells a fellow soldier- “No one ever comes here” (I think I just heard every librarian reading this review say “No kidding.”). Much to Joe’s chagrin, however, his gravy train is derailed when he is “volunteered” as a guinea pig for a top secret military experiment.

Joe is assigned to spend a year in a suspended animation pod, a process the military is testing for typically nefarious reasons. Joe is not alone, however. A hooker named Rita from “the private sector” (SNL cast member Maya Rudolph) is also enlisted. When our intrepid pair finally awake, it’s a tad more than a year later. After a series of silly events, they in fact find themselves in the year 2505 (whoops!). Does hilarity ensue?

Well…the America of 2505 is not so much dystopian, as it is dys-stupido. As the droll narrator explains, evolution has favored those who reproduce the most (you know…morons!). The #1 TV show is called “Ow My Balls”, and the #1 film is “Ass” (kind of says it all). Anyone who conjugates a verb or speaks in complete sentences is accused of talking “like a fag”. In a nutshell, this is what would happen if the entire U.S. gene pool was whittled down exclusively to the descendants of Gallagher’s fan base.

If you’ve surrendered to the premise at this point in the film, you won’t flinch when the President, a former WWF champion (not such a stretch, considering former and current guvs Ventura and Schwarzenegger) ends up appointing Joe his Secretary of the Interior.

Judge isn’t really saying anything new here; beyond pointing out that we live in a dumbed-down culture (yawn). There are a few inspired moments; particularly the keen observation that the progressive reduction of America’s average IQ is directly proportionate to the ever-increasing square footage of the average Costco store.

There is a bit of irony I can’t get past; it was Mike Judge who created MTV’s Beavis and Butthead, which one might argue played its own part in the “dumbing down” of a generation that came of age in the 90’s (despite its satirical intentions, I think B & B ended up as role models for some, not unlike those good ol’ boys who completely missed the irony and merrily sang along with Borat’s “Throw the Jew Down The Well”… discuss!)

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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There have been a good number of excellent documentaries examining various aspects of the Sixties protest movement (The War At Home, Berkeley In The Sixties and the more recent Weather Underground), but none focusing specifically on the members of the armed forces who openly opposed the Vietnam war-until now.

Sir! No Sir! is a fascinating look at the GI anti-war movement during the era. Director David Zeigler combines present-day interviews with archival footage to good effect in this well-paced documentary. Most people who have seen Oliver Stone’s Born On The Fourth Of July were likely left with the impression that paralyzed Vietnam vet and activist Ron Kovic was the main impetus and focus of the GI movement, but Kovic’s story was in fact only one of thousands (Kovic, interestingly, is never mentioned in Ziegler’s film).

While the aforementioned Kovic received a certain amount of media attention at the time, the full extent and history of the involvement by military personnel has been suppressed from public knowledge for a number of years, and that is the focus of Sir! No Sir!.

In one very astutely chosen archival clip, a CBS news anchor somberly announces that there appears to be some problems with “troop morale” in Vietnam (while in the meantime, behind closed doors, the US military was apparently imprisoning dissenting GIs left and right under “incitement to mutiny” charges, sometimes just for being overheard expressing anti-war sentiments).

All the present-day interviewees (military vets) have interesting (and at times emotionally wrenching) stories to share. Jane Fonda speaks candidly about her infamous “FTA” (“Fuck the Army”) shows that she organized for troops as an antidote to the somewhat creaky and more traditional Bob Hope USO tours. Well worth your time. The film would make an excellent double bill with the classic documentary Hearts and Minds (available from Criterion).