Film Review “1917” (2020)

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“1917” is an unusual film, somewhat like “Dunkirk” (2017), a vision of war through the eyes of individuals. Two men have to trek across a dangerous terrain in order to save the lives of 1,600 others, and time is a factor. It’s said to be the opposite of “Saving Private Ryan (1998), one soldier on a mission to save 1600 rather that a group trying to save one. There are two really interesting sides to this film.

1. The filming. The cinematography by Roger Deakins (nominated for an Academy Award) is simply phenomenal. This is the same guy that thrilled audiences with “Sicario”, “Skyfall”, “No Country for Old Men” and “Blade Runner 2049”. Seemingly filmed with one camera in real time with no apparent cutting, making the film apparently seamless. One long shot. The color and set is magnificent, I would imagine as accurate as how it actually appeared in 1917. Director Sam Mendes takes the audience along for the ride through the carnage rather than just as observers, and it’s a sad, deadly journey that seems to go on with no end.

2. The film depicts the death and brutality of the First World War (WW I) in very graphic terms, sparing little. The enormity of WW I is not fully appreciated today if for no other reason than the participants who would remember it are all dead and the incredible senselessness of the whole affair (which was thought by Great Britain would be over in a few weeks). In the previous 40 years before 1914, Great Britain had been involved in the minor leagues of conflict. In 40 war skirmishes Britain lost less than 40,000 men. However, in the Somme Offensive in France (1916), 58,000 Allied soldiers were dead in one day’s fighting, the bloodiest single day of face-to-face (non-atomic) ground warfare in the history of the English speaking world. For perspective, in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, France suffered an estimated 270,000 battlefield casualties. France surpassed that number in the first three weeks of WW I. In a two-year span, the life expectancy of a French male dropped to 27 years of age.

Roughly ten million soldiers and 6 million civilians died in WW I, mostly as a result of incredibly absurd battle tactics designed to kill huge masses but resulting in extended stalemates. All this for what amounted to an extended royal family feud acting out old grievances. The sheer incompetence of strategy and tactics was exceeded only by their callousness toward those dying for them. The two survivors, Britain and France would be so shattered as to never fully recover.

Warning- not for children, very vivid slaughter and devastation scenes.

Some interesting asides- Over 5,200 feet of trenches were dug for the film (just under one mile). The verse that Schofield recites to the French baby is part of the poem “The Jumblies” by Edward Lear. In the scene where a soldier bleeds to death, his face gets paler and paler until it’s paper-white. This is a medical reality that many films overlook when someone bleeds out.

I give this film 4 of 5 Lee-Enfield .303 bolt-action rifles. Recommended by me. (Best Picture nomination for 2020)

David Crippen, MD, FCCM
Critical Care Medicine (ret)

Film Review: Ford v. Ferrari (2019)

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Well, this film “Ford v. Ferrari” is a very surprising hit that I
never expected. It never crossed my mind that the subject matter would
be of the slightest interest to most of the movie-going population. But
it was the number one grossing film following its weekend debut and
Rotten Tomatoes gave it a very healthy 92% with an audience approval
rating of 98%. So I guess it rates a review by me.
Now, I must tell you before you start that there is no way to review
this film without recalling how the history proceeds, avoiding
recounting the drama that’s most of the film. My version concentrates
on history and that might be a bit lengthy. So find a quiet time when
you’re not doing much else to absorb this review. I think you’ll
find it interesting even if you don’t know a Ferrari from a fuzz-ball.
The film recounts a lot of history between Henry Ford II of Detroit and
Enzo Ferrari in Modena, Italy. Ford’s acolytes, including Lee Iacocca
were looking to expand the brand and got interested in buying Ferrari as
a sports car portion of their brand. Enzo Ferrari had been racing with
Alfa Romero in the 1920s, eventually to start his own car construction
company around 1933, named after him and flying the iconic black
prancing horse, borrowed from an Italian WW I fighter planes’ nose
cone. Enzo Ferrari’s strong personality and controversial management
style became notorious. He poured all of his passion (and money) into
racing, very successfully, especially in the 60s. Only a few Americans
had ever driven for Ferrari, Phil Hill, the only American Ferrari driver
to win the Formula 1 championship in 1961. Mario Andretti was born in
Italy.
However, Ferrari’s business went bankrupt, as the income from his road
cars could not sustain the flood of money into racing for virtually
every category. A 12 cylinder Ferrari 275 would sell for about US$6000
in 1965. They’re worth millions if you can find one now. Henry Ford
figured he could pick up Ferrari for pennies on the dollar and so sent
Iacocca to Italy to make a lowball offer. The old man then went to Fiat,
showed them the Ford offer and negotiated a much better deal including
Ferrari’s continuance in their racing efforts. Ferrari then went out
of his way to insult the entire Ford team, especially Henry II and
Americans in general.
This prompted a furious Henry to get even and he figured the best plan
was to outrun Ferrari in one of the most famous races in the world, the
24 hours of Le Mans, where Ferrari had been dominant for years and
Americans had never put forth much effort. Carroll Shelby, a very
successful American car builder (Cobra cars) became involved and along
with mechanic/driver Ken Miles, designed and constructed a GT racing car
to compete with the very Successful Ferrari 330P at Le Mans in the
mid-60s.
In 1964, Ferrari won Le Mans first, second and third (one of the drivers
Lorenzo Bandini, I’ll discuss later). However, a Shelby Cobra was in
the game, winning 4th place, arriving at the flag before two other
Ferraris. In 1965, the Ferrari contenders all blew head gaskets and
didn’t finish. Porsche took most of the places. In 1966, however and
where most of the film takes place, the American Shelby GT cars took
1,2,3 all arriving at the flag together. The Ferraris blew engines
trying to keep up with the Fords. This was the highlight of the Ford
effort. In 1969, the Ford GT took 1,3,5 but in 1970, Porsche wiped the
field. The American effort essentially fizzled at this point due to the
incredible amounts of money spent that, like Ferrari, threatened to
bankrupt Ford.
Le Mans is the most famous race in the world. It’s the third leg of
the “Triple Crown” (Indianapolis 500, Le Mans and the Monaco Formula
1 Grand Prix). Unlike Formula 1, it’s an endurance race on a mix of
closed public roads and dedicated sections of racing track, in which
racing teams must balance the demands of speed with the cars’ ability to
run for 24 hours without mechanical failure. Of the 60 cars that
qualified for the 2018 race, 41 cars lasted the full duration. There are
many varieties of non-GP cars actually racing at the same time,
including, interestingly, the Austin Healy “Bugeye” Sprite (42
horsepower). The course is 8.5 miles long and in 24 hours, the cars will
traverse over 3100 miles. The infamous Mulsanne Straight was 3.7 miles
in length and in the old days, before it was shortened in the 90s. The
only speed limit for the GT cars was how many RPM they could reach
without the engine blowing up. 240 MPH was not unusual.
In the original race, drivers stood opposite their cars on the opposite
side of the track. When the flag dropped, the drivers ran to their cars,
jumped in, started them up and proceeded onto the track in a big crowd.
Any of you have Porsches; you’ll notice that the key/ignition is on
the left side of the steering wheel (most are on the right). This is
because Porsche figured out a driver could jump in the car and turn the
ignition with the left hand while simultaneously shifting into gear with
the right, conserving a second or two on the start. All Porsches still
have left hand ignition.
In the film and in real life, there was a very angry and pitched
competition between the Fords and Ferraris. In the film, there are a few
cuts of the Ferrari drivers seated in their cars as they fought for
place in the race. The Ferrari drivers appeared very elegant, with
barely a smirk as they passed the Fords. (Who are these posers??). I
suspect these Ferrari drivers are remembrances of Lorenzo Bandini who
Won Le Mans in 1963 and was driving a Ferrari in 1964 when Ford arrived.
He was a very smooth, unflappable driver. Of note, Bandini helped
director John Frankenheimer with his movie ”Grand Prix” (1966) by
recommending an interesting location, the Harbor Chicanes at Monaco, for
a crash scene. This spot would be the site of Bandini’s death in the
Formula 1 race one year later.
The film is very well done, the actors are suburb and the racing scenes
are really exciting, well photographed. There is a real plot to the
film, unlike Steve McQueen’s version in 1971. Those not particularly
interested in the cars would enjoy the progress of the plot. One of the
interesting characterizations was a thought expressed by Carroll Shelby
(Matt Damon), and I paraphrase here, it would be sad if a person never
found meaning in their lives and it was very admirable if a person found
a calling that satisfied them. But some find an overwhelming passion
that saturates everything they do and those persons “must” satisfy
this passion. There is no other option. It saturates their life
completely.
Such a person was driver/mechanic Ken Miles (Christian Bale) who
“became” part of the car they were building, understanding the
smallest minutia of the car, driving and improving every part of it for
hours and days at a time. Ken was directly responsible for the success
of the car and was one of the winning driver team at Le Mans in 1966. He
was killed testing a car at Riverside in August of 1966. The steel roll
cage in the Mk IV mandated as a direct result of Miles’s death probably
saved the life of Mario Andretti, who crashed during the 1967 24 Hours
of Le Mans but escaped injury because of the added structural
protection.
An interesting aside: Keep your eye on the two (consecutive)
wristwatches Matt Damon is wearing. In the early part of the movie,
it’s a white face with two black sub-dials. Later in the movie, it’s
a white face with three black sub-dials. There was some discussion
about this and the preponderance of opinion seems to be that these
timepieces are the Heuer 3647 Carrera white/two black dials (value now
about $3500). Heuer Carrera panda three dial chronograph ($5500) Heuer
didn’t become TAG Heuer untill 1985 (see photos).
So if you’re still with me, I definitely agree with Rotten Tomatoes,
this is an interesting film on every level. They’ve played fast and
loose with real history, but it isn’t really noticeable and most of
the history is accurate. I’ve tried to augment the drama with
historical context.
I give it easily four 7000 RPMs out of five.
Here’s what it looks like to go 220 miles per hour in a Mazda GT (Yes,
Mazda- they did well in these races). It’s fascinating. Probably
1989, pre-shortening of the Mulsanne. Wait a bit till he enters the
Mulsanne to get the proper feel for it. You’ll know when he’s there.

Review: “The Joker” (2019)

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UnknownReview:  “The Joker” (2019)

The DC Comics “Batman” trilogy The Dark Knight” told the full story of the Batman. The first of the trilogy was “Batman Begins” (2005) with an all-star cast including Christian Bale. Later, “The Dark Knight” (2008), starred the late Heath Ledger (Posthumous Academy Award) and “The Dark Knight Rises (2012)” finished off the trilogy, The Joker first appeared in the debut issue of the comic book “Batman” April 25, 1940 and has been a consistent villain, played by various actors including Jack Nicholson and Jared Leto.

“The Joker” (2019) is very different film than you might have expected. This film delves into an intense character study of Arthur, an authentically “mentally Ill” man without any recourse or even remedy. Arthur has been abused in various ways since a small child. He has “never experienced a happy moment in his entire life”. He absorbs brutality as an adult from bullies all around him with no conception of recourse. It’s just a usual part of his life. He attends weekly interviews with some variety of public health nurse who tells Arthur he needs to try harder with no real vision of what may make a difference in his life. She gives him prescriptions for several different drugs and he goes about his life as if on rails.

Then a well meaning friend gives Arthur a gift that he really doesn’t understand at first, but which comes into a clear meaning later during one of the familiar bullying episodes that postmark his life. From then on, mental illness exacerbated by abuse takes on a different vibe. The chronic misery and anguish of brain dysfunction begins to see an outlet never conceived of before, an outlet that taps some previous skill sets previously concealed by shambolic brain wiring.

The previously simple man evolves to a very simple but dangerous man indeed. A nemesis of Batman for 80 years of DC Comics. The performance by Joaquin Phoenix is exceptional. A florid, Pagliacci-like sad clown turned mad-on-a-mission clown. If it’s possible to transmit the emotions of anxiety, depression, pathos and confused life-paths from a screen to humankind in an audience, beware. This film accomplishes that intent extremely accurately via the direction of Todd Phillips (Borat- 2006, War Dogs- 2018), Produced by Bradley Cooper et al and cinematography by Lawrence Sher.  “The Joker” is a vivid connection for Arthur to his expanding universe, brutally shared with the audience.

This examination of the character and life course of the hopeless mentally ill with no real recourse to anything better is truly remarkable as the viewer experiences an evolution to one of the possible, maybe inevitable outcomes that society facilitates.

Interesting aside:  Watch for “White Room” by Cream near the film finale.

I give this film 5 of 5 whiteface makeups.  Requires attention and focus.  Some violence. Adults only. Must see.

 

Film review: “Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

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Difficult to make what amounts to a docudrama about a subject so very much larger than life. Reviews have reflected this fact for the production, but lead player Rami Malik (from Mr. Robot on cable) is getting serious Oscar buzz, and deservedly so. He has Freddy’s moves nailed.

The actual production is getting OK reviews, especially from the Oracle, Rotten Tomatoes. Not bad or even mediocre but “good”. Maybe damned by faint praise. The production is clearly a celebration of the inimitable music of Queen, trying hard to avoid the stigma of just another rocker, felled by various forms of tragic disease.

I’m pretty familiar with the history, having read several books on the subject, and I can assure you that the film does a pretty good job of relating it. But the film belongs to Malik who really brings Freddy to life; the rest of the cast in various supporting roles. There are a lot of flaws in the history that the film glosses over, but like “Catch-22” (1970) it’s far too complex to squeeze into a two-hour movie.

One of the centerpieces of the film is Live Aid, constructed by Bob Geldolf of the Irish group the Boomtown Rats, said at the time to be the largest group of paying customers to a rock concert in history. ~ 100,000. This concert said to be televised to 40% of the world’s population, estimated incoming revenue of eventually 150 million Pounds. Everyone who’s anyone in Rock was there but also some noteable absences (Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel…..)

Rami Malek watched Liza Minelli’s performance in “Cabaret” (1972) as inspiration for Freddy’s moves but a British choreographer actually coached him for many hours. All the music in the film was backing tracks except “Another one bites the dust” is which the movie band actually played their own instruments and sang. Malik’s voice was mixed with the real Freddy and Canadian singer Marc Mertel.

Through his entire life, Freddy proclaimed Mary Austin as the “love of his life” even after she married elsewhere and had a child by another man. She stayed close to him for his entire life. When Freddy died in 1991, he is said to have bequeathed her half his entire fortune. She is said to live in his home in London today.

As of 2005, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, Queen albums have spent a total of twenty-six years on the UK Album Charts, more time than any other musical act. In 2006, Queen’s “greatest Hits” album was the all-time best-selling album in UK Chart history, more copies than its nearest competitor, the Beatles’ “Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band”  album. Inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, the band is the only group in which every member has composed more than one chart-topping single, and all four members were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003

Bassest John Decacon left queen immediately after Freddy’s death and never played with the band again. He remained friends with all. Best of my recollection, Brian May is named number 5 by Rolling Stone of the top ten guitarists in the world. Queen went on to play with two lead singers, Paul Rodgers of “Bad Company” for a while and finally ending up in the past few years with Adam Lambert of “American Idol”. They’re considered a nostalgia band now.

The film portrays several songs from Live Aid in 1985, but there is a glaring omission. They missed Freddy singing “Love of my life”, he originally wrote for Mary Austin.  Brian May appears on stage sitting in a chair playing an acoustic guitar and Freddy sings with nothing else but that simple accompaniment. At some point, he finishes a stanza, then stops, looks out into the vast audience and quietly proclaim: “I still love you”, then turns and walks off the stage. The audience want completely nuts.

Watch for the real Freddy and the real band performing during the closing credits.

I think the production is stellar, well photographed and well edited. There are glosses and mistakes in the history, but that’s OK. It isn’t a “real” documentary. The real star of this film is Rami Malek who I think absolutely nailed Freddy as much as is humanly possible.

Recommended by me.

I give it four of five overbites.

 

 

“A Star is Born” (2018)

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“A star is born” (2018)

Loosely the fourth version of the same drama that began in 1937 with Janet Gaynor (her only color film) and Adolph Menjou. Followed by a second version with Judy Garland and James Mason in 1954 (Judy Garland was the same age as Lady GaGa), followed by a third version in 1976 starring Kris Krisopherson and Barbara Streisand, for which Streisand received an Oscar for best original song (Evergreen).

The fourth version stars Bradley Cooper and Lady GaGa (Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) and it has been upgraded an amazing amount of detail. Bradley Cooper decided to play and sing live, necessitating extensive vocal training for him. For his role, Bradley was extensively trained in guitar and how to present himself like a musician for a year in his basement by Lukas Nelson, son of Willie Nelson. For Bradley’s stage performances, he’s backed by Lukas Nelson and his band “Promise of the real”.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T17dAHtMB_s

Now comes the real blast- Bradley Cooper learned his extensive lessons well.  He emerges with world class lead singer chops and…….Lord have mercy……the “moves” of an incredible country rock singer.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdjNm9UzjoY

Lady GaGa noted on some talk show that she didn’t know who the character with plain hair and no makeup was. She had to work to find that character as she considers her life as bleach blond, a ton of makeup and lots of outrageous clothes. But in the end, the two come together to make an amazing connection.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nSbzyEJ8X9E

The story line takes the same form as the other iterations; the girl goes on to emerge as a Britney Spears clone with fairly predictable outcome.

The film is magnificent. Very watchable. Highly recommended by me.

I give it five fresh faced Allys

Film review: Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018)

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Tom Cruise is truly a guilty pleasure and a paradox. He should have at least been nominated for an Academy Award for “Risky Business” in 1983.  It was his landmark film. Since then he’s been in some very good films
and some stinkers too (The Mummy” (2017). Otherwise he’s never got an award bigger than being nominated for a Golden Globe.Nominated for an Oscar three times, won zero. His “Mission Impossible” franchise is good enough to be entertaining but he’s really now known for doing incredible stunts and getting away with most of them at his age, including breaking his ankle on an impossible building-to-building jump.

Accordingly, in this latest edition, he does some really wild and
dangerous stunts, including the aforementioned jump that shattered his
ankle; he ran on it to get past the camera. Wildly riding a motorcycle
weaving through the streets of Paris (yes, that’s him) then hitting the
fender of a car head-on with a motorcycle, sailing over the hood and
bouncing/rolling on-camera. I knew that hurt. Free climbing a
straight-up cliff wall. High altitude-low opening aircraft jump for
which Cruise trained for a year. Climbing a rope to a helicopter belly
at thousands of feet.

It’s a guilty pleasure because the stunts, action and beautiful locales
are worth the price of a 3 D ticket. Each of these stunts you can
instantly recognize Tom. It’s pretty amazing at age 56. The action
scenes are really incredible, difficult to imagine how they did them
(computers, of course) especially the helicopter scenes which are just
insane. The locations where these stunts take place are amazingly
picturesque and shot on real locations. While the movie’s final portion
is set in the Kashmir region in India, which is primarily situated in
the Himalayas, its on-location filming took place entirely in New
Zealand and Norway, both of which feature more dramatic mountainous
backdrops. mThe cars are BMW M-series, I think the M5 (F90) which had
not been seen on public roads. Cruise’s ride in a fabulous BMW R nineT,
a custom machine with everything, and great looks too.

So, in the end, this is not only a serious thriller with massive effects
and beautiful locale, it’s a Tom Cruise masterpiece. It’s a little long
and some of the ploy raveling and unraveling very quickly is hard to
follow but it’s definitely a delight. See it in 3 D. 22 years of Mission
Impossible.

I give it four and a half classic BMW scramblers. Must see

“The Americans” finale (FX): A masterpiece

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An expertly matched young Soviet couple extensively trained in espionage, martial arts and whatever else it takes to “pass as Americans”.  Six (season) years of plotting, manipulating, ferreting out political and military secrets to benefit the Soviet Union (in the Cold War 80s), disguises and always one-step ahead of the FBI. Complex issues of loyalty, principle and betrayal- ultimately leading to an inevitable crisis climax.

But those years unexpectedly assimilated them into American life more than either thought, concurrently running a business and creating a family. A male bonding between two lonely men playing cat and mouse, neither understanding the inevitable consequence.

And then, following the inevitable betrayal from a peer, it was over, leading to one of the most emotional, heart breaking hours in television history.

The season ender (Season 6, Episode 10- May 31, 2018) cascaded into 11 minutes of confrontation and emotional chaos between the Jennings and Stan. The painful decision to abandon innocents forever and a shocking scene literally as far as a border, literally and metaphorically, accompanied by the U2 song “With or Without You” (which was perfect.)

There is no killing, no guns, and no violence. There is only the stage set for whatever might come next. Henry tearfully stares off into the distance as hears the truth sitting on a hockey bleacher. Paige knocks back a shot of cold Vodka in a “safe house”, quietly awaiting what comes next.  But we don’t know what will come next, only that there will be a next we’ll never see.

Philip and Elizabeth stand by the side of a road in front of the Moscow State University, glancing out over the city. They made it home, but where is home? They willbe forever haunted by their choice to leave the children behind.The life they grew into is gone and they no longer recognize their new home. Last words spoken (in Russian): “We’ll get used to it”. We see the end of all their stories but we have no idea of their future and we probably never will.

The Americans is one of the top five valued TV series ever created. The finale is steeped in quiet but wrenching emotional turmoil.  Not a dry eye in the house. I seriously doubt if we’ll ever see anything like it again.

Parenthetically, the Director was very astute in picking parts of the soundtrack. I have created a brief youtube of two clips from the finale, each with a sound track that worked actually perfectly. First is from the hauntingly beautiful “Brothers in Arms” (Dire Straits- 1985). The second with “With or without you” (U2- 1987), perfection for that particular portion of the film.  You really don’t need to know much about what’s progressing in the film clip, just watch and listen to how the music clip infiltrates and adds texture to the clip. I’m using these clips and some others in my music class at Pitt in July.

https://youtu.be/G6tQinDddjM

If you can find the episode (S6E10) I highly recommend watching it. You really don’t know much more about what came before to enjoy the mastery of it.

 

Film Review: “Ready Player One” (2018)

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Stephen Spielberg is an interesting director. Over the years he’s terrified us (Jaws), invoked science as reality (Close Encounters…), made Harrison Ford a superstar (Indiana Jones X 2), viewed the love of a child for a space creature (ET), had dinosaurs chasing the park visitors (Jurassic Park), depicted war as it really was (Saving Private Ryan) and brought viewers to sober reflection (Schindler’s List). The list goes on. He is the highest grossing director in history. Two Oscars and five nominations.

“Ready Player One” would not seem like a typical Spielberg effort, but he’s proven to be extremely imaginative over the years. I think Spielberg looked into the future and saw that CGI (Computer Graphic Interface) is going to be a permanent vision of film. I think he figured that this being the case, why not make a film that combines typical Spielberg story line quality with totally state-of-the-art computer graphics as a point toward the future. Spielberg is successful in “Ready Player One”. He hits both nails on the head, presenting a high quality story line with truly amazing graphics, especially in the 3D version.

The storyline, set far in the future involves an adolescent boy who escapes the desolation of the real world by a virtual reality game called “Oasis” in which any player can be anyone he wants, anywhere he wants in a fantasy world that’s as real as the player wants it to be. The original creator of this game (played by Mark Rylance) dies, but before his death understood that the game and the world needed to be protected from corporate suits that would do what Comcast is currently doing to the Internet. He established a game where only the smartest of potential players could possibly get to the end and inherent the ownership of the virtual world, saving it from the suits.

The interface between real humans and their virtual reality counterparts is fascinating. The graphics of the virtual world is spellbinding. The characters are well played, the production is immaculate and, of course, the direction is pure Spielberg. There are tips of the hat to many 1980s zeitgeists and I loved the 80s soundtrack.

Parenthetically, I waited to the end to see the cast and I recognized exactly one name. The wonderful actor (my age) Mark Rylance in a throw away role in which he did well anyway. I recognized none of the other actors that reminded me that am approaching three generations removed from them. I picked up a “People” magazine in my dentist’s waiting room and I knew exactly none of those people focused in it.

The professor in my Pitt class asked the youngsters if they had ever seen “Dr. Strangelove”. Not one hand went up. Even Rolling Stone, a magazine I have had a subscription to since it was a tabloid in the 60s (I wrote an article for them once), is now filled with musicians I never heard of or have not the slightest interest in. I only have two channels on my satellite car radio. 60s and 70s. I’m slowly but most assuredly drifting off into the sunset, filled with irrelevancy.

It’s a really good film. Recommended by me.

 

Film Review: “The Post” (2018)

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“The Post” is fairly dry history made more interesting by putting two world class actors Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep together with Steven Spielberg. Other major players include Bob Odenkirk (“Better Call Saul”) and Matthew Rhys (“The Americans”). It’s the story of how the press handled the infamous “Pentagon Papers” in 1971, leading to one of the most important Supreme Court decisions in modern history.

June 30, 1971- Justice Hugo Black: ” Madison and the other Framers of the
First Amendment, able men that they were, wrote in language they earnestly
believed could never be misunderstood: “Congress shall make no law . . .
abridging the freedom . . . of the press. . . .” Both the history and language
of the First Amendment support the view that the press must be left free to
publish news, whatever the source, without censorship, injunctions, or
prior restraints”.

The production and, of course, direction of the film is immaculate. Hanks and Streep are the world class performers that they are. It all comes together to form a very convincing potboiler, but the real history of Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers is diluted somewhat by the drama surrounding owner of the Washington Post, Katharine Graham’s quandaries as to whether to go against Nixon et al, who promised to destroy the paper. Frankly, I think the producers of the film thought the hand wringing Kate Graham was more interesting than the Papers, especially in this era where women want to be portrayed as more decisive than they have been portrayed in the past. Of course, Streep does a masterful job.

But I thought the history of the Pentagon Papers is much more interesting and not explored fully in the film. The film actually starts with the collection of the Papers but the history behind that collection is important. Accordingly, what follows is an explanation (by me) that lays out the real history of how the Pentagon Papers came to be. The film then explains their importance in terms of the attempt by Nixon to undermine a free press. The film does a good job of that.

So, brace yourselves, here is a mercifully brief history of what happened that set the stage for Daniel Ellsberg copying the 7000 or so pages that describe in detail how the American public was systematically lied to regarding a conflict no one believed could be won but refused to quit and appear as “losers”. If you understand the history, the film makes more sense.

————————————-

The history behind the “Pentagon Papers” (Daniel Ellsworth, 1971) The 19th and early 20th century were the years of colonialism, powerful countries conquering and occupying foreign areas mainly for the purpose of acquiring natural resources. Following World War II, the Japanese overthrew the French Colonial regime but were overthrown in 1945 by Ho Chi Minh and it’s military arm, the Viet Minh. The anti-communist State of Vietnam was established under Bao Dai in 1949.

Ho Chi Minh extended the conflict to unite Vietnam under communism until the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 the French departed Vietnam. Following the Geneva Accord of 27 April 1954, agreements were made granting Vietnam independence from France. On July 20, 1954, the countries attending the Geneva Conference agreed that there should be a cease fire and a partition line at the 17th parallel should be established to separate the powers and that free elections should be held to establish reunification in July of 1956. This accord was signed only by the French and the (Northern) Viet Minh, who were assured of winning any such election because of their national popularity. However, the United States (under then President Dwight Eisenhower) and the anti-communist portion of the country in the south, under it’s president Bao Dai refused to sign the accord, essentially guaranteeing free elections would not occur.

The communist influenced north under Ho Chi Minh then continued active warfare against the south to unify the country under communism. This was the beginning of President Dwight Eisenhower’s influence in the evolution and revolution of Vietnam. Eisenhower was very wary of what’s popularly been called the “horizontal spread” of communism, a political culture anathema to the United States. This notion was created following the Soviet Union’s violent annexation of numerous border states following World War II. Eisenhower and others believed that if Vietnam were allowed to unify under communism, it would be impossible to curtail the spread to other neighboring countries. Eisenhower didn’t want to be accused be accused of having lost Indochina to the Communists as Truman had lost China after communists had been successful in capturing that country.

Accordingly, Eisenhower began that strategy of military assistance to the anti-communist forces in the southern area of the country under Ngo Dinh Diem who refused to hold national elections. He had previously assisted French military actions in the action before Dien Bien Phu. Eisenhower’s role in the evolution of Vietnam as a country is important for the following reasons:

1. His fear of the spread of communism overwhelmed the premise that countries should have the right to self-determinism, and that they may freely choose outcomes not necessarily friendly to all other countries.

2. His “cold war” bias obliterated the fact that he was supporting a brutally repressive regime, at least as unacceptable as and probably worse than any communist regime.

3. Eisenhower continued the political objective began by Truman in 1950 to contain the spread of communism by providing military assistance to the non-communistic forces.

In 1955, Eisenhower provided the Military Assistance Advisory Group” to train the South Vietnamese troops. This action begins the “official” military action in Vietnam and American soldier deaths from this point on are memorialized in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. In 1967 and especially 1968, the Democratic Party in the United States was in turmoil over the Vietnam conflict. The 1968 Democratic Convention on Chicago escalated to a full-scale riot, contributing to the spin off violent activists. Bowing to increasing criticism of the war effort, especially following the violent Tet Offensive in January of 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson withdrew his candidacy for the 1968 election.

The assassinations of and Martin Luther King on April 4,1968 and Robert F. Kennedy on June 6, 1968 further threw the Democratic Party into shambles. Nixon shrewdly assessed the situation as amenable to a Republican candidate to gain a strong portion of the voting public looking for stability in the country. This was a correct assessment. Running on a “unite the country” and “End the Vietnam conflict (Peace with Honor)” platform, Nixon was elected by a wide margin against his opponents Hubert Humphrey and Alabama Governor George Wallace who may have split the Democratic vote. When Nixon took office on January 20, 1969, the war was extremely unpopular in the United States and there were violent protests against it, including attacks on military installations and providers of military supplies.

In mid-1969, Nixon began negotiations with North Vietnam to find a peaceful solution. Peace talks began in Paris but did not produce any significant accord. Meanwhile, Nixon had approved secret bombing missions in North Vietnam and also in Cambodia. Every month that elapsed between Nixon’s promise to end the war and its continuation resulted in hundreds of American troops killed. The tragic massacre at My Lai in March of 1968 and the shooting of four students at (then) Kent State College on May 4, 1968 sparked International outrage as to American conduct during the war.

The Nixon administration was viewed as callous and indifferent to the escalating outrages related to the deteriorating war effort. In 1971, Daniel Ellsburg, a former State Department operative and anti-war activist, surreptitiously copied a study prepared by the Department of Defense showing that the Johnson administration had systematically lied to the public and congress about the potential for the Americans to actually win the war. Nixon was aware of the content of these missives and reacted by trying to obtain an injunction for their publication, which failed via the Supreme Court.

The so-called “Pentagon Papers” revealed that the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, had progressively misled the public regarding reality of the war intentions and possible outcomes, especially Eisenhower negating the Geneva Accords of 1954. However, Nixon reasoned that the actions of past presidents might soften his own actions. Ellsburg was important also as he provided the incentive for Nixon to break the law in search of future “leakers” of sensitive government documents, eventually leading, of course, to the Watergate drama. The film is world class good. It gets four and a half Hairpieces. Could have explained the history a little better.

David Crippen, MD, FCCM
Professor Emeritus
University of Pittsburgh (Ret)

Film Review: “Molly’s Game” (2017)

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Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba in MOLLY’S GAME

There was a discussion a while back as to the difference between “artistic” and “entertaining” in film. A lot of Artsy stuff with big name actors got high ratings for artistry but were virtually unwatchable (anything by Ingmar Bergman) and a lot of poorly rated films were magnificent (“Used Cars” (1980). But occasionally you run across one that’s both incredibly well produced and spellbinding. “Molly’s Game” is such a film.

First thing you do is look for the performers’ pedigree and track record. Idris Elba- Multiple nominations for everything. Golden Globe for “Luther” (2012). Incredible performance in “The Wire” (2005). Jessica Chastain. Golden Globe nominee for “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012). Nominated for two Oscars. Nominated for Best Actress tonite- Golden Globes 2018- Multi-Oscar winner and multitalented Kevin Costner. Director Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing (’99-’06), “A few Good Men” (1992). “Steve Jobs” (1015). “The Newsroom” (’12-’14).

With talent like that all in the same film, it’s usually worth a look and I was not disappointed. Based on a real person (who will be attending the Golden Globes tonight, for which Molly’s Game is nominated for two) who had a disappointing sports career, ultimately finding she had a knack for organizing a high end poker game that made her millions, only to eventually to be busted for illegal gambling activities.

The real jewel in this film is Idris Elba from “The Wire”, a TV series everyone needs to see before they die. He is simply magnificent. Jessica Alba portrays the nuts and bolts of how to create a masterful organization from scratch and you might learn a bit about “Texas Hold’em” the classic poker game in which some players at the table gamble and others play poker.

The plot is intelligent, strong and holds interest. There are no appreciable lags. All the actors do a great job of bringing the plot to life. Aaron Sorkin stacks the poker table with wonderful characters. Kevin Costner drops a jewel of a brief performance near the end but never overshadows Chastain who nicely holds her own through the array of other excellent actors, capturing her character to perfection.

“Molly’s Game is a tour-de-force highly recommended by me. Exceptionally produced, directed and entertaining.

I give it four and a half cleve-dresses. A little too long and a few more or less maudlin scenes that went over budget but nothing serious.