Saturday, 31 March 2018

HEY HEY LBJ, WHAT DID YOU DO 50 YEARS AGO TODAY?

It was a Sunday, the 31st of March fifty years ago, 1968. I was in my last year of high school, already halfway out the door to college. The Vietnam war was a concern, but knowing I'd been offered scholarships, and would spend the next four years deferred from the draft, it was not an immediate worry. On that quiet spring evening President Lyndon B. Johnson was about to address the nation on television. I was watching it alone, but I began to shout to my family once the import of his now-famous words sank in. “...accordingly, I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

'We' had toppled a president! Eugene McCarthy's strong second place finish in the New Hampshire primary, backed by Vietnam protesters dubbed 'the Children's Crusade', had shown LBJ he would have to endure a battle to get what should have been, as a sitting president, an automatic nomination. Though he spoke of unity and his concentrating on a solution for the Vietnam War, those words rang hollow. I was celebrating. LBJ was a favourite of my grandfather, who was a long-time Democratic party hack. Ten years earlier he had come back from a 'Jefferson-Jackson' fund-raiser at which then-Senator Johnson spoke, and given me an LBJ-autographed programme. 'This man will be president some day,' he told me. He fulfilled my grandad's prophecy, but now change was coming. Johnson would be gone. A war would be over.

Of course, that did not happen. Change came, but in none of the ways I'd anticipated. Johnson's crowning achievements in his brief presidency were the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Even as he stood down to 'unite' America, just four days later Martin Luther King was assassinated, and riots harkened a new era in the fight for racial equality. Robert Kennedy would enter the campaign, like McCarthy on an anti-war platform, but also as a potential civil rights healer. At the time I saw RFK as the cynical opportunist he had always been. Over time, I've come to re-assess my opinion of him, believing his conversion was real, spurred by the move to wider social activism by MLK. What we lost was no less than an opportunity for a racially unified anti-war and social justice movement. After RFK's assassination, Johnson's vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, won the Democratic nomination after a Chicago's bloody convention, then he lost narrowly to Richard Nixon in November 1968. 

The convention brought changes in the Democratic party that enabled George McGovern to win the party's nomination in 1972. By then I was 21, and he was the first of many losing candidates for whom I would cast my vote, and he's still the one I believed in most whole-heartedly. Despite the Vietnam War, now four years deeper in to tragedy, despite the Watergate scandal still years from being taken seriously by the mainstream media, Nixon trounced McGovern.

Immediately after Johnson's speech I wrote an anti-war poem, which was published in our very conservative local paper, the New Haven Register; my first published poem. I went away to college, marched against the war, went on strike in 1970 following the invasion of Cambodia and the killings at Kent State and Jackson State. I protested against the war and for Black Panther leader Bobby Seale in New Haven, when Yale President Kingman Brewster proclaimed the impossibility of a black man receiving a fair trial in America. I became a conscientious objector, and the draft missed me. I moved to Montreal anyway. Watergate came and went, as did, eventually, the war, and finally Nixon himself. All triggered by Johnson's withdrawal from the Presidential campaign.

Today, with America mired in perpetual war for perpetual peace, needing a Black Lives Matter movement to combat an epidemic of killings, and with a president as shifty as Nixon but with none of his wisdom or integrity, I went back and through the miracle of the internet watched Johnson's full speech for the first time in fifty years. He seemed a more sympathetic figure now, trapped in the quagmire of Vietnam after sacrificing his Democratic party in his quest to achieve racial justice. A few years ago, when I wrote a review of the film Selma, I questioned whether it was fair to make Johnson the villain of the piece, especially when so many less ambiguous villains were available, starting with J. Edgar Hoover. Johnson's relationship with King was an uneasy one, but as another movie,All The Way showed, he had to burn bridges of his own to get the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act passed. He played a big-stakes political game, knowing what was at risk if he won, and did what he thought was right anyway.

LBJ may not actually have said 'there goes the South' in 1964 as he signed the Civil Rights Act into law, but that is exactly what happened: by 1968 the drift of the racist, fundamentalist, conservative Dixiecrats to Nixon's Republican party had begun. By 1980, when Ronald Reagan took the White House from Jimmy Carter, the transformation was complete: allied with the far-right oil men, military contractors, and western tycoons, the southerners could squeeze the traditional Yankee moderates within the Republicans: compromise with the hated 'liberals' soon became impossible.

Watching anew, I realised LBJ's speech was primarily about the divisions he saw growing in America. He began by speaking of divisive partisanship. Later he said “I will not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing”. I paid no attention to those words at the time, but five decades later, they sound more prophetic than “there goes the South”. Johnson had been a consummate arm-twister in his time as Senate majority leader, a master of bending those on both sides to achieve some sort of compromise. Today, Mitch McConnell is as ruthless as any Menshevik; the threat of Tea-Party purists backed by Koch and Mercer money being enough to keep all but the bravest or most foolhardy Republicans in partisan line. America enters new, undeclared, open-ended wars, with a bi-partisan monotony of rubber-stamped support behind them. Bernie Sanders' 2016 version of the “Children's Crusade”, like McCarthy's in 1968, merely confirmed the weaknesses of the Democrat's chosen candidate, who nevertheless nearly won.

We know now that Nixon was conspiring with the likes of Henry Kissinger to sabotage the Paris Peace Talks to end the Vietnam War, on which Johnson was staking his withdrawal from partisan politics. We know Johnson knew about it, and thought it treasonous, but was afraid to take action of Nixon for fear he would be accused just what he had sworn he would not do: play party politics with the war. The conflict in Vietnam would persist until 1975, when the ignominious abandonment of Saigon put paid to the whole false notion of 'peace with honour'.

By then, Lyndon Johnson was more than two years dead. It is hard not to conclude the failure of his sacrifice to achieve either peace or justice left him empty. What he would have made of America's electing a black president, then following by electing one who's facing accusations of presidential treason with Russia is beyond speculation. But thinking back to 1968, and watching Johnson's speech, so remarkably un-televisual, so devoid of spin in today's terms, is to see it in a different light. It rings true, with a sense of battered honesty about it. We don't get many politicians acting at all honourably these days. Thus history adds nuance my young self could not, makes him a more sympathetic figure. I still have that autographed programme. I find it means more to me today. It holds up better than my poem.

Friday, 30 March 2018

ERIK STOREY'S NOTHING SHORT OF DYING

Note: this review contains slight spoilers
 
Clyde Barr is a soldier and mercenary who's been gone for 16 years, including the last two in a Mexican jail. Now he's back in Colorado, communing with nature and staying away from civilization, when he gets a broken-off cell-phone call from his sister Jen, who's been kidnapped. She's his sister, and their childhood was traumatic, so Clyde comes back to society, low-down society, to find her, and free her. And there's nothing short of dying, as Kris Kristofferson sang, that's going to stop him (though in Kris' case it was only getting dressed and going out of the house he was talking about).

Easier said than done, and soon he's fighting a war against meth dealers, aided by his Mexican prison-mate Zeke, who happens to live just a few Colorado hills away, and Allie, a beautiful barmaid from a biker bar who's attached herself to him. But sidekicks don't have great prospects with Clyde, who's strategic sense is as limited as his luck in avoiding and surviving impossible situations is infinite. This is a dangerous combination for bystanders. Of course Clyde is skilled, and the body-count mounts rapidly: I started keeping score in the book's margins until I got tired of that.

What makes it work is first-time novelist Storey's sense of pacing, and the way he's able to combine Clyde's extreme existential thoughtfulness with his limited practical version of the same. Almost like a zen version of Jack Reacher, except he's totally unaware of it. The cast of characters is well-drawn, because the villains need to be when you have this kind of tarnished white-knight invincible hero, and the inevitable searing loss of Allie, the best character in the book, is well-handled. As action thrillers go, it's got the action, and the thrills, and a bit of decent characterisation is not to be sneezed at.

When it's all over Clyde drives off into the sunset and sees a small herd of wild horses, what in a western might be called mustangs or broncos, running 'because they felt like it'. He realises they are following Allie's advice and 'living in the moment'. And he realises he could 'go in any direction...doing what needed to be done'. If only he'd read Jack Reacher, he wouldn't have needed the horses.

Nothing Short Of Dying by Erik Storey
Simon & Schuster, £7.99 ISBN 9781471146862

EMERGENCY GOALIES: SCOTT FOSTER AND GUNNER GARRETT

Last night in Chicago, the hometown Blackhawks lost both their goalies: the number one was injured during warmups, and the number two cramped up early in the third period. Cue 36 year old accountant Scott Foster, who last played a competitive hockey game for Western Michigan University 13 years ago, to get the call to suit up. Foster is one of a number of amateur goalies who attend matches on call for just such emergencies. Who knew?

Things were different when I was growing up, and our local pro team was the New Haven Blades, of the Eastern Hockey League, the league that served as the inspiration for the movie Slap Shot. Teams in the EHL carried 13 players: 3 lines of forwards, two pair of defensemen and one goaltender. If a goalie got hurt, there were problems.

I was watching a game with my dad one night in 1968, the Blades against, I think, our arch-rival Long Island Ducks. The Blades' goalie was Roger Wilson, whom they had picked up from Charlotte when their starter, Al Johnstone, was lost, probably through injury. At some point in the game, the Ducks' goalie got hurt, and was taken off the ice. Here it got interesting, because the protocol was basically for the home team to provide a goalie, and the Blades' emergency goalie was their trainer, Ken 'Gunner' Garrett. The game stopped as we waited for Gunner to put on the pads, and when he skated onto the ice to warmup in the Ducks' goal, a raspy voice boomed out from the other end of the New Haven Arena, behind the Blades' goal.

'Give 'em Wilson!' the voice shouted. 'Give 'em Wilson'. Wilson turned around in his goal, pulled off his glove, and gestured with his middle finger. 'Fuck you, Marty!'. 2,200 people burst into laughter. The players and fans were a lot closer in those days, when goalie's could recognise each heckling voice by name.

Garrett made quite a few appearances in goal. Thanks to the Internet Hockey Data Base, I learned that he played five games for the Blades that year, probably between Johnstone's injury and Wilson's acquisition. His goals against average in those games was an amazing 2.17. Against the Blades, he played just six minutes, according to IHDB, and allowed a goal.  In all, they list 20 games over eight years with the Blades, and one for the Johnstown Jets in 1961-62, his first season as a hockey trainer (it was Don Perry, the Blades' player-coach, who was in Johnstown at the time, who brought Gunner to New Haven). The Blades and the EHL were rough: Perry is standing to Garrett's right in the photo; I recall his throwing a player from the Jets threw a barroom window when he caught Blades fraternizing with him after a playoff loss. To Garrett's left is Blake Ball, whom the sharp eyed will recognise from his bit part in Slap Shot, as one of the goons from the past brought back for the championship final.

I found some articles about Garrett: he had a long career as a trainer in minor league hockey, finally retiring after the 2008-9 season with the Amarillo (Texas) Gorillas. In an article written by a Gorilla teammate, he claimed 22 appearances (there is one listed in IMDB with no minutes played, which may be the missing one). One of the old Blades claimed Gunner recorded three shutouts in a row, but again, IMDB doesn't credit him with any during that five game 2.17ga run. He sometimes lived in the arenas where he did his training (which usually included being the equipment manager) but doesn't seem to have played any further as even minor league teams moved to using backup goalies (it wasn't commonplace in the NHL itself until the 50s).

The Blades disappeared when New Haven redeveloped and built the Coliseum. The Arena, on Grove Street, was torn down, and the location is now the city's FBI offices. The Coliseum, which seated about four times as many people as the Arena, became home to the Nighthawks, of the more advanced American Hockey League. Eventually they folded too; a couple of other teams tried to replace them in lower leagues but New Haven never embraced other teams they way they did the rough and tumble EHL.

As for Scott Foster? He played the final 14 minutes of the game, saved seven shots and allowed no goals,  as the Blackhawks won 6-2. Foster was named the game's first star, and received a boxing-style championship belt. Gunner Garrett? Well, he didn't have a belt, but he did get a memorial banner, made by the Austin Ice Bats in 2005 when he suffered a heart attack during a game, and the team thought mistakenly he had died in hospital. When he returned the next day to find the banner hanging in the rink, he was given it as a keepsake.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

LINDA BROWN: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Linda Brown, who was the student in Topeka whose father was the Brown in Brown v Board of Education, is up on the Guardian online. You can link to it here. It ought to be in the paper paper soon.

The piece is pretty much as written. They did lose a small but telling observation early: dropping the 'other side of the tracks bit' from this sentence, "But Topeka's primary schools were segregated; Linda had been attending Monroe Elementary in a black neighbourhood literally across the railroad tracks, and then a bus ride away." I felt it reinforced the point of segregation. They also cut a closing line from the Governor of Kansas, which I didn't mind because it was fairly generic. 

In a way it was hard for Linda Brown to assume the mantle in the same way people like Rosa Parks or Ruby Bridges or James Meredith did: she never had to face the angry crowds when the time came to take her rightful place. But as a symbol of her, her father Oliver's, and the other Topeka families' determination, her story is one that should be retold over and over.


Thursday, 22 March 2018

FRONT ROW AND AMERICA'S COOL MODERNISM

I was on Front Row last night, talking about a new exhibition at the Ashmolean in Oxford: America's Cool Modernism. I gave it a glowing mention, and I will write a more detailed review of it soon, but you can link to the programme on the BBC IPlayer here. It's the first item in the running order, and yes, I did know that an aquatint is not a painting!

You might want to hang around for the rest of the programme, which includes Steven Soderbergh's latest movie, filmed on mobile phones; a pointed look at comedy teams and what happens when they split up (engendered by the culturally tragic events befalling either Ant or Dec over the weekend); and blood on stage, inspired by a new production of The Duchess Of Malfi which splatters audience and stage. It's presented by Stig Abell...

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

RAGNAR JONASSON'S THE DARKNESS

Hulda Hermannsdottir is approaching her retirement from the Reykjavik police. She's just cracked a hit and run, where the victim was a child-molester, and she has decided to leave the case unsolved. At the same time, she is called into her boss' office, and told to take her retirement early, immediately, in fact, and to clear her office for another in a long series of up-and-coming younger men who passed her by during her long career.

As slight recompense, Hulda gets her boss' agreement to work one last case, and chooses the death of a Russian asylum-seeker which had been written off a year earlier as suicide or accident by one of her colleagues. It doesn't take Hulda, who is a methodical, dedicated worker, to uncover evidence that the death may have been a murder.

At first, the impressive thing about The Darkness is the way Hulda fits into that popular stereotype of the depressive Nordic detective. Hard-working, team-playing and alone since the death of her husband to a sudden heart attack aged 52, Hulda has little in the way of a life outside her job: she walks and climbs in the countryside, but gave up the family home by the shore and now lives in a faceless high-rise in Reykjavik itself.

But as the story progresses, and we begin to see more of the original crime, we also learn more about Hulda's own story: born illegitimate, her father a nameless American solider who disappeared back to States, her mother forced to live in a certain shame by the tight boundaries of Icelandic society. If we thought of Hulda as typical of a certain kind of detective, we see too that she is a product of a society which in many ways has changed, but whose emotional bounds were set pretty strongly generations before. And now she is one of those older Icelanders who discover they are easily pushed aside, easily disappeared.

In fact, Jonasson's two stories move almost in parallel, the the mystery of Hulda herself is in many ways as gripping as the search for a killer in a murder no one but Hulda believes happened. Jonasson tells the killer's story from a separate point of view, and because of this, the sharp-eyed reader will know long before Hulda who the killer must be. Even so, the 'solution' to the crime comes as a sharp twist in the tale, one which plays against the reader's expectations. Were the story left there, it would resonate strongly. But in an epilogue of understated brilliance, Jonasson turns the entire story around on itself, and puts Hulda right back where she started, a victim, of sorts, of society's preconceptions.

Jonasson, whose first novels were more traditional mysteries set in small-town Iceland, a setting which became well-known in similarly-set popular series Trapped, has moved into different territory with The Darkness. The book is billed as the first of a 'Hidden Iceland' trilogy, and the hidden Iceland it traverses is the country of the mind. The Darkness builds to an absolutely moving ending, haunting and sobering. And it plays with and shatters the expectations of the genre like no novel I can recall since Joe Gores' classic Interface, which is high praise indeed. It's a bravura piece of writing, and The Darkness may be the most unsettling, lasting and best, crime novel you'll read this year.

The Darkness by Ragnar Jonasson
Penguin: Michael Joseph, £12.99, ISBN 9780718187248

ARNALDUR INDRIDASON'S SHADOW KILLER

It is Rekyjavik, in the summer of 1941, after what one character calls 'the British invasion' of the island, and the Brits are in the process of handing over occupation of the strategic country to the Americans, who although still neutral, need to protect their convoys. When a traveling salesman is found shot dead in his flat, Iceland's only homicide detective, Flovent, is teamed up with a Canadian military policeman, Thorson, whose parents were Icelandic and who speaks the language. Thorson is necessary because the victim has been killed with a bullet from a Colt automatic, which means the killer very well could be an American soldier.

The Shadow Killer is the second in Indridason's 'Rekyjavik Wartime' series. It takes place before the first, The Shadow District, which began with a crime in the present day and flashed back to another murder which Flovent and Thorson investigated. This book shows how the two were brought together, and also shows the transition in Icelandic society, which was such an important theme in his Erlandur novels, also coming together with the influx of British and especially American soldiers. In such an homogenous, inward society, this impact, on social norms as well as economic life, was immense.

These changes have been part of most of the very best of Scandinavian crime fiction, going right back to Sjovall and Wahloo's Martin Beck: how these small, structured societies have adapted to the changing modern world. Indridason's first book, Jar City (aka Tainted Blood) was specifically linked to the unusual genetic 'purity' of Iceland, and with this series set some eight decades ago, he has a smaller, more distinct petri dish to play on his themes of Icelandic society under the pressure of change. And because it's wartime. it also allows him to revisit another recurring theme in Scandinavian crime: the ambivalent record of the Nordic countries during World War II, during which Noway and Denmark were occupied by the Nazis, Iceland by the Allies, Finland fought the Russians, and the Swedes stayed neutral. This legacy does not disappear: it played a part in one of the Rebecka Martinson films recently aired on British TV.

But the murder might be a simple case of jealousy, as the dead man's girlfriend was playing around with soldiers while he was away on his selling trips, and had just moved out with a British soldier while he was gone. Neat as such a theory would be, there are shadows hanging over the investigation, and German-supporting Icelanders popping up. With Thorson and Flovent having to move between both American intelligence and the British, as well as understand Icelandic mores, the mystery becomes more and more complicated, yet its solving may be more complicated than the mystery itself.

Indridason has produced a multi-layered thriller that delves delicately, almost discreetly, into its characters. He writes with tremendous feel for them, and uses action to let those character reveal themselves. It's a mistake for Brits to label the likes of Flovent or Thorson 'depressive detectives': they are people, and that realisation has always been what makes the best Scandianvian crime fiction work so well. That it is used in such a complicated historical setting marks yet again just how talented this Icelandic novelist is.

The Shadow Killer by Arnaldur Indridason
Harvill Secker, £14.99 ISBN 9781911215073

Thursday, 8 March 2018

JOSEPH KANON'S DEFECTORS

It's 1961 and Simon Weeks, a publisher in New York, is arriving in Moscow to work with a writer whose book he will edit. The author is his older brother Frank, a former CIA agent who defected to Moscow after a career spent spying as a double-agent for the KGB. Frank's defection cost Simon his job in the State Department, and also cost him his respect for the big brother he always idolized. Even more than the memoir, this trip will allow Simon to come to grips with the reasons for his brother's betrayal, of family as much as country.

Would that it were that simple. Simon is thrust into the centre of the exiled spy community, including the famous Guy Burgess as well as lesser figures. And Frank's wife Jo has not adjusted to exile, especially since the death of their young son. Frank's KGB minder is ever present and, inevitably, it turns out Frank has a slightly different agenda than simply getting that book published.

I'm surprised sometimes that Joseph Kanon isn't mentioned more when we talk about the top writers about espionage, particularly since his novels approach the field in off-beat ways. Certainly Defectors is a perfect example of that, because as it moves along at a quick, almost claustrophobic pace--reflecting Simon's reactions to Moscow--it becomes a story of bluff and double bluff, of almost constant betrayal, and of very few people being exactly what they seem. What would you expect from a small community of defectors, of people who've lived double (or worse) lives?

The twisty story is gripping, but the novel's real strengths lie in its setting: not so much Moscow as the early Sixties, just before the Cuban missile crisis, with the Cold War at full throttle. Kanon shows us his exiles through a very telling filter of contemporary attitudes, both personal and political. And most of all, through the bonds of relationships--family ties which tug at both the brothers, and which pull the twists in unexpected directions right to the end. This may be Kanon's best book yet.

Defectors by Joseph Kanon
Simon & Schuster ISBN 9781471162640 £8.99 

note: this review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

THE POST: OSCAR WATCH IV

When looking at The Post, it's essential to keep the film's title in mind. Although it opens with a bravura scene of a fire-fight in the Vietnam jungle, a deathly chaos whose tracer lights illuminate Daniel Ellsberg's experience, it is not a film about Vietnam. Neither, despite the central presence of Robert McNamara as a catalyst for Ellsberg's decision to take the government's lies public, is it a movie about the Pentagon Papers. It is about the Washington Post, and its ascent to a position of national prominence alongside (or just behind) the New York Times. I've seen it said that the opening firefight serves as a visual metaphor for the Post's battles with the government (and the Times), but that idea, like the movie itself, does a huge disservice to Ellsberg. That's because the real centre of The Post is Katharine Graham's internal battle to assume control of her father's and husband's paper, and the means through which she is able to begin to enact her vision of being a major, quality daily. The problem is that Graham's story runs along a parallel track with the paper's search to beat the Times' exclusive, and Ben Bradlee's competitive journalistic drive keeps the action moving.

To his credit, Spielberg manages to bring the two strands together with some aplomb, at the moment Graham gives the order to 'print'. Her struggle is the more subtle, and repetitive, and it is difficult for Meryl Streep, as Graham to convey the depth of her insecurities, though she does well with what is presented. Graham's father, Eugene Meyer, had bought the bankrupt Post in the 1930s. When he retired, he made Kataharine's husband, Phil Graham, his successor. Graham was a manic depressive, and we learn that he killed himself. But part of his problem was his resentment of having been the son-in-law who rises, part that the Post was still a backwater paper in a company town, and he was at times abusive to Kay and the children: not least for her Jewishness. This backstory is instructive, because none of it is given away, instead Streep looks lovingly at Phil's photo. But if you're aware of it you can see better the roots of the insecurities which Streep delineates.

That she was taking the Post public at the very moment the government exercised prior restraint by getting an injunction against the Times' publication of the Pentagon Papers is true, and it is rightly presented as a Rubicon moment for her. She was risking her family's legacy, and the battle is encapsulated well by Tracy Letts, in another of his good-guy roles as Fritz Beebe, the family lawyer and chairman of the board.  He's set against Bradley Whitford, in a remarkable performance of unwillingly restrained anger and resentment, as board-member Arthur Parsons.

Graham also had her Washington social whirl, in which she was still playing the traditional wifely role, to consider. And it is an underplayed moment of decision when she sits down with McNamara (a brilliantly accurate performance from Bruce Greenwood, getting just the sort of moral incomprehension McNamara showed in The Fog of War) to tell him she will be publishing the Papers. Ironically, in later life Graham would seek injunctions similar to the government's against the Post, or take other actions against her putative biographers.

In a sense, when it comes to the newspaper side of the story, The Post is a cross between The Fog Of War and All The President's Men on the one hand, and on the other the classic newspaper drama, the kind of modern version we saw in, say, Ron Howard's The Paper. In fact, the most thrilling scenes in the movie, as in Howard's (a very Spielbergian director) are those that lovingly follow the dynamic of setting linotype, and then the rush of the presses as the papers roll off. The latter is something we've seen repeatedly, but watching the drama of the pages themselves getting set was literally inspiring.

All The President's Men lurks in the background. It's amazing to realise that the Post's first tranche of the Pentagon Papers literally fell on the desk of a reporter (who tellingly remains anonymous and excluded from the story itself) just as Deep Throat appeared in Bob Woodward's ear (at least as the movie version would have you believe). Bradlee's editorial ability to run with found gold is an important one, but it was the other Ben, Ben Bagdikian (played with a nice edge by Bob Odenkirk) who actually tracked down Ellsberg, whom he'd known at Rand, and got the Post their scoop. Which of course would not have been a scoop at all had not the Times been injuncted against printing; but of course as the film shows, the Post's running with their story opened the nation's floodgates.

Jason Robards' Oscar-winning feet-on-the-desk performance as Bradlee hangs over Tom Hanks too, but Spielberg and Hanks choose to play Bradlee not as Robards did, as a crotchety old-school journo, but as a sort of middle-class suburban businessman, closer to William Holden in The Corporation. The lemonade stand scenes remind us that Spielberg does like to frame the world from a child's view, but Hanks' Bradlee shows none of the society nous of his Boston Brahmin upbringing—Bradlee had come to the Post by facilitating Phil Graham's purchase of Newsweek, and was a mover in society almost as much as Graham. Kay Graham gets it right when she questions Bradlee's actually closeness to JFK himself (Bradlee's own book about it, Conversations With Kennedy, is an effort to convince himself as much as the reader that it was more) but Bradlee was also close to James Angleton of the CIA; his wife Tony Pinchot was the sister of Mary Pinchot Meyer, married to Cord Meyer (no relation to the Post's Meyer), another top-man at CIA; it isn't coincidental that Meyer was the brains behind the CIA's Operation Mockingbird, by which it acquired assets within the major media. When Mary (by then divorced from Cord) was murdered it was Bradlee who helped Angleton find and destroy her diary, in which her own relationship with Kennedy was supposedly detailed. But in this workd, even Bradlee's elite Georgetown townhouse is made to look like something from a suburban neighbourhood; Ben Bradlee is your good American Joe, pace Private Ryan.

In the end it's the Times that gets the media attention, with CL 'Punch' Sulzberger, like Graham the heir to the paper, and AM 'Abe' Rosenthal, its managing editor, facing the press when the Supreme Court decision in the papers' favour is handed down. Michael Stuhlbarg's caricature of Rosenthal (whose column, On My Mind, was universally derided as 'Out Of My Mind' in the days when he stepped down from editorship) is stereotypically amusing to the point of cruelty. When we hear Nixon's own voice on the tapes, I was a little surprised there were no tirades against the 'Jews', Tricky Dick saw both the Times and Post as being Jewish family affairs.

Spielberg ends the film with an ironic reference to never going through this again, when we all know that Watergate, which firmly put the Post on the dias with the Times, was just around the corner. He does another re-enactment of Frank Wills' discovery of the Watergate burglars—remember those were the same burglars whose ransacking of Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office got the government's prosecution of the actual leaker thrown out of court. Spielberg likes to end his films with none too subtle conclusions, think of the graveyard scenes in Private Ryan or Schindler's List. The fate of Daniel Ellsberg, of course, is only feed for another movie.

The Post gathered Oscar momentum because it has an obvious correlative to our present times, Donald Trump and Fake News and the less stirring performance of our leading papers in their age of declining relevance. This was illustrated in passing by Spielberg in what  was, ironically, the best moment in the entire film (apart from the linotype and presses). It is an actual news clip of CBS television's Daniel Schorr explaining what exactly the government was doing by taking the Times to court to stop publication of the Pentagon Papers. Schorr does it in 30 seconds or so. He covers the issues, explains the legal tactic, and sets the stage for the movie better than it could do for itself. You can't imagine any of our present-day knights of the makeup room on television doing that now.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

DUNKIRK: OSCAR WATCH III

It isn't hard to understand the popularity of Dunkirk, which comes to us as part of a celebration of Churchill's early days and the eponymous evacuation of British forces from France in the early days of World War II. One could draw the obvious analogy with today's European crisis, Brexit, and Dunkirk is the easiest of this year's four films (Churchill, Darkest Hour and Their Finest) to break down in those terms, but it's more deeply-seated than that. Because what Dunkirk celebrates, and what the event is celebrated for, is British understatement, and the stiff-upper lip.

It's an understated film, especially considering the size of the Dunkirk enterprise, which here is scaled down to one beach, a couple of ships and a handful of boats. Everything goes into narrow focus, even the timeline, which is shifted to allow the three strands of the story to coincide at their climaxes. As with most Christopher Nolan films, time is of the essence, and the structure of Dunkirk, while it seemed to befuddle a number of critics, is not that hard to follow. I am not sure what it adds in terms of story-telling apart from perhaps distracting from the narrowness of the strands, as if to provide them with more collective weight. Those strands are the story of two 'lost' soldiers trying desperately to get off the beach, and contrasted with the officers in charge, one boat's journey across the Channel, and two fliers trying to provide air cover for the evacuees.

Understatement is celebrated along with the stiff upper lip, and they don't come much stiffer, although this, oddly, is somewhat class-conscious. The soldiers on the beach, inured to queueing, occasionally moan about their situation, but the two who are two main figures keep remarkably silent. One for very good reason, and when that reason is revealed, the British soldiers turn on him with remarkable xenophobic vigour. Oddly, the ordinary soldiers are the least convincing in costume: it's hard not to see them as modern actors. In the officer class, however, the stiff-upper lip holds. Kenneth Branagh literally has no upper lip, but as is common with his serious roles, he seems more to be playing Trevor Howard or Noel Coward playing a naval officer, than an actual naval officer.

Upper lips don't come much more stiff than Mark Rylance's from whose lips words emerge only after great effort. Were he to play the lead in a Pinter play I assume time itself might stop. Rylance's pained looks epitomise the British desire to overcome hardship, including the somewhat unnecessary hardship he makes for himself in his handling of the shell-shocked officer he picks up, whose lip has unstiffened to the point of liquidity. This creates a tragedy which Rylance has to let go, a symbol of the sacrifices we all must make, and of the creation of heroic myth (which anticipates Their Finest Hour to a T, or tea.) For all that, Rylance absolutely steals the show. And finally to Tom Hardy, as the last of the Spitfire pilots, whose understated tactic is simply not to talk at all, except for a few brief phrases over the radio to his fellows.

So as an exercise in understatement, Dunkirk is indeed a tour de force, a different sort of war movie which adapts its structure to celebrate defeat, or better, victory in defeat. But to think that it somehow avoids the tropes of war films would be a mistake, and to do so makes certain moments stand out more. Branagh stays behind, ostensibly to aid the French who will be evacuated in the next wave, when he knows full well there will be no next wave. It was tempting to think of him making an appeasement to the age-old antagonisms which have sprung up over Brexit, but I think it was more to give us a sense of the Capt. Scotts, the captain going down with his ship. Think Robert Taylor in Bataan, without the machine gun, the grave, or the Japs crawling toward him.

I spent a long time trying to figure the fuel capacity and range of those Spitfires, and at five miles per gallon, Tom Hardy would indeed have had plenty of time to do most of what he does. However the laws of physics make a couple of scenes dubious: the plane floating on the waves, when it's engine would tip it forward and then down very quickly indeed, and Hardy's amazing manoeuvres while in a powerless glide, where English grit proves too much for gravity. Given his ability to move the plane I wondered why he bothered to land away from the evacuation point, and into the middle of the oncoming (somewhat late and without any urgency) handful of Germans. Perhaps he was being a decoy. But if you think of this section of the film within its own chronological order, you see a story-line that is virtually unchanged from Air Force, apart from the Germans strafing a downed pilot, and that makes one wonder if the time-shifting is a sort of sleight of hand aimed at distracting the audience from the familiar tropes the film actually embraces, not denies.

But most instructive was the reaction of the British soldiers to the discovery one of them is actually French, and thus unworthy of being saved. No matter that the French are actually holding back the Germans while all this is happening (though for reasons we still don't understand fully, the Germans mostly held themselves back, including, crucially, in the air). This was Brexit in a nutshell: we're getting out of here and we are not taking any immigrants with us.

When everyone gets back to Britain they discover the full scale of the success of the evacuation (though somehow Kenneth Branagh knows the exact total while he is still on his little beach) and it puts that small story Nolan has shown us into some sort of context.

Writing before the Oscars, I can't see Dunkirk winning, Chariots Of Fire-like, in what would now be an upset. It is apparently the largest-grossing WWII movie, ever, but two-thirds of its takings were outside the US. However I happened to see it in America, and the audience, while not as partisan as a British one, was definitely impressed with the overall dignity and grit of the film's approach. If it were to win it might be because it speaks to certain virtues in a time of chaos, and America shares its own sort of chaos with Britain right now. But I guess that Oscar voters will be split between those who see Dunkirk as an innovation in war films and those who wonder if such a micro-focus really does convey a macro picture after all. And there are other films which get more specifically into our collective malaise, or get away from it.

Friday, 2 March 2018

LADY BIRD: OSCAR WATCH II


I remember seeing a parody video, a trailer for a generic American independent film, and I was reminded of it at some point while I watched Lady Bird. Do not get me wrong, Lady Bird is an entertaining, sometimes piercing and occasionally poignant coming-of-age film, about a high school girl in Sacramento. Her confusions are tied up in any number of things: romance, high school (a Catholic school to which she's been sent because she needs structure) and a middle-class life  which seems rather too strained because, as we later discover, her father is out of work with little prospect of finding new work. So far, so standard. It is the first film as a director for Greta Gerwig, who is known for comedy, but here keeps a strong hand on the real drama, as well as providing the laughs. And as one often expects from actor-directed films, she offers great opportunities for actors: Saoirse Ronan as the eponymous self-titled teenager is completely convincing, alternately wise and foolish, understanding and lost. She plays smart and attractive without having to strive for the cliche of ugly duckling beautiful, which is one reason why this seems so real. And Laurie Metcalf as her hard-working, hyper-critical mother is outstanding in an outstanding performance that also should be flashy enough to get a supporting actress Oscar.

Because at heart this is a movie about mothers and daughters. It's easy to intuit that at least part of Lady Bird's trouble is due to her mother's detachment from her struggles, and Ronan conveys with great subtlety her yearning to have that vacuum filled. There is a moment, shopping for a prom dress, that almost cuts through, but Metcalf is astute in the way she casually stops such a movement in its tracks.

There is also an element of class here: Metcalf also subtly conveys her frustration of having to be the family's main support: nursing is a hard way to do that. It's a frustration that things have not worked out the way they should have, and it plays well against Tracy Letts' superb take as the father. You don't get Oscar nominations for playing nice guys, but he does it well, knowing that he is not a Jim Backus figure (Rebel Without A Cause) but a sort of too-light anchor. Letts, who also plays a nice guy in The Post, is actually playing slightly against type here--he's usually cast as a nice guy who turns out through weakness or hidden evil to be a villain, the kind of thing Michael Murphy, for example, used to do.

Beyond that, the elements transcend indy standard, they are familiar to the point of cliche, although the first love turning out to be gay is a modern variation.  The rebellion at the strict school, the change in personality to join the 'in crowd' of ironic rebels, leaving her overweight friend adrift, the efforts to seem richer than she is, the discovery of the power of friendship at the prom, all made this feel like a northern California inversion of Clueless: though honestly I heard a Very Serious BBC radio programme discuss the film as if it were set in the same California, thus missing one of the film's other familiar tropes.

Because when Lady Bird goes back east to college, my first reaction was to wonder how she got herself a scholarship to NYU if her studies, and her efforts at theatre, were so slipshod. They do say her test scores were good. But which nuns or teachers were writing her recommendations? Anyway, despite a really touching scene when mom misses her send-off, handled beautifully by all three actors, we then get to the Big Apple and the discovery that there is indeed, as Glenda the Good Witch reminded us 70 years ago, no place like home. Even when home is Sacramento.

As I said, this is a very well acted, and smartly made film, and I enjoyed it, though not to best of the year level. Perhaps its Oscar strength is that it might be thought to applying a millennial spin to these somewhat familiar tropes. And those are the voices Oscar is determined to begin hearing nowadays. Maybe some of the older members were expecting a bio-pic about the LBJ White House.