Sunday, 30 September 2018

BODYGUARD AND ITS TWISTS

I was going to put a spoiler alert at the top of this page, but since according to media I am the only adult in Britain who didn't watch the final episode of Bodyguard last Sunday and then spend all day Monday chatting about it on the metaphoric water-cooler that is social media, I don't feel I have to bother. So let me say that I was both disappointed and relieved that Julia Montague's death didn't turn out to be hoax, which would have been daring but also a twist too far. Of course writer Jed Mercurio, having killed off his lynch-pin character, had to twist like Chubby Checker to try to keep things interesting and watchers' brains spinning.

Keely Hawes' departure left a hole to fill which was not quite filled by the Ipad filled with 'compromat'. As an aside, I think 'Compromat' ought to be the name of the next TMZ-style website that comes along. But an Ipad can't do what Hawes does, like stand in the doorway playing with herself. Theresa May and Amber Rudd, eat your hearts out.

At that point the focus of the story fell directly on conspiracy, and DS Budd's personal life dropped into softer, if still monomaniacal, focus. Which is sort of good, because the need of Richard Madden's performance to extend to a second dimension is thus minimised. Madden has the poker face required of a bodyguard. He has the determined poker face required of a cop/soldier on a mission. He has the puzzled poker face of a victim of a conspiracy. And he has the pained poker face of a suffering war veteran who's seen too much. And the frustrated poker face of the damaged husband trying to deal with wife and kids.

In the final episode we got all those faces at once in the key scene, an extended etude on the theme of defusing a bomb, which includes a bizarre march across the city to his flat, with his estranged wife by his side so no one will shoot him. The problem is bomb diffusing stories, always cliched in suspense terms, have basically two outcomes. You snip the wire and....bam, you're dead. Or you snip the wire and you're not dead, then you can jump over the convenient wall all the cops have conveniently retreated far enough away from to make escape convenient. But without it you would have missed Madden walking through the streets with a bloodied face in a serape, like the Man With No Name, rather than the Man With No Expressions.

OK. So far so good. But from the moment Julia was killed, we, knowing we had a conspiracy, knew it had to involve some combination of political plotters (either to install Julia as PM and/or to oust the PM) MI5 plotters (to install Julia with her surveillance friendly bill) or police plotters (to avoid Julia and MI5 taking away their own repressive powers?). That last one never made much sense, but it could also have been a combo platter of two or even all three, something signalled by the stern expressions on the big time police women (Gina McKee as the Met's counter-terror chief and Pippa Heywood as the head of the protection unit where Budd is placed), and the close and cynical cooperation between Mike Travis, minister for counter-terrorism (played by Vincent Franklin as if he'd wandered in from the Labour cabinet in A Very British Coup) and MI5 director Stephen Hunter-Dunn.

The Bodyguard Award for Over-Acting By A Character With A Hyphenated-Surname went to Stuart Bowman as Hunter-Dunn. His facial contortions started out as mere Dudley Nightshade, but by the final episode they were the most serious distorted human visage seen in this country since Keira Knightly was unhinging her jaw in A Dangerous Method.

But there had to be a BIG TWIST, so instead of political conspiracy we discover that the bombings were the result of actual Islamic terrorists, working hand in hand with gangsters, who kind of entered the scene late in the story, except that the Home Secretary's assistant, who got fired early, was apparently hooked up with them from the start. It sounded like the Kennedy assassination, if you actually want to believe that the killers were either Cuban terrorists or the Mafia. And as with the Warren Report, Mercurio's big problems here are many.

Presumably all the fuss from MI5 (and Michael Schaffer, their teflon hit-man, whose face is almost equally silent-movie snarling as Bowman's) is simply to get their blackmailing material back. So why is Travis on their side here? Does he not suspect they might have eliminated Julia? Would he not worry, unless he were part of their plot?

Nadia Ali (Anjli Mohindra), as the suicide bomber Studd, I mean Budd, talks out of blowing up a Virgin Train loo, makes a nice turn at the end, but I wonder if Mercurio had seen and remembered the similar scene in Patriots Day? Regardless, the flip of Nadia begs the questions of (a) why she didn't detonate her bomb on the train in the first place, but more importantly (b) what kind of terror organisation uses its main builder of insanely complicated explosive devices as a suicide bomber? The answer to that latter is question is, of course, none. The people sent to blow themselves up are disposable. Besides, she was apparently the contact with the gangsters (how, is never explained) and the gangsters were also the Islamic terrorists' main source of income (not, say, the Saudis). So blow up one and cut off the other. Plus she remembered the name of Budd's childrens' school? Just so she could launch a terror attack there, and so Mercurio could misdirect our attention toward the people who in the real world would have been the only ones to know that school. He told her that? Was he trying to bore her into not detonating the bomb?

And why has these brutally efficient gangsters bothered to corrupt the head of the protection unit? They anticipated they might someday want to kill a home secretary? One they already had someone working for? The protection unit is not responsible for anti-crime activity, yet Pippa Heywood was apparently feeding them intel enough to live in a pretty posh house for copper standards in London. What about her intel was so valuable?

The cops themselves are interesting, Ash Tandon as Deepak Sharma and Nina Toussaint-White as Lousie Rayburn do their own sort of twisting duet, switching places in the do we believe Judd or don't we believe Judd sweepstakes, even, at the end, when it should be obvious. What is also interesting, and I found the most convincing part of the drama, was the sheer Robocop/Starship Trooper mindlessness of the armed police--a military force of occupation so focused on their methodology it seemed unlikely in the extreme not one of them would shoot Budd dead, and even more extreme no one would order the shot, if only to nip their terrorism and treason problems in the Budd, so to speak.

The British audience disliked the happy-ish ending, calling it (of course) Hollywood, ie, we wrote it and produced it this way for our audience, but don't blame us, it's the Americans' fault. I disliked the real flaws in flipping the story right at the end, whether for the need to add those final BIG TWISTS, or whether we didn't want to show MI5 or Met anti-terrorism units as being traitorous. I know which scenario would be more believable to me. It wasn't like Kevin Coster and Whitney Houston, with Keely Hawes singing at Tory Party conference while Madden looks on admiringly. But I do wonder why they did not use the great Dawn Landes song 'Bodyguard' as their theme.


Saturday, 29 September 2018

JOHN SANDFORD'S GOLDEN PREY

John Sandford's Lucas Davenport is one of the enduring action heroes of the crime genre, his books coming in somewhere between police procedurals and action thrillers, usually including elements of
both. Davenport himself is on the outside pretty unassuming, but reveals more and more hidden talents in each book. This is demonstrated perfectly in a very entertaining opening sequence that has nothing to do with the rest of the story, but establishes Davenport's skill, his investigative freedom (due to circumstances arising earlier in the series), and the demeanor that allows people to think they might take advantage.

Golden Prey deals with the robbery of a drug cartel counting house, down in Biloxi, Mississippi. Among the bodies left behind is a six-year old girl, whose grandfather was one of the counters. Davenport gets on the case, and is joined by a pair of FBI agents, while the cartel also has its people on the case, and are tracking Davenport's efforts by tapping into the police communications computers. It's not just Mark Zuckerberg who's a threat to world peace and privacy. The cartel's pair includes a woman whose specialty is torture, and as they track the thieves she gets her results from their relatives and friends, using power tools.

What makes the book work is the portrait of the criminals. Garvin Poole is the shooter who committed the robbery, a careful bad man who lives quietly in Dallas constructing custom guitars with his girlfriend Dora Box. Sturgis Darling is the planner, and lives an even more respectable life on a farm. Their organisation is formidable, and their no-nonsense approach to the business reminds one of the crews Parker set up in the Richard Stark novels, less the penchant for killing. Given the three different chases taking place, Sandford keeps it all moving--and ends it with the kind of action a Jack Reacher novel might offer, a full scale shootout around an art museum in a tiny Texas town, in which Darling suddenly turns into an action man.

By this time the cartel has set another pair of tracker/killers on the scent, and they wind up with Box and Kort, the power-tool specialist, in the RV. This is one of the best casts of characters I can remember, three sets of killers and a trio of cops, and their eccentricities keep the story moving as quickly as the action. Oddly enough, there's a sort of happy-ending finale, as Lucas and the FBI miss a few bits of the cash. But no one can be perfect. Although Lucas stretches the case, when he plays one of the FBI agents, a tall woman called Rae, in one on one basketball. She's played at the University of Connecticut, America's top women's basketball programme. Lucas played college hockey at the University of Minnesota. Not many hockey players good enough to play big-time college have a lot of cross-over time for hoops, and women players at the top level are pretty damn good. Lucas is older too, and though he has a strength advantage, I found following the game a bit Bobby Riggs. But that's the name of the game: Lucas may not be all-seeing, but he is almost all-conquering.

Golden Prey by John Sanford
Simon & Schuster, £8.99, ISBN 9781471177057

Note: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

9/11 AND MY TEAMMATE MOLE

I've written an essay, actually re-writtten it from one which appeared 17 years ago, about my friend  and teammate Blake, whose personal tragedy is never far from my thoughts. When I started editing the Northern Lights poetry pamphlets, and wrote the first one, I dedicated it to him, never dreaming this kind of an essay would ever need to be written. It's up at my Friday Morning Tight End column, an extra that you can read without subscribing. But if you like it.... patreon.com/posts/21366316

PUTTING THE RACE INTO SPACE RACE: HIDDEN FIGURES (AND THE 'GO AND NO GO' CONDUNRUM)

I finally saw Hidden Numbers, and liked it a good deal. What is best about it is the way it reinforces the pain of the world of segregation with the same under-stated sense of daily living that those who lived with it experienced. We see clearly not only the ever-present fear, of stepping out of line, the constant de-humanizing by relegating people to second-class status, but also the debilitating effect Jim Crow had on the white people imposing it on their fellow citizens, the way they take their privilege for granted, recoil at the slightest stepping over that (usually) unseen line, and at the same time think of themselves as friendly, decent Christian people.

We saw this first-hand when I was an 11-year old kid and we took our first-ever family vacation to Washington DC and encountered segregated facilities at, of all places, the Washington Monument. Washington himself was a slave-holder, of course, but I didn't make the connection then. I asked my dad to explain 'whites only', and then asked 'but that's wrong, isn't it?' and when he said, 'yes it is but that is how they do things down here' he got cold-eyed by some guy, who I guess backed down from taking his racist grievance any further.

That is the strong point of the film, established from the start by contrasting the easy camaraderie between the three friends and the unspoken fear when a white state police officer stops to investigate their broken-down car. The power relationship is set from the start. This marks the subtly of the approach, culminating in the moment Katharine Johnson's confirmation of the figures John Glenn wants her to confirm before he will head into space are delivered, and then the door closes in her face. Glenn's character is an exemplar here: early on he extends himself to greet the Langley black women;  he is the first to accept Johnson for her talent, but he's also shown as a complete team player all through his launch into space.

All three of the leads are good, if perhaps a little too glamorous in their 60s retro looks, with Taraji P Henson exceptional as Johnson, whose math genius is essential to NASA's success. Kevin Costner's beneficent white man isn't too overdone--I wondered if his one-man integration of the ladies' rest rooms wasn't still unlawful in Virginia, and why it wasn't reported. It seems odd that neither Costner nor his scientists would have any idea of what an IBM computer was; I probably did and I was 10 years old. It was also interesting that the filmmaker's show an engineer who's a Polish-Jewish immigrant survivor of the Holocaust, but never mention Werner Von Braun, head of the space programme, whose V2 rockets were built with Nazi slave labour. But overall, it's a sort of Disneyfied version of the story, but not simplified like some of their sports films, and told, as I suggested, with restraint that parallels the restraint of its principals.

But one non-racial flaw jumped out at me, so important it's not just a quibble. Katharine Johnson's task was to calculate the 'go/no-go' point for Glenn's Friendship 7 capsule to re-enter the earth's atmosphere. The angle of this departure from its elliptical orbit needed to be perfect: a little too much and the capsule is incinerated by the heat of re-entry, too little and it goes off into space, outside earth's gravity forever. This gets hammered into our consciousness repeated. So why then does the movie make the go/nogo moment occur long after Glenn has re-entered earth's atmosphere and survived the intense heat, as if it was an instant before releasing his parachute? This is such a major error, so obvious, and also loses the drama of hitting the go/no go precisely. Do they think we weren't paying attention to the science stuff? Or weren't they? Baffling.

It also appeared to me that Kevin Costner was both in the Langley labs and mission control in Florida at the same time, but movie stars can do anything. Maybe he found his own go/no go point. But what sticks out about this movie is the way it delineates the way people were forced to cope with an unjust system of institutionalized bigotry, and not just cope with it, but triumph within that broken system. That it is telling the story of these three real women makes it all the more successful.

Monday, 3 September 2018

ECHOES OF RIOTS, ECHOES OF AUGUST (1968)

The essay that follows is a sort of companion piece to one I wrote in March, 'Hey, Hey LBJ, What Did You Do 50 Years Ago Today', to which you can link here. There is, I think, much more to be said about those tumultuous years in the late Sixties, not only about how and why they succeeded or failed, or how they have been misinterpreted, but also about what they have to say to us who lived through them, and what they might say to young people today. I'm sure more essays will follow, but for now, here's a memory of that summer...

At no point in my life did it ever occur to me to congratulate myself for living through August 1968, but somehow I have now I managed to 'survive', to use the more self-sensitive 21st century term, its fiftieth anniversary. Anniversary remembrance is symbolic, triggered by nothing more than mathematical convenience (years ending in zeroes) which appeals to our senses of order. But August 1968 was not about order, but chaos. As Chicago Mayor Richard Daley explained, on 29 August, after his cops had run riot through protestors at the Democratic Party's Presidential Convention, “the policeman isn't there to create disorder, (he) is there to preserve disorder”.

The Chicago convention riots may have been the high-water mark of political counter-culture in an America (the cultural high would come a year later), which was built around by two great political issues: civil rights at home and the war in Vietnam abroad. The latter was driving a new spike through the liberal political establishment which had already begun to re-order itself in the wake of President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts in 1964 and '65. Disaffected racist Southern 'Dixiecrats' still rallied to LBJ's waging of the war. But at the start of 1968 the Viet Cong's Tet Offensive suggested to America that LBJ wasn't 'winning' the war, and in February trusted news-anchor Walter Cronkite returned from Vietnam confirming that was the case. “If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost America,” Johnson said. 

In March, on my seventeenth birthday, anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy came close to defeating incumbent President Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. On the last day of the month, Johnson realised his candidacy would divide his party, and announced he would not stand for re-election. My teenaged self, thinking I was now part of a triumphant revolution, celebrated. But the celebrations were premature, and short-lived.

Four days later, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, and riots in cities across the country left 46 people dead. Protest increased. Columbia University students occupied campus buildings; but that paled in the face of French students sparking a general strike joined by some 22 million workers. Meanwhile, Robert F. Kennedy was trying to unify the opposition to LBJ's designated successor, Hubert H. Humphrey, whom many McCarthy supporters treated as an opportunist carpet-bagger. Yet in the same way King had, just before his murder, specifically linked the issue of civil rights to American conduct in Vietnam, so RFK seemed to be rallying King's constituency to anti-war coalition. Then, on 4 June, as he celebrated winning the California primary, he too was assassinated. Riots didn't follow immediately, but it's not unfair to see those in Chicago as a delayed by-product of that assassination, bringing white kids out on the streets the same way Rev. King's killing had brought out the black population in the cities.

August began with Nixon winning the Republican nomination, and new Defense Secretary Clark Clifford raising the number of US soldiers in Vietnam to its peak, 541,000. We watched again as European dissent get more real than ours; Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to put an end to the Prague Spring. Surely there was something more we could do.

Thousands flocked to disrupt the Democratic convention, to stem the Humphrey tide that would ensure Johnson's war continued. But this was America; concrete action and coalition-building was subsumed into political theatre which played better on television news. Inside the convention, the winning of primaries proved to be less important than the wishes of the party bosses who ran the smoky rooms; the big party chief was John Bailey, from Connecticut, who'd given my grandad his marching orders for one term in the state legislature. Frustration overwhelmed those outside the convention hall, and then Daley unleashed the police. The cops, taking out their own frustration against what they saw as spoiled long-hairs untrue to their country, made the fatal mistake of including the reporters covering their attack among its targets.

Inside the hall, Senator Abraham Ribicoff, a Bailey protege from Connecticut, stood up and excoriated a lack of democratic process which led to “Gestapo tactics being used in the streets of Chicago”. Ribicoff was also Jewish, like my mother, so we watched him with a special pride. He had responded with great grace to a letter I'd written him when I was 12, asking about appointments to the Naval Academy. That was a much different me, I remember thinking, just as Mayor Daley was caught on camera cupping his hand round his mouth and shouted at Ribicoff. We lip-read what he screamed, which wasn't difficult. At least the 'you Jew bastard' part.

Protest had failed. August was over. Immediately after the Chicago riots, I was off to university to play football. My music was changing, with LP records and FM radio. I went off to college with the Spingfield's final album, with The Band's first, with Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield's Super Session. Those old compilations of two hits and filler which kept pop music profitable were yesterday's news, though Otis Redding's History, James Brown Live At The Apollo and Aretha Now had made the cut. John Coltrane's Impressions had somehow cracked my consciousness, which was ripe for being expanded. My hair, under the football helmet, grew. Eventually I managed to jump onto the running board of the sexual revolution. In was September 1968. Surely whoever won the Presidency would hear the collective cries of so many of us seeking an end to racial discrimination, an end to the folly of the Vietnam war.

History can tell you how that turned out. The trial of the Chicago Eight protest leaders would become America's greatest example of political theatre of the absurd. Nixon narrowly defeated Humphrey, helped by his 'October Surprise' which sabotaged LBJ's peace talks with North Vietnam in Paris. The Democrats would make new rules, increasing the importance of their presidential primaries, which would lead to George McGovern, who had led the Kennedy delegates after Bobby's killing, to the nomination. Nixon would defeat him in a landslide, despite the clues provided by the early Watergate reports. The Vietnam war would continue until it was lost; Nixon would continue until he was lost, and resign. The Dixiecrats would defect full scale to the Republicans, and a few years later Ronald Reagan would begin the shift of America's political paradigm to the right, as prophesied from jail by Nixon's campaign manager and Attorney General, John Mitchell.

It was still a great time to protest, especially within the protective walls of a small liberal arts college. Especially because even there you found chaos, division between black and white, left and right, straight and hip. It was obvious this would not be a French-style movement for change. It was also a safe time to lose oneself to the cultural revolution, but after Woodstock the following August, that too began to crumble into what became known as the 'me' generation. By 1970 even students, at Jackson State and Kent State, were being killed. Lives were there to be got on with. Some of us would be lucky enough to try to continue to protest. Eventually I even voted for a presidential candidate who won. It took decades. But back in August 1968 (was it really 50 years ago?) I would have told you change was in the air. Almost everything still seemed possible, especially if you were 17.