Wednesday 27 February 2013


Historical accuracy was the big issue surrounding this year's Oscars; would that it dominated the national discourse on any more meaningful level. I've never really understood why the words 'based on a true story' carry such value for filmmakers, whether the audience really does feel more compelled by a story because it's true, or whether perhaps it makes it easier for them to suspend their disbelief. The problem with the debate over factuality is a two-edged sword: we need to indulge artistic license, but we also need to understand misrepresentation, when said distortion has a point. Otherwise we wind up like the Sports Illustrated writer Peter King, who told his audience he was glad his personal pick for best picture, Argo, had won the Oscar. He wrote the following: 'yes, it was partially historically inaccurate, all those Hollywood historical re-enactments are. But it was a rollicking good time with some education thrown in at the same time'. Awkwardly expressed as it is, the point might be said to encapsulate America now: yes it's inaccurate, but it's educational!

The main controversy, of course, concerned Zero Dark Thirty, in large part because it did indeed claim to be factual, based on classified documents provided by the CIA, the sort of things other people get sent to prison for doing. This was important because the film wound up being judged in large part on its moral position about torture, a position staked out without leaving much wiggle room because of its conclusion, against the run of fact as established by the CIA itself, that torture in this case accomplished its goal, namely killing Osama Bin Laden. It's possible the CIA lied about the efficacy of torture in this instance, but having admitted they do torture, why would they? And since the film is basically constructed as a saga of justice or revenge for 9/11 and (also inaccurately) 7/7, these points argue against its being taken as educational.

Argo, meanwhile, turned one aspect of the escape of Americans marooned in Tehran following the fall of the US Embassy into a CIA thriller. There was some criticism of the way the filmmakers downplayed the role of the Canadians in facilitating the escape—the issue of passports and air tickets was handed by the Canadians, not the CIA, with no dramatic hitches—and of course turned the exit from the airport into a chase scene, with Iranians apparently firing on a passenger aircraft (without the pilot being aware) but still giving the plane clearance to take off. The CIA's creation of a movie as cover for the exit makes for a more entertaining film than the 1981 TV movie Escape From Iran, written by my friend Josh Chetwynd's father Lionel, which basically lays out the way things happened on the ground, without the CIA, so you can understand Ben Affleck's need for some dramatic license. But Argo also gratuitously blames the British and New Zealanders for turning the escapees away, when in reality the Brits took them in and the Kiwis transferred them to the Canadians, where it was thought, as Americans, they would blend in better. Now there's an historical assumption that requires some consideration.

Lincoln never states 'based on a true story', but the screenplay was based, in part, on Doris Kearns Goodwin's excellent Team Of Rivals. This in itself is fascinating, because the story of the passage of the 13th Amendment, the focus of the film, accounts for exactly four of the 900-odd pages in Goodwin's book. Thaddeus Stevens receives only four mentions in the entire book. Furthermore, the film is set after the period in which you might best consider Lincoln's cabinet a true 'team of rivals'. By 1864 he had already begun weeding dissent out of the cabinet, as the film points out with Hal Holbrook's Preston Blair, whose son Montgomery's resignation as Postmaster General Lincoln had demanded not long before. What the screenplay seems to have borrowed more is the general tenor of Lincoln's political nous, his demeanour, his stories and lines, and an even more general portrayal of those around him: Seward, Stanton, and Wells in particular.

Perhaps this was to create a sort of imprimatur for the film. But the reality is that few questioned the film's veracity, apart from things like the idea of a 19th century president having pierced ears, like some 18th century pirate (or 20th century actor) or a bust of Woodrow Wilson decorating 1865 Washington. But one scene, the start of the House roll-call vote on the 13th amendment, did create a small controversy. The roll call begins with Connecticut, and two representatives, given fictional names, vote 'no', sending up shockwaves round the House. And around Connecticut as well, after congressman Joe Courtney pointed out that Connecticut's four representatives all voted FOR the amendment. He didn't feel the need to point out to the filmmakers that since California was also a state, Connecticut would not have started any alphabetical listing anyway.

Courtney was accused of trying to influence votes to Argo, which made little sense, and screenwriter Tony Kushner explained he was simply using artistic license to build suspense. For a vote whose result the audience, at least those aware this was based on a true story, already knew. Kushner also wanted to show northerners opposed to the bill. And later, when a local historian pointed out that Connecticut was a state  divided almost evenly over the race issue, and relatively slow to ratify the amendment in the state legislature, the change was said to portray a broader kind of truth.

In fact the added dramatic effect is minimal.Indeed,one of Connecticut's four congressmen, English from New Haven, was a Democrat, so simply showing his yes vote might have provided as much, or even more, drama. The haphazard way the rest of the roll call is portrayed in the film, trying to stretch suspense down to the last vote, while focussing on those Congressmen we've already followed, means historical accuracy isn't crucial to the filmmakers. And it's hard to argue suspense is intensified by the filmmakers cutting to Mrs. Lincoln's cheat sheet tabulating the votes, which intensifies only our feeling they assume their audience are morons. But the change of Connecticut, like Argo's equally gratuitous throwaway diss of the Kiwis and Brits, appears in the end just meaningless indulgence.

Because the film adheres rather closely to real people, and even the way those people looked, it's odd they'd all of a sudden use fictional characters to express a position they could easily have found real people from the North to represent. For example, there were enough no votes from New York, which was, last time I looked, a 'Northern' state. And in fact, there was only one, from Maine, among the six New England states. So why not show New York? Well, the film-makers said they wanted to go in alphabetical order. So why not start, as noted, with the state which actually came first in alphabetical order? In fact, California's three congressmen all voted yes as well, so it would have been no worse than changing the Connecticut vote.

Could it be because California is Steven Spielberg's state, and California is the state in which Hollywood is located and the filmmakers didn't want to show their state in a bad light, even retrospectively? Why not use New York? Could it be because that is Tony Kushner's home state, and the state where the money behind the industry lies, and the filmmakers didn't want to show New York in a bad light, even retrospectively, and even if it were true? In fact, the movie at one point mentions Tammany Hall, but makes very little of the fact that Secretary of State William Seward was from New York, his career made by Thurlow Weed, the Republican boss of the state (as opposed to the Tammany-controlled city) and Weed was a source of laundered funds for campaigning in Connecticut, precisely because the state was so divided. If the film might be said to have a serious political flaw here, it may be that it plays the vote-bribing for fun, when in reality the politics of the time was immensely corrupt on a serious level, though in fairness James Spader's Bilbo does announce the prices at which congressmen are available. Not much has changed since then, because they still, as Lincoln remarks, sell themselves cheap.

Thaddeus Stevens' relationship with his housekeeper Lydia Smith (played by S. Epatha Merkerson) raises some questions of 'anachro-correctness' that I mentioned in part I of this essay. The reveal of their conjugal state may have surprised people; it's not an historical fact, but it was the subject of much gossip at the time. That Stevens did not leave her his house, but did leave enough money for her to buy it, and that his family would sell it to her, would argue for a special relationship, but we do tend to define such things in terms of 21st century sexual politics. Some modern scholars believe Smith to have been a lesbian, on the grounds of her activities in women's groups in Washington—something Elizabeth Keckley, Mrs. Lincoln's seamstress and perhaps confidant, did with her. Smith also patterned herself on Mrs. Lincoln; by this logic my mother was a lesbian obsessed with Jackie Kennedy. It was argued to me that Ms. Smith and Keckley weren't 'sitting around waiting for Lincoln to do something'. Which also doesn't make them lesbians.

But it leads to the most serious concern raised about the film, and that is its portrayal of the role of black people in the efforts to abolish slavery, and the criticism that more is not made of their positive actions. This follows much modern historical research showing the efforts black people made to bring about their own freedom, and it was a major part of the re-evaluation exhibited in the Ken Burns's Civil War documentary—a strand of argument sometimes overlooked beneath the honeyed traditionalism of Shelby Foote. This was a follow up to the earlier, crucial change in the historical consensus, putting slavery back as the primary cause of the war—not 'states rights' or 'economic difference' or anything else. Slavery was the root of the divide between North and South and it became inarguable to think otherwise.

However, that does not mean the abolition of slavery was the reason Northerners fought in or supported the war. Indeed, Lincoln sold the war as a mission to keep the Union together until such time as he could issue the Emancipation Proclamation and then fight for the Thirteenth Amendment. This is explained pretty clearly in the film. And yes it is explained largely from the political point of view of the men involved because, firstly, the movie is called Lincoln, not Slavery, secondly, the reality is that these men were in the arena where the legal changes to governance were made, and thirdly, blacks were not a voting block that influenced these men. The movie is the story of persuading white men to vote to free the slaves, and the question of those slaves' ultimate equality is not at that point fully settled, a point the film makes bluntly, and which history has made with even more bluntness.I thought the similar criticism better-founded when it was made of Spielberg's Amistad, which swiftly became the story of John Quincy Adams, but that is not the case here.

Much was made of the failure of figures like Frederick Douglass to appear in the film, and indeed, in Goodwin's book there is a fine moment when Douglass finally gets in to the celebration party after Lincoln's second inaugural, and the President makes clear his importance. His stand in, perhaps, is Mrs Keckley, and perhaps Gloria Reuben's performance is the litmus test for feelings on this matter—is she a passive character, 'waiting' for Lincoln, or does she express herself actively, within the context and constraints of the times? Indeed, I wondered at her presence in the House gallery, not least because later in the film, when black people are welcomed into that gallery to watch the vote, it is hailed as 'the first time'. I'm not sure more would be gained by seeing her and Mrs Smith attending meetings. Look closely and you'll see blacks at Lincoln's inauguration, celebrating in the streets, and, most importantly, in the war. The presence of black soldiers fighting for their own freedom is constant throughout the film, and when the Confederate peace delegation arrives in Union territory, their escort is made up of black trooopers. This is a key emotional moment, and for me says more about the efforts of individuals than the presence of Douglass might have.

This is not a question of historical accuracy as much as historical interpretation; you can believe the story of the passage of the Amendment, the arguments within Congress, and its relation to the ending of the war cannot be told without more obvious reference to the efforts of black leaders, but it's hard to argue those stories aren't conveyed with reasonable accuracy without each story. It's like the question of using the word 'nigger', one which I'm sure we will get to when I write about Django Unchained—it would be nice if we could eliminate it from some aspects of modern usage, but it's hard to convey the hatefulness of the word, and the horror of the times, without showing the times as they were. Lincoln, apart from the strangeness of tampering with my own state's history, strikes a pretty decent historical balance overall. I compared Spielberg to John Ford in Part I of this essay—and here he seems to have tried to, as the book did, catch the legend by getting at the essence of the fact.


NOTE: This is the first of a two-part essay. The second part, dealing with issues of fact and depiction of history, will appear here soon.

When I saw the trailer for Lincoln, my immediate thought was that I was watching the animatronic President Lincoln I saw at Disneyland in Anaheim, and since Steven Spielberg is, as I have pointed out before, very much in the mold of the 1950s Disney movies he grew up watching, I was expecting a worthy, if not wooden, film, portraying a worthy if not wooden President. The fact is, although Lincoln is indeed worthy, it is very much not wooden. It does begin, however, as if determined to present that animatronic Lincoln, a robotic figure who sits and listens to a lecture from a black soldier, whose argument about equality is virtually the only time in the film a speech makes no effort to sound like the 19th century. It thought of a similar argument over soldiers' pay in Glory, which made less effort to sound period, but managed to convey the point in more period fashion. Then two boys from Gettysburg start reciting the Address, which is finished by the black soldier. Although it's moving, it does not ring true, indeed it smacks of what I'd call 'anachro-correctness', the desire to give characters in the past the attitudes of the present. With Spielberg, this instinct has manifested itself in hammer-heavy codas to films like Saving Private Ryan, trying to drive the point home to the contemporary audience. Fortunately for the film, and the audience, this approach ceases with that scene, and there is no coda. The other important thing in this scene, however, is the way the two Gettysburg boys are presented as just that, boys. They are kids with their idol, and as such they are stand-ins for us, in the Speilberg universe.

Within the framework of that universe, however, Lincoln makes a strong effort at presenting a nuanced political argument about Lincoln's battle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, banning slavery. Although it's passed the Senate, it has failed once already in the House of Representatives, where he has only a small majority, and Constitutional Amendments require a two-thirds vote. Besides trying to end a war and put the nation back together, Lincoln is also trying to keep his family together; his wife Mary still mourns the loss of their middle son; she ignores the youngest, and dotes on their oldest, who now wants to quit Harvard and join the Army. Keeping families together has always been a centerpiece of Spielberg's films.

The intimate story parallels the first, with Lincoln in a dilemma of principle regarding the war, and another about how to raise his eldest son. The film does well dealing with the nuances of Lincoln's bigger battles: he does not want to wait for the bigger majority he would have when the new House, swept in with his re-election in 1864, comes to Washington. He worries that moves to peace would lessen the cause of anti-slavery, concessions could be made to the South to end the war and even reform the Union, and he knows a bill passed by this more balanced House would carry more weight with the public, as well as sending a message to the South about the impossibility of a negotiated settlement as opposed to a surrender. But Lincoln needs to placate both wings of his own Republican party, the radical abolitionists and those, particularly from Border states, looking for peace. Meanwhile, he needs Democratic votes as well. And he knows he has not won the hearts and minds of the voters on the issue of racial equality.

I found this part of the story engrossing, perhaps because I know the background; it was accused by many of being 'boring' and slowing down the film. But if it isn't totally successful, it's more because it can't decide whether it's trying to be The West Wing or Advise And Consent, and so winds up being neither. But what it actually does is use the space between those modes, and use its parallel stories, to tell the story of Lincoln's whole career through the microcosm of this one political battle. Thus it can't be West Wing because there is no back-chat to speak of; there is only one story, Lincoln's, and the literal pursuit of wavering votes, by bribery or whatever means, is played more for comedy than anything else. Tommy Lee Jones, as the abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, who was the most powerful man in the House, is less a foil for Lincoln than a counter-balance; a true-believer who needs to learn Lincoln's style of accommodation. The actual political in-fighting is portrayed more through the chaos of the House chamber, and that much is done well, but the real meat of the story is when it comes down to Lincoln with his adversaries, where his full arsenal of persuasion and intimidation is brought into play. In fact the most powerful moment in the film may be when Lincoln slams his fists on a table and elucidates his power. But this placing of Lincoln in the centre of everything (except Stevens' own dilemma) means that, apart from highlights of debates, the real political infighting must be in the background.

At home, we often see Lincoln in shadows, as a silhouette, a gossamer figure behind curtains. The most truly Spielberg moment comes when Lincoln finds his youngest son Tad asleep in front of the fire, tin soldiers spread across a War Department map. It's shot from the child's eye, gazing way up at Lincoln, before Lincoln drops down to Tad's level on the floor. It again places the audience into the position of the child. This is the constant strain in Spielberg's work, between the childlike audience point of view, and the serious, usually masculine work at hand in the films. It's why the soldiers together on the march bits of Private Ryan didn't work at all; it's hard for him to do male bonding on an equal basis, whereas he can show the excitement and indeed horror of battle deftly. And that's why Lincoln's political machinations don't measure up to, for example, Advise and Consent, because we're not watching equals at play.

I've written before that the film-maker Spielberg most resembles is Robert Stevenson, best-remembered today for Jane Eyre and a series of Disney comedies in the Sixties, but who hit his Disney peak with Old Yeller and Johnny Tremaine in 1957 (for purposes of this film it might be interesting to revisit Stevenson's Thirties version of King Solomon's Mines, with Paul Robeson in a key role excised from later versions). Disney's 50s, with films like the above and TV series like Davy Crockett or Swamp Fox, were all about 'printing the legend' and telling history as adventure, from a child's point of view, but with an adult story line. It's also crucial that Lincoln's most direct approach to the issue of slavery itself comes with Tad looking at photographs of slaves, which leads him to ask the black people he knows about it, and thus give the audience reassurance that slavery was indeed wrong, and horrible.This elementary 'Disney' approach means Spielberg can play on Lincoln's legend while deconstructing, as it were, the man himself. With Lincoln, I think Spielberg is appropriating John Ford, and not just because Daniel Day-Lewis' performance is far closer to Henry Fonda's in Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln than, say, to Raymond Massey's (who also played John Brown—an interesting daily double of lead roles). And it's the performance by Lewis that defines the film, and it is a remarkable one.

Lewis inhabits the character physically, his gait and posture telling us all we need to know about the strain he is under. Although his voice at times seems to hint at Walter Brennan in the Thirties, it strikes the key of authenticity not only in time but in terms of the man himself. It lacks bombast, but is full of conviction, it is the voice of persuasion, of self-deprecation; this is the Lincoln as he was portrayed in Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team Of Rivals (of which more in part II) who so inspired Barack Obama. And it can never resist humour, especially when used tactically. Few of the rest of the cast are given huge moments, apart from Jones and Sally Field as Mrs Lincoln. Field's too old, just as Lewis is too young, for their roles, and it creates some awkward moments; you get the sense that Fields imbues the character with a bit too much of her own patented hysteria, but she is strikingly effective. David Strathairn seems also to inhabit Secretary of State Seward, relegated to a literally supporting role. There are excellent cameos by Waylon Goggins, as a bribed Democrat, and Jackie Earle Haley as Confederate Vice President Stephens, but in general the cast puts on their whiskers or ties up their bustles and is convincing.

Jones' role is the most problematic. It is significant that he is presented in two 'reveals', introduced by the device of seeing the Congressmen reporting to him, and then, at the end, having his 'housekeeper' revealed to be in bed with him, as a spouse. He gets the biggest decision moment, when he has to speak about equality, and his equivocation is a thing of brilliance—the one moment when the film achieves its synthesis of West Wing and Advise and Consent. Beyond that, however, his iron control over his half of the House is expressed mostly in elaborate putdowns. The House vote itself is presented with score-keeping as clunky as anything I've seen since the makers of Red Dragon decided Hannibal Lecter would need to translate 'ris de veau' in his cookbook for the benefit of the audience, and the misrepresentation in the opening of the roll call is something I will discuss in part II of this essay.

I mentioned at the start that I feared an animatronic Lincoln, and I feared a Spielberg coda that would drive home his point. As the movie reaches the end, we come close. Lee's surrender at Appomattox presents us with our second animatronic moment: when Jarred Harris' rather too clean Grant doffs his hat, and Lee creakingly replies in kind. But it passes quickly. We see Robert Lincoln in uniform as part of Grant's staff—he looks remarkably like his little brother's soldier suit, and I wondered if, in the middle of the horror, Spielberg was still making a point, as with Tad and his war games in front of the fire, about war being a child's thing. And then, when Lincoln is shot, Spielberg chooses to give us the news while Tad is at another theatre. This is true, but I'm sure part of the reason was to wrong-foot the audience, who were probably expecting John Wilkes Booth and 'sic semper tyrannus'.

But to me it was crucial the play Tad Lincoln saw that night was Aladdin...and Spielberg ends us with a child's moment, a fairy story, interrupted by a nightmare of losing a parent. It is a purely Spielberg reaction—and, in a movie that doesn't really 'print the legend', brings it back to that 1950s moment. As an historical epic I like it better than Private Ryan or Schindler's List. This year's Oscar nominees were better, as a group, than last year's, but I still struggle to find one that jumps out as 'best' or 'great'. It may be simply the academy is tired of the elegaic, the John Williams' score's borrowing from Copland and Ken Burns's documentary. It might be that Lincoln didn't win best film because it was up against films approaching, to some extent, our present condition—and although I kept seeing hints of the Tea Party, and hints about our continuing racial divide, I think it lived up to its forecast of worthiness, and kept away from controversy. Which might have made it more relevant, but would have made it less Spielberg.

Sunday 24 February 2013


Avengers Assemble was nominated for only one Oscar, for its visual effects, which would not be unjust for it to win, though frankly most of CGI stuff isn't particularly new or exciting. But if you're a comics fan, you'll recognise something of the detailed drawings Jim Steranko did for the Nick Fury, Agent of Shield comic way back when, full of geometric detail and improbable scale. And, after you think about it, you may realise that although this is by no means a 'great' movie, it is a pretty good bit of writing and directing, and that the so-called adult audience's tastes for what is superior work in films is informed pretty much by the same aesthetic impulse that turns the Stan Lee-Jack Kirby-Steve Ditko world of our Sixties adolescence into mainstream adult entertainment, which then turns middlebrow worthy drama, middle of the road grand scale musicals, or tales of offbeat people having troubled paths to boy gets girl into Oscar contenders. Which is pretty much the same situation as films were in when Marvel became popular in the first place! 

What proves this point, and what is amazing, is exactly how closely the filmmakers have stayed to the original 60s comics characters and storylines. In Avengers Joss Wheddon, of course, was the director and screenwriter (the story credit shared with Zak Penn), and the way he's managed to bring a galactic war involving Norse gods down to a human level is impressive, but it's much the same way Lee and Kirby did nearly 50 years ago. It's something he's meshed with his direction—the screenplay's arc is the moving of the individuals into a group, and the direction basically teases this idea throughout. Wheddon uses his actors well: at one end Mark Ruffalo (worthy of a supporting actor nomination as Bruce Banner/Hulk) dark and depressive and at the other Robert Downey, playing flippant as he seems to do effortlessly well. In between them are the beef- and cheesecake, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth and Scarlet Johannson, the most interesting of the lot, who's given the chance to deepen her character alongside Jeremy Renner. Renner's Hawkeye is potentially the most interesting of the lot, not really in the beefcake bunch, but he never says or denotes enough to turn himself into something more interesting. Perhaps he needed the Hawkeye headgear after all.

The set-up of this movie, which was begun in the individual characters' films the stars made, was presumably something that Penn brought to the table, and you have to admire the marketing nous of Marvel to have conceived of tying those films together in the first place. Samuel Jackson's Nick Fury is the linchpin of all that. Jackson gets a good part, though the fascinating and epically named Colby Smulders, who does smulder away as she says things like 'Yes, sir', works hard to upstage him. The show is nearly stolen completely by Clark Gregg, as Agent Coulston (why do I keep thinking of Charles Colson?), who's playing his usual kind of role but gets it invested with a certain amount of dignity because Wheddon realises he is the stand-in for the audience of geeky kids of all ages.

Tim Hiddleston's Loki is what we expect British actors to bring to villainy in big budget action flicks, while Gwyneth Paltrow appears to be finding her level in Hollywood, here, as Pepper Potts, in a brief role as arm candy to Downey. But the audience, as more or less adult as it must be, doesn't care about any of that. They're waiting for the moment when Capt America tells Bruce Banner, just turned into the Hulk, 'Hulk, smash', and the Big Green Machine smiles. Gamma radiation has never promised so much. The aesthetes out there will scoff, but Avengers Assemble offers more coherence, slightly more depth of relationships, and more humour than most of the Oscar nominees out there. Plus the near destruction of earth. But that says more about them, and Oscar's tastes, and the state of moviemaking today, than it does about what is basically an enjoyable $200 million comic book, the kind I used to pay 12 cents for, feeling then they were worth every penny.

Friday 22 February 2013


While taking my nine-year old son round the Wellcome Collection, I spotted the objects pictured below in a display case, which said son walked past nonchalantly, preferring to get back to the cafe and his DS.

The caption read:             Male Anti-Masturbation Devices
                                           Nickel-Plated Steel
                                           Probably British, 1880-1920

I was struck by one word. Probably? Could anything be MORE British? If the dating were contemporary I'd guess they were a set presented to Dave Cameron, Gideon 'George' Osborne, and Nick Clegg when they became the coalition government of this country. Certainly one assumes they were once standard issue for all public school boys, who probably took a great deal of pleasure in wearing them. For the forty years the caption implies.


I actually reviewed Silver Linings Playbook back in November for the 'three points' section of our Americarnage podcast (that's, or via Itunes), but because I was also talking about Elliott Carter's death, the discussion was edited out. Since then, the film won the BAFTA for best adapted screenplay, which surprised me because in Britain the 'Playbook' part of the title of the film was virtually disappeared, and the football elements usually put British audiences, and critics, off. But when I sat down to write about the film, I found myself thinking first about the appeal David O Russell, and the odd fact that in the past 18 years, he done only six feature films.

Spanking The Monkey could almost be the quintessential independent first picture; I remember it blowing me away at the London Film Festival, primarily because of the way it managed to approach a taboo subject, and some sensitive relations, with both sensitivity and humour. And I was so impressed with Alberta Watson's performance, and have since watched her nail many parts, but not the big-ticket one that she deserved.

Spanking The Monkey foreshadowed the Russell who specialises in off-beat relationships, which is what Silver Linings is all about, though its characters aren't as willfully offbeat as those in other comedies he wrote and directed, like Flirting With Disaster (of which more shortly) or I Heart Huckabees. On the serious side, Russell also made Three Kings, still the best movie anyone's done about the American 'conquest' of the Middle East, even though it was made before the last two invasions, and Kathryn Bigelow's essays into them. Three Kings was, like Silver Linings, adapted from other sources, while The Fighter, which got Russell his first Oscar nomination for best director, was his only film where he doesn't have a writing credit. It also got Melissa Leo, an underappreciated New York actress right out of the Alberta Watson template, another much-deserved Oscar (though more deserved for Frozen River!)

A cynic might think Silver Linings is a combination of the two: the offbeat comedy which Russell creates himself, and a sporting subplot and metaphor to make it more interesting on the mainstream level. But I found that, despite enjoying the film for the most part, my cynicism hit a mother lode of Silver Linings.

It's the kind of film where everyone is a bit off, which is supposed to make them funny to comfortable audiences. But where it doesn't work is that Bradley Cooper, who has anger issues (inherited, obviously, from his father Robert DeNiro, who's been banned from Eagles' games for fighting) never really seems angry enough. He's acting hard, but he keeps this reserve of rational intelligence, or likeability, behind his eyes. We can believe the violence in DeNiro beneath the hamming because he's DeNiro, but with Cooper, we think there's something more going on. If you might see a lot of DeNiro's performance in Meet The Fockers here, it isn't surprised, since Russell supposedly did script-doctoring on that film, and as we'll see, there is a lot of revisiting going on in this film.

What's new and different is Jennifer Lawrence, although again, as a widow and a 'recovering sex addict' her character Tiffany is given faults too good to be true, from the film-maker's point of view. But Lawrence does an amazing job of projecting her ultimate vulnerability—I rather doubt she gets the Oscar this year, but I wouldn't complain if she did, since she so richly deserved one for Winter's Bone. She gets the best lines, of course, and her letter to Pat is corny but may be the best moment of the film (apart from any moments with Jacki Weaver, as Cooper's mother and DeNiro's wife, enduring them). In fact the contrasting marriages; Pat's best friend is married to Tiffany's sister; she dominates him, and they live an upwardly-mobile life that's killing him to maintain. It's a contrast to Pat's parents (Tiffany's parents barely register) and everyone else in the lower-middle class neighbourhood they live in, but it's a sharper contrast to our kooky least until the end.

But what really doesn't work is the integration of the football, which is sloppy—I complained on Americarnage about DeNiro making the show's big bet on a game whose point spread would not have been fixed at the time, and you could notice the anachronistic Eagles' jerseys in the crowd-- but what was in there for a gratuitious laugh was the whole Indian Eagles fans and the fight—since one of them is Pat's therapist, you'd think his fighting at the stadium would make more of a point toward the story, but it basically just in there for a cheap ethnic laugh. Too bad they weren't playing the Redskins.

And what is especially cynical of me is thinking that the whole 'Dancing With The Stars' subplot is redolent of Slumdog Millionaire. Yes, you say, but this is what America does, pattern their lives and live their hopes to the incessant beat of so-called 'reality' television, but to me this is simply something up to date and popular on which Russell could hitch the basic scenario of Flirting With Disaster: the love triangle between the kooky guy (Ben Stiller, on whom Cooper is an improvement), the wife who doesn't care (Patricia Arquette) and the kooky woman to whom the kooky guy is attracted (Tea Leoni). There it was a quest for his parents, here it is a quest to get his job and wife back, even though the latter doesn't want him.

You can see where the novel might have appealed to Russell, and beneath the triangle he recognised were the extra plotlines, the rehab requirements, the dancing competition, and most of all the football. But really they don't go much of anywhere, especially the football, which is laden with potential metaphors for this story which went untapped. Similarly, the dancing, in the end, becomes its own payoff and telegraphs its own ending.

As I said, Silver Linings Playbook is entertaining enough; it simply does carry the weight of its own storyline to any sort of 'best picture' degree. Which is why I find it surprising he's been nominated for best director because his direction is completely in service to the screenplay, and the set-pieces are very mundane. I think that's deliberate, because as I say, I think Russell's most interested in his triangle, and everything else is just a series of devices to get him to the payoff. Besides, Flirting With Disaster II isn't a very catchy title.

Thursday 21 February 2013


The reasons why James M. Cain was more successful than Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett during their lifetimes, and the reasons why he is the least read of the three today are connected, and they have to do with morality. This was a point reinforced for me by The Cocktail Waitress, Cain's lost last novel, written in 1975 when he was 83, and tracked down and then edited together from various versions by Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime.

Cain's writing sold more to his contemporary audience partly because it escaped the confines of the genre ghetto of 'mystery' –his stories usually have crime within them (though the killing of Monte Beragon in Mildred Pierce, for example, is something added by the movies), but not detective heroes, so they could play to the somewhat higher-brow audience who looked down on the pulp magazines that spawned Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. More important, though, was the world of steamy, obsessive, noirish sex which Cain's characters inhabited. He wrote material that the highbrow critics hated, but which the middle brow audiences ate up, a form of sexual slumming which inspired a slew of followers, of whom Erskine Caldwell may be the most notable. And though today he's remembered for the films his novels inspired, it's worth noting that it took Hollywood 12 years to work up the gumption to produce a diluted version of The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Of course, what was hot stuff to my parents' generation, and when I was a kid in the Fifties, is pretty tame nowadays. Which is one of the reasons Cain fell somewhat to the wayside. Another was that, as his late-blooming career went on, his work dealt more and more with his obsessions, and his stories became less and less compulsive.

But what made his stories compulsive is also what made them acceptable in the Thirties and Forties, and what makes them less compelling today. They are underpinned by a powerful sense of morality, a morality which insists that sin, inevitably, be punished, while simultaneously portraying the intoxicating delights it offers before the punishment comes due. Cain's stories are about people caught up by forces they cannot control, forces which will inevitably destroy them. It is a world created by an Old Testament God, and if that makes the original Cain, or Job, or David, the first noir protagonist, so be it. It's not like this is a secret, among Cain's later novels are titles like Sinful Woman and The Root Of His Evil. His God may well have departed the scene; not for nothing did Albert Camus call Cain 'America's greatest writer', but that sense of retribution is never far away, and often his characters see it coming.

Hammett's protagonists resonate with modern audiences because they are almost anti-heroes; they know the world has its sins, that people are corrupted, and they function within that world, partaking of it but never succumbing to it, never letting it take control of them, living by their own code of what demands punishment. Chandler's Marlowe also knows the world is corrupt, but he copes with it like an idealist who's become, as idealists do, a cynic. He constructs a facade of not caring, defined by cracking wise, to protect him from the corruption. What makes Elliott Gould's Marlowe so accurate in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, the reason by it's generally either loved or hated by Chander fans, is the understanding of this character, which Leigh Brackett and Altman nail perfectly. Their Marlowe is the most accurate depiction of what's REALLY going on underneath the facade, as opposed to the what the readers (and perhaps author) really thinks is going on, since Robert Aldrich and Buzz Bezzerides' deconstruction of Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly.

In this sense, The Cocktail Waitress is a veritable cocktail of Cain's Old Testament themes, a small masterpiece of self-deconstruction. Joan Medford, the eponymous waitress, narrates the tale, and when it opens her abusive husband has just died in a drunken car crash, which at least one cop still suspects her of somehow having caused. Her son is in the care of her in-laws, and her sister-in-law Ethel, who can't have children of her own, desperately wants to keep him. Joan is simply trying to make ends meet, but needs to prove she can support herself and her son, so she takes a job as a cocktail waitress at the Garden of Roses. She catches the eye of an older millionaire, Earl K. White III, and of a younger man with big plans, Tom Barclay, who says he drove her home from her husband's funeral, and claims she blew him a kiss when he left.

The set-up is brilliant, and you can see where it's going. Joan is obsessive about making a success, and enough money to get back her son. Her need becomes overwhelming. Earl quickly becomes obsessed with Joan, and offers to marry her, but with a catch—he has a heart condition, and has been told by his doctors that he could never stand the strain of sex. His passion could literally kill him. Joan quickly becomes obsessed with Tom—even though on their first 'date' he takes her to a topless bar cum whorehouse. But her passion is just as dangerous to her need as Earl's is to him. It's like a condensed version of Cain's classic characters and themes rolled into one: Postman crossed with Mildred Pierce crossed with Double Indemnity (you wonder if the character is called Joan in reference to Crawford) with a bit of Cain himself thrown in: he was suffering from angina as he wrote the book, and was 83, (I wondered reading the strip club scene if he'd seen The Graduate and been inspired). Tom is Walter Neff crossed with Beragon, Earl is partly Nick, partly Mr Dietrichson. But the real question is who Joan is, and that's where the beauty of this novel lies.

As you might expect, things get complicated, and then go wrong, and eventually one accident is followed by another death, and coincidence begins to mount. There's a trial scene, and then a vicious twist at the end which clever readers will have seen coming, but which, in terms of Old Testament justice, is cruel and unusual, and which makes clear what Cain has been doing all along: setting us, the readers, up for a fall, just as he did so brilliantly in Postman. But here, he's done it with the female first-person narration (remember, Mildred Pierce is told in third person; Postman in the first by Frank Chambers). Cain's sense of Joan's voice, which seems believable at first, now is revealed to be downright compelling: we have watched the story through her eyes, and we are forced to re-evaluate the entire story, and our own preconceptions and sympathies, as a result. Although we have the sense of impending doom, Joan never shares it, and this creates a wonderful tension, because we, as readers, accept her voice. 

The Cocktail Waitress is not a 'great' novel, and  it will carry less impact to a modern audience unfamiliar with Cain; in fact, judging by some of the reviews it appears that is the case. But its publication at this time makes it a perfect coda to Cain's career; he is remembered now mostly for the movies he inspired. I'd love to see it turned into a film; after all even Mildred Pierce with Kate Winslett was a success (Guy Pearce's Beragon stole that show--though the HBO adaptation did return Lucy Gessler, as Mildred's friend, to a larger role, giving Melissa Leo a chance to shine; there is an equivalent character in The Cocktail Waitress too). The question would be whether you use the late Fifties/early Sixties period (the end of the era of morality: pre-Beatles and the rest) or go contemporary, because we are currently mired in an age that combines both licentiousness and prudery in ways that make the Roaring Twenties/Depression Thirties seem balanced. With the popularity of Mad Men, and copies of it like The Hour, and the success of Mildred Pierce, period might work better; this I think could be the breakthrough role for Jessica Chastain.

There has been huge re-evaluation of Cain in recent years. Postman was picked for the Modern Library's 100 Best Novels list; Double Indemnity is one of the AFI's 100 best American films. This novel is a moving reminder of what made Cain so compelling in his time, and what makes him so today. It may not be the place to begin reading him, but once you've started to move beyond the classics, to the more obsessive works (The Butterfly, Galatea, Serenade and Past All Dishonor, for example), it's a good place to see clearly what he's up to, and what he's capable of doing with his writing.

The Cocktail Waitress by James M Cain
Hard Case Crime/Titan Books £16.99 ISBN 9781781160329

This essay will also appear at Crime Time (

Saturday 16 February 2013


Just by chance the other night, thanks to TV Void, I wound up watching Devil's Cargo, a 1948 Falcon movie I'd never before come across. It's one of three made with the famous magician John Calvert as the Falcon, and because the poverty-row studio that released it, Film Classics, wasn't long for this world, it's now in the public domain.

The curious thing was that in this film the Falcon is called 'Michael Watling', not Gay Lawrence, as he was in the RKO series. This was not a case of early-onset homophobia, but the change must have been made at a late date in filming, because throughout the movie, when characters (including the Falcon himself) use the name Watling, it has been redubbed, and redubbed badly, apparently by one man who simply recorded the word 'Watling' each time without any thought for dropping it into sequence with volume, tone, or pace.

This appears to suggest the change from the Michael Arlen character was a case of running into some trouble somewhere, which is strange because the Calvert films are supposedly based on a radio series that ran concurrently with the the RKO film series, and their Falcon was also called Watling, though he wasn't a magician. This requires some explanation.

The Falcon most of us remember, as played by George Sanders and then by his brother Tom Conway, was basically put on film by RKO to replace the Saint series, in which Sanders played Simon Templar. This appears to have been largely because Leslie Charteris, creator of the Saint, was such a pain in the studio backside. So when his contract was up, RKO bought the rights to a short story by Michael Arlen, called 'The Gay Falcon', written in 1940, and simply continued producing stories enough like the Saint for Charteris to sue them. You can link to my article about The Falcon Takes Over, a surprisingly good reworking of Chandler's Farewell My Lovely, here.

Arlen was a nice name to attach to the product, bringing both class and a touch of daring. His big claim to fame was his novel The Green Hat, published in 1924 and considered hot stuff in the Roaring Twenties. The 1928 Greta Garbo-John Gilbert film Woman Of Affairs is a considerably bowdlerised version of the story, and the talkie version, Outcast Lady, with Constance Bennett, wasn't much franker.

But Arlen was as slippery a character as the Falcon. He was born Dikran Kouyoumdjian, a Bulgarian of Armenian parentage, and despite his status as an enemy alien during the Great War began to make inroads into London literary, and other, society. After the war he changed his name to Michael Arlen, became a best-seller, had a famous affair with Nancy Cunard, and was supposedly the model for Michaelis in DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, which makes the choice of the Falcon's name even more interesting. He also wrote the short story 'When A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square', from which the song got its title. What's interesting too is that as his novels grew less popular, he turned to science fiction, publishing a novel Man's Morality (1933) which was generally seen to have borrowed heavily from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, published the previous year. Since he might be said to have borrowed Nancy Cunard from Huxley too, this may have been a low blow.

But it lends some credence to the idea that Arlen wrote his Falcon story somewhat influenced by Drexel Drake, who published The Falcon's Prey, the first of three Falcon novels (and one short story), in 1936. His Falcon was called Malcolm Wingate, and seems patterned on the Saint, although with a more hard-boiled style, and an ex-cop sidekick called Sarge. There was also a criminal called Goldy in that first novel, and you may remember Allen Jenkins playing Goldy as the Falcon's sidekick in the Sanders films.

Drake's Falcon, as I mentioned, was on the radio, starting in 1943, while RKO were making their films, but here the character is called Michael Waring, and he works as an insurance investigator. Someone may have read Double Indemnity. I wonder if the Calvert films called him Wingate, and then decided to cash in on the radio series, or whether there was some other name, like Lawrence, involved.

Devil's Cargo is all over the place as a film—Calvert has to do magic tricks and sleight of hand almost constantly, and in fact the movie has a scene, where it's pointed out he has two identical portraits of himself, and one, he says, isn't him but John Calvert. This might be looked at as an early venture into Being John Malkovich territory. He's also driving a Studebaker two-door, which seems almost as unlikely as the Roger Moore Saint's Volvo, which it resembles somewhat, although it looks more like a streamlined version of Commando Cody's helmet.

The film does have its interesting bits, especially Roscoe Karns, looking somewhat under the weather, as a friendly police lieutenant, Lyle Talbot somewhat miscast as a smooth gangster, and Rochelle Hudson doing a very nice job as the femme fatale. Her erstwhile husband is supposedly a Mexican, as played by Paul Marion he seems to be putting everyone on. Theodore Van Eltz isn't bad as the lawyer revealed to be the worst of a larcenous lot.

After the three Calvert movies, the Falcon would make one more return, this time in a syndicated TV series, Adventures Of The Falcon, with Charles McGraw playing him as an international agent, when he would have been better suited to be an insurance investigator. And with that the Falcon was grounded, seemingly, forever. The one thing the McGraw finally got rid of was the strange nature of the Falcon's appeal to women: he is portrayed as both irresistible and strangely childish in dealing with the charms of the women who find him so—and this runs through the character no matter who plays him or which writer he is ostensibly based on. A strange bird indeed.

Note: I'm indebted to the Thrilling Detective website for information about the Falcon and Drexel Drake. You can link to it here.


NOTE: Due to circumstances beyond my control, the Independent double-booked the assignment to write the obit of Ronald Dworkin, the legal philosopher and one of my favourite writers in the New York Review of Books. Mine was the later assigned, and filed, so though I rushed to complete about 1,000 words in a couple of hours while watching two kids on half-term break, it went unused. I offer it here, as written and not edited by the paper. The one the paper used is good, and explains more fully than I try to the nature of Dworkin's philosphy, and the ones it argues against. It wasn't for me to insert myself into the obit, but it is my feeling that the legal profession in general prefers the HLA Hart approach to the law, as a sort of chess game taking place divorced from the 'real' world, and within the cheesboard of the courtroom. It avoids having to question one's own actions, and fall back on the zero-sum game theory of the adversarial approach, where winning is the goal, not justice. I can also recommend Godfrey Hodgson's excellent obit in the Guardian, a more personal reminiscence--and certainly the Gatsby-esque photo on the beach goes along with the best three-house arrangement I could think of.


Ronald Dworkin, who has died aged 81, was one of the world's foremost legal philosophers, and a forceful advocate for using morality to interpret issues of constitutional law. He was a leading scholar of constitutional law as a professor in both Britain and the United States, but he exerted equal influence in the wider world with his commentary on political issues and philosophy, most notably in the pages of the New York Review of Books, where his essays flowed like lectures, taking his audience along for an illuminating ride.

His legal philosophy was challenged most heavily from the political right, and he became a particular target when he opposed President Ronald Reagan's appointment to the Supreme Court of his former Yale colleague Robert Bork, with whom he had taught jointly a course in constitutional law. He based his opposition on Bork's strict constructionist approach, which he called a refusal to 'test interpretation of the Constitiution against the principles latent in (the Supreme Court)'s own past decisions.' Believing the framers of the Constitution had imbued it with room for moral interpretation, Dworkin often found such strict interpretations hypocritical, or in the case of the Supreme Court's 2000 decision to 'acclaim' George W Bush president, an exercise in 'professional self interest'. He wrote 'the fiat of the five conservative justices...stopped the deomocratic process in its tracks.'

Dworkin's work for the New York Review stretched from a trenchant analysis of affirmative action through the 2000 election and to the current Roberts court, which he described as a 'right-wing phalanx...guided by no judicial or political principle at all, but only by partisan, cultural, or perhaps religious allegiance'. In the New York Review he published a memorable destruction of the 2010 Citizens United decision, which applied the concept of freedom of speech to allow corporations unlimited spending on political campaign advertising, and a convincing argument in favour of 'Obamacare' and its requirement that people have health insurance. He was attacked, often derided, from the right. Bork called him a 'liberal moral relativist', and the New York Review would often run long criticisms of his articles by Harvard professor Gerald Fried, which Dworkin would then dissect in rebuttal. But Dworkin's principled stances earned the respect, if not agreement, of many on the right. Walter Olson, of the Cato Institute, wrote 'over decades of intra-left legal debate, he took the better side—arguing for the importance of individual rights, free speech, and the integrity of law as a discipline in itself'.

Ronald Myles Dworkin was born in Providence, Rhode Island 11 December 1931. His parents divorced when he was a baby, and his mother raised three children by teaching piano. He won a scholarship to Harvard, and after graduating went to Magdalen College, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. His final examination paper was largely critical of the theory of legal positivism, as propagated by H.L.A. Hart, Oxford's Chair of Jurisprudence. Hart saw justice embodied in adherence to the law's system of rules, not requiring the perspective of morality. As it happened, Hart was called in to be one of the reader's of Dworkin's exam, which he passed with highest marks. In 1969, when Hart retired, he nominated Dworkin as his successor to the Chair, and cited passages from that exam in his welcoming speech. They also provided the basis of his collection, Taking Rights Seriously (1977), in which he took apart not only Hart's Concepts Of Law but John Rawls' A Theory Of Justice. Dworkin argued that the law needed to be interpreted to provide justice, rather than relying on a black and white answer, because, strictly speaking, both parties in a dispute might well be 'right' to a greater or lesser degree.

After taking his Oxford exams, Dworkin returned to Harvard to complete another law degree, and then clerked for Judge Learned Hand, of the US Court of Appeals, one of America's greatest jurists. In a move he came to regret, he then turned down an offer to clerk for the Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, instead joining the prestigious New York firm of Sulolivan and Cromwell. He had married Betsy Ross, whom he met while clerking for Hand, with whom they spent one of their first dates, and with the arrival of twins he found the travel demands of the job too pressing, and in 1962 took a professorship at Yale. He added the Oxford post, but in 1975 turned down Harvard and joined the faculty at New York University, helping to build its law school into one of the nation's best. Eventually, he moved to University College, London, and split time between London, where he kept a flat in Belgravia, and New York, with a colonial news house just off Washington Square. His summers were spent on Martha's Vineyard.

Dworkin's most influential book was Law's Empire (1986), which expounded his own theory of law, while in Sovereign Virture he offered a notion of society's parallel needs to allow people freedom to succeed while cushioning them against failure; that although all people were equal under the law, the law needed to realise that all people were not equal (2000). His books, like his essays, moved between the abstract principles of law, and analyses of contemporary legal issues. In Life's Dominion (1993) he examined legal arguments about both abortion and euthanasia, and A Badly Flawed Election (2002) took apart the Supreme Court's Bush v Gore decision. Justice For Hedgehogs (2011), with its title recalling Isiah Berlin, was his attempt to mix all his philosophy into one field theory, and a 16th book, Religion Without God is forthcoming.

Betsy died in 2000, and Dworkin married Irene Brendel, the ex-wife of his friend, the pianist Alfred. He died of cancer, and is survived by his second wife, and his son and daughter from his first marriage.

Wednesday 13 February 2013


My obit of Zhuang Zedong, the Chinese table tennis great who was at the heart of Richard Nixon's 'ping-pong diplomacy', is up at the Guardian online, you can link to it here. It should appear in the paper paper soon.

It is pretty much as I wrote it, but it was hard in such limited space to convey the drama of Zhuang's life, or indeed to read between the lines about both his activities when he was Madame Mao's favourite, or after the fall of the Gang Of Four. Certainly Fu Qifang and Rong Guotuan's suicides while in prison under sentence of death have to be looked at with some scepticism. How Zhuang felt about those he had been close to as he rose through the party apparatus is an interesting question. But certainly the story of his approach to Glenn Cowan, and its global effect, as well as of his own rise, downfall, and return, are the stuff of cinema.

I had written a little bit about H. Roy Evans, the Welsh head of the International Table Tennis Federation, as a sidebar for the piece; and only a brief mention made it into the obit. But Evans had already taken a delegation of Canadian table tennis players (which included one American) to China before Cowan and his teammates went, and if you look at the history of the ITTF's world championships, up to and including Pyongyang, you'll see how Evans worked to build bridges to Eastern Europe and what might be called the 'non-aligned' nations, particularly in Asia. I knew Roy from my days at ABC Sports, and he was one of the most fun of all the blazerati to meet during the conferences and congresses we attended, particularly in the hotel bar. My favourite story involved his being rejected at a luxury hotel into which the federation had booked him--this may have been in Pyongyang, but my impression of his description of 'luxury hotel' argues against that--and only after a long argument with much translation was it discovered that the hotel had been expected a Japanese guest, a Mr. Obe, because the federation had booked him as H. Roy Evans O.B.E.

Glenn Cowan never made it big, despite his appeal as the young hippie who'd gone to China and talked with Chou En-Lai. In fact, he was something of an attraction in Beijing, attracting large crowds who would keep their polite distance and stare. Later, he suffered from psychiatric problems, exacerbated by drug use, and later in life hustled paddle-tennis games on Venice Beach, often homeless. He was institutionalised for a time before he died of a heart attack in 2004. Perhaps the movie needs to be a joint tale.

A couple of notes: The actual kung-fu move Zhuang patterned his backhand after is called the 'one inch punch'. I found it interesting that Zhuang shared his first names with Mao, Ze-dong, or Tse Sung in the old transliterations. Rong ( or Yung Kuo Tuan) was actually born in Hong Kong, which in itself may have been enough to stir suspicion during the Cultural Revolution. And of course, after that tour of Bejing, Zhuang and Cowan never met again.

Monday 11 February 2013


With its copping of best picture and best director masks at the Baftas, on top of the DGA award, Argo has become the front-runner for the Oscar, which is interesting given its opposition. Argo is a very likeable film, well-made, with real suspense in its last act, and an atmosphere of menace in Iran and Washington both, contrasted with an atmosphere of anarchic freedom and humour in Hollywood.

Which is why, call me cynical, I'd popped Argo as an Oscar favourite as soon as I saw it, for two connected reasons which both have to do with Hollywood's perception of itself. The first is obvious—as much as the movie shows the CIA saving the day, it is the Hollywood producer (in fact the film's only totally fictional western character) and make-up guy who actually come up with the goods, and in the process provide us with self-satirizing boffo yucks. The second is related: the Tehran rescue contrasts with the failed attempt at rescuing the hostages in the US embassy—the signal moment of Jimmy Carter's administration. Carter gets little credit for the Argo rescue (neither do the Canadians—more on that later) but the upshot of his failure was turn to the country over to Hollywood, in the person of Ronald Reagan, who was selling America fantasies they wanted to believe, as opposed to Carter's visions of grim reality. That we now know Reagan's people made an October Surprise deal with the Iranians, not to make any hostage-releasing deal until after the 1980 elections merely reinforces the point. Reagan's election saw the US enter a post-reality based world, in which it is still entrapped, and Argo may best be viewed, depending on your political perspective, as a reminder of what the real world was like, or, more likely, a reminder that the people who brought you the world of fantasy are the only ones to trust.

Or you might perceive Argo as a 'feel-good' version of Zero Dark Thirty, in which the CIA are heroes and the interrogations are mostly John Goodman's John Chambers torturing Ben Affleck's Tony Mendez with Hollywood insider info. Or you might see it as a positive nod to a can-do America that, despite its thriller-matic finish, is actually accomplished more easily than, say, Lincoln's emancipation of black slaves was via American democratic process.

The movie itself skips between genres cleverly—and is most effective for its reconstruction of the period—not just sets and costumes but also the dirty grainy look of the film itself, which is pure 70s, and encourages the audience old enough to remember films you didn't download to transport itself back to the days of those sorts of political thrillers. In fact, there are shots of Mendez in the CIA HQ which straightforwardly evoke All The President's Men, in case you're old enough and missed the point. Ben Affleck doesn't ignore facts—the CIA's role in installing the Shah as dictator is set out right at the top—but the trope is an old one of maverick within a flawed system who eventually gets that system to do the right thing. In this contxt, Affleck the director is very good with actors in ensemble roles, much like Clint Eastwood. Affleck's ensemble contains many faces in familiar roles, faces who espcially shone in such parts on quality TV: Titus Welliver, Zeljko Ivanek , Clea DuVall (Carnivale), Tate Donovan, and Kyle Chandler (as Hamilton Jordan). Less like Clint is also good at minimising his own part, which is good because Ben Affleck the actor still has limitations when it comes to carrying a film—I think he works best as a straight man. I still believe George Reeves was Affleck's best role, and that may be at least partly because he sensed a kindred talent.

There were, however, moments that left me feeling uneasy, that I was being manipulated, particularly in the rousing end sequence at Tehran airport. It struck me as odd that the children would have put together the right photo at just the wrong time; that the guards would chase a Swiss Air commercial flight down the runaway, firing at it; that the pilot would not notice any of that, and that the tower would not simply stop the plane's takeoff, if they thought spies were escaping. As it happens, none of those things are true: the departure from the airport went off without a hitch (for reasons described below). But you couldn't have the suspense without tampering with the facts. I was even more sceptical of the guard making a phone call to the film's production office in LA, for two reasons: one being long-distance calling and time zones, and the other being why would a Canadian film crew not have a Canadian office number, and why would a phone number in the Babylon of America not arouse suspicion?

There has been a lot of discussion in this year's Oscar run-up about historical fact—what with Zero Dark Thirty trying to have it both ways about torture, and Lincoln being accused of being Caucacentric, and also gilding the lily of remembrance by anointing its hero prematurely, or Django inventing sunglasses and a pre-Civil War Ku Klux Klan. Much of the criticism is unjustified, in the sense that film scripts will inevitable consolidate multiple characters and re-order events to serve their own purpose. Thus, the fact that most of the hostages stayed not with the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (played very well by the Candian actor Victor Garber) but with one of his assistants, John Shearwood, is hardly crucial; it makes dramatic sense to keep them all together. The scene in which the Brits and Kiwis turn the refugees away is also apparently false: the Brits took them in and Kiwis transferred them to the Canadians, where it was thought they would fit in more naturally and be safer. The jibe,if gratuitous, does serve to emphasize the plight of the Americans, and obviously the Bafta voters didn't hold it against Argo.

But it should be pointed out that the Canadians did far more than simply sit back and wait for the CIA cavalry to arrive (shades of Independence Day!). In fact, Ambassador Taylor manipulated his staff's travel to help create the necessary visas, and it was the Canadians who got the airplane tickets—thus the whole cancellation and restoration by the CIA sub-plot is fiction.

I was also put off a bit by the separated husband/lonely father sub-plot for Tony Mendez; Affleck plays it with suitable moroseness, but as it turns out, it too is a fictional construct. The reason for it is obvious and familiar—Mendez not only has to redeem himself at the CIA but he has to conquer personal adversity along the way; this is the arc that dominates Hollywood—though they just couldn't figure out a way to have Abe Lincoln reunited with Mary Todd at movie's end.

Complaining that Alan Arkin's Lester Siegel didn't really exist would be silly—they need him to carry those sections, and his double-act with Goodman is one of the high points of the film. In reality, another special-effects genius, Robert Siddel, who did ET, was announced as the co-producer with Chambers when the ads went into the trades. Interesting, the original screenplay was based on Roger Zelazny's Lord Of Light, one of the key sf novels of the Sixties, and the film was intended for use in an sf theme park that never happened. Michael Parks has a cameo as comics genius Jack Kirby, who actually did draw the storyboards for the fake film, which also had Ray Harryhausen and Buckminster Fuller attached to it (!). Which ought to be enough to get Lord Of Light made, after all these years. I'm sure they could get Lester Siegel to produce. He could make the 'argo fuck yourself' joke another twenty times, and get a laugh every time.

Sunday 3 February 2013


As I am in New Orleans to broadcast the Super Bowl for BBC television, I recorded an audio essay for the BBC World Service's Weekend programme, for whom I have been a studio guest a number of times. It was broadcast between 7-9 this morning; if you can access the World Service online, you can probably find it, but if you can't, here's my original script. I don't know if the recording was then edited down, and I have added one line to it as well, but this is a look at the Super Bowl aimed at a worldwide audience assumed to know very little indeed about it...

Forget Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, or even the Fourth of July—Super Bowl Sunday may be America's biggest holiday—at least it's the day when more Americans indulge themselves, at the same time, in their REAL national pastime, watching television.

At 6:25 Eastern more than 45 per cent of the country will turn on the Super Bowl, the championship game of the National Football League. At halftime, reservoir levels will drop all across the country as millions of people flush simultaneously. The real audience is probably bigger than the television ratings show—because people watch together, with families, at parties, in bars, & the possibility of reaching some 160 million or more viewers means a 30 second commercial during the game costs $4 million. The three networks who rotate broadcasting the Super Bowl reap a revenue bonanza that more than justifies their three years covering the regular season without the championship game.

The adverts themselves become must-see items. Audiences anticipate mock football matches between puppies or beer bottles with almost as much enthusiasm as they do the real thing. For those not crazy about football there's the pregame show—with Alicia Keys, and the halftime show—a 40 minute extravaganza starring Beyonce. Bookies are offering bets on everything from what colour Beyonce's hair will be, or whether Keyes' version of the National Anthem will run over or under 2 mins 15 seconds, to even the score of the game itself.

Oh yes, the game. It matches the Baltimore Ravens, named after Edgar Allen Poe's poem and coached by John Harbaugh, against the San Francisco 49ers, named after the 19th century gold rush and coached by John's little brother Jim. As far as the media is concerned, it's Harbaughgeddon! sibling rivalry since Cain and Abel's will have been discussed in such depth by more people so unqualified to analyse it!

That's because there are 5,000 media covering one game, and they have little else to talk about. On media day, Tuesday, hundreds of them descended on the players scattered at podiums around the stadium, all trying to ask a question so ridiculous no one else will have thought of it before. TV Azteca sent a woman reporter dressed in very little at all, insuring only that many American males can now name Mexico's second-biggest network. For the rest of the week the media talk only to each other and any ex-player with a story to tell or something to sell. They wander around the media center looking to add to the din of a hundreds of hosts shouting into the vast void of sports talk radio.

Or they talk about the miracle of New Orleans and its recovery. The city has always been America's most exotic, but during super bowl week it becomes a theme park, a kind of santizied version of mardi gras, the excesses of football replacing the somewhat wilder excess of Fat Tuesday. Large portions of the French quarter have been taken over by television networks, meaning Jackson Square, right opposite the French Market and Cafe du Monde, is now off-limits to anyone not wearing broadcast credentials and makeup.

There are other stories: will the Ravens Ray Lewis retire at 37 with a second championship ring? Did he use New Zealand deer antler velvet extract to help heal a torn biceps? Deer antler velvet; I am not making this up. Oddly enough, when a former 49er, tackle Kwame Harris, was arrested back in San Francisco this week after a restaurant scuffle with his boyfriend, it re-triggered an ongoing controversy over the acceptance of gay players in America's most macho game. And how will the league address the growing issue of concussions and brain damage, especially considering this Super Bowl matches two teams known for their physicality, in a game not known for lacking it. 

Finally, however, the game will kick off, and, despite frequent breaks for commercials and Beyonce, America's eyes will be focussed on the field. Which Harbaugh will triumph? In a game that generates gold, to the extent that they award the winner's trophy not to a player, but to the team's owner, it may be the gold rush 49ers, and brother Jim, who win in the end.