Movie Review: Disclosure (1994)

This year marks the 25th anniversary of a Warner Bros. hit starring Demi Moore, a leading lady at the peak of her career, and Michael Douglas (Falling Down, Fatal Attraction) based on a novel by Michael Crichton (Westworld, Jurassic Park, Congo). The adaptation, which came and went without major critical or cultural notice, is an economical morality play directed by screenwriter, director and producer Barry Levinson (The Natural, Wag the Dog, Rain Man).

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Disclosure (1994) begins with a precocious girl reading computer e-mail and calling to her businessman father that he has received a message congratulating him on a promotion at work. Whatever the propriety and circumstances of a girl reading her father’s private correspondence — the film’s first disclosure — the scene suggests that this is a new industrial age of changing sex roles.

Whether and how roles change and impact culture makes for a compelling socio-topical motion picture. It’s less erotic and more intelligent than its reputation to the extent the mid-90s movie is remembered.

In today’s increasingly Puritanical era of anti-sex activism amid the Me, Too movement, sorting through these issues is daunting. As a movie, Disclosure, like each picture based on Crichton’s fiction, is unremarkable; its characters are plain and essentially devoid of passion. For example, Moore’s character, businesswoman Meredith Johnson, is blank.

The Douglas character isn’t much better. After the setup shows his upper middle class suburban Pacific Northwest lifestyle, with an attorney wife driving the family motor car while being supportive of her husband and asserting her stake in his getting promoted, it’s clear that this mid-level executive is moved by others, not by his own mind, judgment and effort. He is especially subservient to women. In this sense, the late 20th century’s post-feminist matriarchalism — a world in which the male chronically submits to the female — emerges in Disclosure.

The wife (Caroline Goodall, Cliffhanger, Schindler’s List, White Squall) pronounces the film’s morality, the central theme of anti-heroic Michael Crichton’s writings, in a warning to her husband: “Don’t climb too high and get too close to God — you’ll shake the tree”. Then, comes Crichton’s name and the movie’s title in the credits. The scene is set for shaking the tree; man, as usual in a movie based on Crichton’s work, is about to fall down.

That his ex-lover gets the promotion he thinks he deserves is Disclosure‘s main twist. It’s not much as a twist but this disruption, exacerbated by Meredith Johnson’s abuse of power with sex, shakes the business, the family and society at large. There’s a sense in which the tech company, led by the boss played by Donald Sutherland (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Hunger Games, Ordinary People), drives optics via identity politics as against merit as the new normal. A values-based fossil like the passive Douglas character, who’s arguably aspiring to be the truly modern, liberated man — he’s late for work so he can be a helpmate to his wife — is becoming extinct. The ominous music affirms this when he arrives at work.

Here, too, Disclosure gives the audience pause to think as his character also crosses a line, swatting his secretary on the rear and playing politics of his own. The ensuing sexual encounter and unsubstantiated charges of sexual harassment play out with incisive detail. Is the male, especially the white male, ever really a victim? Does Meredith sleep her way to the top? Do men? Does it matter? What becomes of the family? What becomes of sex between man and woman?

What impact does this have on cultivating a proper workplace? More fundamentally, what impact does sex as power lust have on business?

With Meredith talking about instant connectivity through personal computing and virtual reality or artificial intelligence as the primary business value at stake, tech suspense spins. Sutherland’s villainous boss ponders that the coming Information Age will make truth more elusive. His accomplice, Moore’s Meredith Johnson, forecasts that technology will diminish personality distinctions in pursuit of sameness. Disclosure doesn’t put it this way but it’s eerily predictive of tech’s media, gaming and social media’s worst uses and what’s happened in the 25 years since this movie was released. In director Levinson’s capable hands, Crichton’s tech dimension adds to Disclosure‘s tension.

Disclosure ends with a potentially more benign vision of the future than Crichton’s philosophy allows. A budding scientist emerges as a check against the power lusters, though this, too, is contingent upon the subordination of male to female. The most heroic character in Disclosure is the individual who fights to uphold the sanctity of her marriage and Caroline Goodall gives the most impressive performance. Twenty-five years after this movie debuted in theaters and became known for its supposedly erotic scenes, Disclosure, perhaps unwittingly, forewarns that ‘time’s up’ for Western civilization.

Books: A New Textbook of Americanism

Several intellectuals in the Objectivist movement have been called upon to a contribute to a new compendium of essays attempting to apply Ayn Rand’s philosophy to politics. The result is what its editor, hedge fund manager, author and TV analyst Jonathan Hoenig (The Pit), titles A New Textbook of Americanism. The paperback edition, which includes newly published writing by Ayn Rand, is a useful resource for sorting through today’s complicated and deeply confused political debates.

By picking up on what Rand (1905-1982) started in association with a motion picture organization in Hollywood before writing Atlas Shrugged, Hoenig’s idea to continue her effort to answer certain questions she formulated and intended to eventually answer with new essays is an interesting and inviting proposition. Each reader, whether he’s an Objectivist or not, can read these essays and make a judgment.

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That Hoenig adopts Rand’s take on the term Americanism is itself a departure from today’s loud, vacant discourse. So, the book, best read in bits according to one’s unique political confusions, interests and passions, challenges the left-right status quo.

By this, I mean that, in total, it’s easily distinguishable from either a conservative or a leftist manifesto. Each contributor, most of whom are academic intellectuals, and many of whom I know or am acquainted with, speaks for himself, not for Ayn Rand. To varying degrees their pieces are thought-provoking cases, essays and arguments about pressing political issues that relate to daily life.

For example, Hoenig writes:

If you give someone a wristwatch, does he become its rightful owner? Of course he does. He did not earn the money to buy the watch himself, but, upon you giving him the watch, it becomes his property. When a person who rightfully owns something gives it to someone else, that thing becomes the property of the recipient by virtue of the right of the giver to assign his property as he sees fit. An individual’s right to property, whether it is a wristwatch or an estate, includes the right to dispose of it.

The American founders identified life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness as man’s inalienable rights because they are a requirement of life. As Ayn Rand clarified, “just as man can’t exist without his body, so no rights can exist without the right to translate one’s ideas into reality — to think, to work and to keep the results — which means: the right to property.”

This example is an illustrative counterpoint to the prevailing opposition to property rights from leftists — including the swarm of leftist legislators such as Ocasio-Cortez or Warren — and from the new block of authoritarians on the right such as the first explicitly pro-eminent domain president Donald Trump. Many examples in the book challenge today’s false, toxic right-left alternative while clarifying or at the very least making a case for the Objectivist political ideal.

One scholar depicts America’s frontier history to provide proof that “Americanism heralded the natural aristocracy of ability, inventiveness, daring, and hard work.” Another points out that “a fortune made is always a fortune caused.” A philosopher writes that, contrary to the dog-eat-dog descriptions of capitalism as a ‘survival of the fittest’, literature’s Robinson Crusoe offers the more honest capitalist ideal because the stranded islander “…has to build shelter, learn to hunt, and make his own clothing. If he does not succeed in creating wealth, he will die. It is produce or perish.”

The author’s conclusion that the Industrial Revolution brought Americans unparalleled progress with “… the steamboat, the railroad, electricity, the telegraph, the telephone, the light bulb, refined oil, antiseptics, vaccines, the phonograph, the camera, the automobile, the radio” is undeniable.

Over and over, contributors credit the men who made these advancements possible with references to Jonas Salk, Fred Rogers, Ray Kroc, John D. Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Ayn Rand, Sam Walton, Jeff Bezos, George Washington Carver, Steve Jobs, Mark Twain and Andrew Carnegie.

Not that Hoenig’s A New Textbook of Americanism is a history lesson. Instead, the collection of essays generally weaves historical and other data points into specific political thought. Author Don Watkins takes on charity as a right, concluding that “to establish capitalism will depend on [Americans’] willingness to confidently and unapologetically reject the notion that a person’s need entitles him to the property of others.” Economist Richard Salsman correctly observes that when the government “imposes tariffs on imported steel, and thereby restricts supply and raises the price of steel domestically, it does so to give domestic steel companies a profit they did not produce and do not deserve.“

The net effect of reading the book is a challenge to the reader to think for himself. Some of the essays are better than others, of course, in terms of the quality of writing and persuasiveness. Depending on one’s preference for and exposure to various media in today’s sensory-driven culture, some, perhaps many, of these arguments have been made better and/or often before. Other intellectuals, including those who are not in academia, might make more compelling cases.

But Hoenig’s reach for general American audiences and those who strive for understanding Americanism is laudable; as the thinker’s self-defense, A New Textbook of Americanism is on the right track.

And in what other new book will today’s discouraged, confused or disoriented American individualist, looking for guidance toward achieving the nation of the enlightenment, find Ayn Rand differentiating patriotism from nationalism in her 1974 talk to U.S. military cadets at West Point and this excellent excerpt from the third and most recent book by Leonard Peikoff: “All the key features of a capitalist state — its validation, its powers and limits, the prerogatives and interrelationships of its citizens — are unified, because all are derived from a single principle: the worldly self preservation of the individual.”

As Objectivism’s foremost author writes in his Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, “Objectivism is preeminently an American viewpoint…”

Recently, an article in the Atlantic divulged the depth of reflexive anti-Americanism in Germany, another nation which Dr. Peikoff has brilliantly studied and examined. It turns out that a reporter for Germany’s leading publication, Der Spiegel, a magazine featured as having an admirable goal in The Lives of Others (2006), “fabricated information in more than a dozen articles—most of which were meant to reveal America’s brutality.”

As one of those “ominous parallels” which Hoenig’s book points out, our own American president snidely condemns this nation with the question: “you think our country’s so innocent?”

Jonathan Hoenig’s compendium dispels both leftist contempt for America while answering the ignorant, anti-American president with an informed, intelligent reply: Yes…because it is—and this is why.

Whether you’re an activist, an influencer or an Objectivist, or any, all or none of these, you may gain knowledge in these pages. For example, that the estate tax was not fixed as a permanent part of American law until 1916 and that, “before that, any attempt to impose a tax on estates was treated as an aberration to help the government [weather] a temporary emergency.”

You may also be inspired, as I am, by Americans in their Americanism. As one intellectual observes in this volume, “Steve Jobs [once] said: “[W]e think the Mac will sell zillions, but we did not build a Mac for anybody else. We built it for ourselves. We were the group of people who were going to judge whether it was great or not. We weren’t going to go out and do the market research. We just wanted to build the best thing we could build.”

Theater Review: Lights Out: Nat King Cole

“Is this how I’m going to go out?” American Negro singer Nat “King” Cole asks himself before performing for the final episode of his TV variety show after a makeup artist tries to apply cosmetics to lighten his skin.

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This question and how Cole answers it forms the basis for the wild fantasy that’s Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole at the Geffen Playhouse, which recently debuted in the Gil Cates Theater and runs until March 24. As Cole, Dulé Hill (NBC’s The West Wing, USA Network’s Psych) can sing and dance, which Psych fans already know, though he doesn’t come close to matching Cole’s smooth, crooning voice.

This harsh show business fantasy has eye-popping visuals, gimmicks and plot turns that keep the audience paying attention. It’s more modern social commentary than nostalgic performance evoking an American icon.

Indeed, playwrights Colman Domingo and Patricia McGregor cast Cole as repressing or suppressing his inner rage as he prepares for the last broadcast of his variety show (Cole was TV’s first black host). Integrally, the 90-minute show revolves around tormented Cole as he ponders advice from pal Sammy Davis, Jr. (Daniel J. Watts) to “go out with a bang.”

With raw, inventive staging and lighting that mocks or challenges the audience, depending upon one’s perspective, the entertainer who broke the color barrier on television experiences his moral dilemma through song. Most of the Nat “King” Cole classics are performed, often with cutting tie-ins to racism and other cultural points, as an elfin Davis pops in and out of the show.

The climax comes with a tap dance-off between Hill’s Cole and Watts’ Davis, with choreography by Jared Grimes that requires more stomping and pounding than tap dance of the day. This, too, is part of the playwrights’ contention that beneath the lightness of song and dance men like the marvelously talented Nat “King” Cole and Sammy Davis, Jr., there must’ve been real pain and suffering. Lights Out provokes the audience to think about that and, though the show doesn’t match its mania with substantial dramatic scenes, there’s a sense in which its catharsis earns Cole’s happier song.

Movie Review: Apollo 11

Have you ever wondered what it was like to put a man on the moon?

Billed as Apollo 11: The IMAX Experience, this exciting new documentary by Todd Douglas Miller, which features never-before-seen 70mm footage, opens for a one week engagement in IMAX theaters on March 1st. Apollo 11 answers the question in pictures, with some titles and journalistic narration. It’s a purely manmade cinematic adventure in 90 minutes.

With the low rumble of the gigantic vehicle that moved the rocket ship into place, followed by a cautionary yellow light, the movie begins with wordless, scoreless archival motion pictures. listen to the sound of a helicopter. See the launchpad bathed in light the night before the rocket launch. Hear CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite’s voice telling his audience that the ship is perched on pad 39A.

As long as you don’t expect straight, narrative reporting, let alone storytelling, this stark movie’s a rare chance to experience the historic mission to put a man on the moon in a movie theater. Except for television programming, including Apollo 11 programs for PBS and HBO, this “one giant leap for mankind” has never been depicted as a cohesive movie. Last year’s movie about the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, originated with stories about Armstrong. 1978’s fictional Capricorn One starring O.J. Simpson, James Brolin and Sam Waterston implied that it might have never happened. In the 50 years since Americans put a man on the moon, the most popular space movie based on fact, Apollo 13, focused on what Americans did when something went wrong with a moon mission.

Apollo 11 isn’t going to be the definitive movie about this great moment in history. It is too limited and journalistic for that. With black and white pictures of the astronauts and their families at various stages of their lives and careers, it also moves too fast without any titles or exposition.

But the tale of the grand and sacred achievement by Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin (inexplicably known as Buzz) and Michael Collins and NASA comes through and, in Miller’s careful reconstruction, it is magnificent. There are several flaws, such as modern music with its distortions and folksiness, a lack of subtitles and titles and lack of clarity in explaining basic rocket science for a general audience, which detract from the filmmaker’s apparent goal to let the mission impress for itself. As a whole piece, however, Apollo 11 can’t help but induce wonder despite the minimalism.

With rows and rows of computerized banks of men smoking cigarettes, amid machines and paraphernalia emblazoned with the distinctive logo of Apollo 11, the movie matches the 1969 mission’s march toward what Ayn Rand rightly described as a sight of the sublime. Indeed, when Miller chooses to impose the image of a vehicle marked “Family wagon”, it reminded me of Ayn Rand’s brilliant writings about her thoughts on the rocket launch, which she witnessed as a guest at Cape Canaveral, including her contrast of this historic event with the year’s philosophically opposing event, the disastrous concert in the mud at Woodstock in upstate New York.

Aside from the pictures of Neil Armstrong on the moon, which linger in sequence from multiple actions and angles aligned with the astronauts’ recorded voices, and the footage of hundreds of men and women, black and white, working to achieve this remarkable goal, the pictures of middle class Americans converging along central Florida’s coastline are among the most striking. Father and child sleeping in the back of a station wagon, footage of a pool of reporters on pay phones and typewriters (did I spot ABC News space journalist Jules Bergman?) and a young woman excitedly looking up to the skies with her pair of binoculars add to the tension, enthusiasm and historical thrill of Apollo 11.

What amounts to the film’s second part begins with the countdown, which included a hydrogen leak as technicians furiously worked to tighten bolts to fix a valve before the three astronauts were launched into the sky. All of this is on display, occasionally with small titles, with American company logos and names such as Bell + Howell, Canon, Boeing and Rockwell International. Look for American VIPs who chose to attend the launch, too, such as actor Hugh O’Brian and Johnny Carson.

As Apollo 11 soars into outer space, the film shifts to Houston. If you’re young, it may take an adjustment to watch the movie without infographics. This is not like a Google’s YouTube amateur production, a meme or a slick video with accompanying words if the sound’s turned off. These are rare historical pictures and footage culled from NASA which reflect the seriousness with which Americans once took, celebrated and revered the manmade. I couldn’t help but notice the meticulous archiving, chronicling, sketching, photographing and recording with which Americans made these films, drawings and pictures. Miller employs simplicity in excellent animation sequences outlining man’s voyage to the moon.

America appears in snapshot with references to Chappaquiddick, the Vietnam War and President Nixon, a mixed-to-bad president who added to the occasion with eloquence. Neil Armstrong comments on “cohesive material” and compares the surface of the moon to the American high desert. Following displays of uniquely American humor, cigar and cigarette smoking and flag waving in mission control and a biblical reference, the aircraft carrier Hornet appears, the musical score distracts and Apollo 11 enters its third, final and re-entry phase. This, too, sneaks up and thrills the audience whether you know this historic event or not.

A jarring appearance by the overly credited President Kennedy lurches the audience back to earth, though, again, Miller shows the Americans in Florida, adding footage of welcome home banners and parades in Chicago and New York City, of all places, as if unearthing cinematic proof that, once upon a time 50 years ago, Americans even in New York cheered for the manmade. Some even worshipped the best in man.

The few who remain should not hesitate to see this short film in theaters.

Three New Exclusives

Comedienne Julia Sweeney’s back and I saw her new one-woman show, Older & Wider, last weekend in Westwood. I’ve always found her humor to be unique, relevant and compelling, so I was interested in seeing her return to show business after a break to be a wife and raise her daughter on Chicago’s suburban North Shore.

Happily, Older & Wider is topical, intelligent and hilarious. While I incessantly hear about “diversity and inclusion”, I rarely hear about demand for rare, intelligent artists of ability such as Julia Sweeney, who’s making the most of being an older woman in her new theatrical work. I am glad to know that she’s currently starring in a new show on Hulu. I’d love to see her get more work in Hollywood.

I’ve posted my review of Julia Sweeney: Older & Wider here.

Also, read my new interview with screenwriter and director Robert Benton here. We met during Turner Classic Movies’ 2018 Classic Film Festival at the site of the first Academy Awards, the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, on Hollywood Boulevard. I’ve met and interviewed Benton before and found him to be incredibly sharp, thoughtful and engaging.

This time was no exception. The subject was his Oscar-winning Best Picture, Kramer vs. Kramer, a groundbreaking movie about men, parenting and divorce which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. We discussed his original choice for the crucial supporting role of Joanna Kramer, which eventually went to Meryl Streep, propelling her career. But Benton, who’s talked with me about working with Nicole Kidman, Morgan Freeman and Anthony Hopkins, also went into detail about working with Sally Field, who won an Oscar for her performance in what’s probably his most personal film, Places in the Heart.

Robert Benton, whose Texas-based Places turns 35 years old this year, has created, written or directed some of the most iconic movies of the modern age, from Bonnie and Clyde to Superman (1978) to Kramer vs. Kramer. I consider it a privilege to interview this former journalist again in the heart of supposedly “inclusive” Hollywood where this masterful storyteller should be invited to create more movies.

My newest classic movie review honors the 70th anniversary of a film about great baseball legend; the story of Chicago White Sox pitcher Monty Stratton, portrayed by James Stewart. Like Places in the Heart, the Academy Award-winning motion picture, The Stratton Story (directed by Sam Wood and released in the same year he was robbed and died) partly takes place in the Lone Star state and involves tragedy, overcoming adversity and a single act of gun violence.

The picture also stars Agnes Moorehead as Stratton’s tough-minded mother and June Allyson as his romantic partner. I don’t want to spoil the experience of the 1949 film about Monty Stratton, whom I’m afraid has sadly fallen into relative oblivion. But I found this movie about rising to one’s hardest challenges inspiring. It’s about baseball, of course. It’s also about what happens when the most hardworking type of person fails, falters or makes a potentially deadly mistake — and the character of one who chooses to recover — and the type of person who loves him.

But, like the best sports-themed movies, it’s also very much about living life; the daily hustle and grind of it in simple yet daunting steps. Read my review of The Stratton Story here.