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Movie Review: Suffragette

SuffragettePoster

Suffragette is a haunting portrayal of woman as activist.

Depicting an often silent, secret sisterhood bonded by women’s shared endurance of oppression, director Sarah Gavron, who discussed the movie at a screening I recently attended, layers several characters deftly created by writer Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady) and delivers an emotionally powerful elegy to the feminine rebel. Carey Mulligan (The Great Gatsby, Public Enemies) as a composite, not true to life, character is marvelous in the lead.

Mulligan carries the movie, which can be cold, distant and slow. Also, and this is important, to what extent Suffragette in its final estimates is based on history is dubious, probably wrong, and the picture’s feminist bent, which glorifies terrorism as a tactic, distorts the truth of injustice against women. It is difficult to pinpoint the source of this problem in Suffragette, as it is not always apparent in any movie whom to credit or blame, but the role of the British suffragette movement for “votes for women” in obtaining individual rights or similar or equal treatment under the law for women is exaggerated, possibly to fantastic proportions. Suffragette makes a real, causal connection which most likely does not exist, a matter for historians to address, and it welds progress for the rights of women to collectivism, anti-capitalism and altruism when, in fact, the opposite is true.

But its heroine, Mulligan’s Maud Watts, is Suffragette‘s best case to the contrary. Maud is a worker, a wife and a mother and, without proper historical exposition, the movie subtly puts her front and center of the British women’s suffrage movement. She herself is a victim of a terrorist attack on private property on London’s posh West End at the film’s beginning in 1912 and she is accordingly disposed against such initiation of force. Maud is also a victim of abuse by a male boss at the laundry where she works, so she seeks to express herself through protest and exercise her right to free association with the militant women, led by a medical practitioner played by Helena Bonham Carter (Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, The King’s Speech), known as suffragettes (the terms suffrage, suffragist and suffragette are neither addressed nor explained).

Maud is moved by a desire to improve her own station in life, including a desire to make more money, and she clearly loves both her husband (excellent Ben Whishaw) and her son, George (heartbreaking Adam Michael Dodd). Maud, who does not show contempt for those who make more money, is not motivated by a desire to sacrifice herself for others. She does not define herself solely by the fact that she’s a woman.

She wants to live as an individual with rights. For this reason, it is Maud above the rest in whom the moral of the violent story resides. Though Gavron’s gray London cinematography, blurred action scenes and wordless signals keep an emphasis on action, or on “deeds, not words”, Maud Watts becomes a distinctive character, presence and heroine. While her husband teaches son George to worship a government leader, whose portrait hangs in their modest home, Mrs. Watts, like others who become aware of the law’s unequal treatment of certain people, is rightly skeptical of the state. Like a congressman calling out to the president from the floor of Congress, the suffragettes shout “Liar!” to a government spokesman. Their intellectual leader, portrayed by Meryl Streep (Into the Woods, The Giver, Hope Springs, The Iron Lady), openly seeks to “incite” women to “defy this government”, which ought to evoke today’s Tea Party activists and cause leftists to think twice. Streep’s cameo includes a line which reflects the movie’s Patrick Henry-inspired moral theme that it is better to “be a rebel than a slave.”

As this applies to giggling, politically indifferent and impish Maud Watts, whose treatment by police, boss and husband don’t so much cause her radicalization as affirm her conviction that there is no halfway point between subservience to the state and advocacy for her own rights, a weary, sad story animates her decline and liberation. It is enhanced with a penetrating and powerful score by Alexandre Desplat. It is underscored by the relationship between Maud and a grizzled police chief played by Brendan Gleeson (Green Zone). Gleeson, too, is magnificent in every scene with Mulligan. Theirs is the core of marking the success of Suffragette‘s somewhat transparent activism, though writer Morgan adds depth and dimension to several characters and pairings, including Maud’s sharp moral judgment of a heroic wealthy woman named Alice, powerfully played by Romola Garai (Atonement, Rory O’Shea Was Here), which leads to the picture’s most rational and poignant act of heroism; a rescue made possible by the mutual bond of understanding between Alice and Maud.

There are nods to martyrdom, collectivism and altruism—a funeral banner emblazoned with praise for sacrifice “for others”—yet there is also a profound recognition for the unique alienation that accompanies the full awareness and knowledge, commitment and fortitude of one who lives by ideals that come too soon for this life, or too late by another measure. With a reverent line about the serenity of being able to project the future of “those that shall follow you” in the march of the unconquered and persecuted toward progress for civilization, and disclaimed with a fact check of history, Suffragette is a moving depiction of a woman transformed from working stiff to the radical who thinks and acts upon her principles.

Movie Review: The Walk (IMAX 3D)

TheWalkPosterDirector Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Flight) perfectly applies his fascination with technology to storytelling in The Walk, which is one of the year’s best pictures.

On one layer, this is a light, whimsical movie about an acrobat taking his acrobatics seriously to prove an important point about human potential to the whole world. The visual, first-person narrative from the Statue of Liberty’s torch and other fanciful touches are part of the performance. Mr. Zemeckis, who also co-wrote The Walk, drives his idea of what one might call a performance artist’s creative need to act out over and over. Executed on the world’s tallest skyscrapers, a true story based on a high-wire walk by French acrobat Philippe Petit, it doesn’t get old and it doesn’t get in the way. As with any practiced, crafted and tuned live performance, the flourish enhances the daring act.

That the skyscrapers—and Mr. Zemeckis comes from a great American city of skyscrapers, Chicago—are the twin towers of the World Trade Center (1973-2001) make the events depicted in this groundbreaking movie more enticing.

Seen by this writer at Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in IMAX 3D, The Walk begins as the tale of a boy who seeks to create his own “sacred space” in a circle on the sidewalks of Paris. Of course, this puts him at odds with police and his own parents, who neither support nor understand his strange pursuits. Philippe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) mimes, juggles and, eventually, walks on wire. It is his passion to command an audience’s attention to certain aspects of reality as he recasts them. Philippe performs magic. He rides a unicycle. When he sees a picture of the World Trade Center under construction in New York City, he makes up his mind—he calls seeing the photograph “providence”—about embarking upon his greatest adventure.

As Philippe plans his trespassing crime, he sees walking on a wire between the Twin Towers as a defining part of his own, personal journey. So he sets out to practice his skill at a circus, where he enlists the aid of a seasoned high-wire performer (Ben Kingsley), who becomes Philippe’s mentor. Here, too, he breaks away from tradition and his insistence on doing things his way leads to other complications. As Philippe loses support from blood relatives, he gains support from those related only by their shared passion for their own values, such as singer Annie (Charlotte Le Bon, The Hundred-Foot Journey) and photographer Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony, The Tourist). “I want to know more,” Philippe says at one point in The Walk. His chosen friends and master help him learn to acquire new knowledge.

The camaraderie is infectious, as Philippe attracts an audience, makes mistakes, expresses fleeting moments of doubt, falls and learns how to relax into the high-wire act. In the process, he becomes the ultimate live performer, appreciating his own choices, audiences and themes and gauging how to assess the potential for distraction, danger and the risks of the fears of others. For example, one of his team members has a crippling fear of heights. Philippe, in dealing with his own fear of losing the lad, leads by example to provide the right measure of confidence in his own ability. With Mr. Kingsley’s circus ringmaster looking on while dragging on a cigarette in an elegant holder, Philippe studies cable thickness and load strength with the precision of an engineer. No detail, lesson or fact escapes his notice or accounting.

He is a cunning criminal; a foreigner plotting to intrude upon the World Trade Center for subversive purposes, and with a van full of foreign accomplices no less. No one who knows the history of the Twin Towers can ignore the stark similarities and differences in his crime and the acts of Islamic terrorist mass murder that would blast and ultimately take the skyscrapers down in 1993 and 2001. Philippe practices on the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris before he comes to lower Manhattan for that exceptional act in August of 1974, and, in a sense, the closest he comes to having a religion is his steely conviction in himself and in the power to master his mind and body here on earth, strictly on his own terms and for his own sake.

Philippe Petit is the antidote to the religious terrorist. He targets the World Trade Center to express himself and glorify man’s greatest achievements, not to martyr himself and destroy man’s greatest achievements. He calls his unexpected act by its French word: the coup.

The attempted coup is, as recreated by Mr. Zemeckis with amazing clarity and realism, body-tingling, nerve-wracking and breathtaking. The practices take place to Alan Silvestri’s jazz score. The act itself happens in silence or with music that matches its sense of the sublime. “The outside world starts to disappear,” Philippe recalls of his day on top of the world. “I feel the wire supporting me with the towers supporting the wire” and, in an instant, at the birth of the rising steel skyscrapers soaring into the clouds, the Frenchman who juggled for money on the sidewalks of Paris enacts something both beautiful and defiant in perfect unity with nature and the manmade. The Walk is meant for this moment, and everyone, especially Gordon-Levitt, cast and the special effects crew led by Mr. Zemeckis, lets it linger in wonder and amazement for a spectacularly powerful climax in cinema.

The Walk is that soulful. Who better than an independent Frenchman standing on top of France’s gift to America to stir the spirit of free enterprise that built the greatest nation on earth? Petit, who, in reality, called for the World Trade Center to be rebuilt, reduces his accomplishment’s metrics to its essential meaning in the beginning of The Walk. He speaks of a choice between life and death. This is the unspoken, fundamental contest between the World Trade Center acts of 1974 and 2001. The Walk, in two parts playfulness and precision, depicts peace and serenity as the proper reward for honoring the manmade upon its creation. Philippe Petit put an acrobatic accent on two great symbols of American capitalism; Robert Zemeckis brings the performance and its exhaustive practices gloriously to the screen.

If it achieves nothing more than this, an exact recreation of the single most life-affirming moment in the World Trade Center’s brief history here on earth, The Walk, which does what America should have done and rebuilds the Twin Towers, is worth every second of its two tantalizing hours.


Related Articles and Posts

Movie Review: World Trade Center

TV Review: Rebuilding the World Trade Center

TV & DVD Review: Path to Paradise (the Story of the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing)

Civil War Stories

Photo by Matthew Brady, National Archives

Photo by Matthew Brady, National Archives

Part of this year’s American Civil War exhibit, “Empire & Liberty: Civil War and the West”, at the Autry National Center of the American West includes an occasional academic affair and I recently attended such a panel discussion, titled “Invisible Injuries: Civil War Veterans and the Legacies of Violence.” The event was informative and sobering.

Two scholars, Dora Costa, a UCLA professor of economics and author of Heroes and Cowards: The Social Face of War and Roxane Cohen, a University of California, Irvine psychology and social behavior professor, and moderator William Deverell, director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, examined several aspects of recent studies about Civil War soldiers, including certain demographic and relational breakdowns, injuries and deaths.

They addressed their research into war-related trauma among Civil War veterans and their communities and the long-term psychological consequences of the war. Among their findings, which readers can explore here, are that 19 percent of enlisted soldiers in the study were between the ages of nine and 17 years old. I had known from my education and studies with John David Lewis that those who fought in the war were especially young. I had not known, however, that 95 percent of those enlisted were volunteers, more than any other war since the American Revolution. The presentation gave me a sense of life the United States at the time of the Civil War while demonstrating that the long-term effects of war on communities, states, countries and the culture are serious, devastating and transformative, if realized decades later.

Their resarch shows that unit cohesion, such as how many in the company were related by blood, similar age, community, ethnicity, etc. and/or how closely soldiers related to one another as friends and comrades, enhanced a soldier’s ability to heal and survive. Another positive impact apparently came from strong social network support, such as moral support through picnics and parades, which had measurable improvement on mens’ ability to survive and sustain injury after the war. Even celebrations around Christmastime and Thanksgiving correlate to mens’ higher survival rates and longer lives. Scholars also explained that companies were constructed differently; the Union companies were kept largely intact, while the Confederacy constantly replenished its company troops on the idea that new recruits would motivate the men to learn to fight.

Additionally, Costa attributes the rise of trench warfare to the huge proliferation following the Napoleonic Wars of small arms. When I asked her about survivability rates among abolitionists that enlisted—survivability rates were highest among deserters and free black men in the Union Army who were not assigned to fight in battle as often—Costa said they died in greater numbers because abolitionists were more motivated to fight to win and end the war to abolish slavery, which the Civil War did, in fact, accomplish. This was a fascinating program, part of the Autry’s “Empire & Liberty: Civil War and the West”, which I plan to review in a future post.

What’s New

New to the archives are my 2006 interview with actor Sam Elliott (Grandma) about his role in a TV movie and other work (read the Sam Elliott interview here) and my 2011 interview with Robert Osborne about Liza Minnelli (New York, New York), who spoke about her movies and late parents, director Vincente Minnelli (Meet Me in St. Louis) and Judy Garland (A Star is Born). Read the interview about Liza here.

Sympathy_vote_FINAL_1007I’ve added a 2013 newspaper article about an unsolved murder in Illinois that happened 49 years ago today. The 21-year-old victim was the twin daughter of a wealthy CEO running for the United States Senate and her name was Valerie Percy. She was stabbed and bludgeoned to death in her bedroom while the family, except her stepmother, who awakened during the crime and became an eyewitness, slept in their lakefront home. The homicide remains unsolved, though the author of a book (pictured) names a prime suspect. Read Murder in Kenilworth here.

I also want to add my interview with an author of a book about Iran’s 1979 attack on America because the Iran deal is unfortunately imminent. I’m enthusiastic about my recent interview with Bob Hope‘s biographer. Besides articles, speculative writing and work for others, plans are underway to make more interviews, including several unpublished transcripts, available.

In the meantime, this summer’s writing workshop at the local library was a success, so I’ve been asked to teach a class on blogging, which I plan to do later this year. I am making a new low-cost webinar series this fall for which I plan to include a media booklet to help entrepreneurs, businesses and artists create, relate and distribute what they make and do. It’s in progress, so please stand by, as I know some readers outside of LA have asked about attending classes online or via streaming. I hope to post more information soon.

Hurry to register for next week’s 10-week courses here in suburban Los Angeles: an all-new Writing Boot Camp (register here), which explores writing habits and methodology and includes a checklist. Writing Boot Camp is fun, lively and streamlined (click/touch here to register). Registration is also open for All About Social Media for maximizing Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn (register here). Contact me about private sessions.

Look for new book, product, home video and, of course, movie reviews. I have to admit that I am excited about the new season of Fox’s Empire (read my review of the first season here), which is purely an indulgence in escapism.

September 11 and Saudi Arabia

salargeLast night’s discussion at LA’s Hammer Museum, a Hammer Forum program titled “9/11: the Saudi Connection”, brought an invigorating exchange of ideas and projections and a powerful call to action.

The program, moderated by local public radio’s Ian Masters, who rightly pointed out in his introduction that Islam is not the exclusive source of religious fundamentalism, featured former CIA operative and CNN security analyst Robert Baer and former U.S. Senator and former Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham. Baer and Graham have written books about Islamic terrorism, the September 11, 2001 attack and Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of acts of war against the West.

Baer, who has been to Saudi Arabia, called the dictatorship—which everyone kept calling a “kingdom”—”a country in peril.” As he does on cable news shows, Baer sees Saudi Arabia’s demise as imminent due to a “herd mentality” which has become embedded in the country, which, he added and emphasized, “cannot stand for long”. In a short speech, Baer made reference to the fact that, for all practical purposes, Syria and Iraq no longer exist as functional states run by governments (as I recognized about Iraq earlier this year). For the same reasons, he explained, Saudi Arabia’s origins as an artificial country formed in tribes in 1932 preclude its continued existence.

Baer contends that the Middle East is driven by tribalism, not ideology. He sees tribalism as the larger threat to the West. In the contest between Shiite and Sunni Moslems, Baer counts four Sunni-dominated Mideast capitals which have recently been lost to Shiite Moslems: Baghdad, Beirut, Sunna and Damascus, which he sees as fueling discord and war in the region, leading to the fall of Saudi Arabia and displacement of as many as 120 million Arabs fleeing into the West.

Baer’s assessment is sobering. But Baer adds that he thinks Islamic terrorists are neither evil—he thinks modern Middle East problems are caused by Western “imperialism”—nor moved by ideology, i.e., fundamentalist, radical or jihadist Islam, terms he declined to use throughout the evening. In fact, he kept insisting that he’s not an apologist for Islamic jihad but, by denying the role of ideas and rationalizing Islamic terrorism, he is.

Despite this moral error, Baer’s practical and historical observations, forecasts and accounts should be taken seriously. He argues that, because Saudi Arabia depends on subsidies and being the West’s sole, main supplier of oil, the dictatorship wants the oil industry’s fracking to stop. His comments on how fracking has hurt Saudi Arabia did not go over well with the left-wing, west Los Angeles audience, but he explained why fracking—and America’s decreased dependency on Saudi oil—is relevant to the region’s stability. Additionally, during Q & A, Baer added when asked that he regards Edward Snowden as an annoyance, though he admits that indiscriminate mass surveillance does not protect the United States. In short, Baer’s projection that Saudi Arabia’s days are numbered is cogent where his causal connection is not.

On the other hand, Florida’s former Sen. Bob Graham displayed full moral clarity.

Sen. Graham, acting in this capacity as an American statesman in the best sense, called upon his memory of the 9/11 Commission’s first witness, a woman named Kristen Breitweiser, who had lost her husband Bob in the attack. He reminded the audience that Americans have an obligation to answer why? And: Did the hijackers act alone? He told the Los Angeles audience that the first two hijackers entered the United States through Los Angeles International Airport and detailed specific meetings implicating Saudi Arabia (as does my own research, first posted here). He spoke about the San Diego connection and how $50,000 for the hijackers was dispatched from the Saudi embassy in Washington, DC to a woman. He mentioned the prominent Sarasota, Florida, family and their connection to three Florida-based 9/11 hijackers and explained how the family returned to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Graham spoke of discrepancies in the FBI investigation and, once again, urged the audience to press the U.S. government to declassify and release the 9/11 report’s 28 classified pages (which he has read) detailing the attack’s financing by Saudi Arabia.

Sen. Graham named President Lincoln as a great president for insisting upon transparency in government during the Civil War, knowing it would make U.S. allies look bad and he praised Lincoln for putting the enlightenment of the American people above sparing an ally’s embarrassment. The Democrat singled out the Obama administration for criticism. He denounced American “passivity” about this 14-year-old Islamic act of war. When asked to name the best presidential candidate in terms of disclosure about the attack on September 11, 2001, Graham answered succinctly and without pause: “Rand Paul”, who supports releasing the 28 classified pages.

In a moment of rare, bipartisan unity around an intelligent idea to advance national defense, Baer agreed with Rand Paul and Bob Graham about declassifying the 28 pages and said that he, too, thinks the pages should be released. Judging by audience response, by the program’s end, most in the audience seemed to agree. Finally, Baer, whatever his flaws, expressed the perfect afterthought to Sen. Graham’s crusade to illuminate the facts of the September 11, 2001 mass murder: “Rational people must [be free to] make up their minds.”

With Saudi Arabia proposing to build 200 mosques in Germany as a “response” to the exodus from Arab states to Western Europe (reported here during the presentation), let me add: rational people haven’t much time.