Movie Review: Atomic Blonde

Conspicuous, gratuitous and more than a splash preposterous, the stylized Atomic Blonde, based on a graphic novel or comic book, moves too slow, picks up speed and ends up making a statement on the world. Like Blade Runner, Chariots of Fire and the cult-punk film Liquid Sky, Atomic Blonde employs 1980s’ New Wave, electronica or punk rock. It’s also in the vein of noirish movies about a femme fatale empowered through extreme use of force, such as La Femme Nikita, its remake Point of No Return and The Long Kiss Goodnight. Bloody, hyper-violent and hyper-realistic, Atomic Blonde plays the 80s tunes to infuse its Dirty Harry-type anti-heroine with a dash of embittered romanticism.

Surprisingly, it works, though it takes too long to get there and Kurt Johnstad’s (Act of Valor, 300) screenplay, based on The Coldest City comics by Sam Hart and Antony Johnston and directed by stunt man David Leitch in his feature film debut, badly needs editing. The plot defies description. The characters almost do, too, except as the body count rises, a band of players emerge in an apparently high stakes, 10-day Cold War spy showdown on the eve of the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

In a platinum blonde ‘do, sexualized getups, thigh-high boots, pumps and low-tech accessories, Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road) stars as Lorraine, the main spy. She’s called to London for an inquiry by superior Toby Jones (Frost/Nixon, The Painted Veil, Captain America). There, she tells a convoluted tale involving a secret list, gunplay and extreme fighting, nudity, Machiavelli, hedonism, lesbianism, a watchmaker, Soviets, East German Stasi agents, Brits and a Frenchwoman who may be an innocent youth. I told you it was convoluted. In fact, Atomic Blonde is overstuffed. Toss in ropes, knives and a peek at Larry Flynt’s raunchy Hustler and this slice of fetishized spy kink belongs in the rough sex trade genre with Harley Quinn, Sucker Punch and whatever emasculating fanboy fantasy’s playing on a device near you.

But the music punches almost as often as the spies, hinting that Atomic Blonde might have a point. With the Clash, David Bowie and Siouxsie and the Banshees on the soundtrack, sampling but not overdoing pouty, punk songs such as “Cities in Dust”, Theron’s vodka-drinking tough character starts to melt, just a little. Of course, her explicitly sexual encounter with Delphine (Sofia Boutella, The Mummy, Star Trek Beyond) helps and not for the reasons you might think. No, Lorraine does not need to dress like a prostitute and neither does Delphine need to dress like a stripper but, then, KGB thugs don’t always bounce back so easily from keys being lodged in their faces, so you go along to some degree.

Featuring James McAvoy (X-Men: First Class, Split, Rory O’Shea Was Here) as one of Lorraine’s Berlin contacts, Atomic Blonde shifts focus at its best with the propulsive energy of The Bourne Identity. This climaxes with amazing shots, camera work and touches, such as a thrilling car chase and the whipping sound of a cigarette lighter’s butane at the point of ignition.

Nearly every spy smokes cigarettes in this movie, which, with the unflinching ease with which the Westerners shoot to kill the Communists, is something of a throwback. Though John Goodman’s character grows more grating with every scene and could have been changed, edited or jettisoned, Atomic Blonde‘s elaborate fight choreography and graphic violence have a kind of realism lacking in most comics movies. You can tell who’s getting hit and you believe it’s real, for one thing. This star vehicle about what’s coming down and what’s not coming down in Berlin in 1989 nicely spins the punk Eighties’ ethos into bloody, bittersweet pulp fiction.

Movie Review: Dunkirk (2017)

Telescoping a major battle in the second world war, writer and director Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) touches on major aspects of war in his harrowing epic, Dunkirk. This movie for Warner Bros. is sufficiently horrifying and powerful and it is also daring in certain respects. Dunkirk is also flawed.

Putting the action to three arenas—land, air and sea—permits Nolan, a talented storyteller and filmmaker, to fold his refined tales into each other neatly and with a strong, meaningful sense of purpose. This he accomplishes with economy, too, bringing Dunkirk in under two hours, keeping his top cast in a proper scale and cutting dialogue down to phrases and brief exchanges. Most of Dunkirk is told in pictures, many of which are riveting. The gray, droning disorientation of days at this coastal place called Dunkirk in the north of France as the Germans push the British to the sea, leaving hundreds of thousands—hundreds of thousands—as sitting ducks waiting to be shot, bombed or rescued. The aerial view of the coast, the tilting views of Spitfires and Messerschmidts, the rolling waves of the English Channel as it erupts in crashes, sinkings, gunfire, torpedoes and the flames of hell on water.

Much of Dunkirk is also told in audio, too, with a Hans Zimmer score which is both too obvious and too much. The droning begins the movie, pegging the film to a ticking clock, and never lets up. Not that any of that is necessary, however, and it’s often distracting, diminishing and detracting from what little’s being said among characters.

But Mr. Nolan knows the stories he wants to show and, to his eternal credit, he wants to show the audience what happened at Dunkirk. This remains his focus, not importing modern ideas into the past, thank goodness, or pictorial fancies and flourishes that have nothing to do with the battle, the war and the civilization desperately at stake. And this—civilization—is very much the point of Dunkirk, again to Christopher Nolan‘s credit. His characters, composited from those hundreds of thousands and those who came to get them out and the nearly 70,000 killed by National Socialist Germans, fight. They fight to live—not to die and not out of duty to the state, the volk or the tribe.

This is an important distinction and essential part of why Dunkirk is emotionally moving; in its two most powerful scenes, Dunkirk affirms the values and ideals of Western civilization.

Christopher Nolan‘s war history movie does so in other scenes, too, such as his shots of a sunny countryside to accentuate that which they’ve fought to preserve and protect. One gets the sense that the writer and director knows on some level that this grand story about soldier and civilian alike uniting to save civilization from barbarians applies centrally to today’s jihadist siege against the West. This is unmistakable if you think, reason and judge and it is lurking nevertheless if you don’t. A combat pilot (Tom Hardy, Mad Max: Fury Road) feels for his comrade Collins (Jack Lowden) when he goes after the Germans, for instance, and, because he gets the best view and sense of what this disastrous battle means, he alone knows the widest perspective; he sees the lines of British soldiers on the beaches and he sees the civilian boats racing to the rescue. It’s both wrenching and haunting and he knows what must be done.

“Dead, mate”, “home”, “for the French” are a sample of the sparse words used to punctuate the blistering, whistling battle in action, further underscoring that the Brits act to live, not to serve a fuhrer, and Dunkirk evokes Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film Saving Private Ryan for its capture of the combat. One of the flaws, though, in this otherwise tightly drawn and focused war movie, is its failure to depict what the soldiers say. Half the dialogue, especially in battle scenes, is lost. Sensory immersion is a tradeoff. Subtitles might have helped, not that I’m proposing this as a serious solution, or toning down the self-important score, though I suspect there’s a deeper problem with Dunkirk: it’s hard to follow.

This is a common Christopher Nolan problem and it’s not the same as saying it’s too difficult, deep or abstract (Dunkirk is none of those in excess). Titles lack exposition; the audience that knows the history of this major turning point of world history will feel underserved and still want to know more. Those that do not know Dunkirk’s history—almost anyone born after history teachers replaced facts with agendas—are likely to be like, meh, whatevs (confirmed by the chat between smug Millennials overheard after the movie). Dunkirk‘s expository history feels tacked on. Dunkirk’s geography and significance (that Dunkirk led to Churchill’s great line to “Never surrender” is as parenthetical as this is) are too abbreviated.

Those waiting to go home, and those coming for them, keep eyes on the skies in what is primarily a visual motion picture and Dunkirk in this sense is balanced, integrated and framed perfectly for its revolving stories of individual men. Christopher Nolan lets Dunkirk’s men at war go completely to war—there are no opposite sex love stories, for instance—and this is a pointed and proper writing and directing choice because it never lets the audience forget that this is what happened in those days and moments. So, too, is Mr. Nolan’s decision to not show every gash, limb and drop of blood, none of which is needed to dramatize the horror of war. Without leading ladies, gore and, not incidentally, Nazis portrayed as characters—hardly a Nazi appears on screen—Dunkirk leaves its audience as stranded as the soldiers, civilians and pilots fighting to turn an epic loss into a reason to rally for man.

Whatever it’s missing, and it’s missing a lot, this is chiefly what Dunkirk does.

 

Book Review: ‘Before the Colors Fade’ by Harry Reasoner

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Before the Colors Fade (Knopf, New York, Hardcover 1981) by the late ABC News anchorman and 60 Minutes correspondent Harry Reasoner is a light, simple and rewarding tale of the media’s recent past. I came across this unique out-of-print memoir while conducting research on modern media. Instantly, I felt an affection I hadn’t experienced in years.

It’s a feeling one gets from the predominant era of that instantly familiar visual media format, television. Unlike today’s invasive visual media, which is everywhere and therefore constantly intruding upon one’s controlled experiences, such as desktop, laptop and mobile machines, TV was at once a shared and intimate kind of visual media—watching the Apollo 11 moon landing, Roots, Donahue, sports, Frasier was both very direct and easy to like, discuss and share with others—and Harry Reasoner was one of the best broadcast journalists in the later postwar 20th century.

His voice was as sonorous as Morgan Freeman’s—they shared that even-toned, slightly graveled sense of wonder at the world—his look affable yet knowing and he brought a mildly biting sense of humor to his reports. This quality, which most readers probably remember from his segments on Sunday’s CBS series 60 Minutes, is fully expressed in Before the Colors Fade. Reasoner’s memoir is peppered with refined storytelling. It’s also filled with teases, such as his mention in the introduction that he interviewed one of the world’s worst terrorists, a woman named Leila Khaled who hijacked and threatened to crash passenger jets to force the West to create a Palestinian state, unfortunately none of which he details.

In this sense, his book is a bit like wandering into the bar after the game lets out and finding a salty old pro at the corner who’s already had a few drinks and doesn’t mind holding court until it’s time to head home. Reasoner assesses his early broadcasting career with an admission that he thought he would “never make it in studio work” because he thought he had “no presence” and did not open his mouth when he talked, which was “probably the result of an adolescent reticence about showing bad teeth.”

One viewer had noticed that, too, and she wrote to tell him so. “Years later, [while] co-anchoring the ABC News with Howard K. Smith,” Reasoner writes, “I got a letter from a deaf person. Howard and I, she said, were virtually useless to her as broadcasters because we didn’t open our mouths and articulate the words in a way to help her lip-reading. “Howard is terrible,” she wrote, “and as for you, Mr. Reasoner,” she went on, “if you ever fail in the news business, you should do very well as a ventriloquist.”

Harry Reasoner, who comes across as extremely ambitious, reports that he languished for a while until a media critic gave his work a short, passing and positive notice in the New York Times:

If the individuality in Mr. Reasoner’s broadcasts … reflects a broader CBS policy to encourage members of its news staff to be themselves and not echo a corporate pear-shaped tone…”

Reasoner uses this fellow journalist’s clever compliment, which was also a dig at Big Media’s sameness, to reflect on some of his own reports and explore the industry in detail, noting with an intelligent—and predictive—thought of his own that “…news broadcasters should not be humorists … but if the news itself, viewed in a certain way, reveals wit or insight or comment, it’s all right to go ahead. So we did.”

Reasoner’s balance of the sacred and the profane was a key component in his outstanding success and popularity; what made Harry Reasoner light and enjoyable was the sense that he took the news, ideas and life seriously, as he did in one of his best TV broadcasts, his report of a deadly plane crash. He told viewers about Captain Charles White, “an Eastern Airlines pilot and former combat pilot, who died in the Constellation crash yesterday…” explaining that, “after the collision, the plane was unflyable. But he flew it.” Knowing that viewers must have been both horrified and gripped by news of the commercial aviation disaster, Reasoner went on: “As a result, some fifty people are alive who might logically be expected to be dead.”

The newsman described reports of the damaged passenger plane’s “crazy motion”, adding that Captain White’s

alternately powering engines on one side and then another, warning his passengers, and then picking out a field and coming in as softly as you can with that many tons at that kind of speed with no control—coming in flat and uphill—so that before the airplane burned up, almost everyone got out alive. And, now, tonight, Eastern Airlines tells us something else about Captain White: his body was found in the passenger cabin. Eastern’s conclusion is that he could have gotten out, but that he died because he went back to see to the safe evacuation of his passengers.”

Harry Reasoner goes on with a perspective that’s rarely on display among today’s anchors—in an act of decency that’s unthinkable to the generic put-down artists posing at TV desks delivering what passes for the news: “The pride in a man like this radiates out in lessening circles of intimacy—from his family to his fellow employees at Eastern, to all pilots, to all his countrymen, and finally the pride you have in just being a member of the same species. That’s the news. This is Harry Reasoner. Goodnight.”

Not that he couldn’t be arch and knowing, too, as when he reported on one of Elizabeth Taylor‘s weddings to Richard Burton, noting that the couple “were married today in Montreal. They met two years ago while working on the movie Cleopatra in Rome and have been good friends ever since. That’s the news. This is Harry Reasoner. Goodnight.”

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His breezy Before the Colors Fade glides from witty career notes to commentary on the press, TV and behind the scenes at CBS News, grazing history with Reasoner’s thoughts on “the night East Germany built the wall…”, “very sexy and trivial and irresponsible network news…” and how “[a]n argument with Betty Friedan” may have gotten him the job he wanted. These make for interesting snippets and they are precisely that and not more than that, so read Reasoner’s account for its facts, lessons and glimpses of a better media, not for his deep insights, though he does have them.

For instance, writing about his job, Harry Reasoner argues that “…even though the most important quality a reporter can have is detachment, you have to be able to love, too.” Though it’s true that he doesn’t go deeper and point out that to love is to value, etc., honestly, what journalist of Reasoner’s stature today would dare make such an assertion?

Some of the most penetrating parts are thoughts on his reporting from Gio Linh, Vietnam. “He was not a bad man, or a war-lover,” Reasoner writes about a Green Beret who commanded troops with whom Reasoner was embedded on a combat mission: “He was a professional. The worst casualty of the Vietnam War may have been the spirit and confidence of men like that. They are as yet, in an imperfect world, indispensable. We just asked them to do things for us that we should not have asked.”

Good writing makes reading Before the Colors Fade a treat. The author covers encounters, thoughts or bits on Phil Donahue, Fred Friendly, Lyndon Johnson (whom he describes as a “big, ebullient, manic-depressive Texan”), David Halberstam, Salvador Dali and Peter O’Toole, whom Reasoner writes he’d declined to interview, observing that the star of Lawrence of Arabia “had been out all night and was disorganized.” About one of his favorite 60 Minutes journalists, he writes: “Andy Rooney is my best friend. We just don’t talk to each other much. Well, that’s my essay on Andy Rooney. That would be his ending to that paragraph. Mine would be that he, like Don Hewitt, changed the face and course of American non-fiction television.”

This is how I remember Harry Reasoner as an anchorman and as a correspondent; straightforward, accessible yet judgmental in the best sense. In that example, he doesn’t explain why he thinks Hewitt changed TV, and, while reading Before the Colors Fade, I found myself wishing more than a few times that Harry Reasoner had gone deeper in his analysis. I certainly would have welcomed an opportunity to have interviewed him. He goes by facts, and this is what the best newsmen did and do, though too often he declines to examine facts and their implications, particularly on issues such as the existence of God, religion and ethics. But reading a book by a journalist who goes by facts is surprisingly refreshing and another reminder that the lights have dimmed and grow dimmer, to paraphrase Leonard Peikoff. Harry Reasoner appeared braced for this possibility, judging by his book’s title.

Harry Reasoner thought for himself and it’s clear that he saw himself as a whole man. Reading what were his thoughts about life in its everyday ordinariness, especially in retrospect now that he’s no longer alive, contains key clues about what was then the future, and offers lessons for the future now, despite and due to today’s media-savvy and media-saturated culture:

I wish readers would be a little less herdlike. If there is one rule I would recommend to any reader not specifically engaged in studying for an examination, it would be to read only what you like. It doesn’t matter what it is: if you don’t like it, don’t read it. Reading is a pleasure or it is nothing. Following this rule will mean you are left out in the cold in a lot of literary discussions, where the basic standard for a book seems to be that it be unpleasant, but you can always go in the next room and pick up your copy of Ian Fleming or Richard Hughes or Rex Stout or Ernest Hemingway or Loren Eiseley and improve on most conversation anyway.”

Or consider his take on cigarette smoking. After referring to smoking as one of “life’s most rewarding pleasures”, he writes that

The idea of trying to outguess life, to avoid everything that might conceivably ever injure your life, is a peculiarly dangerous one, I think; pretty soon you are existing in a morass of fear and you have given up not only cigarettes, prime beef, good butter, fine whiskey, spinach, tennis, sleeping on your side, riding without seat belts, air travel, train travel, your chiropractor — maybe, next month, love.”

Harry Reasoner’s most credible thoughts center upon his profession: the press. He warns against what came true throughout this light, slender book, observing its practitioners’ pompous and pretentious tendencies and transgressions and concluding: “I blame the colleges, partly; so many of them took broadcast journalism out of journalism and put in something called a “Communications” major, turning out people who knew all about how but not what to communicate.” He correctly describes the premise of the phenomenally successful 60 Minutes as holding to its tagline “that “all of reality is the grist of news.”

Long before media critics noticed the revolving doors, the cronyism, the concealed biases and the cozying up to power-lusters of state, Reasoner wrote that “too many of us interview the people we have had dinner with the night before. I think journalists and subjects can be mutually respectful friends, but when you are close enough so that you are no longer adversaries, our profession or craft or racket—craft, I think we decided—is in trouble.”

Yes it was, which led to distrust among the public, which is leading to faster acceptance of censorship. Conservatives often ignore that the freedom of the press they find so fashionable to doubt or denounce is part of the freedom of speech that they claim to support. Leftists do the same in reverse, ditching freedom of speech (by calling it “hate speech” for instance) while purporting to recognize freedom of the press, which is impossible without absolute recognition of the former. That’s unfortunate for many reasons, one of which is the disengagement or disenfranchisement of thoughtful journalists such as Harry Reasoner, who exercised his absolute right to free speech with Before the Colors Fade including commentary on the media’s complicity in Big Government, which of course he doesn’t describe that way. He gets at the corruption which was to come with breaking down the press-state distinction:

Knowing people, being on first-name terms or even privy to diminutives, has some advantages. But it is also very dangerous. Maybe we have been too successful, which is why we are, I’m afraid, a bit prematurely old. We have lost some strange and invigorating sense of being outsiders.”

He goes on, however, and this is what the best journalists do, noting the withering away of America’s innocence, as he softly applies this idea to universals, such as the state of the nation’s underlying sense of life…

Because along with the justified cynicism, and the justified feeling that everything seems to be going to hell, we retain our basic optimism, and some inside feeling that man as a whole and Americans in particular don’t have to be like the whispering curlew. We ought to be able to make some sense out of what we’re doing, and stop the worst of it, and limp along…We have on some precious occasions, like July 4, 1976, held each other’s hands and said I love you.”

Harry Reasoner doesn’t stop there. Rather than be accused with some justification of being overly sentimental, he refers to that above excerpt and adds that: “Journalism cannot and should not foster this sort of thing; it should, however, report it. It should be human without being maudlin, aware of sentiment while shying from sentimentalism. It should be awake.”

These last four words are the essence of everything decent and good about his old, tattered, out-of-print memoir Before the Colors Fade, which I found in a used bookstore for a few dollars, like a yard sale treasure. And the last two words are his straight, upbeat and dead serious warning to you, the reader, about navigating what was only starting to become the information glut at the peak of the broadcast media age. So, definitely read Before the Colors Fade if you do as a kind of warning. But revel, too, in Harry Reasoner’s flinty moments of bright writing, such as this diversion, a marvelous affirmation of the benevolent universe:

In case we have another day of it, the thing to do is to be outside, or by a big window, at just about 6:15 in the morning, in this longitude at least. Position yourself on high ground, with the ground sloping away from you sharply to the east and then climbing again; the west bank of a ravine does nicely. Right then you’re looking at the black and white of the world: the other side of the ravine is absolutely black — there could a city or a pride of lions or seven houses of neighbors hidden there—and the sky above the line of the hill is a bright, silvered white—no color at all. And then, before you get too cold to watch, the pink and orange of the sun comes, and the black of the hillside rolls down from the top, down to the river, and there are no lions there at all, but the empty branches of the trees are so clear you think you’ve never seen a tree before. And then you go milk the cows or catch a train or cook the cocoa or whatever it is you do at 6:25 in the morning. And whatever it is you do, it’s easier.”

Neither Harry Reasoner’s grit nor gleam fully makes and completes this conversational memoir, which is frosted by his fabulous sense of humor. At one point in Before the Colors Fade, the late, great Harry Reasoner, who embodied the American sense of life, capsulizes his distinguished career in a few beats that, on the surface, seem to herald the attention-deficit age but don’t, not really, and very much on the contrary if you catch the writer’s drift:

You will notice in these chronicles how often I have been a co-something. A surrogate for Cronkite. Me and Mike Wallace. Me and Mary Fickett. Me and Andy Rooney. Me and Howard K. Smith. And, briefly, me and Barbara Walters. I have gotten over worrying about what all this means and whether I should have inferiority feelings about it: things seem to work better that way. But I would like to note that this book is all mine (unless we decide to treat it as a pilot, recall it, and get a co-author).”

I get it, accept it and miss journalists like Walter Cronkite, Edwin Newman and Harry Reasoner. This is all his, catchy, clever title and all, and thankfully none of it reads like a perfunctory thank you list. If only there were more books like Before the Colors Fade and funny, thoughtful and factual reporters like Harry Reasoner, the world would be a better place and stand a better chance.


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Book Review: Bush by Jean Edward Smith

Biographer Jean Edward Smith chronicles the life of George W. Bush, the nation’s 43rd president, in Bush, available this week. Detailed, comprehensive and often even-handed, the heavily pictured, indexed and footnoted account reinforces that the fundamentalist Christian’s faith drove his decisions and two-term presidency. Smith undercuts his credibility at times. Most unfortunately, Smith ignores or evades certain logical conclusions about President Bush.

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The reader learns about Bush’s life, career and disastrous presidency and other judgments about Bush’s mistakes, flaws and decisions are clearly outlined, reported and analyzed. I did not know about Bush’s business deals with George Soros and Saudi Arabia, for instance, or that his father, George H. W. Bush the 41st president—the one who refused as president to defend the United States and American booksellers against the Islamic terrorist threat by Iran during its fatwa against British author Salman Rushdie—had lived in Compton. Or that Bush, known as 43, Dubya or “W”, praised preacher Billy Graham for leading Bush to believe in God, believed he was God’s messenger and had concluded that he “could not have stopped drinking without faith.”

The degree of the U.S. government’s entrenched cronyism is staggering, as Bush illustrates time and again. Besides Soros, Saudis and familial connections to Connecticut’s Senator Prescott Bush, Florida’s Governor Jeb Bush and the former U.S. president, Bush connects to major power sources. CBS News journalist Bob Schieffer’s brother Thomas, for example, a former Democrat in the Texas legislature, was the Texas Rangers’ “point man” on negotiating the special deal for a new ballpark when Bush owned the baseball team. Reading Bush, every chapter seems to disclose another major government-connected or state-sponsored instance of favoritism. When Mr. Smith makes reference to what someone describes as the “one-syllable guttural chuckle, a ‘heh’ straight out of Beavis and Butt-head“, the reader is reminded that Bush’s frat boy persona is backed by enormously powerful crony connections.

Some of those connections might have served the president and America’s best interests. For example, Smith notes that Bush wanted FedEx founder and CEO Fred Smith, who was two years ahead of Bush at Yale University in Connecticut and, like Bush, was a member of Skull and Bones, as secretary of defense. Fred Smith had served as a Marine in the Vietnam War, and won a Bronze Star, Silver Star and two Purple Hearts. The Cato Institute’s major donor took himself out of contention for health reasons and, given how the wars were executed, it’s hard not to wonder what might have been under a war hero’s leadership. Throughout Bush, one sees Bush’s potential as president (I did when I met and interviewed then-Governor Bush in downtown Los Angeles).

This only underscores Bush’s severe deficiencies, which caused the United States to wage neverending war, lockdown and surveillance and welfare statism. The result, depression, despair and the threat of total economic collapse, made possible the historic election of his successor, Barack Obama. Author Smith doesn’t draw these conclusions, however, supporting facts for these assertions are laid out in page after page, chapter after chapter—”Inauguration”, “March of the Hegelians”, “Katrina”, “AIDS”, “Asleep at the Switch” and, the most understated title, “Quagmire of the Vanities”—and note after note. Despite the author’s warped perspective, with his anti-capitalist expressions of admiration for some of the president’s most damaging enactments, such as the monstrous controls on education known as “No Child Left Behind” and government drug subsidies for the wealthiest generation of old people in history, evidence that Bush’s was one of America’s worst presidencies is abundantly and thoroughly presented.

The first U.S. president to impose an office of “faith-based initiatives” in the White House, for instance, had warned Americans in his inaugural speech that, in opposition to the founding ideals of the republic:  “Church and charity, synagogue and mosque, lend our communities their humanity, and they will have an honored (!) place in our plans and in our laws.” (Exclamation added).  Author Smith demonstrates that teetotaler Bush practices what he preaches, beginning every cabinet meeting with a prayer—”not a silent prayer, but a direct appeal for divine guidance” and all but sidelining funding for stem cell research on faith, abetted by a conservative philosophy professor at University of Chicago.

Regurgitating another philosopher’s dubious ideas, Smith quotes Bush’s guru Karl Rove as proclaiming that “we create our own reality..and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” With Bush sincerely believing that he was the instrument of a supernatural being, he was surrounding himself with a band of obstinate intellectuals that referred to themselves as “Vulcans” for the Roman god of fire. It makes for chilling reading when you think about the thousands who would be doomed to die in fiery pits of hell on earth at the hands of religious terrorists and war policymakers from 2001, when religious fundamentalists brought the Twin Towers down, to 2009, when the economy came crashing down (and never has recovered despite Bush’s multi-trillion dollar debt schemes).

Jean Edward Smith makes mistakes, uses wrong words and lets his political philosophy distort his thinking, as when he chastises Bush neoconservatives, such as Paul Wolfowitz, for following philosopher Leo Strauss who believes in “moral absolutes” and thinks the United Nations is “inherently suspect” (it is and ought to be to anyone who takes rights seriously). But he tracks down crucial facts about the Bush presidency, career and lifetime, including that George W. Bush did not meet with his National Security Council a single time after his initial meeting in January 2001 until after the September 11 attack on America, despite numerous urgent and credible warnings of impending Islamic terrorist attack and Communist China’s seizure of a U.S. spy plane and the American crew.

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In this sense, the author provides a useful account of a very recent and extremely important figure in American history. While lacking a deep and fuller judgment about George W. Bush, Jean Edward Smith sheds new light on Bush’s background, motives and political philosophy. He also sets the record straight that it was Bush, not Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, or Condoleezza Rice, who took charge of U.S. foreign policy, demonstrating the toll faith takes on the ability to make rational decisions. Smith shows how Bush did everything or almost everything wrong in response to the act of war known as 9/11. This spiraled the nation faster toward its current pre-totalitarian state. Thanks to Bush, it is easier to see so soon after he was president how Bush  endangered Americans’ lives, properties and liberties and ended, harmed and foreclosed pursuits of happiness for generations to come.

For their roles, Rumsfeld and Cheney come off as flawed but more measured and responsible than they are often portrayed by some pundits and journalists. Rice, whom Smith asserts (as I’ve suspected) willfully evaded signs of impending catastrophic assault on the United States, contrary to what she claims, and “threw fits”, does not. Other illuminating facts include President Clinton‘s attempt to visit North Korea. The author gets facts wrong, too, as when he writes that “President Reagan deserves full credit for ending the Cold War” (facts about the then-crumbling Communist Russia show otherwise). But Smith gets most of the important facts right and, which is perhaps more important, he shows that he grasps the magnitude of President’s Bush’s wrongdoing  (even as he doesn’t name it as he could and should).

On this issue, Smith observes that, at a certain point in the president’s term:

When Bush returned to Washington on Labor Day, he had spent a total of fifty-four days at his ranch since inauguration. “That’s almost a quarter of his presidency,” said the Washington Post. Throw in four days last month at his parents’ seaside estate in Kennebunkport, Maine, and 38 full or partial days at the presidential retreat at Camp David, and Bush will have spent 42 percent of his presidency at vacation spots or en route.”

Bush declared a war against terror, which Smith correctly suggests is inherently unwinnable, recited Bible verses and instructed a speechwriter that a reference to 9/11 “as an act of war” be deleted. Under Bush’s administration, CENTCOM changed the name of America’s military operation in Afghanistan after 9/11 from Infinite Justice to Enduring Freedom to appease Moslem sensibilities, the NSA justified mass, indiscriminate spying on Americans in what one scholar calls “a defining moment in the constitutional history of the United States” and the Marines were ordered to “cut and run” at Fallujah in Iraq just when they needed to use unyielding force against the enemy.

George W. Bush gets his due as a man with a kind of American decency, too, especially when viewed here in the context of the Bush family, particularly in a story about a chandelier in which Bush spares a childhood playmate from his mother’s wrath. But Smith outlines and explains in Bush how Bush ruined America for Americans with wars of altruism, the morality Bush essentially adopted from his father’s and grandfather’s noblesse oblige and mangled with Americanism, which caused intellectuals such as Smith, whose biographies of Ulysses Grant, Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower have earned acclaim, to mistake Bush for an advocate of moral absolutism.

This fraudulence is exactly why Bush was a bad president, one of the worst. Smith gets this judgment off to a serious and scholarly start, whatever Bush‘s imperfections, and he does it with clarity in the narrative, the facts and the contexts. What he gets wrong, he gets wrong, such as his penultimate chapter’s last line that “[i]deology was replaced by [Bush’s] pragmatism.” The author’s frequently purposeful account of the facts of Bush’s life and times proves otherwise; pragmatism, mixed as it is by Bush with faith at a moment in U.S. history that called for the clear, sober and ruthless use of reason, is George W. Bush’s philosophy. Jean Edward Smith’s disturbing yet important Bush, with its barrage of tales, facts and names showing that America’s government is contaminated with favoritism, nepotism and small, blank and corrupt minds, makes the case that Washington is led by petty little believers and illustrates why time for argument and action based on reason is running out.


Related

Interview: George W. Bush (1999)

Thoughts on George W. Bush

George H. W. Bush at the End of Iraq

Buy Bush by Jean Edward Smith (Simon & Schuster)

 

 

Movie Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

The third and final picture in Fox’s latest Planet of the Apes franchise, War for the Planet of the Apes, is a stinker. So much was expected by this fan of the first two films―I also enjoyed Fox’s original 1968-1973 quintet, which I repeatedly saw as a boy in theaters and on TV and video―and so little is delivered from filmmakers, including co-writer and director Matt Reeves. The flat movie fails to engage at every level, starting with characters. But the main problem with War for the Planet of the Apes is a lack of plot, conflict and war. It’s rote and there’s not much at stake.

Consider that the trilogy’s leading character, the chimpanzee Caesar, played by Andy Serkis, who is sufficiently expressive in computer generated or performance capture mode, loses his wife and child early in the plot. This ought to be either devastating or formative or both. But it’s not. This is because the audience is not invested in the murdered characters. Accordingly, the pivotal plot point’s impact is limited. Without proper exposition, the whole plot feels strangely uninvolving. You know you’re supposed to empathize with Caesar, the voice of reason in the series, but it only goes so deep and, with the loss mitigated by lack of development―wife and son screen time goes by in a few blinks―you don’t get absorbed into the rest of the film. No abundance of CG tears and facial expressions can make this crucial event and its aftermath matter.

Caesar’s loss needs to matter very much, too, because it ostensibly serves as the catalyst for major change in his character. Without saying too much, Caesar is haunted by the deaths and rightly moved to seek justice. This entails hunting, tracking and defeating those responsible for the attack, ape and human alike. Quickly deciding that he must do this alone, and leaving his surviving son Cornelius with the tribe, Caesar goes off in search of hostile apes and humans, led by Woody Harrelson (Wilson), essentially and unfortunately playing Woody Harrelson in one of the most hollow performances of his career. What could have been a catalyst for introspection into Caesar’s failed or flawed leadership—really, after 15 years, Caesar still fails to gauge dissent and detect betrayal and hostile threats?—turns into an overly sentimental trek that exists primarily to create and chew scenery, overplay Michael Giacchino‘s sugary score and borrow too heavily and obviously from James Cameron’s Aliens.

Not that the first two films, 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, didn’t move the audience to emotion and even get cute here and there. Yet the first two movies, made by the same studio and filmmakers, also provoke thought, which War for the Planet of the Apes does not. At every plot turn, from Harrelson’s sadistic military colonel running an ape slave camp with goosestepping troops one minute and with lousy patrols, training and cohesion the next to a human child wandering into harm’s way as if her entirely war-ravaged, traumatic life had never happened, the jaw drops at the unrealism of the whole, ridiculous thing. During my theatrical showing, one couple started laughing and walked out. At first, I thought they were jumping the gun, so to speak. In subsequent scene after scene of preposterous plot action, I understood what drove them out. Effects are not enough to satisfy an intelligent audience. Recreating tears with skill, ability and precision does not substitute for plot, character and theme.

On this point, War for the Planet of the Apes‘ theme is lame. Aside from being predictable, and every major development lacks imagination, the meaning of the movie is safe, tame and purely serves the status quo. Its Judeo-Christianity—the movie proposes that to forgive everyone, including the mass murdering tyrant, is divine—contradicts its righteous bloodlust, which apparently on the movie’s terms is morally acceptable if judging one’s identity solely by one’s species. That might not matter, or it might matter less, if War for the Planet of the Apes, which I opted for over comic book-based movies (which I wasn’t in the mood to see), had been entertaining. A zoo chimp adds nothing and might even be mildly annoying. It’s a mystery why filmmakers dispensed with clever references to the original series, such as Maurice’s name (Maurice is the best thing about War for the Planet of the Apes), which would have made this movie tolerable. Naming a character after a car and Forbidden Zone-type scarecrows do not count as clever; they come off as add-ons.

Instead, this curious departure from superior previous entries is puzzling, plodding—with long, boring stretches without action—and, because it overplays its contradictory themes, pretentious. I can’t begin to count gaping plot holes but let me point out that mortal wounds probably take their toll before days-long treks across deserts, mountain ranges and promised lands. A movie called War for the Planet of the Apes ought to at least have a strong sense of conflict. War for the Planet of the Apes does not. Like its number of references to the first movie, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which is zero—Caesar apparently has no interest in reflecting on his life in whole—ape leader Caesar’s climax comes to a low, flat and empty end.