CAT | Movies
Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of the Marshall Independent.
Then out spake brave Horatius, the Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth, death cometh soon or late;
And how can man die better than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods,
“Horatius at the Bridge” by Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay
Don’t worry, it’s good and I’m going to recommend it. I have a weakness for movies that use good poetry as crucial plot elements.
But I’m also going to vent about a nonsensical plot element.
“Oblivion” is visually beautiful and tautly-paced as it moves through a set of revelations that All Is Not What It Seems. Revelations that always kept a step ahead of me, and I’ve read a lot of science fiction.
The movie is based on an eight-page treatment for a graphic novel, written by Joseph Kosinski who also directed.
Kosinski previously directed only “Tron: Legacy,” a short feature and some commercials. His background is in architecture and it shows. I REALLY want a tower house like he designed for the film.
The casting is as minimalist as the decor of the living quarters. There are seven actors with speaking parts, only four of whom have more than a few lines of dialog.
In the year 2077 Commander Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and his partner and lover Victoria Olsen (Andrea Riseborough) are two of the last people on Earth, or so they believe. They live in a tower house high above an earth ravaged by an alien invasion. Humanity won the war, but the Moon was destroyed and Earth so damaged the survivors are moving to Titan, a moon of Saturn. Or so it seems.
Gigantic machines are pumping the oceans into the sky to make Titan habitable, or so it seems. Jack’s job is to fly around in a very cool craft repairing robot drones that keep the last of the “scavs,” machines left by the alien invaders, from sabotaging the strip mining of Earth. Victoria stays home as ground control, and communicates with Sally (Melissa Leo) at Mission Control on the orbiting Tet, a gigantic spacecraft that will eventually carry the survivors to Titan. Or so it seems.
Jack and Victoria have been given mandatory memory wipes, for security purposes. But Jack has been having dreams of a beautiful woman who seems to be part of his past on Earth before the war.
You can guess he’s going to find her, and he does, in suspended animation in the wreckage of a crashed spaceship. Jack saves her after the drones kill all the other survivors.
Her name is Julia (Olga Kurylenko) and when he revives her, she looks at him and says, “Jack.”
The film moves very quickly from there, in ways of course I can’t tell you.
There are other survivors. The mission is not what it seems. Jack is not what he seems.
There is some good stuff in here that raises questions about what it means to be human, and what the price of knowledge is. Jack realizes what he thinks he knows doesn’t jibe with what he sees, and is determined to find out what is real.
That’s where “Horatius” comes in. He finds a copy of “Lays of Ancient Rome” in the ruins of a building and reads the verse that presages his fate.
Victoria ultimately does not want to know. She wants to cling to her comforting illusion, and in the end Jack cannot save her.
Between them stands Julia, and what she means to Jack’s past.
Kurylenko’s role in the film is so crucial it’s a bit surprising to realize how little dialog she has. With Kurylenko you don’t really care, she had a major part in one movie where she played a mute (“Centurion” 2010), and makes overalls look like haute couture.
Morgan Freeman as Malcolm Beech, leader of the last survivors on Earth, is in only three scenes but the whole outcome hinges on his part.
There are some nice touches, such as the question Sally ends every communication with, “Are you still an effective team?”
You don’t realize the importance of that question until the answer is, “No.”
There are some cute allusions, loving tributes to the SciFi movie genre and of course who could miss Tetris.
They’ve even managed to end with both heroic sacrifice and a happy ending.
Now my personal kvetch. Oceans of ice are available essentially free in the cometary belt and ice moons of Saturn, minerals in the asteroid belt. There is no conceivable reason for aliens to go deep into Earth’s gravity well for either.
Guys could you please use your imagination and come up with a plausible excuse for aliens to invade the earth? I bet it would generate some pretty neat story ideas too.
Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of the Marshall Independent.
According to Entertainment Weekly, “42” made Hollywood history with the highest-grossing premier of any baseball-themed movie. Which is true but almost beside the point. It’s not just about baseball, it’s about honor.
It’s about men doing the right thing at a time when it was unpopular and dangerous to do so.
It’s good for people dissatisfied with current progress towards universal equality to remember things were once a lot worse. And it’s good for those so proud of conspicuously having all the correct attitudes to remember there was a time when wearing those convictions on your sleeve carried a price.
“42” is the story of Jackie Robinson’s first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946-47, that broke the color line in baseball. The number was Robinson’s, and the only number to be retired by all of baseball.
The movie, like baseball, has a star but it’s about a team.
Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) president and general manager of the Dodgers, wants to break the color line. Because he’s deeply offended by the stain of racism on the game he loves passionately. Because he’s been carrying the humiliation for years of not having done enough for a black man who was his friend.
And because he sees a tremendous opportunity in the huge number of black baseball fans and the chance to have first pick from an untapped reservoir of talent.
There’s an important point there. It’s good when people start to realize something is wrong, better when people realize it’s not only wrong but unprofitable.
Rickey needs just the right player, an extraordinary athlete but one who can keep his temper under the worst provocation.
He finds him in Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman). Robinson plays baseball, football, basketball, and even tennis well. He’s intelligent, articulate, and high-spirited. That last characteristic having gotten him a court-martial in the Army when he refused to move to the back of a bus.
Rickey tells him he’s going to have to watch that.
“Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Robinson asks.
“No,’ Rickey replies, “I’m looking for a negro with guts enough not to fight back.”
And it takes guts for sure. The film does a great job through a series of scenes showing the daily casual humilitation Robinson and his new bride Rachel (Nicole Beharie) have to put up with. And for a while it only gets worse, mounting in viciousness as Robinson goes through training and then takes the field with the Dodgers.
But they also have a lot of support from friends like African-American sports reporter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) and a redneck-looking workman who approaches them, initially terrifying Rachel.
“I want to tell you something,” he says. “I want to tell you I’m behind you, a lot of us are. I figure if a man’s got the goods he ought to have a chance.”
And that’s what “42” is all about. There is no affirmative action in sports. A player has the goods or he doesn’t, and there’s no excuse for failure and no hiding ability.
Robinson had it, and once he got on the field there was no denying it.
“I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a ****n’ zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded,” says Leo “Nice guys finish last” Durocher (Christopher Meloni).
And therein lies the point about discrimination, and honor.
Any man of honor will be offended by discrimination. Because if you don’t give a man a chance, you’re never going to be sure you’ve deserved your accomplishments, or got them because somebody else was denied the chance.
“If he can take my job, he’s entitled to it,” says shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black).
Reese has something to prove by standing up for Robinson publicly in front of his Southern relatives. This is brilliant shown in a scene where a young boy who is starting to pick up on the detestable behavior of the grownups around him – until Reese walks over to Robinson and puts his arm around him before a game.
Many who stood up for Robinson were Southerners, and some of the worst bigots were Yankees, and thank y’all most kindly for making that point.
“42” makes all these points and more, but doesn’t hit you over the head with them. If there’s anything at all to be regretted it’s that you don’t see more about some extraordinary people, but it might just inspire you to learn more about Rachel Isum Robinson, Reese, and how people like Dixie Walker (Ryan Merriman) eventually changed and grew.
Noe: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of The Marshall Independent.
There are great movies, good movies, bad movies, and awful movies. Then there’s movies like “The Host” which are just kind of blah.
The movie is based on the book by Stephanie Meyer, a writer of great wealth and surpassing awfulness who makes every writer who can string a coherent set of sentences together wonder why he’s reviewing this swill instead of writing it?
“The Host” lies within the alien possession sub-genre of science fiction. A theme which has been explored in literature by no lesser lights than Robert A. Heinlein (“The Puppet Masters”) and John D. MacDonald (“WIne of the Dreamers”), and in classic SciFi movies such as “The Brain from Planet Arous” (1957) and “The Hidden” (1987). It was an important plot element in the “Babylon 5” series and the “Stargate” universe.
The movie opens after an alien race who call themselves “Souls” have invaded Earth and taken possession of almost everybody. Almost.
A few feral humans have managed to hide out including Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan), her brother Jamie (Chandler Canterbury) and her boyfriend Jared Howe (Max Irons).
While on a food scavenging expedition Melanie is found out and jumps out of a high window, determined to die rather than be possessed by the Souls.
No such luck. She survives, is healed, and her body given to a soul who calls itself Wanderer.
Alien possession in fiction is typically done by an organic being who attaches itself to a host externally or internally, an incorporeal alien much like demonic possession, or a corporeal alien with technological aid such as an implanted chip.
The Souls are corporeal aliens resembling bioluminescent jellyfish who enter the host through a surgical incision at the base of the skull. The logistics of how most of the human race got strapped down and operated on in this manner is unexplained.
Once in control a Soul suppresses the consciousness of its host, makes their eyes glow, and gives them an uncontrollable desire to dress all in white and drive cars with a mirror finish.
Except sometimes a host won’t go to sleep. Wanderer wakes up in Melanie’s body with Melanie screaming inside her head to get the hell out of her.
This conflict is noticed by a Soul named Seeker (Diane Kruger) who helpfully suggests a change of bodies, after which Melanie will be… disposed of.
Melanie half-convinces half-fools Wanderer to go on the lam looking for other wild humans, and winds up prisoner of a band which includes her brother, boyfriend, and Uncle Jeb (William Hurt).
Here Meyer attempted to introduce some interesting and original plot twists on the classic theme. And blew it.
One is that the Souls think they’re doing good. Humans are violent Melanie/Wanderer explains. The Souls brought peace to the Earth.
“They have made a desert, and they call it peace,” Gaius Cornelius Tacitus once said about the Roman Empire.
Another is that Wanderer develops feelings for a member of the band Ian O’Shea (Jake Abel), while Melanie within is pining for Jared.
Well, maybe an entity possessing a human body might experience all the hormonal urges of the flesh it possesses, but what explains Ian reciprocating Wanderer’s affections? That’s a thousand-year-old alien inside that pretty girl you’re talking to Dude!
By now, some Souls are beginning to question the rightfulness of their occupation. Wanderer switches sides, convinces the humans that Melanie is still awake inside her and starts helping them survive and fight back.
So after having possessed involuntary hosts on seven planets it finally occurred to Wanderer that taking somebody else’s body might be… you know, wrong?
Melanie warms to Wanderer and starts to think of their relationship as more symbiotic than parasitic. An idea lifted from F. Paul Wilson’s “Healer.”
Stockholm Syndrome anyone? Melanie or Wanderer?
Wanderer proves she’s on the level by teaching the humans how to remove a Soul without killing the host, first making them promise they won’t kill the Souls but put them back in their clamshell-sized spaceships and send them away.
So let me get this straight. You come to our world uninvited, possess our bodies and suppress our consciousness, and we’re supposed to give a damn whether you live or die?
Furthermore you want us to send you off to be somebody else’s problem, somebodies who never bothered us? And what does that make us?
There is much that could have been done with this. The cast is first-rate, the set design attractive, and there are good ideas to play with. My six-year-old daughter was very taken with the idea of having a friend inside your head.
The reason it doesn’t gell is like so many other failed flicks, lies in the writing. The least expensive part of the production.
Note: This originally appeared in the print-only TV Guide of The Marshall Independent.
Kine die, kin die
And so at last yourself:
But this I know that never dies
How dead men’s deeds are deemed.
- Hávamál: The Words of Odin the High One, from the Elder Edda
“Vikings” is I believe, the first venture of the History Channel into historical drama.
The gold standard for Viking movies is still, “The Vikings” with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, based on a book by Edison Marshall. The movie begat a TV series, “Tales of the Vikings” (1959-1960).
Everybody loves Vikings, which is kind of odd and paradoxical. On the one hand, you have a people who were energetic, active, and wonderfully bold. They had a robust sense of humor, the laughter of free men. The mostly dealt justly with each other, and women probably had more rights in their society than anywhere else, or at any other time until the present.
On the other hand, for a couple of centuries these admirable people liked to take annual sea voyages down to Europe where they’d steal anything that wasn’t nailed down, rape everything in skirts, and kill anyone who got in their way, or sometimes just for fun. (I’d tell you what “carving the blood eagle” was, but not before lunch.)
“Vikings” is the story of the beginning of the age of Viking raids in the ninth century, told as the story of the semi-legendary Ragnar Lodbrok (Travis Fimmel), known to history as “Ragnar Hairybreeks.”
Ragnar and his wife the shieldmaiden Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), and his brother Rollo (Clive Standen) are progressive, forward-looking Vikings who want to discover new lands to plunder. They are opposed by the backward-looking Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne), who wants to keep raiding the poverty-stricken Baltic coast.
“A furore Normanorum, libera nos Domine!” medieval monks prayed. “From the fury of the Northmen, deliver us Oh Lord!”
Deliver us Oh Lord, from writers who can’t be bothered to get their history right!
There is so much that could have been done with this. They have the scenery down. They built a Viking village whose authenticity you can almost smell, and one very cool longship,
They have an outstanding cast. In particular Katheryn Winnick, a Canadian actress of Ukrainian origin who looks like she carries genes from the Viking kingdom of Kiev. She is also an accomplished martial artist and pulls off the role of a warrior woman to perfection.
There is in the first episode, a law case that ideally should have set the stage perfectly. A man kills an enemy in a dispute that would ordinarily have called for weregild, the blood money paid to the family of someone you’ve killed, even if it was self-defense.
But in this case, the killer passed by three houses before he announced the killing, and thus is technically guilty of “secret murder” a heinous crime. A very nice touch indicating someone has done their homework.
Unfortunately, they’ve got too many things in here which are just flat absurd.
Ragnar has learned how to use a sun disk and a sun stone. The first is a wooden plate with a peg in the middle. You float it in water and take note of the length of the peg’s shadow at noon, which gives you a pretty good idea of longitude. The latter is a piece of crystal which polarizes light, enabling you to see the sun through heavy clouds.
They follow this up with the absurd notion that the Vikings didn’t know about the existence of England, except as legend!
The ninth century was when Vikings and their Irish thralls colonized Iceland!
They make Earl Haraldson out to be a scary, semi-psycho who rules with an iron fist and terrifies everybody.
In reality ninth century Viking society was very decentralized, with local chieftains jealous of their independence and quick to speak their minds, even to their kings.
When Ragnar returns from the first raid into England with booty, and a captive monk who speaks their language, Earl Haradson demands all of the treasure as compensation for their having disobeyed him.
No earl wielded that kind of authority to begin with, and while a chief might claim a share of the spoils, no one could have gotten away with taking it all.
And as for the Saxon monk, Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon were probably close enough for the Viking and the monk to talk to each other with a little practice anyway.
I’m sorry, there is much to like about this series, but there are too many sour notes that spoil it and can’t be fixed within the constraints they’ve written themselves into.
Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of The Marshall Independent.
“Jack the Giant Slayer” did not do very well opening weekend, earning only $28 million of the $200 million they need to break even.
On the other hand, nothing else that weekend did either and “Jack” wound up on top anyway. There have been indications it’s been picking up, perhaps due to word of mouth advertising.
I went to see it with two very uncritical movie reviewers, my six-year-old daughter and her best friend. I was glad it was on the marquee because nothing else looked suitable.
Well that and the fact that I do want my children exposed to fairy tales. When I was growing up we had Andrew Lang’s Red and Blue fairy books in the house (there are 12 in all). These were themselves taken and translated from other collections of European folk tales and edited for children. So they are already at least second hand.
“Jack” is like that, in that it is very loosely based on two stories involving guys named Jack who have a lot to do with giants. There’s “Jack and the Bean Stalk,” first published in 1807, and “Jack the Giant Killer,” earliest published version 1811.
Both of these, though they borrow heavily from mythology and the folk tales of Cornwall, are apparently early 19th century creations possibly written for a market that had already heard all the classical tales and wanted more.
Jack and the Beanstalk was first done on film in 1902, and has since been reinterpreted by Mickey Mouse (1947), Abbot and Costello (1952), Bugs Bunny (1955), The Three Stooges (1962) and Gene Kelly (1966) among others.
In 2001 Jim and Bryan Henson told “Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story” in a TV miniseries, revealing for the first time what a rotten scoundrel Jack was.
“Jack the Giant Killer” however appears to have been done on film only once before, in 1962.
In this latest interpretation, farm boy Jack (Nicholas Hoult) goes to town to sell his uncle’s horse because they are seriously broke. However our Jack is no simpleton and acquires the magic beans from a monk who was doing something or other with them in his laboratory and is on the run from the king’s guard.
Jack also meets the beautiful Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) who is wandering around the marketplace incognito because she wants to get to know the people she’s going to rule.
Isabelle’s father King Brahmwell (Ian McShane), loves his daughter deeply, but is nonetheless going to marry her off to Rodrick (Stanley Tucci) the nogoodnik prime minister she doesn’t love to secure the future of the kingdom.
Coincidentally they meet again when the Princess seeks shelter during a rainstorm in Jack’s humble cottage, which is soon whisked off into the sky by the magic beanstalk that grows from one of the beans that’s slipped through a crack in the floor.
Enter the King and his guard, led by stalwart and faithful Elmont (Ewan McGregor). Jack volunteers to join the rescue party going up the beanstalk to the land in the sky where the legendary giants dwell.
Unfortunately Roderick and his henchman (Ewen Bremner) are going too. Roderick it seems has possession of the crown the kings of Albion once used to control the giants the last time they came to the kingdom to serve Man (roasted, toasted, or raw).
Roderick wants to rule the giants and use them to conquer the kingdom. Why would he want to do that? He’s going to get it anyway when he marries Isabelle?
Roderick it seems, has wider ambitions.
The climbers meet the CGI giants. The giants want to know the way down. They find it. That’s how the war starts.
Of course you can guess how it’s going to wind up for Jack and the Princess, but there’s a lot of less predictable twists and turns before then.
Jack does in fact slay some giants. One in a manner right out of the tales, and one in a way which perfectly illustrates Chekov’s principle of hanging the gun on the wall in act one and using it by act four. Which of course I can’t tell you.
There’s something else in the ending I can’t tell you either, and this is truly original. Not to mention pretty funny. Probably even funnier if you’re English.
So hey, it’s really not bad and it doesn’t do serious damage to folklore. You could argue it adequately translates traditional stories into new media, thus showing it’s still a living tradition.
It’s not going to make film history but it’s not a bad way to spend an afternoon with the kids.
My junior partner in film criticism summed it up, “It was awesome!”
Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of The Marshall Independent.
The first thing you notice in “Beautiful Creatures” is, they’ve got the dialect down. I defy anyone to name the actor who is really from South Carolina, among an Englishman, a Scot, a kiwi, two Californians, a Texan and a New York Yankee.
They got a heck of a dialect coach to teach them how to tawk raht. They even know “Bless your heart” is how well-bred Southern ladies say, “**** you.”
“Beautiful Creatures” is based on the 2009 novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, which falls into the sub-subgenre of fantasy called teen urban fantasy, though it’s set in the fictional rural town of Gatlin, South Carolina. That is, it’s a story where the supernatural lurks below the surface of our seemingly mundane world.
And the world of Gatlin is suffocatingly mundane to teenage Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich, the Californian), a high school junior whose burning ambition is to graduate and get out of town.
You see Ethan, though a popular jock, likes to read books. Forbidden books, such as “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Ethan has been having dreams about a girl he’s never met. Until she shows up in class at the beginning of the year.
Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert, the New Zealander) is 15 and pretty in a spooky kind of way. But though the mean-girls clique led by Ethan’s old girlfriend Emily (Zoey Deutch, California) are really nasty, Lena can hold her own dishing out the insults. And when that fails she can shatter the school windows.
She is also the niece of Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons, the Brit), a reclusive rich man whose family built the town and are rumored to be devil worshippers.
Not quite. They’re casters, something like witches though they don’t like that term. Casters are a race with supernatural powers who seem to be at least provisionally immortal, since they refer to us as mortals.
When Lena turns 16, she will be claimed by either the light or the dark, according to her true nature. And it’s not altogether certain a caster has a choice in these things. Her older cousin Ridley (Emily Rossum, New Yorker) seemed like a nice enough girl, until she turned 16 and became a Siren who uses and discards men mercilessly. And by discard we mean on railroad tracks in front of onrushing trains.
Ethan and Lena bond over a love of books and poetry, and shared loss of their mothers, after a courtship involving some very well-written banter.
Well the course of true love never runs smooth, especially with mixed couples. Lena’s mother Serafina (Emma Thompson, the Scot), who really is a witch, or something that rimes with it, won’t stay dead. She’s possessing the body of Ethan’s best friend Link’s (Thomas Mann, Texas) mother Mrs. Franklin.
Serafina wants Lena for the dark, so casters can come out of the shadows and take their rightful place as rulers of the mortal world.
Macon has his own plans for Lena, which definitely don’t include Ethan. Fortunately Ethan has an ally in Amma (Viola Davis, the real Carolinian), a family friend/housekeeper for his own reclusive and grief-stricken father.
Amma is not a caster, but she is a seer and the Keeper of the caster library. Amma also has history with the Ravenwoods. She’s a black woman steeped in the tradition of southern Hoodoo, and quite capable of putting Macon in his place.
So how does this stack up as modern fantasy?
Pretty good. It’s pretty solidly rooted in the traditions of European folklore about the Other World, its inhabitants and their relationship to ours. And as noted there’s a dash of the African-American folkloric tradition indigenous to the South.
Visual effects are for the most part, very good. The chemistry between the young couple is convincing, and there are plot complications aplenty.
What’s really nice is, teen genre books and movies for the past generation have mostly tended to be about teen angst and the agony of being unpopular. The teen books of my youth and my father’s generation were about teens doing improbable, but bold, resourceful, self-reliant things.
For anyone raised on the adventures of Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys, or for girls Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames, this modern stuff is pretty thin gruel.
Lena is the school outcast, but nobody’s doormat, and trying hard not to go all “Carrie” on everybody.
Ethan is a popular jock, but he has a brain, character and compassion. Thank you!
Newbies Ehrenreich and Englert hold their own as leads supported by heavyweights Irons, Thompson, and Rossum. Davis is known more as a stage actress, but “Beautiful Creatures” might change that – there are two sequels to the book, “Beautiful Darkness,” and “Beautiful Chaos.”
Keep your crystal ball tuned for further developments.
Note: Cross-posted on my professional blog at The Marshall Independent.
In my post on recommended reading for anyone whose interest in Cold War history has been piqued by the FX series, “The Americans” I provided a reading list of sources which have been authenticated to a reasonable degree.
There’s something else I’d like to mention, but this is in the realm of pure speculation.
One of the sources I found when researching my review said there are estimates of “as many as 50 couples” like the couple portrayed in the series, in place in the U.S.
I have no idea how they got that figure or what it’s worth. But some years back I heard a very intriguing rumor.
According to this, the United States was never able to put agents in place within the Soviet Union. Among other reasons, their society isn’t as mobile as ours. They don’t habitually move around the country looking for work, or just because they think they might like someplace else better. Most people grow up among people they’ve known all their lives.
For another, functioning in their society required a lot of documentation, official permissions etc that presented an almost insurmountable barrier to passing as a native.
What U.S. intelligence did was to have American handlers recruit locals to pass information with the promise that they and their families would eventually be extracted and taken to live in the U.S., as Col. Kuklinski’s family was.
The Soviets on the other hand, had little trouble putting agents in place in our country. Constructing an identity is not terribly difficult. I understand it starts with touring cemeteries, looking for someone who died in childhood who would have been about your own age. You then write to the county records office and say, “I’m so-and-so and I’d like a copy of my birth certificate.”
With the birth certificate you generate all the other documents you need. It won’t pass a background check of the degree of thoroughness required to get a job with the FBI, but that’s not the point. You can settle in a part of the country that’s rich in information, and blend into society, hoping to cultivate the acquaintance of people who do have access to useful information.
No here’s the rumor I heard. The Soviets could do that – but they tended to lose people.
Agents in place, like the couple in the series, would realize, “Life is good here. Life is not good back home.”
If you’ve generated one identity, it’s no trick to generate another and move somewhere else in this vast and varied country of ours.
So why not just defect? Turn yourself in.
Well, there’s another rumor, and it’s an ugly one.
The U.S. government did not in fact welcome all potential defectors with open arms. The reasoning is that unless they came with valuable information or skills, it was better to leave malcontents in place within Soviet society where they were a potentially disruptive influence.
We know defectors have been turned away. Vasilli Mitrokhin was, that’s how the British got the KGB archives first.
There is a rumor that defectors who didn’t have sufficiently valuable information were sometimes traded back. (I was told this by an Air Force noncom with a hobby interest in political and military history.)
So, blend in, lie low, and never tell your children.
I wonder about this. Are there living among us people who appear like any other of our countrymen, who were born half a world away?
I wonder if we’ll ever know.
Note: I see “Argo” won an academy award, and I see I neglected to post my review which first appeared in the print-only TV Guide of The Marshall Independent. So here it is.
After a slow beginning the reputation of “Argo” as a taut psychological thriller and intelligent action flick is getting around.
“Argo” achieves the most difficult feat for a thriller, keeping you on edge even when you know the outcome walking in. As action flick it hearkens back to an earlier time before the “non-stop action” genre, when films paid attention to set up and character development. And for once, the CIA are shown as the good guys.
And if you’re paying careful attention there are some interesting questions about realpolitik and ethics versus practicalities raised therein.
“Argo” tells the story of the “Canadian caper,” a joint CIA-Canadian operation that spirited six American diplomatic personnel out of Iran during the Iranian hostage crisis in January, 1980.
Since a generation has passed since those days, the film begins with a narrator relating the background. In 1979 the Shah of Iran was forced into exile and the Ayatollah Khomeni returned from his own exile to assume spiritual leadership of the new Islamic Republic of Iran.
Enraged that the U.S. admitted the Shah into the country for medical treatment, militants stormed and seized the American embassy, taking the staff hostage for what was to become a 444 day ordeal.
Six diplomats escaped out a back door and ultimately found refuge in the residence of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber.)
CIA officials brainstorm various plans to extract the six, discarding all of them as impractical, until agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directs) comes up with an audacious plan to extract the six disguised as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science fiction movie to be called Argo.
The plan is green-lighted as the “least bad” option.
Mendez contacts makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) who did contract work for the CIA with disguises.
“Let me get this straight, you want to come to Hollywood, make a fake movie, and do nothing?” Chambers asked. “You’ll fit right in.”
Chambers helps Mendez recruit producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to establish a thorough cover for the operation.
“If I’m going to make a fake movie, I’m going to make a fake hit,” Siegel said.
The cover involved a real script that justified an exotic location shoot (an adaptation of Roger Zelazny’s novel, “Lord of Light” by the way,) full-page ads in Variety, press conferences, casting calls, and an office that existed to answer precisely one phone call from Iran to verify that Mendez’s cover character was “out of the country on location.”
The understated tension is marvelously done, Afleck has a great future as a director. The living conditions of the six, in comfortable but cramped conditions, living in fear, getting on each others nerves, is shown in images with few words. A glimpse of a man shot by firing squad through a window, a man hanged from a crane, the growing suspicion that the Iranian housekeeper knows who the ambassador’s guests are. This could be a textbook illustration of the novelist’s dictum, “Show – don’t tell.”
“Argo” doesn’t shy away from the moral ambiguity of the U.S.- Iranian conflict. Yes the U.S. sponsored a coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953, and supported a despot who ruled with the brutal CIA-trained secret police SAVAK.
But with the Shah gone, what replaced him? Even more brutal religious fanatics who threw a rich and modernizing country into poverty and chaos.
And who were the militant leaders? Mendez tells the six while briefing them. Not semi-literate goat-herders but American and European-educated English speakers who had seen the west close up, and hated it. Hated the west enough to throw away ancient laws on the treatment of diplomats and stage sadistic mock-execution with their captives.
There’s food for thought here, now more than ever.
There’s also some choices Afleck made he should have thought twice about. “Argo” has it the six were refused refuge at the British and New Zealand embassies. In fact both embassies aided the six in important ways, as did the Swedish embassy which briefly sheltered one of them.
Afleck calls this dramatic license to heighten the sense the six had no place else to go.
No, having the Swissair plane chased down the runway by gunmen in trucks as it’s taking off is dramatic license. This is slander.
After the preview at the Toronto Film Festival in September, critics charged “Argo” unfairly minimized Canadian participation in the operation. Well perhaps, but then again the Canadians got all the credit until 1997 when the operation was declassified and Mendez got to claim his Intelligence Star medal, and Chambers his Intelligence medal.
Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of The Marshall Independent.
The Die Hard series is one of those movies you have to classify as “guilty pleasures.”
“A Good Day to Die Hard” is the fifth in the Die Hard franchise which began in 1988 (!!!) and follows the adventures of John McLain (Bruce Willis), a New York city cop who improbable stuff just happens to, a running joke in the series.
This is McLain’s first outing outside the country, if you don’t count the final scene in Canada in the third. Russia to be exact, although they kind of pass without mentioning that Chernobyl is actually in Ukraine.
And there was one jarring moment for me when I sat up and thought, “Hey that corridor looks familar, I remember it from Budapest!”
The action is unbelieveable, performed by heroes who are, to say the least, irresponsible. They blithely destroy property on a massive scale in car chases and shoot outs which miraculously never seem to cause casualties among innocent bystanders.
It’s kind of dumb fun, but it’s getting to the point of being done to death now. In this reviewer’s humble opinion, the best car-chase-destroy-a-town was in the George C. Scott classic, “The Flim-Flam Man” (1967). Mordecai Jones (Scott) and and Curley (Michael Sarrazin) wrecked a small Kentucky town in a convertible, and somehow got more out of it than wrecking a downtown metropolitan area with armored cars and helicopter gunships.
Nonetheless there is something terribly appealing about the series that sets it apart from the usual crop of mindless action movies, seen today, forgotten next year.
The series’ formula rests on three elements underlying the action.
One is an unexpected series of plot twists. Good guys turn out to be bad guys and McLain has to figure out which, though observation, deduction, and intuition. Motives turn out not to be as they are originally presented. Which is fun, but also makes them harder to review without spoilers.
In the first “Die Hard” it was a gang of hijackers motivated by simple gain, masquerading as terrorists in the service of a cause. A pattern followed in the third sequel, and something like it in the latest.
Another is the underlying theme of bonding with an estranged family member. In the first two it was McLain’s estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) and a supporting character (Reginald VelJohnson).
By the third installment Bedelia had evidently opted out of the series and was only referred to. The bonding-through-shared-action happened with Samuel L. Jackson’s character. In the fourth, it’s McLain’s estranged daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who was brought on scene for a few minutes to establish continuity in this installment.
In “A Good Day to Die Hard” it’s McLain’s estranged son Jack (Jai Courtney), who is also not what he seems at first.
“Your mother thought you were doing drugs,” McLain tells him. “I thought you were dealing drugs.”
Nope, he’s CIA on a mission to recover documents which will reveal the corruption of a powerful Rusian oligarch. Which turns out to be red herring about halfway through the movie.
The third element is banter.
Nobody does banter like Bruce Willis. Since his breakthrough role in the TV “dramedy” series “Moonlighting” (1984-1989) a great many of his roles seem to have been created to showcase his flair for devil-may-care spit-in-the-eye-of-death banter.
And starting with the third Die Hard, they created an oppositional dynamic to the McLain family dynamics. This was foreshadowed in “Die Hard 2” (1990) where the villaiins were a military “band of brothers” gone rogue.
“Die Hard with a Vengeance” (1995) introduced Simon Peter Gruber (Jeremy Irons) the brother of the East German villain Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) of “Die Hard.” Irons had a romantic partner in villainy who was a stone killer (Sam Phillips).
The trope was repeated in “Live Free or Die Hard” (2007) where a villainous romantic couple (Timothy Olyphant and Maggie Q) are paired off against McLain and daughter.
In “A Good Day to Die Hard” it’s McClain and son against a father-daughter team of villains Yuri and Irina Komorov, played by German actor Sebastian Koch, and Russian actress/model Yuliya Snigir.
(Snigir by the way, aside from being easy to look at was awarded the title of Candidate Chess Master by the International Chess Federation at age 15.)
The twist is, the McLain family is dysfunctional. John and Holly love each other but wind up divorced. John McLain’s kids are estanged from Dad, until bonded by shared danger.
But the villains: comrades-in-arms, brothers, lovers, and now father and daughter, all have great relationships!
So if you’re in the mood, turn off your critical faculties and watch the heart-warming family drama of McLain and son bonding to the music of machine gun fire and massive explosions.
Note: Cross-posted from my blog at The Marshall Independent.
My review of “The Americans” appeared in the print-only TV Guide of The Marshall Independent.
For those wishing to know more about that era, or just want to know if I’m a paranoid conspiracy nut or not, I can recommend a few books.
You can read the short form here, but there’s a lot missing.
Col. Kuklinski contacted and started passing information to the CIA when as a member of the General Staff he discovered the Soviets not only planned to invade Western Europe, but had written off Poland as the proverbial self-lighted glass parking lot if the war went nuclear.
A controversial figure in Poland even today, his grave in the Honor Row of the Powazki Military Cemetery in Warsaw has been vandalized on a few occasions.
The Wikipedia article mentions his two sons died in America. What they don’t elaborate on is that one was killed in a hit-and-run accident, the driver was never found. The other disappeared on a diving trip along with a few friends. His daughter is living in hiding in America.
Whatever they call it these days, the KGB still has a long arm.
This is a fascinating read. The book was conceived after Usdin met a Soviet scientist who spoke perfect English. The scientist told him he’d learned it in school.
Usdin replied, “You didn’t learn that Brooklyn accent in school.”
The scientist turned out to be Joel Barr, one of the two members of the Rosenberg spy ring who escaped to the USSR and together with fellow escapee Alfred Sarant helped found Zelenograd, the “Soviet Silicon Valley.”
It turns out not only were the Rosenberg’s guilty, they were so guilty you have to wonder what the heck the FBI was doing, sitting on their hands?
The KGB officer who was sent over to be the ring’s handler was shocked at the amateurishness of these idiots. For example, before their handler taught them the elements of tradecraft, Julius Rosenberg’s self-chosen code name was “Julius.”
Interestingly, though the Rosenberg ring did indeed pass on the atomic bomb secrets to the Soviets, the more practical secret they gave them was the proximity fuse, the force multiplier for artillery. The A-bomb was after all never used by the end of the Cold War, but artillery certainly was.
And speaking of the A-bomb, if anybody doubts that nuclear weapons technology was stolen from the U.S. by the USSR rather than developed independently, “The Red Bomb” documentary disposes of that lie.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen it but I remember there was an interview with the head of the Soviet bomb project just before his death, in which he freely admitted that every month he got a box full of documents straight from Los Alamos, which only he was allowed to read.
The Venona Transcripts… you don’t want to read thousands of source documents unless you’re a professional and you have to. A good book about them, and how they came to be can be found here. Or just glance at the Wikipedia entry, with the proviso that the ‘pedia is sometimes incomplete, sometimes contains deliberately planted disinformation, and is sometimes just flat wrong.
“The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB” by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin.
Mitrokhin wasn’t a KGB field agent, he was an archivist with unlimited access to KGB files. Of course with that kind of stuff in his head they’d never have put him in the field. What he did was make copies and immensely detailed notes of documents in the archives from 1972-1984. He retired in 1985 and defected to the United Kingdom in 1992 – after the CIA didn’t believe he could have done this and turned him down.
And of course the classic “Witness” by Whittaker Chambers. First published in 1952, this is the almost-forgotten autobiography of a former American Communist and Soviet agent who became a Christian, a political conservative, and an editor at National Review.
Chambers was vilified for accusing respectable and powerful upper-class figures such as Alger Hiss and Harry White of being Soviet agents. Surprise! He was right and they were liars.
Word of caution, it’s looooong and I first read it out of a sense of duty to history. However it’s oddly compelling and there is a sweet sense of nobility about Chambers’ apologia pro vita sua. He knew he wasn’t going to win any popularity contests, and to the end of his life he never quite shook the Marxist notion of historical inevitability. He thought he’d jumped ship to the losing side.
For the testimony of another former communist who didn’t go quite so far right, I’d recommend “Being Red: A Memoir” by Howard Fast.
I love Howard Fast’s novels. In particular, “Citizen Tom Paine,” “April Morning,” and “My Glorious Brothers.”
Unlike Chambers, Fast never quite got over his time in the CPUSA and referred to his old comrades as “Some of the finest people I’ve ever known.”
Or was he just terrified, who knows?
This is one of those autobiographies that tends to confirm the adage that you should never meet an author whose work you admire. Fast tells how as a Communist Party official writer, he had an advance look at Krushchev’s “Secret Speech” to the 20th Party Congress on February 14, 1956, in which Stalin’s atrocities were confirmed. However Fast didn’t quit the CP until years later.
Fast talks about how traumatized by the shattering of his illusions he was, and how he had to work it out with his analyst.
Uh, what about the tens of millions of victims Howie?
There is a fascinating glimpse into the origins of Political Correctness herein. Fast records his disaffection with the CP hierarchy when they published lists of words and phrases not to be used. For example, never use the expression “whitewash” because it’s racist.
That’s a writer for you. Tell him tens of millions of innocents were slaughtered by his hero and he starts to get a bit uneasy. But tell him how to write and his indignation knows no bounds!
If you’re interested in the history of that period, this list is a good starting point.
What you can get from it is 1) the realization that the history that “everybody knows” can be a lie, 2) the truth does tend to come out in the end, and 3) no kidding, truth really is more interesting than fiction.