Monthly Archives: February 2016

Moonlighting (1982)

I’m not sure why Jerzy Skolimowski’s great film about four Poles doing illegal construction work in London isn’t better known. Perhaps it’s because the smirking, vapid TV series with Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd had the same name. Perhaps it’s because the vogue for Eastern European culture in the West disappeared after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s too bad. Moonlighting hasn’t aged at all. It not only stars a young Jeremy Irons at his very best. It’s a rare film that sees the world through the eyes of the working class, from the point of view of the most alienated, marginalized, casual laborers. Rewrite Skolimowski’s Poles as Mexicans. Move the setting to Los Angeles. Cast a good Latino actor who could play the role as well as Irons did in 1982, and the movie would be a major hit today.

Moonlighting is a deceptively simple movie. At the end of 1981, just before General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law on December 13, four Polish construction workers, Banaszak, Kudaj, Wolski, and Nowak fly from Warsaw to London on a tourist visa to renovate a town house for a man referred to only as “the boss.” By hiring Poles and paying them in Zloties, Nowak explains, the boss can get his house in London for a quarter of what it would have cost to hire English workers and pay them in pounds. On the surface, it looks like a good deal for the four men. They get a trip to London. They get paid above the rate they would be getting paid back in Poland. They each get a 20 pound bonus. But the devil is in the details. “The Boss” has given Nowak 1250 pounds for expenses. It sounds like a lot of money. Nowak remarks that it’s more than he’d earn in 25 years in Poland. The problem is that the 1250 pounds must cover not only building supplies, but food, clothing, entertainment, and the 80 pounds Nowak will need to pay the four 20 pound bonuses. Technically it should be enough, but there’s no margin for error. The slightest mistake means they come up short.

Nowak, the only one of the four men who speaks English, is not only the foreman, but a baby sitter, almost a dictator. He has control of the money. The other men – whom he chose because he sees them as dumb, easily manipulated rubes – can’t read the local newspapers, find their way through the labyrinthine metropolis, or communicate with their temporary neighbors. Their only contact with the Polish community, services at the local Polish church, is cut off when Nowak decides that the 20 pounds allotted for “entertainment” would be better spent on a used color TV than on bus fare and the collection plate. The TV breaks 5 minutes after they get it inside. It’s just as well, Nowak decides. They don’t have time to watch TV anyway. Now he can drive the men even harder. Nowak does the shopping. He buys all the building materials. He determines how many hours they’ll all work each day. That they have to finish the job in under a month, the time they’re allowed in the United Kingdom under a tourist visa, means a tight schedule and very little sleep. Nowak is also convinced that “the boss” is fucking with his wife back in Warsaw, and the month long tourist visa. The more stressed out he becomes, the more of a petty tyrant he becomes. Kudaj, Banaszak, and Wolski become virtual prisoners in the town house.

On December 13, when Nowak tries to call his wife in Warsaw, he discovers that all the lines to Poland have been cut off. Jaruzelski has crushed Solidarity and declared martial law. If Kudaj, Banaszak, and Wolski had been virtual prisoners in the boss’s town house, they now become actual prisoners. Nowak decides that if his three companions find out about the declaration of martial law, they won’t be able to finish the renovations on time, that it will be too much of a distraction. He confiscates both keys, and locks them inside on his trips to the local supermarket and the local building supply store. After work on the plumbing goes wrong – they overheat the joints of the pipes and flood the house – there’s no longer enough money to buy food along with the new joints. Even if Nowak could call home to Poland to have “the boss” wire more money, there’s no guarantee he would. So he takes the money for the new joints out of the food budget, eventually developing an elaborate scheme to defraud the local supermarket to make up the difference.

Jerzy Skolimowski understands shoplifting and petty scamming. For the lower working class, shoplifting and petty scamming aren’t the perverse challenge they occasionally are for the bourgeoisie. They’re a way to survive, to supplement a shoestring budget that has no room for error. Nowak the Pole has already noticed that almost everybody in London, a rich, first world city many times as wealthy as his native Warsaw, seems to be shoplifting. The assistant manager at the local supermarket, who bears no small resemblance to Margaret Thatcher, is a petty fascist who lives to humiliate people who steal food. It happens all the time, a young cashier remarks as the police drag off an old woman who gets caught stealing a bottle of gin. But Nowak is a clever shoplifter. He realizes that he can comb through the garbage can, grab a discarded receipt, and steal anything listed on the receipt without putting himself in any danger of arrest. Soon we begin to suspect that he steals, not only to supplement the food budget, but out of some compulsive desire to “beat the system” that’s beating him.

Nowak also begins to steal from his three companions, but not for himself. Indeed, what makes Moonlighting such a penetrating inquiry into the lives of the lower working classes, both under communism and under capitalism, is how clearly it demonstrates that it’s not capitalists or even communist party bosses who oppress workers. It’s other workers. At the beginning of the film when a customs agent casually asks Nowak if he’s a member of Solidarity, he says that no. He’s not. He then remarks to himself that it was the only truthful answer he gave. He’s right. Nowak has no understanding of the concept of “solidarity.”. He’s a complete stooge, utterly committed to his boss, to getting the job done at all costs, eventually trying to steal the 60 pounds set aside for the bonuses of Kudaj, Banaszak, and Wolski to pay for a machine they need to resurface the floors of the townhouse. That finally, at long last, proves to be too much for Kudaj, Banaszak, and Wolski, and they rebel, locking him out of the town house to sleep outside in the cold, forcing him to give them back the money, then beating the ever living shit out of him on the way back to the airport after he tells them about the declaration of martial law back home.

Nowak thoroughly deserves the beating he gets at the hands of his three companions. That we actually feel sorry for him is testament to the brilliant acting of Jeremy Irons. By the end of the film, he’s made us so completely identify with his character that we’ve come to look at Kudaj, Banaszak, and Wolski similar to the way he looks at them, as simpletons who need to be managed by a superior intelligence. I’ve sometimes noticed that English actors make lousy East Europeans. Irons is the exception. He’s not only utterly believable as a Pole. He’s utterly believable as an illegal immigrant. Irons had his breakthrough role as the Oxford student Charles Ryder in the BBC production of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Here he plays a man who jumps at every stray noise, who seems to expect that at any moment he might be arrested and hauled off to jail, who’s embarrassed by his very existence. I don’t even know if he gets the accent right but it doesn’t matter. He’s built the character of Nowak into a complete whole, a man who can represent any illegal immigrant, anywhere, the living embodiment of what Lenin meant when he said “the proletariat has no country.” Moonlighting is a film that understands what capitalism does to the human soul. Find a copy and watch it.

A Very British Coup (1988)

What would happen if Jeremy Corbyn were elected Prime Minister? Would he be allowed to govern? Or would the corporate media, the United States government and the ruling class in the United Kingdom do everything they could to sabotage his government short of a coup?

In 1982, when both Margaret Thatcher, and left-wing discontent with her government were at their height, an activist in the British Labor Party named Chris Mullin published a novel asking pretty much the same question. What would happen if Tony Benn, a veteran socialist politician, and the leader of the Labor Party’s left-wing, rode into 10 Downing Street on a landslide? Moreover, what would happen if he actually tried to keep his promises to the voters, if he rejected neoliberal austerity, demanded that the United States remove its military bases from British soil, and tried to dismantle the United Kingdom’s nuclear arsenal? Mullin’s novel, A Very British Coup, was made into a TV mini-series in 1988, and shown in the United States the next year. I was very impressed with it during its first run, but since I hadn’t seen it in 25 years, I decided to watch it again, and see how well it’s aged. You can see it on Hulu, but you need a subscription.

It hasn’t aged at all. In fact, I was surprised at just how good it is. It’s a well-acted, crisply-written, brilliantly directed little move about how the “deep state,” the intelligence agencies and permanent bureaucracy of the British government, team up with the United States government and the big media to bring down a democratically elected politician. It’s like John Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May, if Frankenheimer had not been afraid to talk about class. It’s like Oliver Stone’s JFK, if Stone had any idea how to properly edit and pace one of his movies. A Very British Coup doesn’t have a boring moment. It really doesn’t. It’s over two hours long but it feels like it goes by in 15 minutes. It makes its point and gets right to the point. It’s also great leftist propaganda. You don’t come out of A Very British Coup wanting to have a drink. Unless you’re a reactionary or a complete fool, you come out of A Very British coup wanting to storm the Bastille and set up a guillotine in the middle of Times Square. Fuck the rich. Fuck their deep state and above all fuck their bloody newspapers.

Harry Perkins, the novel’s Jeremy Corbyn, is an ex-steelworker from Sheffield with a coarse north of England accent. Perkins is no John F. Kennedy. He’s a man of the working class, for the working class, and from the working class. After he rides into office in the wake of a banking scandal – yes I said banking scandal – with an overwhelming landslide, the ruling classes dismiss him as a fool. Maybe he’ll just turn out to be like every other Labor Party politician, a half-hearted socialist willing to compromise his principles as soon as he begins to get little taste of power. But Harry Perkins is no fool, and he’s not easily compromised. In fact, he plays Lawrence Wainwright, the Oxbridge educed leader of the centrist wing of the party, like a violin, sending him on a wild-goose chase to negotiate a bailout with the International Monetary Fund, even while he’s got his foreign minister, a leftist ex-schoolteacher named Tom Newsome, negotiating a better deal with a Russian bank in Stockholm.

These days, Russian banks lend money to fascists like Marine Le Pen, but in Mullin’s novel and in the mini-series they lend money to the socialist Harry Perkins, money that doesn’t come with an austerity program attached to it. When Perkins announces the deal on national TV, both Wainwright, and Sir Percy Brown – think of him as Allen Dulles with a British accent – realize they’ve lost the first round. Steelworker from Sheffield 1. British ruling class 0. But the British ruling class is only getting started. They now turn to the media. Tom Newsome may be a brilliant negotiator who speaks four languages, a leftist who’s utterly loyal to Harry Perkins, but he’s also a man who’s gotten into the habit of “thinking with the wrong head.” After the newspapers publish photos of him kissing a woman not his wife – and one with tenuous ties to the IRA – Perkins asks for his resignation. The score is now tied.

If the British ruling class has MI-5 and the CIA, Harry Perkins has his own intelligences service in Frederick Thompson, his press secretary, and Liz Fain, a computer programmer and Thompson’s upper-class girlfriend. It was Liz, Julian Assange before his time, who had originally rooted out the smoking gun for the bank scandal that put the Labor Party back into power. Thompson and Liz prove indispensable when the deep state make its next play, Smith, a bought and paid for labor union president who’s been making lecture tours in the United States over the past few years. Yes, apparently they bribed people with speaker’s fees back then too. After Smith teams up with Wainwright to call a strike that brings down the electrical power grid, Liz Fain and Jerry Thompson discover that both have connections to a shady American diplomat named Chambers, and through her to the CIA. Perkins takes the information to Wainwright and Smith, and promises to expose them if they don’t put the power back up. Smith goes back to his union, and Perkins transfers Wainwright from the treasury department to an obscure post in Northern Ireland.

With the score Harry Perkins 2, and the ruling class 1, Perkins decides to go on the offensive. The Americans can hardly believe it when they realize he’s serious about his demand that they remove their military bases from British soil. Perkins also turns to Sir Montague Kowalsky, a nuclear scientist and the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, to carry out his plan for unilateral nuclear disarmament. Kowalsky, a Holocaust survivor, and man who understands the horror of war, not only supports Perkins, he’s also got a spotless past. Neither Sir Percy nor the media can find anything on him. After a trial run dismantling a nuclear warhead on national TV proves to be a great success, Sir Percy and his friends in the American government decide they’ve fooled around long enough. The time for propaganda and media smears is over. They’ve got no dirt on Kowalsky. He’s got nothing to lose. He’s two years away from retirement age. They can’t talk him out of his support for unilateral nuclear disarmament. They can’t scare the people with the big bad Soviet Union– one of Perkins’ cabinet members points out that since the United Kingdom is on an island and the French have nukes anyway the British military really doesn’t need their own – so they have him killed. Harry Perkins 2. Ruling class 2.

With the score tied, Sir Percy and the media decide to move in for the kill. It’s time to get rid of Harry Perkins once and for all. For the past few weeks before Kowalsky’s death, the newspapers have been running stories about Perkins’ health. Perkins is in perfect health, but since when has truth ever stopped the newspapers from writing a story? It’s really only background noise anyway designed to prepare the ground for Sir Percy’s final move. A decade before, Harry Perkins had had an affair with a woman named Helen Jarvis. Perkins is unmarried but he’s clearly not gay. The newspapers would have obviously run with that story had he been. Helen Jarvis, however, is married to the head of the financial services company that had arranged the loan from the Russians. There was nothing illegal, or even improper, about their participation in the deal, but it does create the appearance of impropriety, as do the forged bank notes proving that Jarvis’ company had deposited 300,000 pounds in a Swiss bank under the name Harry Perkins. The final scene of A Very British Coup is riveting. Sir Percy comes to 10 Downing Street to blackmail Harry Perkins. Resign for “health reasons,” he tells the Prime Minister, and he’ll bury the story about the alleged bribes. Sir Percy is an excellent villain. He’s also terrified of Perkins, seeing in him the man who just might destroy the British ruling class forever. He’s doing it for his ancestors, “yea all the way back to the Middle Ages.”

A Very British Coup ends with the score still tied at Harry Perkins 2. Ruling class 2. Perkins appears to take Sir Percy’s deal but it’s a ruse. Harry Perkins has ancestors too, specifically a grandfather who was killed in an industrial accident and left his family in poverty, uncompensated by the insurance companies. Harry Perkins is a real class warrior who’s not going down without a fight. Instead of announcing his resignation, he takes to the TV airwaves, and, like Charles de Gaulle in 1962, calls the people into the streets. Well, actually he calls for a general election. “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” Sir Percy says out loud to a British Army general, echoing Henry II’s suggestion that his knights murder Thomas Becket. We flash ahead to the day of the election. The TV stations talk of a “constitutional crises.” We hear the sound of helicopters. There’s a report about an earthquake in Chile, a country where another socialist politician had been taken out by a coup d’etat 15 years before. In his attempt to blackmail Harry Perkins, Sir Percy talked about a bloodless coup by media, a “very British coup,” as he phrased it. As the credits role we wonder whether or not Sir Percy managed to organize the real thing.

Man of Iron (1981)

In 1976 the renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda released a film called Man of Marble. Starring Krystyna Janda as Agnieszka, a young filmmaker based loosely on his assistant Agnieszka Holland, Man of Marble had a complex narrative structure modeled on Citizen Kane, a technique the cagey Wajda used to get around Communist Party censorship. Unlike Welles’ Jerry Thompson, Agnieszka was not looking for the secret past of a well-known man, Charles Foster Kane, a multi-millionaire press baron and politician, but rather the secret history of her country’s past as embodied by an obscure man named Mateusz Birkut. Birkut was a construction worker who had gotten his 15 minutes of fame in the 1950s for the Stakhanovite feat of laying a record number of bricks during the construction of Nowa Huta, a gigantic housing project outside of Kraków. Then he had simply disappeared from history. It was a clever approach. The Polish government couldn’t easily censor their best-known filmmaker’s decision to make a movie honoring a hero right out of the Stalinist tradition of socialist realism. Birkut’s difficult personality, however, the fact that he turned out to be an angry malcontent, allowed Wajda to criticize the corrupt Polish establishment without openly breaking with communism.

In September of 1980, 17,000 workers at the Lenin Shipyards in the Baltic port city of Gdansk went out on strike. Led by a 37-year-old electrician named Lech Wałesa, the Gdansk strike sparked a social movement with demands that went beyond wages, bread and butter to the idea of independent trade unions and multi-party social democracy. For a filmmaker like Andrzej Wajda the rise of Solidarity meant an almost western level of artistic freedom. Suddenly the Polish government had more important things to worry about than whether or not a movie toed the communist party line or not. Wajda, who was never really satisfied with Man of Marble, decided to remake it. Racing against time – he was much too smart not to realize that while the one party state in Poland was doomed, the end wouldn’t come in 1980 or 1981– he quickly assembled a film crew and a cast that included both Krystyna Janda and Jerzy Radziwiłowicz, who played Man of Marble’s Mateusz Birkut. Man of Iron, which came out in July of 1981, was released just in time. Although it would go on to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, it was banned in Poland after Wojciech Jaruzelski’s December 1981 declaration of martial law, and wouldn’t be seen again in its home country until the end of communism in 1989.

If Man of Marble is the Polish Citizen Kane, the Man of Iron is the Polish Medium Cool, Haskell Wexler’s revolutionary film about the 1968 police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Like Wexler, Wajda creates a fictional cast of characters then throws them into what will soon become an important historical event, filming while the story is still on the evening news, letting his actors get lost in a crowd of historical actors until they become part of the very history they witness. Unlike Wexler, who was a great cameraman but not necessarily a great screenwriter, Wajda is not only witnessing a genuine revolution (as opposed to a violent police riot). His characters have already been fully developed in an earlier movie. The result is something we haven’t seen since the Golden Age of Hollywood, when real life western legends teamed up with cinematic geniuses like John Ford, or the Second World War, when Sergei Eisenstein filmed Ivan the Terrible even as the Soviet Army was holding the line at Moscow and Leningrad against the Nazi invasion.

Man of Marble’s Agnieszka was a heroic character, an artist who wouldn’t compromise her principles to get ahead. Although she reappears in Man of Iron, she is replaced as the narrative anchor by a character named Winkel. Played by Marian Opania, Winkel is anything but heroic. Critical of the state as a very young man, Winkel has become not only a reliable propagandist for Communist Party television, but a wretched, self-hating alcoholic. He knows his life is a sham, but he can’t find the strength to rebel. After the strike erupts at the Lenin Shipyards, however, and all of Gdansk becomes a no-go area for the Communist Party, Winkel suddenly becomes useful, as a snitch. Indeed, even though he’s a 1970s communist journalist in Poland, Winkel seems remarkably like a corporate reporter assigned to cover Occupy Wall Street in New York in 2011. His employers at the television station, feeling that his past as a half-hearted dissident might get him into the Lenin shipyards – where the strikers have banned Polish state owned media – give him a bottle of vodka, a bag of money, rent him a hotel room, and assign him to dig up dirt on Maciej Tomczyk, Wajda’s fictional stand in for Lech Wałesa and, as it turns out, the son of Man of Marble’s Mateusz Birkut. For Wajda to put himself into the shoes of a compromised little worm like Winkel instead someone like Haskell Wexler’s rebel cameraman John John Cassellis is a radical move. Poland’s greatest filmmaker is abasing himself before the revolution, apologizing for the compromises he has made over the decades to get by the censors, admitting that there’s a fine line between documenting an uprising and being a snitch. It’s too bad those two little assholes at the University of Missouri couldn’t have recognized the same thing.

As Winkel half heartedly attempts to carry out his job as a provocateur an informer, he follows the same path Agnieszka did in Man of Marble, uncovering the buried past, Citizen Kane style, through a series of extended interviews, learning the history of Maciej Tomczyk the way Agnieszka learned the history of Mateusz Birkut. Winkel’s first interview is with Dzidek, an old friend of Maciej from his university days who Winkel once helped to land a job in television. We learn about Maciej’s stormy relationship with his father. Played by the same actor, they are lookalikes. Wajda manages to use body doubles, cutting, pasting and editing to make their arguments look realistic. In 1968, we learn, there was a general strike by Poland’s university students, a strike Mateusz and the workers at the Lenin Shipyard refused to support because they were sure it would fail. Two years later, in 1970, a similar strike by the workers themselves failed, partly because the university students decided to sit it out. They were still angry the workers hadn’t supported them in 1968. After Winkel moves on from Dzidek to Wiesława Hulewicz, an elderly woman who witnessed the events surrounding the strike in 1970, we learn the secret that Wajda was never able to tell us in Man of Marble, that he could only hint at lest his film be suppressed by government censors. Mateusz Birkut had not only been murdered, along with dozens of other strikers, by the police. The communist party had dug up his grave and moved his body in order that his final resting place couldn’t become a rallying point for future dissidents. In the 1950s, Mateusz Birkut had his 15 minutes of fame as a Stakhanovite worker. When he proved himself to have too much integrity to be used for state propaganda, he was sent back into proletarian obscurity. When he tried to organize his fellow workers, he was shot, then thrown into an unmarked grave, disappeared as though he had never existed. Such was the fate of independent minded proletarians under Polish communism.

When Winkel moves on to Maciej’s mother and then finally Agnieszka, who had married Maciej, we learn how he became the driving force behind Wajda’s fictionalized Gdansk strike, even as his alter ego, the historical Lech Wałesa, became the driving force behind the real Gdansk strike. I don’t know enough about Polish history to discuss how close the fictional Maciej is to the historical Walesa, or how differently their efforts as organizing their fellow workers may have been, but Maciej’s political agitation takes on an added urgency. If the 1980 strike fails the way the strikes in 1968 and 1970 did, he may be headed for the same end as his father, a bullet in the head and an unmarked grave. Wajda quite obviously had no way of knowing in the Summer and Fall of 1980 how the Gdansk strike would end, if Solidarity would succeed in establishing itself as an independent, non-governmental trade union or not, but he ends on a hopeful, if sobering note. Agnieszka is released from prison and Solidarity pressures the Polish government into recognizing them as a legitimate labor union. We also learn during a meeting between Winkel and his now ex-boss that the government has no intention of keeping the agreement they just made. Indeed, that’s what happened. Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law in December of 1981, banned Solidarity, rolled back the artistic freedom that Wajda enjoyed while filming Man of Iron, and subjected Poland to a final 8 years of neo-Stalinist rule before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

Nevertheless, we also realize that the one-party state is doomed. By the time Winkel is finally unmasked as a snitch, he’s no longer a snitch. He has thrown in his lot with the uprising and quit his job at the TV station. We can see why. Throughout Man of Iron, we observe how a doomed struggle for democracy, civil liberties and artistic freedom is more rewarding than to be on the side of the oppressors, even if the oppressors win. I do not know if Wajda was familiar with Haskell Wexler’s work, with either his fictionalized documentary Medium Cool, or his ground breaking use of natural light in Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven, but his decision to film Man of Iron mostly just before sunset and just after sunrise indites that he was working along the same lines. Wajda shoots his party bureaucrats and state propagandists mostly indoors, mostly under artificial lighting. The effect is to flatten state power, to make the oppressor look drab. Initially we Winkel under the same lighting. As he takes his spiritual journey through the past and present in Gdansk, however, we begin to see him more and more “in the same light” as Maciej and Agnieszka, in the “golden hour” just before the sun comes up and just before it goes down. We remember the film’s opening, a woman reading a poem by Czesław Miłosz. We realize that the film has come full circle. Winkel no longer has a job. But he has moved from the matrix of the communist state into the world of flesh and blood, from the a way of seeing the world imposed upon you by power and propaganda into seeing the world with your own eyes.

Hope

Hope is with you when you believe
The earth is not a dream but living flesh,
that sight, touch, and hearing do not lie,
That all things you have ever seen here
Are like a garden looked at from a gate.

You cannot enter. But you’re sure it’s there.
Could we but look more clearly and wisely
We might discover somewhere in the garden
A strange new flower and an unnamed star.

Some people say that we should not trust our eyes,
That there is nothing, just a seeming.
They are the ones who have no hope.
They think the moment we turn away,
The world, behind our backs, ceases to exist,
As if snatched up by the hand of thieves.

The Day of the Jackal (1973)

In his review Executive Action, Dalton Trumbo’s masterpiece about the Kennedy assassination, the reliably clueless Roger Ebert compares it unfavorably to another 1973 film about the attempted assassination of another world leader. “There’s something exploitative and unseemly in the way this movie takes the real blood and anguish and fits it neatly into a semi-documentary thriller,” he says. “That wasn’t the case with Fred Zinnemann’s movie about a plot against De Gaulle, “The Day of the Jackal” (which has finally made it to the Loop after months in the neighborhoods). We knew that was fiction from the beginning; it was well-paced, the characters were brilliantly drawn and we were entertained. But “Executive Action” doesn’t seem much to want to entertain.”

While there’s no conscious intent, either by Ebert, or by Zinnemann, to bury the tenth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination in an avalanche of mindless entertainment, Robert Ebert had a sensibility that was exquisitely attuned to the needs of the corporate establishment. It was inevitable that Hollywood would try to come to terms with the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and Malcolm X. It was also inevitable that the kind of writer who would eventually become rich and famous marketing a dumbed down version of film criticism for network TV would try to steer people away from a painful confrontation with recent American history towards a big budget European dream vacation disguised as a political thriller. That’s all well and good. The Day of the Jackal is a well-made, entertaining movie that quite skilfully transforms the narrative sensibilities of the novel into the language of cinema. But it’s also a chilling, authoritarian argument for statism, a clever pitch for what would later become known as the “war on terror.”

On the surface, The Day of the Jackal is a leftist, or at least a liberal film. The bad guys are the OAS, a conspiracy of right-wing extremists inside the French Army, and a cold, sociopathic, professional assassin from the United Kingdom played by Edward Fox, the “Jackal.” Charles de Gaulle was an authoritarian, and probably a conservative, but that’s not why the Organisation de l’armée secrète wanted to kill him. In 1962, he did what no previous government had dared. He granted Algeria its independence, something that immediately made him public enemy number one among the 3 million French citizens still in Algeria, and among a large faction of die hard French nationalists inside the army. The Day of the Jackal opens up with a fictionalized account of a real assassination attempt the OAS had made on de Gaulle on August 22, 1962. As he was travelling to Orly Airport, 12 OAS gunmen opened fire with machine guns, and riddled his Citroen DS 19 with 140 bullets. Fortunately for de Gaulle he had something John F. Kennedy lacked, a crack security team determined to save his life. Even though all four tires had been shot out, his driver hit the gas and managed to speed away to safety. The ring-leader of the conspiracy Jean Bastien-Thiry was shot for treason the next year.

The Day of the Jackal then leaves the semi-fiction for the just plain fictional. After the OAS realizes that de Gaulle’s secret service has them riddled with informers and provocateurs, their top leaders decide to go to an outsider, a blond, blue-eyed professional killer we know only by his code name “The Jackal.” They agree to pay him 500,000 Francs to kill de Gaulle, a price he rightfully points out, is a bargain. Each of the assassins in Executive Action got 125,000 dollars in a Swiss bank account and 25,000 dollars a year for life. The OAS is getting a lot for its money. Indeed, if the Warren Commission decided that John F. Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, a “lone nut,” the Jackal would more accurately be described as “a lone superman.” Roger Ebert argues that The Day of the Jackal is “put together like a fine watch” and “unfolds in almost documentary starkness.” That’s nonsense. The film is pure fantasy, enjoyable fantasy to be sure, but fantasy nonetheless. Where in Executive Action Dalton Trumbo shows us how much planning goes into a conspiracy to kill a head of state, and how many things could have gone wrong, The Day of the Jackal surrenders any logic its plot may have had to whatever emotions drive The Jackal to want to kill the President of France, even after his cover is blown, and he could easily walk away scot free with a quarter of a million Francs. The Jackal, like Osama Bin Laden, or ISIS, is the malevolent terrorist of our worst nightmares. He kills for the sake of killing. He has seemingly unlimited resources. He’s everywhere and nowhere. The only thing that can stop him is the powerful French state.

The character of the Jackal’s nemesis, Detective Claude Lebel, is as deceptive as the character of The Jackal himself. A rumpled middle-aged man played by Michael Londsale, Lebel appears to be a quiet, unassuming, even ineffectual little nebbish, but he’s actually a one-man Patriot Act, Dirty Harry with a pot belly. After de Gaulle’s secret service learns of the plot by kidnapping and torturing an OAS courier – the film is an unambiguous argument for the effectiveness of torture – Lebel is given “special powers” to do whatever he has to do to stop the assassination. He roots out an informer by wire tapping the entire high command of the French police. He establishes a network of mass surveillance, confiscating the guest registers of all the hotels in Paris and in the south of France, held back only by the technology available in 1973. Lebel would have loved 2016’s NSA. We hear “papers please” so many times in so many beautiful French cities that after awhile it just begins to feel more chic and European than fascist. In fact, we want those French police officers to stop acting like democratic sissies and do more than just ask for The Jackal’s papers. We want them to shoot the bastard in the head. Finally, at a Liberation Day ceremony, where the grandeur of the French state is put on full display – the final sequence of The Day of the Jackal was filmed at a real Liberation Day Parade – Lebel manages to kill The Jackal, who up until then had stayed one perilous step head of the police. They never find out his real name.

“Who was he?” a British police official wonders out loud, not answering his own question but leaving no doubt in the viewer’s mind what he stood for, the abstract principle of “terrorism,” something we’ll be at war with, forever.

Final Note: Wolfgang Petersen’s 1993 film In the Line of Fire — with Clint Eastwood in the Claude Lebel role and John Malcovich as an Americanized Jackal — is an obvious rip off of The Day of the Jackal right down to the nifty home-made gun.  Malcovich is a much better villain than Edward Fox. “I want some goddamned respect!” Eastwood is pretty lame.

Executive Action (1973)

Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted communist screenwriter recently portrayed by Bryan Cranston in the film Trumbo, had such a long and varied career in film that it’s hard to keep track of all the screenplays he wrote. His last film was also the very first Kennedy assassination conspiracy film. A low-budget dramatization of Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgement, and starring Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan, Executive Action was released in 1973 on the tenth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, and quickly pulled from theaters because of bad reviews. While it would probably be an exaggeration to say that Trumbo’s film was “suppressed,” there’s no question that many of the critics let their outrage over the subject matter get the better of their love of cinema. Dalton Trumbo couldn’t write a bad film if he tried. Executive Action is a masterpiece.

It’s not so much that Executive Action’s tightly knit conspiracy of Texas oil millionaires, mercenaries, and professional killers is true to history, or even plausible. It’s certainly plausible – whether or not it’s true to history only history can ultimately decide – but in many ways it doesn’t really matter. The Kennedy assassination is almost a McGuffin. What gives Executive Action its punch is the way Dalton Trumbo dramatizes the banality of evil. Except for one shocking and genocidal outburst against the people of the global south, James Farrington and Robert Foster never express any personal hatred of John F. Kennedy, or of the liberalism he represented. What makes Executive Action so shocking, and what probably motivated all those film critics to campaign for its suppression, is not just that the villains are square-jawed, white Anglo Saxon Protestants. It’s that they’re so obviously not villains. Like the Navy pilots who dropped napalm on civilians in Vietnam, or the scientists who developed the atomic bomb, they are cool, competent professionals “just doing their job.” We follow Foster and Farrington through the motions of training two kill teams exactly the way we’d follow a corporate training video at GM designed to teach us how to manufacture a new type of car. We develop an emotional interest in the job. We admire the thoroughness of the planning, the methodical way they try to isolate and neutralize possible mistakes. We want to see them succeed. After they do succeed in blowing John F. Kennedy’s brains out, we want to see them get away.

Then we remember who they killed.

Executive Action was made for under a million dollars, and director David Miller made extensive use of newsreels and archival photographs. In many ways, it’s a cut and paste job. Robert Ryan and Burt Lancaster, who had previously played a fascist, anti-Kennedy general in the earlier Seven Days in May, acted in the film out of love, not the love of money. The bargain basement quality of the sets, in fact, add to the movie’s impact. David Miller and Dalton Trumbo know how to do a lot with a little. Executive Action doesn’t look like a cheaply made movie so much as a movie that has managed to get under the glossy illusion of American life that Hollywood, and indeed the Kennedys, represented. We see the world that Lee Harvey Oswald, who’s portrayed as a government patsy Foster and Farrington snatched out from under the CIA to be their own patsy, lived in. Robert Foster’s angry rant about how the people of the global south, blacks, Asians and Hispanics, were all “determined to love,” to breed and swamp Europe and North Americans with their dark skinned offspring seemingly comes out of nowhere, but once it’s past we realize it’s the angry rage for control and domination that’s always lurking under the polite facade of the American ruling class. Lee Harvey Oswald, an insignificant little communist, is carefully set up to be the fall guy for the murder of John F. Kennedy, but even if there were no Texas oil millionaire conspiracy, no well-trained mercenaries, the film conveys the way a nobody like Oswald quite possibly could have committed the assassination. The double that Farrington and Foster tap to poison the well, to travel through Texas and Louisiana picking fights and making a fool of himself in order to make it believable that Oswald could have been a murderer, is the dark shadow that lurks inside every frustated little American nebbish, the Dylan and Klebold, the Elliot Rodger, the Adam Lanza inside all of us.

Final Note: During Executive Action’s short run in American movie theaters – it was pulled in 1973, banned from television, and not seen again until the release of Oliver Stone’s JFK – people who bought tickets were also given a handout that not only summarized Mark Lane’s criticism of the Warren Commission, but pointed out the near statistical impossibility that so many witnesses to John F. Kennedy’s assassination could have died so shortly afterwards. I have no idea how accurate the handout was, and I don’t know very much about statistics, but the film itself is at its weakest when it tries to fit every little detail about the Kennedy assassination into an all embracing conspiracy theory. Lee Harvey Oswald lives. Farrington and Foster are dismayed and send one of their employees to tie up the “loose end,” to try convince Jack Ruby to kill Oswald in prison. Ruby does the deed, but it’s not convincing. Trumbo and Miller could have just as easily left the role of Jack Ruby to the viewer’s imagination. It’s not the role of the artist to determine whether something is true to history, or even if it was plausible, but to create an independent world that mirrors and reflects back upon and critiques reality. In Executive Action, Dalton Trumbo and David Miller largely succeed. The handout would have been an independent production that would have succeeded, or failed, on its own.

All The President’s Men (1976) Silent Coup (1992)

When it comes to the three most traumatic events of recent United States history, the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, and 9/11, there is a vast gulf between the political and media elites, and the American people. For the elites, the Kennedy assassination was about Lee Harvey Oswald, a none nut who hated John F. Kennedy for his money and power. 9/11 was about the inspiring leadership of George W. Bush. “He kept us safe.” And Watergate was about two crusading Washington Post reporters who saved The United States of America from Richard Nixon. Democracy worked. For the American people, it’s always been a lot more complex. There will probably be conspiracy theories about what happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963 and in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001 for as long as the United States exists, and probably long after that. Whatever evidence that could have answered all the questions that the Warren Commission and the 9/11 Commission Report left unanswered is long gone.

Unlike the Kennedy assassination or 9/11, Watergate has always had an enigmatic quality that only seems to get more enigmatic as it fades into the past. Even if you don’t believe the Warren Commission or the 9/11 Commission Report, there’s nothing very mysterious about the the events of November 22, 1963 and September 11, 2001. The President of the United States got his brains blown out. Someone destroyed the two biggest skyscrapers in the western hemisphere and killed 3000 people. But Watergate? What was that all about? The break in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Office Complex on on Saturday, June 17, 1972 seems more comic than anything else. Four Miami Cubans and a washed up CIA operative with rubber gloves, a walkie talkie and a pair of 35mm cameras trying to bug the McGovern campaign? It sounds like a Saturday Night Live skit. Yet what people originally dismissed as a “second rate burglary” had real consequences. There was an extensive investigation. People went to jail. Even though he had recently been reelected by a convincing landslide, the President of the United States was forced to resign.

You won’t learn much by watching All the President’s Men, Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 dramatization of the 1974 book by by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. In fact, unless you already know the history of the Watergate scandal, you’ll probably just scratch your head in confusion trying to follow the plot. But you sure do find out how cool it is to be a newspaper reporter, and what great men Bernstein, Woodward, and Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee were. A space alien who got his entire history of the planet earth from All the President’s Men could be forgiven if he came to the conclusion that humanity could be divided into two categories, superior beings called “newspaper reporters” — who were either earnest young men in their twenties or cranky yet wise middle-aged veterans — and a race of shifty, rat like, scuttling, terrified and secretive beings called “government employees.” The scene where the lordly Ben Bradlee, Jason Robards, puts his feet up on a desk, leans back and critically slices and dices an article by Woodward, Robert Redford, and Bernstein, Dustin Hoffman, is worth the price of admission alone. Jason Robards was 5’8” but he looks like he was 6’4”. Like Redford and Hoffman, we are mesmerized by the presence of his character, Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee, a direct descendant of Heinrich XXIX, Count of Reuss-Ebersdorf, a king among his courtiers. They don’t make liberal elites like that any more.

From the men who broke the Watergate scandal to the deferential stooges who helped George W. Bush lie American into Iraq, how could the fifth estate have fallen so far so fast? According to Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin, who authored Silent Coup, the partially suppressed and now largely forgotten revisionist history of the fall of Richard Nixon, the legend of the heroic Woodward and Bernstein is just that, a legend. You won’t find the usual cast of ogres in Silent Coup. Nixon, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, John Mitchell and Charles Colson come off more like incompetent corporate executives, oblivious to the way their badly managed company is being snatched out from under them by their subordinates, than threats to American democracy. The villains of Silent Coup, the slimy, manipulative John Dean, and the backstabbing, tinhorn, authoritarian, militarist Alexander Haig appear nowhere in the film All the President’s Men. While both are well known – John Dean has recently come back into public life as a liberal critic of George W. Bush and Haig served as Secretary of State during the Reagan Administration – and have never been particularly popular, Colodny and Gettlin see them as figures of an almost Shakespearean evil. Dean, who plays Iago to Richard Nixon’s Othello, was so outraged by Silent Coup he sued both authors, twice.

Silent Coup is not a well-written book. It took all the energy I could muster to push my way though all 500 pages, and I suspect that its obscurity owes as much to its convoluted, unfocused style as it does to John Dean’s lawsuit. To its credit, however, it does have a perfectly coherent theory of the Watergate affair. Silent Coup begins with an almost totally forgotten prelude to Watergate. In 1970 and 1971, Admiral Thomas Moorer, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, frustrated by the way Richard Nixon tried to go around the Pentagon and the State Department and use the National Security Council – an end run that put Henry Kissinger in de facto control of the military and of foreign policy – operated a spy ring out of the Pentagon against the White House. Navy Yeoman Charles Radford, a low-level Pentagon courier cloaked from public view by obscurity, stole top secret NSC documents for his immediate superiors Admiral Rembrandt Robinson and Admiral Robert Welander. After Radford was caught, Nixon and Kissinger covered up for Thomas Moorer, burying a potential scandal so as not to further weaken the reputation of the United States military, already damaged by the war in Vietnam.

The real mastermind behind the Pentagon’s spy ring turned out not to be Thomas Moorer, Rembrandt Robinson or Robert Welander, but Haig, who as Kissinger’s deputy at the National Security Council made it easy for Radford to steal whatever he wanted. In 1970 and 1971 Alexander Haig was, in effect, a Pentagon mole in the White House. All the while that Haig was trying to undermine Nixon’s opening to China and Kissinger’s peace talks in Vietnam, John Wesley Dean was trying to wrest control of the day to day operation of the White House from Haldeman, Mitchell, Ehrlichman and Charles Colson. After Dean consolidated Nixon’s dirty tricks and domestic intelligence operations (basically Cointelpro run out of the West Wing) under his control, he learned that there was a call girl operation being run out of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate. Hoping to dig up dirt on the Democrats, he sent in a team of burglars led by the former FBI man (and current right-wing psycho radio talk show host) G. Gordon Liddy and the perpetually fascinating CIA operative E. Howard Hunt. Hunt is the Zelig of post-War American politics. If there was something slimy going on between 1945 and 1980, Hunt was probably there. In any event Hunt and Liddy were successful in digging up dirt on the Democratic Party. To John Dean’s horror, however, they also managed to dig up dirt on a prominent Republican, himself.

John Dean’s girlfriend Maureen, an ex-prostitute, used to work with the very same call girl ring that was now operating out of the DNC. This put the young White House lawyer in a difficult situation. If word of his girlfriend’s profession got out to the general public, it would destroy his promising career, a career which had already led him to getting virtual control of the White House at the tender age of 34. Why did 5 men being run out of the White House break into the Watergate a second time? Why did attempt to bug the hapless McGovern campaign? It had less to do with wanting to destroy the DNC, which was already destroying itself, then it did with Dean’s urge to get control of his girlfriend’s past, to sweep the DNC headquarters for any more signs of Maureen’s membership in the world’s oldest profession, and put a bug in place to monitor what happened after that. Sadly, and more sadly for the Nixon administration than for Dean himself, the second break in was much less successful than the first. A security guard discovered a door in the Watergate parking garage taped up. He called the cops, and the rest is history.

Enter Bob Woodward. In 1969 and 1970, Woodward, a Yale graduate and naval veteran who had recently landed the job at the Washington Post, worked out of the Pentagon as a “briefer,” a young officer who would summarize and then present military intelligence to the National Security Council. According to Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin, and vehemently disputed by Woodward himself, the senior White House official Woodward was charged with briefing was none other than Alexander Haig. Colodny and Gettlin, as far as I know, never managed to get any confirmation from Haig himself but did get Admiral Thomas Moorer to go on the record saying that Woodward had indeed briefed Kissinger’s deputy at the NSC. According to Silent Coup, when news of the Watergate break in hit the Washington Post, Haig saw his chance to get rid of Richard Nixon and the troublesome Henry Kissinger, becoming one of the people who made up the character of Deep Throat. Deep Throat in 1991 was widely considered to be a composite. Mark Felt’s coming out as Deep Throat in 2005 has obviously weakened Silent Coup’s main argument, but it hasn’t, to my mind, totally destroyed it. After the Watergate story “broke,” Haig, according to Colodny and Gettlin become Woodward’s source, manipulating the young Washington Post reporter in a way that not only brought down Richard Nixon, but insured that the story of Moorer/Radford spy ring never received the kind of wide exposure that would have destroyed his own career. Haig had, in fact, especially after Dean’s resignation, managed to gain such complete control of the White House that he, not Richard Nixon, was the real author of the Saturday Night Massacre, replacing the independent-minded Elliot Richardson and Archibald Cox with the pliable and easily manipulated Leon Jaworski.

Silent Coup argues that Alexander Haig continued to manipulate the fallout from the Watergate Scandal right through the Nixon resignation and the Ford pardon, determined to make sure there would never be impeachment hearings, which would have uncovered the Moorer/Radford spy ring, and his own role in the downfall of Richard Nixon. Was Haig the ultimate villain of the Watergate Scandal? Perhaps he was. Perhaps he wasn’t. In the end, I don’t think it matters. By 1974, the American elites were in full damage control mode. So they threw Richard Nixon to the wolves in order to head off a full scale uprising from a population that was in a rebellious mood over the long Vietnam War and the Kent State Massacre. Then, after they gave the people their blood, they snatched the corpse of the Nixon administration out from under the angry mob to make sure there would never be a real autopsy. Silent Coup is a poorly written book, and for all I know it could be nothing more than fiction, but it does succeed in pointing out how the Watergate Scandal has never really gotten the investigation it really deserved. The elites pulled a fast one on the American people, then, like Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black, waived the magic wand and made us forget it ever happened.

Drugging a Nation: The Story of China and the Opium Curse (1908)

“The mischief is in China; the money is in India.”

In 1907, Samuel Merwin, an American playwright and journalist, traveled to China to write a series of articles on the Opium trade. They were published year later in Success, a magazine where he himself served as an associate editor. That Merwin, unlike other progressive journalists of the era, has largely been forgotten, might have something to do with his subject. Even as we fight the “war on drugs,” we like to forget how important opium is to the history of laissez faire capitalism. From 1842. when a fleet of warships owned and operated by the East India Company opened up China to “free” trade, right up until the First World War,  opium paid for the British Raj in India. Napoleon famously said that the English were a nation of shopkeepers. It’s probably more accurate to say that they’re a nation of drug dealers. Unlike the present day media, Samuel Merwin doesn’t pull his punches. Drugging a Nation lays the responsibility for the “opium curse” right where it belongs, at the feet capitalism.

The most Mr. Clean Hands has been able to say for himself is that, “Opium is a fiscal, not a moral question;” or this, that “In the present state of the revenue of India, it does not appear advisable to abandon so important a source of revenue.” After all, China is a long way off. So much for Mr. Clean Hands! His partner, Dirty Hands, is more interesting. It is he who has “built up the trade.” It is he who has carried on the smuggling and the bribing and knifing and shooting and all-round, strong-arm work which has made the trade what it is. To be sure, as we get on in this narrative we shall not always find the distinction between Clean and Dirty so clear as we would like. Through the dust and smoke and red flame of all that dirty business along “the Coast” we shall glimpse for an instant or so, now and then, a face that looks distressingly like the face of old Respectability himself. I have found myself in momentary bewilderment when walking through the splendid masonry-lined streets of Hong Kong, when sitting beneath the frescoed ceiling of that pinnacled structure that houses the most nearly Christian of parliaments, trying to believe that this opium drama can be real. And I have wondered, and puzzled, until a smell like the smell of China has come floating to the nostrils of memory; until a picture of want and disease and misery–of crawling, swarming human misery unlike anything which the untraveled Western mind can conceive–has appeared before the eyes of memory. I have thought of those starving thousands from the famine districts creeping into Chinkiang to die, of those gaunt, seemed faces along the highroad that runs southwestward from Peking to Sian-fu; I have thought of a land that knows no dentistry, no surgery, no hygiene, no scientific medicine, no sanitation; of a land where the smallpox is a lesser menace beside the leprosy, plague, tuberculosis, that rage simply at will, and beside famines so colossal in their sweep, that the overtaxed Western mind simply refuses to comprehend them. And De Quincey’s words have come to me: “What was it that drove me into the habitual use of opium? Misery—blank desolation–settled and abiding darkness—-?” These words help to clear it up. China was a wonderful field, ready prepared for the ravages of opium–none better. The mighty currents of trade did the rest. The balance sheet reigned supreme as by right. The balance sheet reigns to-day.”

Drugging a Nation: The Story of China and the Opium Curse

That might not be Joseph Conrad, but it’s close. If Conrad saw into the heart of King Leopold’s darkness in the Belgium Congo, Merwin points out the termite-infested foundation of the house that Adam Smith built. Not only has laissez faire capitalism slimed its way into a dying empire full of poverty and misery. It has also tried to make a profit off of the very addiction it created. Westerners, along with native hucksters, were already selling quack cures, a multi-million dollar business peddling useless junk to people who barely had the physical strength to get up out of bed. What’s more, even as the Chinese government desperately tried to cut demand — issue the opium smoker a license and then methodically reduce the amount of opium he could buy — the British wouldn’t let Chinese officials reduce the supply. To levy a heavy tariff that would have stopped the imports of high quality opium poppies from India would have been a violation of the principles of “free trade.” The Chinese government could cut domestic production simply by mobilizing troops and sending them into the countryside, but imported opium was always available in treaty ports like Hong Kong or Shanghai, both of which had been ceded to British control after 1842, and both of which quickly filled up with the very worst kind of Englishmen and other westerners.

If the first half of Drugging a Nation reads like a novel, the second half reads almost like a temperance pamphlet. One almost wishes that Samuel Merwin had confined himself to describing the problem, that he had had not offered a solution. While he correctly points out that the opium epidemic is a symptom, not the disease itself — which is poverty and social inequality — he’s a puritan moralist, not a communist revolutionary. What he wants, a movement of national revival organized around stigmatizing and suppressing opium the way it had been stigmatized and suppressed in Japan, would not have eliminated the material conditions that had made it possible in the first place. It will also inevitably remind most Americans of the Prohibitionist movement, which was gaining steam in the United States even as Merwin was traveling in China, and which would outlaw alcohol for most of the 1920s. Ironically, or perhaps not so ironically since nationalism is almost always racist, as Merwin talks up Chinese nationalism, his language becomes more and more racist against the Chinese. We begin to suspect that real motive for his concern is that he fears the “the chickens will come home to roost,” that opium will spread to the west through Chinese immigration. “Where the Chinaman goes,” he reminds us, “opium goes.” That he was probably right, that the current heroin epidemic in the United States has its origins in the opium the British Empire peddled to the Chinese 150 years ago, doesn’t change how dated the language sounds. Nor does it make a national revival based on fighting a “war on drugs” any more feasible now than it was back then.

The Devil’s Chessboard (2015)

As we’ve seen in books like James W. Douglass’ JFK and the Unspeakable and Russ K. Baker’s Family of Secrets, there is a fairly good circumstantial case to be made that John F. Kennedy was killed, not by the “lone nut” Lee Harvey Oswald, but by the “deep state,” the unelected class of Wall Street bankers, lawyers, Pentagon warlords, chief executives, and intelligence officers who manipulate American politics from behind the scenes. There will probably never be a “smoking gun.” The people who operate the deep state are far too clever to leave their fingerprints at the scene of such an enormous crime, and it’s unlikely that the corporate media, which at its highest levels is also part of the deep state, will ever seriously examine the evidence that was gathered by the House Select Committee on Assassinations back in the 1970s. So the debate has passed on from the courts, the politicians, and the newspapers, over to the historians. In his massive history of the Central Intelligence Agency, The Devil’s Chessboard, journalist, and now historian, David Talbot argues that the main villain behind the Kennedy assassination is Allen Dulles.

Allen Dulles, the first civilian Director of the CIA, would still have plenty of blood on his hands, even if he had nothing to do with what took place in Dallas on November 22, 1963. In 1945, while working for the Office of Strategic Services, he helped to set up Operation Sunrise, a back door peace process with Nazi Germany. Since Franklin Roosevelt had already called for “unconditional surrender” from the Germans, anybody else would have been charged with treason, but Dulles, who had powerful friends on Wall Street, not only got away with it, he eventually hammered it into something resembling the unofficial diplomatic policy of the American government. Once the Cold War got under way, high ranking Nazis were far too valuable to leave dangling at the end of a rope at Nuremberg. Washington didn’t de-Nazify Western Europe so much as chop off the head and take over the body. Reinhard Gehlen, for example, Hitler’s chief intelligence officer on the Eastern Front, also wound up serving as the head of West German intelligence from 1956 to 1968. An even more notorious war criminal, Waffen SS General Karl Wolff, who Dulles helped rescue from the Italian Resistance, was probably on the CIA payroll until 1962, when the Eichmann Trial uncovered his role in the “Final Solution.”

In 1952, after Dwight Eisenhower became President, and Allen Dulles’ brother, the Wall Street lawyer and hard-line anti-communist John Foster Dulles, became Secretary of State, Allen Dulles became the chief enforcer for the power elite in Washington DC, Wall Street’s muscle inside an already pro-business, already right-wing American government. Under his control, the Central Intelligence Agency expanded its mission from that of an information gathering service to a foreign policy establishment within the foreign policy establishment, an army not subject to congressional oversight and specializing in coups and assassinations. We live with its consequences, even today. In 1953 in Iran, for example, Dulles helped to overthrow the secular, democratic government of Mohammad Mosaddegh for the benefit of British Petroleum. British Petroleum made plenty of money. The Iranian people got the Shah, then the mullahs. The rest of us got decades of blow back, and anti-American extremism. In 1954, in Guatemala, in an even more blatantly anti-democratic conspiracy, the CIA mounted a coup that took out Jacobo Árbenz and replaced his government with the brutal dictatorship of Carlos Castillo Armas. Today, after decades of oligarchic rule, and a genocide against the indigenous in the 1980s, Guatemala, and the rest of Central America, remains one of the most violent places on earth.

It was the coup in Guatemala, however, that eventually led to Allen Dulles’ downfall. At least it led to his public downfall. By 1960, when John F. Kennedy became the President, Allen Dulles and the CIA had grown arrogantly out of touch with reality. The left in Latin America, by contrast, had learned from Arbenz’s mistakes. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara wouldn’t depend on the democratic process to keep power in Cuba. They would fight fire with fire. They would meet Dulles, the CIA, and their ragtag army of counter revolutionaries on the beach at the Bahía de Cochinos, not with diplomacy, but with Soviet made tanks and aircraft. Allen Dulles, who wasn’t stupid, and who had already sized up Che and Castro as formidable enemies, knew the half-hearted invasion would fail. It was all part of the plan, but if he correctly estimated how Che and Castro would react, he thoroughly underestimated. John F. Kennedy. Kennedy not only refused to mount an air strike or send in the Marines, he realized that keeping Allen Dulles and other Eisenhower retreads like Admiral Arleigh Burke and General Lyman Lemnitzer, had been a grave mistake. So he dismissed all three and vowed to break the CIA into 1000 pieces.

John F. Kennedy died, probably because he took a shot at the “deep state” but didn’t kill it, vowed to break up the CIA, but settled with merely decapitating it, with firing Dulles and replacing him with John McCone, yet another right-wing, Eisenhower retread. Charles de Gaulle, by contrast, after an attempted coup in 1961 by Maurice Challe and a group of right-wing army officers — an attempted coup by French generals  who probably had the tacit approval of Dulles and the CIA — not only called French citizens into the streets to suppress the attempted putsch. He had many of Challe’s mid-level supporters killed. De Gaulle, who always believed that the CIA had been behind Kennedy’s assassination, and who dismissed the Warren Commission Report as as a whitewash, knew that when you’re fighting gangsters like Allen Dulles, you take off the white gloves, and fight fire with fire. It’s no accident that tough guys like Fidel Castro and Charles de Gaulle lived, while nice guys like Arbenz, Allende, and John F. Kennedy all died. The deep state rarely if ever respects quaint little niceties like “don’t assassinate the democratically elected heads of state, even if they happen to be American allies, or even Americans.”

David Talbot’s argument that Allen Dulles and the CIA were behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy is compelling circumstantial case without a smoking gun, but it’s a very compelling circumstantial case. Lee Harvey Oswald simply had too many ties to the CIA to be dismissed as a “lone nut.” That his murder live on national TV is just another strange detail in a very strange historical event defies credibility. Whoever ordered his execution not only thought it was more important to get him out of the way than to avoid raising suspicions, they had enough confidence that the media wouldn’t point out the obvious. There were too many mid-level CIA operatives, William Harvey, E. Howard Hunt, David Morales, who were on the ground in Dallas that day, for there not to have been a formal, judicial inquest. At least there should have been a thorough investigation by the media into the idea that the assassination might have been payback for Kennedy’s not ordering air strikes during the Bay of Pigs. Above all, Allen Dulles’ presence on the Warren Commission raises a million red flags. Any objective examination of his relationship to the Kennedy administration would have identified him as a prime suspect, not the man appointed to run the investigation. In the end, Talbot doesn’t prove his case beyond a reasonable shadow of a doubt, but he does manage to hold up the history of the United States to the same standards as the history of the rest of the world. If the CIA was behind the coup in Iran and Guatemala, if they were behind an attempted coup in France, is it really so hard to believe they wouldn’t mount a coup in the United States, especially when the stakes for the American establishment were so much higher?

The most interesting parts of The Devil’s Chessboard don’t necessarily involve the familiar territory of the Kennedy assassination, but the dark little corners of recent American history we’ve all heard about but haven’t thoroughly examined. That the CIA kidnapped Columbia professor Jesús Galíndez and turned him over to the Trujillo government in the Dominican Republic, where he was boiled alive and fed to the sharks, is news to me. I had always known the CIA was complicit in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first civilian President of the Republican of Congo. I had no idea that Dwight Eisenhower ordered it outright, or just what a horrifying spectacle it really was, how long it played out in public in front of the entire world. David Talbot is an occasionally long-winded writer. But his anger at Lumumba’s murder, and the eloquence with which he expresses himself, are so powerful they had shouting out loud in rage. The attempt of the US government to prevent Fidel Castro from finding lodging in New York during his visit to the United Nations, and the propaganda coup he managed to pull of when Malcolm X arranged for him to stay at the Theresa Hotel in Harlem sheds new light on the relationship between the American Civil Rights movement and the Cold War. I’ve always known the Kennedy and Johnson administrations wanted to end Jim Crow in the South partly to prevent the Soviet Union from gaining a foothold in Africa. David Talbot rams the idea home.

Above all, however, whether or not he proves that Allen Dulles and the CIA were behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy, David Talbot does succeed in raising the possibility that American democracy is mostly an illusion, that we are ruled by an elite we don’t entirely understand.

The Good Shepherd (2006)

The main problem with The Good Shepherd is its director. Robert De Niro is a great actor, and he had the money to hire a professional cast and crew, but he doesn’t have a good sense of how to edit or how to pace a movie. The Good Shepherd, which stars Matt Damon as Edward Wilson, a loosely fictionalized version of the CIA’s legendary counter intelligence director James Jesus Angleton, runs close to 3 hours. Robert De Niro, to quote William Faulkner, needs to learn how to “kill his darlings.” He casts Joe Pesci as Joseph Palmi, an Italian American mob boss based on Sam Giancana, simply to cast Joe Pesci. Palmi’s character does nothing to develop the plot, and is dropped almost as quickly as he’s introduced. De Niro’s two brief cameos as a thinly fictionalized Wild Bill Donovan — the Army Air Force hero who founded the OSS — are equally forgettable. De Niro, and screenwriter Eric Roth attempt to stuff the entire history of the CIA from 1945 to the Bay of Pigs into one feature length movie. The unfortunate result is that unless you already know the entire history of the CIA from 1945 to the Bay of Pigs, The Good Shepherd will often be confusing, frustrating, and at times downright incomprehensible. A good screenwriter can tell a complex story in a two hour movie — The Big Short is an excellent example of one that does — but that’s not what The Good Shepherd does. If it were anybody other than Robert De Niro, the critics would have simply called it “bad writing.”

So should you watch it?

The answer is “yes and no,” yes if you know something about James Jesus Angleton, Alan Dulles, Kim Philby, and the Bay of Pigs, but no if you don’t. If you can follow the plot, The Good Shepherd is an often fascinating study of the people the Columbia University sociologist C. Wright Mills once called “the power elite,” the unelected class of Wall Street bankers, lawyers, Pentagon warlords, chief executives, and intelligence officers who manipulate politics from behind the scenes. There is revealing moment, for example, in the brief exchange between Edward Wilson and Joseph Palmi. Wilson, who has discovered that Palmi had actually been born in Italy, and that he had never been naturalized as a United States citizen, has come to strong arm him into doing an favor for the CIA. We don’t learn exactly what Wilson, who goes by the name of “Mr. Carlson,” wants from Palmi. It’s probably part of a plot to kill Castro, but their conversation never spells out the details. De Niro is far more concerned with the cultural conflict between two very different members of two very different criminal gangs.

“Let me ask you something,” Palmi says. “We Italians, we got our families and we got the church. The Irish, they have the homeland. The Jews, their tradition. Even the niggers. They’ve got their music. What about you people, Mr. Carlson? What do you have?”

“The United States of America,” Wilson responds. “The rest of you are just visiting.”

Joseph Palmi and Edward Wilson are talking right past each other. By “you people” Palmi means WASPs, white Anglo Saxon Protestants, but Wilson would never acknowledge a poor Appalachian coal miner or a Midwestern farmer as one of “his people.” Throughout The Good Shepherd, Wilson, and his colleagues at the CIA overthrow sovereign governments, have their political opponents murdered, drug and waterboard suspected enemy agents, and even spy on and betray one another, all for the good of their country. But what is their country? As the movie unfolds, we begin to see that what Wilson calls The United States of America is really the top one percent of the United States of America, the owners of the plantation, not their guests, or their slaves. How much did it benefit the American people, for example, to overthrow Arbenz in Guatemala or Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran? The answer would be “not at all,” but it certainly benefited British Petroleum and the United Fruit Company. De Niro and Eric Roth, sadly, don’t have much of a class analysis. The Good Shepherd is a liberal morality tale about how power corrupts members of the elites. What’s more, it’s also something of a whitewash. Nowhere do we see Edward Wilson, or Philip Alan, a loosely fictionalized Allen Dulles, help launder the assets of Nazi industrialists or arrange for the safe passage of suspected war criminals to South America, both of which the CIA did in the 1930s and the 1940s.

Nevertheless, almost in spite of himself, The Good Shepherd gives Joe Palmi, a character who has all of 2 minutes of screen time, the last word. Robert De Niro, a veteran of two Godfather movies, Goodfellas and Casino, finds something deeply cold and sinister, something downright unsettling, in Edward Wilson and the WASP gangsters who get “tapped” at Yale to join Skull and Bones, the elite secret fraternity which also counts George W. Bush and John Kerry as members, and end up running the CIA and the State Department. “We Italians, we got our families and we got the church,” Palmi says, and indeed, as bad as Michael Corleone and “the family” were, they were, at least, recognizably human. They were motivated by lust, greed, the love of power, rage, jealousy, but never a cold, robotic, unquestioning sense of duty to a an elite masquerading as the United States of America. “What about you people Mr. Carlson. What do you have?” In truth, and deep down inside Edward Wilson knows it, he and his people have nothing. To be more accurate, he throws everything way. First he abandons Laura, his true love, to marry Margaret, the daughter of a United States Senator played by Angelina Jolie. Then he abandons her too, first to fight the war in Europe, and then after that war is over to fight the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Then he destroys his own bloodline

At the beginning of The Good Shepherd, after the failure of The Bay of Pigs operation, Wilson begins to suspect that someone inside the CIA had leaked the plans to the Soviet Union. He has one clue, a blurry film of a man and woman making love, and garbled soundtrack. As the movie flashes back and fourth between the past to the present, as it tells the story of Wilson’s rise from poetry student at Yale through Skull and Bones, the OSS, and finally the CIA, Wilson and his team of counter intelligence experts analyze the film. Eventually they trace it back to a hotel in Kinshasa, in the Republic of Congo, the same country, not incidentally, where the CIA arranged for the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected President of the troubled Central African country. To his horror, Wilson realizes that the leak came from his own 23-year-old son, Edward Wilson, Jr., an emotionally unstable young man who, against his mother’s wishes, had followed his father’s path through Skull and Bones into the CIA.

The younger Wilson, who might as well be called the “Fredo” of The Good Shepherd, had carelessly let slip the plans for the Bay of Pigs Operation to his African fiancée, who, unknown to himself, is also a Soviet agent. “Ulysses,” a Soviet master spy, had managed to infiltrate Wilson’s inner-circle at the CIA, identify, and target his family members. He gives Edward Wilson Sr. a choice, his country or his family, agree to become a double agent for the Soviet Union inside the CIA, or watch his son be exposed as the dupe who destroyed the American effort to launch a successful coup against Fidel Castro. Edward Wilson, of course, chooses his country. He assures his son, who genuinely believes that his Soviet handler loves him, that he will accept the young woman into the family. He rolls up Ulysses’ network inside the United States. He plants his own mole inside the KGB. Finally we watch in horror as he orders his son’s fiancée thrown out of an airplane, Argentinian dirty war style, several thousand feet to her death. As in The Godfather, all the family’s business has been settled, but with a difference. After the younger Wilson tells his father his fiancée had been pregnant, and we see the empty look in the older man’s eyes, we realize that the Wilson family is no more.

Edward Wilson has murdered his own grandchild.

The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China (2011)

If you came of age in the 1970s or the 1980s, you grew up hearing about “the war on drugs.” It wasn’t really a war on drugs. Similar to the it war on terror, the war on drugs was an open-ended call to arms with no clear enemy, an elaborate justification for a counterinsurgency against black nationalism, against the counterculture of the 1960s, and for the system of mass incarceration that has put over 2 million Americans behind bars. In the 1990s, after Gary Webb published his seminal Dark Alliance, we learned that the same United States government promoting the “war on drugs” had actually sold drugs, had flooded South Central Los Angeles with enough crack cocaine to pay for its contra war in Nicaragua. The war on drugs, in other words, was a total fraud.

What would a real “war on drugs” look like?

Let’s take the First Opium War. In 1839, although trade been Great Britain and China had gone on for centuries, relations between the two countries had reached a boiling point. Not only did the Qing Emperor in Beijing tightly restrict the access of British merchants to Chinese markets, there wasn’t much that the British had to sell that the Chinese wanted to buy. The British public, on the other hand, had an almost insatiable demand for tea, porcelain, silks, and other luxury goods. The result was a trade deficit in favor of the Chinese, and a massive drain of precious metals like silver out of the British treasury, precious metals the Chinese government needed to fight a series of wars in the western part of the country against Muslim rebels.

Enter opium. The Chinese public wanted it. The British, who controlled vast poppy fields in India, had plenty of it to sell. The Chinese government, in turn, which had already outlawed the drug, and which had grown increasingly frustrated over the British government’s failure to crack down on smuggling, eventually sent an official named Lin Zexu to Canton – a city in the south of China where most European merchants were confined – to deal with the problem. Lin Zexu is still a hero in China and Charles Elliot, his British antagonist, still a villain. After Zexu had persuaded Elliot to surrender over 1000 tons of opium into his custody, and had it publicly destroyed on the beaches at Humen near the present day city of Dongguan, he realized that the wily British colonial administrator had pulled a fast one. While Elliot had appeared to agree to most of Zexu’s demands, he had actually transferred ownership of the opium to the British crown before confiscating it from British traders. This obligated the government of Lord Palmerston and Lord Melbourne to reimburse the merchants for the cost of the drug, an obligation that almost guaranteed war.

The British, as Julia Lovell relates in significant detail, made short work of the Qing dynasty’s army and navy. Not only did the British possess superior weapons, not the least of which was the ironclad gunboat Nemesis, the Qing Emperor’s generals were corrupt and incompetent. There was little, if any, communications between Beijing and Canton. The emperor’s commanders, fearful for their reputations and lives if they should fail, made up stories about victories over the “barbarians” that never happened. The result was the Treaty of Nanking, which ceded Hong Kong and four other treaty ports to the British government, abolished the Canton system, the tightly restricted access to the Chinese mainland which had been in effect since 1757, and opened up most of the country to “free trade” with the West. British merchants were now free to sell all the opium they wanted to a country of 400 million people.

Free trade, in other words, not only came at the point of a gun, it came with drugs.

Julia Lovell, who to my mind comes across like a tricky apologist for the British Empire – whenever a British historian goes through so much effort to prove that “things are complicated” look out for a subtle imperialist agenda – nevertheless tells an interesting story about the effects of the opium trade on both the Chinese and British people. After the Second Opium War — there was a Second from 1856 to 1860 during the height of the Taiping Rebellion — and Chinese citizens gained the freedom to emigrate to the west, the British public made an effort, sometimes noble, sometimes despicable and racist, to come to terms with what they had done. The Liberal Prime Minister Gladstone, quite an appalling figure in other respects, condemned in no uncertain terms the vast crime of getting 400 million people hooked on dope just to redress a trade deficit and to make a profit. The novelist Charles Dickens, on the other hand, in his unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, wrote one of the first “Yellow Peril” narratives, depicting the Chinese people as inveterate drug addicts and degenerates.

The most disappointing thing about The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China is perhaps the way Lovell fails to significantly address the intentions of the British government. After dismissing the idea that “Britain came into its Empire by accident” as traditional imperial propaganda, she goes onto argue just that, that the British got the Chinese hooked on opium, almost by accident. She never comes clean about how there can really be only one of three possibilities.

1.) The British didn’t know that opium was addictive.

2.) The British knew that opium was addictive but they didn’t care.

3.) The British intentionally arranged to get the Chinese people addicted to opium.

Almost by accident, Lovell dismisses the first possibility. Her fascinating study of “yellow peril” novels and conspiracy theories makes it clear that the British knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that opium was addictive. After all, why else would the British public come to the racist belief that Chinese immigrants were plotting to get the white race addicted to opium unless they believed the drug was addictive?

The second possibility is a lot stronger. Of course the British merchants who sold their poppies in China knew opium was highly addictive. But there was something even more addictive, the “free trade” ideology of Adam Smith. For the British, Chinese sovereignty meant nothing. That the Qing Emperor had outlawed the sale of opium meant only that Chinese culture was inward looking and xenophobic, that it needed to be battered open by the British navy, and forced to trade with the rest of the world at the point of a gun. If British merchant houses like Jardine, Matheson & Co. made vast, vast fortunes selling poison to these backwards, xenophobic people, so be it. That’s capitalism, a way of life the Chinese were going to adopt whether they liked it or not, their 3000 year old culture be damned.

If I had to guess, I’d say the third option is the most plausible. It’s what most of the Chinese people believe themselves and – in spite of Lovell’s argument that it’s mostly communist propaganda – I’d have to give them the benefit of the doubt. Let’s look at the tobacco industry in the United States. They not only knew that nicotine was a highly addictive substance, they consciously tried to get as many Americans as possible hooked on cigarettes in order to insure a perpetual market and a never ending stream of revenue for their poison. Lin Zexu was simply ahead of his time. The real “war on drugs” was never the hysterical campaign of militarized policing and mass incarceration symbolized by Nancy Reagan’s slogan “just say no.” It was the campaign waged by lawyers and consumer advocates in the 1990s not only to tax cigarettes out of exist, but to win compensation for the tobacco industry’s victims.

Julia Lovell spends 360 pages arguing that the Opium War was complicated, but it’s really not. Drugs and gunboats are the story of capitalism. Wherever there’s a war on drugs, there’s probably also a war for drugs.