The history of American aggression on the Korean Peninsula and in the South Asian theater, filled with unspeakable War crimes, begins in the late ’40s and early ’50s when the new superpower, eager with its ascendance after WWII and its successful deployment of nuclear weapons, clashed with the other victor – and the party primarily responsible for the defeat of Germany – the Soviet Union. Growing tensions quickly developed between the Soviet Union, the United States and Britain about how to divide Europe, the Middle East, South America, Africa and Asia between victors.
The United States, having originally agreed to split Japan in half with the Soviet Union, instead occupied it, forgiving Japanese officials for all of their war crimes. The Korean Peninsula – a prior colony of conquered Japan – had already been split between the Soviet Union and the United States when they worked together to oust the Japanese Empire, with the presumed endgame that the powers would slowly meld the peninsula and its people back together as the two superpowers normalized relations. However, tensions in Asia quickly mounted: the US resistance to meeting its treaty obligations in Japan, two false and upset governments in the continued division of Korea, and instability in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – then all grouped together in a colony of France called French Indochina – turned the Soviet Union and United States and their interests against one another.
In modern day Vietnam local people found that French weakness and poverty after its defeat in WWII gave them an opportunity to free themselves of forced military occupation and to establish their own national government. The Soviet Union, more famously anti-colonial than the United States (though similarly guilty itself of occupations), supported the dissolution of the brutal French military occupation and the formation of a self-autonomous democratic government under Ho Chi Minh. For the United States, this would have meant a weaker ally in France, a stronger Soviet Union trade bloc, and limited influence and economic activity itself in Asia.
As a result, the United States supported the French military occupation of Vietnam (this eventually turned into the Vietnam war, in which the United States committed innumerable crimes against humanity), in Laos, and genocide in Cambodia. The Korean theater was little different – seeing the United States unilaterally bombard civilian infrastructure to terrorize and starve the Koreans in the Soviet sphere after a ceasefire had been arranged. Ruthlessly, it ran propaganda campaigns to convince the world that the region was now starving not because its agriculture industry had been directly and deliberately crippled by the United States Air Force – but because it remained under the ‘ineffective and corrupt’ Soviet Sphere.
United States aggression during the Korean War deserves its own article. This author has chosen to account for the modern history – aggression on the peninsula and its continued warmongering, cyber rattling and state terrorism after the end of the Korean War in 1957 and into the modern relationship the United States has with North Korea.
Disclosed by a series of reports in the domestic press (at the time termed “Koreagate“), US Congress members had been accepting bribes from South Korean officials to stall and reverse the presidential decisions to withdrawl US troop presence from the ROK. A document declassified in 2012 describes how eventually enormous pressure mounted from Congress and the senior military officials overturned Carters campaign promises and administrative objectives in the region.
Meanwhile on the peninsula a series of economic reforms, international loans, and trade with the Western world led to a surge in North Korean prosperity, including conventional military capability that by all accounts would have walked through the ROK – which had itself been experiencing student-led protests, civil unrest, military coups (including the military dictator General Park – father of current president Geun-hye) and international criticism for human rights violations. Kim Il Sung issued a statement about the South’s martial law, corruption and civil unrest in a thinly veiled promise to reunify the peninsula under North Korea leadership were the opportunity to arise:
If a revolution takes place in South Korea we, as one and the same nation, will not just look at it with folded arms but will strongly support the South Korean people. If the enemy ignites war recklessly, we shall resolutely answer it with war and completely destroy the aggressors.
The 1970’s were very nearly such a time. However the stalled military withdrawl and eventual reversal of US Foreign Policy in 1978 kept not only the full deployed US military presence in South Korea but also the nuclear weapons that had been scheduled for removal at the same time. Into the early 1980’s North Korea found that had misspent its economic acceleration on military modernization since it continued to be overpowered by the as-yet-reluctant-to-leave superpower.
Nuclear forces had now been on the peninsula for the better part of three decades, and each decade saw the DPRK deal with the asymmetry in destructive potential a different way. It modernized its conventional forces into a deterrent, build caverns that would withstand nuclear assault and sought alliances with great powers. However with the seventies seeing superpowers including the USSR shift their focus from Asia to the Middle East, North Korea increasingly lost one of its better strategic assurances and would need to navigate alone. Worse yet was that the United States had stayed to back the Southern neighbours.
In 1991 North Korea began to develop safeguard measures with the IAEA and had them ratified and implemented in 1992, insisting that South Korea follow suite. However, the IAEA inspection found that the amount of declared plutonium production did not match the amount of nuclear waste in the inspected facilities. North Korea was operating graphine-moderated nuclear facilities which are very difficult to inspect and prone to the sort of uncertainty expressed by the IAEA. The IAEA asked for a special inspections capability to inspect additional facilities, which North Korea denied. The ambiguity of whether this was a deliberate attempt to obfuscate a weapons program (the CIA estimated the amount of material would amount to at most a single warhead) led to further criticism and calls for inspections.
The next year saw North Korea struggle with the IAEA over the terms of its inspections agreement, insisting that the original agreement be binding. Continued disagreements and South Korea’s refusal to enter into an inspections program to prove American nukes had been removed led North Korea to exercise its right to exit the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1993. The new Clinton Administration scrambled diplomats to find a mutually agreeable scenario under which North Korea would choose to stay under treaty obligations.
Normalized economic relations had been a North Korean priority. Challenge of this new regime of financial warfare, which had halted a large portion of the Foreign Exchange the country needed to run international trade, led North Korea to boycott not only the next scheduled Six Party talks, but stalled its progress on dismantling its nuclear program – indeed renewing efforts on it – on the condition that the United States meet its treaty commitments to disengage from economic warfare. A highly strained relationship continued into the next year. In October 2006 the People’s Republic performed its first successful nuclear test.
The response from Security Council members was swift; passing Security Council Resolution 1718 took only a few days. The resolution condemned North Korea for the test, required it return to the Six Party talks, and in the interim instituted a world-wide ban on all trade with the DPRK excluding only necessity goods.
This had been a general pattern of the United States. It’s sanctions of North Korea cover dual-use technologies. North Korea’s school system is robbed of pencils containing graphite over paranoid fears that the graphite from those pencils could be extracted and processed into nuclear enrichment material. A ban on materials to produce syringes (because syringes can obsensively be used to research biological weapons – though even the US hasn’t accused North Korea of intending to do so) led to a lack of supply of syringes, which in turn have led to humanitarian crises. It’s has not been allowed to trade any technologies, materials – even scraps and spare parts – to keep its industry alive. It’s economic and financial blockades, and refusal to onboard the nation into the global economy after the fall of the Soviet Bloc, have made an otherwise healthy economy falter. Constant military threats and regime change operations have required North Korea to spend substancial portions of its economy on deterrent programs.
Rapidly through the rest of the year, the first year the Obama Administration had bilateral diplomatic interface with Pyongyang, tensions rose. In South Korea the former president Roh Moo-hyun, who had embraced and continued the nobel peace prizing winning Sunshine Policy of Kim Dae-jung, left office and was replaced by Lee Myung-bak. The new South Korean president was quickly mired in “the South Korean Watergate” in which he endorsed surveillance, covert police pressure and censorship of individuals critical of his administration and policies.
The Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 is the most mind-blowing historical event you’ve never heard of.
OK, that sounds like click bait, and maybe you have heard of it, but until I saw Cimarron, Wesley Ruggles’ 1931 Best Picture winner, just about the only thing I knew about the opening of the “Unassigned Lands” to white settlers was the term “Sooner.” The Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 is not a pretty story. In the 1820s and 1830s, Indians who were ethnically cleansed from Georgia were relocated to what is now Oklahoma. After the Civil War, the Creeks, who sided with the Confederacy, were forced to cede what are now Canadian, Cleveland, Kingfisher, Logan, Oklahoma, Payne Counties to the federal government, 2 million acres of some of the best land west of the Mississippi for the bargain price of $325,362 dollars. On April 22, 1889, over 50,000 people lined up along the border to wait for the signal from the United States Army. All 2 million acres were thrown open to white settlement on a first come, first serve basis. Get to a piece of land first, and it was yours. It was one of the the greatest giveaways of “free stuff” in American history. It’s hard to imagine how anybody could mess up such a fascinating story but Cimarron, which is based on a best selling novel by Edna Ferber, certainly tries.
You had one job Wesley Ruggles, to tell the story of how those 50,000 white settlers waited patiently on the morning of April 22, 1899, fought one another like pit bulls for those beautiful 2 million acres of land stolen from the Indians after the starting gun sounded, and founded Guthrie a city of over 10,000 people, in one day. I am not exaggerating. You had one job, Wesley Ruggles. You had one job. How you have made this boring?
“At twelve o’clock on Monday, April 22d, the resident population of Guthrie was nothing; before sundown it was at least ten thousand. In that time streets had been laid out, town lots staked off, and steps taken toward the formation of a municipal government.”
I wouldn’t exactly call Cimarron a bad film. One of the first great blockbusters, it cost $1,433,000 to make, over a million dollars more than the United States government paid the Creek Indians for “Unassigned Lands” back in 1866. I’m not exactly sure how much $1,433,000 dollars is adjusted for inflation, but my guess is Ruggles spent most of it in the opening. Wesley Ruggles actually stages such an authentic looking reenactment of the events of April 22, 1889 that you can almost be forgiven if you think movie cameras had been invented a few decades earlier than they were and the scenes are historical footage, not a Hollywood movie. If by chance you come upon Cimarron on the Turner Classic Movie Channel by chance one sleepless night, the opening is well worth your time. But here’s a piece of advice you must take if you don’t want to spent the next hour and a half bored out of your skull.
Turn the movie off after 45 minutes.
Take my word for it, you absolutely must turn this movie off after 45 minutes. The opening of Cimarron is glorious. The rest of it is a dull, muddled, liberal soap opera, the model for so many movies that came after it you’ve already seen it 1000 times before. It’s basically Giant – also based on a novel by Edna Ferber – with Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor, but without James Dean. Ferber and Ruggles, to their credit, hate racism, antisemitism and sexism. Cimarron, a pre-code movie, is surprisingly feminist. The hero’s wife becomes the very first female member of the House of Representatives. The hero, who can’t quite get over his wild and crazy cowboy ways, dies a homeless beggar. Ruggles and Ferber even make a few perfunctory statements about how unfair it was to steal all the land – and the oil underneath – from the Indians. Cimarron is no Birth of a Nation. Then again, it’s no Birth of a Nation. As politically correct as it is – politically correct for 1929 — it just doesn’t work as a movie. A screenplay written by confused liberals unsure about what kind of story they want to tell – do they think founding Oklahoma was a good thing or not? – makes for a dull, unengaging, cinematic experience.
It also guarantees that tomorrow I’m going down to the public library and check out every book about the Oklahoma Land Rush I can find.
Currently there are about 2 million Americans in prison. Some of them are genuine criminals. Some, like Chelsea Manning, Barrett Brown, and Leonard Peltier, are internationally recognized political prisoners. Most are somewhere in between.
In the United States, the dividing line is race. A young black man will do time for marijuana. A young white man won’t. In Northern Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s, the dividing line was religion. Bobby Sands, who grew up in and around Belfast, experienced so much anti-Catholic bigotry as a child that joining the Provisional IRA in 1972 at the age of 18 was almost an act of self defense. Given a 14-year sentence in 1977 for weapons possession, he arrived at the “Long Kesh” prison shortly after Margaret Thatcher had revoked the Special Category Status (SCS) given to prisoners jailed for acts during “the troubles.” Provisional IRA members were no longer POWs. They were common criminals. Hunger, the debut film of director Steve McQueen, dramatizes the Provisional IRA’s struggle at the Maze Prison to regain its status as a political organization.
Starring German-Irish actor Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands, and roughly divided into three acts, Hunger is not an easy film to watch. It opens with the “blanket” and “dirty” protests, the refusal of IRA members like Davey Gillen and Gerry Campbell to wear prison uniforms, or even to wash, until the British government restores the Special Category Status. On the surface, their protest looks irrational, even insane. Men willing to live in their own excrement, however, are difficult, if not impossible to control. They can defeat a prison regime designed to break their will by the use of the carrot and the stick. They dictate the terms. Restore the Special Category Status or no Provisional IRA member will cooperate in any way.
In the film’s second act, we learn that Bobby Sands, and the IRA members under his command at the Maze Prison, are now willing to go much further than the blanket and dirty protests. Since the British government has escalated the conflict to include systematic beatings and torture – a scene where naked prisoners are made to run through a gauntlet of riot police swinging batons recalls an incident in Bobby Sands’ childhood where Catholic schoolboys were made to run a gauntlet of Protestants with rocks and sticks – the Provisional IRA must escalate its resistance. As Sands tells a priest in an extended 20 minute take, he is not only willing to die. He is planning to die. He will lead a series of hunger strikes, each of which will be started two weeks after the last, and each man in turn will starve himself until the British government restores the Special Category Status.
This is the hunger strike that made Sands famous. While Hunger never shows us the international campaign to pressure Margaret Thatcher to recognize Bobby Sands as a political prisoner, it does dramatize the extraordinary will and courage that allowed him to die for his country. For the Catholic Sands, to go ahead with the hunger strike after the priest tells him he’ll be committing suicide, and quite possibly going to hell, required absolute faith in his ideals. The final act of Hunger – for which the 6 foot tall, 170 pound Fassbender dieted down to 130 pounds – recalls Dreyer’s film The Passion of Joan of Arc in its depiction of a religious martyr willing to die in excruciating pain without the support of the church or the promise of heaven. Whether or not Sands ended up in Paradise – he had remarked to the priest that the thief crucified next to Jesus had it easy since he knew he would – is of course impossible to know. Throughout the film, Steve McQueen has gone out of his way to show that the only rewards for standing up to the British government are dirt, torture, excrement, and death.
That Sands resisted anyway is part of what makes it impossible for Hunger, which often descends into arty torture porn, to fully capture him on film.
What is antisemitism? How did the persecution of the Jews under the Roman Empire differ from the persecution of the Jews under the Nazis? What part did the widely disseminated literary hoax The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion play in the Holocaust? Even though A Rumor About the Jews: Reflections on Antisemitism and “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” a short book by Rutgers Political Science Professor Stephen Eric Bronner, was written before 9/11 and the Second Intifada, it remains a useful introduction to the history of antisemitism and the paranoid conspiracy theory.
After a brief introduction, Bronner reprints selections of the Protocols themselves, then goes onto explain how the anti-Jewish bigotry of of the Roman Empire and Medieval Europe were fundamentally different from the antisemitism of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. For the Romans, who were both uniquely tolerant of religious differences and uniquely intolerant of political dissent, the problem with the Jews wasn’t their race. It was their monotheism. With their “jealous,” all powerful God, and their history of theocratic monarchy, the Jews refused to acknowledge either the Roman, pagan gods, or the political supremacy of the Emperor. That made them a troublesome ethnic and religious minority who needed to be put down hard to keep the peace in Egypt and Palestine. It did not make them uniquely evil or inferior. While Medieval hostility towards Jews did include accusations that would resurface in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries – ritual murder, Christ killing, sorcery – it was only when the feudal, Roman Catholic worldview started to break down during the Enlightenment that religious religious hostility towards Judaism became antisemitism.
According to Stephen Bronner, antisemitism, and “scientific” racism, began as an elite reaction against the egalitarianism of the French Revolution. Feudal hierarchies would be reconstructed as racial and religious hierarchies. The division of France into three estates, a division that privileged the aristocracy and the clergy over the common people, would become the division of the world into superior and inferior races in Arthur comte de Gobineau’s An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races. The British proto-Nazi Houston Stewart Chamberlain would continue Gobineau’s work, adding a particular hostility towards the Jews, in his book The Myth of the Twentieth Century. Even as Western Europe and the United States became increasingly democratic and republican, monarchies like the Habsburgs, the Hohenzollerns, the Hanovers, and above all the Romanovs persisted right into the age of European and American imperialism, the mass industrial army and the dreadnought, the telegraph, the telephone, and the electric light. All of it, taken together, set the stage for what be called the classical period of antisemitism that ran from the 1890s roughly through the 1940s.
It was Czarist Russia, the most backward and reactionary state in Europe, that gave birth The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion and to modern antisemitism. I spend time on social media debunking conspiracy theories and fraudulent quotes from well-known figures, but it’s always been more out of an irritation over cultural historical illiteracy than out of any sense that they could do any genuine harm. If a gun nut wants to fabricate quotes by Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, I’ve always been willing to correct him, and put up with the inevitable wailing and gnashing of teeth when I direct him to the “Soros funded” Snopes.com, but I’ve never really believed that these kinds of fabrications could lead to gas ovens and mass graves. Stephen Bronner, however, makes it clear just how much damage a literary hoax can do, pointing out not only that the Protocols influence Adolf Hitler, but even the western intervention against the reds in the Russian Civil War.
The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, which were fabricated by Czarist secret police in 1901 or 1902, and first distributed by a religious crackpot named Sergei Nilus, have two basic sources, the French leftist Maurice Joly’s Dialogue in Hell, a fictional conspiracy theory written to attack Napoleon III, and Biarritz, an anti-Semitic novel written by the obscure German writer Hermann Goedsche. For any American familiar with New World Order or 9/11 conspiracy theories, the basic outline of the Protocols will be familiar. A group of 12 rabbis – each representing one of the twelve tribes of Israel – meet in the Jewish cemetery in Prague to plot a takeover of the press and the government, to destroy faith in the church and to debase the culture, all in the service of world domination.
Poorly written and easily debunked though they are – the author apparently didn’t know that only 2 tribes of Israel survived the Babylonian Captivity – That The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion became a becoming a runaway best seller, eventually published and distributed by Czar Nicholas, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Henry Ford and the Catholic Church. Rational argument seemed to have no more effect than the official websites of Monticello and Mount Vernon has had publishing a list of spurious Washington and Jefferson quotes. You can debunk fake Washington and Jefferson quotes all you want, but you will not stop them from being ever more widely circulated on Tumblr and Facebook. The Protocols served an emotional, not an intellectual need. They allowed religious and political reactionaries, racists, monarchists, and proto-fascists to give an easy explanation for the Revolution of 1905 in Russia, the great Russian Revolution of 1917, the First World War and the crumbling of the old order without blaming the Russian, German, or Austrian ruling classes. You didn’t have to go through the painful process of studying history and economics. This little pamphlet gave you the answer: The Jews did it. After the catastrophe of the First World War, which destroyed an entire generation of young men in Europe, Hitler would go onto to construct a secular, and pseudo-scientific myth of the Jew as the devil, of the Jewish religion as a satanic conspiracy against the “Aryan race” that ended in genocide and mass murder. Not even a Second World War could snap most antisemites to their senses. Even as Soviet and American troops closed in on Berlin from either side, the Nazis continued to divert resources from the front to the “Final Solution” of murdering as many Jews as they could before the Third Reich crumbled into dust.
For Stephen Eric Bronner, classical antisemitism is a historical phenomenon that began in the aftermath of the French Revolution and ended when evidence of the Holocaust filtered out of Central and Eastern Europe in 1945. It had become all too clear that it the antisemite, not the Jew, was a satanic figure who had been engaged in a conspiracy of world domination and mass murder. Bronner, who is a democratic socialist and a critic of the state of Israel, as well as the son of secular Jews who left Germany to escape Hitler, is probably not very popular among Zionists and religious conservatives. While he would agree that the remnants of the antisemitic worldview persist in End the Fed and 9/11 conspiracy theories, in parts of the Middle East and on the far-right, and left, in the United States and Western Europe, his solution is liberalism and democracy, not Zionism and Jewish nationalism. The more democratic a country is, he argues, the less of a history of antisemitism it has. The United States, for example, which has the idea of religious freedom written into its founding documents, has always had little or no history of antisemitism. In autocratic states like Czarist Russia or Saudi Arabia, by contrast, the paranoid and conspiratorial worldview The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion is often part of the mainstream, widely distributed and promoted by the government itself. There is a negative correlation between democracy and antisemitism. The more democracy you have, the less antisemitism you have. The more antisemitism you have, the less democracy you have. Jewish nationalism and conservatism, Bronner argues, tends to follow the same pattern as Christian or Islamic nationalism and conservatism. Far from being a safeguard against antisemitism, the more extreme forms of Zionism – although not the democratic liberal Zionism of Yitzhak Rabin – will only serve to promote the antisemitic worldview in other forms. Although he doesn’t mention it directly, the Clarion Project’s wildly Islamophobic video The Third Jihad, which has been used to train New York City police officers, and which might easily be called The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Mecca, might be a good example.
Indeed, while A Rumor About the Jews is a worthwhile read, it’s badly in need of a second edition that addresses the historical developments over the last 16 years, not only 9/11 and the Second Intifada, but the drastic erosion of democracy and the growth of oligarchy and plutocracy in the United States.
Ex Machina is a film about misdirection, just not the kind of misdirection you think.
Caleb Smith, a 26-year-old computer programmer at Bluebook, a thinly fictionalized Google, is chosen by Nathan Bateman, the immensely wealthy founder and CEO of the company, to participate in an experiment on Artificial Intelligence. He’s flown out to Bateman’s secluded compound deep in an unnamed wilderness, made to sign a “non-disclosure agreement,” then introduced to Ava, the subject of the Turing Test. Can a machine feel human emotions, think like a human, manipulate other people like a human? It sounds like a fascinating experiment, especially for a 26-year-old computer nerd, but there’s a problem. Bateman’s compound is so alienating, so much like a prison, that anybody as obviously intelligent as Caleb Smith would have refused to sign the non-disclosure agreement as soon as it was put down on the table in front of him. He would stood up, turned around, walked out of the bunker, and got on the next helicopter back to civilization.
So why doesn’t he?
The easy answer is that Caleb Smith is horny. Ava is not only an intelligent machine. She has been designed to look like a composite of his searches on the Internet for pornography. Caleb Smith has good taste. Every image on the world wide web that he’s has ever masturbated to has been distilled into Alicia Vikander in a robot suit. Bateman also lets him know that she has a working vagina. In other words, Ex Machina is all about the question of whether or not you’d fuck a robot if it looked like Alicia Vikander. The Turing Test is all about Caleb Smith’s penis. Has Nathan Bateman been able to design a machine human enough to make Smith forget it’s made of plastic and metal and fall in love?
The answer, spoiler alert, is yes. He has. Smith not only falls desperately in love with Ava. She manages to dupe him into helping her escape. But while the relationship between Ava and Caleb Smith works on paper, on screen it falls flat. Even though it’s obvious that Ava is an actress in a robot suit and not a machine, and I had no trouble believing she was human, there was no sexual chemistry between Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson, the actor who plays Caleb Smith. As Nathan Batman tells Smith near the end of the film “the hot robot was a misdirection,” a very hot robot and a very good misdirection, but a misdirection nonetheless.
So what keeps Caleb Smith from leaving?
Ex Machina is not a science fiction movie about Artificial Intelligence. It’s not a love story between a sexy robot and a needy, virginal young man, and while it physically takes place in a secluded bunker in the middle of nowhere, it actually takes place at Bluebook. Just think of the bunker in the woods as an annex of the main office, the AI laboratory in the basement nobody ever visits. Ex Machina is a movie about the relationship between an employer and an employee, between a boss and a worker, between a master and servant. I might even go so far to say it’s a film about the homosexual domination of a stronger man over a weaker man, and about the weaker man’s ultimate rebellion. The question is not “would you fuck a robot if it looked like Alicia Vikander?” It’s “would you let your boss fuck you up the ass to keep your job.” The real Turing Test is not about whether or not the beautiful Ava can convince Caleb Smith to stick his dick inside her mechanical vagina. It’s about whether or not Nathan Bateman can transform Smith’s subordination into a sexualized subordination. If Smith fucks the robot, his job is fucking him. If Smith falls in love with the robot, the devil has his soul.
Oscar Isaac, who plays Bateman, is what makes the film work. He is utterly convincing, and creepy, as the domineering tyrant as hipster tech bro. That he didn’t get the Best Actor award instead of Leonardo DiCaprio is as much of a travesty as Dances With Wolves winning Best Picture over Goodfellas. Isaac’s performance is so remarkable because it feels so unremarkable. As the prototypical white collar boss, he gets everything right. Like every employer, he believes he’s being generous with his employees, even as he’s abusing them. He constantly makes you feel as if he’s being patient with your incompetence, even while you’re not being incompetent. The more he seems to restrain himself, the guiltier he makes you feel for taking his money, or his sexy robots. When he jokes about having a team of independent contractors killed, you not only believe him. You reproach yourself for thinking ill of your benefactor. When he yells at his Asian sex slave, you get angry at her for making him yell at her. Nathan Bateman is the banal face of evil, the bland CEO of the corporate American tyranny, the soft-spoken Fuhrer of Silicon Valley.
Caleb Smith is Bateman’s dupe, and his slave, even after he rebels. As soon as he signed the non-disclosure agreement he was doomed. He will never leave the office.
“It was peacetime again when John Wayne appeared on the silver screen as Sergeant Stryker in ”Sands of Iwo Jima,” but that film underscores the point; I went to see it with another ex-Marine, and we were asked to leave the theater because we couldn’t stop laughing.
After my evacuation from Okinawa, I had the enormous pleasure of seeing Wayne humiliated in person at Aiea Heights Naval Hospital in Hawaii. Only the most gravely wounded, the litter cases, were sent there. The hospital was packed, the halls lined with beds. Between Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the Marine Corps was being bled white.
Each evening, Navy corpsmen would carry litters down to the hospital theater so the men could watch a movie. One night they had a surprise for us. Before the film the curtains parted and out stepped John Wayne, wearing a cowboy outfit – 10-gallon hat, bandanna, checkered shirt, two pistols, chaps, boots and spurs. He grinned his aw-shucks grin, passed a hand over his face and said, ”Hi ya, guys!” He was greeted by a stony silence. Then somebody booed. Suddenly everyone was booing.
This man was a symbol of the fake machismo we had come to hate, and we weren’t going to listen to him. He tried and tried to make himself heard, but we drowned him out, and eventually he quit and left. If you liked ”Sands of Iwo Jima,” I suggest you be careful. Don’t tell it to the Marines.”
My father, who was also a Marine Corps veteran, felt very differently. The The Sands of Iwo Jima might have been his favorite movie. My father not only idolized John Wayne. He modeled his “style” after Sergeant Stryker. He imitated the way he spoke, the way he walked, the way he lit his cigarette or buttoned the top button on his shirt. The movie that Manchester hated so much was probably the reason my father joined the Marine Corps in the first place.
I suppose the difference was generational. My father was born in 1935. Manchester was born in 1922. The Sands of Iwo Jima is first rate propaganda, but it’s not aimed at front line soldiers who have been wounded in battle. Released shortly after the end of the Second World War, it was geared towards people like my father, teenagers who were still in junior high school when Joe Rosenthal took his iconic photo of six United States Marines raising the stars and stripes over Mount Suribachi. The Sands of Iwo Jim shows nothing of the horror of war. It’s easy to see why Manchester found it so ridiculous. You never see the human body degraded or dismembered. Grown men don’t cry out for their mothers. Heads don’t explode. Blood doesn’t spurt out in gushers from limbs ripped from their sockets. Sergeant Stryker is killed by one clean bullet through the heart, an instant and almost painless death. For a real combat veteran, it must have felt like a slap in the face. For a starry eyed teenager, on the other hand, or for an Army or Navy veteran who spent the Second World War fixing jeeps or filling out supply forms, for anybody who looked up to the men who gave their lives to fight the Nazis and the Japanese Empire, The Sands of Iwo Jima must have been a powerful intoxicant in 1949.
What makes The Sands of Iwo Jima one of the most influential war movies of all time is not the fake machismo John Wayne symbolized for William Manchester and the wounded Marines at the Aiea Heights Naval Hospital in 1944. It’s the opposite. The Sands of Iwo Jima is not about masculine strength. It’s about masculine weakness, vulnerability and complexity. I can see now why my father came back to this film in his middle age. On the surface, it all seems ridiculous, even fascist. “In boot camp you learned out of a book,” Sergeant Stryker says to a group of new recruits. “Here you gotta remember the book and learn things that haven’t been printed. You gotta learn right and fast. Any man that doesn’t want to cooperate, I’ll make him wish he hadn’t been born. Before I’m through with you, you’re gonna move and think like one man. If you don’t, you’ll be dead.” But the Sands of Iwo Jima is not about a superior man imposing his will on his inferiors. It’s about the need for a group of men to work as a team, to suppress their individuality, to come together, and get the job done when none of them can do it alone.
The film has four main characters. The rest are the usual ethnic stereotypes, the wise cracking Italian from Brooklyn, the dim but good natured Polish American, the farm boy from the Midwest, who round out just about every movie about the Second World war. Stryker and PFC Al Thomas are veterans of the war in China and the Battle of Guadalcanal. Robert Dunne, the film’s narrator, Stryker’s right-hand man and a natural conservative, the kind of loyal employee who likes to tell his coworkers to shut up and stop complaining about the boss. PFC Peter Conway, the son of Stryker’s old commanding officer, is the opposite, a sullen rebel who resents his own father – a hero who died on Guadalcanal — and takes out his Oedipal rage on Stryker. “Every time you open your mouth, he’s talking,” he says. “Every thought you think is his. It’s as though he’s at my shoulder.”
The Sands of Iwo Jima would have been a better movie if the characters of Dunne and Conway had been better better developed, had the deck not been stacked so strongly in favor of Stryker, in favor of the father against the son. Alas, however, this is a patriotic, flag-waving movie of the late 1940s, and Peter Conway, James Dean a few years before his time, will not have his say. Robert Dunne will have his say, but not his own point of view. Dunne’s role is to prop the old man up when he stumbles. Conway’s is to provide appearance of conflict, then to grow up and take the old man’s place after he’s gone. Al Thomas might just be the most fascinating character of all, mainly because he’s also the most flawed. I can understand why William Manchester found The Sands of Iwo Jima so offensive, but I’ve also read the book Wartime, where Paul Fussel, another World War II veteran, talks about how the main quality of most American soldiers in World War II wasn’t cowardice or brutality, but sheer incompetence. In 1945, the United States Army, and the Marine Corps, just weren’t very good.
At the Battle of Tarawa, Thomas, who’s played appropriately enough by Forrest Tucker, who would later join the cast of F-Troop, gets two men killed, not out of cowardice, but out of weakness and stupidity. On an errand to pick up badly needed ammunition, he goofs off for a few minutes to have a cup of coffee. By the time he gets back, one man has been shot, and the other bayoneted, probably the only time I’ve ever seen in a war movie where caffeine addiction has been the indirect cause of someone’s death. Thomas carries the secret around with him, a brutal sense of guilt, until Stryker finds out and confronts him. What happens is fascinating. Stryker beats Thomas, who fights back, but who also seems relieved he’s finally being punished for what he did. When a car pulls up, and a senior officer threatens to arrest Stryker for assault, Thomas covers for him. They were only having a friendly boxing match, he declares. There’s nothing to worry about. Stryker now realizes Thomas feels genuine remorse because he recognizes it in himself. He’s gotten men killed senselessly, we surmise. “Everybody makes mistakes,” he says, “only when we do, someone dies.” The two men form a pact. Thomas has his guilt absolved. Stryker not only avoids a court martial. He now has the complete loyalty of a man who had formerly been a troublemaker. How many secret pacts like this, agreements between two men to cover up for their mutual shortcomings, actually came out of World War II?
When the film shifts from the Battle of Tarawa to a brief interlude on Hawaii and then to the Battle of Iwo Jima, the focus shifts from the relationship between Stryker and Al Thomas to that of Stryker and Peter Conway. Stryker, we’ve learned, has a wife who’s abandoned him and has taken their baby with her. Stryker is an alcoholic. He’s never seen his infant son, and it’s strongly implied that the breakup was so bad that he never will. In maybe the best scene in the entire movie, Stryker is approached by a woman in a bar. It’s strongly implied she’s a prostitute. “There are some jobs worse than dying for your country,” she says bitterly, and asks him if he’d like to come back to her place for a drink. He’s lonely so he reluctantly accepts. After they get back to her apartment, however, it’s so sparsely furnished that Stryker understands she doesn’t have any money. He gives her ten dollars to buy a bottle of whiskey, looks around after she leaves, and hears something rattling in the other room. Initially terrified — he’s jumpy because of the war — he discovers, not a Japanese soldier but a small child in a crib. When the woman returns, with food as well as whiskey, Stryker realizes that she’s a single mother who doesn’t always have the money to feed her son. Reminded of his own wife and his own child, he gives her all the money in his wallet, and leaves. “’I’ll pray for you” she calls out after him. “I’ll pray for you.”
Since he’s headed for Iwo Jima, he’s going to need it. Leaving the woman’s apartment, Stryker also realizes he’s been cured of his own alcoholism, that he’s at peace with himself, her offer to pray for him acting as sort of absolution. He can accepting dying, if he has to. He can also deal with Peter Conway when the two men meet at another bar. Conway, who has been married earlier in the film and who has received a letter from his wife he’s about to be a father, should be happy. He’s not. He cruelly lashes out at Stryker, implying that it’s his own fault his wife left him, that the Marine Corps has made him a bad father. His own son, he insists, will be much better. “I won’t have to write,” he says, taunting the older man. “I’ll be where he is. And I won’t insist that he be tough. I’ll try to make him intelligent. And I won’t insist that he read the Marine Corps manual. I’ll get him Shakespeare. I don’t want him to be a Colonel Conway or Sergeant Stryker. I want him to be intelligent, considerate, cultured and a gentleman.” Peter Conway sounds like an insufferable little prig, but we can also hear the pain in his voice, the sense of emotional rejection he experienced. But Stryker’s restrained, forgiving attitude changes him. Stryker is no longer the harsh, authoritarian Colonel Conway. He’s the father Peter Conway has wanted all along.
We can see how different it is between the two men when they land on Iwo Jima. Conway is now a good Marine. He’s joined Robert Dunne at Stryker’s side, surrogate father and surrogate son having reconciled just in time to take Mount Suribachi together, and just in time for Stryker’s death. Conway will carry on in his place now that he’s gone. “Saddle up,” he says, slipping into Stryker’s, and John Wayne’s, familiar way of speaking as John Bradley, Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, Harlon Block, Franklin Sousley, and Michael Strank raise the Stars and Stripes over Mount Suribachi, “lock and load.”
There is a controversy on social media. Zoe Saldana, a light skinned black woman, has been cast to play the singer songwriter Nina Simone, who was a very dark skinned black woman, in the upcoming biographical drama Nina. After having watched Liz Garbus’ brilliant documentary What Happened Miss Simone, I can fully understand why casting Saldana was a bad idea. Nina Simone was black the way Joan of Arc was French, or Dostoevsky Russian, an archetypal figure who can’t be watered down without doing violence to her essence.
Eunice Kathleen Waymon was born in 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina, deep in the heart of the Jim Crow South. As a child she dreamed, not of being a singer, but of being a classical pianist. When she was turned down as a student by the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and began to play in small, often seedy nightclubs, she changed her name to avoid embarrassing her conservative, religious parents. Eventually the owner of the Midtown Bar & Grill on Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City demanded that she sing as well as play the piano, and she found her calling. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, her popularity grew. She wrote songs, recorded both studio and live albums, and toured throughout the Europe and the United States. She become involved, not only in the Civil Rights Movement, but in the radical, black nationalist wing of the Civil Rights Movement. “I don’t believe in non-violence,” she remarked to Martin Luther King. The Civil Rights Movement, in turn, became involved in Simone’s music, inspiring songs like Mississippi Goddam and “Why? (The King Of Love Is Dead)”, written after King’s murder. Not surprisingly, Simone’s radicalism damaged her career, even as it enriched her art, getting her blacklisted by radio stations all over the United States. When the black nationalist movement she sang for and about eventually got smashed by the federal government and faded away, her opportunities to perform, and her income, were diminished. As her career fell apart, she fell apart, the damage done to her soul by racism, a history of mental illness, and by an abusive, exploitive husband, turning her against her daughter, and herself. She became angry, emotionally unstable, unable to perform without the psychotropic drugs that damaged her ability to play the piano. She died in 2003, well-known but not fully appreciated for the great artist she was.
I could have easily heard Nina Simone play live. I was 38 years old when she died, but to be honest, I had no idea who she was until fairly recently. That doesn’t mean I’ve never heard her music. I grew up hearing quite a few of her songs, but only, and this is important, in cover versions. If Hollywood is about to dilute her memory by casting Zoe Saldana in her fictionalized biography, it’s really nothing very new. In the 1960s and 1970s, Simone was too radical for mainstream radio, but far too great an artist to completely ignore. So they served up her music in white face. I grew up hearing Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. It’s part of my childhood, but I heard it sung by the British rock and roll group The Animals, not by Simone herself. I had no idea the song Ain’t Got No, I Got Lifethat Treat Williams performed in Milos Foreman’s film version of the musical Hair had been written by Nina Simone. I’m not knocking Milos Foreman or The Animals, but I was amazed by just how much more depth Simone gave the lyrics than Eric Burdon. I had always through Burdon was singing lyrics he didn’t entirely understand, but it was only after I saw What Happened Miss Simone that I fully understood why.
As different as I am from Nina Simone, I came away from What Happened Miss Simone feeling as if I had been introduced to a kindred spirit, a soul mate I never got a chance to meet. Simone wasn’t just a performer or a singer, but a woman who had deeply wounded by American racism, and could only really stay alive as long as she was able to transform her pain into her art. As the Jazz critic Stanley Crouch remarks midway through the documentary, she was too much of a rebel for the revolution, an outcast among outcasts, a radical among radicals. It’s a testament to a powerful soul that she made it to the age of 70, that she kept pushing against the demons inside her in order to create her music until the very end. It’s also a testament to the radical politics that got her pushed out of the mainstream in the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps if Kurt Cobain or Amy Winehouse had discovered something to fight for, they might have found a reason to live past 30, even if it had meant another 40 years of pain and emotional anguish.
The Martian is half Robinson Crusoe, half Gravity, and one-hundred-percent empty, manipulative, self-satisfied Hollywood blockbuster. It’s not exactly what you would call a bad movie. The first half is a mildly entertaining sequel to Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon with a high-IQ, now a well-adjusted graduate of the University of Chicago using every once of his powerful mind to survive on a desolate planet. The second half is a decent rolling coaster ride. It’s just that there are better uses for $108 million dollars. The Martian’s larger ideological agenda, to bring back the pro-science, can-do politics of the Kennedy Administration, would have made a great subject for a much smarter, more character-driven movie. Here it just feels like propaganda, a PSA for NASA. TV did this kind of thing much better in the 1960s at a fraction of the cost.
The Martian opens with Mark Watney, Damon, and a crew of six other astronauts commanded by Melissa Lewis, Jessica Chastain, on the surface of Mars. A fast moving storm forces an emergency takeoff. Damon gets left behind. Things look grim, but he’s a clever resourceful man, and, like Robinson Crusoe, he eventually finds a way to survive on his own. Bad stuff happens. More bad stuff happens, but nothing with any long lasting consequences. Ridley’s Scott’s Mars is a place where you can repair a damaged space suit with duct tape or dig what essentially amounts to a bullet out of your gut all by yourself and put a band aid on it. What threatens to be the loneliness of solitary confinement on a planet 249 million miles away from Earth where everybody thinks you’re dead is solved when a young woman at NASA simply looks at a TV screen – oh there he is – and our clever hero hacks an old satellite that had crashed landed on the planet decades before.
The Martian never tells as what year it is, but it feels like 2016 with a better space program, the world we would have had if the United States government had built on the genuine accomplishments of that trip to the moon. It’s also the ideal world of a Hillary Clinton supporter. Melissa Lewis is the boss. Mark Watney is her linkable intellectual sidekick. The head of NASA is a WASP male played by Jeff Daniels, but the space program itself is entirely multicultural and feminist – Kristen Wig puts in an appearance as NASA’s press secretary– and the heart, soul, and brains of the whole operation is Vincent Kapoor, a black man played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Kapoor’s sidekick is a skinny blond millennial played by Mackenzie Davis – imagine a high fashion model with zits to prove she’s got nerd cred — and it’s a young black guy named Rich Purnell, Donald no relation to Danny Glover, who thinks up the plan that finally brings Mark Whatney back alive. Even the Chinese get into the act.
In other words, you could do worse than to think of the world of The Martian as Hollywood, if Hollywood weren’t so white and so sexist. The problem is that, like Hollywood, The Martian’s fictional NASA has little, or nothing to do with the rest of the American people. Ridley Scott gives us a lot of very talented, very likable scientists, astronauts and elite intellectuals played by a lot of very likable and very talented A-list Hollywood actors. Except for some Times Square at New Years style crowds, however, we never get a sense of what the rest of the United States, or the rest of the world is like. We the people seem to exist only as an audience to cheer on the gifted and talented scientists at the Johnson Space Center as they stage a multi-billion dollar production of Saving Private Astronaut.
While the world of The Martian is multicultural and feminist, the leading man is still our favorite square-jawed white bro from Southy, Matt Damon. He’s cleaned up his accent a bit and he’s benefited from all that psychotherapy he got from the late Robin Williams, but he’s still Will Hunting, all American boy with a genius-level IQ who decided to get a job with NASA instead of the NSA. You didn’t think they were going to cast a black guy as Robinson Crusoe instead of Friday, did you? The Martian’s decision not ask the question of where NASA gets all that money for that once every four year mission to Mars, to avoid the sociological implications of the world it imagines, winds up taking most of the suspense away from the plot. We know Mark Whatney is going to live. We know that Melissa Lewis is eventually going to turn her space ship around and go back for him. Sandra Bullock left George Clooney behind in the cold, vast depths of outer-space but goddammit, Jessica Chastain is going back for Matt Damon. No movie is going to kill off Matt Damon. You can kill of George Clooney, as long as he goes out in style, but you’re not going to kill of Matt Damon, not after Tom Hanks went though all that trouble of rescuing him from the Nazis.
Like most Hollywood movies, The Martian is a lot of bad writing tied together by an entertaining spectacle. Ridley Scott and Drew Goddard never give as a set of fictional rules their characters have to understand, or die. What’s plausible and what isn’t plausible changes according to how often the screenwriters want it to change. We the viewers are completely passive. Can you grow potatoes on Mars? Sure you can, until the screenplay says you can’t. Can you blast out of its orbit in a tin covered up by a tarp? Yes you can, until the screenplay says it just isn’t quite enough and you need to punch a hole in your space suit and use your remaining oxygen as a mini jet engine. Can you set off a bomb on your space ship, or dig up a nuclear reactor on Mars without getting killed? Yes you can, if Ridley Scott and Drew Godard say you can. That so much bad writing works so well until the film is well-past the 2 hour mark, where you finally begin to nod off, is testament to Ridley Scott’s talent as a director. Like any good roller coaster ride, The Martian makes you grab the arm rest on your chair and hope things all work out for the best. Eventually, however, it all begins to fall apart. The script has front-loaded so much of the plot into the first act on Mars that the editors have to do some fancy editing – “oh shit we only have 20 minutes and we still have to get Private Ryan back to America” — to end the damn thing so we can all get in our cars and go home.
I would love to have been a fly on the wall in the studio where they were cutting the final release. Ridley Scott storms into find a room full of script doctors desperately trying to write the last act. “What? You’re not finished yet. We need to get this thing out so it can be nominated for an Oscar. Fuck it. End it. Just use a montage. Americans love music videos. They’ll never notice.”
Tom Hooper’s film about Danish painters Gerda Wegener and Lili Elbe has received positive, but mostly lukewarm reviews. I can understand why. Hooper has given The Danish Girl a high-toned, somewhat restrained quality that seems more suited to a Merchant Ivory costume drama than to a film about the first person in Europe to undergo gender reassignment surgery. But I liked it a lot more than Hooper’s earlier film The King’s Speech, which won Best Picture.
The main reason is Alicia Vikander, a brown-eyed, olive-skinned Swedish actress who might just be the hottest Scandinavian in film since Anna Karina. Is there a Jean-Luc Godard out there who can make her his muse? She deserves to be in a genuinely great movie, but no amount of clumsy, British restraint can take away the purely cinematic quality that Vikander brings to The Danish Girl. It’s impossible to look at anything else when she’s on camera.
I’ve never been a huge fan of Eddie Redmayne. He was miscast as Marius Pontmercy in the 2012 production of Les Miserables, also directed by Tom Hooper, and as Matt Damon’s son in Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd. In the Danish girl, he works. While he certainly doesn’t have the forceful, masculine appearance you need to play an 1830s French revolutionary or a modern day American CIA frat-bro, he’s not exactly what you would call effeminate or sexually ambiguous. I didn’t really believe him as a woman. To be honest, I kept thinking of Monty Python characters in drag, but I had no trouble believing him as a man uncomfortable in his own body. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, for example, his character Lili Elbe, who was born Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener, kisses a man for the first time as an adult, and immediately gets a bad nose bleed. Elbe’s spirit almost seems to be rebelling against her flesh.
I don’t really know how to write about issues of sexual identity. I’m not transgender. I don’t know any transgender people, and I haven’t read any books about sexual reassignment. Off hand, the only transgender people I can think of are Caitlyn Jenner and Chelsea Manning, who’s of interest mainly because of her persecution by the Obama administration for exposing American war crimes in Iraq. I suspect many film critics are in the same boat, but I don’t think you have to be an expert in gender reassignment surgery or transgender issues to appreciate The Danish Girl, for it works on two other levels.
While the main focus of The Danish Girl is on what was probably the very first example of gender reassignment surgery in Europe, the film is also about two artists, one who finds her long sought after subject, the other who loses hers, and the dissolution of their marriage. The Danish Girl opens with Einar and Gerda Wegener, a happily married couple who appear to be in their mid-20s – they were actually in their 40s when Einar came out as a woman – living in Copenhagen, Denmark in the 1920s. Einar is a successful landscape painter. Gerda is a failed portrait artist, but they have a bond that makes them lucky. For most creative artists, pursuing your art means giving up on the idea of a normal heterosexual marriage. Unless you have enough inherited money to hire servants and to avoid a regular job, a man usually has to spend years in the kind of poverty that makes him unattractive to most women. Women, as Virginia Woolf pointed out in her classic essay A Room With a View, most women don’t have the time to write and to raise children. You need to choose one.
Not to be flippant or sexist, but for a straight man, the idea of being only a moderately successful landscape painter with a wife who looks like Alicia Vikander, let alone one who supports what he’s doing, is a little bit like hitting the lottery. For a straight woman like Gerda Wegener, the idea of putting your own creative pursuits on hold to stand by your husband is sadly familiar, but Gerda doesn’t hide her frustration. She makes one “cisgender” model uncomfortable when she talks about how, as a woman objectifying a man, she’s turning the tables on him by painting his portrait. She’s visibly angry with her husband after an art dealer refuses to sell her paintings.
After she persuades Einar to pose as a woman after another model doesn’t show for her sitting, however, and he tries on a pair of nylons, the effect is a bit like Saint Paul being struck by lightening on the road to Damascus. Almost immediately, Einar recognizes that he isn’t a man, that she was born a woman in a male body. Einar Wegener is dead. Lili Elbe is born. While Einar’s transformation into Lili has a catastrophic effect on his marriage to Gerda, it’s like a shot of adrenaline to Gerda’s career as a painter. Einar has found his true gender. Gerda has found her subject, her husband, who can no longer be her husband, a woman who can no longer live in the body of a man.
After Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out as a woman, transgender people are now a familiar subject in the mainstream media. In the 1920s, however, Lili’s realization that she was a woman in a strange man’s body was as horrifying as it was exhilarating. As Gerda becomes more and more successful, Einar feels as if he’s spiraling into madness. Even for educated, creative people like the Wegeners, the idea that some women are simply born into male bodies must have felt as if it had come from outer space. Nevertheless, Einar is a hero, or, rather, a heroine, willing to undergo an experimental procedure that will almost certainly mean her death. It’s a credit to Alicia Vikander, in turn, just how well she is able to express the idea that Gerda is probably more distraught at the idea of losing a husband who can no longer be her husband than over the prospect of losing the model that has brought her fame and fortune.
The Danish Girl’s British restraint, while often criticized, is actually what makes the film work. Lili Elbe walks quietly to her fate with Gerda Wegener as her sympathetic witness. Tom Hooper never allows the fascinating story to get lost in an overwrought melodrama.
Bridge of Spies is an Academy Award nominated film that celebrates the patriarchal authority of a decent, liberal, middle-aged, white American male in a world full of right-wing extremists, thuggish German communists, bitchy women, and hysterical, brainwashed children. Naturally it stars Tom Hanks. Don’t get me wrong. There a lot to admire about Steven Spielberg’s Cold War drama. Spielberg knows how to make a watchable movie. Mark Rylance won a Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of the captured Russian spy Rudolf Abel. The screenplay by Ethan and Joel Coen argues for diplomacy over war. It champions democracy and the rule of law over the kind of unquestioning nationalism inspired by fear. As the film goes on, however, and on – it’s a long movie – you begin to realize you’re being told a story you’ve heard 100 times before. It’s still okay. It’s not that the man who’s sitting next to you at the pub is necessarily a bore. He knows how to tug at your heart strings, but you also wonder if that lump in your throat is genuine emotion, or if you’ve just had one too many shots of 11-year-old malt Spielberg.
I don’t know how many people these days are familiar with the Francis Gary Powers affair – it was way before my time – but it was a big deal in 1960, in the last year of the Eisenhower Administration and at the height of the Cold War. After Powers, a pilot flying a CIA U2 spy plane is shot down over the Soviet Union, Eisenhower denied that U2, which flew at altitudes over 70,000 feet, even existed. In the event of getting hit by anti-aircraft fire, Powers was supposed to have blown up the plane in mid-air. Failing that, he was supposed to have taken a cyanide capsule to avoid capture. In any event, Francis Gary Powers chose to live, the Soviet government paraded him through the newsreels, and Eisenhower came away looking like a big, fat liar.
Three years before, a minor Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel had been arrested in Brooklyn, tried, and convicted of espionage. Having avoided the death penalty thanks to his lawyer James B. Donovan, and a courageous decision by an otherwise conservative judge, Abel is now a valuable commodity. Since the Russians don’t want Abel to tell the Americans what he knows and the Americans don’t want Powers to tell the Russians what he knows, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles decides that a prisoner exchange might be in the interests of both governments. He calls Donovan into his office and sends him on a secret mission to East Berlin to negotiate with the Soviets, who have Powers, and the East Germans, who have snatched a young man named Frederic Pryor, an American graduate student who got stuck on the wrong side of the newly constructed Berlin Wall, as a bit of extra leverage. The CIA wants Powers. They don’t much care about Pryor, but Donovan, being a liberal and a humanitarian, strongly believes that “every life counts,” and pushes hard for both. In reality, neither Powers nor Abel was very important. The Russians would never have let Powers go if he had anything left to tell them. They had the fragments of the U2, and they had made a fool out of Eisenhower. Releasing Powers was actually to their advantage since it would keep the whole incident in the news. Rudolf Abel, in turn, was a nobody who, during his stay in the United States, had not managed to get a single piece of useful information or recruit even one American to the Communist Party. If the Soviet government got a propaganda victory by parading Powers in front of the cameras, the United States government got a propaganda victory by giving Abel a lawyer, and not sentencing him to death after the rigged trial.
Bridge of Spies, to its credit, is aware of how Abel was basically just a harmless old man who liked to sit in the park and paint. Donovan did in fact make a courageous decision agreeing to defend him in court. The film is also full of historical errors, some harmless, and added for dramatic effect, others not only laughable, but evidence of a somewhat suspect ideological agenda.
While it’s quite possible, for example, that Donovan didn’t tell his wife why he was going to East Berlin, let’s not kid ourselves. She probably figured it out. What’s more, since he has no trouble disobeying the orders of his CIA handlers when it comes to Frederic Pryor, his choice to keep his wife in the dark about his mission to the Warsaw Pact during the height of the Cold War sends a clear message. Women are not to be trusted. Spying and diplomacy is game for men, not women and children. Some of this is obviously poetic license in the service of telling a good story. While in reality nobody shot at James Donovan’s house in Brooklyn in retaliation for his agreeing to defend a Russian spy, it makes for good drama. Donovan was a hero, trying to save the life of Rudolf Abel, an honorable adversary to the United States, even as his son was getting brainwashed in school by useless duck and cover drills, his daughter is dodging bullets, and his wife is giving him the cold shoulder. It also sets the stage for a wonderfully patriarchal moment at the end. Donovan has returned home after successfully negotiating the release of Pryor and Powers. His wife gives him a hard time. Where were you? Why did you take so long? And why did you pick up the wrong can of cherry preserves from the supermarket? His kids are beginning to see him as a curious and eccentric “dad” you night love, but not necessarily respect. Then the evening news flashes on their television set announcing that Francis Gary Powers was free and it was none other than James. B. Donovan who arranged his release. Patriarchal authority has been restored. Why was the old man in Berlin? Well he was doing important stuff you kids wouldn’t understand.
The real Frederic Pryor, who’s very much alive, and is currently a professor emeritus at Swarthmore College, has pointed out that Bridge of Spies gives us a distorted picture of the East German government. Wolfgang Vogel, played by the German actor Sebastian Koch as a surly pissed off, stereotypical Kraut, was actually a nice guy. Pryor had not been captured during the construction of the Berlin Wall. He was detained after his landlady in East Berlin defected to the west. Whether or not he was kept in a cell half flooded with freezing water is probably Spielberg’s invention. People certainly did got shot trying to get over the wall to West Berlin. Donovan never witnessed it. I’m perfectly willing to believe that Francis Gary Powers was water boarded and subjected to sleep deprivation – torture is what governments do – but there’s no question that Spielberg goes out of his way to portray the East Germans as Nazis.
Indeed, while it’s the Russians not the East Germans who torture Powers, Bridge of Spies is a tale of good commie – the Russians – and bad commie – the Germans. For Spielberg, Russians, especially Abel, are basically decent folk who just happen to be on the other side. Germans, on the other hand – even German Americans like Donovan’s CIA handler Hoffman – are, well, Germans. The whole movie makes me wonder just how much mileage Hollywood has left in the idea of the snarling, heel clicking Teutonic villain. The Second World War has been over for 70 years now and the Germans are our friends. They’re nice to Middle Eastern refugees and they have a woman president. They’re not going to invade Poland.
It’s not that Spielberg has anything against Germans per se. He just wants to portray Abel, who has a sympathetic, if somewhat neurotic wife in Russia, as an East Bloc version of James Donovan. Abel likes to paint. He appreciates good music. He’s a cultured civilized man, exactly the kind of communist John F. Kennedy was talking about in his American University speech. He’s the kind of guy someone like Donovan could meet at the club after work while they both have a drink and talk about their family and their jobs. Unlike the Germans, who are thoroughly otherized, Abel is one of us. In fact, by the time the Russians and Americans meet at the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin to arrange the exchange, we’re beginning to wonder why Abel just doesn’t stay in the United States. Donovan is worried that Abel might just get shot. When the East Germans balk at returning Pryor along with Powers, Abel disobeys his own government to side with the Americans. If the East Germans don’t return Pryor, he’ll stay in the United States and do his 30 years in prison. Abel is not only a Russian spy. He and James Donovan are soul mates. It’s easy too see why Mark Rylance won Best Supporting Actor. Tom Hanks is playing Tom Hanks, but Rylance manages to give depth to a man who, facing the next 30 years in jail, takes solace in painting and the music of Shostakovich. Good men, both Russian and American, disobey their own governments for the sake of their humanitarian principles.
The biggest “what the fuck moment” in Bridge of Spies comes with Spielberg’s resurrection of John Forster Dulles, who actually died in 1959, to serve as the United States Secretary of State during the Francis Gary Powers Affair. The real Secretary of State in 1960, Christian Herter, has been forgotten by history. He seems to have been a relatively inoffensive figure, as far as American Secretaries of State go. Dulles, on the other hand, was a flat out villain, a snarling anti-communist fanatic who organized the coups in Guatemala and Iran and repeatedly brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war. I’m not exactly sure why Spielberg went with Dulles instead of Herter – who as a Harvard graduate would have served nicely as a figure of the liberal WASP patriarchy– but the ideological intention is clear. Spielberg wants to rescue American history from itself, to white wash its sins on the big screen, to portray even irredeemably evil figures like the Dulles brothers as fundamentally benevolent. It’s nothing new. Spielberg has always been a syrupy American nationalist. Indeed, when Dulles summons Donovan to the State Department, it’s a remake of a very similar scene in his earlier film Saving Private Ryan. Back in the 1990s, George Marshall summoned Captain Miller, also Tom Hanks, to his headquarters, then sent him on a mission to rescue Private First Class James Francis Ryan behind German lines. In the 2010s, it’s John Foster Dulles and James B. Donovan. Indeed, if you wanted to, you could probably rename Bridge of Spies as “Saving Graduate Student Pryor.”
Matt Damon, thank God, was probably too old for the role.
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