Category Archives: Male Film Directors

Oppenheimer (2023)

In every generation there is a movie. He was a man, but he was more than a man. While other kids were playing with toys, he was contemplating Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. While his classmates at middle-school were listening to the Backstreet Boys, he was writing grand operas for La Scala. By the time he was barely old enough to vote, he was already marked off as a man of destiny. Women desired him, but couldn’t understand him. Men tried to use him, but never really controlled him. In the end he was dragged down, not only by his personal demons, but by the vengeful mediocrities he barely deigned to notice, until they destroyed him. He is the sexy, misunderstood genius.

For late Boomers and early Gen Xers, he is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the raucous, fun-loving innocent of Milos Foreman’s 1984 movie Amadeus, the gifted composer driven to madness by his rival Antonio Salieri, who had no musical inspiration, but did possess a genius for evil. For late Gen Xers he is Will Hunting, a young working-class man from South Boston, who could solve complex mathematical equations beyond the ability of tenured MIT professors, but who not even Robin Williams could save from being a belligerent asshole. Early Millennials got the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a whole stable full of mutants and superheroes, Batman, Ironman and Captain America. Finally, in 2023, late millennials have gotten their own sexy, misunderstood genius, the man who made it possible for humanity to destroy itself, J. Robert Oppenheimer himself, the Prometheus who gave the secret of atomic fire to the American ruling class, but who in the end was done in by Tony Stark disguised as a Jewish shoe salesman turned politician.

Far be it from me as an unintelligent Polish American — hell I can’t even screw in a lightbulb by myself — to pass judgement on history’s greatest minds, but if I had to choose one of the three, Mozart, Will Hunting, or Oppenheimer, I would of course chose Mozart. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart genuinely enriched humanity. By driving him to an early death the demonic Salieri deprived us of decades of opera, symphonies, string quartets and clarinet solos. Will Hunting of course is a fictional working-class Bostonian who does manage to humiliate an arrogant preppy in a “Hahvad Bah” and confidently informs his psychotherapist that he has “the wrong fucking books,” but in general shows few signs of being a world historical genius unless we take the movie’s word for it. Will Hunting does, however, have one moment of unimpeachable integrity. When a bureaucrat from the National Security Agency (NSA) temps him to prostitute himself to the government in exchange for a steady high paying job and access to cutting edge technology, Will tells him in no uncertain terms to go straight to hell.

Christopher’s Nolan’s Oppenheimer, played to gaunt perfection by Cillian Murphy — the man actually looks like a genius — has no such working-class mistrust and contempt for the system. Why would he? He’s from a wealthy New York German Jewish family. His father was an art collector who decorated their palatial Riverside Drive apartment with original paintings by Van Gogh and Picasso. He’s gotten the best education money can buy, private schools in Manhattan, Harvard and Cambridge, a PHD from the University of Gottingen. But he’s no East Coast city slicker deprived of nature’s wonders. His family wealth has allowed him to spend extended periods of time hiking in the remote Southwest near a place called Los Alamos. True, he’s indulged in the fashionable left-wing politics of the 1930s. He sends money to Spanish refugees and passionately supports the republican side of the Spanish Civil War. But the Roosevelt administration doesn’t even have to ask him to sign onto the Manhattan Project. Quite the contrary, he never doubts the idea that the United States has to build its own atomic bomb to counter Hitler’s. Oppenheimer becomes the father of the nuclear arms race, not in spite of his left-wing politics, but because of them.

The ethical conflicts in Oppenheimer don’t present themselves in big dramatic moments. Instead they consist of little compromises made along the way so as not to derail the all important, ongoing project taking place at Los Alamos. Oppenheimer may not be a communist or even a socialist, but he is a good progressive liberal unwilling to enforce military discipline on scientists and their families. Even after he’s given clear instructions by his superiors, he won’t flat out order his subordinates not to organize unions sponsored by the Communist Party or hold cross departmental discussion groups that turn out to be a threat to the project’s security. Oppenheimer won’t join the Communist Party, even during the short lived American/Soviet alliance, but he has no problem socializing with communists, or even marrying them. It’s only later that those compromises, which in 1944 and 1945 feel like the acts of a good supervisor protecting his employees from meddling bureaucrats but a decade later during the McCarthy era look like treason, that his inability to confront trivial every day issues comes back to bite him. Ernest Lawrence, played by Josh Hartnett, is the voice of reason, and even a stand in for Christopher Nolan himself. “Tell your subordinates to keep their politics out of the workplace,” he implores his friend. “Why do college graduates need unions?” he adds speaking for every Silicon Valley tech CEO in despair over the idea that the employees at his latest startup have picked up one too many “woke” ideas from social media.

The social media controversy over the Irish Catholic Murphy playing a Jewish character was silly. Murphy nails Oppenheimer’s physical appearance so well I half want him to play every Jewish genius from 20th Century history. Someone cast him as Franz Kafka. He already looks the part. On the other hand, Nolan does not do full justice to the real moral conflict at the center of the film. The origin of the Manhattan Project was ultimately the 1939 letter Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard sent to Franklin Roosevelt warning him that Hitler was working on a German atomic bomb. The bomb detonated at Los Alamos was meant to be used as a defensive measure against a genocidal Nazi Germany, not as a genocidal act against the Japanese meant to intimidate the Soviet Union. Indeed, had Hitler gotten an atomic bomb before the Nazi regime fell he would have been far more likely to have used it at Stalingrad or Moscow than against Paris or London. The use of the bomb against Japanese civilians, and the later McCarthyite hysteria about communists in the American government was just the kind of fascist turn in the United States Oppenheimer wanted to prevent.

Nolan’s use of Lewis Strauss, therefore, an ambitious self-hating Jewish mediocrity, as the film’s main villain, therefore, distorts the real history of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s downfall. In the 1940s and 1950s history was moving at warp speed. It must have been indeed dismaying for progressive intellectuals like Oppenheimer to see the crowning achievement of his life’s work used by the American ruling class to intimidate China in North Korea or to develop a monopoly of destructive power over the global south. Indeed, Richard Nixon and John Foster Dulles lobbied Eisenhower to offer the French use of three small tactical nukes at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, but Eisenhower, who had felt the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki unnecessary, wisely refused.  “You boys must be crazy,” Eisenhower told them. “We can’t use those awful things against Asians for a second time in less than ten years. My God!” When even a conservative, and racist, Republican President is reluctant to commit atomic war crimes against a non-European people, it must have been galling for Oppenheimer.

That Harry Truman, played by Gary Oldman, had no such scruples about ordering the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians, lays the basis for one of the film’s best scenes. As good as Robert Downy Jr.’s performance as Lewis Strauss may be, he’s no Antonio Salieri. We know exactly why Salieri wants to destroy Mozart. The pain the Italian mediocrity feels over Mozart’s ability to create beauty that he can understand but will never compose himself is real. We understand why he’s a damned soul. Strauss’s hatred for Oppenheimer, on the other hand, is ultimately based on one interaction at the Institute for Advanced Research at Princeton where he incorrectly believes Oppenheimer is responsible for a snub by Albert Einstein. It feels forced. Truman’s crude brutality — he offers Oppenheimer a tissue when Oppenheimer expresses his guilt over Hiroshima and Nagasaki — feels very real.

It also aligns perfectly with the right wing Nolan’s elitism. Nolan presents Oppenheimer as a hero, in spite of the scientist’s New Deal liberalism, because he sees him as a superior man, a superior man who was sadly too sympathetic to the left wing politics of his inferiors. He should have been more like Truman, Nolan seems to imply, or at least recognized the presence of a fellow superman above good and evil. His sincere confession that he “has blood on his hands” to such an crudely brutal and amoral politician feels degrading, weak. Similarly a tech CEO like Elon Musk, should feel no hesitation about breaking unions and letting his employees know who’s boss. Ultimately Oppenheimer is the tragedy of a superior man brought down by a misguided sympathy for democracy. J. Robert Oppenheimer, to paraphrase Will Hunting, has read “the wrong fucking books.” It should have been less Marx and more Nietzsche.

The Station Agent (2003)

Peter Dinklage, who’s probably best known for playing Tyrion Lannister from the HBO miniseries Game of Thrones, first came to wide attention in 2003 for a brief, 3-minute scene in Will Ferrell’s Christmas movie Elf. It is a hilarious meeting of opposites. The 6’3″ Ferrell is a childlike innocent who grew up in Santa’s workshop at the North Pole. The 4’5″ Dinklage is an aggressive, Type-A frat boy who brags about his material possessions and sexual conquests as if he were just another follower of Andrew Tate. After Ferrell speaks to Dinklage as if he sincerely believes he’s an elf who had escaped from the North Pole, and Dinklage violent assaults him, as guilty as we may feel about our ingrained bias against people with dwarfism, it’s difficult to keep a straight face.

That same year, Dinklage played the lead in a small, low-budget movie called The Station Agent. Set in sparsely populated West Milford, New Jersey and starring Patricia Clarkson, Michelle Williams, and Bobby Cannavale, the critically acclaimed film further explores the dilemma of being a 5’10” man in a 4’5″ body. Dinklage plays Finbar McBride, an employee at a small hobby shop in Hoboken New Jersey specializing in model trains. When Henry Styles, his long-time friend and employer played by Paul Benjamin, one of the street corner Greek chorus from Do the Right Thing, dies of a heart attack, Finbar, or “Fin” as he refers to himself, suddenly finds himself without a job. For reasons unmentioned, Styles does not leave Fin the hobby store, but he does leave him a small piece of property, including an old train depot, and an old passenger car, 44 miles away in the unincorporated Newfoundland area of West Milford in Northern Passaic County.

To call West Milford, New Jersey “rural” would be a bit of a stretch. It’s an affluent suburban area just south of the New York State border, and about 20 minutes north of Morristown and the cluttered retail strip in East Hanover on Route 10. Nevertheless, it’s about as different from Hoboken and Hudson County as you can possibly get. Tall trees, quiet roads, lonely mountain lakes, the whole area has an idyllic feel, the kind of place where, in the Spring, you just want to go outside and ride a bike or walk. That’s precisely what Fin does. When we see him talking towards the Hoboken rail terminal, we assume he’s just going to get on the PATH and take a NJ Transit Bus from the Port Authority. Instead he drops down onto the tracks and walks, all 44 miles to West Milford. That Fin would have certainly run into murderous traffic along the way and surely would have been shooed off of NJ Transit property by the police is besides the point. The world of The Station Agent is a quiet little cul-de-sac off the main road of early 21st Century America.

While the tracks in front of the old railway depot in Newfoundland are still active, it’s a low volume freight line, and no longer carries passengers from New York City to the (still extant) Idylease Inn, a luxurious resort yet still open to the middle-class of the metropolitan area. Moving into the depot, for Fin, is to commune with ghosts, the ghosts of vacationers from the early 20th Century, but most of all with the ghost of the station agent, who in 1900 would have been a combination ticket seller, general store manager, and even barber. Above all the station agent would have been an outsider and an observer, a man looking at the world passing by and wondering when if ever he would become a part of it.

Idylease around 1910

Idylease (A frequent stop on my cycling route) today.

Once ensconced in the depot, Fin almost immediately makes a friend. At first it seems an “unlikely” friendship. Joe, played by Bobby Cannavale of Boardwalk Empire, is a tall handsome Cuban American who surely has no trouble meeting women or making friends. Indeed, it seems a little strange, almost creepy. Why exactly does this strapping young Latin hunk want to be friends so badly with a dwarf? Does he have some kind of fetish? But then we realize that Joe, who runs a hotdog stand out in the middle of nowhere and can’t possibly be turning a profit, has also communed with the ghost of the station master at the old depot. He’s a customer service agent without any customers.

People can make connections, the movie seems to argue, without speaking. They feel one another’s souls. There’s a reason Joe’s spirit reaches out to Fin’s. His father is dying. If Fin has recently lost his spiritual father, then Joe is constantly worried about losing his real father. He suddenly realizes why he has driven his father’s hotdog truck out to the middle of nowhere and set up shop. Fin is wary and mistrustful. But Joe breaks down his defenses. “Be friends with me bro,” he seems to say. “I may be a foot and a half taller than you but inside we’re just two lonely guys who have lost our dads.”

Indeed, it quickly becomes clear why Fin rarely talks about his old boss Henry Styles, even though Henry protected him from customers who would mock him for being a dwarf. The entire plot revolves, not only around the station agent’s ghost, but around Harry’s ghost. People are drawn to Fin, not because they’re curious about his being a dwarf, but because they sense his loss and want to share their own. Olivia Harris, played by Patricia Clarkson, who has recently been separated from her husband over their shared grief at a lost child, almost runs into Fin, not once but twice when she spills coffee into her lap in her SUV. Eventually, Joe, Olivia and Fin are drawn together almost by the force of gravity.

Olivia also offers Fin and unexpected opportunity for redemption. Early in the movie, she is the pursuer. She barges into Fin’s life whether he likes it or not. But as the film progresses, she becomes more and more consumed with anguish over the loss of her child and the separation from her husband, and withdraws into a suicidal depression, trying to push both Fin and Joe out of her life. Suddenly, Fin is no longer trapped in the shell, which is not only an accident of a physical handicap but which is partly of his own making. He finds he cares about a person who is pushing him away. He has to find a way to break through her defenses so they can once again be friends. A subplot with Michelle Williams, always an appealing actress, feels a bit forced but further hammers in the point that Fin is a 5’10” man living in a dwarf’s body. After her abusive boyfriend shoves Fin to the ground after Fin tries to protect her, and he’s angry that he doesn’t have the size or strength to win the fight, she tries to seduce him. But it’s not what he wants. “People don’t understand,” he says. “I’m just a boring, ordinary person.” Fin doesn’t want sexual conquest. He pursues Olivia because he cares about her, not because he wants her as a lover. He and Joe end up almost like brothers. But he doesn’t want to get even with an abusive asshole by fucking his girlfriend. He’s not that kind of person.

We don’t learn anything about Fin’s past, other than that he’s a man in his 30s who loves trains and recently worked in a hobby store. But he appears to be an educated man from middle-class family, a socially isolated underachiever not because of poverty but because of dwarfism. Throughout the movie, Fin has been pursued by another Joe, Cleo, a young black girl still in junior high school, who barges into his life out of pure innocent curiosity. This is where we realizes how different Peter Dinklage’s character is from the arrogant jerk he played in Elf. He’s not offended by Cleo’s innocence. He’s redeemed by it. Finally agreeing to be a guest lecturer in front of her class and give a talk about trains, he seems to get over his anxiety over speaking in front of crowds. A boy makes a cheap crack about his height, but it’s no big deal. The other kids are so fascinated by his knowledge of trains they want him to come back and give a talk about blimps. Fin knows nothing about blimps, but upon meeting with Olivia and Joe the next day he starts peppering them with questions. Perhaps Fin is a grade school teacher waiting to come out of his shell, a popular little man who can speak to kids on their own level without condescending to them, the station agent finally come home from the past to find that maybe he has a future after all.

The Whale (2022)

In the opening of Darren Aronofsky’s new film The Whale, we find ourselves on a wooded, rural highway somewhere in North America. It’s quiet, idyllic, peaceful, without much traffic. A bus pulls up, stop, lets off a passenger on the side of the road, and pulls away. We do not see what he looks like. The camera does not pull in further, and in retrospect, it is an odd scene to begin a movie set almost entirely indoors. Indeed, with one very big exception, the Whale is not so much a cinematic adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter’s award winning 2013 drama so much a stage version of the play put to film.

In the next scene, we meet the very big exception, Charlie a lecturer at an online university in the process of teaching a lower level English course. While The Whale takes place in 2016 — there is running coverage of Donald Trump’s victory in the Republican Party primaries — the class feels more like 2020. Charlie’s students look bored, impatient, like they would rather be somewhere else. They are young, but don’t have the quality of youth. What’s more, almost as if he were wearing a mask, they can’t see Charlie’s face. “When is the professor finally going to get his webcam fixed?” one student remarks sarcastically. Charlies students will have to wait until the end of the movie to find out what their professor looks like. We get to see him in the very next scene.

Francoise Truffaut once remarked that it is impossible to make a genuinely antiwar movie since the cinematic aesthetic almost always throws a veil of glamour over the blood, gore, death and destruction. The same pitfall apply to addiction and self-destruction. If what does not kill you makes you stronger, what does kill you can also make you cool. Cigarettes cause cancer. They’re also inherently cinematic. While heroin addiction isn’t quite as cool as it was in the 1990s, it also killed Kurt Cobain and informed the aesthetic of neo-psychedelic groups like Mazzy Star and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Even alcoholism, as anybody who’s ever watched Humphry Bogart in Casablanca declare his nationality to be that of a “drunkard,” is more than just a way of killing yourself. It can also be a way of turning yourself into a romantic hero.

One form of self-destruction that’s almost impossible to make beautiful, however, is morbid obesity, which is exactly what we see when Charlie’s class ends. Brendan Fraser, who won an Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Charlie, the tall, rugged hunk from The Mummy, is now a balding middle-aged man wearing the fat suit that probably cost half the film’s budget. Charlie is not only fat. He’s quite literally killing himself by overdosing on food, a long, slow arduous process that has left him weighing at least 600 pounds, and has jacked up his blood pressure to 233/167. It’s immediately obvious why he doesn’t want his students to know what he looks like since he almost embodies the idea of the “corruption of the flesh,” of sin, or moral turpitude. Aronofsky takes the idea of Charlie’s depravity so far over the top it becomes almost funny. Masturbating to gay porn, he groans with pleasure until he clutches his chest and starts to groan in pain. Is Charlie having an orgasm or is he having a heart attack? No, he’s having a heart attack while he’s having an orgasm, sex, death, depravity, and self-destruction all wrapped up in a 600 pound, sweating, wheezing mound of flesh. Then we hear a knock on the door, and Thomas, a young man, barely into his 20s, the same young man who had gotten off the bus in the opening scene, walks into Charlie’s apartment.

“Do you have a few minutes to talk about Jesus?” he says, gasping in horror at the mountainous spectacle in front of him.

Quickly realizing that Charlie needs a doctor more than he needs a religious lesson, Thomas asks to borrow Charlie’s phone to call an ambulance — oddly for a member of Generation Z Thomas does not have a working cell phone — but Thomas’s first impulse was actually correct. Charlie, who is too far gone to save himself physically, is more interested in “the word” than in the flesh. He does in fact want to talk about books, just not the “good book.” Handing Thomas a typed single page he begs him to read. Baffled, Thomas hesitates, but Charlie insists, and when Thomas finally begins, we realizes it’s a crudely written book report on Moby Dick, the other whale of the title, an essay we later learn was written by someone long estranged but dear to Charlie’s heart, words he wants to have going through his mind as he dies. For Charlie, the beautiful, ornately poetic language of the King James Bible, would only take him further away from himself, from his family, from what he wants to remember in death. What Charlie values above all is not beauty, but authenticity. For Charlie, as he tells his students, a few words written sincerely from the heart are more valuable than the Song of Solomon.

The Whale has been criticized for casting a height weight proportional actor in a fat suit instead of a genuinely obese man, but I personally think Brenden Fraser is perfect for the role. Orson Welles and Marlon Brando in their later years were grotesquely fat, and either could have played a self-destructive English teacher, but both men also had a commanding presence, a force, an authenticity that would overwhelmed Charlie’s inner torment and made it impossible for us to understand the reason he has decided to commit suicide by overdosing on food. Brendan Fraser, on the other hand, with his thick lips, male pattern baldness, his almost stereotypical middle-aged ugliness, has a soft, weak, confused quality about him that at first glance would make him the kind of man no woman, or man, could love, the kind of man who would die a virgin, but it is not so. Charlie in fact used to be a respectable, educated, middle-class man, but it all came at the cost of denying himself, of denying his own homosexuality and emotional complexity. When, well into middle-age, he finally meets the love of his life, he gives up everything he has, his family, his job, his health, and finally his life, all to be true to the self he had been denying so long.

Indeed, Aronofsky has played a clever trick on us all. With the help of Brendan Fraser, he has taken the ugliest possible object anybody can imagine and made it beautiful. Thomas is a sincere young man who, unlike Charlie’s friend and caretaker Liz, depicted by the actress Hong Chau in a complex, nuanced, and compassionate performance, doesn’t quite understand that Charlie doesn’t want to be saved. He wants to be damned on his own terms. Like one of Dante’s beautiful sinners in the upper circles of hell, like Francesca Di Rimini, who was murdered while in the act of adultery and thus damned, he wants to cling to his beloved object for all of eternity, even if that eternity is full of misery. If the double grief of a lost bliss is to recall its happy hour in pain, Charlie wants to feel his grief forever.

Tár (2022)

Lydia Tár, a renowned classical musician and music director played by Cate Blanchett, has a lot on her plate. She’s not only the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, an august post formerly held by luminaries like Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, she’s also an “EGOT,” a person who’s won Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Awards. In other words, she’s written as much music as she’s conducted, and if that weren’t enough, she runs a school in New York City dedicated to “grooming” (choice of words no accident) young women to go onto be music directors themselves, and teaches a class at Julliard. My reaction hearing about Lydia Tár’s resume was similar to my reaction to hearing that Wilt Chamberlain slept with 20,000 women. “There isn’t enough time in the day.” But there’s where I’m wrong. In the long interview that opens the movie, with real life New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik, who plays himself straight but comes off like a clownish parody of a New York intellectual, Lydia Tár explains that her job as a conductor basically makes her a time lord. “The music can’t start without me. The music can’t stop without me,” she says. Lydia Tár has enough time because she commands time.

What Lydia Tár doesn’t command is the younger generation. In her class at Julliard, Cate Blanchett, in all of her flamboyant Aryan majesty, plays Lydia Tár playing Lydia Tár, an act that has brought her to the pinnacle of the artistic world. But this time the audience, her Generation Z students, aren’t buying it. We watch the transformation of a literal goddess, the privileged receptacle of the entirety of western tradition, transformed into just another out of touch old Boomer. When Max, one of her students, a tall good looking young man with a nervous leg played by newcomer Zethphan D. Smith-Gneist, tells her that “as a pangender BIPOC” he can’t perform Bach, Bach being a white, Protestant German male who oppressed both his wives by siring 20 children, she responds with a discourse on the importance of individual genius that we all agree with, but simultaneously see as a performance with a bit of a missed note. Max may be an absolute fool, but he’s also young, and the younger generation, who regenerate society with sex, idealism and passion, have decided that race and gender are more important than individual genius. They have pushed Lydia Tár and her beloved western tradition to the edge of the cliff, where she’s desperately hanging on for dear life

The rest of the movie shows them stomping on her fingers. As far as hostile young people go, Max is the least of Lydia Tár’s problems. Much more pressing is Francesca Lentini, a woman in her late 20s who we’re told is one of Tár’s designated successors at the Berlin Philharmonic, but who at the moment just seems liker her lackey and personal assistant. Francesca, played by Noémie Merlant from Portrait of a Lady on Fire, on the surface seems severe and competent, the kind of summer intern you’d actually hire permanently after she graduates, but surfaces can be deceiving. Francesca is also in constant touch, by smart phone of course, with another young woman named Krista, one of Tár’s former students who Tár may or may not have had an affair with, who may or may not have been an obsessed stalker, but who Lydia Tár has destroyed, blacklisted in the world of classical music and prevented from holding any job above the director of a local church orchestra or community theater. After Krista commits suicide, and Tár responds with astonishing callousness, Francesca’s passive aggressive resentment at long last explodes into out and out rage, and she begins plotting with Krista’s parents for Tár’s downfall.

Lydia Tár’s destruction has both a social and an artistic component. On the outside, we see her smeared in a highly edited TikTok video that “goes viral,” sued by Krista’s parents, and ultimately dismissed as director of the Berlin Philharmonic in favor of Eliot Kaplan, a billionaire investor who’s finally managed to buy his way to artistic success. But it’s Lydia Tár’s that is the soul of the movie. Tár’s confrontation with Max at Julliard was revealing. For Max, Bach was a “misogynist” because he sired a lot of children. For Lydia, a lesbian who will never have her own biological children, but like many gay men and women, has substituted art for procreation, that’s what made Bach worth studying, his ability generate life, to regenerate himself in his children, and ultimately his wife’s herculean ability to survive the rigors of 18th Century childbirth (Bach’s second wife, with whom he had 12 children, outlived him by a decade). Max, who’s chosen identity politics over life, can be dismissed. But it’s Olga, another young person, a talented Russian cellist played by real life cellist Sophie Kauer, who ultimately drives Lydia Tár over the edge.

In the artistic world, being “sexy” will get you a long way. In fact, it’s pretty much the entire point of artistic creation. What Millennials and members of Generation Z don’t quite understand, and why, with some exceptions, they’re boring, passive consumers of superhero movies and bad Star Wars reboots, “robots” as Lydia accurately points out, is that if you don’t want to fuck what’s up on screen, you’re not really experiencing “art.” You’re consuming a product. Olga, unlike Max, has real talent. In fact, she’s massively talented, and the only time the movie really comes alive is when she’s on screen. There’s no contradiction between Lydia Tár’s wanting to fuck Olga and wanting to promote her in the world of classical music. Lydia recognizes talent when she sees it and wants to do what she’s done all of her life, bring art and beauty to the rest of the world. But even within the framework of her own assumptions and ideology, the world has moved on from Lydia Tár. Olga will kiss the old lady’s ass as much she has to to get the spot in the Berlin Philharmonic but she’s most decidedly not under Tár’s spell. In fact, Tár no longer has a spell. She’s lost the ability to bewitch, to command an audience, or even to enjoy music.

Indeed, Lydia Tár’s keen sense of hearing, which has propelled her into the artistic stratosphere, is now her oppressor. Cut off from the world of youth, sex, beauty, creativity, she no longer hears symphonies and string quartets. She hears screams, stray out of place metronomes, unexplained groans from the next apartment, a frail elderly woman in the care of her Boomer daughter dying very loudly. Things fall apart. Mere aural anarchy has been unleashed upon Lydia Tár’s existence. Young people, who she has both exploited and promoted her over the years, have rejected her. Frail elderly people, who once exploited and promoted Lydia Tár, aren’t giving up the ghost without making a long, ugly moan. In the end, Lydia Tár finds herself expelled from the west itself, from the European elite that once accepted her, into an Asian exile, out of which which she may, or may not regenerate herself.

War and Peace (1967): An AI Generated Review

I had ChatGPT, the groundbreaking new artificial intelligence app, write me a review of Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace. Is it better than my own? It’s more concise. I asked it for at least 1000 words. It gave me 567.

Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1967 film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace is a cinematic masterpiece that successfully captures the complexity, depth, and grandeur of one of the greatest literary works of all time. At a runtime of over seven hours, the film is a monumental achievement in filmmaking, showcasing Bondarchuk’s talent as a director, writer, and actor.

The film is set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, and follows the lives of several aristocratic families as they navigate the tumultuous political and social landscape of Russia. The central characters are the idealistic and romantic Pierre Bezukhov (played by Bondarchuk himself), the strong-willed and passionate Natasha Rostova (played by Lyudmila Savelyeva), and the calculating and ambitious Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (played by Vyacheslav Tikhonov). The film traces their journeys from innocence to experience, from love to heartbreak, and from idealism to disillusionment, against the backdrop of war, politics, and social upheaval.

One of the most striking aspects of the film is its sheer scale and ambition. Bondarchuk spares no expense in recreating the lavish costumes, stunning landscapes, and epic battle scenes of the novel. The battle of Borodino, in particular, is a tour-de-force of filmmaking, with over 15,000 extras and hundreds of horses and cannons creating a visceral and unforgettable spectacle. The film’s use of widescreen and color cinematography is also noteworthy, capturing the beauty and majesty of the Russian countryside and the opulence and decadence of the aristocratic estates.

But while the film is undoubtedly a visual feast, it is also a deeply psychological and philosophical exploration of the human condition. The characters are complex and nuanced, each struggling to find meaning and purpose in a world that seems to be crumbling around them. Bondarchuk’s performance as Pierre is especially noteworthy, capturing the character’s vulnerability, idealism, and existential angst with great depth and sensitivity. His scenes with Natasha, played with equal sensitivity and nuance by Savelyeva, are some of the most emotionally powerful in the film, showcasing the complexities and contradictions of human love.

The film’s script, co-written by Bondarchuk and Vasiliy Solovyov, is also a triumph of adaptation. While some may argue that the film takes liberties with the novel, compressing and simplifying certain storylines and characters, the overall effect is one of clarity and coherence. The film successfully distills the essence of the novel, capturing its themes of love, war, and morality, and bringing them to life in a way that is both engaging and thought-provoking.

Of course, no film is without its flaws, and War and Peace is no exception. Some may find the film’s pacing slow, especially in the first half, and the sheer length of the film may be daunting for some viewers. Additionally, some of the secondary characters, such as the scheming Helene Kuragina (played by Anastasiya Vertinskaya), may feel underdeveloped and one-dimensional. But these are minor quibbles in the grand scheme of things, and do little to detract from the film’s overall power and impact.

In conclusion, Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1967 film adaptation of War and Peace is a true masterpiece of cinema, capturing the scope, depth, and beauty of Leo Tolstoy’s novel with skill, sensitivity, and ambition. It is a film that rewards patience and attention, offering a rich and rewarding experience for those willing to invest the time and energy. If you are a lover of cinema or literature, or simply a seeker of great stories, then War and Peace is a film that should not be missed.

War and Peace (1967)

In 1812, Western Europe was doing pretty much the same thing it’s trying to do today, trying to destroy Russia and its Orthodox Christian civilization. Indeed, when Napoleon crossed the Nieman River at the head of what was up until that point the largest army the world had ever seen, the Russian people, like the people of Spain and the royalist French counterrevolutionaries of the Vendee in the years before, saw him as the anti-Christ, the beast on horseback who would bring the godless red terror of the French Revolution to their doorsteps. They weren’t entirely wrong. The French sack of the fortress city of Smolensk was not only brutal, it threatened to destroy an icon of the Virgin Mary that Russian legend maintained had been rescued from the Ottoman Siege of Constantinople in 1453. Later that year, just before the Battle of Borodino, the Stalingrad of 1812, the Russian Army held a religious service where the Smolensk icon was displayed in front of over 100,000 soldiers, many of whom would die that day in the great battle that finally broke Napoleon’s aura of godlike invincibility. While Napoleon would drive the Russian Army from the field, then go on to occupy Moscow, the West had lost the apocalyptic clash of civilizations. Orthodox Russia would survive for another 105 years until 1917, when Lenin and the Bolsheviks destroyed it for good.

Or did they? That Sergei Bondarchuk could make his epic movie War and Peace in 1967 with the full state support of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union is something of a miracle. If it’s one thing the Soviet Union was good at it was putting history on screen. October by Sergei Eisenstein not only captured the storming of the Winter Palace on film, it became almost a historical event in and of itself. Bondarchuk’s film, which features tens of thousands of Red Army soldiers as extras, and which includes a full length reenactment of the veneration of the Smolensk Icon, is most emphatically not a communist movie. It is, rather, a resurrection of the Russia of Czar Alexander II, of the first Great Patriotic War, of the grand aristocratic society the Soviet Union had supposedly replaced. If we American love tabloid stories about the British Royal Family, we have nothing on those Russian communists of the 1960s who pretty much built a complete live action museum of a Christian empire that was gone forever. Compared to Bondarchuk’s epic, American attempts to recapture their history, from the silly Ted Turner Gettysburg of the 1990s, to classics like Gone With the Wind, seem almost primitive and childish.

Nevertheless, if Bondarchuk’s film is not a communist film, it’s not exactly a reactionary one either. Rather, it is a herculean attempt to bring Leo Tolstoy’s novel, and his deeply mature humanism, to cinema. Having read War and Peace twice, in English translation of course, I can say almost without reservation, that this film comes pretty close to succeeding. It’s not just that Bondarchuk manages to recreate a realistic facsimile of the world of 1812, it’s that he also manages to dramatize how small, relatively insignificant humans interact with gigantic historical events that threaten to crush them. In the burning of Moscow, for example, the film’s climatic sequence, and it does register as a climax after almost 6 hours of exposition, Pierre Bezukhov, the novel’s hero and Tolstoy’s alter-ego, who’s played by Bondarchuk himself, has stayed behind as part of a quixotic desire to assassinate Napoleon. The French, who had marched into the city in good order, have degenerated into a rapacious mob, looting and murdering civilians, raping women, and shooting at random civilians who they believe responsible for setting the fires. When a woman calls out that she has lost her child in the fire, Bezukhov forgets about his plan to assassinate Napoleon and bulls his way through a group of French soldiers in the direction of her house. The French, who had just finished looting it, tell Bezukhov that the child was indeed in the courtyard. They had made no attempt to rescue her, but don’t seem particularly interested in stopping the would be Russian hero from doing it himself.

Pierre Bezhukov succeeds in rescuing the child, but cannot find her mother. Did she die in the flames? Was she killed by the French? We never find out. Then the mood of the French soldiers changes just as suddenly as a fire changes direction in a strong wind. Even though he’s clearly got a child in his arms and he’s clearly looking for her mother, the French soldiers accuse him of being a saboteur, an incendiary who helped start the fires. They force him to abandon the child and lead him off to his execution. In the end, as anybody who’s read the novel knows, Pierre Bezhukov is not executed by the French. Rather he’s taken west on the retreat, death march of the French Army back to Western Europe, where, one by one, his companions are tied to a post and shot, the vulnerable 19-year-old boy, the kindly middle-aged man who had prevented him from starving, a few innocent peasants they picked up along the way, until he’s miraculously rescued by Cossacks. During his rescue, is he thinking about the child he saved from the fire but couldn’t save from the mob? We never find out. But Bondarchuk has succeeded beyond our wildest expectations of what it’s like to be caught in the maelstrom of history.

If the film has a weakness, it’s probably Bondarchuk’s decision to cast himself as Pierre Bezhukov. Pierre is a giant, physically powerful young man in his 20s on an elaborate philosophical and spiritual quest. Bondarchuk is a square, plain man in his 40s. He’s certainly better in the role than Henry Fonda was in the King Vidor version (what kind of drugs do you have to be on to cast Henry Fonda a Russian?) or Anthony Hopkins in the BBC miniseries from the 1970s, but the role really calls for a young Gerard Depardieu or Liam Neeson, a burly, brute of a man restrained only his cultivated spirituality. Then again, perhaps it’s not a flaw so much as an aesthetic choice. Bondarchuk feels so stiff and unemotive in the role that perhaps he decided to cast himself, not as a character in the novel, but as a witness to the novel’s events. Indeed, in real life, Pierre’s decision to stroll around the Battle of Borodino, a meatgrinder that made Gettysburg or Antietam seem almost bloodless in comparison, would have gotten him killed in the first five minutes of the battle. It would be impossible to depict these passages in Tolstoy’s novel realistically without spending the entire time with Pierre huddled behind an earthwork desperately trying not to get hit by shrapnel. Instead he becomes almost a disembodied presence, the angel of history recording one of history’s most hellish moments.

Vyacheslav Tikhonov as the brooding, intellectual Andrei Bolkonsky is somewhat better. Tall, spare, with aquiline features and graceful movements, he embodies Tolstoy’s tragic aristocratic hero. Anatoly Ktorov as Andrei’s father is even better yet. Somehow he manages to evoke in 1967 the wistful nostalgia of an old man in 1812 for old world that had vanished decades before 1812. How exactly did the proletarian dictatorship of the Soviet Union end up with so many actors so good at playing aristocrats? Ludmila Savelyeva, bears a striking resemblance to Audrey Hepburn, who played Natasha in the King Vidar film, but a Slavic Audrey Hepburn with none of the original’s — all apologies to fans of Ms. Hepburn — Anglo Saxon brittleness. Savelyeva’s Natasha, like Bondarchuk’s Pierre, is an abstract portrayal, but it’s on the opposite end of the scale. Savelyeva at times comes off like the most beautiful woman who ever lived. But at other times she comes off like a petulant, almost stupid child. She embodies all of the contradictions of aristocratic Russian girlhood as seen through the eyes of a mid-20th Century Soviet filmmaker.

Natasha is also the focal point of the film’s recreation of Russian society, the “peace” half of the novel to Andrei’s and Pierre’s “war.” Bondarchuk’s depiction of the grand balls of Alexander II are filmed with as much painstaking detail and elaborate choreography as his battle scenes. You can’t do any of this with CGI. At her coming out party, when Natasha attends her first grand ball thrown by the Czar himself, the camera follows her entrance into the palace. We weave our way in and out of the crowd, like children approaching the beach for the first time hearing seagulls and smelling salt water. When he have finished climbing to the top of the staircase and can finally see the length and breadth of the ballroom, the elegance and splendor of the guests, it almost takes our breath away. “So that was the world that was lost,” we think. We don’t even bother to remember how that beautiful world was built on the brutal exploitation of tens of millions of impoverished serfs. But we don’t care. If a communist filmmaker can enjoy such a spectacle of the aristocratic past, so can we.

The Emigrants (1971) The New Land (1972)

On December 26, 1862, 38 Lakota Sioux men were hanged in Mankato Minnesota. It remains the largest mass execution in United States history. For Jan Troell, the Swedish director who stages a vivid recreation of the execution near the end of his seven hour epic about Swedish immigrants in the north Midwest, it was just punishment. While one of the film’s characters carefully explains that the Lakota were driven to war by an artificial famine created by the United States government, the scenes of Indian atrocities against white settlers, one clearly inspired by the Manson cult’s murder of Sharon Tate, create a much stronger impression. This is not a revisionist western about the suffering of native Americans. It is an epic about the struggle of a group of Swedish settlers to establish themselves in the “new world.”

The Emigrants, the first half of the epic, begins in Småland, a province in Southern Sweden. Now a wealthy, prosperous region of the European Union, the headquarters of IKEA, in 1844 it was a harsh, repressive backwater, dominated by narrow-minded Lutheran fundamentalism, and a rigid social hierarchy. Karl Oskar Nilsson, a peasant farmer played by Max von Sydow, and his wife Kristina, played by Liv Ullman, try to make a go at farming, but it is clearly hopeless. They are hard-working, pious, industrious people, but the land is too barren. The population has outstripped the region’s carrying capacity. There is no upwardly mobility in mid-19th Century Sweden, only an inevitable slide into poverty and debt.

Robert, Karl Oscar’s younger brother played by Eddie Axberg, a likeable if somewhat dim romantic dreamer and rebel, is an indentured servant at a neighboring farm. His master is a cruel, physically abusive tyrant, in one scene boxing his ears so hard that it would give poor Robert a bad case of tinnitus that would last for the rest of his short life. But unlike his older brother, Robert is not without imagination. Obsessively reading a book about opportunities in North America, especially the passages about there being no rigid European style class system, he imagines himself as an American. Lacking the fare for the passage across the Atlantic, his dream remains a dream until Karl Oscar, Kristina, Kristina’s uncle Danjel, a freelance evangelical minister who’s persecuted by the local authorities for holding unsanctioned prayer meetings, Ulrika, one of Danjel’s parishioners, an ex-prostitute played by the Swedish jazz singer Monica Zetterlund, and several of their neighbors decide that emigration is their only hope of ever making a decent living. They sell all they have and buy tickets on a clipper ship bound for New York.

Arriving in the port city of Karlshamn, Robert spots a magnificent sailing ship just off the coast, its sleek lines and intricate rigging looking like the culmination of his romantic dreams. It’s an astonishing scene, imagination become reality, mind meets matter, a depiction of Robert’s world opening up right in front of his eyes. But the voyage across the ocean is brutal, excruciating, not quite a slave ship or an Irish coffin ship, but dirty, lice ridden, harsh, claustrophobic, and in several cases fatal. Kristina, who is pregnant, barely survives. Ulrika the ex-prostitute, is scapegoated for the lice. Robert’s wonder at the sight of the magnificent clipper ship off the coast becomes passive, bored misery, lying back in his bunk, his tinnitus growing ever worse. Only Karl Oscar, the tough as nails patriarch, manages to keep his head, and only because his concern for Kristina outweighs any urge he might have to indulge himself in his misery.

Indeed, the Emigrants above all is the story of a marriage, a marriage the the term “happy” would be inadequate to describe. Karl Oscar and Kristina share a bond so deep it goes beyond romance, and represents economic and social necessity. Running a farm takes a man and a woman, a husband and a wife. Their marriage is a harsh Garden of Eden, full of trials and tribulations, but ultimately what defines being human. Von Sydow and Ullman, both good looking professional actors, are perfectly believable as plain Swedish peasants, their physical beauty not detracting from the movie’s credibility, but on the contrary, lending an air of dignity to the working class that only a great artist like Jan Troell could make us believe. Through everything, the brutal voyage, the long journey west, the dangerous Minnesota winters, the struggle to build a homestead out of raw materials, they not only survive but prosper. Just before Kristina’s death in childbirth at the close of The New Land, Karl Oscar hands her an apple, the fruit of the tree she had planted years before. They have reestablished paradise in the new world, the painful birth of Scandinavian America.

Robert, on the other hand, dies young, doomed as all single males are inevitably doomed. On the voyage across the Atlantic, it first appears that he may pair off with Ulrika’s illegitimate daughter Elin, a pretty young woman who at first glance would appeal to any young man. But Elin is the female version of Robert, the impractical romantic dreamer. When he offers to teach her English, she argues that there’s no need to study. She genuinely believes that when she sets down in New York she will be so filled with the holy spirit that God will give her the ability to speak the new language, almost as if she were one of the early martyrs in Acts of the Apostles. They are clearly not the pair to settle down and grind through the decades long process of building a farm in Minnesota.

Instead Robert and his friend Arvin head out for California to prospect gold. They have no idea how to find the gold — someone will help us, Robert says — or how the trek across the high sierra and the California desert will make the voyage across the Atlantic seem by contrast like a stay at a first class hotel. Somehow Robert makes it. Arvin, who has never taken the trouble to learn English, dies after he drinks water that is clearly labeled “poison.” Yet in the end Robert’s abilities fail his imagination. While he does know enough English to get by, he mistranslates signs that say “Beware of Yellow Fever” to “Beware of Gold Fever,” mistakenly thinking a hard practical warning is a conspiracy to limit his American dreams. When he returns home to Oscar and Kristina with a large wad of counterfeit bills he had been scammed into accepting in exchange for actual gold coins, Oscar can barely hide his contempt. Becoming an American is hard, grinding work, not aimless dreaming. The United States is a place for practical men willing to look to the future, not romantic poets with no grounding in reality. Yet ultimately Robert is the most likeable, sympathetic character in Troell’s epic, the stand in for Troell himself, a tragic figure born before Swedish Americans would enter the middle-class, then the intellectual elites, and produce their own playwrights, poets, painters, actors and film directors.

The Founder (2016)

I do not come from a religious family. My father was brought up Catholic, and even attended a Marist Brothers high school, but after a nun locked him in a closet and left him there overnight in order to punish him for asking an inappropriate question, he lost his faith in God, and never again voluntarily entered a place of Christian worship. My mother was no more religious than my father, but she did have an ironclad rule that “you shouldn’t talk about politics or religion,” a belief that in all questions ideological one should maintain perfect neutrality. Not sending me to church, therefore, would have been to make a statement about her belief in God. It would have in effect been “talking about politics and religion.” I was, therefore, baptized into the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and spent many Sunday mornings listening to sermons I don’t remember delivered by a kindly old Swedish American pastor with a puffy red face, and a flat Midwestern accent. After I was confirmed, I “took communion,” went up to the altar to eat a sacramental wafer that always reminded me of a guitar pick, and take a sip of wine far too inconsequential to get me drunk.

I can tell you all about the differences between the Catholic concept of transubstantiation and the Protestant concept of consubstantiation. For Catholics, the bread and wine turn into the body and blood of Christ whether you want them to or not. For Lutherans, the flour guitar pick and sip of Manischewitz or Boone’s Farm or whatever kind of cheap wine my church chose to turn into the type o negative that once ran through the veins of our Lord and Savior wouldn’t make the transformation unless, to quote Saint Paul, you had “faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” But for me neither Catholic nor Lutheran services offered access to the body and blood of Christ. While I did enjoy listening to I Know that my Redeemer Lives on the church organ early on Sunday morning as we all took our places before the alter, it wasn’t until the sermon ended and we all filed out of the building to Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring by Johann Sebastian Bach that I really started to think about how much Jesus loves me. Every Sunday my parents would take me and my brother out to eat at the McDonald’s on Route 22 down the street from the drive in movie theater in Union, New Jersey. It was there where I would partake in the real Holy Communion. If I had enough faith, I knew that according to the doctrine of transubstantiation that a Big Mac, a larger order of fries covered in 5 packages of catsup and a large coke would turn into the body and blood of than man who had been crucified for my sins 2000 years ago in Palestine.

Ray Kroc is one of history’s greatest villains, right up there with Hitler, Stalin, King Leopold, the board of directors at Phillip Morris, and whoever decided to play “Closer” by the Chain Smokers at Starbucks and my local gym. A first generation Czech American from Oak Park, Illinois, Kroc led an uneventful life as a traveling salesman until 1954 when he walked into a booming hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California run by Richard and Maurice McDonald, two New Englanders who had moved to Hollywood during the Great Depression to look for work. Kroc was immediately smitten, not only by the name, “McDonald,” which represented the true blue WASP American identity that he aspired to, but by the way the McDonald brothers had successfully applied the Taylorist principles of Henry Ford to the food service industry. Where in the typical drive in hamburger stand of the time, your food could take upwards of 30 minutes to arrive, if in fact the car hop got your order right, the McDonald brothers had streamlined the menu, serving only three items, hamburgers, fries, and soft drinks, and had broken the process of cooking a meal down to a series of discrete steps that could be quickly and efficiently carried out by a well-trained crew. More importantly, it made it easy for the McDonald brothers to monitor quality control. For the McDonald brothers, their hamburger stand was a labor of love, not the multinational corporation that robs working class Africans who live in food deserts of their hard earned wages, and contributes to global warming and the destruction of the Brazilian rain forests. The food you got at the original McDonald’s in San Bernardino was not the overpriced trash, the pink slime filled meat byproducts, cardboard lettuce, and under cooked french fries covered in so much salt just looking at them can raise your blood pressure, McDonald’s serves today. It was a cheap, quality meal made according to a simple, elegant, minimalist process.

The best thing about The Founder, the thinly fictionalized docudrama directed by John Lee Hancock and starring Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, is how it evokes the lost America of the 1940s and 1950s, that one brief shining moment between the end of the Great Depression and the Vietnam War. Hancock not only has a feel for the sleek, well-oiled, neon lit car culture that Henry Ford had made inevitable, he somehow manages to recreate the world of cheap gas, tail fin Cadillacs and wide open highways. At the age of 52, Ray Kroc is a loser, a traveling salesman hawking milk shake mixers to uninterested restaurant owners, but he still lives in a neat little suburban house with his bored but patient wife Ethel, played by Laura Dern, and he can still afford a membership at the local country club. It’s a world where anybody has a chance of getting into the middle class, a world before my time, but which I vaguely remember disapperaing into the rear view mirror of my early childhood, a world millennials can’t even imagine. It’s easy to see how Kroc mistook American capitalism at its height for the kingdom of heaven, an endless series of neat little towns along the highway, each with a church and a cross, and a courthouse and a flag. Kroc, who listens to self-help records on the road, does not want to recreate the the America of the 1950s. He simply wants to belong, to become a successful business, to worship in the church of American capitalism while delivering hamburgers and french fries to the masses.

The tragedy of Ray Kroc is that he did change America, massively. In 1902, when Kroc was born, the United States was a nation of farmers and mechanics, immigrants and native WASPs, already the breadbasket of the world. Food took time and effort, but it was rich, nutritious, free of chemicals and non-GMO. It was the kind of food rich people in Brooklyn and  San Francisco pay big money for today. It was the kind of food people become media stars writing books about, and for a brief moment in the 1940s and 1950s you could get it dirt cheap along the highway. As The Founder moves forward, as Ray Kroc becomes wealthy, successful, and popular beyond his wildest dreams, the aesthetic of the film subtle shifts from Route 66 to the inside of a corporate boardroom. Keaton is much older than Kroc was in 1954, but the film makes no attempts to age him. It doesn’t have to. It dramatizes the movement of history, and the transformation of New Deal America into neoliberal America by documenting his career from the inside. Ray Kroc doesn’t realize he’s cheapening American life even as he’s cheapening the American diet. He’s simply worshiping at the high church of the profit motive, doing what he has to do to make money. First comes his suggestion that the McDonald brothers franchise their hamburger stand. When they protest that they’ve already tried, that it made “quality control” impossible, Kroc has no answer, and indeed he never does. Instead he seduces the brothers with the idea that the have a patriotic duty to put a McDonald’s in every town, right next to the church and the cross, the courthouse and the flag. His faith is so pure. His belief in their “speedy system” so strong that against their better judgement he wins them over. From San Bernardino to Des Plaines, Illinois, then onto Minneapolis and Chicago, and finally New York and the rest of the world, Kroc gets what he wants. Fast food becomes a symbol of the United States, french fries as American as apple pie. Eventually, and I remember this well, the opening of a McDonalds in the Soviet Union becomes synonymous with the birth of democracy. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times points out that no two countries with a McDonalds have ever fought a war.

It can’t last. The reason Ray Kroc and McDonald’s become so successful has nothing to do with the “speedy system” or the quality of their food. It’s all about cutting corners and reducing expectations. The first blow comes when Kroc realizes that as many McDonald’s as he’s opened, he’s still not making any money, that refrigeration costs are erasing his share of the profits. Jean Smith, a younger woman for whom he eventually leaves Ethel, comes up with a brilliant suggestion. Instead of serving real milk shakes, they can serve powdered milk shakes. When Jean, played by Linda Cardanelli from Freaks and Geeks in a blond dye job, serves him his first synthetic milk shake it’s like sex, the grizzled 54-year-old Kroc going weak in the knees at the thought of a better profit motive like a smitten teenager. It’s not enough. When the McDonald brothers refuse, Kroc, who had to take out a second mortgage on his house to fund the first franchise in Des Plaines, is in danger of losing it all. A chance meeting with Harry J. Sonneborn, a former Vice President at Tastee-Freez, provides the solution. Kroc will never be able to turn a profit selling hamburgers, but if he shifts gears and transforms McDonalds from a restaurant company into a real estate holding company, he will be able to generate the capital he needs to buy the McDonald brothers out. The danger, we realize, is not McDonalds losing the original, minimalist concept and adding more items to the menu — a process that for example ruined Starbucks — but of losing the idea that you should care about selling food at all. When the biggest restaurant chain in the world is not in the business of making food but of buying real estate, then one company has effectively removed food from food, has occupied the commercial space where you could once make money actually manufacturing a product and replaced it with paper. It’s really only a matter of time before the United States outsources its manufacturing base to China and replaces Ford and GM with the financial services industry, before Barnes and Nobles becomes more about selling memberships than about selling books, before Best Buy becomes more interested in selling expensive warranties than in selling computers, before Sears stops making tools and starts signing people up for high interest credit cards.

Eventually Ray Kroc, the crafty son of Eastern European immigrants, the cynical outsider who wants to be a part of an America he can never really understand, cheats the innocent McDonald brothers, not only out of their business, but out of their name, that red, white and blue all American WASP heritage that they don’t even know they have, and never realized someone else wanted. They just wanted to run a hamburger stand. Ray Kroc only wanted to run that same hamburger stand in every town in America. He never really wanted to rule the world, but that in the end is what he wound up doing, and that in the end is the tragedy of The Founder. Indeed, after I saw the Founder — it’s available online free — I thought about riding my bike back to Route 22 to the McDonald’s my parents used to take me and my brother to every Sunday after church. The drive in is gone. Route 22 no longer has much neon. The cars are all plastic and made in Japan, not Detroit, and McDonald’s has long since replaced their art deco franchises and their golden arches with a boxy, generic, red and puke colored cement design, but still I wanted to sit and consume the body and blood of Christ one more time, even if it was only in the form of a meat like substance full of pink slime and under cooked french fries smothered in too much salt and dirty grease but I couldn’t. It was closed. The United States, now a failed state, is in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic, and most public spaces are off limits. So I road back home and ate some nutritious rice, beans and vegetables instead.

Richard Jewell (2019)


If the liberal elite has a bogeyman, he probably looks a bit like Richard Jewell. A 33-year-old wannabe police officer, Jewell lives with his mother in Atlanta Georgia. Obese, not particularly bright, and probably a virgin, his patriotism and respect for law enforcement border on parody. In another timeline, he might have been George Zimmerman, a racist gun nut so carried by a mania for fighting “the bad guys” that he might have killed an innocent kid just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. On July 27, 1996, Jewell was working as a temporary security guard at Centennial Olympic Park. After hassling a group of teenage boys for underage drinking, he noticed a suspicious backpack someone had left underneath a bench. He saw something, and he said something, immediately alerting the police, and trying to clear as many people away from the area as he could. After a massive pipe bomb exploded, killing one person and severely injuring dozens more, it was immediately clear that the fat, ridiculous mamma’s boy had saved hundreds of lives. Richard Jewell was a legitimate hero.

If Donald Trump gets one thing right, it’s that the corporate media is the enemy of the American people. Listen up deplorables. Stop hating on communism. Under a dictatorship of the proletariat led by me, Stanley Rogouski, Chris Matthews’s worst nightmares would come true. Anybody currently employed by the corporate media, with the exception of maybe Phil Donahue and Amy Goodman, and oh yeah, Raymond Bonner, would immediately be marched out into the middle of Central Park, and guillotined. As Clint Eastwood makes clear, the same corporate media that put the incompetent Rudy Giuliani and the future war criminal George W. Bush up on a pedestal after 9/11, basically lynched Richard Jewell after the Olympic Park bombing in 1996. Initially hailed by the media as the hero he was, Jewell came under investigation by the FBI after his “profile” checked off one too many boxes, and they began to suspect that he had planted the bomb himself. Kathy Scruggs, an Atlanta-Journal Constitution reporter, who’s played by Olivia Wilde as an ambitious, unscrupulous cunt who will do anything for a story, including seducing a lead out of Tom Shaw, an incompetent, pompous FBI special agent played by Madman’s Jon Hamm, “breaks the story” that the Olympic Park Bomber is none other than the Richard Jewell, the strange man currently basking in public adulation and mouthing platitudes like “well no ma’am, no sir, I wasn’t a hero. I was just doing my job.”

If Jewell annoys the ever living hell out of me it’s because Eastwood realizes that most American liberals and leftists like me are not too far removed from deplorables ourselves. Yeah, we may graduate from college and move to New York, San Francisco, LA, Seattle or Boston, but we’ll never really hide the fact that we’re originally “from” dull suburbs in New Jersey or on Long Island, burned out towns in the rust belt, or, God forbid, somewhere in the south.  When Jewell, played by Kobra Kai’s Paul Walter Hauser and his mother Barbara, played by Kathy Bates, first realize that he’s not only the prime suspect, but on the cover of every newspaper in America as the new Timothy McVeigh, they act like two deer caught in the headlights. Neither of them have enough cynicism about the corporate media or the federal government to understand what’s happening, that Tom Shaw, who was responsible for the security at Centennial Park, is covering his ass, and that Kathy Scruggs is trying to ride the media lynching of an unsophisticated working class man to fame and fortune. Indeed, as Watson Bryant, Jewell’s lawyer played by the excellent Sam Rockwell, quickly realizes, unless he can somehow break the spell that the American conservative worship of the police has cast over him, Richard Jewell is probably going to the electric chair. “How could Tom Brokaw say that about you,” his mother exclaims in disbelief when she sees the news anchor she had previously gushed over as “too handsome” is demonizing her son on national TV. Jewell himself repeatedly gets into trouble by his still lingering urge to help the police, a weakness Tom Shaw picks up on and plays for everything it’s worth.

It’s probably not entirely accurate to say that Richard Jewell “got lucky.” There was no case, or even the slightest shred of evidence that he had planted the bomb. Similar to the Central Park 5 affair seven years earlier in New York City,  where Donald Trump jump started his political career by calling for the execution of 5 innocent black teenagers, the media and the FBI had temporarily gone mad, building a house of cards around an easily demonized child man, and then simply dropping the investigation after they came to their senses. Like the Central Park 5, Richard Jewell never recovered from being tried in the court of public opinion. As Eastwood effectively dramatizes in the film’s penultimate scene, Jewell does overcome his inability to criticize the police, and would eventually bring defamation lawsuits against most of the people responsible for the false accusations, but in 2007 he would die at the age of 44 from complications brought on by diabetes and obesity, and indirectly from the emotional suffering brought on by what had happened in the Summer of 1996. Jewell was in fact, the last casualty of the Olympic Park Bombings, outliving Kathy Scruggs, who died of a drug overdose in 2001 by six years.

Whatever your politics, if you’re like me, a generation or two from being a “deplorable,” a naive, unsophisticated middle-American at heart, the kind of person who will recognize him or herself in Richard and Kathy Jewell, you will love this movie. On the other hand, if you’re  a woke intersectional identitarian with an Ivy League degree and a loft in downtown Brooklyn or Tribeca, the kind of person who tacks “bro” onto the ending of any word to make up a new insult, you will utterly loath Richard Jewell, both the man and movie, and pray that Clint Eastwood follow Jewell and Kathy Scruggs to the grave as soon as possible. You will stomp your feet and exclaim “oh boo hoo, one white man gets railroaded by the police and he gets his own movie.” Of course, Eastwood’s portrayal of Kathy Scruggs has, and probably accurately, been accused of being as defamatory as Scrugg’s portrayal of Jewell himself. Worse, unlike Jewell, she’s no longer alive to fight against the damage to her reputation. All I have to say to that is “oh boo hoo. So one corporate hack journalist gets her reputation posthumously destroyed. Cry me a river. Let’s talk about all the innocent people the corporate media destroys every day.”

Richard Jewell is a polarizing movie, and it’s meant to be.

Final Note: In another dig at elite liberals, the real hero of Richard Jewell just might be Nadya, Watson Bryant’s Russian girlfriend, whose as cynical about the police and the media as the Jewells are trusting and naive.