The World Cup 2014 groups are announced, and — alongside Germany, Ghana, and Portugal in Group G — the US look to have a tough go of it. The silver lining: “There is actually some evidence that if the group of death doesn’t kill you, it can ultimately make you stronger.”
It used to be a central tenet of progressivism was working to shorten the work week. Now, even unemployment-soothing innovations like workshare go nowhere, and, as Mother Jones‘s Monika Bauerlein and Claira Jeffrey explain (with handy graphs), we are all victims of the Great Speedup…but not the beneficiaries. “For 90 percent of American workers, incomes have stagnated or fallen for the past three decades, while they’ve ballooned at the top, and exploded at the very tippy-top…In other words, all that extra work you’ve taken on — the late nights, the skipped lunch hours, the missed soccer games — paid off. For them.”
From a few weeks ago and languishing in the bookmarks, scientists find nematodes a mile below the Earth’s surface, raising the possibility of similar life on other worlds. The spice must flow… “The two lead researchers…said the discovery of creatures so far below ground, with nervous, digestive and reproductive systems, was akin to finding ‘Moby Dick in Lake Ontario.‘”
For a counterpoint, Juan Cole argues why the Left should back the current military action: “If we just don’t care if the people of Benghazi are subjected to murder and repression on a vast scale, we aren’t people of the Left. We should avoid making ‘foreign intervention’ an absolute taboo the way the Right makes abortion an absolute taboo if doing so makes us heartless (inflexible a priori positions often lead to heartlessness).“
And, to complete the trifecta, here’s the president explaining his reasoning for intervention: “Left unchecked, we have every reason to believe that Qaddafi would commit atrocities against his people. Many thousands could die. A humanitarian crisis would ensue. The entire region could be destabilized, endangering many of our allies and partners. The calls of the Libyan people for help would go unanswered. The democratic values that we stand for would be overrun. Moreover, the words of the international community would be rendered hollow.“
I get the arguments in favor of military action (and, in terms of diplomacy, I get that we also seem to be following the lead of France and England this time — After all, they’ve backed our sketchy plays in the past.) But, since we’re already well-engaged at this point, I’ll just say that (1) my own view of this Libya action leans toward Robinson’s, (2) the Congress-skipping precedent here is yet another extremely dubious call by our purported constitutional-scholar-in-chief, (3) I’m not seeing how getting involved in yet another war in the Middle East/North Africa, while rather obviously ignoring other festering situations in the region, wins Arab hearts and minds, and (4) it’s funny how 99.44% of the Deficit Peacocks in this town completely clam up when it’s time to rain down some million-dollar-a-head Freedom Bombs.
“When historians look back to the moment when the post-Cold War reign of American power ended, they may well settle on 2010 as a crucial year. Everywhere, it seemed, there were signs that the long-predicted “rise of the rest” had finally occurred, whether in the newfound assertiveness of fast-growing China or the impatient diplomacy of new powers like Brazil and Turkey. Foreign Policy’s second annual list of the Top 100 Global Thinkers fully reflects that new world.“
As above, Foreign Policy has picked its Top 100 Global Thinkers of the year. And, while there are some really atrocious choices on here (for example, the man at #33, who much more deservingly made the list in the next entry too), the article is worth a perusing regardless. (FWIW, #65, #68, and #80 seem really iffy to me as well.)
Fifty years after her studies began, pioneering primatologist Jane Goodall is honored (again) by National Geographic. “She created a research program, a set of protocols and ethics, an intellectual momentum — she created, in fact, a relationship between the scientific world and one community of chimpanzees — that has grown far beyond what one woman could do.”
As everyone already knows, the US bowed out of the World Cup over the weekend — in front of a record American television audience — by losing to Ghana 2-1, the same team that knocked them out in 2006. While I haven’t been posting much on the Cup (or on anything over the past fortnight), I have been watching what I can, and the US looked shaky from the start. Argentina notwithstanding, that Phoenix Suns style of futbol — great on O, very little D to speak of — doesn’t usually work too well at the World Cup level.
Speaking of that record television audience (which has been a pattern of late), the Cup has also been occasion for the usual litany of “Why Soccer Will Soon/Won’t Ever Work in the US” stories in the press. See, for example, Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi bashing on soccer and its fans in his usual fast-and-loose “it goes to 11″ -style. (On this and all other issues: less heat and more light, please.)
I dunno. At this point, I feel like I’ve heard variations on this soccer-on-the-cusp argument my entire life. Frankly, it’s gotten to the point where I don’t much care anymore. Does it really matter if the US as a nation fully embraces futbol or not? I enjoy soccer, and so do most people whose company I enjoy. That’s good enough. If you don’t like the game, well, that’s ok too.
Don’t get me wrong — The movie has its heart in the right place, and I wholeheartedly agree with many of its basic contentions. I too believe Nelson Mandela is a great man, and that he was just the right man to lead his nation at the delicate hour when apartheid finally fell. I believe that racism is a moral failing that must be overcome, and that forgiveness is a more enlightened path than revenge. (As A.O. Scott aptly pointed out in his more-positive review of this film, Invictus is as committed to examining the issue of vengeance, and its overcoming, as Unforgiven, Gran Torino, Mystic River, and countless other films in Eastwood’s oeuvre.)
And I even think there’s a sophisticated story to be told here about the role of symbols (the Springboks), iconography (green-and-gold), and sports teams in politics and nation-building. (Throughout much of Invictus, I was reminded of a book from gradual school days: In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes, historian David Waldstreicher’s book on the early national period of the United States, when (as the title indicates) our Founders threw galas, parties, and festivities pretty much constantly to help engender a healthy nationalism in newly-minted Americans.)
Both in terms of fostering forgiveness on both sides and as a sheer political play, the basic “human calculation” made here by President Mandela — getting behind a team loathed by blacks and beloved by whites in order to signal good-faith intentions to Afrikaners and to help forge a new national unity — is a very savvy one. (You might even say it’s a Lincolnesque move, and in fact, there’s a good bit of Lincoln’s blend of folk wisdom, bonhomie, and ruthless, clear-eyed political calculation in Mandela as portrayed here.) And, of course, there’s a great underdog sports tale at the actual Cup itself — South Africa versus the mighty All Blacks of New Zealand.
The point being, Eastwood had a lot of good raw material to work with here in Invictus…but the final product, alas, is not so good. The film is competently-made, sure, and everyone from Morgan Freeman (not just being himself) to Matt Damon (great job with the accent) on down does a solid job with what they’re given. But the movie still ends up being more Flags of our Fathers than Letters from Iwo Jima: It’s so ham-fisted so often that it hardly ever gets off the ground. And it just doesn’t trust that the audience will pick up on anything unless it’s spelled out for them and underlined a few times. (I presume this is Eastwood’s fault rather than the source material, John Carlin’s Playing the Enemy — One definitely gets the sense from Invictus that Clint may have watched Idiocracy recently.)
One example should explain the problem. In one scene in the middle going, the all-white Springboks (Chester Williams notwithstanding) venture to a run-down shantytown in Soweto to teach young black South Africans the sport of rugby. (In this case, Invictus is smart to spell one thing out to the audience — the basic rules of play.) The kids generally seem excited by the trip, some of the Afrikaner meatheads who were complaining before start smiling and getting into it, and everybody — white and black — is clearly having a good time. The basic point is obvious from the entire scene: The fun of the game and the day is bringing former adversaries together. But then Clint has to pan over to a sign saying something like “One Team One Nation” or somesuch, and right thereafter some not-very-good pop song blares over the soundtrack with hokey lines like “we are color blind.” Ok, Clint, we get it.
Invictus does this throughout its run. Just in case we somehow miss the racial-reconciliation-through-sport point of the entire movie, there are multiply-redundant systems built into the narrative. There’s a divided Greek chorus of security guards that, like the Springboks, gradually come together as a team. There’s the black maid of Matt Damon’s somewhat haughty white family, who finally gets included as an equal. And there are even cuts to some random once-racist white cops and the black youths they would’ve undoubtedly spent the day harrassing, if it weren’t for the healing benediction of rugby, all jumping up and down together and enjoying the Big Win. After awhile, it all gets to be overkill.
Put simply, Invictus has great and laudable intentions, and I guess I wouldn’t call it an out-and-out fumble. But it definitely should’ve taken some lessons in subtlety from the real Nelson Mandela: Sometimes a quiet word in the right moment speaks louder than the mightiest of trumpets.
As with the other day, I can’t seem to make Quicktime happy at my workstation here. Nonetheless, it appears Matt Damon has gone from exposing his conjoined twin’s involvement in the WMD fiasco to ending apartheid in the new trailer for Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, with Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela. Busy fella.
Also in today’s trailer bin, two second looks at worlds gone mad: Mia Wasikowska finds Through the Looking Glass is still crazy after all these years in trailer #2 for Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, also with Tim Burton, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Crispin Glover, Timothy Spall, and Christopher Lee. To be honest, it looks a little too Burton-y to me, if such a thing is possible for a property like Alice.
And Leonardo di Caprio is still losing his cool on The Island in trailer #2 for Martin Scorsese’s recently kicked-to-2010 Shutter Island, also featuring Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson, Elias Koteas, Jackie Earle Haley, and the eminent Max Von Sydow. Eh, this looks better than most January fare.
“The resolution allows the use of force in self-defense, to ensure freedom of movement for humanitarian workers and to protect civilians under attack.” In a unanimous vote, the UN Security Council agrees to send 26,000 peace-keeping troops and police — a UN-AU hybrid force known as Unamid — to Darfur. “Ban Ki-moon , the UN Secretary-General, called the move a ‘historic and unprecedented operation’ that will send ‘a clear and powerful signal’ of help to the people of Darfur.” That being said, many observers — among them Sen. Russ Feingold — feel this version of the resolution has been excessively watered down to appease the Sudanese government: “If this UN resolution is passed as it currently stands, we can expect the Sudanese government to try to evade its requirements and agreements without a single consequence. Should that happen, the toll of the genocide in Darfur will continue to mount — in lives lost, in persons displaced, and in fundamental human values that the international community has failed to uphold.“
“None of those 76 senators, who include the current Republican leader and whip, acted to jeopardize the safety and security of U.S. troops in Somalia. All of them recognized that Congress had the power and the responsibility to bring our military operations in Somalia to a close, by establishing a date after which funds would be terminated.” In an editorial for Salon, Sen. Russ Feingold invokes GOP behavior on Somalia in 1993 to make the case for Congress cutting funding in Iraq. “Since President Bush has made it painfully clear that he has no intention of fixing his failed Iraq policy, it is no longer a question of if Congress will end this war; it is a question of when.”
All the King’s Men by way of Heart of Darkness (and more than a dash of Hotel Rwanda), Kevin MacDonald’s The Last King of Scotland is a harrowing portrait of the scampish, fun-loving, paranoid, and genocidal Idi Amin, former president/warlord of Uganda, and a moderately engaging cautionary tale about the dangers of seeking to find oneself in a place one doesn’t belong. Somewhat clunkily assembled (despite being co-written by Peter Morgan, screenwriter of The Queen) and suffering from a third act that, like its protagonist, gets lost somewhere amidst its downward trajectory, The Last King of Scotland is a film mostly redeemed by excellent performances — notably Forest Whitaker as Amin and James McAvoy as our (anti-)hero, but also Gillian Anderson, Simon McBurney, and others in supporting roles. It wasn’t quite as good as I was hoping or expecting, but it’s definitely worth a rental — for Whitaker if for nothing else — if you can handle the increasingly graphic carnage of the film’s final hour.
As the film begins, it’s 1970, and (the fictional) Nicholas Gerrigan (James McAvoy of The Chronicles of Narnia) is a recently-minted doctor and young, debaucherous Scotsman looking for a life less suffocating than the one on the plate before him, taking over the family practice. Choosing Uganda more or less at random (he spins a globe to choose his fate, but not without first exercising some veto power), Gerrigan soon finds himself one of two doctors on hand in an overworked clinic deep in the African hinterlands, where the only fun to be had is making flagrant passes at his colleague’s do-gooder wife (Gillian Anderson).
Fate rescues Gerrigan from his ennui, however, in the form of a traffic accident — one which brings him to the attention of Uganda’s new leader, the Scotland-adoring Idi Amin (Whitaker). Soon thereafter, Gerrigan has been made Amin’s personal doctor and “closest advisor,” meaning he spends a lot of time dissolute by the pool, unwittingly (and soon deliberately) oblivious to the bloody machinations holding Amin’s regime in power. That is, until his own somewhat-inadvertent complicity in a murder — as well as some really poor life decisions — force Gerrigan to confront the monstrosities laid before him. This place is a prison, he soon discovers, and these people very clearly aren’t his friends.
As it almost had to be, The Last King of Scotland is most enjoyable in its first hour, as Gerrigan is slowly seduced by the life Amin offers him, and all the sultry pleasures therein included. When it all turns on him, and Gerrigan discovers the heavy price of his fool’s paradise, the film quickly descends into a hell that’s not only hard to watch (one grisly scene brought back unsettling childhood memories of watching…I think it was A Man Called Horse — you’ll know it when you see it) but also somewhat repetitive. How many slo-mo shots of a druggy and/or horrified Gerrigan set to acid-rock do we really need here? Moreover, the film telegraphs one of the good doctor’s key indiscretions for far too long — at least forty minutes is spent simply waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak.
That being said, Forrest Whitaker’s performance here makes up for a lot of mistakes. (Seeing the clearly quiet-natured Whitaker’s shellshocked acceptance speech at the Globes last weekend made his work here seem all the more surprising and impressive.) The Willie Stark last year’s All the King’s Men desperately needed, Whitaker commands the camera in every scene he’s in — His Amin is all the more horrifying because he’s basically an overgrown boy, all appetite and no restraint. In every scene, you can sense him lumbering somewhere on the border between childish glee and murderous rage, and we never know where the axe will fall…only that, when it does, it’s not going to be pretty.
In honor of the new year, and since I spend so much time berating him and his historically terrible administration around here, two holiday tips of the hat to, of all people, Dubya. On his watch, the president has “established the world’s largest sweep of federally protected ocean” and tripled humanitarian and development aid to Africa. Hey, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
In other recent trailers, much slow motion screaming: Leonardo di Caprio, Jennifer Connelly, and Djimon Hounsou venture through deepest, darkest Africa (and get shot at a lot) in their search for Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond. And, Gerard Butler puts on his Spartan game face (with aid of a David Wenham voiceover) in this music video-ish glimpse at Zack Snyder’s 300, based on the Frank Miller graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae.
In a special Africa-themed edition of the movie bin, a young Scottish doctor (former faun James McAvoy) hangs with Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (Forrest Whitaker) and Gillian Anderson in the new trailer for The Last King of Scotland, potentially crooked cop Nic Vos (Tim Robbins) spurs Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke) to rally against South African apartheid in the trailer for Phillip Noyce’s Catch a Fire (which continues the director’s move from Patriot Games-type thrillers to global-political fare such as Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American), and things go awry in Morocco for Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett (and elsewhere for Gael Garcia Bernal and Clifton Collins Jr.) in this look at Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Babel. (Let’s hope it’s better than Inarritu’s woeful 21 Grams.)
Well, that’s that, then. Ghana knocks the US out of the Cup with a 2-1 victory that may have hinged partly on a questionable PK. (Being in research mode, I didn’t see the game — Still, it seems like a lot of the games this Cup have swung on bad calls, and we needed a win, not a tie, regardless.) Oh well, there’s always 2010, I guess. At any rate, congrats to Ghana on getting through, and here’s hoping the Togo Sparrow Hawks can play spoiler to France tomorrow…
The WP takes a gander at the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), which “can see 13 billion years back in time, nearly to the big bang. With its 10-by-11-foot hexagonal mirror — the largest of its type in the world — SALT concentrates the faintest, most distant light in the universe. If a candle were to flicker on the moon, SALT could detect it.“
By way of a friend, the State Department releases its mandated yearly human rights report for 2005 (here), finding cause for alarm in Iran, Russia, China, Venezuela, Burma, North Korea, Belarus and Zimbabwe and (surprise, surprise) progress in Iraq and Afghanistan. The report doesn’t delve into human rights violations here at home (although China tries to fill that gap in response every year), but it does unequivocally state — in bold, no less — that “countries in which power is concentrated in the hands of unaccountable rulers tend to be the world’s most systematic human rights violators.” Hey y’all might be on to something. Deadpans the head of Amnesty International: “The Bush administration’s practice of transferring detainees in the ‘war on terror’ to countries cited by the State Department for their appalling human rights records actually turns the report into a manual for the outsourcing of torture.”
According to the Globe, the Dems are beginning to coalesce around a plan of “strategic redeployment” in Iraq. According to the plan, co-authored by Reagan assistant Defense secretary Lawrence Korb, “all reservists and National Guard members would come home this year. Most of the other troops would be redeployed to other key areas — Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, and the Horn of Africa — with large, quick-strike forces placed in Kuwait, where they could respond to crises in neighboring Iraq.“
An ugly day for American values around the world: In Iraq, an investigation inaugurated after the recent discovery of secret prisons in Baghdad uncovers at least 120 victims of torture and/or abuse in prisons run by the new Iraq Interior Ministry. “Prisoners had their bones broken and their fingernails pulled out, were subjected to electric shocks and had burning cigarettes crushed into their necks and backs, said the Iraqi official.” And, elsewhere, a European investigation suggests that the CIA were in fact holding prisoners illegally in Europe, until they were surreptitiously moved to North Africa after the story broke. Charming. So is this what Dubya meant when he said “we are determined to show the meaning and promise of liberty” to the world? If so, I’d remind him of the Lincoln quote he used in the same inaugural address: “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves; and, under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it.“
Shunned by Dubya and spurred on by Bill Clinton, the rest of the world comes together to limit greenhouse gases and extend the Kyoto treaty. “Brushing aside the Bush administration’s fierce protests, all the industrialized nations except the United States and Australia were near an agreement Friday night to embark on a new round of formal talks aimed at setting new mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions after 2012, when the existing pact known as the Kyoto Protocol expires.“
“It must be on the basis by which I travel anywhere, being in a private aircraft, which bears a substantial cost unfortunately…I am confident that we will have a long, productive and warm relationship, but good relationships are built on firm understandings at the outset.” Among his many other shady dealings, it seems “Casino Jack” Abramoff tried to bilk the President of Gabon for $9 million, in order to set up a meeting with Dubya. Apparently, Gabon didn’t take up his offer…I wonder if they considered it spam.
From the folks behind Drop the Hammer: Be a Witness, a site which calls out the national newsmedia for ignoring genocide in Darfur in favor of the Jackson case and myriad damsels in distress. While we’re at it, more coverage of the war we’re mired in might be nice too…y’know, the one over in Iraq.
“Fighting over the ‘evolving standards of decency’ underlying the Eighth Amendment’s ban on ‘cruel and unusual punishment,’ the 5-to-4 opinions reflect an all-out war between the proponents of a living (or at least medium-rare) Constitution and those who want to see it dead (or perhaps well-done, with a nice pinot).” Slate‘s inimitable Dahlia Lithwick explains the Kennedy-Scalia sniping undergirding the Supreme Court’s very welcome 5-4 decision to ban juvenile executions. To keep things in perspective, the only other nations besides us that have put juveniles to death since 2000 are China, Iran, Pakistan, and the Congo…not exactly what you’d call the Axis of Freedom.
“Bob Marley, all of his songs are fire to Satan, the dragon quake. Bob Marley is still alive, vibrant style, Rastafari.” On what would have been his sixtieth birthday, Ethiopia (and Time Magazine) celebrate the music and legacy of Bob Marley.
“‘Cause we’re moving right out of Babylon, and we’re going to our father’s land.” On what would be his 60th birthday, the late, great Bob Marley will be exhumed and reburied in Ethiopia, his “forefather cornerstone” and spiritual home of the Rastafari. Said his widow, Rita Marley, of the move, “How can you give up a continent for an island? He has a right for his remains to be where he would love them to be. This was his mission. Ethiopia is his spiritual resting place.”
Despite harboring one of the more irritating crossword puzzles in recent months (it included characters like %,@,&, and *) and a breathless paean to the wildly overrated Julia Roberts, this week’s special NYT Magazine on film and globalization included a number of interesting reads, including an overview of foreign film trends by A.O. Scott, a disquisition on the problems facing the US industry by Lynn Hirschberg, and an extended interview with Maggie Cheung (late of Hero and In the Mood for Love.)