Newly-released documents tell of how America learned of the 1940 Katyn Massacre seventy-two years ago, and worked to keep it quiet. “The directive was to ‘never to speak about a secret message on Katyn.’ During the 1951-52 Congressional hearings, for example, no material was presented to demonstrate that Washington knew about Katyn as early as it did.”
It doesn’t help that Eastwood has yet again opted for the tinkly piano and gray palette that seems to characterize all of his historical pictures. This worked wonders for Letters of Iwo Jima, not so much for Flags of our Fathers and this film. Here, Eastwood has set a story beginning in 1919 — perhaps the most lurid and tumultuous single year for America in the 20th century (I’m only ever-so-slightly biased on this) — and made it look like a drab, washed-out daguerrotype. In that fateful summer, after an anarchist’s bomb blows up the front porch of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s house in the ritzy West End of Washington (his neighbors, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, had just parked down the street), Hoover is hand-picked to run the new “General Intelligence Division” of the Justice Department that will bring the perpetrators to justice.
With previous experience at the Library of Congress in organizing information, Hoover soon takes on two key assistants in Tolson (Armie Hammer, once again exuding Ivy League entitlement) and personal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts, who gets the best of the age make-up), and quickly attempts to make a CSI of the GID. Cut to forty years later, and Hoover — now balding, paunchy, and covered in latex — is obsessively snooping on Martin Luther King and making veiled threats to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy about his brother’s sleeping habits. With our two historical poles established, the rest of J. Edgar flits back and forth in time, telling the story of its protagonist as both a young and old man – Other than these two moments, the film spends most of its time, strangely enough, dealing with the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. (In 2004, when discussing The Alamo, I noted how fun it is to cast the story of American history with actors. Let me say that Josh Lucas totally works as Charles Lindbergh.)
For the most part, J. Edgar is an innocuous edutainment. But it also has some serious problems, and not just the standard-issue groanworthy biopic tropes like Freudian parent issues overdetermining the subject’s entire life story. (Here, Mom (Judi Dench) is a stern and overbearing sort who forces Hoover to bury his secrets within, even as he’s trying to pry up everyone else’s.) Y’see, it comes out rather late in the third act that Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black have attempted to add a Fight Club-ish “unreliable narrator” schtick to the film: The whole time, we’ve been watching Hoover’s sanitized retelling of his own history. But this should-be-huge reveal is underplayed, and thus becomes somewhat buried. And, as a result, people who don’t know anything about the times are going to leave a theater with a very wrongheaded sense of the story.
For example, it’s never mentioned or adequately explained that the 1919 anarchist bombings which open the film only killed two people — one of them the bomber on Palmer’s porch, who either tripped or mis-timed the blast — and that, not unlike recent times, pretty much everything Palmer and Hoover did subsequently in 1919 was a massive overreaction. (Hence, the “Red Scare.”) They show Hoover and a team of G-men knocking down an anarchist printing press in Paterson, New Jersey linked to the bombs, but, with the arguable exception of Emma Goldman’s deportation proceedings at Ellis Island, they don’t show any of the many, many raids that were just glorified fishing expeditions and/or excuses to remove foreign-born potential Communists from American shores.
Similarly, when the film briefly depicts the Centralia Massacre that same year, it shows events in a way that Hoover, and many other Americans, probably saw them — I.W.W. radicals killing patriotic veterans in a turkey shoot. But that depiction does violence to the much more complicated truth of the event, which involved American Legion members deciding first to go march on some radical Wobblies. And you’d never know that the culmination of that day was an I.W.W. member and veteran grabbed from jail by soldiers, beaten, castrated, hung, hung, hung, shot, and shot. Again, Eastwood and Black have written themselves a pass for this, because they hint Hoover is an unreliable narrator at the end of the film. But that lede is buried.
So the history has definite issues, and this same tendency towards whitewashing detracts from the whole film. Granted, given how little we know, the Tolson-Hoover relationship should perhaps be treated with this discretion — although my understanding is they were more conceived of as a couple than this film lets on. (FWIW, Hammer is quite good here despite some unfortunate age-makeup, and a Supporting Actor nod is likely.) But, that aside, and to be blunt about it, sometimes an asshole is just an asshole. One can argue that Hoover had all the reasons in the world to be the way he was — an overbearing mom, a traumatic secret, whathaveyou. But this film spends more time trying to make us feel charitable towards its protagonist than it does putting his behavior in any kind of appropriate context. (For example, why is Hoover obsessed with MLK? Should he be wiretapping him? It’s never really addressed.) Should we feel for J. Edgar, after hearing his story? Perhaps, yes. But we should also leave the theater with a clearer sense of how illegal and often reprehensible his rise to power really was.
“Starman tells the story of a friendship between two cosmonauts, Vladimir Komarov and Soviet hero Yuri Gagarin, the first human to reach outer space…In 1957, both men were assigned to the same Earth-orbiting mission, and both knew the space capsule was not safe to fly. Komarov told friends he knew he would probably die. But he wouldn’t back out because he didn’t want Gagarin to die. Gagarin would have been his replacement.“
By way of LinkMachineGo, NPR’s Robert Krulwich tells the tale of the sad and unnecessary death of cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov. “As he heads to his doom, U.S. listening posts in Turkey hear him crying in rage, ‘cursing the people who had put him inside a botched spaceship.’“
On the release of his long-awaited The Publisher, an extensive biography of TIME/LIFE founder Henry Luce, Columbia historian (and my dissertation advisor) Alan Brinkley discusses how Luce may have coped with the Digital Age. “Luce — for all his flaws — was an innovator, a visionary and a man of vast and daunting self-confidence. Were he to live in our time, trying once again to revolutionize the spread of knowledge, he might find his talents much in demand.“
And, in very related news, Boing Boing posts Chris Ware’s recently rejected throwback cover for Fortune‘s annual 500 issue. “It hearkens back to the golden age of Fortune as an exemplar of beautifully designed and illustrated magazines…’and he filled the image with tons of satirical imagery, like the U.S. Treasury being raided by Wall Street, China dumping money into the ocean, homes being flooded, homes being foreclosed, and CEOs dancing a jig while society devolves into chaos. The cover, needless to say, was rejected.’”
“Nonfiction writers who succumb to the temptations of phantom scholarship are a burgeoning breed these days, although most stop short of fabricating interviews with Presidents. But Stephen Ambrose, who, at the time of his death, in 2002, was America’s most famous and popular historian, appears to have done just that.“
In less-sanguine history news, and by way of Past Punditry, a new blog by an old Columbia colleague of mine, it appears that the late Stephen Ambrose — already unmasked as a serial plagiarist — also conjured several purported interviews with President Eisenhower out of thin air. “Access to Eisenhower in his retirement years was tightly controlled…These records show that Eisenhower saw Ambrose only three times, for a total of less than five hours. The two men were never alone together.” Hmm…I could’ve saved a lot of time in gradual school if I could just make it up. (Sadly, there’s been a rash of fake presidential quotes going around lately.)
“‘I thought the name was a horror,’ he told The Press Enterprise of Riverside, Calif., in 2007. “Terrible.” (Before perfecting the Pluto Platter in 1955, Mr. Morrison had called earlier incarnations of his disc the Flyin’ Cake Pan, the Whirlo-Way and the Flyin-Saucer.)” And millions of dogs howled in lament: Walter Frederick Morrison, inventor of the Frisbee, 1920-2010. (By way of FmH and The Late Adopter.)
“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability,
but comes through continuous struggle.”
“The biggest barrier to rolling up our sleeves and preparing for a better future is our own apathy, fear or immobility. We have been living in a zero-sum political environment where all heads have been lowered to avert being lopped off by angry, noisy extremists. I am convinced that Barack Obama is the one presidential candidate today who can encourage ordinary Americans to stand straight again; he is a man who can salve our national wounds and both inspire and pursue genuine bipartisan cooperation. Just as important, Obama can assure the world and Americans that this great nation’s impulses are still free, open, fair and broad-minded.“
In the WP, Susan Eisenhower, Ike’s granddaughter, endorses Obama for president. “My grandfather was pursued by both political parties and eventually became the Republican nominee…He went on to win the presidency — with the indispensable help of a ‘Democrats for Eisenhower’ movement. These crossover voters were attracted by his pledge to bring change to Washington and by the prospect that he would unify the nation. It is in this great tradition of crossover voters that I support Barack Obama’s candidacy for president. If the Democratic Party chooses Obama as its candidate, this lifelong Republican will work to get him elected and encourage him to seek strategic solutions to meet America’s greatest challenges.”
“In order to make effective these apprehensions, the proclamation suspends the Writ of Habeas Corpus for apprehensions made pursuant to it.” Taking a page from his earlier mentor, A. Mitchell Palmer, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, recently declassified documents reveal, floated the idea of interning 12,000 Americans he suspected of disloyalty in 1950, during the Korean War. [Hoover's letter.] “Hoover wanted President Harry S. Truman to proclaim the mass arrests necessary to ‘protect the country against treason, espionage and sabotage.’ The F.B.I would ‘apprehend all individuals potentially dangerous’ to national security, Hoover’s proposal said.” Thank goodness our intelligence community is past such retrograde thinking and kneejerk trampling on civil liberties today…uh, right?
Fifty years ago, high above Earth, Sputnik signalled a new era for mankind. But on the ground in Little Rock, Arkansas, where nine black students were jeered mercilessly, the prospects for Humanity didn’t seem as sanguine. By way of Do You Feel Loved and to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the desegregation of Litle Rock Central High, Vanity Fair‘s David Margolick tells the sad but illuminating story of Elizabeth Eckford (of the Little Rock 9) and Hazel Bryan (her tormentor in the pic at right.) “[T]he picture belongs to Elizabeth and Hazel, and for them it set off a drama that has never really ended. Bound together in fame and misfortune, they have tried, separately and together, to escape the frame. After a brief and well-photographed pseudo-reconciliation 10 years ago, the two are once more incommunicado, living only a few miles, and a cultural chasm, apart.“
“Bush has long taken solace in the example of Harry S. Truman, whose foreign policy was deeply unpopular in his time but is now recalled as far-sighted and sage. Now Bush is stretching the comparison still further beyond the historical pale.” After (Dem strategist?) Dubya hints that a forthcoming Clinton presidency will play Ike to his Truman, Slate‘s Fred Kaplan cries foul. If the next prez channels Eisenhower, Kaplan contends, “it would be not as a continuation of Bush’s Truman but rather as a reversal of Bush’s Dulles.“
“It was the sound of wonder and foreboding. Nothing would ever be quite the same again — in geopolitics, in science and technology, in everyday life and the capacity of the human species.” On the eve of its fiftieth anniversary (Oct. 4), the NYT remembers the Sputnik launch. “It was an unprepossessing agent of alarm. A simple sphere weighing just 184 pounds and not quite two feet wide, it had a highly polished surface of aluminum, the better to reflect sunlight and be visible from Earth…The Russians clearly intended Sputnik as a ringing statement of their technological prowess and its military implications. But even they, it seems, had not foreseen the frenzied response their success provoked.”
In a document dump of both exhilarating and terrifying proportions, the CIA announced it will release its “family jewels” next week: close to 700 pages of documents chronicling secret Agency activity from the fifties to the seventies. (A preview of what’s to come includes reports of detentions, wiretapping, surveillance, and other sordid current administration favorites.) “CIA Director Michael Hayden on Thursday called the documents being released next week unflattering, but he added that ‘it is CIA’s history.’ ‘The documents provide a glimpse of a very different time and a very different agency,’ Hayden told a conference of historians.” Hmm, we’ll see.
The wheels may have come off the Bush bandwagon several months ago, but that’s not stopping Karl Rove from trying to finesse Dubya’s place in the history books. And, like his boss, Karl seems to be attempting the Truman route: “In the West Wing interview, Rove adopted a longer view, citing the policy of containment of the Soviet Union, adopted by Truman in the 1940s and then embraced by a succession of presidents despite initial misgivings, as reason to believe history may offer a kinder assessment of the durability of Bush policies and institutional changes.” Hmm. When it comes to the war on terror, somehow I doubt dropping the ball in Afghanistan to prosecute a badly-bungled war of choice in Iraq is going to look any better to future generations. Just a hunch.
“As [Harry] Truman said, ‘We must, once and for all, prove by our acts conclusively that right has might.’ That’s why this country has historically been in the vanguard of the global human rights movement. But that lead can only be maintained if America remains true to its principles, including in the struggle against terrorism. When it appears to abandon its own ideas and objectives, its friends abroad are naturally troubled and confused.” As Kofi Annan bids farewell to his post at the UN, he offers some words of wisdom to America — and to Dubya — on our nation’s role in the world.
“The position of secretary of state is potentially the most fulfilling in the government short of the presidency. Its scope is global; ultimately it rests on almost philosophical assumptions as to the nature of world order and the relationship of order to progress and national interest.” In this past Sunday’s NYT Book Review, Henry Kissinger remembers his predecessor, Dean Acheson. “Acheson dealt with the issues Nixon put before him thoughtfully, precisely, without any attempt at flattery, in pursuit of his conception of national service and, unlike some other outside advisers, without offering advice that had not been solicited.“
“‘Having been blacklisted from working in television during the McCarthy era, I know the harm of government using private corporations to intrude into the lives of innocent Americans. When government uses the telephone companies to create massive databases of all our phone calls it has gone too far.‘” Author, oral historian, and American institution Studs Terkel is one of six plaintiffs to file a lawsuit against AT&T for their complicity in the NSA master phone database.
A very happy belated birthday to my sister Gillian, who turned 27 yesterday. (We celebrated on Monday, but, as y’all might know, I haven’t posted here since then.) Update: Also, a very happy Yuri’s Night to you and yours — tonight is the 45th anniversary of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s first-ever trip into space, as well as the 25th anniversary of the first space shuttle mission. (By way of Blivet.)
“The stuff they pulled should never have been removed…Some of it is mundane, and some of it is outright ridiculous.” As recently uncovered by intelligence historian Matthew Aid, the National Archives has been re-classifying thousands of once publicly available documents at the behest of unknown (re: still-classified) government agencies since 1999. “While some of the choices made by the security reviewers at the archives are baffling, others seem guided by an old bureaucratic reflex: to cover up embarrassments, even if they occurred a half-century ago. One reclassified document in Mr. Aid’s files, for instance, gives the C.I.A.’s assessment on Oct. 12, 1950, that Chinese intervention in the Korean War was ‘not probable in 1950.’ Just two weeks later, on Oct. 27, some 300,000 Chinese troops crossed into Korea.” Aid posted his account of the sordid tale today at the National Security Archive.
R.I.P. Phil Brown 1916-2006, who withstood the blacklist and is best remembered as Uncle Owen. (He joins Aunt Beru, who passed in 2000 (9/14).) And, also in unhappy news, farewell to the Bluths, who’ve gone the way of all good and tragically misunderstood television families…for now.
“Hate is too great a burden to bear. It injures the hater more than it injures the hated.” Coretta Scott King, 1927-2006. Said Rep. John Lewis today, ““She was the glue that held the civil rights movement together.“
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.” That flaming liberal Dwight Eisenhower’s somber farewell address to the nation is the historical and thematic anchor for Eugene Jarecki’s documentary Why We Fight, a sobering disquisition on American militarism and foreign policy since 9/11. In essence, Why We Fight is the movie Fahrenheit 9/11 should have been. Like F911, this film preaches to the choir, but it also makes a more substantive critique of Dubya diplomacy and the 9/11-Iraq switcheroo, with much less of the grandstanding that marred Moore’s earlier documentary (and drove right-wing audiences berzerk.)
Sadly, the basic tale here is all-too-familiar by now. Ensconced in Dubya’s administration from the word go, the right-wing think-tank crowd (Wolfowitz, Perle, Kristol, etc.) used the tragedy of 9/11 as a pretext to enact all their neocon fantasies (spelled out in this 2000 Project for a New American Century report), beginning in Iraq. Taken into consideration with Cheney the Military-Contractor-in-Chief doling out fat deals to his Halliburton-KBR cronies from the Vice-President’s office, and members of Congress meekly signing off on every military funding bill that comes down the pike (partly because, as the film points out, weapons systems such as the B-1 or F-22 have a part built in every state), it seems uncomfortably clear that President Eisenhower’s grim vision has come to pass.
To help him rake this muck, Jarecki shrewdly gives face-time not only to learned critics of recent foreign-policy — CIA vet Chalmers Johnson, Gore Vidal (looking unwell) — but also to the neocons themselves. Richard Perle is here, saying (as always) insufferably self-serving things, and Bill Kristol glows like a kid in a candy store when he gets to talk up his role in fostering Dubya diplomacy. (Karen Kwiatkowski, a career military woman who watched the neocon coup unfold within the corridors of the Pentagon, also delivers some keen insights.) And, when discussing the corruption that festers in the heart of our Capitol, Jarecki brings out not only Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity but that flickering mirage of independent-minded Republicanism, John McCain. (In fact, Jarecki encapsulates the frustrating problem with McCain in one small moment: Right after admitting to the camera that Cheney’s no-bid KBR deals “look bad”, the Senator happens to get a call from the Vice-President. In his speak-of-the-devil grimace of bemused worry, you can see him mentally falling into line behind the administration, as always.)
To be sure, Why We Fight has some problems. There’s a central tension in the film between the argument that Team Dubya is a corrupt administration of historical proportions and the notion that every president since Kennedy has been party to an increasingly corrupt system, and it’s never really resolved satisfactorily here. Jarecki wants you to think that this documentary is about the rise of the Imperial Presidency across five decades, but, some lip service to Tonkin notwithstanding, the argument here is grounded almost totally in the Age of Dubya. (I don’t think it’s a bad thing, necessarily, but it is the case.) And, sometimes the critique seems a little scattershot — Jarecki seems to fault the Pentagon both for KBR’s no-bid contracts and, when we see Lockheed and McDonnell-Douglas salesmen going head-to-head, for bidding on contracts. (Still, his larger point is valid — As Chalmers Johnson puts it, “When war becomes that profitable, you’re going to see more of it.“)
Also, the film loses focus at times and meanders along tangents — such as the remembrances of two Stealth Fighter pilots on the First Shot Fired in the Iraq war, or the glum story of an army recruit in Manhattan looking to turn his life around. This latter tale, along with the story of Wilton Sekzer, a retired Vietnam Vet and NYPD sergeant who lost his son on 9/11 and wants somebody to pay, are handled with more grace and less showmanship than similar vignettes in Michael Moore’s film, but they’re in the same ballpark. (As an aside, I was also somewhat irked by shots of NASA thrown in with the many images of missile tests and ordnance factories. Ok, both involve rockets, research, and billions of dollars, but space exploration and war are different enough goals that such a comparison merits more unpacking.)
Nevertheless, Why We Fight is well worth-seeing, and hopefully, this film will make it out to the multiplexes. If nothing else, it’ll do this country good to ponder anew both a president’s warning about the “disastrous rise of misplaced power,” and a vice-president’s assurance that we’ll be “greeted as liberators.”
“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.“
– Dr. Martin Luther King (1929-1968)
Admittedly, as Jack Shafer pointed out in Slate, Good Night, and Good Luck is rather narrowly focused, and works better as an impassioned and articulate morality play than it does as sound history. The Murrow of this film is saintly to a fault (although David Straitharn ameliorates this with a sardonic and multifaceted performance that may well get some nods come award time.) And there’s very little historical context offered herein, either for the origins of the McCarthy hysteria or for the Wisconsin Senator’s ultimate downfall, which had more to do with picking a fight with the army than with the Murrow broadcast.
That being said, I really like the way Clooney uses archival footage in this film. For one, Clooney was clever to follow Murrow’s example and let Joe McCarthy hoist himself on his own petard. Having the real McCarthy excoriate Murrow as the “leader of the jackal pack” gives the film a sense of history (and menace) that an actorly turn couldn’t have provided. For another, Clooney, who definitely appears to have done his homework, is unafraid to cut to real historical footage — the Annie Lee Moss hearings, for example — for extended periods, and just let the inherent drama of the real proceedings speak for itself. As a result, the history feels alive and contemporary, no mean feat when so many other historical films seem to use the past as merely exotic window dressing. Could the film have been more nuanced in its appraisal of both Murrow and McCarthyism? Undoubtedly. (Then again, nuanced appraisals weren’t exactly McCarthy’s strong point, either., nor is it a long suit of his current defenders.) But on the whole, Good Night, and Good Luck is, I think, a worthy exercise in historical filmmaking, and one with some obvious relevance in light of today’s entertainment-addled, sideshow-obsessed news media.
Movie-wise, there are a few small problems. I think the GN, & GL should have done either more or less with Robert Downey, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson as Wershbas Joe and Shirley — their particular plight doesn’t tie in to the rest of the story very well. And, while Ray Wise is good as the broadcaster-at-wits-end Don Hollenbeck, he’s also typecast in my mind — I kept expecting him to break into the Leland Palmer dance. All in all, though, Good Night, and Good Luck manages to enliven both the staid television studios of Fifties CBS and this historical moment with smoky jazz, languishing cigarettes, and ominous shadows. As the show says, see it now.