The Baltimore Sun reports that David Simon is working on a MLK mini-series for HBO, “based on the celebrated book trilogy by Pulitzer Prize-winner Taylor Branch…But as per Blown Deadline’s development projects, this is behind another miniseries project for HBO that is closer to production and that we hope to be announcing shortly.”
Hrm…there’s one you don’t hear much about these days. So every incoming President (presuming he or she has coattails) would likely have an operational majority in the House for a longer period of time — so long, disasters like 2010 — and House members would have less need for constant campaigning and fund-raising. At the same time, you’re further insulating the House from electoral upheaval (which is kind of the point), and thus aggravating the possibility that a room full of millionaires will be unaccountable to the public. I’ll have to think on it.
Following up on the recent revelations that, for decades, the nuclear launch code was actually 000000: In the New Yorker and fifty years after the film’s release, Eric Schlosser discovers that pretty much everything in Dr. Strangelove was correct, right down to the secret Doomsday device. “Fifty years later…’Strangelove’ seems all the more brilliant, bleak, and terrifyingly on the mark.”
I missed this during JFK retrospective/Thanksgiving week until Ted of The Late Adopter passed it along: The Magic Bullet is finally explained. In short, there was no second shooter — just a bullet-bending mutant master of magnetism on the grassy knoll. Seems like a good reason to authorize the Sentinel program, and no mistake.
Update: Upon looking over recent entries, I notice I neglected to post the full X-Men: Days of Future Past trailer, so here it is: Some questionable editing choices here (that jump-cut after “Patience isn’t my strongest suit” is jarring every time), but hopefully this will avoid the overstuffed pitfalls of X3 and continue in the positive vein of First Class.
The man in the black pajamas, Dude: Upon the latter’s death at the age of 102, Senator John McCain remembers General Vo Nguyen Giap, architect of Dien Bien Phu and Tet. “Countries, not just their armies, win wars. Giap understood that. We didn’t. Americans tired of the dying and the killing before the Vietnamese did. It’s hard to defend the morality of the strategy. But you can’t deny its success.”
“It is implausible to imagine that, were King to be raised from the dead, he would look at America’s jails, unemployment lines, soup kitchens or inner-city schools and think his life’s work had been accomplished. Whether one believes that these inequalities are caused by individuals making bad choices or by institutional discrimination, it would be absurd to claim that such a world bears any resemblance to the one King set out to create.” As The Nation‘s Gary Younge reminds us, today should not be about resting on laurels by any means: There is work to do.
“Bob radiated a passion for justice, and with joyful fervor he inspired everyone around him to share his belief in, and commitment to working for, a more democratic and just society. Through a long and varied career, Bob took on many roles and causes – but all of the chapters in his remarkable life were connected by his essential decency, kindness and compassion.” Bob Edgar, former Congressman, campaign finance activist, and president of Common Cause, 1943-2013.
Commander Neil Armstrong, the pioneer who took the first step on extra-terrestrial soil and towards our ultimate destiny, 1930-2012. “The important achievement of Apollo was demonstrating that humanity is not forever chained to this planet…our opportunities are unlimited.“
“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
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.
As breaking over the weekend, the Coens’ next project may well be a look at the sixties folk scene in Greenwich Village, based on the life of Dave Von Ronk — above, with Dylan and Suze Rotolo — and his memoirs, The Mayor of McDougal Street. He shouldn’t overpower the story, but I do hope Jack Rollins get his due.
Suze Rotolo, author, activist, and Dylan muse, 1943-2011. “‘A Freewheelin’ Time’ is one of the first histories of the folk music years written from a woman’s perspective…it goes beyond gossip to ask a pointed question: How did it feel? Rotolo writes the era mattered because ‘we all had something to say, not something to sell.’“
“Nearly everybody in their life needs someone to help them. I don’t care whether you’re the greatest self-made man; the fact is, someone has helped you along the way.” Politician and Peace Corps founder Sargent Shriver, 1915-2011.
“Here was the Delta Republicans’ historic task: negotiating terms of surrender to the Constitution, then reframing that Lost Cause as honorable, the better to preserve their insular plutocracy — perhaps their gravest sin in the first place — in order to integrate themselves more snugly into national and international circuits of corrupt wealth. Haley Barbour, who received his first Republican patronage job in 1970, is a true son of this confederacy.“
In the wake of Haley Barbour’s highly dubious misremembering of civil-rights era Mississippi, historian Rick Perlstein skewers the GOP poobah and presidential hopeful to the wall. “At every important turn in the story, Barbour emphasizes how little he remembers of this most intense period imaginable in his beloved home town — it really was no big deal, he insists…He’s a middle-aged Southern conservative. That is what his job is: to opportunistically ‘forget.‘”
In a fascinating remnant of alternate history, Letters of Note unearths Nixon’s Safire-penned speech on the (possible) failure of Apollo 11. “Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.”
Thanks to one small clerical error, the Memphis Commerical Appeal uncovers the hidden life of famed civil rights photographer Ernest Withers, who apparently doubled as an FBI informant. [Reaction.] “‘He was the perfect source for them. He could go everywhere with a perfect, obvious professional purpose,’ said Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow, who, along with retired Marquette University professor Athan Theoharis, reviewed the newspaper’s findings.” Shady.
“[W]hen I told Dr. King I was leaving the show, I never got to tell him why, because he said, ‘You can’t.’ He explained to me just what I’ve just said. ‘Here you are on the command crew in the 23rd century, fourth in command, while we’re marching in the streets for equality.’” Nichelle Nichols, a.k.a. Lt. Uhura, relates the story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Trekkie.
“The opening of ‘Dog Day’ is about what Sonny lost, and the rest of the film is about how he lost it. This sequence is about the necessity of recognizing and appreciating the beauty of life itself. A better tribute to Dede Allen’s artistry is hard to imagine.” Groundbreaking film editor Dede Allen, 1923-2010.
“‘If the times aren’t ripe, you have to ripen the times,’ she liked to say. It was important, she said, to dress well. ‘I came up at a time when young women wore hats, and they wore gloves. Too many people in my generation fought for the right for us to be dressed up and not put down.’” Matriarch of the civil rights movement Dorothy Height, 1912-2010.
On one hand, the film makes for an interesting moral counterpoint to The Fog of War: Ellsberg’s actions put the lie to a lot of McNamara’s convenient post-hoc rationalizing therein — clearly, SecDef could’ve done more at the time to end the war in Vietnam.) On the other, Ellsberg also works as a prequel of sorts to All the President’s Men — to say nothing of a generation of seventies paranoia epics like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. But in the end, The Most Dangerous Man in America probably works best as an eloquent testament to the words of the late Howard Zinn (who appears here as an old friend of Ellsberg): “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.“
Like Man on Wire, Ellsberg starts here in media res, and at the scene of the history-making crime. Furtive eyes scan back and forth as an old-school Xerox copier whirrs in the dark, its green light illuminating maps of Southeast Asia and the ominous words “Top Secret” from below. With no zip drives or electronic files to speak of, analyst Daniel Ellsberg is forced to copy the 7000 pages of the Pentagon Papers page by painstaking page. It’ll take months (and eventually he enlists the aid of his kids.) As the Xerox churns, we get up-to-date on the ramifications of the document being processed — bombs fall from the sky over North Vietnam and Cambodia, weary troops patrol the hot, fetid jungle, and Nixon and Kissinger obsess over the leaks in their war machine (with Kissinger giving Ellsberg his moniker: “the most dangerous man in America.”)
Cut back to several years earlier, when the future leaker of the Pentagon Papers seemed quite a different man indeed. A fresh-faced young ex-Marine with a crisp, no-nonsense Kennedy era haircut, Ellsberg began his tenure in government as one of the Best and the Brightest, with an enthusiasm for his 80-hour workweek matched only by his hawkishness. As one of McNamara’s boys, Ellsberg concedes to helping massage the data to create a casus belli for the war. His first day on the job is the Gulf of Tonkin incident that wasn’t, and he spends subsequent weeks trying to dredge up some, any, horrible atrocities in the region that might involve Americans.
But, over time, the scales fall away from Ellsberg’s eyes. In part because he makes the acquaintance of a luminous lefty-leaning journalist named Patricia, who eventually becomes his fiancee…twice. (Ellsberg has a great line about a guy he meets at a peace rally who’s a Trotskyist. He asks this fellow how in Hell he ever became a Trotskyist. The answer: “The same way anybody becomes anything. I met a girl.”) And in part because, driven with an analyst’s overriding compulsion to find the right answer, he starts going to Vietnam himself to lead recon missions on the side and get a better sense of the situation on the ground. Simply put, the Ground Game is not going well.
The rest, as they say, is history. Moved to throw a shoe into the gears of the war machine he had helped nurture into existence, Ellsberg goes rogue and decides to publish the top-secret history of the war. But, even if you feel like you know the story of the Pentagon Papers pretty well, and I thought I did, there are some fresh and intriguing insights here. For example, I’m not really one for Freudianism or overthinking coincidences, but it turns out Ellsberg suffered a tragedy at the age of 15 that made him uniquely primed to play the role in history he ended up playing. (His father fell asleep at the wheel during a road trip, prompting a crash that sheared the car in two and killed Ellsberg’s mother and sister. In other words, watch the authority figures at the wheel verrry carefully.)
And then there’s the man himself, who’s an engaging presence throughout (if perhaps with a touch of monomania — I could see him being a hard guy to get along with.) If The Most Dangerous Man in America has a flaw, it’s that the movie is quite one-sided in the end — Ellsberg even narrates much of the story, and you get the sense at various points there may well be some whitewash being applied. (Ellsberg has an ex-wife, and kids, that aren’t even mentioned for the first 45 minutes or so.) Still, I’m inclined to give Ellsberg — and Ellsberg — the benefit of the doubt (and not just because the man loves his movies.) Ever since George and the cherry tree, we’ve been smoothing the edges of our patriotic tales. And, whatever his misdeeds as a man, Daniel Ellsberg, the film makes clear, is a patriot, through and through.
I use this Cornel West quote rather often, but that doesn’t make it any less true: “To understand your country, you must love it. To love it, you must, in a sense, accept it. To accept it as how it is, however is to betray it. To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that in it which shows what it might become. America – this monument to the genius of ordinary men and women, this place where hope becomes capacity, this long, halting turn of the no into the yes, needs citizens who love it enough to reimagine and remake it.“
Daniel Ellsberg is one of those citizens. He saw an obvious crime being perpetrated by our government across multiple presidencies, and he did his part to help put a stop to it. In many ways, the story told in The Most Dangerous Man in America seems quaint: Johnson actually asked Congress for authority to bomb Vietnam? The press wasn’t rolling over like a lapdog in the wake of obvious propagandistic lies? (In fact, the media types who show up late in Ellsberg clearly possess some of the narcisstic sense of self-entitlement that has been our undoing of late. Ellsberg the civilian sweats blood and tears to get this 7,000-page document out in public, and the press poobahs act like they’re both the knowing gatekeepers and the heroes of the story.)
But just because Ellsberg’s brand of patriotism has fallen out of fashion in the era of Judith Miller and the chattering class doesn’t make this story any less relevant. It makes it more relevant. If we’re going to keep our young republic through its third century, we need more men and women of Ellsberg’s stripe. Men and women who will buck the trend, risk the ridicule and wrath of their well-connected peers, and stand up against injustice done under our collective name when they are party to it.
Presidents will get their due on this and every subsequent Presidents Day to come. But, now and again, it’s good to honor those patriots who, through non-violent principle and sheer, dogged determination, help to keep our leaders in check when the separation of powers fails — ordinary folks like you, me, and Daniel and Patricia Elllsberg.
“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability,
but comes through continuous struggle.”
“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.” — Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, 1925-1968, taken from us 40 years ago today. [See also "The Ballad of Bobby."]
“‘The world is a tough place,’ he said with a chuckle. ‘You’re never going to get out of it alive.‘” A damn dirty ape no longer, Charlton Heston, 1923-2008. (Between this and Buckley, it’s been a bad year so far for the patriarchs of conservatism.)
Update: Hmmm. After reading up on him further, it seems Heston (nee John Carter!) was a late-comer to the conservative movement, and even to the NRA philosophy: “In his earlier years, Heston was a liberal Democrat, campaigning for Presidential candidates Adlai Stevenson in 1956 and John F. Kennedy in 1960. A civil rights activist, he accompanied Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights march held in Washington, D.C. in 1963…In 1968, following the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Heston…called for public support for President Johnson’s Gun Control Act of 1968…He was also an opponent of McCarthyism and racial segregation, which he saw as only helping the cause of Communism worldwide. He opposed the Vietnam War and considered Richard Nixon a disaster for America. He turned down John Wayne’s offer of a role in The Alamo, because the film was a right-wing allegory for the Cold War.“
“‘What does that mean, false hopes?’ he said at Claremont, the start of a 720-word summation about ‘false hope’ he repeated almost word for word during the day. ‘How have we made progress in this country? Look, did John F. Kennedy look at the moon and say, ‘Ah, it’s too far?’ We can’t do that. We need a reality check. Dr. King standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. ‘You know, this dream thing, it’s a false hope. We can’t expect equality.’ ‘False hopes. Let me tell you something about hope. I do talk about hope quite a bit. Out of necessity. There is no oddsmaker who would have said that I would be standing here when I was born in 1961.’” Invoking JFK and MLK, Obama turns Clinton’s dismaying “false hopes” barb into campaign music. (And, hey, Al Smith is in there too: “We are happy warriors for change,” Obama cried at a rally in Lebanon.“)
For her part, Senator Clinton also went to the historical analogy well of late and came back with…Lyndon Johnson? “‘Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act,’ Clinton said. ‘It took a president to get it done.’” (One of her introducers took it all a bit far and brought up Kennedy’s murder: “‘Some people compare one of the other candidates to John F. Kennedy. But he was assassinated. And Lyndon Baines Johnson was the one who actually’ passed the civil rights legislation.” As my sister-in-law Lotta also noted recently, Not Cool.) At any rate, Clinton’s factual grasp of history is basically sound, if dismayingly top-heavy. In the inspiration department, however, LBJ probably isn’t going to get it done.
“Some 40 years later, it is a Christmastime story, of the war that raged on and of a long-shot airborne peace mission that became the first round-the-world flight of a U.S. president.” The WP‘s Sid Davis tells the story of LBJ’s attempt in 1967 to forge a Christmas peace (not to be confused with Nixon’s 1972 Christmas Bombings.) “To Johnson, weary of war, his health torn by the human cost, attempting a dramatic, attention-grabbing, globe-circling appeal to the pope at Christmas was worth the chance. Undaunted by criticism of his ‘flying circus,’ his “global extravaganza,’ Johnson defended his effort. ‘No man,’ he said, ‘can avoid being moved to try harder for peace at Christmastime.‘”
“‘I was panicked a bit because I really don’t know about…the Cuban Missile Crisis,’ said Perino, who at 35 was born about a decade after the 1962 U.S.-Soviet nuclear showdown. ‘It had to do with Cuba and missiles, I’m pretty sure.‘” Wait, wait, wait…what? By way of Ben of The Oak, it seems Dubya press secretary Dana Perino has never heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis. “So she consulted her best source. ‘I came home and I asked my husband,’ she recalled. ‘I said, “Wasn’t that like the Bay of Pigs thing?” And he said, “Oh, Dana.”‘” Ladies and Gentlemen, the spokesperson for our current president. Have we fallen so far? And if that sounds like a pedantic thing to say, well, consider me pedantic. I know nobody wants to work for this misfit administration anymore, but, we’ve a lot of people in this country, and many of ‘em are still even Republicans. Perhaps we can find someone to fill the position of the president’s mouthpiece who knows a thing or two about major events in American history over the past fifty years? That’d be great.
“But political success on television is not, unfortunately, limited only to those who deserve it. It is a medium which lends itself to manipulation, exploitation and gimmicks. It can be abused by demagogs, by appeals to emotion and prejudice and ignorance. Political campaigns can be actually taken over by the ‘public relations’ experts, who tell the candidate not only how to use TV but what to say, what to stand for and what ‘kind of person’ to be. Political shows, like quiz shows, can be fixed-and sometimes are.“
By way of Ted at The Late Adopter, Senator John F. Kennedy ruminates on how television has changed politics in 1959, and much of it reads as presciently as Eisenhower’s farewell address fourteen months later. “The other great problem TV presents for politics is the item of financial cost. It is no small item…If all candidates and parties are to have equal access to this essential and decisive campaign medium, without becoming deeply obligated to the big financial contributors from the worlds of business, labor or other major lobbies, then the time has come when a solution must be found to this problem of TV costs.” Yeah, I’d like to say we were working on that.
“We may in fact have finally found that bridge to the 21st century that Bill Clinton told us about. Its name is Obama.” In the pages of The Atlantic Monthly, conservative Andrew Sullivan makes his case for Barack Obama: “Obama’s candidacy in this sense is a potentially transformational one. Unlike any of the other candidates, he could take America — finally — past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us…If you are an American who yearns to finally get beyond the symbolic battles of the Boomer generation and face today’s actual problems, Obama may be your man.” Of Clinton, Sullivan writes, “[s]he has internalized what most Democrats of her generation have internalized: They suspect that the majority is not with them, and so some quotient of discretion, fear, or plain deception is required if they are to advance their objectives. And so the less-adept ones seem deceptive, and the more-practiced ones, like Clinton, exhibit the plastic-ness and inauthenticity that still plague her candidacy. She’s hiding her true feelings. We know it, she knows we know it, and there is no way out of it.” Update: Apparently, Obama reads The Atlantic.