J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for October, 2008

Fort Apache (1948)

Posted by J on October 29, 2008

Fort Apache is the sigh of relief after a long return home.  The film, set on a southwestern American military outpost, doesn’t ever get much into cowboys v. Indians or gun play.  There is plenty of friendship, dancing, drinking, and laughing at the outpost.  It’s not until the 1 hour, 30 minute mark that a major problem occurs.  Considering the movie was released in 1948, it’s little wonder.  Very likely, military veterans and their families were too war weary to watch much carnage on the big screen.

The novel aspect of Fort Apache is that there is no big enemy to combat.  American military forces here don’t have a great looming Other to worry about, even though the Apache ride out beyond the military post.  This is quite unlike the military movies of the 1950s and ’60s, when the spectre of communism was culturally potent for moviemakers, who could easily create some monstrous villain for American soldiers to fight and American audiences to automatically despise.  Fort Apache reflects the small, historical space between WWII and the Cold War, and because of that, it’s something of a unique Western.

Interestingly, the Apaches aren’t exactly the bad guys.  They are stereotyped, as all Indians are in John Ford movies, but so are the American soldiers.  The main issue in Fort Apache is the lack of foresight from the uptight Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda), the new fort commander who distrusts the Apaches to a fault.  Unfortunately, Thursday rules, and not Captain Kirby York (John Wayne).  York desires to negotiate peace with the Apaches — he has done it before, and respects them — and he knows that failing to negotiate that peace will mean a long, bloody feud.

Consider one of the movie’s final images.  After provoking the Apaches with a pre-emptive attack, the fort has to desperately erect a barricade and defend its outer circle.  But the Apaches have this battle won.  We see them approach, anticipating a horrible fight.  But their horses stop, the chief rides forward alone, and then he plants the American flag he’s holding in the ground, right in front of the U.S. cavalry’s barricade.  In a cloud of dust, both Wayne and the chief meet, and we know that the chief is saying, “Here is the border between us.” For a moment only, Wayne and the Apache chief occupy the murky space between.  And then the Apaches leave.  Their warning is obvious: avoid military adventures, especially unwarranted ones.  And respect boundaries.

More shockingly, Fort Apache purposely undermines the myths of Western expansion.  Thursday’s command decisions were rash and foolish, causing a near massacre and the loss of a significant number of cavalry officers.  For all we know, this is Thursday’s legacy.  But the movie’s end suggests that Thursday has become a national hero, a man well remembered for bravely standing up to the Apaches.  Captain York, now fort commander, takes part in this myth even though he knows the truth of Thursday’s folly.  The suggestion is that the U.S. Cavalry’s western Indian wars were partly unjustified, even though they are the stuff of national myth.

To emphasize the battle aspects of the movie is to emphasize only a part.  Here you have Irishmen gaily drinking, and a teenage Shirley Temple oogling over a handsome soldier.   John Wayne dances at a formal ball.  Young men ride horses in the West.  These are moments of calm, because calm is greatly needed.

Entertainment: 6

Intelligence: 6

Morality: 9


Posted in Pretty Good, Western | Leave a Comment »

The Great Santini

Posted by J on October 29, 2008

Take George C. Scott’s General Patton and plop him down in a domestic family drama, and you have the The Great Santini.  As the title indicates, the focus of the movie is on the main character, Bull Meechum, a warrior and fighter pilot who happens to have a Southern belle for a wife and four interesting children.  The year is 1962, and Meechum is back home for the first time in a long time.  He and the family head to small-town South Carolina.  Then the family drama starts, and Patton is unleashed.

The movie is primarily about how military life affects families, particularly in the methods of fathers who are also trained soldiers.  For Meechum, there is little distinction between the air force base he works at and his home.  Meechum’s militarism and his just-one-of-the-boys attitude carries over into his civilian and family life, which means that he is often irascible or irresponsible, though his family at times seems to flourish because or in spite of Meechum’s bizarre leadership style.  With Meechum, we are a small step from Al Bundy and Homer Simpson, but The Great Santini is really only out to praise the nuclear family and the paternal role that heads it.

The key relationship among a number of important ones is between Meechum and his son, Ben.  Contrary to what you might guess, Ben is not introverted around or because of his father.  He flourishes fairly well, even acting like the old man in his own, particular way.  The Great Santini is a coming-of-age story for Ben, who turns 18 during the course of the movie and learns a lot of important male maturity stuff.  Ben even engages in a subplot in which he plays Huck Finn to a black teenager’s Jim,  but the way that subplot ends supports the point that this movie is about the complexities of Ben’s old man.

That subplot is indicative of the movie’s unwillingness to engage in stereotypes, and to go down the trodden roads that so many plots have gone before.  The Great Santini doesn’t always turn in the direction you think it will turn.  This is what separates it from its TV-movie brethren, even though the music and cinematography of Santini would make you believe that it first aired on CBS.

We haven’t laughed so frequently at a movie recently, mostly because of Santini’s antics and his children’s reactions to them.  But as C. says, the movie is hilarious, but it is not a funny movie. You won’t do much better with recent family-friendly fare though, so this is one worthy of your consideration.

Note: This movie does have some potentially objectionable moments.  A father lets his son get drunk, and there’s some cursing.  The ‘PG’ rating is accurate, but probably no one younger than a teenager will profit from it.

Entertainment: 8

Intelligence: 6

Morality: 7

Posted in Modern Drama, Pretty Good | Leave a Comment »

Spiderman 3

Posted by J on October 25, 2008

Cheetos.  That’s what this movie reminds us of.  Cheese-flavored Styrofoam.

Sure, Spiderman 3 provides some commentary on pride, corruption, heroism, grace, yadda yadda yadda.  And it’s true, you bite into it and it crunches.  It’ll keep you from starving.   But it still tastes terrible, just like cheese-flavored Styrofoam.  We all know what a steady diet of Cheetos does.

Entertainment: 2

Intelligence: -5

Morality: who cares?

Posted in Big-Budget Eye Candy, They Spent Millions on This? | Leave a Comment »

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Posted by J on October 24, 2008

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance attempts to be the American allegory.  It might have succeeded.  Since the frontier was our dreamscape, the place where fortunes could be made, where nature was tamed, where cowboys battled Indians and the sky and land went on forever — since this was our national dreamland, it is the best place for an allegory.

Everything in this movie is a political comment.  There are two main characters, Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, the first of which is a lawyer and educator who rejects gun violence, and the second of which is a tough cowboy with hints of kindness.  Stewart represents our political class — pro-education, anti-gun violence, with an unwavering trust in the law — while Wayne represents the classic frontiersman.  When the story opens, Wayne has just died, and Stewart has just come back from Washington DC to honor Wayne.  Stewart has long been an important politician in the federal government.  When newspapermen ask him why he came back to honor Wayne, Stewart begins to tell a long story that happened decades ago.  This story takes up almost the whole movie.

We can immediately see what comment the movie is making.  Wayne is dead, hence the frontiersman is dead and so the frontier is closed.  This was Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous lament: what would happen to American democracy if there were nowhere for pioneers and settlers to go to?  Turner worried that American democracy would die, potentially, because the spirit of democracy was wrapped up in the existence of the frontier.  Our political institutions might become less free, more centralized, more like Europe’s.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance romanticizes the long-gone frontier at the same time it worries about the frontier’s death.  We do not know who shoots Liberty Valance, a notorious outlaw, because there are two different versions of the story told.  Perhaps Stewart, the gun novice, shot Valance.  But perhaps Wayne shot Valance.  Stewart believes that Wayne shot him, but the entire world believes that Stewart did, which enhances Stewart’s personal and political career.  The story is a frontier legend, told again and again.  But it might not be true.  The movie, in certain ways, considers this a problem.

The movie shows that guns are useful, because Stewart learns that men like Valance don’t believe in obeying laws anyway.  In order for laws to be effective, we must have a moral populace, which obviously doesn’t include Valance and his gang.  But the movie also privileges many of Stewart’s positions — unflinching patriotism, trust in never-ending progress, faith in the federal government, distrust of open-range ranches.  At least that’s the way Stewart tells his story.  Of course, by the end of the movie, Stewart seems to be reconsidering his beliefs.  He wants to leave Washington and go back west, to retire and settle down.

Problems exist. There is no hint of religion in the movie, not even a shot of a church or the use of a minister as a character.  Surely, in a movie soaked in patriotic rhetoric and symbols, churches would be included.  Also, Liberty Valance is wholly evil.  We watch him beat people unmercifully several times, to the point where these beatings feel like they are meant for sadists to enjoy.  The movie has many disturbing undertones, beneath its presentation of a plucky and determined American spirit.

This is not, perhaps, a better movie than others that are similar thematically.  Shane is superior, as is The Searchers.  But it is surprisingly complex and ambiguous.  Maybe the American allegory should not be so naively happy after all.

Entertainment: 7

Intelligence: 8

Morality: 7

Posted in Pretty Good, Western | Leave a Comment »

Les Miserables (1998)

Posted by J on October 23, 2008

We’re hearing lately about the hot new Christian movie, Fireproof, which is supposedly a heartgrabbing work of spiritual realism.  Except that Kirk Cameron plays a firefighter, which is sort of like casting a munchkin as the Cowardly Lion.  Anyway, we can’t figure out why Christians would waste capital making a TV movie for the big screen when they could simply take a classic like Les Miserables and remake it.  Or better yet, they could save money — the recession is here after all — and just watch this version of Les Mis instead.

Now you have to understand that Victor Hugo’s book is something like 1300 pages long.  Most people don’t read that many pages in a lifetime.  So while Roger Ebert complains that this 1998 version of Les Mis is basically a Classics Illustrated version of the story, which is true, that still makes this movie better and more compelling than 95% of the schlock currently marketed to us. Busy people like us can save time by getting the highlights of Hugo’s story here.  Nothing wrong with highlights.

Best of all, there’s no music in this one.  Whoever thought that Les Miserables would make a great musical should be forgiven, a lot, because he’s caused plenty of unnecessary delusion and suffering.

The story of Les Miserables is, in one sense, filled with the conflicts of grace and law.  Jean Valjean, our hero, receives grace from a priest at the beginning of the story.  Nine years later, the great Valjean — an important official who is hiding his criminal past — grants grace to anyone in need.  Valjean is opposed and eventually pursued by Javert, an inspector with a heart of stone.  Javert tries to observe the law consistently, with a professed personal goal of never breaking it once, and so he tries to make everyone else follow the law too.  Lawbreakers to Javert are anathema.  So what happens when Javert realizes that Valjean was once a criminal?  Take one guess, and you’ll probably be right.

The movie’s best half is its opening half, which whisks along and then turns into a chase scene.  This is far from the pacing of Hugo’s humongous novel, but oh well.  The movie’s second half takes a bad turn in a couple of ways.  One of those is the syrupy treatment of the Parisian revolutionaries, which include the token black guy and a campy treatment of mob violence and warfare.  The other problem is the casting of Cosette, who is played by a young lady who badly fakes a British accent even though she’s playing a French woman.  Still, these problems aren’t enough to overwhelm the compelling dynamic between Valjean and Javert.

The movie — so says C. — is mostly faithful to the book, ending abruptly but still ending as the book does.  You miss all of the ornate description that Hugo gives, which C. loved, by the way.  Realize that this Les Mis is the Hollywood version, preferring classy actors, expensive sets, and chase scenes to the intricacies of character.   But it’s still compelling.

Entertainment: 8

Intelligence: 4

Morality: 9

Posted in Period Drama, Pretty Good | 1 Comment »

Star Trek: First Contact

Posted by J on October 18, 2008

This might be our one and only Star Trek review, so listen up.  Star Trek: First Contact is the second movie with the cast from the second Star Trek TV series, Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Got that?  It’s nearly impossible to keep track of these things, so let’s just call this the series with Captain Shakespeare and the android, the only two characters worth paying any attention to. (The marketers thought the same thing: see the movie poster.)

Essentially, in this movie, the Earth is being attacked by an alien race called the Borg.  To get a feel for who the Borg are, walk in to the nearest public school sometime.  It’s a race that forcibly “assimilates” all alien species into its collective.  It thereby evolves because it assimilates the knowledge of each species, and each person who gets captured and made into a borg becomes essentially half-organic, half-robot — a being indistinguishable from his fellow borg.  The key for Star Trek is that the Borg is a terrible kind of boogeyman for both the heroes and us the audience.  Captain Shakespeare and his merry band get freaked out by the thought of somebody, anybody, becoming a borg.  That person, they think, loses all individuality and freedom of thought.  It is so horrible to them that there’s no doubt about the ethical consequences: if your best friend becomes a borg, kill him.

Bizarrely, Captain Shakespeare and his merry band have never reflected on the structure of the United Federation of Planets, their own “peaceful” galactic organization.  Seriously, there’s little difference between the Borg and the Federation of Planets.  Both are highly militaristic, both seek to assimilate other species, and both are trying to dominate the galaxy.

The only difference between the Borg and the Federation is that the Federation appears diverse, whereas the Borg all look the same.  So yes, the only difference is appearance.  They are both multicultural collectives; they have “assimilated” many races into their cultural and political structures, but they have almost no diversity of opinion.   Can we just call the United Federation of Planets a communist enterprise and call it a day?

“Communist” doesn’t quite get it, but it’s close.   The crew of Star Trek band together, neither as a family nor as a religious body, but as a collective of individuals who operate a space warship.  You rarely see these people enjoying family.  There is no religion on the Enterprise, except for when they utter goofy mumbo-jumbo that would move only devotees of Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey.  All of the crew of this warship wear military uniforms, 24 hours a day.  They brag about how they’ve eliminated money from society and now all pursue the common good.  It’s a real utopia, this Star Trek.  The kind of utopia in space fantasies that, in reality, is hell on Earth.

In Star Trek: First Contact, the Borg travel back in time to the point where humans build a spaceship with warp-drive.  This is the key moment in human progress, when humans do something good enough to join the United Federation of Planets.  It’s the invention of warp drive that ushers in utopia, an era of everlasting peace and prosperity.  Yes, that’s right, NASA could save us all.

So the Borg want to stop this event from happening and assimilate humanity.  Somehow, Captain Shakespeare and his crew travel in time back with the Borg.  Yes, they have to stop the Borg and look heroic doing so.  Great.  The bizarre thing is they admit that human history turned on a dime.  You see, right after the Third World War, in which nukes were prominently involved, an alcoholic scientist built the ship with warp-drive.  So sixty years after nearly destroying itself in its third world war, humanity becomes entirely peaceable.  Of course, the crew of the Entreprise have no problem with killing the Borg, but never mind. Human nature has changed , and they are all near-pacifists now.  Their mantra: “Give peace a chance, or else.”

This is the kind of movie that Star Trek outsiders can grasp without having to know the character dynamics or the intricacies of the many Star Trek series.  (We say this because we don’t know them.)  In fact, the movie contains all you need to know about the politics and ethics of Star Trek, which are hilarious when not taken seriously.  They are entirely humanistic, which means that they are falsely optimistic and quite stupid. The god of Star Trek is scientific progress, backed by weapons of war.


Intelligence: 3

Morality: see above

Posted in Big-Budget Eye Candy, Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again, Sci-Fi and Fantasy | 2 Comments »

There Will Be Blood

Posted by J on October 14, 2008

We have finally reached that point.  We finally have a well-regarded story — a movie in this case — in which the villain is the one and only showstopper.  Oh sure, everybody loves Milton’s Satan.  And the Joker has been much beloved twice in recent pop culture.  But in both those cases, there was a hero to counterbalance the villain.  In There Will Be Blood, there is no hero.  There is only Daniel Plainview, a force of nothing, a supreme exemplar of depravity, on-screen.  As viewers, we can feel nothing but disgust.  Plainview is beyond pity.

Reader, if you’re looking for a fulfilling story, do not approach this movie.  Long ago, Aristotle told us what makes a tragic story work for an audience: catharsis.  There is no catharsis in There Will Be Blood.  Plainview has no redeeming qualities, and he is not a great man.  Since there is no joy in the movie either, you will leave this movie feeling like a pile of manure.

Unlike a great movie like Amadeus, in which the villain and main character accidentally enacts a useful morality tale for an audience, There Will Be Blood offers nothing more than the hollowness of Plainview.  Sure, there is lots of vague religious symbolism, underneath the great photography.  But Plainview starts out as a hideous man and grows only more hideous throughout the movie.  We’ve known people like him.  We do not want to be around them long.  So why would we want to spend 150 minutes watching Plainview degenerate into a greedy, isolated husk of a man?  Here, that is all you will see.

The counterpart to Plainview is a charismatic preacher named Eli Sunday.  In typical Hollywood fashion, Sunday represents the nuttiest of the nuttiest that “Christianity” has to offer.  You’d think they could throw us a decent, honest Methodist or Baptist every decade or two.  But no, Sunday has to cast out the demons of arthritic old ladies and shout “I bite you, devil!  And if I don’t have teeth, I gum you!”  Sunday’s church is the Church of the Third Revelation, the place where the local ignoramuses go to hear the new doctrine that Sunday dreamed up two days ago.  He’s a holy roller who’s only in it for money and power, and it’s a wonder that the movie doesn’t depict him as actively searching for paramours.

Sunday, like Plainview, is nothing but a vile man.  Sunday, though, is the more pathetic of the two, a petty hypocrite with an annoying, boyish yell.  Both Sunday and Plainview are slaves to money and personal greed, and the movie’s attempt to be intellectually brilliant is to create an ever-changing power relationship between Sunday and Plainview.  Sunday baptizes Plainview so that Plainview can build an oil pipeline, and Plainview baptizes Sunday, in his own way.  Need we say that neither baptizm is really effectual?

Oh, but what of the plot?  Not that it matters much, since it’s the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis and the nice photography that’s on display for the credentialed critics to “ooh” and “aah” at.  Plainview is an oilman who creates a town called Little Boston in the middle of the California desert, thanks to the participation of poor families like Eli Sunday’s.  Plainview promises to make Little Boston into a boomtown.  This is music to the ears of Sunday, who longs for a larger audience in his Church of the Third Revelation.  The more people to hypnotize each week, the better.

But there’s one problem: Sunday cannot take his mind off the money that Plainview owes him, and Plainview refuses to pay.  You see, the Church of the Third Revelation needs its $5000 smackeroos.  As usual, the church gets greedy, and then gets conned by crooked capitalists.  The Word becomes the servant of Mammon, for it can get rich no other way, so the thinking goes.  Sunday thinks he can serve God and Mammon, while Plainview just thinks that God is a superstition.  These are your heroes.

The movie’s final scene absolutely flounders. It punishes Sunday more than it does Plainview, whose atheism gains something of a conquest as the movie closes.  It is a failed ending of what begins as a promising movie.  The first twenty minutes have no dialogue, just oil prospecting.  These are the best twenty minutes of the movie, with the opening shots alluding to Plato’s allegory of the cave.  At the one-hour mark, the movie shifts for the worse, when Plainview’s degeneracy is obvious and painful, and by the time it flashforwards to the 1920s we’ve already long known that Plainview is utterly despicable.   At least twenty minutes needs to be cut from its runtime.

The movie has almost nothing good to say about entrepreneurship or Christianity.  The local townsfolk who get roped into Plainview’s schemes and Sunday’s false church are merely dupes.  Everyone else is a greedy son-of-a-gun.  Only Plainview’s adopted son escapes the madness, and he retreats to Mexico.  Since the movie obviously attacks the idea of the self-made man, the central American myth, this flight to Mexico by the movie’s only honorable man can only mean that the American Dream is a total sham. That dream, so say says the movie, is practiced only by crooked capitalists and stupid holy rollers.  Trust us, if you watch this, there will be pain.

Entertainment: 1-9

Intelligence: 8

Morality: 1 (what morality did it demonstrate?)

Posted in Clever but Immoral, Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again, Period Drama | Leave a Comment »

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

Posted by J on October 10, 2008

For once, just this once, we’re in favor of the police state.  The Day the Earth Stood Still did that to us.  This movie forces us into a choice between a square-jawed prig from outer space, who threatens humanity with annihilation, or the U.S. military’s occupation of Washington D.C.  No thanks, Mr. Alien.  We’ll take our chances with our fellow earthlings, even if they threaten our liberties with guns, thank you.

At the beginning of the movie this alien, a dude named Klaatu, lands his spaceship in the middle of a park in Washington DC.  This doesn’t create mass panic, but it does worry the U.S. army, which surrounds the spaceship with soldiers and tanks.  When Klaatu emerges from the spaceship, announcing that he’s come in peace, one of the soldiers gets an itchy trigger finger.  Klaatu gets shot, and so we are supposed to weep for the weapons of war that we unjustly use.

As it turns out, it’s unfortunate that Klaatu lives.  He bogs down the middle of this movie with his stuffy attitude.  The star of any movie is supposed to have charisma greater than zero, but not Klattu.  He’s like an uninvited dinner guest who’s overstayed his welcome by, oh, three days.  In the end, you’re glad he goes back to Alpha Centauri, hopefully permanently.  Please go ruin some other planet’s movies.

Klaatu is supposed to be a genius, but of course he can’t figure out how to evade military checkpoints.  Thankfully, for the sake of the movie, the U.S. military is dumber. It posts two guards — that’s right, two — outside of Klaatu’s spaceship.  You’d think that the most amazing event in human history would require several brigades’ worth of soldiers, plus 24-hour surveillance by the most advanced technology we have.  But nope, Klaatu’s robot uses the old ‘bang-their-heads-together’ trick, and Klaatu walks right back into his spaceship.

It’s Klaatu’s mission that really got us.  You see, he’s here on Earth to warn us all that unless we shape up, the United Federation of Planets is going to blow us up real good.  We haggle and fight too much on Earth, he says.  Well, great point.  But then he demands that we “progress” by joining his galactic government.  Of course, Klaatu forces us to join his government.  If we don’t, he says, his government will kill us all for killing each other.   That sort of defeats the purpose of a wonderful, benevolent federation for interplanetary peace, but aliens have their contradictions too, we guess.

Since there is no United Federation of Planets, this is the movie’s way of saying that the United Nations is the only way to go.  It’s one world government, or else.  All we are saying is give peace a chance, or else we will destroy you for not complying.  Some peace.

So when the military guns down Klaatu for a second time, killing Klaatu, we actually sympathized with the aggressor.  Only problem is that Klaatu can rise from the dead.  His final warning, after his resurrection, is to put up or shut up.  That is, get rid of your weapons or my destructive robot will get rid of them for you, permanently, since your molecules will be scattered throughout the universe, hahaha!

If Klattu ever shows up here again, we will unite.  We will unite against him.  When the 2008 version of this movie appears in theaters, bring your tomatos.

Entertainment: 4

Intelligence: 0

Morality: 0

Posted in Sci-Fi and Fantasy, They Spent Millions on This? | 8 Comments »

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Posted by J on October 9, 2008

“Ah, those were the days! Halcyon days.”  So one character sighs in the six-episode Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  We couldn’t agree more.  The world was a simpler place when they were commies and we were capitalists.  The USSR was the ultimate baddie and we, the forces of good, were its opposite.  Nowadays the world is integrated, complicated, a giant hodgepodge of corporate conglomerates and individual consumers.  What happened to the exotic world of spycraft and a firm knowledge of what good and evil are?

But Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy explodes this myth of what the bygone days of spycraft were like.  We couldn’t be more wrong, so the miniseries tells us.  We weren’t necessarily the good guys.  We operated a Department of Espionage, a bureaucracy of spies that was as self-serving as it was essential to national affairs.  There is not necessarily a good guy in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, though there is a master detective who solves the crime.  The men who are spies hide secrets, push and make way for their own self-interests, and blind themselves to good, ultimate goals.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a 1979 miniseries put out by the BBC, based on a novel of the same name.  It is a miniseries that requires lots of work on the part of its viewers.  All of its characters assume a level of knowledge that viewers won’t attain until at least the fourth episode.  We advise keeping a scorecard of names and relationships.  There is only one action scene, in the first episode, and every scene after that is dialogue-only.  This is a series whose engine is words and only words (not visuals).  Thankfully, it is probably one of the best acted miniseries ever made.

The series begins with the head of the British spy organization plainly stating, “We have a mole.”  But which British agent is working for the Russians?  It is at least one of five men, all at the highest levels of “the Circus,” the pet name for Britain’s spy bureaucracy.  It might be more than one of them.  One of these men — George Smiley, played by the wonderful Alec Guinness — is chosen to find out who the mole is.  So begins Smiley’s investigation, which requires plenty of cooperation and coercion, and lots of sly, subtle dialogue.  One of the pleasures of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is analyzing the way these characters talk to each other.  They hint, imply, feint, pretend, but never reveal.  Smiley has quite the task.  Good thing he is a mastermind.

There are even suggestions that Smiley himself is the spy.  Why, after all, was he pegged as a suspect?  Where is his wife, Ann?  Why do we never see her?  Her name may be code for something else.  In this miniseries, any word or gesture may be a code that we viewers are unaware of.

The point is that, as viewers, we can trust no one.  All of the British spies work for themselves.  They all understand the lure of money and power.  They understand and sympathize with their Russian counterparts, who alone know what the Brits are going through.  These spies operate on the border between nations, the muddy in-between where anybody can be loyal to anybody, as long as they are being paid a sufficient amount of “chickenfeed.”  As one of them says, “I’m a good socialist, always looking to make a buck, and a good capitalist, always ready for the revolution.”

Does Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy really deserved to be called “Great”?  Probably not.  It will be out-of-date soon, when generations who know nothing of the Cold War mature.  But as an example of a provocative series constructed almost entirely out of dialogue, it is far more engaging than you’d think.  Just stick with it through Episode Three.  And remember to keep a scorecard.

Though the series offers little in the way of redemption, even though the mystery is solved, each episode ends with a shot of a cathedral.  In the background, choir boys sing a traditional hymn.  The point, if anything, is that the world of spycraft needs Christ too.  Otherwise, Smiley’s mission to out the mole is all for nothing.

Entertainment: 5-9  (depends on the episode)

Intelligence: 7

Morality: 7 (one risque scene in Episode 2)

Posted in Great, Mystery | Leave a Comment »

Being There

Posted by J on October 7, 2008

Just in time for another election extravaganza!  Being There is a devastating commentary on national politics in an era of television.  Those readers who gained much from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death will immediately recognize its artistic counterpart in this movie.  But while Postman argued that serious political issues are undermined by the medium of television — where everything is marketed for viewers to consume, and the serious tone of “Breaking News” collides with commercial jingles and cackling celebrities — Being There is less a critique of television itself and more a critique of the political, monied classes of Washington DC.

It all starts with Chance.  Chance is a gardener working for a wealthy Washingtonian, a simpleton who has never left the grounds he keeps.  Chance cannot read or write, but he loves to watch television at every opportunity.  Chance’s life, in fact, is shaped by TV and by the simple platitudes he has learned from decades of gardening.  One day, Chance’s employer dies and, with nowhere else to go, Chance must leave the house.

Chance’s journey takes him through the slums of DC into the wealthiest part of town, to a vast estate owned by the big businessman Benjamin Rand.  Two days after leaving his former home, Chance finds himself in the good graces of the Rand family and has the opportunity to meet the President.  Chance’s simple ways and folksy slogans earn him enormous respect, so much respect in fact that the President quotes Chance’s garden metaphors in a nationally televised speech: “This is the winter of our economy, but spring is sure to come.”  Or something like that.  Chance becomes an immediate celebrity, whose platitudes are taken as profundities by Russian ambassadors and book publishers who want to give him six-figure advances for his thoughts on politics.

(SPOILERS FOLLOW.)  As audience members, we’re required to willingly suspend our belief that Chance would immediately be seen for the dummy he is.  All of Washington is abuzz for days about this mysterious Chance (known as Chauncey Gardener to them), a man with no past but with now tremendous influence.

As a satire of a TV culture and of Washington’s good-old-boy politics, Being There is effective.  But those are just two aspects of a complex and contradictory work that jabs at laissez-faire conservatives throughout.   The President, for example, rubs noses with the uber-wealthy Rand, who has apparently helped elect the President and thus aids him in determining economic policy.  At Rand’s funeral, the President decides to read a selection of Rand’s quotes, the first of which bashes welfare recipients.  The movie tries to ironize Rand’s position, but it has already given Rand too much sympathy to bash his economic views — we watch him slowly and graciously die first, and then we are supposed to be shocked at his anti-welfare statements and his creepy, Masonic grave.  The irony doesn’t work.

The voice of reason in Being There is Chance’s former coworker, a black maid whom the movie inserts as a critique of the white elite of Washington.  She is one of only two people who are not duped by Chance’s appearance of genius, and she is quick to claim that if he weren’t white, he wouldn’t be treated as a great political thinker and a celebrity.  Being There, in two or three scenes, practically screams about the injustice of the racial divide in Washington DC.  Whatever you think of this, artwork that screams never lasts long, so Being There suffers as a result.

The movie’s final image is at once baffling and crude.  We didn’t think the movie earned the right to use it.  Even though he is being considered as a Presidential candidate, Chance is not a Christ-figure in any sense.  Readers who have a theory about why he walks on water should let us know; this is one image we cannot figure out.

Chance is like lots of people we know.  We don’t mean that in a bad way either.  They are simple folks, people who tend their personal affairs well and enjoy outdoor life.  Agrarians like Chance tend to have cultivated morals, but they also get duped by mass media.  It is rare that a Chance the Gardener has great influence on Washington and stuns the political classes there.  Being There, if it is serious, gets things backwards.  The Chances of the world are merely influenced by TV, and those who control the TV set influence (to an extent) the Chances of the world.   Propaganda is a one-way street, and the political manipulators of the world understand which way the traffic flows.

Entertainment: 8

Intelligence: 7

Morality : 7 (one brief unnecessary scene; you’ll know)

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