Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Burn After Reading, the Coen Brothers, and comedy

I recently rewatched Burn After Reading, a film that I saw when it was in theaters and only moderately liked. I have watched every Coen Brothers film at least twice (with the exceptions of Raising Arizona and Intolerable Cruelty, which I was so unimpressed with that I didn't even bother). The Coens' intricate craftsmanship requires multiple viewings, and at several points I have found myself turning around on the Coens' films after a second viewing--it wasn't until the second viewing until The Big Lebowski clicked. Burn improved a bit on the second viewing--I laughed more, and I appreciated the jabs at D.C. society, which were certainly sharp and well-aimed. However, my overall feeling was the same: the movie was a little lazy and should have been much funnier.

This got me to thinking about the Coens in general. They are two of the best filmmakers around, without a doubt, and they have a formidable catalog that contains the likes of Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, and Fargo, not to mention No Country for Old Men and The Man Who Wasn't There. I realize that Barton Fink is more polarizing, but I tend to think it's a genius movie that is mostly a character study, done in a particularly meta way that doesn't really lend itself to easy explanation. But all those films are "serious" films, in the sense that they are primarily dramatic, though all are laced with dark humor and funny dialogue. Indeed, it occurred to me that the Coens generally succeed when attempting drama though they fail when they try to do comedy. Their comedy catalog contains little to love: Intolerable Cruelty, The Hudsucker Proxy, Raising Arizona (which some people adore but I never really cared for), The Ladykillers (which most people didn't care for and I actually liked) and now Burn After Reading. In fact, the only triumphs that I can see are The Big Lebowski and, to a lesser degree, O Brother, Where Art Thou, and there are some trends to be noted here. Cruelty, Ladykillers and Burn all felt like lazy pieces of filmmaking--at best, uninspired films that have their moments. Ladykillers has more than a few good moments but I am not sure it works as a film. Hudsucker, on the other hand, tried much too hard and wasn't too funny either. So it was a sort of counterreaction to the prevailing trend among Coen comedies. Brother succeeds, though its success owes much to its ramshackle energy and driving soundtrack and not to its overstuffed plot and overdone Homer references. Subplots involving Robert Johnson and a bipolar bankrobber barely register as the movie is too busy and has too much going on. It works, but the pacing could have been better, which is rare indeed to say about a Coens film.

Lebowski, on the other hand, is a triumph, and one of their very best. The Coens managed to include one of their typically overstuffed plots, but the plot is countered by the lethargic energy of The Dude, as played by Jeff Bridges. Bridges is the major reason why the story works: the plot unfolds around him, but he only barely understands it (like us) and he is reluctantly pulled along with it. It doesn't hurt that Bridges puts in one of the all-time great film performances, and it is seriously a thing of beauty. But Bridges is balanced by the Coens going all out in their usual plotting and dialogue tricks. The film never feels like it is just going through the motions, and the comedy is never left on the table. Ultimately, though, it isn't the plot that is funny so much as the characters, the dialogue (which is infinitely quotable) and the individual scenes.

So, on a fundamental level, I think it makes some sense to say that the Coen Brothers are simply better at doing drama than they are doing comedy. This isn't to say they aren't funny, but that they don't excel at telling funny stories, as Intolerable Cruelty will inform you, again and again, if you were to watch it, which I don't recommend. In Lebowski they manage to make the most of it by downplaying the impossibly complex story and focus on making the scenes, characters, and dialogue as funny as possible, but the humor is in the approach and not in the story. One could simply have cast different actors, trimmed out some of the dialogue, and tweaked the scenes and the film could worked just as easily as a drama. Now, I wouldn't like that one bit because I happen to think that Lebowski is near perfect, but I don't think it's an unfair thing to say.

I suppose this is another way of saying that Lebowski is basically just a drama with comedy sprinkled on top, which is fine by me since the comedy is so good. But it illustrates the lack of versatility of the Coens' approach. In retrospect, it makes sense that Burn wouldn't really work as a comedy, as the Coens have yet to demonstrate that they can master the rhythms of the comedic feature film. They've pretty much mastered drama at this point, and the critique that they're nothing but recyclers of old movies seems to have passed into obvlivion following the nonstop parade of awesomeness of No Country for Old Men, clearly a career watermark that showed that they could tackle someone else's source material and adapt it compellingly to the screen. Not that I'm going to stop watching their comedies, and I'm hoping for a No Country-level comedy from them at some point. At this point, though, they have yet to deliver one.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Five Best (And Worst) Modern Political Movies

As a political nerd in my other life, as well as a big movie fan, it is only natural that I should want to hit both of my sweet spots at once. In other endeavors this might not be advisable, but it is complicated in this instance by a simple truth: most political movies suck. They really do. They are often made by people who don't really know anything about politics and wind up saying either ridiculous, banal or just wrong things with their writing; or by informed political observers who have something to say and do a decent job of saying it. The latter is a really small group.

Therefore, I have decided to write a list of my top and bottom five political movies. My considerations are subjective, but I have judged them by the following metrics: knowledge of how politics works, knowledge of the political structure, having insights into either of the above, and generally the quality of the filmmaking. And it's biased--very, very biased. But hopefully interesting. Here goes nothing.

The Bottom Five

5. 24

Forgive me while I completely destroy the primary justification for this article right off the bat. Hey, man, what's happening here? This article is about political movies, not action-adventure TV shows, right?

This is true, but I think it works. For one thing, this show nakedly aspires to be the equivalent of a Hollywood action movie. The rhythms are the same, the paucity of the writing, the ridiculousness of the show are straight from cerebellum-shrinking Hollywood thrillers. And 24, despite what you might believe, is actually the most political show on television. Obviously there are actors who play political characters, and the political process is (incorrectly) displayed. For one thing, the president isn't going to know who Jack Bauer is. He (or she) isn't going to have a clue who Jack Bauer is because that destroys plausible deniability if you have Jack running around engaging in covert actions and doing illegal things. This isn't too hard to ascertain, unless you're a Hollywood producer like Joel Surnow who hasn't likely read a single book about the subject.

Then there's the little matter of this show being an unabashed brief for right-wing security policies. The show, despite its ridiculousness, is taken seriously by a lot of people who then believe that we have to let Jack Bauer torture and eavesdrop to his heart's content. Never mind that torture doesn't work, and that in The Dark Side numerous federal agents seem to have more success with noncoersive methods. The show presents a brief for the Bush security state that doesn't acknowledge its excesses and treats every character who objects as either an ignoramus or a traitor. This show is a revolting piece of bile that has wended its way into government policy (see the aforementioned The Dark Side) and even into Supreme Court briefs. Luckily, its ratings have declined. Hopefully the age of Obama will see the end of this particular brand of "patriotism".

4. The Contender

The Contender is a weightless and implausible film that seems to grasp nothing about politics, but it thinks it grasps the mechanics of political power exactly. To be fair, the film is not entirely lacking in grace notes: the performance of Jeff Bridges as a practical and realistic president is a triumph, and the character is well-written. Additionally, the movie actually bothers to give its characters party designations, which is a pet peeve of mine. If you're making a movie about politics, just give the party affiliations, okay? Not doing so seems to smack of not wanting to alienate potential audience members, but I tend to think that most Republicans are going to be able to handle a movie with some Democratic characters.

But the movie has so many problems. First, Joan Allen's vice presidential nominee is so ridiculous and implausible a character that the movie simply doesn't work. The reality of this country is such that Atheists simply cannot win public office, and this is regrettable, but Allen portrays one in the film. Additionally, she used to be a Republican Atheist, which is even less realistic--why not go whole hog and have Bridges's president be pro-life, the Republicans can be environmentally friendly, and Mormons can be 45% of the country and solid Democrats to boot? In a political movie, overlooking these details is inexcusable. And, in addition, she has evidently run in tons of elections with a major scandal story hanging over her head but it has never come out. And she's politically tone deaf enough to refuse to dispense with a silly fraud story when she's about to become vice president and possibly even president? I've heard people complain that the character of President Bartlet on The West Wing is too idealistic to exist in real life--I disagree, because I think we just elected him. But the idea that someone combining insufferable self-righteousness with such poor political instincts and such an odd life story would be elected out of the middle of the Heartland stretches belief. Allen's character is absurd. Others fare better--Gary Oldman's Republican antagonist seems about right, if a little colorless and too self-consciously evil. Christian Slater, surprisingly, does a good job as a Democrat who goes along with Oldman's schemes to derail a prospective vice president of his own party. And that's Sam Elliott as Bridges's chief of staff, so you have no complaints there.

Still, the movie's poor writing doesn't end with the Allen character. There's the character played by William L. Petersen, for example. He's the Jerry Brown-ish Governor of Virginia and a Democratic heavyweight who hopes to get the V.P. appointment. To this end (spoilers!), he stages a Chappaquiddick-like disaster in which he gets to play hero and to try to save a life. It is later discovered that the (deceased) victim was a soldier of fortune who had an run an advertisement in a soldier of fortune magazine. (Okay, they're mercenaries. Screw the PC term.) Petersen is presented as a sharp and ruthless politician, so why would he do something stupid like this, when even a cursory investigation would easily have discovered the arrangement? There's a technical term for when smart characters do dumb things: it's called "bad writing" and you have perhaps heard of it.

But the most offensive thing about the movie is its recycling of insipid Clinton-era Democratic Party talking points. Allen is supposed to be commended for refusing to dignify questions about her private life with a response, but consider if the movie had turned out differently: let's say that Petersen got away with his stunt temporarily and Allen's nomination went down due to unanswered allegations of personal impropriety. Then let's say that Bridges nominates Petersen for VP. And then the news about Peterson's impropriety breaks, and Oldman successfully runs for president against a party minus a standard-bearer that has seen two VP picks go down for personal improprieties. At the end of the day, Allen will have her principles despite being seen as a slut, while the Republicans would be ascendant and Oldman's corruption would lead to a worse United States. And virtually all of this would be the fault of the idealist. The Contender earns its raspberries for framing politics as a battle between idealists and cynics, between holy martyrs and contemptible villains; for too many poorly written characters; for not realizing that politics is the art of the possible; and generally for not engaging in any sort of sustained argument of any sort that doesn't make the movie sag under the weight of trying to valorize Bill Clinton's behavior with respect to Monicagate. Case closed.

3. The Sum Of All Fears

Both of my lists feature a Tom Clancy novel turned into a book. The Sum Of All Fears might or might not count as a "political" movie, but it features an actor playing a president, as well as other actors playing various cabinet secretaries and political officials, so I'll count it. It's not as much of a stretch as X-Men 3: X-Men United, which has to be on some sort of worst of list somewhere, though just not here.

It's pretty difficult to mount a defense of TSOAF. The book, as I recall, was decent though very long. The movie changes one critical element of the book: the book featured a terror plot by Arab terrorists after a successful resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. The movie, made after 9/11 and hoping to avoid getting smacked around by groups like CAIR decided that it would be better to make the villains neo-Nazis. So we go from the gritty minutiae of intelligence politics in Clear and Present Danger to Batman villains in TSOAF? Hell, yes! The point of the book was that even acts of peace can have deadly blowback if some extremists don't accept them. But the movie doesn't get there--neutered, it flounders in trying to maintain even basic credibility, and largely fails at that. It actually manages to become more farfetched than Patriot Games, with its royals in the government and silly revenge-driven IRA plot.

This is all to say nothing of casting vacuous nothing Ben Affleck as a super-smart CIA analyst. Was Tara Reid unavailable? Affleck simply doesn't have the chops to play an agency braniac, and while Morgan Freeman is as compelling as always the film doesn't hold with bad writing on one side and a weak protagonist on the other. As this is a pretty reviled movie I'll refrain from piling on further, but the scene where the Russian and American presidents clash over text messaging is insane. I suppose that the Facebook servers must have been vaporized in the blast.

All in all, this might have been an interesting film with a different leading man and an unneutered script. The makings are there. However, this movie comes to exemplify suck, and is the only Clancy novel so far to be better than the movie version.

2. Lions for Lambs

What is art? The presence of this phrase at the beginning of a review usually indicates a dire review to come, and this is no exception. Still, mocking this piece of rancid social commentary seems a bit too much like shooting fish in a barrel. It got terrible reviews and bombed at the box office, further cementing Robert Redford's irrelevance while continuing in the tradition of studio political films that are "thoughtful" rather than thoughtful. The difference is important. Thoughtful films present you with facts and argumentation and ask for you to consider things differently. "Thoughtful" films (i.e. propaganda) tell you how it is. One type of movie asks you to use your brain and the other asks the opposite. Simple.

LfL (rather an ungainly acronym) is a failure partly because it is propaganda, but partly also because it doesn't really raise any interesting new points about the issues it purports to cover (making it as timely as yesterday's newspaper), and partly because the whole thing is rather poorly dramatized. Rather than feeling like a superior episode of The West Wing--which is probably the best the film could have hoped for--it winds up feeling more like watching a bad Law & Order rerun where you vaguely remember the headline from which the episode was ripped. LfL winds up being a series of not particularly exciting conversations that will bore those who don't follow the issues and will bore those that do, though for different reasons, and fans of strong story and characters are bound to be disappointed as well. The film is almost downright Randian in its characterization: noble martyrs, disgusting sellout villains, and a few in the middle who make their choices. The Wire it ain't.

So this brings us back to the question: what is art? On some level, a little bit of indirectness is essential to art. After all, if you could just say what you mean, why write a novel about it, or make a movie about it? Lions for Lambs commits the unforgivable sin of telling us everything, rather than presenting us with, well, art. This is regrettable but not unforseeable.

1. Absolute Power

This Clint Eastwood film has one of the all-time killer openings in movies: Gene Hackman's president engages in some rough sex that turns deadly while being watched by Eastwood himself, playing the film's protagonist, a jewel thief who accidentally witnesses a murder at the behest of the president. The sequence is compelling, and it is reminiscent of another sequence in Robert Altman's The Player in which the protagonist watches another character talking to him on a cell phone. It's a comment about the voyeurism of movies, just as the scene from Power.

Would that the rest of the movie were as subtle or clever. After this scene, the movie gives into rightist paranoia about the Clinton Administration. It's easy to forget, but that fat Arkansan nearly drove the righties nuts without doing anything at all, up until the point where Republican members of congress speculated about strike forces coming to steal their guns (and yes, that is a reference to Helen Chenoweth's black helicopters) and it was common for conservatives to speculate on whether the Clintons regularly had people whacked (Jim LeBoutlier, among others). These stories were generally picked up by the mainstream media and voters, depressingly, voted in Republicans year after year. I don't understand why such fanciful narratives took hold, as it wasn't too hard to find things to not make a person like Bill Clinton.

So, while the movie looks like it's going to deliver some sort of pronouncement on the Clinton years it turns out to be a pretty standard-issue "thriller" that doesn't really prove too exciting or unusual. It's all standard cop-vs-crook stuff you've seen a million times, and the finale (does E.G. Marshall get away with killing the president?) compounds the idiocy. It's the worst kind of political movie: a superficial stock genre film with a political backdrop that doesn't really have anything that isn't banal to say. It's a formula that has proven sadly durable: see, for example, Syriana.

The Top Five

As much as I wanted to include 25th Hour in this list, I simply could not justify it as it is not really a political film. It is a movie that virtually embodies September 11th, but it doesn't really talk about the political implications of that day and tries more to get at what people were feeling and thinking at the time. I do think it's one of a very short list of things that tell anything about 9/11 (Springsteen's The Rising being another), but it steers clear of politics, which is atypical for a Spike Lee film (or joint, as it were). I couldn't put it on the list, but it is nonetheless valuable for understanding this age. And since we're talking about modern movies, I suppose that Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and Advise and Consent are out of the running, though Smith is definitely worth your time, and Consent is pretty good as well, though a little stagy. Anyway, that's all I've got to babble out. With no further ado...

5. Primary Colors

A wonderful movie that ought to be absorbed by historians trying to understand Bill Clinton. Here he is, presented in all his glory--at once a huckster and a man who cares about people, a man who loves his wife but loves screwing anything within his sights, a man who can make you optimistic and cynical nearly at the same time. He is certainly a character, and the film is illuminating, well-written and well-acted. And I say this all as someone who is not much of a Clinton fan. As a liberal Democrat I can appreciate what he did for the country and for liberalism--i.e. make it less toxic--while still believing that he compromised too much and didn't really secure a good deal for his supporters. And his inability to take responsibility for his actions, coupled with his symbiotic relationship with his malefactors, would eventually lead to a presidency that disappointed in many ways in reforming much of anything, though after George W. Bush his responsible stewardship of the nation is looking awfully good.

This is the rare movie that offers a penetrating analysis of its subject, all the while making good observations about the nature of politics these days. It understands how the game works and

4. Wag The Dog

There are movies with strong premises that sound promising and don't deliver. Wag The Dog actually does deliver on its simple premise of depicting a totally media-made war whose sole purpose is to hide a president's indiscretion, but the timing of its release--right after the Lewinsky scandal and President Clinton's subsequent bombing of Iraq--meant that it wouldn't be recognized for its more penetrating insights. In fact, it shouldn't be too surprising that the media would be impressed with perhaps the most banal observation in the entire movie considering their incisive handling of the abuses of the Bush Administration--of course political leaders launch military action after domestic setbacks. Margaret Thatcher had her little war in the Falkland Islands, Reagan had his Grenada invasion, and Ehud Olmert had his little Gaza war right before removing his rancid presence from the political scene. Military action allows a leader to be seen by a weary public as strong and resolute, distracting the people from whatever corruption/failed policies/secret arms deals they are focusing on and putting that attention back on the great and glorious game of warmaking. And it always works, except for when it doesn't.

It works in Wag The Dog thanks largely to Dustin Hoffman's performance as a Hollywood studio head who agrees to help Robert De Niro's political fixer create a war. Dog has quite a few weak elements--as a film, it's rather flawed. By the time Woody Harrelson's mentally retarded war hero enters the stage the film has long since abandoned an attempt to be anything other than low comedy. But during its first two acts the David Mamet-penned script manages to get in quite a few interesting and highly debatable ideas: first, that being able to control the media--and more importantly the news cycle--is key to convincing the public to adopt a course of action. Secondly, the movie argues that the media will never be skeptical about war stories, as they are simply too good for business and too easy to report. Third, the movie argues that the media is no longer in the business of actually breaking news but rather of rebreaking it, and that circulating a clip of a young girl running across a bridge dodging gunfire can quickly become a viral news staple (and keep in mind that this movie predated YouTube by a number of years). Fourth, the media is more concerned with the presentation of news rather than the content of said news--a snappy song about defending American borders matters more than a reasoned argument from an opposing presidential candidate. All of this adds up to an argument that the media's influence over politics is in presenting a series of images and sounds--which is what they have effectively reduced politics to--and selling that content in a way that helps them out the most.

Now, I don't agree with all of the ideas in the film--I tend to think that the newscycle-centric approach to politics doesn't always work, and one need only look at the success of Barack Obama to conclude that. But Wag The Dog is a sharp piece of media and political criticism, and its cynicism and lack of answers make it all the more compelling a piece of polemic.

3. Clear and Present Danger

Tom Clancy's books almost invariably make better movies. That's not necessarily a slight on Mr. Clancy, who is a talented storyteller who knows the military and, to a lesser extent, politics (though he definitely knows national security politics). Clancy, though, isn't a disciplined writer (this is a way of saying that his books are too fucking long and that he needs to trim them down to under 1000 pages) and he's not a great prose stylist. But the films based on The Hunt For Red October, Patriot Games, and Clear and Present Danger are all worthwhile entertainments, and the latter is quite a bit more, while the middle entry is a weak film whose plausibility is weak. (The Ben Affleck vehicle The Sum Of All Fears is described above.)

Clear and Present Danger is the strongest of all of them, and it is precisely because it is simply so plausible. Most movies have plots that require suspension of disbelief, but Danger does not. The story is actually pretty simple: the president's friend is murdered in conjunction with a drug deal. The president--in a way so as to ensure plausible deniability--signals that he wants to escalate the war on drugs. This is done by putting a CIA-fronted group of commandos on the ground in Colombia, with orders to basically gum up the works in drug country.

The movie is so brilliant because it captures what America has done wrong in foreign policy for the past few decades. The American onslaught is calculated in order to have the least political cost, and the halfheartedness of the effort means that it is rolled back as soon as it is convenient. The mechanics of governmental decisionmaking are well rendered here, the lack of concern for illegality and the comfort with realpolitik are reminiscent of the Cold War but still present today, the insulation between decisionmakers and the results of those decisions is a timeless theme that is, if anything, even more relevant after G. W. Bush, and the historic use of the CIA to conduct foreign policy on the cheap--and the disastrous results--are exactly in keeping with the history of United States policy over the past fifty years. Clear and Present Danger is ostensibly about the drug war, but it's really about what happens when politicians aren't willing to commit to victory when lives are on the line and the disastrous consequences that occurs. Something to think about when pondering how our last president ignored advice to send several hundred thousand soldiers to Iraq because doing so would be politically inconvenient.

2. Munich

Munich was nominated for Best Picture at the 2005 Oscars, and yet it feels strangely underrated. It features several note-perfect performances, including from Eric Bana as the leader of a strike team meant to exact vengeance for the Munich massacre, Daniel Craig as a fanatical driver whose devotion to the cause never waivers, and Mathieu Amalric as a French intelligence broker who might be working both sides, and Geoffrey Rush as Bana's hot-tempered case officer. It also features Steven Spielberg working with one of the best scripts he's ever directed, at the height of his visual and storytelling powers. So many masterful touches, like the contrast between the stark, black-and-white photography of the Munich incident itself to the final scene, in which a bewildered Bana stands on a playground in the middle of a New York City dominated by gray, are so subtle that you only notice them the second or third time through.

Honestly? It's a masterpiece for a director whose career is replete with them. I'm not a huge Spielberg fan but I can appreciate the artistry. Munich is a crowning moment. It's hard to imagine anyone else making the movie so alive and gripping, and yet Spielberg suppresses his usual triumphalism (of the sort that ruined Minority Report) in exchange for something that feels far more authentic and complicated. Munich isn't completely impartial, but it isn't agitprop in any sense. The movie's argumentation can be compared most easily to GoodFellas: the first half of the movie is tense, colorful, and a little exciting. The team seems to be driven by a firm moral calculus--they're just out for justice, plain and simple--even to the point of risking a mission in order to save a little girl. For the first half of the movie, we identify with our heroes and it all seems right and fun. But the second half turns everything around--dead targets are replaced with ever more bloodthirsty extremists. The lines don't seem clear cut anymore. The team gets hunted and members start dying, one by one. Bana's character winds up unable to live with the things he's done, and flees his country to move to New York. Bana, unlike his Palestinian counterpart that he briefly encounters in the film, comes to believe that it isn't worth it to sacrifice everything for one's home.

This dynamic--home vs. sacrifice and sin--is an interesting one, equally as applicable to Israel as it is to America. There are a significant number of people in this country who believe that survival is paramount and anything that stops attacks on sovereign American soil is justified. There are people--a lot, frankly--that simply saw the Iraq War as vengeance on the Middle East after September 11. These people are mad, and we shouldn't hesitate to say so. But the movie ties into Iraq far more clearly than that: sometimes vengeance is disguised as necessary sacrifice, and sometimes the whole endeavour is predicated upon lies told to us by high-ranking officials. The mission turns out to be counterproductive and hollow, and Bana winds up feeling lost and used at the end of it. But, still, Geoffrey Rush's character's point about trimming one's fingernails has some logic to it as well--you can't just not respond to attacks. Munich doesn't try to keep things simple. This is part of why it is so underrated--it is probably the most substantial movie of ideas this decade.

1. Spartan

Of course Number 1 has to be a film you've never heard of, correct? Well, I can't help it. Spartan is probably the most knowing film about American politics made during the past decade, and the fact that nobody saw this 2004 gem doesn't change the fact that it fundamentally understands the tradeoffs of the post-9/11 national security state, and communicates them in a particularly compelling way. Spartan also succeeds as a masterpiece of misdirection, which unveils a pretty significant twist more than halfway through but stays tonally consistent, and it has the usual Mamet mysteries but doesn't try too hard to be a mindfuck (a la Spanish Prisoner). Instead, it merely unfolds its story gracefully. Basically (and here's a spoiler alert), the president's daughter is kidnapped, and special agent Val Kilmer is put in charge of getting her back. The chase is abandoned when the daughter evidently turns up dead and drowned, only to be confronted with a key piece of evidence that suggests that the story isn't that tidy, that the girl might still be alive, and that there might be quite a bit more rot in the machinery than he could ever have figured possible.

This is another David Mamet film, and it's quite a good one: it's anchored by an impressive leading performance by Kilmer, who is as charismatic and energetic as he's ever been, and he manages the famously difficult Mametian dialogue without a hitch. The film is mesmerizing and even dreamlike at times--throughout the first hour, the story unfolds naturally and deliberately. We learn what we need to without being spoon-fed, while preserving quite a bit of mystery for later on. There has been some complaints about the climax, which it has been alleged was a little too expected. I tend to agree, though the movie advances some key insights that any thinking person ought to agree with at this point. The film alleges, fundamentally, that the war on terror and the expansion of presidential powers will lead to abuses of those powers, and that preserving that power might even go so far as to break society's deepest bonds, in this case, the bond of family. It's a pretty simple message: power corrupts. It's actually a pretty conservative message in the philosophical sense, which should not be surprising as David Mamet is conservative. But it's one that today's so-called conservatives simply do not understand, blinded as they were (and are) by partisanship and hero worship of mediocrities. Nevertheless, the notion of a corrupt federal government--which rationalizes itself with talk of protecting the country but in reality is merely interested in cementing and expanding its own power--is exactly what wound up happening in the Bush Administration. What is really noteworthy is that Mamet made this movie in 2004, when Bush was still popular and winning his reelection battle, and many of his worst screwups had never come to light. It's no wonder the movie bombed--it told a truth that people didn't want to hear. But now that time has passed it ought to be reconsidered for the prowess of the filmmaking, as well as the potency and timeliness of its message, whose simplicity and power ought to be absorbed before the next time the government tries to lurch toward power.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Obviously, this show hasn't come out yet, and it might be too early to judge, but is HBO really producing a show called Hung about a guy with a huge penis? Seriously? I guess the glory days of HBO's praised literary era are gone indeed.