Micah Bloomberg's Movie Reviews

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Where Have All The Crazy, American Narcissists Gone?

Ben Affleck’s 2007 feature debut Gone Baby Gone made a workmanlike addition to the Boston crime sub-genre booming at the time. It was more fun than Eastwood’s grim Mystic River, more conventional than Scorsese’s The Departed. The Town, a sophomore slumpy follow-up which he also starred in, missed but swung big, going for Good Will Hunting-esque brother-honor and Shawshank Redemption piousness. His new film, Argo, is lighter on its feet and comes out looking smarter.

In all of  his films, Affleck gathers a great cast (drawing especially deep from the episodic TV bench) which he shoots in a straightforward way, highlighting faces and performances. In Gone Baby Gone, Affleck’s unpretentious approach captured Casey Affleck’s weird intensity perfectly, a quality that eluded the usually-deft Michael Winterbottom in 2011′s The Killer Inside Me. Blake Lively’s treacherous, boozy turn in The Town could have easily come off as dress up, but her focused performance, sympathetically shot,  was a high point in the film. A period piece about the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran, Argo‘s design and costumes seem impressively-researched, and there’s some gussied-up “verite” camerawork for flavor, but the talent-rich cast is what impresses most.

Here’s Tate Donovan, letting rip in a bitchy, funny performance that would seem like an easy choice if anyone had ever thought of it before. TV it-boys Bryan Cranston and Chris Messina bitch each other out at the Pentagon. Blink and you missed last year’s TV it-boy Kyle Chandler or world class utility-actor Zeljko Ivanek. Farshad Farahat steals his one scene with no-bullshit Star Power.

For himself, Affleck reserves the thankless, though leading, role of Tony Mendez, CIA “ex-fil” specialist and designated straight man to the parade of talent mentioned above. Introduced in an early-morning pan over discarded take-out Chinese and empty beer cans, a narrative-starting phone waking him from rumpled sleep, Mendez seems ripped from the pages of a 1975 screnplay that William Goldman threw out. After reluctantly blowing some minds in a State Department war room, Mendez is dispatched to rescue six US embassy workers who escaped their compound just before it was overrun, and are hiding out with the Canadian Ambassador (there’s Victor Garber, the captain from Titanic!).

Mendez heads to LA where he watches–amused but calm–while John Goodman and Alan Arkin, Hollywood warhorses playing Hollywood warhorses, slap together a phony science fiction movie, a cover story Mendez needs to smuggle the Americans out of Iran posing as a film crew. In country, Mendez–polite but firm–wrangles his terrified charges (there’s Rory Cochran from Empire Records and Clea DuVall from The Faculty!). The “Director” of the phony film is meant to be Tate Donovan, but it’s Mendez who accepts responsibility for the team, absorbs the freakouts. Affleck, shoring up his movie from the inside, facilitates exposition, smirks at the subtler jokes.

Mendez is all game face at work, but we’re given access to his secret wound, a wife and child he’s estranged from. These scenes are managed with classy restraint, but they’re dull, big-Hollywood trimmings tacked on to help us “relate” to Mendez and they’re out-of-step with the script’s otherwise sharp focus on the next problem and its solution. They’re Affleck’s only moments of self-congratulation, in a way, because his understated performance and direction of them imply that there’s a “right way” to add flaccid back story.

This ends up basically working, though. Mendez is plenty relatable, charming even. But the enthusiasm of the rest of the cast, and the loving way their work is captured, make Mendez’s sensible modesty look kind of joyless. Affleck directs Argo with verve but, as the film’s lead, he keeps the ball on the ground and settles for field goals and well-placed punts.

2010′s Company Men came and went, which was probably as it should be, but it was interesting in that movie to watch Affleck’s scenes with Kevin Costner. Costner’s star has dimmed but, in his heyday, he was a magazine-cover leading man turned big budget director, not unlike where Affleck is now. Costner’s gigantic debut, Dances With Wolves is a well-made, sentimental western elevated by Costner’s eccentric performance. Given full rein over his own brand, Costner subverted his soft-core sex appealthe key feature of movies like Bull Durham and Revenge, and replaced it with a nerdy, clumsy charm. He’s since proceeded to run this persona (sexy but harmless, competent but easily-stunned) into the ground in films he’s directed and produced like Waterworld and Open Range. But fifty years from now, the performance Costner will be remembered for will be in a film he directed.

The same is true of Mel Gibson’s performance in Braveheart. In that film, Gibson displayed a once-in-a-generation gift for grand-scale, physical filmmaking, but he also seized the opportunity to perform in a way that transcended his status as a bankable sex object.

Affleck’s temperament doesn’t seem as pitched, let’s say, as either Costner’s or Gibson’s. From what I can gather from TV and magazines, and considering his sturdy but dull performances in The Town and Argo, I doubt he’d succumb to Costner’s bland narcissism or to whatever it is that’s got a hold of Mel Gibson. But Affleck is giving himself lead roles in his own movies. So it might be fair to ask: where is the performance only he can get, from himself? It may be that it takes a truly crazy person, a maniac narcissist like Costner or Gibson or Woody Allen or Orson Welles, to direct and star in a gigantic American movie. Does Affleck have their kind of crazy in him?

And if he doesn’t then who does? It’s been quiet on this front but TV might be giving us a hint. Is it time, finally, for a visionary, generational American movie made by and starring a female maniac narcissist?

Be My Mirror

AMAR (24) and SOLOMON (30) sit at a table in an airport bar. They are having an argument.

AMAR
Why we gotta keep talking about it? It’s done.

SOLOMON
It’s easy for you to take a laid back attitude about this when–

AMAR
The fuck you know about my attitude?

SOLOMON
All I mean is maybe it’s different for you to miss your flight and show up late, when there’s a funeral the next day–

AMAR
And you still talking?

SOLOMON
–than it is for me to do that. It looks different.

AMAR
And why is that?

SOLOMON
Because you’re a member of the family.

AMAR
Exactly. You ain’t a member of the family. You right.

SOLOMON
Come on.

AMAR
Solomon, who said you needed to get on my flight?

SOLOMON
I wanted–I was trying to be polite! I thought we could go together, like as a–

AMAR
(Quietly to himself) Damn, man.

SOLOMON
And I show up and you’re not even packed! I’m sitting down there for half an hour with this guy glaring at me. And then we miss–

AMAR
Dude, Solomon, there’s six million flights to Chicago, every day. You bein’ a little bitch ‘cause we gotta wait an hour for the next shuttle, ain’t even a flight, it’s a shuttle, ‘cause they so many of them. We gonna drink this drink here then we gonna walk over to the gate-

SOLOMON
Just–how could you not be packed? How could you start packing when I show up downstairs in a cab? How was that supposed to work?

AMAR
Shut up, Solomon, a’ight? We done talking now.

SOLOMON
Whatever.

AMAR
(Talks over him, holds out his palm) Ah! That’s it.

Long silence. Both sip their drinks. AMAR looks at his phone.

SOLOMON
How’s it going with your movie?

AMAR doesn’t answer. Sips his drink.

SOLOMON
Whatever.

Another long silence.

SOLOMON
Did Natalia tell you about her paper?

AMAR
Nope.

SOLOMON
It’s pretty cool. That paper she’s writing for her Fulbright? She thinks she can get it published in this journal. She’s really excited.

AMAR
That’s cool. How she like Yemen?

SOLOMON
She thinks it’s interesting. It’s a weird place, they’re hard on women there. But she’s excited about her research. I think she gets lonely.

AMAR
She got a man?

SOLOMON
Ha! I hope not.

AMAR
D’you ask her?

SOLOMON
Why would I ask her that?

AMAR
Would you go a year without sex?

SOLOMON
A year? Yeah. You’ve never gone a year without sex?

AMAR
Nope.

SOLOMON
Never had a dry spell?

AMAR
I never went a year without sex, if that’s what that is.

SOLOMON
How about when you left Evanston?

AMAR
When I came here?

SOLOMON
Yeah, that’s pretty normal, I think, to be lonely at first when you move to New York–

AMAR
Oh my god, dude, I got–do you know how much I had lined up when I came out here? My shit was blowing up. I was at my boy’s place, he at NYU, word got around about me, da ta da ta da, my phone got all fucked up there was so many girls calling me, texting me. So, no, I don’t know whatever the fuck a dry spell is.

SOLOMON
Wow. I’m impressed. (Pause) God, college. I had this threesome, actually. I was in this frat–

AMAR
Which two busted, fucking, goat-women did you have a threesome with?

SOLOMON
They weren’t that ugly. I love how you’re this expert on what I can and can’t do.

AMAR
And Natalia’s a woman, dude–

SOLOMON
That’s your sister. You shouldn’t…

AMAR rolls his eyes. Long pause. Both sip drinks.

SOLOMON
You’re upset about Baba. (AMAR inhales quickly, irritated) She was such a cool lady, you know? I’m glad I got to meet her those couple of times. Natalia’s pretty freaked out. I don’t think she was pre–

AMAR
Why you gotta call her that?

SOLOMON
What? Baba? That’s what you guys call her. What should I call her, your grandma?

AMAR
Yes.

SOLOMON
Why?

No answer.

SOLOMON
Fine. Sorry. (Sips drink) Did you hear back from Cannes?

AMAR
Yep.

SOLOMON
And?

AMAR
They takin’ it.

SOLOMON
Shit, really? Be My Mirror got into Cannes?

AMAR
Un Certain Regard, dude.

SOLOMON
Wow, Amar. That’s so amazing. Congratulations.

AMAR
We gonna be on the beach, wearing tuxedos. Spike gonna be there, David Lynch gonna be there, Terrence Mallick gonna be there.

SOLOMON
That’s so cool. And if it does well you guys might be able to sell it, huh?

AMAR
We already sold it. To Sony. They gonna put out the album too.

SOLOMON
So now you just go to Cannes and hang out, you don’t even have to worry about selling it.

AMAR
We gonna sell the next one. We get to Cannes, Be My Mirror drops, got Sony doin’ all the press, doin’ all the promotion, people’ll be all loosing they shit. Then: ba da! Got the new script right their like: line up, people. And this one for real. It’s ten times better than Be My Mirror. You know how old I was when I wrote that? Eighteen. You know how much better I am now? How much I learned? People see this new script they gonna sit there with they mouths open.

SOLOMON
That’s incredible. And you’re like twenty-four, right? At that age, to have all that going on? That’s so amazing.

SOLOMON sips his drink. Tries to get a waitress’s attention. Fails. AMAR studies his phone.

AMAR
D’you get a job?

SOLOMON
Me? Yeah, I’ve got some interviews. I was talking to this one company, they work in medical marijuana, and they were putting together a legal group. And that’s an area I’ve done some work in–

AMAR
Yeah. Me too.

SOLOMON
Ha! Yeah, no, like the legal parts of it. I wrote about it in school. We need to create a framework for the people who are really, I mean, this is a brand new industry and it’s gonna be a big deal for everyone involved but we need to work out the legal language for it.

AMAR
That sounds good.

SOLOMON
Yeah, but they went with somebody else. It’s competitive. And my dad keeps sending me on interviews for these total corporate zombie jobs where they’d just lock me in a closet with a computer and I have to keep telling him: Listen: I’m not gonna do that.

AMAR
You ain’t got a job and your dad setting you up and you like: No thanks?

SOLOMON
You and me are in different industries.

AMAR
What industry you in without no job? You need money, you got rent, right?

SOLOMON
But I need to be in the right situation otherwise I’ll be miserable. Plus, I’ve been thinking about getting a degree in English, actually? So I could teach. I think that might be a better fit. And–

AMAR
So how you pay your rent?

SOLOMON
From my savings.

AMAR
Savings from what?

SOLOMON
What do you mean?

AMAR
You been goin’ out with Natalia for four years, you ain’t never had a job. So savings from what? You got a trust? Like that?

SOLOMON
No, it’s like–

AMAR
Then savings from what? You get it from your parents right? Lemme see your phone.

SOLOMON
Why do you wanna see my phone?

AMAR
Because I wanna see this savings account. That shit pisses me off. How much you got, right now?

SOLOMON
What pisses you off? That my parents support me because they believe in me?

AMAR
No. You said savings, which sounds like they gave you all this money a long time ago and now you like taking care of it. I seen you. I seen how you spend. How much you got in your savings account, right now?

SOLOMON
Well I just paid rent.

AMAR
Right, so how much?

SOLOMON
(Swallows)
Eight hundred dollars.

AMAR
Exactly. And now they gonna send you a check right? You ain’t got a job so how else you gonna pay rent next month? They gonna send it to you. That’s your savings. Like you got some plan. Like I ever seen you not get dessert.

SOLOMON
Any time I want I can take some shit job and have more money than I know what to do with. I want to do something that matters. Is it crazy if my parents are behind me on that?

AMAR
They just stupid. If you were gonna do something that matters you’d do it. You thirty years old, dude. You gonna start gettin’ shit done all the sudden, next month? Why you ain’t doin’ it right now?

SOLOMON
Because right now I have to be with Natalia.

AMAR
No you don’t.

SOLOMON
Her grandmother died. She needs me.

AMAR
She may think she do, but she don’t.

SOLOMON
You and I see different parts of her personality. If I wasn’t there for her this weekend, it would be hard for her. I’d be there right now but we missed the plane because of you.

AMAR
That ain’t right.

SOLOMON
Fine. Because we had a miscommunication and you thought, when I said I’d pick you up at 12:30, I meant you should start packing at 12:30.

AMAR
No. That ain’t right about Natalia. You know what she thinks about you bein’ there? That’s a nice thing.

SOLOMON
Right. We’re nice to each other. Because we love each other. Good point.

AMAR
No. That ain’t what I said. I said she thinks that’s nice. But that don’t mean she need you. She don’t. And that don’t mean she love you, either.

SOLOMON
Man. You’re just never gonna drop it with me, are you?

AMAR
I’m responsible for her.

SOLOMON
No, you’re not, Amar. And you don’t have the final word about every last thing that happens. You’re upset about Baba, or you’re bored, so you’re trying to fuck with me in this really mean way because I happen to be sitting in front of you.

AMAR
She and you are different.

SOLOMON
I know that’s important to you. It’s an important thing and I respect that. Sometimes I wish I was black so she wouldn’t have to deal with all that. I’ve tried acting more black around her friends, around you guys. I tried being one of those white guys who gets a pass. But, to be honest, and you’ll never find a person who admires or is just more into African American culture than I am, there’s just something embarrassing about a white guy trying to act like that. And anyway, I can’t do it. So I have to say fuck it. Just like when my parents are being backward, racist assholes and Natalia has to say fuck it to that. For some reason, the way things are set up right now, we have to pay a price to be together. But the fact that you’re her brother, and you love each other, and you’re the one who sometimes makes it hardest… I’ve always had trouble understanding that.

AMAR
That don’t answer what I said.

SOLOMON
What time is it?

AMAR
We got time.

SOLOMON
Like you’re the person to ask.

Silence. Both their drinks are empty. SOLOMON rattles the ice in his glass.

SOLOMON
Then what, Amar? What did you say? Blow my mind.

AMAR
(Shouts) I will!

SOLOMON
(Tries matching him) Jesus, relax!

AMAR
She different from you because inside, Natalia’s like me. We gifted. And because of that, the world gonna give us everything we want. They ain’t gonna be any other choice for people. They gonna know our name: Rousseau. We gonna bend the future how we want it to go because that’s how God made us to be. Strong. Who are you to that? You think I don’t hear what you sayin’, but I do. A’ight, she may think she need you now. Ya’ll are separated. She got an idea of who you are in her head. But she wrong. And pretty soon she comin’ home for good and you gonna be dirt off her shoulder. Believe me about that.

SOLOMON
You just don’t know her at all.

AMAR
She don’t know herself. But that’s just a matter of time. Three years? Five years? Think about that. Think about who she gonna be in five years? Talent like she got. Drive. Think about who I’m gonna be? We gonna own New York City, man. Who you gonna be? An English teacher? Maybe?

SOLOMON
In five years she’ll be my wife and you’ll be my brother.

AMAR
You gonna be where you belong, is what, and her name gonna be Natalia Rousseau. Until a man come along got a name that can stand up to that. That ain’t you. Think about who you are, Solomon. Think. Don’t lie. Tell me what your name is worth.

END OF PLAY

Sorkin Shrugged

Like a barrel number stamped on a bottle of small-batch whiskey, episodes of Aaron Sorkin’s new show, The Newsroom, are written by him and him alone. As creator and producer Sorkin wears other hats in the production but discerning viewers wait for the “written by” credit to assure authenticity. Financers are well-aware: the Sorkin brand is an upscale property that delivers cultural cachet and drives dollars.

Recently though, these brand expectations have become a hindrance. A casual viewer knows to expect whip-smart banter and pretty speeches. Harder users wait for Sorkin to take down political figures that have been irritating them, with more class and verve than they could manage. Diehards want to get back into the office, back to the feeling of like-minded camaraderie, true friendship, that watching a season and a half in two days gives them. But even given that, the bar seems higher for Sorkin’s shows than others, and his failure to clear it creates a special, vicious disappointment in critics and viewers.

What is this painful, embarrassing disappointment about? Where does it come from?

All of Sorkin’s shows center around a gifted Leader and his loyal Team. The world outside the Team is corrupt. Inside, hard work and born-genius butt heads. Idiosyncrasies stemming from too many hours in front of a computer (or, even better, leaning over a yellow legal pad, pencil in one hand, forehead pressed to the palm of the other) are forgiven, even celebrated, i.e. “I think better with my bat!” or “Are you working at a New Year’s Eve party?” Debate is spirited. Relevant statistics, the result of late night research sessions (male Team Members discovered asleep over their papers, females called back from cocktail parties still wearing their going-out dresses), back up heart-felt advocacy. A knack with these statistics, along with correct grammar, a sense of humor and mastery of Ivy League trivia (show tunes, scripture, vague yet evocative aphorisms) show a young Team Member’s worthiness. Intramural debates are resolved by Team Leader, who has mastered all the statistics, grammar and trivia, but also knows the right way to apply them. For newcomers, scholarship and diligence may get you in the door but loyalty and devotion to Team Leader are what keep you in the room.

Commitment to the Team consumes the Team Members’ lives. In the few moments when they aren’t doing their research, or rushing to the office from whatever function they’ve been called back from, they nurse intense work crushes on other Team Members. Banter used to make a point with statistics can quickly switch voltage and become flirtatious. Desire, typically unconsummated for propriety’s sake, adds texture to the rigid hierarchy. A typical exchange from Sorkin’s earlier series, Sports Night, has a male Team-Member complimenting his work-crush as “smoky” while they stand over a control board, the chaos of work swirling around them. Two unfulfilled office romances power Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The crushes receive tonal umph from generally out-of-date love songs, their sappiness embraced the way a Team Member might belt a line from Gilbert and Sullivan or rip into a passage of Shakespeare. Results can be unreliable. On S60, Matthew Perry listens misty-eyed as Sting performs “Fields of Gold” on a renaissance harp, which is mortifying to watch, but an episode of TNR called “Fix You” ends with a montage set to the Coldplay song which has a chaste smile between star-crossed work-crushes Jim and Maggie that made me cry.

It’s hard for people outside the Team to understand all this. They can defy the Team’s mission, as First Lady Abby Bartlet sometimes does on TWW, but that’s a losing game. Better is respectful curiosity, like on TNR when the Team is called back to the office from their New Year’s Eve Party (the women still wearing their elegant dresses), and two girlfriends, brought along in the commotion, are told to “just sit tight and remember [they’re] not gonna hear please and thank you a lot.” Later on, they listen carefully to patient explanations about the challenges the Team must face.

There’s a distinctly male arrogance to these exchanges. Within the Team, women rarely outrank the men. But that balance of power pales when compared to an outsider’s status versus a Team Member’s. Love interests outside the Team reinforce the tribal conviction that corruption rules beyond the office doors. In TWW’s pilot, Sam Seaborn declines to wake and bake with a female outsider he’s slept with, he needs to get to the office. After dinner, TNR Team Leader, Will McAvoy, is fishing a joint from his outsider date’s purse when he finds a gun. Will’s not scared of the gun (he dismantles it quicker than Tom Cruise in Collateral), and the joint itself isn’t the problem. It’s the outsider’s relationship with them. As a non-Team-Member, she doesn’t know what these objects mean and she doesn’t listen to Will when he tries to teach her.

In fact, social drinking and light drug use, hold-overs from good times at great colleges, are fondly depicted. The gang loves to get together for a drink at the end of the day. Glasses of red wine and fingers of whiskey are swirled and stared into during minor-key speeches among Team Members. These evening confessionals get emotional when America comes up or when devotion to the Team Leader is invoked.

Alcohol and drugs are more than props, though. Sorkin is, pretty famously, a recovering alcoholic and the AA path to recovery informs the Show’s point of view. Drinking and drug use are never condemned outright but, when the Team gets together after work, the camera takes on the watchful, knowing attitude of a reformed addict at a party that’s about to turn wild. Each Team Member’s drink, and the way he drinks it, is meant to speak volumes about his character. Starting position is whiskey for men and red wine for women, inversions and variations on which follow. On TWW, Donna gets called back from dinner in her elegant dress, mourning the interruption of her whiskey sour, but dives back into work. The whiskey confirms her de-sexed role in the office and the fact that she’s left dinner sober enough to do more research shows that she isn’t an addict. On TNR, Mackenzie MacHale likes red wine but leaves half-drunk glasses at the bar when she’s called back to the office; glaring non-addict behavior.

Other characters don’t manage as well and, for them, a reckoning is necessary. On TWW, Leo McGarey’s relapse is studied from all angles, with focus put on the way his abuse interferes with his work. Similarly, on S60, co-Team Leader Matt Albie begins the series as an addict just beginning his recovery. For people in this position, hard work for the Team is their only hope.  The Show goes out of its way to make clear that it understands the solace of drinking, the intimacy it fosters. People aren’t blamed for needing a crutch to get through the day. But in its reverence of hard work and Team membership, the Show proposes a way of life where the lure of alcohol can be faced and, explicitly and implicitly, the Twelve Step process is used as a model to that end.  

TNR hasn’t directly mentioned recovery yet, but I don’t think it’s very far off. The hold up may be that, in this case, Team Leader is the one who will have to face up. Will McAvoy drinks hard liquor alone and doesn’t acknowledge when his using interferes with work, a major red flag. Seeing these warning signs, Mackenzie, Will’s second-in-command and love interest, can only bite her tongue. Will’s status denies her the right to confront him.

The only person who can speak with impunity to Team Leader is his Therapist and, like AA, the process of talk therapy is spiritually important to the Show. The Therapist is more generously endowed with Sorkin’s verbal genius than Team Leader. He isn’t master of all the statistics and what they mean but he has a wise, patient response to every one of Team Leader’s jokes, which start to seem smartalek-y in the Therapist’s presence. This is parity no Team Member would dream of. The Therapist can also identify secret psychological wounds in Team Leader that are invisible to Team Members. This acuity is associated with Judaism, which is why Tobey Ziegler, a Team Member/Therapist hybrid, whose father was a “Brooklyn shrink,” is able to confront President Bartlet with his intuitive knowledge that Jeb’s father hit him and was a drunk. On TNR, Will suffered identical childhood trauma and is aided in a similar way by his therapist Jack Habib, whose last name broadens the Therapists’ tribe to include Islam, which Sorkin sees as a Rushdie-esque twin to Judaism, a mythology he acknowledges by naming young Jack Habib’s father, Will’s original therapist, Abe (for Abraham).

These may just be the charming idiosyncrasies that make the world of the show such a great place to visit. Other shows have visionaries struggling to manage a team, Coach Taylor on Friday Night Lights comes to mind. But I think that Sorkin is after bigger game and we need to look past television to find a writer with similar goals.  

Sorkin’s closest pop-culture relative is Ayn Rand who might have made an outstanding television writer if she were alive today. Politics aside, her approach to character and power-dynamics are nearly identical to Sorkin’s. Her books are about infallible Team Leaders and the Teams that love them operating in a corrupt world. Team Leader is the source of all good things and evil is easy to recognize in her snide, one-dimensional antagonists (they’d quickly hit it off with Sorkin’s gun-nuts, religious zealots and low-level Republican party hacks). Like on Sorkin’s shows, it’s Team Leader’s righteous correctness, the thrill of watching him defeat corruption, laziness, bad rail management and bad architecture that is appealing. Politics again aside, there’s little difference between Howard Roark’s sweet take-down of the Parthenon and Jeb Bartlet schooling a Christian conservative on what the bible actually says. But Sorkin’s affinity to Rand is more than stylistic. What makes him such a valuable commodity, and what his shows can uniquely claim to share with Rand’s writing, is the promise of a better way of life.

Rand turned the principals behind her novels into a controversial but more or less bone-fide philosophical school, complete with classes taught across the country and a yearly convention where real-world applications were discussed. Many conservatives of Rand’s time ridiculed her work but the years have been kind to her. Tea Party conservatives like to hold up “Who is John Galt?” signs at rallies and their way of arguing is derived from her with-us-or-against-us tone. Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Paul Ryan recommends her novels to his staff and, even though Candidate Ryan has repudiated Rand, who was a pro-choice atheist, he’s described his worldview as a fight between individualism and collectivism, Randian key words. Ron Paul’s advocacy for a modified gold standard and his claim that direct income tax is illegal are Randian ideas. Though she later wrote philosophical books and essays, Rand’s ideas are clearly laid out in her novels, which her followers see as manifestos. If a person were curious about her philosophies, Rand would always direct him to her novels first.

Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are novels but they are also more than that because the principals in them are used as a model for political change. They have come to life in the action they inspired.  At what other time in American politics has a work of popular fiction been used as a defining ideological text?¹ One can debate the practical value of her ideas but it’s impossible to deny her readers’ devotion.

The enormous success of TWW was tied to liberal frustration during the Bush era. Often called a liberal “fantasy,” the show was said to offer relief from a political culture hostile to conspicuous intellect. President Bartlet’s oratorical skill was seen as a protest against President Bush’s cagey indifference to academic language. Viewers ashamed of the way Bush spoke and maddened by an ideology he seemed to insinuate rather than describe found weekly vindication. TWW’s tone of voice made its progressive ideas seem inarguably just and authentically patriotic.

In a similar way, Rand’s novels pull you into the current of her thinking. Like Sorkin she has an absurdly confident, relentless, sort of hypnotic voice. In the end, her books didn’t inspire me to devotion but reading them made me realize that TWW had done that exactly. Sorkin’s voice, virtuosic and inimitable, inspires, in the right listener, belief in a way of life. Sorkin offers audiences a blue print: A rigidly consistent hierarchy organized beneath a gifted leader; romantic love that’s based on respect for a partner’s work ethic and grounded in a common outlook; value placed on East-coast, liberal-humanist education and Western European cultural traditions; a religious structure that assumes scholarship in Big-Three- Monotheism but replaces the clergy with therapists and applies concepts of asceticism through it’s popular American exponent: Alcoholics Anonymous. These values, adhered to in every show Sorkin writes, aren’t incidental. They’re the planks of his philosophy.

In September 2008, The New York Times published a dialogue between Democratic nominee Barack Obama and Jeb Bartlet. At the end, Bartlet reveals that Obama is dreaming, that he, Bartlet, is fictional. Sorkin treated the article as a joke and humbly dismissed his show as an object of fantasy. But out in the world, the impact of TWW was harder to laugh off. The next month, Keith Olbermann, describing Obama’s acceptance speech, praised it with comparisons to TWW. Barack Obama, an academic prodigy whose poetic, impassioned speeches dealt complexly with race, religion and responsibility was more than reminiscent of TWW’s promise. For liberals embarrassed to exhaustion by eight years of George Bush, the values articulated on TWW were coming to life.Looking back, I can see that my enthusiasm for candidate Barack Obama and my enthusiasm for TWW were connected. I doubt I was alone.

TNR, Sorkin’s election-year return to television, was highly anticipated but the immediate response of viewers and critics was stunningly negative. As the show’s figurehead and main selling point, Sorkin was criticized personally as arrogant, sappy and irrelevant. Some reviews, like Jason Poniewozik’s in Time magazine, took the opportunity to point out that they never liked TWW that much to begin with. TNR may or may not be “as good” as TWW but it’s hard to claim that, if TNR failed in its first season, it did so because it wasn’t similar enough to TWW. The heightened, widespread ridicule that greeted TNR convinces me that people did more than “like” or “relate” to TWW. A passionate rejection of TNR is necessary because admitting that TWW was silly or naïve, that it was a fantasy, is, for some, like admitting that Obama was not the president they dreamed he would be, that something they believed in deeply wasn’t true.

It’s interesting that TNR’s ratings started to climb at the end of the season. The show was renewed. As I’m writing this now, Barack Obama has just lost his first debate badly, but his public approval numbers have been climbing and his chances of reelection aren’t terrible. I may believe that he’s been a good president who’s been hindered by difficult circumstances but there are many who would disagree and they have their facts. To vote for Obama, I need to know if I still have faith. Do I still believe in the feeling I had in 2008  or am I holding on to a dangerous fantasy? If Barack Obama is reelected, will the second season of The Newsroom be so good that I’ll wish, once again, that Sorkin’s team were real and I was on it?


¹Scientology may be another example. The church is facing problems very similar to those of Rand’s objectivists.
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The RNC and the Post-Space-Age Clint Eastwood

The most damning criticism of Clint Eastwood’s speech at the RNC has focused on how it was a strategic mistake. It’s true that the tightly structured, ritualized environment of the conference made Eastwood’s casual, vulgar speech seem strange. Worse though, according to the strategy argument, was that it bumped a biographical video on Romney to an earlier time, outside the one hour of allotted network coverage. If, as the Romney campaign said again and again, the RNC’s goal was to introduce their candidate to an American audience that, statistically, does not like him, then Eastwood’s introduction was off-topic and off-brand. But it’s hard to imagine how any speaker, no matter how successful, could have been more effective than the biographical video they bumped. By opting for the personal endorsement of a film icon, the RNC turned its back on the efficacy of film itself and betrayed a misunderstanding of how politicians communicate with viewers right now. But worst of all was the error in thinking that Eastwood’s goals were the same as the RNC’s.

A week later at the DNC, Davis Guggenheim’s video intro to Obama’s speech proved the film-efficacy point clearly. Employing the time-lapse cityscapes, sunrise B-roll and moody piano of new-wave American pop-docs, the video satisfied all the requirements of its genre and, in a more effective use of star power, was narrated by George Clooney. In a commercial, it can be more pleasing to hear a beloved star’s detached voice rather than receive his or her endorsement directly. We trust what’s being said without exactly knowing why; just ask Lowe’s, Hyundai, Home Depot and E-Surance which respectively employ the detached voices of Ed Harris, Jeff Bridges, Gene Hackman and John Krasinski for just this reason.

The video’s smooth surface helped conceal an unusual editing choice. While Joe Biden, Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama all appear in traditional talking-heads, Obama is heard only in voice over and seen only in candid photos and video, or in grand-scale news footage. In the grammar of a political video, a talking-head is the equivalent of eye-contact with the viewer. The fact that Obama’s absence, in this sense, isn’t conspicuous is a credit to the movie. Choosing advocates (all of whom are statistically more well-liked than Obama) avoids the dissonance that seeing Obama speak provokes. The luke-warm response to Obama’s convention speech bears this tension out. While many of us like and admire Obama, the direct contact of a talking-head naturally reminds us of the difficulties we’ve faced during his presidency. And this tension gets heightened because Obama’s Republican adversaries have successfully used his gifts as a speaker against him by saying that, while what he says may sound pretty, the words themselves are lies, that he’s using them to hide secret intentions, that the flash of his persona is a mask for incompetence.

The DNC video counters this by taking that moment of contact out of play, choosing instead candid moments of Obama working, solemnly reading the letters of hard-luck citizens, gazing red-eyed but steady as dire news is reported, always unaware of a camera. The movie turns this absence into a strength, using it to convey Obama’s modesty, humility, resolve. Footage of Obama announcing the death of Bin Laden cuts before he says the key words, leaving the crowd-pleasing accomplishment modestly unspoken.

Michelle Obama describes dinner-table conversations where Obama is “an afterthought” the last to be asked about his day. And isn’t that just what it’s like to be a father? the movie asks. You work hard, you come home, and your family is too involved in their own struggles to realize what great challenges you face. It’s good copy for “humanizing” Obama but it’s also a strong metaphor for our relationship with him as a president. The video is like our mother coming up to our room after we’ve had a fight with our dad and explaining how tough things are for him, how he loves us but it’s hard for him to say it, that there’s great strength in the way he goes to work every day to support us, never asking for anything in return.

Elevating Obama over the rest of the cast was a gamble, but it was smart because, statistically, despite our disappointment and worry we care about him, feel connected to him. The movie turns our hesitation on its head so that it starts to feel less like we don’t want to see him talk because we’re mad and more like he’s not talking to us because he’s so busy working. That if we’re angry and frustrated, we should imagine how he feels. And do we hear him complaining? Guggenheim quietly shames us for not appreciating Obama more to begin with, for being so tied up in our own problems we forget what he has been through.

For me, Eastwood’s raunchy comedy routine was entertaining and I thought his line at the end, “if someone’s not doing the job, you’ve gotta let them go,” delivered with all the gritty wisdom you could ask for, was succinct and effective. But the broad response was negative and, even if the speech hadn’t been ridiculed the way it was, the RNC’s belief that a speaker can do what a well-made biographical video can (and the Romney doc is very well-made) means they’re playing small-ball and don’t realize it. Obama’s campaign has pointed to recent legal changes that have unleashed a torrent of new money for both parties (much more for Republicans right now) as a cause for alarm. But, given that the bulk of that money is used on political ads, and observing Romney’s stubbornly low and flat poll numbers, the question might not be how many commercials you can buy but whether or not they’re any good.

After the trauma of the 2004 election, I became fearfully convinced that Republicans are just better at ads, better at media, than Democrats are. But what’s strangest to consider, as far as Eastwood’s speech, is the distance between what the RNC thought they were getting, as far as a celebrity endorsement, and the filmmaker/actor they actually hired. Eastwood’s backdrop, an orange-tinted, Leone-era image, reminiscent of VHS sleeve art, made me wonder if anyone at the RNC, or the Romney campaign, has seen an Eastwood movie since the turn of the century. The truth is that there’s a lot for a conservative not to like.

Throughout his career, but more pointedly since 2003’s Mystic River, Eastwood has chosen scripts that are curious about the world beyond American borders, seek to include characters whose stories are traditionally marginalized and condemn and ridicule violence (which is not to say that the RNC supports violence, just that, I think it’s safe to say, there was a strong expectation in Tampa that Dirty Harry, a character defined by violence, would be appearing).

Eastwood’s most recent film, the biography J. Edgar, describes a narcissistic, manipulative government lackey bent on ruling a nation by controlling the flow and storage of information (for libertarian Eastwood, probably a satisfying target) but, more centrally, it’s a sympathetic portrait of a closeted gay couple in their dying years. Released at the same time the legal debate around gay marriage tipped heavily toward inclusion, Eastwood’s film followed right in progressive step. For the movie, J. Edgar’s problem isn’t that he’s in love with Mitchell, his long-time assistant, it’s that he lives in a time and place where their love is unacceptable, that it’s something J. Edgar is ashamed of. A scene near the end where J. Edgar kisses his now-senile, life-long lover on the forehead was nearly unprecedented in an American movie theater. How would it have been received on-screen at the RNC.*

Similarly out of step is the curiosity Eastwood’s spiritual drama, Hereafter, has about French history and current media. In that film, he lets long discussions about former French President Francois Mitterand run their glamourless course. Eastwood is known for only minimally changing the scripts he directs and it shows here because, in the austere economics of American screenwriting, such a digression is inappropriate; most directors and producers would have cut it. But if the scene feels odd in a Hollywood movie, it seems just as dissonant with the ethos of the RNC and its hectoring focus on American exceptionalism. Nor would the social workers, who diligently and effectively work to rehabilitate the drug-addicted mother of another character in socialist England, be warmly welcomed had they accompanied Eastwood on stage in Tampa.

2008’s Gran Torino promises some good red meat, pitting Clint Eastwood (playing Walt Kowalski) against teenage gangs in run-down Detroit, but ends up more interested in the culture of the Hmung people than spaghetti-western vengeance. A great, funny scene in a barber shop has Walt and Martin (John Carroll Lynch) articulating their greatest-generation views on how men should act for the benefit of Thao (Bee Vang), Walt’s teenage, Hmung neighbor.  In one sense this is a conservative fantasy: if immigrants would learn to act a little more American we’d all get along better. But it becomes clear that Gran Torino has more on it’s mind than congratulating fed-up white people (a task the vapid The Blind Side took on with gusto in 2009)A narrow-minded, bitter shut-in, Walt is redeemed not by closer ties to his family (his wealthy suburban son is his greatest irritation) or his church (he repeatedly insults his young priest) but by broadening his world-view, learning about his Hmung neighbors. The audience learns also, by means of long, explanatory speeches on Hmung history dutifully kept in the script by Eastwood and delivered by young, unknown, actors. At the end, Walt sacrifices his life for Thao and his family in a Christ-like act that’s miles distant, philosophically, from Mike Huckabee’s Elijah on Mount Carmel holy-warrism. The fact that Gran Torino thinks a character like Walt needs to be redeemed at all starts a discussion some on the right would prefer not to have and shows how different the movie is from The Blind Side, where what’s wrong are the lives, habits and values of poor minorities and the solution is white straight-talk. The film’s inclusive spirit seems pie-eyed-liberal next to the vote-grabbing condescension of this year’s RNC Latino outreach (my opinion, I suppose, but it would be hard to argue that current Republican policy on immigration has an inclusive spirit).

Mystic River presents as a sentimental crime-drama lamenting the tragedy of child molestation (a topic that focuses social-conservative ire as effectively as abortion). But the greatest sin in Mystic River isn’t that abuse, it’s weakness. Like Eastwood’s more-praised Unforgiven, the film uses genre methods to reveal ugly truths usually unwelcome in a multiplex. When Jimmy’s (Sean Penn) daughter is murdered in the opening, he appears to be an anguished, brave victim of senseless violence, bent on revenge (a Dirty Harry in waiting). But it’s revealed, by means of an unfashionably dense script that Eastwood shoots with dogged patience, that Jimmy himself is a murderer and that, in the byzantine morality of the film’s Boston neighborhood, his daughter’s killing may have been a form of justice. In the end, Jimmy murders his life-long friend, Dave (Tim Robbins), whose childhood was derailed when a Priest molested him, thinking that he (Dave) murdered his daughter. Jimmy is wrong (his daughter’s death is his own fault, in a way) but he ends the film as a hero (his wife, Annabeth (Laura Linney), calls him a king). In the last scene, Jimmy and his family, bathed in sunlight, watch a parade pass their house. On the other side of the street, abandoned in the shadows, Dave’s wife, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), cowers. Her mistake marrying a weakling who couldn’t protect her.**

To claim that morality is irrelevant in the face of strength is an uncommonly dark thing to do in a Hollywood movie, which makes Mystic River special. But it’s hard to call the theme either liberal or conservative. I’d argue, however, that the film is examining some core social principles conservatism by treating Dave’s abuse not as the story’s central evil, and by asking instead whether there is any force protecting us at all, or if we’re left alone in brutal chaos to fend for ourselves. God is of no help in Mystic River and corruption in the Church isn’t an outrage, it’s part of the neighborhood’s landscape, an obstacle the weak may stumble over. When Jimmy tells Annabeth what he’s done, she comforts him and says she’s told their children about Jimmy’s four hearts, one for each of them, and that “they were filled up with love that meant, you would never have to worry, and that their Daddy would do whatever he had to do for those he loved. That is never wrong. That can never be wrong.” Jimmy doesn’t seem convinced though, and neither is the viewer.

The nuclear family, its intrinsic cultural value, is the center of American social-conservative philosophy. But Mystic River finds the limit of what love for your family can justify. Dave isn’t as strong as Jimmy but, as Jimmy himself admits early in the film, Dave’s life has been harder. If Jimmy had suffered like Dave, things may have turned out differently. If Jimmy is the King of Mystic River, as Annabeth says, is he not bound to protect Dave, whose weakness is not his fault, but the result of his upbringing? Jimmy’s tortured expression while Annabeth speaks and the figure of Celeste, forgotten in the shadows, are hints that the film might think so. It’s possible that Eastwood is presenting a world where defending your family can never be wrong, where a corrupt Church isn’t just tolerated but taken for granted, where the suffering of the weak is a necessary evil, without meaning to criticize it. But I think it’s unlikely.

What’s most conservative about Eastwood’s films, it turns out, is how he makes them. He’s known for rarely shooting more than two or three takes, which saves time and film. He plays scenes out in long master shots, only cutting to close-ups when it’s necessary, which means less time shooting and (I’d imagine) no need for a second or third camera. He uses the same methods regardless of the movie (he’s been criticized for never varying his lighting style and it’s true: Bridges of Madison County looks a lot like Gran Torino though one of them is a romance and the other is an action movie) which means his process and crew have been routinized, which, if it hinders style, certainly prioritizes efficiency. Shooting the script as he found it prevents schedule changes and reshooting due to revisions. His films are known to come in under budget. There’s a truly conservative spirit in Eastwood’s shop-worn methods, they’ve been in use for more than a hundred years. According to this older philosophy, any “artistry” has to result from the reliable delivery of a valuable, interesting story, on or below budget.

I imagine that if you asked Eastwood about his work he wouldn’t describe it as an extended liberal manifesto. His movies are intended to make money and entertain and it’s easy to see political meaning where there is none. You could easily argue that Eastwood never intended to have his films read the way I’m doing here. But you cannot argue that his films are simple. His way of shooting them may be straightforward, but they demand adult, broad-minded viewing, something the Romney campaign either didn’t do or isn’t capable of, which is why they were caught flat-footed in Tampa.

In interviews, Eastwood has said that he didn’t allow the RNC or the Romney campaign to vet his speech and that he came up with the “empty chair” routine right before he went on stage, which I think is revealing. To me, Eastwood’s lack of preparation, his irreverent attitude on stage, his indifference to the negative response that followed, don’t seem “bizarre” or show “confusion.” They show disrespect for Romney and the RNC. If Eastwood is like many libertarians, he may feel a great deal of anger over the profligate government spending of the Bush years, the entropy of Republican intellectual culture, the dogmatic social issues that have been prioritized over personal liberty. It’s clear that he does not want Barrack Obama to be president anymore and considered it worth his time to, in his mind, lower himself to speaking on behalf of an institution he finds distasteful; his greater goal being access to a huge audience of viewers who, he correctly worried, are feeling reluctant to give up on Obama. Hence the only sincere and most effective part of his speech, the line reassuring us that it was Ok to let Obama go.

His reaction to the delegate who screamed “GO AHEAD MAKE MY DAY!” was telling. He smiled at what must have been the ten-thousandth request for him to deliver a decades-old catch phrase that’s completely unconnected to the dozens of movies he’s made since. He began the line and then threw it to the audience for them to finish. I’m only one viewer but, to me, this had the quality of chatting with your drug dealer to make him or her feel like you’re friends: an irritating nicety, a means to an end.

          


* Not to pile on, but this was a convention where delegates threw peanuts at an African-American camerawoman and called her an animal before they were removed by what must have been some very, very disappointed campaign officials.
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**There’s more to it than that, even, in case you haven’t seen it and don’t mind having everything spoiled. It’s because of Celeste that Jimmy thinks Dave killed his daughter (she may be in love with Jimmy), meaning that Celeste sinned by marrying a weakling then makes it even worse by betraying him. So at the end, in the moral world of the movie, she’s totally screwed.
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