Run for the (Sea)Wall

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Every Memorial Day for the past 30 years a now-grizzled convoy of Viet Nam vets astride choppers swarms the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Groups of two, ten, twenty and more, hailing from every corner of the continent, converge at minor and major crossroads into a host of hundreds of thousands. This grassroots commemoration is known as the Run for the Wall. It was started in 1989 by two vets on Harleys. By last count the run numbers 350,000.

At the nation’s capital, Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force; enlistees and draftees; non-coms and warriors; enlisted men and officers, relatives and sympathizers; WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Granada, Afghanistan, Iraq, and, yes, Bay of Pigs vets (everyone is welcome) — all long in the tooth, mostly hirsute, amply girthed and outfitted in Harley Davidson garb — cry like spurned orphans as their fingers graze the black granite of remembrance searching for the names of long lost comrades. The tears are contagious. Onlookers mist up or avert their gaze in respect and abide the circumstance.

The men harbored much resentment and bad blood: against Castro for their inhumane treatment; against Kennedy for condemning the operation to defeat.

This past Christmas Eve, an entirely different group of vets commemorated its 55th anniversary of freedom. On Christmas Eve, 1962, the last of the 1,113 Bay of Pigs POWs of Brigade 2506 were released after nearly two years of incarceration in Fidel Castro’s prisons. My cousins Carlos “Cachorro” León Acosta and Armando “Armandito” Lastra Faget, both 19, were the first to taste liberty that day. For Carlos, that was the night he was born again.

The Brigade had signed up to liberate Cuba from Castro’s communist fist. For a variety of reasons, and in spite of inflicting nearly 5,000 casualties on the Castro troops and suffering only 67 combat deaths, the Brigade was unable to achieve its goal.

Contrary to the narrative Fidel Castro has popularized — that the Bay of Pigs operation was a US CIA invasion manned by mercenaries — the true nature of that debacle has seldom been put into words. This is mainly because the freed prisoners were sworn to press silence, to avoid offending either the Castro or the Kennedy government and imperiling nascent and fragile agreements between the two countries. The men harbored much resentment and bad blood: against Castro for their inhumane treatment; against Kennedy for condemning the operation to defeat.

Fidel knew this was a Cuban vs. Cuban affair, and that if his forces fired on the US, the behemoth would retaliate and taps would sound on his revolution.

In contrast to Castro’s narrative, the true version is that the Bay of Pigs invasion was part of a civil war in which one side was supplied with arms, money, and training by the USSR, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia, while the other side was supplied with the same kit by the US, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. If anyone doubts this version, let him examine the event’s rules of engagement, to which both sides scrupulously adhered: US forces never fired a shot at Castro’s combatants, and Castro’s forces never attacked offshore US support ships. Fidel knew this was a Cuban vs. Cuban affair, and that if his forces fired on the US, the behemoth would retaliate and taps would sound on his revolution.

The Bay of Pigs was the second climax in a Cuban civil war that began on March 10, 1952 when Fulgencio Batista wrested control of Cuba in a coup. Immediately, a variety of disparate groups declared resistance to the new regime, Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement being only one of many. The first climax in these civil wars was Castro’s triumph over Batista on December 31, 1958.

Within four days of Castro’s victory, a nascent resistance — reading the writing on the wall and unrelated to the Batista regime — declared against Castro. The Bay of Pigs invasion two and a half years later was the second climax in the ongoing civil war.

Whenever the next climax occurs and whatever it brings, it will be peaceful.

The Bay of Pigs veterans are dwindling in numbers, many having added their eternal energy toward Cuba’s liberation. Only 550 are left. My cousin Armandito died in 2010. The latest to pass away was Maximo “Ñato” Cruz just a short while ago, on November 26. Cruz was an exceptional hero, the leader of F Company, 2nd Battalion, who distinguished himself in combat during the Battle of the Rotonda to such a degree that he received the only battlefield promotion during the fight.

Whenever the next climax occurs and whatever it brings, it will be peaceful. All of the exile and resident anti-Castro groups have renounced violence in achieving their aim of a free and democratic Cuba.

To commemorate the 55th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs veterans’ release, a small group of vets and vets’ relatives — in sincere flattery and imitation of the Run for the Wall ride — participated in a real (pedal) bike ride from the Bay of Pigs Memorial in Little Havana to Key West — as close to Cuba as possible. We called this our Run for the (Sea)Wall. Here’s my account of the journey.

Forget Little Havana and Calle Ocho — they’re full of gringo and European tourists. All of south Florida has become Cubanized. Ubiquitous are Cuban coffee (espresso brewed with sugar), Cuban sandwiches (roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, and pickles stacked between sliced French bread and ironed in a plancha, a waffle press-like flat grill), and black beans (as a standard side in nearly all restaurants). We heard Spanish more often than English, though everyone, except for the very recent arrivals (mostly Venezuelans), speaks both languages and uses them interchangeably. Unlike immigrant enclaves elsewhere, south Florida is no “enclave” of struggling refugees lacking in skills, knowledge, or financial nous and isolated from its native residents. On the contrary, the mélange is dynamic, inspiring, and surprisingly free of cross-cultural frictions.

My wife Tina and I left Boca Raton on fully loaded bikes in a drizzly dawn, aiming first for Miami. We’d been staying with my Venezuelan cousin, Marta, who’d finally gotten her green card two years ago. Our next destination was Key Biscayne, 72 miles away, where another cousin, MariCris — a Cuban this time — would put us up at her corporate condo.

Forget Little Havana and Calle Ocho — they’re full of gringo and European tourists. All of south Florida has become Cubanized.

We reached Key Biscayne in one day, and on the next met with the president of the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association, Humberto “Chino” Argüelles, and a handful of veterans and family members at the Casa, the museum and headquarters of Brigade 2506. I was presented with a Brigade 2506 emblem and flag. One 82-year-old vet, Emilio “Ernesto Guerra” Martinez Venegas, had not been a member of the invasion force. Instead, he’d been a key participant in the subsequent infiltration programs, had been captured, and had spent 15 years in Castro’s prisons.

After touring the Casa and meeting with some of the veterans, we proceeded to Calle Ocho’s Bay of Pigs Monument, where — over the noise of traffic and tourist passersby — I explained the purpose of our ride: “Today we don’t mourn [the fighters’] defeat; we celebrate their freedom.” Our ride was "in remembrance of the patriots who gave their life, fortunes, and honor for Cuba’s liberty. Today we are all Cubans. Viva Cuba Libre!”

Launch of the ride. L to R: Carlos "Cachorro" León; the author; Humberto "el Chino" Arguelles. At the eternal flame, Bay of Pigs Memorial, Little Havana, Miami.Launch of the ride. L to R: Carlos "Cachorro" León; the author; Humberto "el Chino" Arguelles. At the eternal flame, Bay of Pigs Memorial, Little Havana, Miami.

One passing Danish tourist, captivated by the event, offered to photograph our entire group in front of the monument. Carlos, a veteran paratrooper of the Bay of Pigs (and the cousin earlier mentioned) handed over his camera. Afterward, the Dane asked Carlos if he’d fought “on the Cuban side.” The query was symptomatic of how pervasively the Castro narrative has permeated the public. Carlos, momentarily baffled yet no stranger to such ignorance, just answered “Yes.”

He then offered to take his family members to lunch. I suggested Versailles, the iconic Cuban exile restaurant where the movers and shakers of the Cuban community had met for years to impress one another, argue politics, and concoct financial and insurrectional plans. He gave me the same look he’d given the Danish tourist, saying, “Versailles’ food is no longer what it used to be; Cubans no longer go there; it’s a tourist magnet with long lines. I know a better place.”

He led us to a Spanish restaurant full of old Cubans — all of whom he knew — taking advantage of the $12.95 set lunch, and introduced Tina and me to all of them. He flirted with the waitress — he was a regular — and she reparteed back. After she took our order, Carlos leaned over and said, “She’s Russian.” The fortyish blonde was the daughter of minor Russian functionaries once assigned to Cuba, where she’d grown up and learned Spanish.

The query was symptomatic of how pervasively the Castro narrative has permeated the public.

After a delicious meal of caldo gallego, merluza a la plancha and flan, we went to Books&Books in Coral Gables. It’s the flagship of south Florida’s best book store, and a microcosm of south Florida’s intellectual milieu. Books&Books is old fashioned: huge, rambling, encyclopedic — with books arranged thematically, irrespective of language, on the same dark oak shelves — liberal with easy chairs for tome dipping, and hosting a sophisticated coffee and snack bar. The staff is multilingual, knowledgeable, and very helpful. Apparently, the many customers in the aisles were unaware of the “death of the independent book store.” (And yes, they carried my book, Closing the Circle: A Memoir of Cuba, Exile, the Bay of Pigs and a Trans-Island Bike Journey. Whew!)

The next day we saddled up early and headed for the Florida Keys, along Miami’s M-path, a dedicated bike trail under the city’s elevated tramway. Carlos met us partway on his bike for a photo op along a defile of Royal Palms, the Cuban national tree. Because of injuries acquired at the butt end of a rifle from a sadistic guard in Castro’s Modelo Prison, Carlos has to lay down his bike, step into its triangular frame, lift it up, and step out of the frame to straddle the bike in order to mount it. Afterward we joined him for breakfast at the Rinconcito Cubano, an unassuming breakfast and lunch joint where, again, he knew all the patrons and waitresses and introduced us to them all.

Armandito had been an outsized character at the Battle of the Rotonda in the Bay of Pigs operation, muscling a .30 caliber tripod machine gun continuously during the 48-hour siege of Playa Larga.

By lunchtime we reached Homestead, home of the Air Force base that welcomed the freed Bay of Pigs prisoners back on that Christmas Eve in 1962. Alina Lastra, sister of my late cousin Armandito Lastra, met us along the dedicated, tarmacked bike path. Armandito had been an outsized character at the Battle of the Rotonda in the Bay of Pigs operation, muscling a .30 caliber tripod machine gun continuously during the 48-hour siege of Playa Larga. Again, we took pictures — this time with the Brigade 2506 flag and a rendition of the MAGA hat with “America” replaced by “Cuba.”

But now we faced the Everglades’ aptly named Overseas Highway, a single traffic lane each way, with a divider, over 20 miles long, connecting the tip of Florida to Key Largo over swampland and sea. But that is merely the first key in an improbable island chain that stretches 113 miles to Key West (Cayo Hueso). Luckily, the shoulder was six feet wide — wide enough to shield us from the impatient, albeit 55 MPH controlled, continuous traffic. Boring and stressful!

Key West was first connected to the road grid in 1928, with a couple of intermittent ferries. All the bridges along the way, including the famous seven-mile bridge, were completed and open to traffic in 1938, when FDR toured the finished highway. We did not enjoy the amenities of his tour, but after a 64-mile day, we were relieved to find a motel on Key Largo and indulge in a pricey blackened Yellowtail dinner.

An iguana, on the way. It would be hard to leave him out.

An iguana, on the way. It would be hard to leave him out.

Of course, winter’s cold seldom finds the Florida Keys. New Year’s Eve welcomed us with 70 degree temperatures under bright sunshine in the morning. Hurricane Irma debris lined Highway 1 and sometimes blocked the adjacent bike path, a dedicated trail that often included its own connecting bridges separate from the vehicular bridges. Fishermen, some with tents and BBQs, lined these long bike and pedestrian spans. At times we had to dodge colorful iguanas, which otherwise mostly sunbathe on abandoned abutments and supporting berms, scurrying away when troubled.

Fifty-two miles to Marathon Key. Our tiredness and the isolation of our motel shielded us from the New Year's celebrations — raucous in a population given to no-shirts, no-shoes, and lots of recreational boozing.

* * *

Over the years Key Largo and Marathon Key have played a little-publicized but outsized role in US-Cuba relations. After the serial imposition of progressively stricter US embargos on the island, the Castro nomenclatura found itself in want of both luxuries and specialty technical apparatus. Even when these items could be obtained through convoluted schemes involving passthrough countries or ingenious smuggling, little foreign exchange was available to pay for them. So Fidel — or someone close to him who provided plausible deniability to the Comandante en Jefe — came up with a two-part idea implemented by the De la Guardia twins, Tony and Patricio, heroes of the Angola war, with popular (second only to Fidel) General Arnaldo “Negro” Ochoa, also from the Angola (and Somalia) war playing a supporting role.

Some funds for the operation were generated by charging Colombian drug runners a safe passage fee when traversing Cuban territorial waters. These funds were laundered by Fidel’s criminal asylee, Robert Vesco, the fugitive financier. Another part of the scheme involved stealing luxury yachts from Florida marinas. Since these were heavily insured and were owned, after all, by rich capitalists, the insurance companies reimbursed the owners promptly, and little fuss ensued. As Nobel-nominated author Norberto Fuentes, best friend with Ochoa and Tony De la Guardia, relates in his book, Dulces Guerreros Cubanos, the yachts were then employed in the “Caribbean Express,” smuggling Marlboros, specialty arms, and technology obtained through the services of shady Florida arbitragers and go-betweens. The delivery, loading, payment, and shipping took place on Key Largo and Marathon Key. Everyone involved skimmed and squirreled away thousands of dollars (the principals, hundreds of thousands of dollars) — insurance policies, commissions and brokerage fees being frowned upon in socialist Cuba.

Since these stolen yachts were heavily insured and were owned, after all, by rich capitalists, the insurance companies reimbursed the owners promptly, and little fuss ensued.

In 1989, for reasons that I can’t — yet — quite understand, Ochoa, the De la Guardia twins, and author Fuentes, all intimates of the Castros, were purged in a series of show trials reminiscent of Stalin’s in the 1930s. The charges had to do with drugs; the ostensible reason was the Castros’ desire to improve their image before international opinion. But there were other, murkier reasons, all too complex to elaborate here.

Ochoa and Antonio De la Guardia went to the firing squad. When Raúl Castro announced the verdict to Cuba’s rubberstamp constituent assembly, he was drunk and tearful and wore a bullet-proof vest; Arnaldo Ochoa was one of his best friends. Norberto Fuentes was saved through the special pleading of Fidel’s friend, Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian writer. Fuentes now lives in Miami surrounded by his Castro-era memorabilia, in the same building as my cousin Carlos’ son. Fuentes and Carlos were schoolmates before the Revolution.

And the stolen luxury yachts? These became part of the fleet that takes rich tourists out on exclusive fishing excursions around Cuba.

* * *

The run down to Key West, at 48 miles, was our shortest — and most expensive, with a basic Best Western room costing over $300, not untypical of Key West prices. Carlos tells a story of impetuously driving down to Key West 30 years ago on New Year’s Eve for his honeymoon. At the first likely lodging he encountered, he inquired about a room. The attendant asked if he had a reservation.

“No,” answered the newlyweds. The attendant immediately began laughing. Carlos avers that, to this day, the man is still laughing. He adds that every subsequent motel they tried — even as they then began driving back to Miami — was fully booked. Nevertheless, we had our Best Western room and at 5 p.m. headed for El Siboney, a popular Cuban restaurant only two blocks away, hoping to avoid the crowds that are given to much later, Latin eating habits. Still, Tina and I — by now our small group had been reduced to just the two of us, for a variety of reasons, most having to do with age, health and the holidays — had to wait in line.

End of the ride. Author and his wife unfurling the Brigade 2506 flag, Key West.End of the ride. Author and his wife unfurling the Brigade 2506 flag, Key West.

Then, on January 2, at dawn, we packed up and headed the three blocks to the monument that marks the southernmost point of the US and declares in bold print, “90 Miles to Cuba.” It was a blustery day with tourists already posing before the giant faux buoy for pictures. We waited our turn. Then we posed our bikes before the monument, unfurled the Brigade 2506 flag, and recited José Martí’s La Rosa Blanca:

Cultivo una rosa blanca                            I cultivate a white rose
en junio como en enero                              in June as in January
para el amigo sincero                                 for the sincere friend
que me da su mano franca.                        that proffers his open hand.
Pero para el cruel que me arranca             But for the knave that rips out
el corazón con que vivo,                             the heart that gives me life,
cardo ni ortiga cultivo,                              I cultivate neither thistle nor nettle,
cultivo la rosa blanca.                               I cultivate a white rose.

I then pivoted towards Cuba, saluted the Castros with a single finger, folded our flag, and headed back to Boca.

* * *

After enduring nearly two years in Castro’s prisons, 240 out of approximately 1,400 Bay of Pigs veterans enlisted in the US military. Most fought in Vietnam. Both operations ended in defeat. Both sets of vets were widely spurned upon their return to the United States. But that attitude is finally changing.




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Binary Opposition

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When Stupid Thinking Happens to Smart People

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An age-old question, pondered by those who think weighty thoughts, is “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Many books have been written on the subject. It’s one of the first questions kids ask their parents after they’ve stopped wondering why the sky is blue. This libertarian Christian’s answer would be, “Because, unlike government, God doesn’t try to micromanage every aspect of human life.” I’m reasonably satisfied with that explanation, but an altogether different question has perplexed me: why do smart people think stupid things?

Anyone who pays attention to the political scene is bound to observe the prevalence of what those in Twelve-Step recovery call “stinking thinking.” When we hear a particular stupidity once too often, something in us snaps. My own “snap” comes not when a dumb oaf commits this infraction, but when the guilty party is someone whose intelligence I generally respect. It happened again only the other day. Since I enjoy a good outrage as much as anybody, I’m writing about it while my irritation is deliciously fresh.

Those who presume to control the lives of others think themselves smarter and morally superior to the poor dolts over whom they would rule.

In a theology study group, where the president’s name had no conceivable reason to be mentioned, a friend of mine enthusiastically shared what she was reading in her spare time. It was yet another allegedly damning expose of “how the Russians stole the election for Trump.” She told us about this as if it were a conclusion as inescapable as the fact that the sky is blue. Now, I’m no great fan of Donald Trump, didn’t vote for him in 2016, and have no idea whom I’ll vote for (if anyone) in 2020. But perhaps because I thought this particular woman too intelligent to fall for this “Trump-Russia is the New Watergate” malarkey, I’d had all I was willing to take.

As we were obviously no longer discussing theology, I asked her if she had the slightest clue why most of those who voted for Trump cast their ballots as they did. I noted that in the months prior to the election, few people thought him a man of sterling character. That people who voted for Trump weren’t voting for a best friend, or for someone to babysit their dogs, marry their daughters, or stand as godfather for their grandkids. And that nothing the Russians could have said or done would have made Hillary Clinton any less trustworthy, in the judgment of those voters, than she already was.

The conversation was quickly steered back onto the subject at hand, but I believe I made my point. Not that I changed my friend’s mind. She will probably go right on believing that Trump voters are all horrible sexists and racists who want the poor to starve to death and the elderly to get sick and waste away. In the partisan bubble in which she lives, she isn’t permitted to think anything else.

Progressive bubble-dwellers’ nutty notions about Trump’s victory can be traced to one primary cause: their own mountainous vanity. They cannot conceive of how dangerous and destructive millions of Americans believe Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party to be. Only a dastardly conspiracy of Republicans and Russians could keep voters from bowing before the shining wonderfulness of the Dems. Vanity, in general, goes a long way toward explaining why so many stupidities are so readily believed by people who really ought to know better.

We might also recall that vanity was one of Lucifer’s chief sins.

Vanity also explains the prevalence of statist thinking on both Left and Right. Those who presume to control the lives of others think themselves smarter and morally superior to the poor dolts over whom they would rule. In contemporary America, we don’t like to take the blame for anything. Because we’re too smart to ever screw up, every undesirable occurrence simply must be someone else’s fault.

This vanity encourages us to believe that we can run other people’s lives better than they can. We might also recall that vanity was one of Lucifer’s chief sins. He thought he’d make a better god than God.

As this is not a theology discussion group, I know I shouldn’t mention that. But such a lapse can’t possibly be my fault. I blame it totally on my progressive friend.




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If You Can Keep Your Head

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Recently I saw an article with a headline that went more or less like this: “I’m a Conservative: I Care About Character.” The thesis of the piece was: “That’s why I can’t support Trump.”

I didn’t finish the article. I didn’t need to. I felt that I could have written it myself — or a hundred articles like it. Not because I’m a conservative (I’m not) or because I habitually care about politicians’ “character” enough to vote for or against them because of it. I vote for politicians, not for friends; and I almost always vote for the person I consider the lesser of the two evils. But I understand that everyone has some particular issue that he or she cares most about, at least right now; and for the conservative gentleman or lady it’s “character.” Some people care, or think they care, about only one issue, ever. And an article written from that point of view would be simplicity itself.

I vote for politicians, not for friends; and I almost always vote for the person I consider the lesser of the two evils.

But I look at the world in a different way, and I believe that the year of the Trump presidency has taught a lot of other people to see things that way too. Here it is: there are many possible reasons why intelligent people vote or refuse to vote for someone; these reasons are pretty much apples and oranges, with economic concerns being somehow “weighed” against character concerns or constitutional concerns or the horribleness of the opposing candidate; this is an imperfect world, but somehow one makes choices on the basis of those various concerns, because one has to choose (not voting being a choice like any other). All of this seems self-evident, when you think about it, but I believe that many people have become more conscious of it because of the Trump presidency.

If you’re a libertarian, as I am, you may hail or detest Donald Trump because of his positions on taxes or immigration or trade or “infrastructure” or his lack of traditional gravitas . . . You can expand this list pretty far, and it’s unlikely that you will hail or detest him on every available front. But you get to choose which of them are most important, and you get to change your mind later on. You may, for instance, like his financial policies, and if enough of them are implemented, you may not like him so well afterwards. He gave you your way on your most important issue, so fine; but now you’re looking at his other ideas.

This messy way of thinking operates throughout life, not just in politics, although many true and upright people do not realize that it does. Others believe it is a sin to realize that, and to act upon it. These good people may be purists who cannot bring themselves to make any political choices, because all of them seem dirty. Or they may be rationalizers who make a messy decision and then suddenly discover that what they chose was entirely and uniquely moral and necessary, and if you don’t agree with it, you are a deeply flawed human being.

It’s disappointing to discover that so many of our fellow citizens are, in political terms, insane; that they are living in a different world from the one in which life is complicated and choices are various.

To many of these people, however, Trump has provided a memorable lesson. He has presented them with a concrete problem — the assessment of his presidency — that cries out for them to see the complexity of choice. He has given them the chance to practice thinking like, well, good economists. He didn’t intend to do that, but he did.

He also gave them practice in distinguishing sane thinking from insane thinking. When we see someone attributing every wrong characteristic to Donald Trump, ignoring any of his successes and inventing, if necessary, failures, we have identified someone who has not only made a choice of values about the world but is using it to create a world. In what other area of life do people feel impelled to say that a person whom they dislike for one reason is also unlikable for every other reason in the cosmos? The same goes for the zealots who simply cannot get enough of Trump, his tweets and rallies. In what other area of life do people wait in line for hours to hear strings of clichés, most of them meaningless, and cheer them to the rafters, imagining that now they can depart in peace, having seen all the greatness and the glory of this age?

The fact that politics turns some into obsessive bores or slavering zealots doesn’t mean that they should be dismissed as easily as they dismiss their political opponents.

I know, it’s disappointing to discover that so many of our fellow citizens are, in political terms, insane; that they are living in a different world from the one in which life is complicated and choices are various and difficult, and that they don’t seem likely to recover. One might imagine that their world, because it’s simpler than the real world, is also easier and therefore better to live in. Actually, the reason it’s simple is that there’s practically nothing in it, and this can be an inconvenience.

Yet these people are, like Trump, good lessons to us all — in two ways.

One is obvious: let’s not be like them. The other is not obvious, but it needs to be learned, so that we don’t end up in the same world with them. It starts with the recognition that outside the political realm, most of these people are eminently sane and well intentioned, and blessed with some practical success in life. When we recognize this, we see how important it is to refuse the temptation to make reductionist judgments on their lives, as they do on the lives of others. The fact that politics turns them into obsessive bores or slavering zealots doesn’t mean that they should be dismissed as easily as they dismiss their political opponents. It’s true, we may need to lead the conversation to something outside the realm of American party politics, but even this act may, just possibly, show them that there is a way back to the messy but vital world of actual thought, that we are taking it, and it makes us happy.




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Collateral Allegory

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Hostiles is an elegant and moving western that challenges viewers to look beyond the western genre to examine something larger and more contemporary. It begins in the way many great westerns have: a wide-angle shot of blue skies and golden prairie zooms in to a homesteader’s cabin, where the inhabitant, Wes (Scott Shepherd) is working in the yard and his wife Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) is teaching a grammar lesson to their daughters. When a band of Indians swoops over the horizon, Wes rushes his family out the back door while he stays to fend off the attackers — who are soon tracking Rosalie through the woods. Her fear is palpable. We are in the trees with her, hiding under the log, terrified of being caught.

Cut to the next scene. We hear the offscreen wails of a woman and see a closeup of our hero, Captain Joe Blocker. We know he’s our hero because this is Christian Bale in an Army uniform, and we are certain that he has arrived to rescue Rosalie. But as the camera pans back, we see with revulsion that Captain Blocker is the aggressor here; his men are rounding up a family of Natives and dragging them off to the local fort. This juxtaposition of brutal attacks on two peaceful families of opposite backgrounds sets us up for a film that is going to challenge our social, cultural, and political values.

But as the camera pans back, we see with revulsion that Captain Blocker is the aggressor here.

Blocker has been working most of his career on the western frontier, rounding up Indians and bringing them to Army stockades. About to retire, he is given one final assignment: by order of the president (who is concerned about public opinion), he must take a dying Cheyenne chieftain (Wes Studi) and his family back to Montana, where they will be allowed to remain. Blocker doesn’t want to do it; it goes against everything he has done throughout his career. But he’s an Army man. If his commander tells him to dig a hole just to refill it tomorrow, he’ll do as he’s told. He doesn’t have to like it.

The rest of the film is a typical trail-ride western, with the typical conflicts among the troops, attacks by the enemies (both white and red), bouts of bad weather, and pensive conversations under the stars. There’s even a discreet romance. And the acting is first rate, especially by Bale and Pike.

"Hostiles" is a parable, all right, but not of the American West.

But it’s hard to watch a “typical western” about cowboys and Indians these days; our sensibilities bristle at the way indigenous people have been treated and portrayed. Mainstream reviewers don’t seem to know what to say about this movie. One wrote, “There's a good movie here, but it's buried by too many attempts to be something it's not, most egregiously some kind of great dramatic examination of our treatment of Native Americans.” Well, excuse me for disagreeing, but I think the “something it’s not” is a “great dramatic examination of our treatment of Native Americans.” And if you think that’s what it’s about, you’re going to be confused by the ambiguity of the tone and the characters.

Another reviewer wrote that it “works as a contrived but effective parable of the American West, [with] its painful legacy, and small measures of redemption.” Hostiles is a parable, all right, but not of the American West. The American West is being used here as an allegory of the Middle East. Its very name should offer the first clue; “hostiles” is the word modern soldiers use to identify the enemy. And Hostiles is a subtle parable about modern war.

Whether this was director Scott Cooper’s intent or not, it’s about as perfect an antiwar film as we’re going to get

We see officers obeying orders simply because “that’s my job.” We see peaceful families suffering the collateral damage of a prolonged war. We see “good Indians” and “bad Indians” representing the difference between good Muslims and jihadist Muslims. We see soldiers ravaged by PTSD and torn by the guilt of having killed. We see other soldiers struggling with the realization that in one circumstance killing is considered murder, but in another it’s considered heroic. Most of all, we see the importance of judging individuals by their character and their actions, not by their label or their group. Hostiles asks us to focus on what makes us human instead of what makes us enemies. Whether this was director Scott Cooper’s intent or not, it’s about as perfect an antiwar film as we’re going to get. Sometimes truth is that self-evident.

The body count for Hostiles comes close to that of a Quentin Tarantino movie (or Hamlet, for that matter) but without the gratuitous blood and guts of Tarantino. It’s tense and suspenseful because we care about the characters, but there’s a distance from the killing, just as there is a distance between these broken and dysfunctional characters. The pace is slow at times and the story is somewhat predictable. But what it subtly says about the personal, psychological ravages of war is important. And the final scene is so exquisitely moving and perfectly acted, it’s one of those moments in film that you never forget. Well worth the two and a half hour trail ride, just to get there.


Editor's Note: Review of "Hostiles," directed by Scott Cooper. Entertainment Studios, 2017. 134 minutes.



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Yes, But Is It True?

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You probably heard the scuttlebutt about All the Money in the World, even if you haven’t seen the movie: the film was set for a mid-December release with Kevin Spacey as J. Paul Getty, but six weeks before its release actor Anthony Rapp made sexual allegations against Spacey, and rather than risk their $60 million investment in the film, producers opted to cut all of Spacey’s scenes and reshoot the film with Christopher Plummer. Plummer was an excellent choice — he even looks like Getty — and the editing is virtually seamless. But after seeing the film, my reaction was that they needn’t have bothered. Getty is so despicable in this film that Spacey would have fitted right in. I was so repelled by the character’s meanheartedness that I couldn’t even stomach the thought of visiting the Getty Museum again.

But how accurate is this film?

It’s set in July 1973, when young J. Paul III (Charlie Plummer — no relation to Christopher), Getty’s 16-year-old grandson through Getty’s fourth wife, is kidnapped in Rome. The backstory shows Getty with a special affinity for this particular grandson — his namesake, in fact — and his desire to groom young Paul for the business world. (Come to think of it, that might have been extra creepy with Spacey playing the role.) This makes it all the more despicable when Getty refuses to pay the $17 million ransom demanded for Paul’s return. Paul’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams) is determined to change his mind, and soon Getty’s security agent Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) is on her side. Much of the film focuses on the conflict between the two: Getty, who loves only his money and his art, and Gail, who is willing to give up all further ties to the Getty fortune if her former father-in-law will just pay the ransom for her son. In one particularly deplorable scene, Getty turns Gail away and then immediately meets with an art dealer who offers him a painting of the Madonna and Child by an old master. Getty pays the price demanded — almost as much as the kidnappers’ latest demands — without batting an eye, and caresses the face of the cherubic baby with more apparent love for this oil-on-wood painting than he feels for his family.

J. Paul Getty is so despicable in this film that Kevin Spacey would have fitted right in.

Meanwhile, one of Paul’s captors, Cinquanta (Romain Duris), befriends Paul and begins to protect him from the other kidnappers. He cares for him tenderly, almost like a father for a son. The film becomes as much a story about what it means to be a family as it is about a kidnapping. In the end, Getty dies clutching his painting while Paul is nurtured by Cinquanta. Gail inherits the Getty fortune, and she gets the idea of turning his California villa into an art gallery to share with all the world.

Hold on a minute. That isn’t exactly how it happened. Getty died in 1976, three years after Paul’s abduction and two years after the Getty Museum was founded — by Getty, not by Gail. And it was his son J. Paul II, not Gail, who negotiated with his father for the ransom. Moreover, Getty provided three legitimate reasons for not paying the ransom. First, he had 14 grandchildren, and he felt that paying the ransom would put all of them at risk. Second, he believed that giving in to the demands of criminals leads inevitably to increased hijacking, lawlessness, and terror. The third and most compelling reason was that, far from being the favorite, Paul had been something of a hippie and a bum, was estranged from his grandfather, and had often joked about faking a kidnapping to get money from the billionaire. Getty, ever careful with his money, initially wanted to call Paul’s bluff. Once he knew that Paul was truly kidnapped, he negotiated with the kidnappers and paid the money. Getty does present these reasons in the movie, but because Paul has been established as a favorite (and because the audience has seen that the kidnapping is real) the arguments seem callous, uncaring, and heartless.

It’s true that Getty was frugal to a fault, but he was also a risk-taker who earned his billions. He invested $50 million in his Middle East oil fields before they finally paid off. No one would have bailed him out if his oil wells hadn’t come in. And he recognized his weaknesses. He often lamented the fact that he wasn’t a good husband. He is quoted in Psychology Today as having said, “I hate to be a failure. I hate and regret the failure of my marriages. I would gladly give all my millions for just one lasting marital success."

The film becomes as much a story about what it means to be a family as it is about a kidnapping.

If you can set all this aside and watch All the Money in the World as a work of fiction, you could probably enjoy it. Gail is a strong, indefatigable heroine. Getty is a mean, despicable villain. Paul is a sweet, likable victim. Chase is a character who undergoes change. The acting is topnotch, and the story is tight and suspenseful. But as a piece of history, it leaves me outraged, especially because so many teachers looking for a shortcut will use this as the definitive representation not only of Getty, but of capitalists in general. I’m always puzzled by how hateful Hollywood capitalists are toward capitalists in any other field.

Another biopic with a liberal sociopolitical agenda and a sketchy hold on the truth is The Post. Once again we see a film about a real person that is heavily skewed to fit Hollywood’s culturally acceptable storyline, whether it’s true or not. In this case, the story is “women were oppressed in the ’60s.” The “oppressed woman” is Katharine Graham, the powerful Pulitzer-Prize-winning publisher of the Washington Post during its most successful and influential decades.

In the mid-1960s, Daniel Ellsberg was a military analyst working on a top-secret study of classified documents about the war in Vietnam. What Ellsberg discovered was a trail of misrepresentations and outright lies about US involvement in Southeast Asia stretching as far back as the Truman administration. This 7,000-page study would become known as the Pentagon Papers. The gist of the story was that everyone knew that Vietnam was a war the US could not win, but no one wanted to be associated with defeat, so they kept offering platitudes like “our progress over the past twelve months has exceeded our expectations” when they knew we were losing ground. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of American teenagers were being drafted to fight — and many to die.

As a piece of history, it leaves me outraged, especially because so many teachers looking for a shortcut will use this as the definitive representation not only of Getty, but of capitalists.

Disillusioned by what he discovered, Ellsberg began systematically sneaking the report out of the offices a few folders at a time over the course of several months, right under the noses of the guards. After copying the originals and returning them to their filing cabinets, Ellsberg made the papers available to several antiwar congressmen before offering them to Neil Sheenan of the New York Times, who wrote a series of nine articles containing excerpts and commentaries. But before the second story could be published, a federal court issued a restraining order and shut the story down, citing national security violations and threatening felony indictments if the Times published another installment.

Ellsberg had made numerous sets of copies, and offered them to several publications. The restraining order applied specifically to the Times, leaving the door ajar for the Washington Post and other papers to publish. Maybe.

This is where The Post begins. The movie is not so much about what the Pentagon Papers contained or Ellsberg’s role in obtaining them as it is about the Post’s decision about whether to defy the implicit injunction and run the story. At the center of the conflict are publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), and Graham’s close advisor Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts), who was in the middle of helping Graham take the Post public when the story broke. Not only was freedom of the press at stake, but Graham stood to lose millions of dollars if the sale of shares in the Post fell through.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of American teenagers were being drafted to fight — and many to die.

Standing trial in this film are both the New York Times and the stifling cultural setting of the 1960s — especially the upper-class 1960s. Streep’s Graham is not the tough, iron lady we expect the publisher of a major national newspaper to be — male or female. She’s tentative, indecisive, often close to tears as she faces decisions. In one scene, Beebe coaches her on what to say in a meeting with potential investors. She writes the phrases down on a notepad so she won’t forget them. She fumbles as she enters the boardroom, unsure where to put her armful of books and notes. And when the time comes to say her words, she stares at them on the notepaper, unable to give them voice. Beebe, noticing how flustered she is, steps in and makes the point for her.

As a 21st-century audience with 21st-century sensibilities about women, we aren’t comfortable with Graham’s discomfort. We want her to be bold and take charge. We don’t like seeing her walk behind three male colleagues as they virtually snub her, and having her take it without so much as a roll of her eye or a clenching of her jaw. We don’t like the fact that she seems clumsy and always out of breath. We also aren’t comfortable with the way she inherited the Post, almost as an afterthought, from her grandfather to her father to her husband and finally, when no one else was left, to her.

Kay Graham was a skilled hostess and socialite at a time when a woman’s home and children were a reflection of herself. At a social gathering of ladies, one woman asks Kay, “How do you find time for everything when you go to the office all day?” My audience groaned, but these women were serious. Similarly, at a dinner party, as soon as the conversation turns to politics, the hostess calls out cheerily, “That’s our cue to leave the table, ladies!” And they do — cheerily.

Meryl Streep’s Katharine Graham is not the tough, iron lady we expect the publisher of a major national newspaper to be — male or female.

This scene reminded me of being invited to Thanksgiving dinner at the home of a wealthy college classmate in Chevy Chase, a posh neighborhood near DC, in 1972, just a year after this film takes place. After dinner I went into the TV room with my then-boyfriend, where all the men were watching football. Soon the matron of the house called to me from the doorway, “Wouldn’t you like to join the women in the living room?” I was enjoying the men’s conversation and told her I was comfortable where I was. Undaunted, she coaxed again, suggesting that I might want to join the cousins for board games. Finally, exasperated, she sent me to the playroom with a trumped-up message about cake and ice cream for the children. I had no idea at the time that men and women were supposed to separate after dinner.

But this was Kay Graham’s life — or so the filmmakers would like us to believe. It fits the social narrative that women are victims. And there is some support for this characterization of Graham. In her memoirs, she said of her father’s decision to give the paper to her husband, “It never crossed my mind that he might have viewed me as someone to take on an important job at the paper.” She also confesses to having lacked confidence in her own decisions and having been slighted by the men in the room during business meetings. Streep presents these weaknesses to a fault in the film.

While the film is interesting historically, it isn’t very exciting or compelling dramatically.

But Graham was a cagey, crafty woman. Notice that she didn’t say, “It never crossed my mind that I was capable of taking on an important job at the paper.” She said, “It never crossed my mind that he might have viewed me” as such. The remark says more about her father than it does about her. Similarly, if men slighted her in business meetings, she would have considered that a condemnation of them, not herself. I asked a friend of mine, a publisher who was part of the news scene in Washington during the decades when Graham ran the Post, what he thought of her. Without thinking twice, he said, “She was strong, demanding, and hard to work for.” Not for one second did he buy Meryl Streep’s characterization of Kay Graham as timid and indecisive.

The characterization of Kay Graham isn’t my only complaint about The Post. While the film is interesting historically, it isn’t very exciting or compelling dramatically. Let’s face it: this is a piece about writing. And talking. And talking about writing. There isn’t much action, and Spielberg is an action director. He does what he can to spice it up with odd camera angles, mood lighting, and naturalistic acting techniques. But it doesn’t quite work. The movie does pick up in the second half, when they’re racing against time to read the Pentagon Papers and meet the Post’s front page deadline. But again — it’s about reading. And talking about what they’re reading. This film would also be difficult to follow for someone who doesn’t already know the story. Spielberg provides precious little exposition, and if you didn’t already know who key players are from their names, you wouldn’t be able to figure it out from the context.

Nevertheless, The Post has been nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture for Spielberg and Best Actress for Streep. And if it weren’t for the fact that she so utterly misrepresents Kay Graham, I might agree. It’s a stellar piece of acting. Streep is famous for listening attentively and stepping into the conversation before her partner has completed his lines — as though she just thought of something and can’t wait to say it. But when Hanks parrots back the same style, the result seems forced and competitive. I’m crossing my fingers for Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water (see my review, “Knights in Dark Satin”) if only because I don’t want to be lectured about politics even one more time by Meryl Streep.

In creating their political parable, Spielberg and screenwriter Liz Hannah are about as subtle as the Old Spice aftershave your father used to wear. They want us compare the era of the ’60s to ours and come up with the same conclusion: throw the bum out of the White House. They do this by presenting the cultural victimhood of women, the importance of whistleblowers, the so-called separation of the “fourth estate,” and the suspicious, paranoid personality of the president in the White House.

But let’s examine these so-called similarities. MeToo movement aside, women have made gigantic strides in journalism, medicine, boardrooms, academia, politics, and just about every field except perhaps moviemaking, where the casting couch is finally airing its dirty linen. Whistleblowers are back too, but they don’t need the New York Times to break their stories. Wikileaks, YouTube, cable news, and Project Veritas are just a few of the current outleats for non-mainstream voices.

The filmmakers want us compare the era of the ’60s to ours and come up with the same conclusion: throw the bum out of the White House.

And journalists are still in bed with the stories they cover. The Grahams frequently socialized with the Kennedys, the Johnsons, Robert McNamara, and other leaders in Washington. Their stories were influenced by their friendships. The Post went after Nixon with a vengeance, but looked the other way at the Kennedy men’s sexual infidelities and Bob McNamara’s part in the Vietnam War. In the movie, Ben Bradlee glances wistfully at personal photographs taken with the Kennedys and declares, “The days of smoking cigars together are over,” suggesting that journalists would now become objective and trustworthy — that today’s mainstream media are objective and trustworthy. Spielberg might like to think that’s true, but it isn’t. Journalists and Hollywood types continue to fawn over their favorite politicians, especially the Clintons and the Obamas, but also including Donald Trump (if they want to get an interview).

George Orwell selected the title of his famous dystopian novel by flopping the publication date, 1948, to create 1984, and Spielberg likes to point out the similar connection between 1971 and 2017 to emphasize his allegorical connection between Nixon and Trump. (In fact, he rushed production of The Post in order to release it in 2017.) Nixon is portrayed as the bad guy in this film, going off on a tirade against the press and banning all Washington Post reporters from ever entering the White House again. (These are Nixon’s own words, by the way, using audio from the Oval Office tapes, although we don’t know the context of the recording; was he banning them because of the Pentagon Papers or because Post reporter and future “Miss Manners” columnist Judith Martin crashed his daughter Tricia’s wedding?) President Trump’s paranoid war against the press, tweeting diatribes in the middle of the night, and threatening to close down the mainstream media, come inevitably to mind.

Ironically, Richard Nixon was the president who finally had the courage to end the draft and the war in Vietnam, and therefore he should be considered the hero in the Pentagon Papers. But Nixon’s brooding paranoia would not allow him to let Ellsberg get away with being a whistleblower. Hoping to tarnish Ellsberg’s reputation, Nixon’s lackeys broke into the offices of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, searching for records that would impugn his mental heath. That break-in led to the Watergate investigation, Nixon’s downfall, and the Post’s biggest story. Could a similar downfall be on the horizon for Trump?


Editor's Note: Reviews of "All the Money in the World," directed by Ridley Scott. Imperative Entertainment, 2017, 132 minutes; and "The Post," directed by Steven Spielberg. Amblin Entertainment, 2017, 116 minutes.



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