The Tyranny of the Sensitive


It has been a tough month for free speech on campus. A Yale professor was ostracized for her reasoned response to the campus’ censorship of Hallowe’en costumes. A University of Missouri professor called for “muscle” to oust a student journalist trying to cover a campus protest. And over a hundred Dartmouth students swarmed the campus library to curse and bully other students who chose not to wear black clothing and join their protest. Several professors and administrators have been forced to apologize or resign, while others express nervousness over how to continue challenging their students to think critically and learn well in an environment of increasing intimidation.

This unrest roiling on campuses provided an appropriate backdrop for the documentary Can We Take a Joke? when it premiered at the prestigious DOC NY film festival in mid-November. Apparently, no — we can’t. Not any more. The right not to be offended seems to have trumped the right to say what we think. And young people seem to be leading the way toward censorship and controlled speech. According to Greg Lukianoff, executive director of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), fully 47% of 18–34 year olds said they think the First Amendment goes too far. “That’s terrifying to me,” Lukianoff says.

It should be terrifying to all of us. Penn Jillette observes, “Outrage has become a powerful political tool for shutting down dissenting voices.” Comedian Jim Norton adds, “There is a strange sense of empowerment in being offended.” Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution warns, “One of the first ways you know a society is turning authoritarian is the comedians start to worry. When they start going for the comedians, everyone else needs to sweat.”

The right not to be offended seems to have trumped the right to say what we think.

Well, start sweating, because comedians have indeed become the target. Ted Balaker, director of Can We Take a Joke?, interviews more than a dozen comedians about their experiences not only on college campuses but in comedy clubs and on television. Many tell chilling stories about being shouted down and even threatened with physical violence and arrest for saying things that the shouters consider offensive.

Yet other people go to a comedy show for the very purpose of being outraged and offended. They delight in it. Lisa Lampannelli, known as the “Queen of Mean,” is about as outrageous and offensive as they come. Her act makes fun of every ethnic group and social minority. Nothing is “off the table” for her, including rape, HIV, and cancer. She says she uses humor to help people confront fears and stand up to them. She reports that people will call her ahead of time to say, “My friends and I will be in the fourth row on the right. Please make fun of us!” Others are not so fortunate.

But if you think you’re immune from the Outrage Police because you aren’t a comedian or public figure, think again. Social media has turned us all into public figures. Can We Take a Joke? also tells the story of Justine Sacco, a young woman who tweeted an ill-conceived joke just before boarding a plane from Heathrow to South Africa. By the time she landed, her tweet had spread around the world; her employer had fired her; and angry cybermobs were issuing death threats against her and her extended family. Two years later she still cannot work, date, or go out in public because her unfortunate history is just a Google search away. Jon Ronson, author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, warns, “We are all just one dumb joke away from sharing Justine Sacco’s fate.”

If you think you’re immune from the Outrage Police because you aren’t a comedian or public figure, think again.

Lukianoff laments, “I interned with the ACLU and studied censorship back to the 16th century, but nothing prepared me for how easy it is to get in trouble on the modern college campus.” Comedian Karith Foster adds, “College is supposed to be a place where you grow and explore, where you find out who you are and find your own voice.” Sadly, college campuses are turning into a place where voices are silenced, and it’s coming from the students, not from the administrators. Like many of his peers, comedian George Carlin stopped performing on college campuses. “I hate to say it, but all the censorship is coming from the left. That caught me by surprise,” he said.

Can We Take a Joke? is an important film that asks us to open our eyes to the progress that is lost when voices are silenced by force rather than changed by persuasion. “Words can be offensive and hurtful, but they are not the same as violence and they can be countered by other words,” Rauch reminds viewers. Watch for the film in theaters over the coming months. We also hope to screen it at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival in July.

Editor's Note: Review of "Can We Take a Joke?," directed by Ted Balaker. The DKT Liberty Project, 2015. 75 minutes.

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From Double 0 Seven to Double 0 Zero


There are three compelling reasons to see a spy thriller: satisfying plot twists, sardonically witty interplay, and thrilling fights and chase scenes. I suppose we could add a fourth reason as well: familiarity. We become familiar with the characters in the various spy franchises, from Bourne to Bond to Ethan Hunt (Mission: Impossible), and we can’t wait to see what they are up to every couple of years.

Spectre, the latest entry in the James Bond franchise, fails on almost every count. It’s getting decent enough reviews from the critics and viewers, but I think those reviews are based more on expectation than on the execution of the film.

Let’s start with premise one, the satisfying plot twists. As Spectre begins, MI6 and the Double-0 gang are being phased out and merged into CNS, a more bureaucratic intelligence division headed by C (Andrew Scott). That’s not a bad premise, since it puts Bond on his own as a rogue individualist up against the government organization. But that storyline was done already this year, in the most recent installment of the Mission Impossible franchise. And let’s face it: Carly Simon theme songs aside, MI does it better. In both films, the secret agents get the news of their organization’s dissolution at the beginning of the film, but seeing the photos of the collateral damage that Ethan (Tom Cruise) and his band of misfit agents have wreaked upon historic buildings as they “saved the world” was a lot more fun than listening to two aging British agents, M (Ralph Fiennes) and Bond (Daniel Craig), keep their upper lips stiff as they react to the news. The rest of the plot also unfolds quietly, in muted conversations punctuated by sudden bursts of wanton killing. Even the fairy tale ogre-ish villains are gone, replaced by ordinary thugs and Big Pharma (of course).

There are three compelling reasons to see a spy thriller. "Spectre" fails on almost every count.

Premise two, witty interplay, suffers just as much. I miss the sardonic wit of Roger Moore, the double-entendres of Sean Connery, the sophisticated good looks of Pierce Brosnan. I can still recite funny one-liners from Goldfinger and others, but there wasn’t a single memorable line in Spectre. Craig was praised for the rugged ruthlessness he brought to the character when he took on the role of Bond ten years ago, but he has receded too far into himself now, and we can’t connect with his persona. Moreover, those ten years have not been kind to Mr. Craig. He’s fine in his love scenes with the 50-year-old Monica Belucci, but it’s creepy watching him make love to the sweet young Madeleine Swann (Lea Sydoux), the daughter of Bond’s contemporary.

Premise three, the chase scenes, is disappointing too. Yes, there is a thrilling fight inside a flailing helicopter, but Tom Cruise did that in MI as well — only he did the stunt himself, hanging onto the outside of an airplane as it flew at high speeds above the ground. Instead, Craig’s stunt double is all-too-obvious standing on the strut of the chopper, and the interior fight scenes are just as obviously filmed in front of a green screen. The biggest chase scene, in which Bond commandeers a small plane and tries to force a car off the side of a snowy mountain road, doesn’t even make sense, because the girl he is trying to rescue is inside the car that he is trying to force off the mountain!

The rest of the plot also unfolds quietly, in muted conversations punctuated by sudden bursts of wanton killing.

The only saving grace in the film is Christoph Waltz as the mastermind, Franz Oberhauser. Waltz has become an expert at playing the smilingly sadistic bad guy with the sophisticated German accent, and here he is just as well-mannered, genteel, and kind as he inflicts pain and torture upon his victims. Waltz’s go-to villain was developed under the slightly psychotic direction of Quentin Tarantino in Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012), for which he won two Oscars. But there is nothing new and special — nothing gargantuan — about Franz Oberhauser, and that’s what we expect in a Bond film: gargantuan comic-book villains. He’s just too familiar, too perfectly typecast.

This leads us to premise four: familiarity. Familiarity with a character and a franchise can bring us to the theater, but it can’t sustain us by itself. The Broccoli film dynasty has been producing Bond films every couple of years for over half a century, and they have become as comfortable — and as welcome — as an old shoe. But if the past three films are any indication of their permanent new direction, I think the premise of Spectre’s plot might be the only part of this film that rings true: it may be time to retire the Double-0 franchise.

Editor's Note: Review of "Spectre," directed by Sam Mendes. MGM and Columbia Pictures, 2015. 148 minutes.

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A Depression that Should Not Be Forgotten


I liked The Forgotten Depression but did not love it.

Its subject is the depression of 1921 — a valuable subject because, as the author indicates, the depression went away without massive government intervention. Imagine that.

The author's brief history of the problems some big banks got into, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, is excellent. Grant shows how the principals of the banks had their own fortunes tied up in the banks’ capital, which usually kept them prudent. Still, they made mistakes. For instance, National City Bank (“forerunner of today’s Citigroup” p. 18) for instance, invested in Tsarist Russia — just before the Bolshevik revolution. The firm had over 60% of its capital tied up in sugar investments in Cuba, when prices were high, then crashed. Guarantee Trust, another huge bank of the time, was considered "too big to fail," almost a hundred years before our present policies on that subject.

The author aptly characterizes the 1920–21 depression as the last major downturn to be "un-medicated" (by government stimulus policies), and makes telling comparisons with the activist Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt administrations. Notably, the earlier depression was of short duration, while the “medicated” depression of the 1930s and the recent Great Recession went on and on. Grant’s discussions of the various economists, bankers, and policy makers involved in the problems of the 1920s are challenges to today’s economists, policy makers, and historians.

Meanwhile, Grant adds texture and depth to his story with descriptions of the difficulties suffered by the various sectors of the economy during the Forgotten Depression: farming, steel production, the auto industry, construction, and even haberdashers (including one very famous and resentfully unsuccessful one). But be prepared for a massive amount and variety of statistics about earnings and losses, interest rates, unemployment rates, sales rates and amounts, etc., etc. The author is an expert who knows how to deal with statistics. His writing is not nearly as dry as it could be.

Notably, this earlier depression was of short duration, while the “medicated” depression of the 1930s and the recent Great Recession went on and on.

He is also basically sound on substantive economic issues. He provides a good explanation of the classic gold standard up to the 1920-21 depression, and then of the fake "gold exchange" standard thereafter. He understands market forces and government intrusions and distortions. His description of the anti-business, anti-market biases, or ideology, of the key figures in the Woodrow Wilson administration is appropriately sickening.

Unfortunately, Grant’s presentation of basic business-cycle theory is lacking, save for a discussion of people who believe in the market vs. people who think government competent to force “solutions” on it. His explanations of how government coercion usually has unfavorable, unforeseen, and mostly unacknowledged repercussions is good, but probably not good enough to convince those who believe in such things.

Two other matters need to be mentioned.

First, the book has a section called Acknowledgements, which is more like a bibliographic essay. I liked this section very much. It is moderately short, fun, and informative to read, and it gives a great commentary on Grant’s main sources, some of which I highly recommend. The Great Depression sources, which he uses to excellent effect throughout the book, are very important

Second, the "hero" of Grant’s story is wonderful. But I won’t give it away. It’s in the book.

Editor's Note: Review of "The Forgotten Depression: 1921: The Crash that Cured Itself," by James Grant. Simon & Schuster, 2014, 272 pages.

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The Honorable Profession of Spying?


Americans love to hate lawyers, and I admit to having told a shark joke or two in my time. But many attorneys deserve our praise for their wisdom, their trust, and their integrity. James Donovan was one of them. Not only did he risk his own reputation to defend a despised Soviet spy, but he successfully negotiated the exchange of that spy for one of our own spies five years later, and then went on to negotiate the release of thousands of prisoners in Cuba after the Bay of Pigs disaster, exchanging them for food and medicine that would benefit the Cuban people rather than for money that would line Castro’s pockets. Bridge of Spies tells the story of his most famous exchange: convicted spy Rudolf Abel, a Soviet intelligence officer, for downed American pilot Francis Gary Powers.

The film opens on Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), quietly painting a self-portrait in his small Brooklyn apartment. Abel might be a dangerous Soviet spy, but in appearance he is a sad sack who suffers from post-nasal drip. His mouth seems permanently downturned in a frown, and he walks with a determined but plodding shuffle. He speaks only when absolutely necessary, and not at all for the first 15 minutes of the film, as we follow him to an information “drop.” Even when American agents storm through his door, he remains unruffled and quietly cleans his paint palette. Later, when Donovan observes, “You don’t seem worried,” Abel shrugs pragmatically, “Would it help?”

It is because of the ruling in Abel’s case that the US now maintains a prison on Cuban soil — in order to avoid giving “enemy combatants” those same rights to representation and a speedy trial.

Before continuing this review, I have to say a word about Rylance, whom many consider the most gifted stage actor today. I am one of them. Liberty readers may recognize him from the TV miniseries Wolf Hall, where he plays Thomas Cromwell. Trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and a performer with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Rylance was the founding artistic director of the New Globe Theater and has eclipsed even Kenneth Branagh as the premier Shakespearean actor of our time. But he is also a master of comedy and modern plays. Over the last decade or so he has established a pattern of creating a role for the West End in London and then bringing it to Broadway for the following year. I have seen all those plays, some more than once. He is a brilliant stage actor.

But acting for the stage is different from acting for the screen. On stage, the actor is smaller than the audience; he has to “play large” in order to fill the theater and reach the balcony. Emotions are conveyed with exaggeration and with the whole body, not just the face or the eyes. By contrast, a movie screen is maybe 30 feet high and 70 feet wide. Every twitch of the finger and blink of the eye is magnified, so acting has to be subtle and nuanced. Rylance has not performed in many films, but not to worry. He makes the transition to screen brilliantly.

Several attorneys refuse to defend Abel, worried about how it might affect their reputations and their families’ safety. But Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) accepts the case. He believes that everyone in America, not just citizens, deserves the same protections under the Constitution, and that “American justice is on trial,” with the whole world watching to see how this foreign spy will be treated. Donovan’s nobility reminds me of Atticus Finch, defending the African-American Tom Robinson despite his community’s outrage and threats. “What makes us Americans?” Donovan asks Agent Hoffman (Scott Shepherd) rhetorically, when Hoffman expects Donovan to violate client-attorney privilege and tell the CIA what he knows. “It’s the rule book — the Constitution. That’s what makes us Americans.” He defends Abel all the way to the Supreme Court. Indeed, it is because of the ruling in Abel’s case that the US now maintains a prison on Cuban soil — in order to avoid giving “enemy combatants” those same rights to representation and a speedy trial.

To my mind, Donovan’s ethics deserve some scrutiny, however. For example, when a young boy asks him why he is defending the spy, he responds, “Because it’s my job,” as though that’s reason enough. But didn’t Nazi soldiers give the same excuse? Donovan also expresses admiration for Abel’s work ethic and steadfastness in not revealing any secrets, calling him “honorable.” And maybe he is. Such fortitude does reveal a strong character. But it also reduces spying to the level of a football game: just do your job, and do it with integrity, and we can all go home admiring one another. But defending a country, an ideology, and a way of life is not the same as defending a goal line, and an enemy is not the same as an opponent.

Meanwhile, the Americans have spies of their own, and they are flying over Russia, taking pictures from 70,000 feet above the earth, using secretly developed camera equipment and a new top-secret plane — the U2. The pilots are told that if they are attacked they must detonate the plane and kill themselves rather than allow the Russians to have the information. Nevertheless, pilot Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) manages to get himself captured, and Donovan is asked to broker a deal to get him home. (For dramatic effect the film gives the impression that these events take place at the same time, but they were actually five years apart.) Donovan’s dogged determination to negotiate the deal so that everyone comes out alive fills the remainder of the film.

Defending a country, an ideology, and a way of life is not the same as defending a goal line, and an enemy is not the same as an opponent.

Despite our knowing the outcome in advance, the tension of the film is relentless, particularly in several exterior scenes set in East Berlin. The Wall is brand new and the German people are desperate to escape. Hungry young Germans surround Donovan like a pack of wolves, while others climb fences or drop from windows into the West in their eagerness to escape. These scenes belie the stance of moral equivalency that Donovan seems to adopt. All things are decidedly not equal between the two superpowers, no matter how honorably Abel conducts himself in maintaining his oath of secrecy.

Another powerful scene occurs as Abel’s trial begins, with a montage that leads from the bailiff’s “All rise” to school children rising to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the rising of a mushroom cloud in a schoolroom documentary about the atomic bomb. Spielberg has always been an artist, but in this film he surpasses himself. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who also worked with Spielberg in the award-winning WWII films Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, deserves credit for much of the film’s success.

Bridge of Spies is the first film Spielberg has made without John Williams providing the soundtrack since The Color Purple in 1985, and while I’m a fan of Williams’ distinctive style, I think Thomas Newman’s darker tones are more appropriate to this film’s story.

Bridge of Spies is the first of the serious Oscar contenders to be released this year. Hang onto your popcorn — I think it’s going to be a great season.

Editor's Note: Review of "Bridge of Spies," directed by Steven Spielberg. DreamWorks, Fox 2000, Reliant, 2015. 141 minutes.

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Drugs Are the Least of the Problem


The word “sicario” means “hit man” in Spanish, or more literally “dagger man.” Its use dates back to the Jewish Zealots who carried small daggers in their cloaks and assassinated Roman guards in the streets. A note at the beginning of the film Sicario informs us that these Zealots were “killers of those who invaded their homeland.” That would make them heroes with blood on their hands. The film presents two homelands, the United States and Mexico, that are invaded in different ways, and two sets of sicarios caught up in defending two ways of life that have been forever changed by the drug trade.

Drugs are the least of the problem in this film, which focuses instead on the collateral damage of the drug war. As the film opens, an FBI SWAT team led by agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is invading a home in Chandler, Arizona, a quiet middle-class suburb of Phoenix 200 miles north of the border with Mexico. I have friends who live comfortably there. Kate’s mission is not a drug bust but a hostage rescue, and her team drives straight through the wall of the house with their Humvee in their surprise attack. They are too late for anything but cleanup duty, however, and the grisly scene they find causes many of them to vomit. This is the next step in the drug war — not just the physical effects of drug addiction, or the big-money corruption that goes with the lucrative trade, but the personal terror, torture, and murder that are used to maintain strict control. And it’s coming to middle America, the movie warns.

Naked mutilated bodies hang from overpasses. Families attending their children’s soccer matches barely flinch at the barrage of gunshots in the distance. A shootout in the middle of a crowded road is largely ignored.

“Pretty soon all of your crime scenes will be booby-trapped with explosives, and then how will you protect your team?” Kate’s superior (Victor Garber) warns her as he tries to recruit her for a riskier mission that involves tracing the violence to its source, a kingpin named Fausto (Julio Cedillo), by interrogating a lower-level henchman, Guilllermo (Edgar Arreola), in custody in Juarez, Mexico. Kate agrees to join the mission to extricate Guillermo from Juarez, although she doesn’t understand her role in the plot (and frankly, neither do we).

As the scene changes to Juarez, we see the ravages of the drug war in full force. Naked mutilated bodies hang from overpasses. Families attending their children’s soccer matches barely flinch at the barrage of gunshots in the distance. A shootout in the middle of a crowded road is largely ignored by occupants in the surrounding cars. A father eats breakfast with his son and then goes off to his job as a policeman and drug mule. This is not the Juarez I knew 45 years ago, when my mother had no qualms about driving across the border with her two teenaged daughters to shop for cactus lace and sombreros. And I hope it is not a precursor of the Chandler my friends may soon know if the war on drugs continues its relentless invasion.

Leading the hunt for Fausto is a mysterious Colombian named Alejandro (Benecio del Toro). Kate eyes him warily while they travel to Juarez and then to Nogales, and tension builds in the silence. Then, as they enter Juarez, the music begins — a downward chromatic slide in a minor key that starts softly and builds to a pulsing, crashing arpeggio of despair as they race through the city, jolting full throttle over speed bumps, surrounded by armed escorts with machine guns at the ready. The tension ebbs and flows throughout the rest of the film, accompanied by the riveting soundtrack, but it never disappears.

This is not the Juarez I knew 45 years ago, when my mother had no qualms about driving across the border with her two teenaged daughters.

This is not the kind of film you watch for entertainment value. It is appalling in its matter-of-fact portrayal of brutality. But it is an important story, led by the tour de force acting skills of Del Toro and Blunt. We’ve come to expect Del Toro’s steely-eyed reserve, his undertone of ruthlessness, and his skill at conveying character without saying a word. Blunt usually portrays her characters with kickass strength, even when they aren’t actually kicking ass. One would expect an FBI agent who has advanced to the role of team leader would have that same steely-eyed strength. But Blunt plays this character with an unexpected vulnerability and wariness. Her waif-thin slenderness contributes to the fragility of her character’s emotional state. She is a virtually powerless sicario, trying to protect her homeland from the invaders.

Editor's Note: Review of "Sicario," directed by Denis Villeneuve. Lionsgate, 2015, 121 minutes.

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Marooned on Mars


The final story in Ray Bradbury’s collection The Martian Chronicles is called “The Million Year Picnic.” In it, an American family escapes the nuclear destruction of the earth and lands on Mars, where the father tells his children, “Tomorrow you will see the Martians.” The next day he takes them on a picnic near an ancient canal, where they look into the water and see their own reflections. Simply by moving there and colonizing, they have become Martians. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) makes a similar point when he is stranded on Mars in Ridley Scott’s The Martian: “They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially colonized it. So, technically, I colonized Mars.”

The Martian is a tense, intelligent, and engaging story about an astronaut who is left for dead when his fellow crew members are forced to make an emergency launch to escape a destructive sandstorm. Knocked out rather than killed, he regains consciousness and discovers that he is utterly alone on the planet. Solar panels can provide him with renewable energy, oxygen, heat, and air pressure. But the next mission to Mars isn’t due for another five years, and he has enough food to last just 400 days. What can he do?

As we approached the freeway and began to pick up speed, I realized I had only one chance for a safe outcome.

There is something fascinating about this storyline of being marooned or abandoned and left entirely to one’s own devices, whether the protagonist be Robinson Crusoe on his desert island; The 33 (2015) workers, trapped in a Chilean copper mine; Tom Hanks, Cast Away (2000) in the Pacific; the Apollo 13 (1995) crew, trapped in their capsule; Sandra Bullock, lost in space (Gravity, 2013);or even Macaulay Culkin, left Home Alone (1990), just to name a few. These films allow us to consider what we would do in such a situation. Could we survive?

I well remember the time I was left behind at a gas station at the age of ten on the way to a family camping trip. I had been riding in the camper of the pickup truck while my parents and sister rode in the cab. I had stepped out of the camper to tell my mother I was going to the bathroom, but before I could knock on her window, my father shoved the transmission into gear and started driving away. I didn’t know where we were, where we were going, or how I would contact my parents after they left without me. I was even more afraid of strangers than I was of being lost. It would be at least 300 miles before they stopped again for gas, and even then, they might not look into the camper until nighttime, and how would they find me after that? All of this went through my mind in a flash. Then I leapt onto the rear bumper of the truck as it eased past me and clung tightly to the handle of the camper.

I was hidden from sight by the trailer we were pulling behind us. No one would see me there, and if I jumped off or lost my balance, I would be crushed by the trailer. As we approached the freeway and began to pick up speed, I realized I had only one chance for a safe outcome. I managed to pry open the door of the camper, squeeze through the narrow opening, and collapse onto the floor, pulling the door shut behind me. Instead of being frightened by the experience, I was exhilarated by my successful maneuver and problem-solving skills. I could do anything! My only regret was that no one saw my amazing feat.

One of the reasons we enjoy movies like The Martian is that they allow us to participate with the protagonist in solving the problem of survival. Rather than curl up and wait to die, à la Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away (honestly — five years on a tropical island and he’s still living in a cave, talking to a volleyball? He hasn’t even made a shelter or a hammock?), Watney assesses his supplies and figures out how to survive until the next mission arrives. A botanist and an engineer, he exults, “I’m going to science the shit out of this!” And he does. He makes the difficult decision to cut up some of his precious potatoes for seed, knowing that his only chance for survival is to grow more food. He figures out how to make water, how to extend his battery life, how to deal with the brutally freezing temperatures.

He also keeps a witty video journal, through which he seems to speak directly to the audience. This allows us to remain intensely engaged in what he is doing and avoids the problem encountered in Robert Redford’s 2013 castaway film All is Lost, where perhaps three sentences are uttered in the entire dreary film. Welike Watney’s upbeat attitude, his irreverent sense of humor, his physical and mental prowess, and his relentless determination to survive. We try to anticipate his next move.

A botanist and an engineer, he exults, “I’m going to science the shit out of this!” And he does.

The visual effects are stunning. Many of them would not have been possible even three years ago, before the innovations created for Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013). The techniques used to create weightlessness as the astronauts slither through the space station are especially impressive; we simply forget that they aren’t really weightless. The unfamiliar landscape — the red desert of Wadi Rum, Jordan, where the outdoor scenes were filmed — is a bit reminiscent of a futuristic Monument Valley. It contributes to the western-hero sensibility while creating a feeling that we really are on Mars. I’m not sure the science works in the dramatic ending, but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief. The Martian is smart, entertaining, and manages to work without a single antagonist — nary a nasty businessman or greedy bureaucrat can be found. If that’s what our future holds, I’m all for it.

Editor's Note: Review of "The Martian," directed by Ridley Scott. Scott Free Productions, 20th Century Fox, 2015, 142 minutes.

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From Compton to Congress


There are very few movies I would describe as explicitly “libertarian," but as unlikely as it may seem, F. Gary Gray's Straight Outta Compton is high on that list.

The film interweaves the stories of legendary hip hop artists Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and chronicles their rise out of violence and poverty to fame and fortune as the groundbreaking gangsta rap group, NWA ("Niggaz Wit Attitude"). This is not, as you might imagine, a film for children or even most teens. It depicts a life experience steeped in drugs, gang violence, and police brutality in one of the poorest, most dangerous parts of Los Angeles in the 1980s. Against this backdrop, three teenagers looking for a way out created one of the biggest entertainment acts of the last three decades, and irrevocably changed the face of the record industry.

At its heart, Straight Outta Compton is a great entrepreneur story, but more in the tradition of The Godfather than Tucker: The Man and His Dream. Nearly all of the business dealings that occur throughout the film are built on threats and violence, and certainly not what libertarians would endorse. But contrary to what a lot of people might assume given NWA's music, there is no glorification of gangs or gang culture in the film. In fact, a major theme is the drive to escape violence, even though it swirls around every character in the movie.

Nightly news warned parents of the pernicious influence gangsta rap had on America's innocent children.

One of the most powerful moments for me was seeing the direct parallel that the film draws between police brutality against Rodney King and the LA Riots in 1992, and the brutality and coercion with which business "deals" were conducted as relationships fell apart among Ice Cube, Eazy E, Dr. Dre, and Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor). The culture of violence from the streets of Los Angeles spilled over into every other part of these guys' lives, even while they were all working to leave the dangers of that life behind. The film makes it abundantly clear that this wasn't what any of them wanted and they weren’t proud of it.

More importantly, however, Straight Outta Compton contains one of the most powerful defenses of free speech that I have ever seen in cinema.

As I grew up with a love of music and entertainment in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I remember a lot of people talking about the events depicted in the film. But I was a bit too young and, as a white kid in rural Nebraska, too disconnected from the gangsta rap scene blowing up around the country to fully appreciate it at the time. The thug image cultivated by NWA and its successors was a huge source of consternation for authority figures. Nightly news warned parents of the pernicious influence gangsta rap had on America's innocent children.

But the history that a lot of people have forgotten was that NWA rose to prominence at the fever pitch of a new censorship movement that started with outrage over sexually explicit lyrical content in pop music such as Prince's "Purple Rain" and the supposedly "Satanic" lyrics of heavy metal.

The congressional hearings make it crystal clear that the Washington Wives' claims of simply wanting the industry to adopt their proposal really came at the point of a gun.

In 1985, a group of four "Washington Wives" — Tipper Gore, wife of Senator and later Vice President Al Gore; Susan Baker, wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker; Pam Howar, wife of Washington realtor Raymond Howar; and Sally Nevius, wife of former Washington City Council Chairman John Nevius — created an organization called the Parents Music Resource Center ostensibly to persuade the music industry to "voluntarily" adopt a ratings standard that would protect children from hearing what these women called "porn rock." These influential ladies convinced the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee to convene a hearing to discuss the issue on September 19, 1985. Even though his own wife founded the PMRC, then-Senator Al Gore features prominently as a speaker in these hearings, instead of recusing himself as he obviously should have done, given the blatant conflict of interest.

The full hearings are completely maddening to listen to, but they are worth watching or reading because they make it crystal clear that the Washington Wives' claims of simply wanting the industry to adopt their proposal really came at the point of a gun. At the time, my own state's Senator from Nebraska, Jim Exon, had an exchange with Frank Zappa that perfectly makes the point:

Sen. Exon: "This is one senator that might be interested in legislation and/or regulation. To some extent recognizing the problems with free rider expression and my previously expressed views that I don't believe I should be telling other people what they have to listen to, but I really believe that the suggestions made by the original panel for some kind of arrangement for voluntarily policing this in the music industry is the correct way to go. So if it'll help you out in your testimony, I might join Senator Hollings and others in some kind of legislation and/or regulation unless the free market system — both the producers and you, as the performers — see fit to clean up your act."

Frank Zappa: "Ok, thank you. . . . Ok, so that's hardly voluntary."

Quite so. Similar to the Motion Picture Production Code (Hays Code) in 1930 and the Comics Code Authority in 1954, these ratings systems and the so-called "voluntary" censorship instituted by industry groups have often come as a direct result of threats from the government.

So just a few years later in 1989, when NWA and gangsta rap gained popularity, the old "seduction of the innocent" fears were already a major issue in American politics. In 1990, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) adopted a "Parental Advisory" labeling system to warn parents of explicit or otherwise unsavory lyrical content, in no small part because of the music being released by NWA, Ruthless Records, and Lench Mob Records. But parental advisory warnings weren't enough for a lot of people in America, and throughout the film, we see activists smashing records, protesters picketing concerts, the federal government issuing threats, and even police officers in Detroit specifically dictating to the band that they wouldn't be allowed to play their hit "Fuck Tha Police" on the grounds that it could incite a riot.

NWA played it anyway and they were arrested.

What follows in the film is a press conference sequence that contains one of the most rousing defenses of free speech I've seen in a film in a very long time. Ice Cube explains that the lyrics to their music were not endorsing gangs or gang violence. Instead, he defends NWA's words as "a reflection of our reality" and asserts that no one has the right to control what they write, say, or perform.

Police officers in Detroit specifically dictated to the band that they wouldn't be allowed to play their hit "Fuck Tha Police" on the grounds that it could incite a riot.

Technically speaking, the cinematography by Matthew Libatique (Iron Man, Black Swan) is gorgeous to look at throughout. And with Ice Cube's own son playing his character, the casting is shockingly spot on, and the performances are uniformly excellent. Where the film suffers a little is in editing the stories of the three main protagonists together. While several clear themes and character arcs stretch across the whole movie, there are also a few disconnected scenes that don't entirely matter to the story — although one such scene involving Dr. Dre is one of the most emotional moments of the movie. The biggest problem is that once the band starts to split up and the guys go their separate ways, it's not always totally clear whose story the film is really telling.

But ultimately, Straight Outta Compton is a fantastic movie where violence and gang life ultimately give way to legitimate business and freedom of expression with a surprising amount of heart, drama, humor, and a ton of great music.

Editor's Note: Review of "Straight Outta Compton," directed by F. Gary Gray. Circle of Confusion / Cube Vision / Legendary Pictures, 2015, 147 minutes.

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Still a Sin to Kill a Mockingbird


As a professor of English literature I’ve heard more than one colleague comment wryly that the only legitimate purpose of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is that it introduces the character of Huck Finn. The same could be said of Harper Lee’s newly published novel Go Set a Watchman; its only legitimate purpose is that it introduces the characters of Scout and Atticus Finch, the main characters in To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).

The new book takes place nearly two decades later than the first, when the 26-year-old Jean Louise (aka Scout) Finch, now living in New York, returns to Maycomb, Alabama, for a two-week visit with her family. There she reminisces about childhood adventures with her brother Jem and friends Henry and Dill. The adult Jean Louise views her family and neighbors through more cosmopolitan eyes and finds them severely wanting, particularly in their attitudes toward civil rights and racial equality.

Watchman's detached, undefined narrator tells the story but doesn’t draw the reader into the scene.

According to interviews with her current publisher at HarperCollins, Lee wrote this manuscript in the 1950s, when she was in her twenties, and although it takes place after the events in TKAM, it was actually written several years earlier. Lee’s agent submitted it to publishers, and in 1957 Tay Hohoff, an editor at JB Lippincott, picked it up. However, Hohoff recognized that the book wasn’t ready for publication and that the flashback scenes were far more compelling than the main narrative. She recommended that Lee rewrite the book using six-year-old Scout as the narrator. Better advice was never given to a first-time author. Hohoff worked closely with her, guiding her through several versions until, three years later, Lee’s Pulitzer-prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird was published. It has been read and reread by admiring fans for over 50 years.

Meanwhile, Watchman had been sitting in a secure area of Lee’s Alabama home, attached to the original manuscript of TKAM, since at least 1964, but was uncovered only recently by Lee’s attorney — conveniently after Lee suffered a stroke that left her virtually deaf and blind, and just three months after Lee’s sister and executor had passed away. Permission was secured from Lee to publish the book, but controversy swirls about the question of whether the privacy-seeking author, who always maintained that she would never write a sequel, was competent to understand what she was being asked.

So what about the book itself? Is it good enough to sell out an initial run of two million copies and sit atop the bestseller list, which is what it has been doing?

Sadly, no. On so many levels! It just isn’t very well written. Its detached, undefined narrator tells the story but doesn’t draw the reader into the scene to experience it in the way Scout would eventually do in TKAM. The book is didactic and preachy, full of long philosophical harangues between characters but without the episodic storytelling that would make TKAM’s lessons so bittersweet and lasting. Watchman is a valuable first draft, but Lee needed to mature and grow as an author.

As I watched Atticus Finch become involved in a community council whose purpose was to restrain the upward mobility of black citizens, I kept waiting for the wise ulterior motive to emerge.

The themes of Watchman are certainly timely. Scout talks about white privilege (yes, she uses that term) when she confronts lifelong friend Hank Clinton about some of his compromising actions. She doesn’t see that privilege in herself, just as African-Americans today complain that whites don’t see it in themselves. But Hank, whose family is considered “trash,” tells her, “I’ve never had some of the things you take for granted and I never will. . . . You can parade around town in your dungarees with your shirttail out and barefooted if you want to. Maycomb says, ‘That’s the Finch in her, that’s just Her Way. . . . But let Henry Clinton show any signs of deviatin’ from the norm and Maycomb says not ‘That’s the Clinton in him,’ but ‘That’s the trash in him.’ . . . You are permitted a sweet luxury I am not. You can shout to high heaven, I cannot” (231–34).

More importantly, Watchman destroys the reputation of one of the most beloved civil rights heroes in American literature. As I watched Atticus Finch become involved in a community council whose purpose was to restrain the upward mobility of black citizens, I kept waiting for the wise ulterior motive to emerge and the lesson to be learned — for Hank to be right when he said of Atticus, “He joined . . . to find out exactly what men in town were behind the masks. . . . A man can condemn his enemies, but it’s wiser to know them” (229–30). Lee does give a faint nod to the revolutionary battle cry, “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” when Uncle Jack explains, “People don’t agree with the Klan, but they certainly don’t try to prevent them from puttin’ on sheets and making fools of themselves in public” (267). But this does not take away the bitter taste of hearing Atticus Finch saying, “Have you ever considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia? . . . You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you? You will concede that? . . . You realize that the vast majority of them here in the South are unable to fully share in the responsibilities of citizenship, and why?  . . . You’d have Negroes in every county office. . . . Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world? Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negro children?” How can these words come from the mouth of the man who defended Tom Robinson so eloquently and taught his children that it was a sin to kill a mockingbird?

I don’t believe they could. As Harper Lee took the advice of her original publisher and returned to her manuscript, she came to know her characters better. I don’t think she quite knew them when she began writing. She had a sense of them, but she only knew them from their dialogue, not from their hearts. Her title, Go Set a Watchman, comes from a passage in Isaiah suggesting that Israel needed a moral compass. In her early twenties, Lee thought that she, through her character Jean Louise, was that moral compass. She even called herself “Scout,” the one who blazes a trail through the wilderness.

Many authors did not want to have works immortalized whose words were unpolished, story lines were unclear, or philosophies no longer endorsed.

But Hohoff recognized something more significant in a short flashback scene, where Jean Louise reminisces about Atticus defending a one-armed black man against a rape charge brought by a white woman. That was the real story. As Lee struggled through the editing process with Hohoff, she finally discovered that the moral compass was Atticus all along. Scout’s liberality came not as resistance to her father’s bigotry and paternalism, but from following her father’s example. Ironically, the younger Harper Lee in her twenties drew the old Atticus Finch through the eyes of a woman rebelling against patriarchy. But the slightly older Harper Lee, in her thirties, writing through the narration of a six-year-old girl, understood the father character with a maturity that allowed her to draw him exactly right.

Foreseeing their deaths, authors have often instructed their servants or their heirs to destroy their unfinished manuscripts. Adam Smith, Thomas Hardy, Franz Kafka, Nikolai Gogol, and even Virgil are among them. We lament the loss of some treasured works (others, such as the Aeneid, were saved), but perhaps the authors usually knew best — they did not want to have works immortalized whose words were unpolished, story lines were unclear, or philosophies no longer endorsed. If Harper Lee had the mental capacity to realize what has happened to her beloved Atticus, I’m sure she would be ready to throw all two million copies of this printing into the fire. Already possessing more millions of dollars than she could possibly spend in the time she has left, she has been betrayed by the desire of her attorney, her agent, and her publisher to make money — a lot of it. They have discovered a new golden goose, but they have finally killed the mockingbird.

Editor's Note: Review of "Go Set a Watchman," by Harper Lee. HarperCollins, 2015, 278 pages.

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Doing Your Own Stunts


In a film season marked — or marred — by sequels, remakes, and television upgrades, two films characterized by old-fashioned filmmaking provide the most fun to be had in a movie theater this summer. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation puts the superheroes to shame, with thrilling action sequences, snappy dialogue, satisfying storytelling, and palpable rapport among the cast members. Add to this director Christopher McQuarrie’s decision to have Tom Cruise perform most of his own stunts (and Cruise’s obvious glee in performing them) and you have easily the best big film of the summer.

Once again Ethan is abandoned by his government while on assignment and left to save the world by himself while trying to figure out whom he can trust.

This is the fifth in the Mission: Impossible series, each with a different director and each creating its own ambience. The original MI (1996) was dark and foreboding, while this one, although it has its share of menace and torture, is more lighthearted and campy, thanks in large part to the presence of Benji Dunn (comedian Simon Pegg), the techno geek who has been pulled reluctantly into field service in the last three films.

As this story opens, the Impossible Missions Force is being absorbed by the CIA for wreaking havoc around the world while trying to save it, and all IMF agents have been called in. MI fans will get a kick out of references to capers in earlier films as CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) makes his case before a congressional committee. However, Ethan (Cruise) is hot on the trail of The Syndicate, the ghostly supervillain organization that dogs him in every episode, and he refuses to come in. Yes, once again Ethan is abandoned by his government while on assignment and left to save the world (and his own skin) by himself while trying to figure out whom he can trust.

What makes this film sing, however, is the joy of watching true filmmaking again.

His biggest quandary comes from beautiful and mysterious double agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who helps him in one scene and tries to kill him in the next. Is she a double agent or a triple agent? Or a quadruple agent? We don’t know, and that keeps us engaged. Her name gives us a clue — has she indeed made a pact with the devil? A Swedish beauty who looks a lot like Ingrid Bergman and channels Bergman’s cool charm, Ferguson plays the role flawlessly, with just the right mix of passion, pathos, and power.

What makes this film sing, however, is the joy of watching true filmmaking again, with stunts that are performed by the actors themselves, not by stunt doubles, and not by computer geeks in post-production. Yes, that really is Tom Cruise hanging sideways from the door of an Airbus A400 M, sans parachute or wires, while it flies at full speed as much as 5,000 feet from the ground. Yes, that’s him again speeding recklessly through narrow streets and down the steep steps of a foreign town while being chased by bad guys with guns. That’s him again, leaning so far into the curve from his high-speed motorcycle on a winding mountain road that his knee nearly skims the pavement. It’s so refreshing to see his face in these exciting scenes, instead of the telltale hat that actors usually don that signals “Here comes the stunt double” in most action films. It has been almost 20 years since the first MI episode, but Cruise still has it.

Add to all of this the soaring score of Puccini’s Turandot mixed with Lalo Schifrin‘s iconic Mission Impossible theme, and you have the perfect summer popcorn flick.

Another film that shines as much for its filmmaking as for its storytelling is Mad Max: Fury Road, which premiered in late spring and is still in theaters. It is easily my favorite film of the year so far. OK, the characters aren’t nuanced, the storyline is one unending chase scene, and the dialogue is almost nonexistent. Still, it’s the craziest, wildest, most badass thrill ride to come to a theater since — well, since Mad Max: Road Warrior premiered in 1981.

What you see on screen is real — and it’s breathtaking. It’s also totally bizarre.

I reviewed Road Warrior for Liberty in March, after seeing a special screening of a remastered version hosted by director George Miller at the gigantic Paramount Theater at SXSW. I pointed out some of the characteristics that made RW so unusual, including its linear filming strategy (Miller filmed each scene in order, from beginning to end), crazy S&M costuming, and souped-up classic cars, live stunts that produced eye-popping heart-in-the-mouth gasps from the audience, and an implied but unstated mythology and backstory for the characters. The story couldn’t be simpler: a lone hero travels through a dystopian future searching for fuel, food, and survival while avoiding marauding bands of violent scavengers. He encounters a community of people who need his help. Will this humanize him, or will he continue on his isolated journey to nowhere?

I wondered: could a new version filmed more than 30 years later using CGI special effects and modern action-movie expectations possibly measure up to the live-action craziness of the original film?

Not to worry. Miller chose to eschew CGI and stay true to his original film process, including a heavily storyboarded linear film schedule, multiple homages to the original film and characters, and live action stunts, even in the most harrowing chase scenes. He did use a few computerized magic tricks, but they were reserved for things like changing Charlize Theron’s arm into a prosthetic device and air brushing the stunt rigging out of scenes. For the most part, what you see on screen is real — and it’s breathtaking. It’s also totally bizarre, with wild characters swooping down on their victims by means of giant flexible poles, drivers spraying their mouths with chrome war paint, and a crazy electric guitarist riding on the front of the lead truck like a revolutionary drummer boy, spewing heavy metal and fiery flames all at once. The music inFury Road isn’t classic opera, à la MI’s Turandot, but its thundering soundtrack blares an anthem nonetheless.

Granted, Fury Road isn’t for everyone. I wouldn’t take my mother. Heck, I wouldn’t even take my husband. But for pure, nonstop thrills with an undercurrent of resonant mythology and a libertarian hero just looking out for himself, Fury Road can’t be beat.

Editor's Note: Reviews of "Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation," directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Bad Robot Films, 2015, 131 minutes; and "Mad Max: Fury Road," directed by George Miller. Village Roadshow Pictures, 2015, 120 minutes.

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The Thrill Is Back


The Gift is a gift to film lovers who have been yearning for a good old-fashioned psychological thriller. It’s set in an airy mid-century modern house with way too many picture windows and all the attendant spookiness that comes from knowing someone could be out there, looking in. The music creates mounting tension that convinces us — repeatedly — that something scary is about to happen, while the editing provides just the right balance between slow, tantalizing buildup of a scene and explosive delivery of the shocking payoff. First-time director and screenwriter Joel Edgerton, whose brother Nash Edgerton directed the Matrix series, did his homework in preparing for this film, and it has paid off with a first-class thriller.

As the story opens, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) have just moved back to Simon’s hometown after having lived in Chicago for several years. We have the sense that they are starting over, but we don’t know why, or from what. While shopping for furnishings for their new home, Simon is approached by an acquaintance from high school whom he does not recognize, but who seems to remember him quite well. Soon “Gordo” (played by director Edgerton) is dropping by the house unexpectedly, always bearing gifts — a bottle of wine, decorative fish for the koi pond, speakers for the entertainment center — and always when Simon isn’t home. Gordon is nice, but he’s kind of creepy too. Something about the eyes. Simon wants to extinguish the rekindling friendship, but Robyn believes Gordo is harmless. He’s just socially inept, and trying too hard. Soon strange things begin to happen, and Robyn feels terrorized in her home while Simon is at work.

The Gift could just as easily have been called “The Secret,” for each of the principal characters is harboring a secret that could provide a clue to the motives behind the frightening events, and thus the true nature of what is happening in this small community. Contemporary issues introduced by these secrets raise the film above the level of a mere evening’s entertainment, providing food for thought and conversation long after the film has ended.

Editor's Note: Review of "The Gift," directed by Joel Edgerton. Blue-Tongue Films, 2015, 108 minutes.

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