The Big Short Finds Joy

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In 2008 the United States experienced the biggest collapse in the real estate market since the Great Depression of the 1930s. While many had been talking about the expanding bubble, no one really thought it would burst. Real estate was the one sure deal, the tangible investment that everyone needed and thus would never disappear. During the upward panic to get into the market before prices skyrocketed even further, buyers were snapping up houses within a matter of days after they were listed, often engaging in bidding wars that drove the sales price higher than the asking price. “What our houses are worth now” was the gleeful topic of every cocktail party in every neighborhood, whether you were interested in selling or not. Using easy credit made easier by the “no-doc” loans that guaranteed virtually everyone a mortgage, people who had no business buying houses got into the market, and people who already owned homes risked their solvency by taking out additional home-equity loans to use for other purposes. After all, real estate was too big to fail. Prices always go up.

Until they go down. In September 2008 the bubble burst, leaving overleveraged homeowners in precarious positions — unable to sell, unable to pay, unable to forestall foreclosure, and underwater with their mortgage-to-equity figures. The Big Short attempts to explain what happened, in a film that is sassy, quirky, glib, and sometimes even right.

After all, real estate was too big to fail. Prices always go up.

In the interest of telling a good tale, the filmmakers simplify it, presenting a small portion of the story as if it were the whole story. For example, they virtually ignore the Community Reinvestment Act, which was designed to make mortgage and investment money available in “underserved” (read: poverty stricken) areas. The Act was a noble goal, but it meant that people would be granted mortgages who really couldn’t afford them, and had no cushion whatsoever to deal with repairs, upkeep, or changes in employment (read: getting fired). These were called “subprime” loans officially, but “Ninja loans” derisively (No Income, No Job, Accept Anything). It also meant that the demand for homes increased dramatically, driving prices and new construction upward in response to this new bloc of buyers. By ignoring this Act, the filmmakers suggest that all of the blame lay in the private sector of investment funds and rating services.

Instead, this film focuses on the creation of mortgage-backed securities, which is an investment vehicle that spreads the risk of foreclosure by bundling many mortgages into a single security and then selling shares of that security to a number of investors. Everyone shares in the risk and the reward. And because of that, local bankers no longer keep the mortgages they grant to individuals in the community; as soon as the signatures are dry, the mortgages are bundled away onto the secondary market. In the interest of brevity and creating a single straw man, the film blames this on the mastermind behind the mortgage-backed security, Lewis Ranieri (Rudy Eisenzopf), but this is an oversimplification of what went wrong. Many factors were involved, including Federal Reserve policy on the national level and overproduction of building permits on the local level.

Let’s face it: life is not a screenplay. But that’s how this caper is presented. A few savvy investors notice the increase in late mortgage payments and foreclosures beginning around 2004, anticipate the collapse, and figure out a way to profit from it. All these characters are based on real people. One is Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who breaks the fourth wall to narrate the film in a cool, hipster tone that draws us into the web. Others include the Silicon Valley-based eccentric Michael Burry (Christian Bale), the moralistic Mark Baum (Steve Carell), and two young founders of a trading fund called Brownfield Capital, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who bring the also eccentric investment trader Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) out of retirement and into their deal. Working independently from one another, these traders are convinced they can make a killing by shorting the real estate market (hence the title, The Big Short).

In order for our heroes to succeed in making their millions on short sales, the entire market had to collapse, with millions of Americans bearing the loss.

W.C. Fields made famous the idea that “you can’t cheat an honest man,” and the investment bankers at Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, Bear Sterns, and Lehman Brothers personify that adage. They laugh conspiratorially behind the backs of these short sellers even as they take their money, so confident are they that real estate is “too big to fail.” Of course, we know that the last laugh will be on them. But the bankers will not go down without a fight. The film demonstrates the dubious shenanigans and downright manipulation they used to try to keep the market afloat and force the investors to close their short positions before they could exercise them.

If all this sounds a tad confusing, not to worry! The filmmakers explain such concepts as short selling, CDOs (Collateralized Debt Obligations), ISDAs (International Swaps and Derivatives), and other potentially dry, technical terminology, using the unlikeliest characters. A glamour girl lounges in a bubble bath, sipping champagne and explaining mortgage-backed securities, while the soap bubbles and the fizz bubbles provide a sleazy metaphor for the market bubble that is brewing. A chef chops up unsellable three-day-old fish to make a marketable stew as he explains the fishy rating system that kept these mortgage-backed securities at AAA status even when their defaults were ballooning. A stripper undulates on her pole as she explains yet another investment concept. Music videos appear unexpectedly to demonstrate the euphoria of various characters. These unexpected moments, coupled with a soundtrack reminiscent at times of an Ocean’s Eleven sting, keeps the film hopping and lively.

But this is not a fun topic, and the short-selling sting was not directed against a Las Vegas gangster who deserved his comeuppance. In order for our heroes to succeed in making their millions on short sales, the entire market had to collapse, with millions of Americans bearing the loss. And their brilliant scheme would deliver a double wallop to the already precarious investment banks. According to the film, six million lost their homes, and eight million lost their jobs. Rickert puts it into perspective when he reminds Charlie and Jamie, “If we make money, it’s because ordinary people lose homes, jobs, and lives.” Banks held the prices of their securities up as along as they could, hoping for a turnaround, but in the process they simply made things worse. Regulators were in bed with the companies they regulated, creating a false sense of protection that contributed even more to the disaster. The result was almost as devastating to employees of the major investment firms as the day the World Trade Center was attacked. In its scale, the personal devastation was worse.

The Big Short is not the whole story. It might not even be the true story. But it is an important portion of the story, told with an outstanding cast in an entertaining and engaging way. Surprisingly, it does not trash big business, even though it shows collusion, fraud and manipulation at many levels. Mostly it shows individuals putting their own needs first, protecting their own jobs and security and using their influence to manipulate the bond ratings and the markets to their advantage. No one is overtly evil in this film. It tells a very personal story, one that each of us might be drawn into on a smaller scale if we aren’t careful.

Joy, another film about business, opened the same week as The Big Short, focusing not on the big dealers but on the underserved. Both have been nominated for Golden Globe Awards and both are populated by an ensemble of AAA actors, including Melissa Rivers, who in Joy does a sharp but poignant turn as her mother, Joan Rivers, in her role as a QVC spokesperson. Both films rely on nonlinear storytelling, flashbacks, and dream sequences to make some of their points. This is especially effective in Joy, where disconnected, disorienting scenes demonstrate how seemingly disconnected ideas come together in the imagination to form something new and valuable.

Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) is a creative, bright, hardworking young mother of two and valedictorian of her high school class who has been held back from success by the emotional and physical demands of her eccentric family, most of whom live in her house. Her agoraphobic mother (Virginia Madsen) spends most of her days in bed, watching soap operas; Joy’s ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez), a wannabe singer, lives in her basement and can’t keep a job; her philandering father Rudy (Robert De Niro) also lives in her basement when he’s between girlfriends; and her grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), who narrates the story, is the only person who believes in her.

Joy didn’t set out to make my life better, or anyone’s life better except her own. She needed to pay her mortgage, fix her plumbing, and put food on the table.

As a child Joy had big dreams of becoming an inventor, but her parents’ divorce drove her ambitions inside, much as a cicada (a recurring metaphor in the film) spends 17 years in unproductive safety underground. When she cuts her hands badly while sopping up the mess made by a broken wine glass, she figures out how to make a “wringless mop” and decides it’s time to reemerge into the light and dangers above ground to sell her invention to others.

I own this mop. I love it. It keeps my hands clean and dry while it makes my floor clean and sparkly. I also own the Huggable Hangers that the real Joy Mangano invented. They keep my silky shirts and dresses from falling onto the floor in my closet. I’m grateful that she had the spunk and tenacity to overcome all the obstacles she encountered on her way to success, and I’m glad her hundreds of household inventions have made her filthy rich, because her inventions make my life better. But she didn’t set out to make my life better, or anyone’s life better except her own. She needed to pay her mortgage, fix her plumbing, and put food on the table. And like so many other entrepreneurs, she did that by making other people’s lives better too. This is what I love most about this film.

To do it, she needed capital. She needed to conduct a patent search, apply for a patent, design molds to produce her mop, negotiate with manufacturers to make the mop, and market the mop to mass audiences. Capital is the lifeblood of entrepreneurship. Joy finally convinces her father’s latest girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini) to invest in manufacturing and marketing her invention. The rest of the film demonstrates both the elation and the devastation of entrepreneurship. Through it all, Joy never gives up — not on her invention, not on her family, and not on herself. Harry Browne fans will appreciate Joy’s advice to her young daughter: "Don't ever think that the world owes you anything, because it doesn't. The world doesn't owe you a thing.”

Eventually Joy creates a successful manufacturing and marketing empire that provides startup capital for other small entrepreneurs with an idea and a dream. Joy is a triumphant film about the power of persistence and innovation, desperation and conviction, and the possibility that a simple mop can change the world.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "The Big Short" directed by Adam McKay. Plan B, 2015, 130 minutes; and "Joy," directed by David O. Russell. Annapurna, 2015, 123 minutes.



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Star Wars Rewakens

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Unless you’ve been frozen in a block of carbonite for the past year, you know that Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the seventh film in the Star Wars franchise, opened last weekend to the largest box office in film history, pulling in nearly $250 million in North America alone, and over half a billion dollars worldwide. Stormtroopers trooped into selected theaters on opening night for pre-screening festivities and fans dressed in costume to celebrate the return of the “real” Star Wars. (Many fans refuse to acknowledge the disappointing prequels.) Actors, director, and film pundits were interviewed on television and in print for weeks leading up to the release. Hour-long specials chronicled the history of the franchise and the making of this film. Jimmy Fallon watched, aghast, as guest Harrison Ford tore apart a collectible 1977 Han Solo doll (er, action figure) on the Tonight Show. It has been a spectacle worthy of the Roman Colosseum — or Boba Fett’s next dinner party.

So let’s start by addressing the first question reviewers are asked whenever an overhyped movie comes to town: is it any good?

Fox Business host Neil Cavuto spent an entire show last week proclaiming the film to be “stupid” and “nonsense.” To be fair, I think Cavuto was just being contrarian and having a good time in a spontaneous interchange with Bobby Jindal. Nevertheless, my advice to Cavuto is, stick with your day job and leave the night job to film lovers. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is spectacular.

Star Wars was a once upon a time, a Saturday matinee cliffhanger, an old-fashioned romance, and a cowboy western all rolled into one, dressed up in spacesuits and alien life forms.

Cavuto — and fans — had reason to be skeptical about this latest offering. The original trilogy was a masterpiece of mythic storytelling combined with groundbreaking special effects that changed the direction of action films. Who can forget the first sight of that gigantic spaceship scrolling across the screen, looming ever larger and bringing with it an ever-increasing sense of wonder and foreboding? Before we could even think, “How did they do that?” we were drawn into the story that took place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” It was a once upon a time, a Saturday matinee cliffhanger, an old-fashioned romance, and a cowboy western all rolled into one, dressed up in spacesuits and alien life forms. When the ending credits for Return of the Jedi rolled six years later, we were satisfied, but immediately hungry for more. We wanted to know: how did Chewbacca and Han meet? Why were Luke and Leia separated at birth? What happened to change the shining Jedi, Anakin Skywalker, into the Dark Knight, Darth Vader? Fans wrote their own stories, made their own movies, and longed for the official prequel.

So George Lucas complied. When he decided to create a trilogy of prequels that would “explain it all,” audiences salivated with anticipation. As the master filmmaker who could do no wrong, especially when he followed Star Wars by teaming up with Steven Spielberg for the Indiana Jones trilogy, Lucas was given carte blanche over the script and the filming. And the trilogy bombed. Instead of showing us the backstories of the characters we loved, Lucas introduced a whole new cast of characters, tinged with heavy-handed politicking and a nonsensical romance that was simply unbelievable — in the non-hyperbolic sense of the word. (See my review in Liberty.)

What was missing? In my opinion it was Marcia Lucas, who was no longer married to George and thus was no longer guiding the story from behind the scenes. Marcia edited the original Star Wars films and won an Oscar for it in 1977. By contrast, George has yet to earn a competitive Oscar. Lucas deserves all the credit for his creative vision and his skybreaking technology of Star Wars, and is responsible for the way every action film is made today. Kudos to him for all he has accomplished. But he needed someone who would nurture the characters. He found that someone in director J.J. Abrams.

Nurtured himself by Steven Spielberg, Abrams knows how to make an action film exciting. He also knows how to create an homage that can stand on its own. Super 8 (2011), in which a group of young teens saves the world while making a home movie, is probably the best example. It is made in the style of Abrams’ mentor, Steven Spielberg, and contains a plethora of “Easter egg” references to Spielberg’s trademark moments, yet it stands entirely on its own as an exciting, well-made film. (See my review.) Similarly, in The Force Awakens Abrams provides audiences with ample nods to the original trilogy, including some sets and scenes that are nearly identical. Yet the homage never becomes distracting or overbearing. We simply enjoy the sense of nostalgia as we are carried along by the story. My grandson was so enthralled that he forgot to eat his popcorn until the movie was over!

Marcia Lucas edited the original Star Wars films and won an Oscar for it in 1977. By contrast, George has yet to earn a competitive Oscar.

The story is a simple, classic quest: the rebel forces must find Luke Skywalker before the Empire, now called the First Order, can reach him. Within this overarching plotline we also find a story that focuses on friendship and family, and a theme that resonates with loyalty, redemption, and the freedom to choose one’s path. The characters care about each other, and because of that, we care about them too. There’s nothing stupid or nonsensical about that, Mr. Cavuto.

Is The Force Awakens a sequel or a remake? It takes place 30 or so years after Return of the Jedi, and Han, Luke, and Leia are senior members of the ongoing resistance. Sequel, right? Yet in many ways the story is a remake of the original: as stormtroopers attack, a droid is entrusted with an urgent message. A trio of rebels — one woman, two men — travels through the galaxy in the ”piece of junk” Millennium Falcon on a quest to save the world. Once again we are treated to wide vistas of strange, majestic landscapes through which our heroes trudge with tireless resolve on their way to new adventures. We see sets and scenes that seem familiar, and some that are identical to those that appear in previous films. Abrams even casts rebel pilots who look almost exactly like the pilots in the original film 40 years ago. Some reviewers have called this repetition “derivative,” but I consider it thematically essential. The message is subtle but clear: history repeats itself. We must be constantly on guard and ready to fight against the tyrannical forces that would enslave or destroy us. Each victory is but a respite before the next onslaught against our freedom.

Characters in film are often defined by the costumes they wear, and the costuming is outstanding. As before, officers in the First Order wear caps and epaulets reminiscent of the Third Reich, reminding us of the tyranny of empire-building. Their textures are heavy, dark, and oppressive. By contrast, members of the resistance wear natural fabrics and leathers. Rey (Daisy Ridley) wears a tunic with soft, feminine ruching held in place (and out of the way) by rustic leather straps. Her costume reminds us that she is a woman, but she is girded to fight. She carries the weight of the resistance in her careworn eyes and doesn’t have time to worry about holding her own against “male privilege.” I suspect her name (which means “king” in Spanish) will be revealed as significant in a future episode. Ridley is simply perfect in the role.

History repeats itself. We must be constantly on guard and ready to fight against the tyrannical forces that would enslave or destroy us.

Finn (John Boyega) is another character defined by his costume; when he puts on the leather jacket of the rebel Poe (Oscar Isaac), he also puts on Poe’s mission.

Unfortunately, Boyega doesn’t put on Poe’s personality. I was disappointed by his bland acting — no charisma. I also wanted Carrie Fisher to open her mouth a little bit more when she spoke, but I had the same problem with her in the original Star Wars In fact, I had to watch it a third time before I could decipher all the dialogue. But these are niggling complaints. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a triumphant return of the Jedi. I can’t want for the next installment.


Editor's Note: Review of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," directed by J.J. Abrams. Disney, 2015. 135 minutes.



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A Face in the Crowd Boards the Trump Express

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When you’re a libertarian living in New York and working in academia, you learn to keep your politics to yourself most of the time. But something strange is happening in New York, and indeed across the nation. Over and over again, I’m hearing dyed-in-the-wool, knee-jerk social Democrats say, “You know, I’m kind of leaning toward Trump.” It happened again this morning on my way to the airport. My Italian-American New York cab driver asked what I thought about the political race. I talked about the merits of Rand Paul’s philosophy. And he said, “I’m leaning toward Trump.”

What does this blowhard, demagogy, crony capitalist have that I’m missing? When he isn’t being blatantly and outrageously offensive, he’s demonstrating a naiveté that makes Sarah Palin look like a Rhodes scholar. His answer to every challenge is a version of, “Trust me. I know how to fix that. Everybody likes me. I like everybody.” Sheesh! What do people see in Donald Trump, besides the fact that he’s not a career politician?

It makes me think of Elia Kazan’s 1957 masterpiece, A Face in the Crowd. It’s nearly 60 years old, yet it’s so timely that it could have been used as a storyboard for Trump’s triumphant rise as a political candidate — and his potential fall. Of course, Trump’s early life was quite different from that of the title character in the movie, but they are prophetically similar in the way they use the media to sway and control their audiences.

When Trump isn’t being blatantly and outrageously offensive, he’s demonstrating a naiveté that makes Sarah Palin look like a Rhodes scholar.

In the film, Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) is the host of a popular radio series called “A Face in the Crowd,” for which she interviews ordinary people and asks them about their lives — kind of a combination of the modern “man in the street” interviews and the old “This Is Your Life” series. She thinks it would be interesting to interview someone in the drunk tank at an Arkansas jail, and that’s where she meets Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a loud, obnoxious, uncouth drifter and country singer who agrees to do the interview because the sheriff has promised to let him out of jail a few days early if he will. Rhodes ad libs some off-the-cuff good humor and sings a song that becomes a running theme, “Free Man in the Morning.” Marcia, charmed by his untrained openness and the blues in his voice, promptly nicknames him “Lonesome” Rhodes. A radio-television star is born.

Lonesome has neither social graces nor emotional filters. He speaks his mind, mocks his sponsors, coddles his listeners, and rejects the idea of being “dignified” or respectful. He’s a brand new kind of star, just as Trump is a brand new kind of candidate, and the public loves his folksy, off-script style. He develops a following of avid — some might say rabid — followers, who riot in the streets when a mocked sponsor understandably fires him for his rude, outrageous comments. He is indeed a “free man in the morning,” owing nothing to anyone, and the public loves him for it.

When a new sponsor, “Vitajex,” designs an ad campaign based on scientific analysis of its energy supplement’s ingredients, Lonesome rejects the facts and ad libs his own campaign for Vitajex based on emotional appeal and unsubstantiated claims. Sales soar, and so does Lonesome’s popularity. His face ends up on the covers of every national magazine, while his name is attached to ships, roses, and even a local mountain. You can’t buy that kind of publicity — and you don’t have to, when the press is fawning all over you. (Donald Trump knows that secret, too.) Lonesome watches his ratings the way Trump watches his polls. He has no formal background in marketing, but he knows instinctively just what to do to keep his ratings moving upward.

Like Lonesome Rhodes, Trump avoids the use of data, studies, or even common sense to support his claims.

Eventually Lonesome becomes the campaign advisor to presidential candidate Worthington Fuller, a ”worthy” candidate who is smart, wise, respectable — and boring. Lonesome markets him as a product rather than a statesman. “Do you know anyone who bought a product because they respect it?” he bellows. “You gotta be loved — loved!” Lonesome makes Fuller a folksy man of the people, and Fuller promises to create a cabinet position for Lonesome: Secretary for National Morale. In short order Lonesome has moved from drunk-tank denizen to cracker-barrel entertainer to national celebrity to influential politico. “This whole county is just like my flock of sheep!” he brags. “They’re mine. I own ’em! I’m gonna be the power behind the president!”

Marcia is charmed, fascinated and repelled by Lonesome, and Neal is masterly in the way she portrays these conflicted emotions. Director Elia Kazan colors the black and white film with an artist’s palate, manipulating the shadows with skillful lighting that enhances character and mood, especially Marcia’s growing horror at the monster she has created. Griffith, too, excels as an actor; in fact, he portrayed Lonesome’s despicable, manipulative persona so believably that, according to Hollywood insider Marc Eliot, he virtually ended his own movie career. This was the era of typecasting, and audiences had trouble accepting Griffith in any other way than as the loathsome Lonesome Rhodes. But the brilliant actor went on to success in playing country bumpkins (No Time for Sergeants), a folksy southern sheriff (The Andy Griffith Show), and a folksy southern attorney (Matlock). He was immensely successful in those shows, and he became one of Hollywood’s most respected and beloved actors. Yet in A Face in the Crowd, his debut film, audiences can see the depth of his talent and consider what might have been if audiences had been able to separate the actor from the character.

The connections between Lonesome Rhodes and Donald Trump are eerily apparent. In a recent front-page article for the New York Times, reporters Patrick Healy and Maggie Haberman analyzed the results of a linguistic study they commissioned that examined all of Trump’s public words uttered in speeches and interviews for an entire week (“95,000 Words, Many of Them Ominous, from Trump’s Tongue,” December 6, 2015, A1, 27). Their findings confirm my thesis. Trump isn’t folksy as Lonesome is (leave it to Hillary to fall into an artificial cornpone drawl when she campaigns in the South), but Healy and Haberman point to Trump’s “breezy stage presence” as crucial to his connection with the American public. Like Lonesome, Trump is “an energetic and charismatic speaker who can be entertaining and ingratiating . . . There is a looseness to his language that sounds almost like water-cooler banter” and is almost as meaningless. In one particularly meaningless attempt to be ingratiating, Trump is quoted as saying of his fellow candidates: “All of ’em are weak, they’re just weak. . . . I think they’re weak, generally, you want to know the truth. But I won’t say that, because I don’t want to get myself, I don’t want to have any controversies. So I refuse to say that they’re weak generally, O.K.? Some of them are fine people. But they are weak.” Yet the public is buying into it.

Lonesome doesn’t know it, but in the time it takes to go from the penthouse to the ground floor, public opinion will have turned against him.

Granted, Trump is as different from Rhodes in the content of his speech as he is in social origins. He has successfully tapped into the fears of the nation by creating an Orwellian “precarious us” vs. “dangerous them” scenario. Healy and Haberman point to his constant repetition of “divisive words, harsh words and violent imagery” to stir up hostilities and prejudices that most Americans have been afraid or ashamed to voice. He has made bigotry fashionable again. By contrast, Rhodes lulls his audiences with good ol’ boy platitudes. But Trump is very much like Rhodes in his maverick approach to marketing, and his stubborn insistence that he is right and everyone else is wrong. Again referring to the study of Trump’s stumping, he “forgoes the usual campaign trappings — policy, endorsements, commercials, donations — and instead relies on potent language to connect with, and often stoke, the fears and grievances of Americans.” Also like Rhodes, Trump avoids the use of data, studies, or even common sense to support his claims; in fact, Trump stubbornly refuses to recant statements that are outrageously and patently false, such as his claim to have seen thousands of Muslims cheering in the streets of New Jersey after the 9/11 attacks. Instead, Trump taps into the public’s growing mistrust of government and the media “to erode people’s trust in facts, numbers, [and] nuance.” Facts are the enemy now, but we have the Donald to protect us. Just trust him.

Trump and Rhodes are particularly connected in their narcissistic need for attention, power, and adoration. Lonesome Rhodes cries out plaintively, “I’m gonna make them love me!,” while for Trump it’s already a done deal: “I like everybody. Everybody likes me,” he reminds audiences matter-of-factly whenever he is challenged to provide specific details about how he will solve a problem. As my cab driver explained, “Trump surrounds himself with smart people. They’ll get things done. He doesn’t have to give details. He’s a smart guy.” How does my cabby know? Because Trump tells us so, multiple times in every speech. Trust him. He’s right.

Can Trump be stopped? Should he be stopped? I’m fascinated by the diverse support this offensive, bombastic demagogue is amassing. Even many Liberty readers have boarded the Trump Express. But where is that train headed? In one of the most ironic moments of A Face in the Crowd, Lonesome enters an elevator after what he thinks was a successful TV show attempting to sell Worthington Fuller to the public. He crows enthusiastically to the operator, “Going down. Going all the way down” on his way to a fancy dinner in another part of town. Lonesome doesn’t know it, but in the time it takes to go from the penthouse to the ground floor, public opinion will have turned against him because of something he said on the show. One can only hope that Trump makes a similar misstep that takes him down. So far, however, his intellectual and ideological blunders keep translating into higher polls. I don’t get it. But unlike my cab driver today, I’m leaning away from Trump. All the way away.


Editor's Note: Review of "A Face in the Crowd," directed by Elia Kazan. Warner Brothers, 1957. 126 minutes.



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Real Cinematic Quality

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Sylvester Stallone burst onto the cinematic scene 40 years ago as the writer and star of a tender little film about a small-time fighter with a big heart who finds love, honor, and self-respect while being beaten to a pulp in the ring. He goes the distance, and in doing so, he fulfills his dream. The budget ($1 million) of this film was so low that stars Carl Weathers and Burgess Meredith shared a cramped dressing room and producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler had to mortgage their houses to come up with an additional hundred grand to complete it, but it too went the distance. Rocky was the feel-good film of 1976 and won the Oscar for Best Picture. Stallone, who had been earning $36 a week as an usher while trying to make it as an actor, became the star of multiple action-film franchises from Rambo to The Expendables, but he eventually became more caricature than character. Rocky spawned six sequels over four decades that also became increasingly hollow imitations of the original. Until now.

Creed, the latest entry in the franchise,manages to match the storytelling magic, cinematic quality, and emotional impact of Rocky by paying homage to the original without becoming a knockoff. In this film, Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is the abandoned love child of Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), Rocky’s nemesis-turned-friend in the earlier films. Raised in foster care and group homes after his mother’s death, Adonis is a troubled kid with something to prove. Apollo’s widow (Phylicia Rashad) finds him and brings him into her home, where he receives a good education and entry into a good job. But he still has something to prove, and he needs to do it in the ring.

Here the roles begin to be reversed. Johnson-Creed is now the young man with heart who can’t seem to get a break or a trainer, while Rocky (Stallone) has become the curmudgeonly trainer who agrees to take him on. This is not the arrogant, cocky Stallone of recent films, but a subdued, introspective mentor who knows his time in the spotlight has ended and is somehow relieved by that fact. Rocky is worn down by loneliness; Mickey (his trainer, Burgess Meredith), Paulie (his best friend and brother-in-law, Burt Young), and his beloved Adrian (Talia Shire) have all passed away. He takes a fatherly interest in Adonis, who calls him “Unc.”

Rocky spawned six sequels over four decades that also became increasingly hollow imitations of the original. Until now.

Adonis connects with a love interest similar to Rocky’s Adrian. Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is a professional singer who also faces broken dreams: she has a degenerative ear condition that is stealing her hearing. Yet she faces the loss with courage, optimism, and determination. She will not let fear of the future destroy her enjoyment of what she has today. Bianca is no blossoming wallflower as Adrian was, but she provides a strong, modern counterpoint to Adonis.

Creed is what a movie ought to be, and what the original Rocky was: a strong story with believable characters facing believable conflicts; music that supports rather than controls emotion; and cinematography that captures the grit and reality of the story without cheap (or not-so-cheap) manipulation. The film contains a number of extended-shot scenes designed by cinematographer Maryse Alberti to enhance the sense of realism. Watch especially for the two rounds of Adonis’ first professional boxing match that are captured in a single shot — no editing, no slo-mo, no cutaway shots, just perfect choreography from actors, director, makeup artist (who applied blood to one fighter while the camera was in close-up on the other) and steadicam operator Ben Semanoff, who must have been bobbing and weaving as much as the fighters in order to stay in position. It required a dozen takes to get that single shot, and it was worth it. “Everybody thinks we were cheating, but that is one shot,” Alberti is quoted in Variety.

The film builds inexorably to the big fight, and it’s a doozy. The punches feel real and unrehearsed. But Creed really isn’t about boxing. It’s a story about ambition, disappointment, determination, and going the distance — about having a creed, and living by it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Creed," directed by Ryan Coogler. MGM, Warner Bros. New Line Cinema, 2015. 133 minutes.



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The Tyranny of the Sensitive

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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

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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

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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?

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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

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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

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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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