Not Too Old to Romp

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James Bond turns 50 this year (not counting his seven-year gestation from book to film). The secret agent with a license to kill burst on the screen in 1962 to do battle with the eponymous Dr. No. The franchise has spawned 25 films, with seven actors playing the debonair agent and all of them highlighting Bond’s penchant for high-tech gadgets, droll humor, stylized bloodless fisticuffs, and trademark martinis (“shaken, not stirred”).

In Skyfall Bond is beginning to show his age. Daniel Craig entered the Bond brotherhood in 2006 as a Bond for the 21st century: darker, earthier, and more of a man’s man than a lady’s man. Now his eyes are bloodshot, his beard is grizzled, and his ears have grown to batlike proportions (more on that later). In Skyfall, acknowledging the franchise's aging becomes a running theme.

This is a Bond who has to work harder and sweat more. His hands slip as he hangs on tightly to the bottom of an elevator carrying an enemy assassin to his lair. His eyesight isn’t as sure as it used to be when he aims at a target. He feels his muscles aging — and he doesn’t like it, not one bit. But he faces it with his familiar witty one-liners, and his core fans don’t mind; after all, we’re aging too, and we’re hanging on just as tightly to our youth and our physical vitality.

As Bond walks through the halls of MI6 with head of Foreign Intelligence Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), Mallory says of the spy business, “It’s a younger man’s game.” As they pass a painting of ships in a harbor, he notes nostalgically: “It always makes me a bit melancholy: the grand old war ship being hauled away for scrap.” His point is clear: Bond’s days an agent might be numbered.

Among the cast of “young new gamers” is a new Q (Ben Whishaw), the quartermaster who provides Bond with his arsenal of tricky weapons in every new film. Serendipitously, each weapon turns out to be exactly what he needs to save the day in the ensuing scenes — kind of a deus ex machina in advance. When Bond looks quizzically at the two simple devices he is given this time, Q shrugs as much for the audience as for Bond. “What?” he asks. “Were you expecting an exploding pen? We don’t really go in for that any more.”

This is one of the best Bond films ever, and not just because of the heart-pounding chase scenes (motorcycles on rooftops!), exotic settings (Shanghai's skyline at night; a futuristic abandoned city on an island in an Asian sea; the haunting moors of Scotland), and inventive deaths (by komodo dragon, for example). The plot of Skyfall is tight and easy to follow, taking the audience from one suspenseful scene to the next. An enemy agent has stolen a hard drive that contains the names of all the British agents and their operatives worldwide. If the list is not recovered before it is handed over to the mastermind, all of those agents will be killed.

That’s all you need to know. The rest is a romp among well choreographed martial arts, unexpected villains, and beautiful but disposable Bond girls. Of course, the mastermind (Javier Bardem) has a physical grotesquery and a personal vendetta against MI6, as all good Bond villains have. Bardem plays his character's eccentricity to the hilt, balancing just on the precipice of clownishness without falling over the edge.

Most of all, what makes this film stand out from the rest is that it gives us a rare glimpse into the background of this suave, sophisticated, sardonic, and secretive super agent. I won't give away too much, but I will say that Bond has a hint of the Batman in him, and “skyfall”is Bond's “rosebud.” Moreover, Bond fanatics will enjoy watching for the numerous Easter eggs hidden throughout the film, but I won't reveal them here. (Trivia sleuths will also enjoy noticing M's magically appearing and disappearing coat and scarf....)

In a moment of 21st century reflection, M (Judi Dench) observes, “Our enemies are no longer known to us. They aren’t nations. Our enemies are opaque — in the shadows.” So, apparently, are our heroes. This film shines a flashlight into those shadows, revealing secrets about Bond, M, Q, and other beloved staples of the series to create a rich and satisfying film.


Editor's Note: Review of "Skyfall," directed by Sam Mendes. MGM, 2012, 143 minutes.



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Addicted to Flight

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The first five minutes of Flight are gratuitously graphic — and I'm not talking about the plane crash.

The film opens on the tip of a bare breast and pulls back to reveal a naked young woman who stumbles to the bathroom and back to bed, where she dons her scanties and lights up a joint. Meanwhile her lover wakes to the sound of his cellphone and argues with a caller, most assuredly his ex-wife, who is asking for money. He finishes the call, reaches for a glass from the bedside table, and downs last night's booze before taking a hit from the girl's joint. Tired, hung over, and angry at his ex-wife, the man dresses and takes a gasp of cocaine to clear his head and focus his brain. Then he dons his captain's hat. He is about to pilot a plane.

Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is a crackerjack former Navy pilot who knows how to handle his liquor. While buckling in, he orders black coffee from the head flight attendant (Tamara Tunie), then takes a couple of giant whiffs of pure oxygen, much to the horror of his young co-pilot (Brian Geraghty). Fortunately, when it comes to flying a plane, Whip knows what he's doing. Half an hour before landing, the elevator fails in the tail, forcing the plane to nose dive straight toward the ground. Relying mostly on instinct, he manages a spectacular landing and saves almost everyone aboard from what would have been certain death.

Thus begins the dilemma of the film. Whip is a hero, right? The crash was caused by mechanical failure, not by pilot error. In fact, Whip's quick thinking and masterly piloting prevented nearly a hundred deaths. Yet his alcohol level was three times the legal limit. Should he be praised for the 98 lives he saved, or held accountable for the six passengers who died?

With Denzel at the helm, I expected this to be a film about a casual drinker who may have had a glass of wine the night before flying and is unfairly punished because of arbitrary and unbending government regulation. I thought this would be an interesting libertarian study. Instead, it is about an out-of-control alcoholic who still flies jet airplanes for a living. Although the trailers for Flight promise a thrilling disaster movie on par with Airport (1970), the movie is actually a character study more akin to Days of Wine and Roses (1962).

It's a calculated act of aggression, and it turns a gesture of love into a kind of violence, almost like a rape.

Once you realize that's what it is, it is quite good. We see Whip go through all the classic problems of the addicted personality. Disgusted with himself, he pours out all his alcohol (and he has alcohol of every shape and brand hidden just about everywhere). He sobers up for a few days, and then he buys more. He destroys relationships with family and friends. When a drinking buddy decides to sober up, he walks away.

In one unforgettable scene at the home of Whip's ex-wife, his teenage son confronts him and swears at him, telling him to leave their house. Whip is furious. He wants to hit his son for sassing him, but he knows that if he does, he'll be arrested. So he hugs him instead. It's a calculated act of aggression, and it turns a gesture of love into a kind of violence, almost like a rape. It’s also a lie. Pure genius, and for those who have experienced that kind of aggression, it rings frighteningly true. This is a man who knows how to beat the system, with a smile on his face.

What I find most troubling about this story is the fact that Whip's colleagues know that he is an alcoholic, and they do nothing to stop it. I'm no Pollyanna — I recognize that most alcoholics are surrounded by enablers who help them lie — but Whip is putting their own lives in danger. When a nurse looks the other way as an alcoholic doctor prepares for surgery, she may be thinking, "Why should I get involved?" The person on the operating table is a stranger, first of all, and the rest of the surgical team will watch for mistakes. The nurse's own life isn't in jeopardy. It’s wrong, but you can understand it. Yet what would induce a flight attendant to board a plane captained by an inebriated pilot? If he crashes the plane, she goes down with it too.

Nevertheless, research shows that many pilots and flight attendants have problems with substance abuse. Random blood tests identify several pilots each year with alcohol levels above the legal limit, and the FAA has a policy — a policy! — of requiring substance abusers to go through rehab therapy before returning to work. Yes! They are allowed to return to the skies! If you weren't afraid of flying before, you probably ought to be now. The only saving grace is the fact that autopilot controls most flights these days, and the chances of having an inebriated pilot and co-pilot in the cockpit at the same time are fairly slim.

The members of Whip’s flight crew know he's an alcoholic, but they don't turn him in. His girlfriends enjoy getting high with him. His attorneys (Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadle) are more concerned with winning his case than with protecting the flying public. They will do anything to shelter Whip, and Whip will do anything to get away with what he’s doing. A friend of mine who grew up with two alcoholic parents wisely observed, "The AA confession should be 'I'm an alcoholic . . . and I'm a liar,'" because being addicted to anything always leads to lying. Deception at first, then half truths, then outright lying. Addicts get so good at it! Both weaknesses have to be acknowledged before the person can change.

And then there is his drug dealer, Harling Mays (John Goodman). Harling struts into the scene channeling Wolfman Jack with his dark glasses, goatee, greasy pony tail, oversized bowling shirt, and Rolling Stones soundtrack ("it's just a shot away" of course). Goodman revels in this role. It's probably the most fun he's had since . . . well, since last month's Argo. Goodman seems to love every part he plays, and it's infectious.

Harling is a pharmaceutical distributor who dispenses cocaine with the precision of a medical doctor. He even makes house calls. When the alcohol has created too much of a depressant, he prescribes just the right amount of stimulant to elevate the brain and get it leveled off. He's a pro.

And yes, in case you hadn't noticed, the plane crash itself is a metaphor for the alcoholic. When the chemical "elevator" stops working, Whip goes into a dive and crashes, destroying others in his path. He tries to whip himself into shape, but he can't do it alone. He needs help.

Like Days of Wine and Roses, this film could have become maudlin, preachy, and overlong. But also like that classic film, Flight rises on the strength of the actors who inhabit it, and the ending soars. It's an important film. I just wish Hollywood weren't so addicted to pushing the edge of decency. While that opening scene is important for establishing Whip's character, the nudity is simply unnecessary.


Editor's Note: Review of "Flight," directed by Robert Zemeckis. Paramount Pictures, 2012, 138 minutes.



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Small Earthquake in Obamaland, Not Enough Secrets Revealed

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The title of this review refers to the headline created by British Communist journalist Claud Cockburn: "Small Earthquake in Chile. Not Many Dead." This headline never made it to print, but it was heralded as the winner of a newsroom competition for the most accurate yet boring headline.

Accurate yet unexciting. That's a perfect description for David Maraniss' new biography, Barack Obama: The Story. When the book came out this summer, it was greeted by outraged cries of treason from the Left. Maraniss, a Washington Post associate editor and noted liberal writer, was accused of having betrayed The Cause by showing Obama in a less-than-stellar light. Were the clamors justified? Curious minds wanted to know. That, and flattery from a Liberty editor, got me to review the book.

Let's immediately say that people looking for damning evidence of a shady past will be disappointed by the book. At most, Maraniss conscientiously depicts Obama and his family. Inevitably, a detailed Obama biography cannot live up to the holy legend manufactured by his fawning sycophants. But these adulators would also find outrage at the revelation that no, Obama doesn't walk on water or raise the dead. It's no surprise that they were infuriated by Maraniss' mildly halo-tarnishing revelations. On the other hand, this biography is hardly impeachment material.

Martian Chronicles

As I started reading the biography, I had just finished a book on North Korea. So when Maraniss, in his introduction, started retracing the steps of Obama through Kenya and Indonesia, marveling at his humble beginnings in hushed awe, I had flashbacks to the official North Korean legends surrounding the cult of the Dear Leader. Were readers going to be treated to a double rainbow that heralded Obama's birth?

Fortunately, Maraniss never descends into hagiography, although he sometimes throws a veil on some uncomfortable truths. He's not writing a legend, but a detailed biography. A very, very detailed biography. He goes back five generations on Obama's maternal side, and three on his dad's side. The pace of the book isn't epic. To the contrary, it evokes one of these Martian robots — meandering in an alien yet strangely familiar landscape, deliberately picking a target, yet at random intervals stopping dead in its tracks to examine a seemingly random piece of dirt in excruciating detail.

When Maraniss started retracing the steps of Obama through Kenya and Indonesia, marveling at his humble beginnings in hushed awe, I had flashbacks to the official North Korean legends surrounding the cult of the Dear Leader.

It doesn't take long to understand why leftist howls saluted the book. Right in the introduction, Maraniss says that he found many contradictions and inconsistencies in Obama's own books, which are evidently so full of inventions that they are actually an impediment to a biographer's work. The characters, the places, the chronology, the events, the conversations in Obama's books were "rearranged" to fit his political narrative. All across his book, in many places, Maraniss pinpoints contradictions between actual events he reconstituted and Obama's own books (which, after Maraniss' work, cannot be called "biographies" by any stretch of the imagination).

Maraniss had access to the original draft of Obama's book, written several years before the book was published. There are large discrepancies of events and chronologies between the book and its draft, which adds credit to the hypothesis that Obama heavily modified the book to fit a politically charged, race-baiting narrative. By comparing the two versions and with the help of his very extensive research, Maraniss was able to pinpoint the lies and embellishments of the published book. For this, he got called a traitor.

Of Kenya and Kansas

The story starts in Kansas, where Obama's mother's family, the Dunhams, had its roots.

A dominant theme appears early: secrecy and dissimulation, at least within the family of Obama's mother, Ann Dunham. Her grandparents married secretly, and so did her parents. This troubled approach to love and relationships might have tainted Ann's views of a normal marriage.

Maraniss interleaves the lives of Ann Dunham and Barack Hussein Obama, Sr,, who had a short-lived union. The author immerses the reader in the daily lives and times of the characters, and shows the contrast between these two lives.

Ann Dunham was born in California in 1942. She was born Stanley Ann and predictably had to endure mocking in school for her masculine name. Her father Stanley was a somewhat unstable man with a bragging habit bordering on mythomania. Stanley habitually lost his money in poker games and had trouble keeping a job — he was in sales but hated it. Her mother Madelyn, on the other hand, was a competent, dependable woman. During her third grade year, Stanley Ann and her family moved to segregated Vernon, Texas. Obama's book contains anecdotes depicting life in the segregated South. White kids couldn't play with blacks, black customers couldn't be served during regular business hours. Tellingly, Maraniss explains that there is no reason to doubt such things happened, which says volumes about how reliable he thinks Obama's "memoirs" are.

Obama says that his grandfather Onyango was jailed and tortured for his rebellion against British rule. Maraniss interviewed relatives in Kenya and dispels this fiction.

Obama's father, the first Barack Hussein Obama, was born in colonial Kenya in a small branch of the Luo minority tribe. The name Obama means "curved spine" in the tribe's Dholuo language. Obama Sr.'s family were considered outsiders and didn't have particularly deep Luo roots. His own father, Hussein Onyango, worked as a chef and head servant for several important British people in Nairobi. In Dreams from my Father, Obama Jr. says that his grandfather Onyango was jailed and tortured for his rebellion against British rule. Maraniss interviewed relatives in Kenya and dispels this fiction. No relative ever heard of an arrest. Besides, if Onyango had been jailed, he wouldn't have been able to occupy the trusted positions he held. This would be insignificant if not for the fact that Obama paraded his oppressed grandfather as a title of glory in an imaginary struggle against white oppression. It's only the first of many inventions and boasts revealed by Maraniss.

Obama Sr., nominally a Muslim, received an excellent education in an Anglican school, doing various jobs and chores to help pay the expensive tuition. The dominant Kikuyu tribe launched the famous Mau Mau rebellion against the British while he was in school. The British administration let students arm themselves with machetes to prepare against any invasion, but the school was never attacked. Obama Sr. came out as smart but very arrogant. In particular, he thought it beneath him to clean his room. In 1953, he staged a student protest and sent a list of petty grievances to the principal. He was expelled without passing the final exams, so he found a job in the capital, Nairobi. His father had friends who would later play a big role in the newly independent Kenya. One of them, Tom Mboya — also a Luo — would later be imprisoned by the British for his role as a spokesman for Kenyan independence movements.

Obama Sr. started attending political meetings with Mboya and served as a volunteer in his movement. On Christmas 1956, during a dance in his home village, Obama Sr. met 16-year old Kezia, with whom he would elope to Nairobi a week later. Hussein Onyango assuaged the girl's outraged father by giving him sixteen cows. Obama Sr. and Kezia were married in 1957.

In 1959, Mboya toured the USA and cleverly played Democrats against Republicans to secure founding for the Airlift Africa project, which flew in 81 selected Kenyan students to study in US colleges. Among these students was Obama Sr., who didn't have a high school degree but was supported by Mboya. The chosen destination was the University of Hawaii, which Obama selected because of an article in a back issue of the Saturday Evening Post that favorably depicted the university and the island as a multiracial environment.

Now, consider this simple fact about the Post article influencing Obama Sr.'s choice of university. Biographers would consider a job well done if they had dug out this obscure factoid. Not Maraniss. Oh no. Like a Mars rover finding a shiny rock, he breaks out the laser spectrometer and treats us to a deep background on the article's author, the circumstances of his writing, and even the expenses he submitted. One cannot but admire his exhaustiveness, useless though this is.

The important thing is that in 1959, Obama Sr. left behind his child and his young wife, who was pregnant again, to go study in the USA. Since his savings didn’t amount to much, he was financially supported by American donors. Very quickly, he came to the attention of immigration authorities for his behavior as a womanizer. He was charming and bright, partied a lot, and was successful with the ladies, never mentioning his Kenyan family. He wrote an article denouncing the stereotype of Africans abusing or abandoning wives, although his own father had so done many times, and he couldn't ignore it.But getting the right message out was politically important. Obama Sr. talked a lot about politics. He associated with radicals whom Maraniss calls "establishment outsiders," and who probably didn't include many libertarians.

Obama Sr. was known as a proponent of socialism in the future independent Kenya, and hoped that the yet-to-be country would aligned with the Eastern Bloc. He wasn't alone: a lot of Kenyan activists had been trained in Moscow. He saw the Soviets as liberators. That's most likely why he decided to take Russian classes.

Meanwhile, Ann Dunham was growing up in the US, disquieted by the frequent moves and uprooting of her family, which were prompted by her father's inability to keep a job. A furniture salesman, Ann's father moved his family ten times, spending a few months or years in as many towns, before settling in Mercer Island in 1956. Mercer is a five-by-three-mile island in the middle of Lake Washington, east of Seattle. The book interviews several of Ann's friends from that era. The portrait that emerges is one of a smart adolescent lacking family stability and with a low self-esteem.

The local high school was noted for its progressive teachers. While the school's humanities program drew vigorous protests from some parents, Maraniss doesn't report that the Dunhams were among the discontented. Did these teachers influence young Ann, or does she owe her political orientation to her parents? The fact is that she emerged from her high school years as a lifelong leftist.

In 1960, Ann's father was hired by a Hawaiian furniture store whose owner knew him. The whole family moved to Oahu after Ann's graduation. Ann registered at the University of Hawaii. She took Russian as a foreign language, and that's how she met Obama Sr. They quickly started dating, but they kept their relationship a secret. Yet biracial couples were nothing extraordinary in Hawaii: about half of Hawaiian black grooms had a bride from another race.

One wonders when Obama Sr. managed to convey these dreams after which his son's book "Dreams from My Father" is titled.

She found she was pregnant in November, around her birthday. She announced it to her parents, telling them she was in love and thought about marriage. They didn't take it well, but they finally conceded. Obama Sr.'s father was furious when he got a letter from Hawaii. He didn't want his bloodline to be "sullied by a white" — at least according to the Dunhams.

Ann's grades fell catastrophically after Thanksgiving. She and Obama Sr. got married in February '61. The Immigration Service found out that Obama Sr. had a wife in Kenya and didn't view the marriage too kindly. The fresh groom told them he gave his first wife a Muslim divorce — that is, he ordered her to pack. This was apparently sufficient to alleviate the accusation of bigamy.

Accidental baby, accident-prone father

Barack Hussein Obama II (his full name) was born in August 1961. The author could have used this book to dispel the myths and disinformation surrounding his birthplace. He could have explained why Obama chose to put online his birth certificate not as a simple image, but as a heavily processed layered PDF that is indistinguishable from the crudest fake, thus fueling all kind of hypotheses. Maraniss doesn't bother, and it's too bad.

Ann left for the mainland US barely a month after her son's birth and enrolled in the University of Washington in Seattle. Did Obama Sr. confess his bigamy? Maraniss doesn't know. Even before she left, Obama Sr. was rarely seen in public with his wife. His drinking got heavier, but even drunk, he never talked about his life. The author does mention the possibility of abuse: Obama Sr. later remarried another American white girl who followed him to Kenya, and he beat and publicly humiliated her.

Maraniss follows the vagaries of Obama Sr.'s life. He returned to Kenya in the summer of 1962 — it turns out he was kicked out by the Immigration Service. He found a government job, sired another son, and managed to exasperate his whole entourage with his drinking, gambling, bragging, disregard for other people's property and feelings, and especially his insufferable arrogance (he wrote an article criticizing his bosses' economic planification for not being socialist enough). He saw young Barack only once, for a week, in 1971, and the son wasn't much impressed by the father. One wonders when Obama Sr. managed to convey these dreams after which his son's book "Dreams from My Father" is titled. He was a drunk prone to car accidents. He killed one passenger in an accident, lost both legs in other crashes, and ended up losing his life in an accident in 1982.

Ann returned to Hawaii in the fall of 1962. There, she met another man, an Indonesian named Lolo Soetoro Martodihardjo. She filed for divorce in 1964, without asking Obama Sr. for child support. She and Lolo married in 1965. In June ’66, Lolo had to fly back to Indonesia, his visa having run out. Ann and son joined him in Jakarta 16 months later. Lolo would act as young Barry's father for the next several years.

Not a Muslim

Our future President was registered as a Muslim in a Catholic school under the name Barry Soetoro. The author notes that Obama lied about the school in his book, inventing a "parched old nun" to play on the anti-Catholic cliche, whereas his teachers were actually young married women. He learned the local language and was noted for craving attention. He was an ordinary kid. Ikes, an Indonesian classmate interviewed by the author, tells the following story: he drove a bike while carrying Barry on the back saddle. Barry started distracting the driver and ultimately made him fall. Barry was uninjured, but Ikes got an open fracture to the arm. Seeing this, Barry abandoned Ikes and fled home. Was this a harbinger of his future tendency to avoid blame?

Maraniss painstakingly explains that Barry wasn't raised as a Muslim during his three-year stay in Indonesia. However, since he was registered as a Muslim, he received a basic Islamic education: he attended the Friday prayer and learned to read from the Koran in Arabic.

Maraniss accuses Obama of having heavily fictionalized this period in Dreams from My Father. For example, Lolo's father did not die fighting the Dutch during the independence war. He died a very pedestrian death, from a heart attack while he was hanging drapes. Lolo's eldest brother didn't die in the war either: he succumbed to cancer years after the hostilities. When Obama invented grandfathers oppressed by the evil whites, was he simply parroting family legends, or was he trying to promote black victimhood and white guilt? His book contains more race-baiting lies, such as his shock at reading an article in Life about a black man who wanted to lighten his skin. Maraniss checked: there was no such article in Life.

Obama’s racial sensitivity might have been raised by his mother. Far from disregarding race, Ann gave Barry a heavily racialist education in black American history, with emphasis on white-on-black oppression. Was she trying to make him hate America?

Lolo changed quickly. He started drinking more. Soon he started bringing other women to his house. One cannot but pity Ann for her poor discernment in picking men. However, Lolo was a good provider. Thanks to the support of wealthy relatives, he got a good job. Ann tried to immerse herself in the local culture and refused to socialize with Americans, while Lolo was paradoxically more westernized. Lest we draw the wrong conclusion, this might have been related to the crumbling marriage more than to the cliche of the self-hating white liberal.

Obama writes of his shock at reading an article in Life about a black man who wanted to lighten his skin. Maraniss checked: there was no such article.

Ann nevertheless got pregnant again and gave Obama a half-sister. She sent Barry away to her parents in Hawaii, first in the summer of 1970 for a few weeks, then permanently in the fall on 1971. Barry, now again under the last name Obama, entered fifth grade in the elite Punahou high school, the oldest and most prestigious private school in Hawaii. A fifth-grade tuition was $1,165 then, equivalent to $6,600 in 2012 currency. Maraniss says that Obama wouldn't have been admitted solely on his merits. He owed his admission to the work of his grandparents, who knew influential, wealthy alumni. He also got a full scholarship because of his "diverse background" — in other words, racial discrimination in his favor.

Slack and pot

While Obama was in Hawaii, the most influential person around him was, by all accounts, Frank Marshall Davis. Maraniss doesn't mention much of Davis’ extensive background on the Left, describing him as a poet and unconventional writer, merely conceding that he was a leftist under surveillance by the FBI because of "past associations with the Communist party."

According to his book, Obama met Davis, then almost 70, in one of the smoke-filled rooms where Ann's father played poker and bridge, dragging young Obama along (to teach him poker?). This is an unlikely story that Maraniss uncharacteristically accepts at face value. Is it because we're getting to close to the real Obama? It's the first of many veils that Maraniss refuses to lift, as if afraid of his audacity.

Obama admits meeting Davis "ten to fifteen times." This sounds low, considering that Obama devoted an adoring poem to "Pop" Davis. And considering that Obama saw his (official) father only once, during a short visit in Hawaii, one wonders whose "dreams" the future president wrote about. Maraniss points out that in Dreams, many of the traits that Obama attributes to his father are actually taken from Davis. For instance, Obama writes that his father gave him a taste for jazz. But Obama Sr. was never noted for his love of music, except maybe Luo dance music, while Davis was a noted jazz amateur.

During his eight years in Punahou (fifth grade to graduation), Obama was distraught by the absence of his mother, who came and went several times between Hawaii and Indonesia. When she was absent, Obama stayed with her parents and thus was probably given frequent news, but he obviously suffered from the absence of both parents.

Ann came back to Hawaii in fall ’72 and enrolled at University of Hawaii in anthropology. She got a full scholarship through the patronage of Alice Dewey, the niece of the "progressive educator" John Dewey. She spent many years in Indonesia documenting traditional craftsmen. Her daughter Maya, fathered by Lolo, would accompany her on these trips, but Barack stayed in Hawaii. She worked very hard at her anthropology thesis, yet kept it going for years because she was indecisive and didn't narrow it down to a specific subject.

Barack Obama's high school years are depicted by Maraniss in great detail. It is quite interesting to see the future president's personality slowly emerge, affirming the traits we can now see in the adult. Maraniss describes him as a slacker and details his marijuana habit. In short, Obama inhaled. A lot. All the potheads with whom he associated were sons of “good families” (as one would expect in such a prestigious school), but Obama lied about this entourage in his book, describing them as lowlife scum. Was this to establish street cred? Punahou can hardly be described as a tough neighborhood. Similarly, Barack paints himself as a bitter, alienated, resentful teenager, but in interviews with Maraniss, Barack's former pothead friends remember him as a cheerful, positive student. He is even described as a good high school debater. His style, however, was that of the "trick debater". He didn't bother with facts or refutations, only with destabilizing his adversary and controlling the debate. These are the kind of dialectic tricks that are taught and practiced by radicals. Did Davis coach him?

Barack started to play tennis but instead turned to basketball because it was a "black sport." He was an unremarkable player in the high school basketball team, which Obama explains in his book by playing the race card and claiming the white coach preferred white players. Not true, says Maraniss, who devotes nine pages to Obama's basketball team, contradicting this claim. One wishes the author had been so thorough in investigating some other, much more damning, of Obama's whoppers.

Oxy

After graduating from Punahou, Barack attended Occidental College near Pasadena, California, from 1979 to 1981. It is not clear why he selected "Oxy," although Maraniss tells us it was notorious for being an easy liberal arts college with a drug, booze, and sex culture. Maraniss doesn't mention its leftwing faculty, probably another attractive factor for a politicized Obama.

At Oxy, Obama drank heavily and used drugs. A few anecdotes show him embarrassingly uninhibited at parties. He was already addicted to cigarettes. He tried unsuccessfully to enter the college's basketball team. His roommate and several of his friends were upper-crust Pakistanis. Among these Muslims, he apparently went by the name Hussein. These friends tell Maraniss they had, back at Oxy, a first glimpse of Obama's enormous ambition. Despite this, he grew even more of a slacker in his second year. He coasted through easy humanities classes and was able to get decent grades in spite of his drinking and drug use. He was an ordinary student, except maybe for his Afro.

Obama is described as a good high school debater. His style, however, was that of the "trick debater". He didn't bother with facts or refutations, only with destabilizing his adversary and controlling the debate.

Ann went back to Indonesia, working for USAID. She divorced Lolo, getting custody of daughter Maya. She had a comfortable life style: she lived in a four-bedroom house and was served by two full-time live-in domestics. (Isn't that capitalistic oppression of impoverished indigenes?) Her mother was by then a bank vice president in Hawaii and was providing some support for Obama. Ann was described as charming, compassionate, and understanding, but she didn't seem to extend her love of mankind to her own son. She never mentioned him to Indonesian friends and colleagues.

At the time, Obama was listening to Bob Marley. He was turning into a "Marleyxist"; that is, he adopted oversimplified, mass-marketed "messages" lamenting a black oppression that he had never experienced. Maraniss shows him searching for meaning, belonging, home, and above all, a family. He gravitated toward real Marxists on campus, such as those in the Democratic Socialistic Alliance, whose leader encouraged him to define himself primarily as black. (What is it with white Leftists and race?)

Alas, Obama wasn't acting like the typical disenfranchised black. For example, he was frequently hitting on women, and every one of them was white. In addition, because of his white mother and white maternal family, he was afraid to pass for a sellout. He overcompensated by always trying to be seen with "Marxist professors," "feminists," and "black activists" (as Maraniss describes the crowd he associated with.) He was hoping for blackness to rub off on him; he got redness instead. Some African Americans on campus called him "an Oreo."

He should have known that you cannot please extremists, so there is no point in trying. Unfortunately, that rejection only strengthened his resolve to affirm his blackness at all cost. And — at the time, at least — this meant separating himself from general American society, feeling alienated by it, and getting into fights against institutions not because they were hurtful, but simply because they were American institutions. This was probably one of the defining moments of young Obama.

Another revealing anecdote comes when Obama wrote a fiction story for the college's literary student magazine, and the editor came in person tell him the story had been rejected. Obama's reaction: "You don't get it. You're stupid." It was a condescending, thin-skinned attitude he would often display later in life.

In 1981, Obama applied for transfer to Columbia. He wrote that life on the Oxy campus was too easy, too isolated from the world. New York promised a hard, competitive life, closer to the "black experience."

That summer, before going to New York, he visited his mom in Indonesia (with a round-the-world, 16-stop ticket thanks to her contacts with the Ford Foundation). Obama admired his mother's work at USAID but, maybe because of his leftist alienation, despised US foreign aid and policies. (That didn't keep him from returning to the US.) After Indonesia, he visited Pakistani friends from Oxy, staying in upper-class families living in nice houses served by many domestics. His friend Chandoo, "still in his leftist period," made a point of making Obama meet very poor, black peasants, descendants of African slaves brought by the Arabs.

The Columbia dark years

Obama enrolled at Columbia in the fall as a political science major. Maraniss admits he doesn't have as much documentation on years 1981–1985 as on the previous period of Obama's life. Obama keeps most of this time under wraps. This doesn't prevent Maraniss from producing an impressively detailed account.

Rather than affirming his black identity, as he had planned, Obama didn't make a single African-American friend on campus or in New York City. He stayed with white and Pakistani roommates and dated white women. Maraniss explains away the paucity of people who can remember Obama at Columbia as follows: students hated the campus and avoided each other.

At the time, NYC was an especially dirty, crime-ridden city. The police didn't dare pursue criminals into Morningside Park, just north of Central Park and close to the Columbia campus. Obama, as a black, felt safe from the mostly African-American muggers. But he was now ashamed of his white background and was concealing the fact that his mother was white. Yet, when Maraniss interviewed Columbia students from that time, they didn't describe the campus atmosphere as sharply divided, racially. Obama did attend a Jesse Jackson rally in Harlem with a Pakistani roommate, and both left "unimpressed by Jackson." Obama, in essence, shunned black professors and black students.

Most people didn't know then, and still don't now, what “community organizating” means; after many pages, Maraniss finally admits that it means agitation and propaganda, the good old Leninist "agitprop."

In the summer of 1982, Ann flew in from Indonesia with Maya and visited Obama in New York, staying with a wealthy friend in a Park Avenue apartment. Obama scolded his mom for enjoying "petit bourgeois" tourism, such as visiting the Statue of Liberty and the Metropolitan Museum. He went so far as to write in his memoir that his mother, who one evening enjoyed a movie depicting poor black Brazilians, had fantasies of childlike blacks, fantasies she had inherited from her stultifying white childhood.

That summer, for a couple of months, Obama dated Alex, a (white) classmate from Oxy who was spending the summer in NYC. After she left, they exchanged passionate letters, in which Obama already showed a consummate art of literary malarkey. Of course, impressing girls with pseudo-cultural drivel is a time-honored masculine device. From an excerpt of one of his rambling letters, reproduced by Maraniss, readers can get a foretaste of the empty, bombastic speeches of the future president.

Interestingly, during this time at Columbia, Obama asked a Pakistani friend if he saw him as a future president. But in general, Obama was very reserved and secretive. For instance, when he got a phone call informing him that Obama Sr. had died in a car accident, he didn't talk about it with anyone, only mentioning it to Alex, months later.

Obama didn't leave a great impression at Columbia. Most of his professors don't remember him taking their class, with the exception of a discussion seminar in which he came out as a smooth talker. He did study hard and graduated after two years with a good GPA. His four years of college had cost about $50,000, half from scholarship, the rest mostly from his bank-VP grandmother.

Then he started looking for a job in . . . community organizing — not an ordinary route for a young graduate. Most people didn't know then, and still don't now, what the term means. Maraniss is slow at spilling the beans, but after many pages, he finally admits that it means agitation and propaganda, the good old Leninist "agitprop." It means enrolling people, often by deceiving them, into highly politicized campaigns for a certain result, while secretly using the campaign as a springboard for completely different purposes, such as conveying a certain message in the media or influencing wider policies. One common tool is arousing public feeling, stirring up discussion, and then controlling the debate. It is highly unlikely that Obama chose to apply for such a job without the advice of one of his far-Left mentors.

Agitprop is what you do to an enemy. It is a warfare tool, not a civilized political discussion. Using this technique against US citizens means that you consider them as fodder for an ideological battle. It shows a deep contempt for the citizens, who are mere pawns in a conflict that they aren't meant to understand. It is both telling and frightening that Obama's first foray into politics took this route.

Obama possessed the most important quality of an activist: anger and resentment against the American society, in spite of a cocooned life.

Good agitprop positions are hard to find. While looking for an "organizing" job, Obama survived with temp jobs in unrelated fields. He broke with Alex, whom he had seen only a few times in two years. At a 1983 Christmas party, he met Genevieve, a progressive liberal girl from Australia who had studied anthropology. Genevieve's stepfather was from a family of "establishment Democrats with deep liberal connections."

Meeting the enemy

In the summer of 1983, Obama found a job at a small Manhattan company called Business International — probably through Columbia's placement office, explains Maraniss. The company published reports about the business and financial climate of foreign countries to guide potential investors. As a copywriter and editor, Obama was an entry-level employee. Some coworkers saw him as "aloof, with an arrogance that bordered on condescension" — a trait that he never managed to get under control. He was less than enthusiastic about his position. To Genevieve, he described the job "as working for the enemy." In his memoirs, he called it being "[l]ike a spy behind enemy lines." Nevertheless, he greatly magnifies his own role: "I had my own office, my own secretary, money in the bank," he writes, adding that he was interviewing international financiers in a shiny office where he saw his reflection on polished doors. His former colleagues, interviewed by Maraniss, scoff at the notion. As a lowly backroom data clerk, the closest Obama got to wealthy financiers was calling foreign banks' information desks. The shiniest surface in the office was the screen of the Wang word processor. Yet, Maraniss diligently forgives Obama for adding "embellishments" to his supposedly truthful book.

The author tells us that Obama grew disillusioned with radical leftism. Maraniss goes so far as writing that he "turned away from the rhetoric of the left, doubting its practicality." Gasp, shock, horror! In order to turn away from it, Obama had to have embraced it in the first place, and we hadn't even been told! But who, oh, who could have indoctrinated him, one wonders? Surely not his leftist mother, his Marxist teachers, his communist mentor? We forgive Maraniss for withholding this critical piece of information, since by that point in his book, even the most gullible yokel has started reading between the lines.

But there is still a problem. While Maraniss affirms that Obama abandoned leftist rhetoric, our president gave us many outrageous examples of it in the last four years.So Maraniss' assertion is questionable. And worse, what is the author's motivation for such a bald-faced, er, statement? Is it because Maraniss is getting frightened by his own revelations? Is it an attempt to reassure the reader, who is shown a facet of Obama that his supporters would rather hide?

And what a facet it is: Business International was Obama's first permanent honest job in the private sector, and the ideological scales on his eyes are so thick that he sees his placid employer as an "enemy." This was truly a bad omen for America's small businesses. But readers probably thought it was just, I dunno . . . leftist rhetoric?

In 1984, Obama started coldly distancing himself from his Pakistani friends. Another interesting aspect of Obama shows up when Maraniss describes his relationship with Genevieve: Obama craved love, affection, attention, but didn't return it. Narcissism again.

That fall, Genevieve took a teaching job at a New York public school. Quite unsurprisingly, she started drinking a lot — alas, many a public school teacher career turns into a race between retirement and liver damage. In December, Obama left B.I. without admitting to his boss that he was looking to go into agitprop. This and many other details reveal a long-anchored habit of dissimulation, an attention to secrecy about his personal life, that remains to this day a troubling trait of his personality.

The Chicago debutante

In January 1985, Obama joined the New York Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit devoted to "community organizing." His turf was the Harlem campus of the City University. His girlfriend grew irritated with his coldness, his reserve, and his lack of empathy — readers who know narcissists will instantly relate. She left him in May. Obama, meanwhile, had sent a resume to a small Chicago-based "organizing" outfit called Development Communities Project (DCP), which needed someone — a black man — to work the Chicago South Side. Chicago looked like a place of opportunity to Obama, given the election of its first black mayor, Harold Washington, in 1983.

The founder of DCP, one Jerry Kellman, was an adept of Saul Alinsky. Kellman interviewed Obama very deeply and recognized that this candidate possessed the most important quality of an activist: anger and resentment against the American society, in spite of a cocooned life. Kellman thought him naive and politically unsophisticated, and expected Chicago to beat it out of him. Obama joined DCP and Kellman became his mentor.

While many think of Alinsky as a master of lies and duplicity, Kellman found him too direct. Kellman was apparently an advocate of entryism, a political tactic mostly employed by Troskyites. Entryism favors flexibility, dissimulation, fake agreement, and placement of secret accomplices in important positions.

When he describes Obama moving to Chicago, Maraniss finally admits that community organizing is agitprop. The basic technique is the deep one-to-one interview in which the agitator, I mean organizer, gets a more or less random person to talk about his life, his community, his concerns, his interests. The organizer listens, but filters, retaining mostly the parts that can be attached to the narrative and support the cause du jour. He then writes a summary report. Not coincidentally, this technique is also used by handling officers of a foreign intelligence service who want to recruit an asset, that is, a willing or unwilling citizen whom the handler will use and then often abandon.

Obama didn't mince words about the "hypocritical aspects of prevalent black attitudes." He thought that the black community neglected education, needed more accountability, and was too prompt to victimhood.

Obama interviewed many people and wrote many reports, mastering the asset interview technique. He also cultivated the art of pleasing people. Nevertheless, his street cred left a lot to be desired. He and Kellman sometimes faced outright racism from the South Side black activists. When Obama tried to ally with activist preachers, he got rejected as an outsider, a pawn of the Jews and the Catholics. Kellman felt Obama was hampered by his hesitant attitude, his refusal of confrontation. Later, in conversations with other DCP agitators, Obama didn't mince words about the "hypocritical aspects of prevalent black attitudes." He thought that the black community neglected education, needed more accountability, and was too prompt to victimhood. This is a paradox, because a lot of agitprop slogans unleashed in the South Side revolved around black exploitation and hardship at the hands of a racist society.

To his credit, Obama didn't adhere to the black victim credo. It is a tragedy that he decided to toe the victimhood line after his election: he could have made a huge difference in the life of millions of blacks. Was he afraid of being rejected by African-Americans, and being called an Oreo again?

In Dreams from My Father, Obama magnifies his role at DCP and gives himself credit for getting the Chicago Housing Authority to remove asbestos from certain buildings. Maraniss writes that "at the least, [Obama's] memoirs did not tell the complete story." In other words, yet another embellishment. In 1986, Obama started dating a (white) graduate student at the University of Chicago who had majored in anthropology. Maraniss calls our attention on the pattern here, suggesting that the string of girlfriends versed in anthropology acted as mother substitutes.

On one of the boundaries of Obama's assigned district lay the Trinity United Church of Christ, led by Jeremiah Wright. Obama joined in October 1987, when Wright was already famous. Nowhere does Maraniss so much as suggest that Wright was inflammatory. As we know, Wright is such a country-hating, race-baiting embarrassment that Obama had to repudiate him, and the media immediately threw Wright into a memory hole, never to be mentioned again. It is sad to see Maraniss whitewash Wright's extremism and describe him merely as a colorful pastor.

After a few years, Obama was feeling the limits of his work. Seeing Chicago politicians in action had given him a glimpse of real power, prestige, and charisma. He realized that he couldn't satisfy his enormous ambition by being a mere agitator, especially when his hopes of ascension were being blocked by frustrating apathy and infighting. Politics was the drug, and the gateway was being a lawyer. Obama applied to law schools and was accepted at Harvard in 1988. He kept his plans secret for a while before announcing to DCP that he was leaving.

Maraniss doesn't shed any light on two critical questions: how was Obama admitted after a long academic hiatus? Or was the Harvard admission board simply chafing at the bit to admit a black activist? We know from his self-written biographical notices that at least until 2004, Obama presented himself as born in Kenya. Was "diversity" a factor in his admission? And how was the considerable tuition paid? We aren't told. Maraniss prefers to devote the last pages of the book to a vacation in Kenya that Obama took before starting law school. The book ends, disappointingly, before Obama’s law school years and career, and of course before his Senate election.

Turning the last page, the reader is left with a curious impression. One can almost picture an office full of archive boxes that the author painstakingly accumulated during his ample research. One can hear the shuffling noise of material being considered, then reluctantly rejected for space reasons. And in a corner, one can sense several boxes on which a tarp has been thrown, their contents never to be disclosed. The howls and the treason accusations were unfair, after all. Maraniss knows exactly how far he can go.


Editor's Note: Review of "Barack Obama: The Story," by David Maraniss. Simon & Schuster, 2012, 672 pages.



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Atlas Huh?

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Cloud Atlas is an ambitious project, encompassing half a dozen story lines spanning hundreds of years but played by the same actors.

The story concept reminded me of an engagement video I saw recently in which a young man induced his friends to create a dance video for his girlfriend. As the romantic pair walked along a path together toward a beach, friends danced for them and then ran ahead to appear in the next scene of the video. It looked as though hundreds of people were involved, but they were actually the same friends appearing over and over, with the entire crowd gathering at the beach for the final chorus. In Cloud Atlas the 6 billion people who live on earth today are an accumulation of all the people who have ever lived, reincarnated to return and play out yet another scene in earth's continuing saga.

But at nearly three hours, Cloud Atlas is overlong and often hard to follow. As with another "Atlas” film that was released this month, viewers who have read the book before seeing the film enjoy a distinct advantage. The opening scenes jump from character to character and scene to scene with virtually no exposition. And because there are so many disparate scenes, the result is disjointed and incoherent.

Early in the film a bombastic author, Dermot Hoggins (Tom Hanks), complains about a critic who has written a poor review of his book, Knuckle Sandwich. The critic has called it "flat and inane beyond belief." I considered it a brave move on the part of the scriptwriter to include that phrase from Cloud Atlas in its book form, since it invites the same critical assessment of the film itself — which is, for the most part, flat and inane beyond belief. It tries to be profound, with high-sounding quotable quotes. But most of it amounts to philosophical mumbo jumbo on par with "it takes a village." Here is just a sampling:

This world spins from the same twine that twists our hearts.

Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb we are bound to others.

Knowledge is a mirror. For the first time in my life I was allowed to see who I am, and who I could become.

You have to do what you can't not do.

Only those who have been deprived of freedom have the barest inkling of what it is.

To know thyself is only possible through the eyes of the other.

Something as important as this [a musical piece called "The Cloud Atlas Sextet"] cannot be described as yours or mine, but ours. (Shades of "You didn't build that" . . .)

The philosophy behind the film is that "death is just a door to another room" where one encounters many of the same souls one knew in a previous lifetime, but in different guises and with different purposes and relationships. But this is no Somewhere in Time, where two people who have fallen in love in the past fall in love with each other again in the future; instead, the characters switch roles entirely, playing significant characters in one scenario and minor parts in another.

Tom Hanks, for instance, plays a murderous antagonist in two scenarios, a classic protagonist in two others, a minor character in a fifth, and a woman in a sixth. Although he does fall in love with characters played by the same actress (Halle Berry) in two of his scenarios, he does not have meaningful relationships with her in the others. In other words, the film does not seem to imply, as other reincarnation films have, that finding one's soul mate across the eternities is the main purpose of life.

The controlling theme in these stories is not just the idea of finding the same lover in different lifetimes, but of fighting against tyranny in every age. In each scenario someone brave is needed to stand up against evil groups. This might seem a libertarian theme. But the cosmic conflict between "rebel good" and "societal evil" lends Cloud Atlas an undeserved gravitas, since the film never fully or accurately identifies the underlying philosophies or actions that lead to tyranny. In one scene, for example, the protagonist sneers at her society's rule that "the first catechism is to honor thy consumer," an obvious dig at free market principles, not tyranny. (And apparently no one knows what a “catechism” is.)

Despite its philosophical inanity, Cloud Atlas can be admired and even enjoyed artistically. The film is worth seeing for the disguises alone; they are stunning, and will surely garner Oscar nominations for costume and makeup. And halfway through, the stories and characters begin to sort themselves out enough to become compelling and empathetic. The acting is superb on all counts. This is a tour de force for Tom Hanks, who revels in his makeup and accents, although there is an unfortunate hint of Forrest Gump in one of his characters. Halle Berry is gorgeous, as always, and so, for that matter, is James Sturgess. It is a pleasant surprise to see Hugh Grant outside the familiar romantic comedies where he has been most comfortable. Moreover, the music, cinematography, and special effects are splendid. Be sure to stay for the credits, where you may be surprised to see which actors played which characters.


Editor's Note: Review of "Cloud Atlas," directed by Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Twyker. Warner Brothers, 2012, 164 minutes.



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Argo F*** Yourself

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One part compelling documentary, two parts zany Hollywood comedy, and three parts suspenseful spy thriller, Argo is one hundred percent excellence in filmmaking.

Although the events depicted in Argo occurred 33 years ago, they could not be more timely. In 1979 we had a likable but inept president whose policies could not avert double-digit interest rates, double-digit inflation, and the doubling of gas and oil prices; today we have a likable but inept president whose policies have led to stagnant growth, high unemployment, doubling of the national debt, and another doubling of gas prices. Both presidents dealt with turmoil and crisis in the Middle East as they campaigned for reelection.

When Ben Affleck set out to dramatize a recently declassified covert operation that took place within the context of the Iranian hostage crisis over 30 years ago, he could not have known that a similar crisis would erupt in the same part of the world exactly one month before his film was released. Watching hostages in Argo quake with fear as they are blindfolded by their tormentors and dragged before a firing squad, viewers cannot help but think of Ambassador Chris Stevens being dragged through the streets of Benghazi on his way to a horrifying death just last month. This unintended melding of the two stories adds to the suspense created in this well-made film.

Argo begins with a brisk montage of historic photos, film footage, and newspaper headlines taken from the days and weeks of the Iranian hostage crisis that began November 4, 1979. A young Walter Cronkite and an even younger Ted Koppel report the news from old-fashioned television screens. Many people have forgotten that ABC's “Nightline” began as a temporary nightly update about the hostage crisis; 444 days later, when the hostages were released (on the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration), the news show had become so entrenched that it stayed on as a serious alternative to NBC’s “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and the CBS “Late Movie,” which eventually gave way to Letterman's “Late Show.” Ted Koppel earned his stripes reporting the Iranian hostage crisis and paved the way for all-news cable shows.

As the crisis begins, embassy personnel are busy doing other things: processing visas, filing reports, and interviewing local Iranians who wait patiently in the outer rooms. When angry mobs threaten to storm the building, embassy workers rush to shred documents, burn files, break metal plates used for counterfeiting documents, and destroy computers. Ignoring threats to their own lives, they focus intensely on eliminating all sensitive material that could lead to the torture and death of Americans and local residents who are friendly to Americans. This is absolutely essential for national security and for the safety of regional operatives (local spies) in Iran.

The film deftly portrays the rising panic among security personnel inside the building while angry young men climb the walls and breach the compound. “We need some security, and you’re responsible!” one man screams into a phone, presumably to someone in the State Department. During a security briefing another man warns, “Don’t shoot anyone. Don’t be the one to start a war. If you shoot one person, they will kill everyone in here.” As a result, security personnel seem afraid to act. They hold their guns, but they don’t use them. One goes outside to try reasoning with the mob, but of course that just feeds the frenzy. In short, the fear of being responsible for diplomatic consequences is crippling.

During this confusion, six Americans slip out a back door and run for safety. But in a country overpowered by anti-American sentiment and energized for a fight, where might safety be found? Several embassies turn them away before the Canadian ambassador and his wife (Victor Garber and Page Leong) agree to take them in. But they are still far from being free, or even safe. Forced to hide in a room beneath the floorboards, they cannot leave the ambassador’s residence. They live in constant fear that local domestic workers will reveal their presence to Iranian insurgents, putting Canadian embassy personnel in danger as well. The scene is reminiscent of Jews hidden in attics and basements by friendly neighbors during the Holocaust. Spiriting these six unexpected hostages out of Iran becomes an even stickier problem for the US State Department than negotiating for the 52 publicized hostages.

Evidently saving face is more important than saving victims, at least to these State Department officials.

This is where the zany Hollywood comedy comes in. State Department officials come up with such solutions as providing the six Americans with bicycles so they can ride to the border (300 miles away) or pretending that they are part of an agricultural team investigating crops (even though it is winter) or that they are volunteer teachers (even though all Western teachers have been withdrawn from the country). After dismissing these ideas, seasoned CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) suggests pretending they are members of a film crew doing a site inspection for a science fiction flick called Argo.

Mendez turns to makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) to act as director and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to act as producer on this bogus film, and together they select a script from among genuine screenwriter submissions. Goodman and Arkin ham up their scenes with insider jokes about Hollywood while also demonstrating that they understand the gravity of the situation. Human lives are at stake, and they know it. They also impishly create a tagline with more zing than "Who is John Galt," a phrase that is reflected in the title of this review.

But the real story of this film takes place in Iran, where Mendez must first convince the six hostages that the plan will work, and then teach them how to play their roles as set designer, director, cinematographer, etc., all in a matter of two days. Tension mounts as time draws near. They must act their parts convincingly and be prepared to answer any question that might come up as they go through airport security. If one person blows it, they all go down. Audience members have to be thinking, “Could I do this? Could I make it through this intense scrutiny?” and this adds to the tension of the film.

Mendez must also convince the State Department not to give up on the plan. At one point a State official says pragmatically, “Six Americans executed at the Canadian embassy is an international incident; six Americans caught playing filmmakers with a CIA spy is an embarrassment.” Evidently saving face is more important than saving victims, at least to these State Department officials. I'd like to think they were concerned that CIA involvement would lead to retaliation against the remaining hostages. Mendez, however, refuses to leave without the people he has come to rescue.

To avert retaliation against the American hostages still held in Iran, Canada received all the credit for masterminding the rescue. Now that the case has been declassified, the true story of CIA agent Tony Mendez's daring plan for spiriting the six hostages from the Canadian embassy and onto a plane leaving Iran can be revealed. But this should not detract from the gratitude afforded the Canadian ambassador and his wife. They risked their own lives and gave up their residence to help these American strangers.


Editor's Note: Review of "Argo," directed by Ben Affleck. Warner Brothers, 2012, 120 minutes.



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The Second Reel of Atlas

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The two questions I have been hearing from my libertarian friends all week are these: Have you seen the new Atlas Shrugged? Is it any good?

My answers are Yes! And Ye-es.

I was invited to attend a posh private screening with the producers in Manhattan two days before the official opening. David Kelley, founder of the Atlas Society (neé the Institute for Objectivist Studies) and script consultant on the film, introduced the screening to a friendly audience of Rand enthusiasts. Esai Morales, who plays Francisco d’Anconia to perfection, also attended. It was a festive event honoring the Herculean efforts of producer John Aglialoro to bring this book to the screen.

As the lights dimmed and the film began, my biggest concern was whether the film could stand on its own merits, despite its being the middle chapter of a three-part story. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that the entire cast and director were changed from Part I, making it virtually impossible to use flashbacks for exposition.

I am happy to report that it does indeed work as a standalone film. Three main subplots drive this episode: Dagny Taggart’s quest to uncover the secret of a mysterious engine that could solve the world’s energy crisis; the government’s enactment of “Directive 10-289,” which freezes all employment, wages, and even personal spending at the previous year’s rate, thus making it illegal for anyone to quit, retire, be fired, be promoted, earn less, earn more, or even spend less or more than in the previous year; and the inexplicable, almost spiritual, disappearance of the world’s brightest and most creative thinkers at the hands of a mysterious stranger.

I would love to see a film inspired by Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, but not wedded to it.

Rand purists will be relieved to hear that the plot remains faithful to the original (almost to a fault). Some lines of dialogue have been inserted intact from the novel, and even the changes made in the name of streamlining remain true to Rand’s intent. Hank Rearden’s speech in front of Congress, in which he defends (or, rather, refuses to defend) his right to determine who will buy the metal he produces, is powerful and thrilling. It should resonate even with viewers who have never heard of Ayn Rand.

A few welcome adjustments have been made in the casting to acknowledge 21st-century racial integration, without drawing special attention to race. Dagny’s assistant, Eddie Willers (Richard T. Jones), for example, is black, but the film places no greater significance on the fact than if he were blonde or brunette. He just is.

Similar updating of the story itself would make this film more accessible to non-Randians. Yes, Ayn Rand loved trains. Without trains, Atlas Shrugged would not be Atlas Shrugged. And yet, for audiences who don’t care one whit about the author of the foundational work, a 21st-century setting in which trains are the primary mode of transportation simply doesn’t make sense. The film’s producers attempt to explain this with a note in the opening credits saying that in the future, trains have become the most economical form of travel, but come on. No one is going to buy that. Train travel is luxurious and impractical, especially in a country as vast as the United States. Cars and planes can go almost anywhere; trains are limited to where the tracks can take them. It’s especially laughable when Dagny travels by herself to Colorado in her private rail car. How could it possibly be more economical for one person to take a train than a car?

Modern audiences will also have a hard time believing that a single man — such as Rearden (Jason Beghe), Ellis Wyatt (Graham Beckel), Ken Danagger (Arye Gross), and Francisco d’Anconia, could control the entire markets in metal, shale oil, coal, and copper respectively. I think my friends and colleagues, the ones I would like to convince by inviting them to see a film like this, would be able to relate to the story more if the heroes were adapted so as to represent smaller, more sympathetic businesses. I would love to see a film inspired by Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, but not wedded to it. Such a film would be true to the purpose of the book, but would not be held back by the setting and technology of 60 years ago. Rand set her novel in a dystopian near future; it is disconcerting to find it mired in the technology of the past.

Coincidentally, I happened to see Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People on Broadway the day after I saw Atlas Shrugged II. Several critics have complained about how the language of this classic play has been updated to modern vernacular for this production. I disagreed. Ibsen was a realist. He rejected the larger-than-life heroes and cosmic issues of classic drama to write about everyday people experiencing everyday conflicts. His protagonists spoke in current language about current issues. If he were writing today, he would be using today’s idioms and swear words. So while director Doug Hughes’ version is not true to the language of Ibsen’s play, it is true to the spirit and intent of Ibsen’s play. The result is fast-paced, tense, and very modern.

So YES! I have seen the new film, and I had a great time. And ye-es, it is good, but with some caveats. The story stands on its own. The main points about the sovereignty of the individual are strong and intact. It injects some delicious ironic humor, such as the placard held by a picketer that says, “We are the 99.98 percent!” John Galt is both mysterious and inspiriting — I can’t wait to see what D.B. Sweeney does with the role in the final installment. Exposition is handled deftly, using dialogue to bridge the gaps between Part I and Part II.

But I’m still not pleased with the casting. Diedrich Bader, best known for portraying intellectually challenged characters like Oswald on “The Drew Carey Show,” Jethro in The Beverly Hillbillies (1993), and Rex Kwon Do in Napoleon Dynamite (2004), draws laughter when he first appears as Quentin Daniels, the scientist working to unlock the secret of the engine. Similarly, Teller (the silent half of Penn and Teller) creates a stir with his small speaking role as Laughlin. Both acquit themselves well as dramatic actors, but they create a distraction when they appear onscreen, pulling audiences out of the scene.

Rand set her novel in a dystopian near future; it is disconcerting to find it mired in the technology of the past.

Far from being cool and sophisticated, the new Dagny (Samantha Mathis) is frumpy, and she lacks chemistry with Rearden. Nor is there any chemistry between Dagny’s brother James (Patrick Fabian) and his new wife Cheryl (Larisa Oleynik), the shopgirl with whom he falls in love, despite their social differences. In fact, none of the characters is particularly passionate, with the exception of Francisco, who moves and speaks with a natural intimacy, and Galt, who manages to inject more charisma and personality with his unseen, offstage voice than Dagny is able to create with all her screen time. Not surprisingly, Francisco and Galt are brought to life by the most seasoned actors of the crew, and it shows.

Despite these shortcomings, Atlas Shrugged II is an admirable work, made more difficult by the rigorous expectations of Rand’s hard-to-please fans. The original score by Chris Bacon is strong, and the special effects are impressive. I applaud the efforts of the producers and all those responsible for the script.


Editor's Note: Review of "Atlas Shrugged: Part II," directed by John Putch. Atlas Distribution Company, 2012, 112 minutes.



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Neither Real nor Right

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Won’t Back Down is a feel-good film about the power of a single individual, armed with a vision and a voice, to move a bureaucracy.

Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a working class mother of a dyslexic second grader, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind). Malia has been assigned to the classroom of the weakest teacher in the school, and Jamie wants desperately to find a solution for her failing child. She asks the teacher to help Malia after school; she tries to have Malia transferred to the classroom of a better teacher; she signs up for the lottery of a successful charter school, where Malia must compete with 100 applicants for just three open slots. She even begs the administrator of her former school to take Malia back.

Eventually Jamie hears about a “parent-trigger law,” which provides a way for parents to take over a failing school. (“Parent-trigger law” is perhaps a poor choice of name, considering the level of frustration many parents experience, and the number of shootings that have occurred in schools recently!)

Parent-trigger laws are a fairly new concept in US public education. They were first introduced in California a few years ago, and six other states have followed so far. They apply only to failing schools, and require a majority of the parents to sign a petition and support the change. A successful bid can result in replacing the administration or faculty, creating a charter school, or closing the school and reassigning the students to better schools. Of course, teachers and their unions oppose these takeover bids, sometimes with threats and repercussions against the children of the most vocal parents.

Tenured teachers can’t be fired for being poor teachers, so they are moved from school to school. Woe to the children who are stuck in their classrooms for an entire year!

In the film, Jamie says “Let’s take over the school” with the same spritely optimism as Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland saying “Let’s put on a show.” Through sheer force of personality and salesmanship, Jamie convinces a tired and frustrated teacher, Nona (Viola Davis), to join her, and together they work to gain the support of teachers and parents. But it isn’t that easy. They must first recruit 400 parents and 18 teachers, and file a 400-page document describing their new school — while fighting union leaders and school administrators with six-figure salaries to protect and an arsenal of dirty tricks to employ.

Along the way she cheerfully tramples the property rights of her two employers by giving away free booze to potential supporters at her bartending job and working on the school project during her receptionist duties at a car dealership. Her boss is portrayed as a sharp-nosed busybody, but she has a right to expect an employee’s full attention at work, doesn’t she? And what about Jamie’s responsibility as a mother? She complains about her daughter not getting extra help from the teacher, but shouldn’t she be helping her own child learn to read? How hard is it to read with a child at a second grade level?

The film addresses most of the right problems, with union bylaws and tenure protection at the top of the list. A teacher refuses to stay after school to help a dyslexic student with her reading; it turns out that teachers are actually prevented from staying after school by their union contract. An administrator responds to each complaint with the same tired phrase, “We are addressing that,” as a way to placate the parent while promising nothing. He acknowledges that tenured teachers can’t be fired for being poor teachers, so they are moved from school to school. Woe to the children who are stuck in their classrooms for an entire year!

(Years ago I complained about a teacher who showed movies almost every day, while she played games on the computer. When I told the administrator that she showed The Lion King that day, his face darkened. “Lion King??” he raged. “I told them they couldn’t show Lion King!” Then he shrugged and added, “I know she’s a lousy teacher. There’s nothing I can do. She has tenure.” And she was the department chair to boot. I moved my daughter to a private school. But many parents can’t afford that option.)

So why don’t more parents and teachers take over their failing schools? Time is the biggest deterrent. It usually takes three to five years to get through the process of gathering support, filing papers, writing a charter, hiring teachers, and selecting curriculum. By that time, most children will have moved on to middle school. It requires a person with genuine dedication to the neighborhood to be willing to go through this effort for someone else’s kids. In the film, one teachers’ union administrator complains cynically, “When students start paying union dues, I will start protecting the interests of children,” and he’s right about that. One of the biggest problems with the public school system is that the payer is not the recipient of the service.

Moreover, it takes skill and experience to teach a class or manage a school. That same union administrator suggests that having parents take over a school is “like handing over the plane to the passengers,” and to a certain extent, he is right about that, too. Consider the kinds of neighborhoods that harbor failing schools. Parents with good educations, good jobs, and good incomes will simply move to another neighborhood, or deposit their children in private schools, as I did. They are too busy earning a living to have time to run a school.

Nevertheless, this film ends with cheering crowds and a crescendo of violins. (But is it any surprise that they manage to succeed? In a matter of months? Does Secretariat win the Triple Crown?) But there is no true victory in this film. A charter school may be better than a failing public school, but it is still based on a failing premise: although they are run by parents and teachers, these are still government schools. Salaries are still funded by local property taxes, and students are still tested according to federal standardized guidelines. The film even ends with a rap version of Kennedy’s famous message: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” The first is socialism, the second is feudalism. Neither bodes well for creativity and individual success. Whatever happened to “Do what you can to take care of yourself”?

The biggest deterrent to good education — standardized testing — isn’t even addressed in this film. I could write a whole treatise on the unintended consequences of “No Child Left Behind.” We now have an entire generation of young people who have been taught that there is only one correct answer to any question: the one they have been spoonfed by the teacher. Creativity and innovation are rewarded with an F.

A charter school may be better than a failing public school, but it is still based on a failing premise.

As for the teachers? They’re getting burned out too. I attended an early evening screening. Just before the film began, several groups of women walked into the theater. All of them talked to each other throughout the screening, looked at their cell phones, and went out to buy treats or visit the bathroom. I would have been more distracted, had I not been used to this kind of behavior; I’m a teacher. I interviewed these ladies after the show. You guessed it: most were teachers. They probably didn’t even realize that they were acting like their students.

Won’t Back Down is an earnest little film, one that is well intentioned but overlong and overacted. Viola Davis looks too tired to be a fighter; and Holly Hunter, normally such a fine actress, is particularly posed and affected in her delivery, her trademark speech impediment, and her gigantic hairstyle. Maggie Gyllenhaal does her best to ignite the enthusiasm of the cast in the same way her character tries to ignite the enthusiasm of the community, brightening her eyes and smiling until her face nearly explodes with goodwill. But it doesn’t work. At just over two hours, the film is 30 minutes too long for a story with no action and little suspense.

Moreover, although Won’t Back Down claims to be “inspired by true events,” it is neither true nor realistic. I couldn’t find a single actual case in which parents have successfully taken over a school under a parent-trigger law. Some have tried, but my research did not turn up any that have succeeded.

If you are genuinely interested in films about failing school systems and want to know how to fix them, I recommend two recent documentaries: Waiting for Superman (2010, directed by Davis Guggenheim) and The Cartel (2009, directed by Bob Bowdon).


Editor's Note: Review of "Won’t Back Down," directed by Daniel Barnz. Walden Media, 2012, 121 minutes.



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Reverse Order

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Grace, a new play by Craig Wright, opens to a minimalist set of simple bamboo furniture, the kind you might find in a Florida beach rental. A front door and a sliding glass door stand alone, but there are no actual walls. Dominating the set is a halo of blue sky and puffy white clouds projected on the back wall and suggesting a hint of heaven. This is appropriate, because the idea of heaven dominates the theme of this play. In fact, for the first ten minutes, the audience sees nothing else. People fidget, waiting for the show to start, wondering why it is delayed. But in fact, like a Pirandello play, it has already begun.

Suddenly the halo of light turns ghastly green. Three characters, two men and a woman, enter the stage and immediately collapse to the floor. After a few moments one of them, Steve (Paul Rudd), rolls up onto the couch in a slumped position and then sits upright. His body shudders, a shot rings out, and he points a gun to his head. The scene is about to rewind. Dialogue is spoken in reverse order. The words are cosmic in timbre but out of context and confusing. More shots ring out and then everyone is standing. It is one of the most stunning opening scenes I have ever witnessed.

And then the sky is bright blue again. Sara (Kate Arrington) is cheerfully folding laundry as Steve enters their apartment with happy news. They have come to Florida to start a chain of “gospel-themed” hotels, and an investor has just committed to sending them $9 million. They are perky and happy and in love. And they believe. Oh, do they believe!

As they praise God and pray their gratitude for being guided to this place at this time for this purpose, Tim (Michael Shannon) limps onto the set shouting “Thank you Jesus F-ing Christ!” It is a primal scream of ineffable pain. His arm is secured in a sling and his face is covered in a mask to heal what appear to be hideous wounds. The set, we learn, functions simultaneously as Steve and Sara's apartment and as Tim’s apartment next door. It isn't a staging shortcut but a metaphor for how lives intertwine. It also suggests that life is far from fair or equal, despite Declarations to the contrary.

Graceis billed as a comedy, probably to attract the fans of Paul Rudd, who is best known for his comic rolls in Judd Apatow's popular and often raunchy movies (Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Anchorman). Grace does have moments of biting irony. Moreover, with Ed Asner cast as Karl, the crotchety old pest control man, one would expect a play filled with offensive anti-Christian jokes and rants. Indeed, when Karl calls Steve "Jesus Freak" — and he does so frequently — the audience roars its approval. "Gospel-themed hotels"? This is, after all, what they came for.

But it isn't what they get. Grace has more in common with Greek tragedy than with light comedy. As the characters come to know one another, the play asks the audience to consider the cosmic questions: What is the purpose of earth life? Does God exist? If so, why do people suffer? If God is going to interfere in the affairs of men, why would he use a miracle to make Steve and Sara rich, but not intervene to prevent Tim’s tragedy? As Robert Frost asks in his poem “Design,” “What but design of darkness to appall? — / If design govern in a thing so small.”

Another question the playwright asks us to consider is whether the world is governed by fate or choice. Several times characters plead, "Can't we just start over?" The opening scene itself is a rewind, suggesting that a do-over would be the greatest miracle of all. Would we change things if given a second chance? Or are our actions predestined?

Although Grace poses the questions, it wisely does not try toprovide the answers. Instead, what we have is a riveting story presented through deftly acted characters who seem as though they could indeed live next door. Tim, a rocket scientist, represents the atheistic view. His earthbound job of filtering out the data noise that interferes with “pure communication” from space is a perfect foil for the worldly noise that believers filter in order to hear the “pure communication” of the spirit. Karl provides not only comic relief but a poignant back story. Asner fans will be sorry to see that he is onstage only briefly, but his part is the subtle heart of the story.

Graceis a brilliant show with brilliant staging and a brilliant cast. Paul Rudd is particularly natural as the earnest and affable young Jesus Freak — er, Christian — who feels compelled to invite everyone he knows to accept the reality of Jesus Christ. He has his standard arguments that seem to prove the existence of God — at least to him. His open smile and eager enthusiasm reveal a surface-bound testimony. Sara is the one who presents the deeper meaning of what it is to be spiritually converted. Perhaps the real gift of miracle lies not in being protected from suffering, but in being helped to endure it.


Editor's Note: "Grace," written by Craig Wright, directed by Dexter Bullard. At the Cort Theatre on Broadway, New York City, until January 6.



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Good Film, Bad Economic Theory

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As Arbitrage begins, Robert Miller (Richard Gere), the respected head of a billion-dollar capital investment firm, is being interviewed on a cable news show. “Competition for our limited amount of money causes asset bubbles, and then they burst,” he explains in terms simple enough for even the most casual moviegoer to understand. I rolled my eyes. This common fallacy of limited wealth was debunked in 1776 by Adam Smith in his magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations. But the notion simply will not die. It has been the source of envy, greed, and empire building for centuries.

The mercantilists believed that there was only so much wealth in the world, only one “pie,” so to speak. Thus the only way to increase one’s wealth was to steal someone else’s piece of the pie. Nations did just that, invading other nations to plunder their wealth. President Obama uses this same misguided argument to fuel the flame of class warfare, claiming that the wealthy have somehow stolen goods and services from the poor. It is the foundation of his redistributionist policies.

However, Smith rightly pointed out that wealth is not finite. We are not competing for a “limited amount of money.” Wealth can be created; the pie can be expanded. By adding time, labor, and innovation, value can be added to raw materials, and new products can be created. A pound of copper can be transformed into pennies, electric wire, or computer processors, for example. Wealth expands. It’s simple economics.

But filmmaker Nicholas Jarecki set out to make a movie, not to teach an economics lesson, so let’s cut him some slack and get back to the film. It’s a good one. Arbitrage is an absorbing, fast-paced financial and crime thriller whose intertwining stories and well-conceived characters create growing tension throughout the film.

In the world of high finance, arbitrage is “the practice of taking advantage of a price difference between two or more markets: striking a combination of matching deals that capitalize upon the imbalance, the profit being the difference between the market prices.” In Arbitrage, the protagonist, Robert Miller (Richard Gere), is in a race against time to execute deals that he hopes will restore balance in both his financial and his personal life.

The mercantilists believed that there was only so much wealth in the world, only one “pie,” so to speak. President Obama uses this same misguided argument to fuel the flame of class warfare.

In his financial world the imbalance could lead to prison time. Like the majority of white-collar embezzlers, Robert has not intended to defraud his investors. He made a bad investment decision, and instead of cutting his losses, he threw more company money at the investment, hoping to buy enough time to turn the bad deal around. Down by over $400 million, he is now trying to sell the company, but that means cooking the books. In order to cover up the gaping hole in his asset ledger, he has borrowed over $400 million and plunked it into the company account for the auditors to see. His intentions are honorable; he plans to repay the short-term debt (with interest) as soon as the deal is signed, and then refill the gaping hole with cash from the sale of the company. He will be left with just a few million for his own retirement, but his shareholders will be protected, and that’s what matters to him.

All of this is illegal, of course, despite his good intentions. When wealthy investors borrow money from one source and lend it to another to earn money on the float it’s called “arbitrage”; when ordinary people do it it’s called “check kiting”; and when CEOs do it to cover up a bad investment it’s called “fraud.”

Looming at the end of the week are two major functions: the sale of his company and a hospital charity event over which his lovely and supportive wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon), is presiding. Ellen needs a check to honor their commitment to the hospital; Robert can’t spare a dime until the company audit clears. “It’s only two million,” she reminds him, and the audience chuckles. They are the perfect family — elegant, rich, charitable, and close-knit. Robert’s son and daughter, Peter (Austin Lysy) and Brooke (Brit Marling), are on the company payroll, Peter as an attorney at large, and Brooke as Chief Investment Officer. Brooke can’t understand why her father wants to sell the company when they seem to be so successful. “We make a great living. We give to the causes we believe in. We have a great life. Why sell?” she asks, perplexed. Brooke is a pretty smart cookie, but Peter is only there because of the family connection. One can’t help but think of pipsqueak Don and sharp-nosed Ivanka “playing office” in the Donald’s empire.

And then there is Robert’s girlfriend, Julie (Laetitia Casta). Of course. When high-powered investment types are in the picture, there is always a mistress. Julie’s art gallery opening is another event converging on Robert’s perfect storm. Julie’s petulant texts insisting that Robert attend her event distract Miller during negotiations for the sale of the company.

Robert is on the verge of success when he is involved in a car accident that could sidetrack his buyers and derail the sale if the news of his involvement gets out. Rather than report the accident, he engages a young acquaintance, Jimmy (Nate Parker), to help him cover it up. Robert still hasn’t figured out that coverups never stay covered up (unless, of course, you are Teddy Kennedy). What follows is a tightly written, superbly acted game of cat and mouse as Robert rushes to stay one step ahead of the police, the negotiators, his injuries, his wife, and his own daughter, who has begun to suspect that someone in the company is defrauding her father.

Arbitrage has opened to limited release, and that’s a shame, because it is a well-made film with a great story and well-developed characters. If it isn’t showing at a theater near you, watch for it on Netflix.


Editor's Note: Review of "Arbitrage," directed by Nicholas Jarecki. Green Room Films, 2012, 107 minutes.



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Americana, Boom and Bust

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Making a documentary is a lot like planting a seed you find in the yard; you don't know what you're going to get until after you start filming. When director Lauren Greenfield began filming The Queen of Versailles, real estate was at its height as an investment, and timeshare mogul David Siegel was a billionaire. He and his engineer turned model turned beauty queen turned trophy wife Jackie were building the largest private home in America: 90,000 square feet, 30 bathrooms, two sweeping formal staircases leading to the pillared ballroom, and more bedrooms than Jackie could count.

What could anyone possibly need with 90,000 square feet of house, you might well ask. Well, you have to put the kids' ice skating rink somewhere, right? And maybe someday they'll even take up skating . . . That was the story Greenfield expected to tell. It isn’t quite the story that she ended up with.

At the start, the Siegels were on top of the world as they posed for photographs and preened for their interviews. Siegel’s Westgate Resorts was the largest timeshare company in the world, and its showcase resort in Las Vegas was eclipsing all the hotels on the Strip. Donald Trump complained that he couldn't sleep at night because the Westgate logo shone into his penthouse at the Trump Hotel. David and Jackie both came from humble beginnings, and both were proud of the lifestyle they had come to enjoy: a world full of chauffeured limousines, private jets, celebrity parties, and an overabundance of stuff.

But having "stuff" is not the same as having class. The Siegels’ dream home was patterned (sort of) after Louis XIV's palace at Versailles, but there is nothing regal or even noble about the Siegels themselves. Let's face it: anyone who lives with dog poop on the carpets or takes the limousine to McDonald's is trashy, not classy. Jackie's painfully gigantic breast implants are symbolic of their lifestyle as a whole: overdone and in your face.

The Siegels seem like nice enough people, but I have friends who live in a trailer park who have more class than they do. The film provides a revealing look at this family of ordinary people living in an extraordinary home with unseemly amounts of money to blow on themselves. It's funny, it's shocking, it's sad — and it's fascinating.

A timeshare provides a way of selling the same property 52 times. The purchasers buy one week at a resort and can use that week every year for the rest of their lives, and their children's lives for that matter, as long as the timeshare resort is still operating (which can become a bit iffy). If you get tired of vacationing in that spot, you can trade your week for a timeshare at a resort in another location. On the surface it seems attractive: timeshare resorts are generally nicer and more personal than motels, and it seems like it will save money to own a vacation place rather than rent a room at a hotel. But the purchasers still have to pay "maintenance fees" when they use the timeshares, as well as monthly mortgage payments, since most people just put 10% down when they buy. These "free" vacations get pretty expensive.

Jackie's painfully gigantic breast implants are symbolic of their lifestyle as a whole: overdone and in your face.

So how did the Siegels sell all those timeshares? You can't cheat an honest man, but you can sucker a greedy one. Timeshare operators bait their hooks with the promise of free stuff: free Disney tickets, free Vegas shows, free dinners, free hotel rooms. Like the little fish who thinks he can nibble around the bait and avoid the hook, these potential clients arrive at the timeshare table thinking — knowing! — that they will just spend three hours listening to a spiel in exchange for hundreds of dollars worth of goods. No way are they going to buy anything. But the timeshare sharks know exactly what kind of bait to use for the fish they have in the tank: the ones who feed on “good deals.” So that's how they position their sales marketing — as a very good deal. Taking advantage of the sellers, almost. Very few couples emerge from a timeshare office without a contract — and a mortgage — for a lifetime of vacations.

Of course, the sales reps don't want to think of themselves as predatory sharks. So Siegel gives them a different spiel. He baits them with statistics showing how going on family vacations regularly saves lives and marriages. He conveniently ignores statistics showing that consumer debt strangles families and destroys the same lives and marriages. The thing is, Siegel seems to believe his own statistics, citing the thousands of people who earn a living because of his empire. One would expect him to have contempt for the people he suckers, but he seems genuinely to believe himself when he insists, "I save lives." If he's a shark, he has convinced himself that he is a nurse shark, dosing his patients with the healing balm of a week in Las Vegas or Orlando every year.

Then — with unforeseen effects on the documentary — came the fall of 2008, and with it the fall of the economy in general and of real estate in particular. Suddenly the easy money that Siegel's company had relied on dried up. Without mortgages, new clients could not purchase the timeshares. His existing clients could not keep up with their own mortgage payments. His employees went from the sales table to the collections department. It was not a happy time for anyone at the company, and it shows on their faces as they call clients to ask for payments.

The Siegels got caught in the same overextended net, and found themselves unable to keep up with their own mortgage payments. At the height of his success, David employed 6,000 people (19 of whom were maintaining his house and nannying his children). He needed a constant stream of sales to service all those salaries. But when mortgage money dried up, so did sales. In the post-2008 interviews, he is pensive and withdrawn, no longer the gregarious host. "I never took anything off the table," he recalls. "I put it all into the business."

Even more damning is his admission about the lake property that he and his wife once owned free and clear in pricey Isleworth, an exclusive community in Orlando with the likes of Tiger Woods and Shaquille O'Neal as neighbors. "I paid cash to build our house," he laments, referring to the 26,000-square-foot house where they lived while Versailles was being built. "Then I borrowed against it to expand the business." Siegel did not erect a legal wall between his company and his personal holdings, as wise business owners do. He foolishly did not realize that the house you live in is not an investment. It is a consumer item. A home.

Soon Siegel needs $400 million to save his Las Vegas resort and $100 million to save the unfinished dream home, Versailles. Jackie starts cutting corners by doing her Christmas shopping at Walmart and letting all but two of the domestic staff go. "If I'd known I was going to have to raise them myself, I wouldn't have had seven children," she says, only half in jest, while cooking a dinner of chicken and corn on the cob. She continues to be a compulsive collector of stuff, but it's mostly cheap stuff. She buys three separate "Operation" games for her kids and gives David "Monopoly" and "Risk" for Christmas. (Odd gifts, when you think about it.)

Meanwhile David blows a gasket and refuses to come to dinner when the front door is left open and the lights are left on; "Don't you people care how much electricity costs?" he complains. But the truth is, Jackie's overspending hasn't caused their financial mess; David's overborrowing has. She might have wasted a million, but he has lost half a billion. Jackie repeatedly says that stress is bringing them closer as a couple, but when David is asked point blank if his marriage is a source of strength to him, he responds bluntly and firmly, "No."

Eventually the bank offers the Siegels a way out: let the Las Vegas resort go, so the company will have enough money to keep operating the rest of its holdings, including the house. But David isn’t willing to give up his $400 million in sunk costs, and he is determined not to let the creditors have the crown jewel of his empire. He's stubborn. Or maybe he just believes in fairy dust. At any rate, he seems a broken man. "Aren't we finished with this yet?" he asks the filmmaker. "We're done. I'm done," he declares softly. It's hard to tell whether he means the film, his business, his family, or himself.

When David is asked point blank if his marriage is a source of strength to him, he responds bluntly and firmly, "No."

The Siegels do not appear in what is probably the most revealing and poignant scene of the film. The Filipina nanny invites the camera into "her" house. It is the children's elegant abandoned playhouse, and she has been given permission to use it as her own hideaway. Furnished with a bed, a dresser, and her personal trinkets, it is the place she goes to be alone and enjoy the quiet. In this film about building the largest single-family home in America, she talks about her simple goal: to provide a house for her father. "Owning a concrete house is so important to people in the Philippines," she explains. She has left her own children behind in the Philippines to raise someone else's children and earn money to send back home to her family. "I tried to give that to my father, but he never got his house. Now he's dead. He is in a tomb. I guess that is his concrete house now," she says with a sigh and a tear of resignation.

The juxtaposition of this nanny's simple dream and the dream house of the self-proclaimed queen of Versailles is simple and powerful. The rise and fall of the Westgate timeshare empire is fascinating. The entire film is funny, sad, and revealing. It's an outstanding documentary, one that Greenfield could scarcely have dreamed of when she started making it. Her creation turned out to be the real “Versailles.”


Editor's Note: Review of "The Queen of Versailles," directed by Lauren Greenfield. Evergreen Pictures, 2012, 100 minutes.



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