No White Saviors Need Apply

 | 

Witty, ironic, meaningful, and delightfully entertaining, Green Book is quite possibly the best movie released in 2018.

It’s based on the true story of African-American pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and the unlikely friendship he developed with Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a Copacabana bouncer and self-proclaimed bullshitter. In fall 1962 Shirley hired Tony to be his driver and bodyguard during a concert tour through the South of the Don Shirley Trio, consisting of Shirley and two white string musicians. What follows is a new twist on the old buddy genre as two opposites, one black, suave, educated, and sophisticated and the other white, uncouth, ill-spoken, and street smart, learn to like each other. The two could not be more different, or more written against stereotype.

Shirley is an isolated individualist — certainly not defined by his race, but confined by Jim Crow nonetheless.

The name of the movie comes from a guidebook published by the Negro Tourists Bureau from the 1930s to the mid-1960s called The Negro Motorist Green Book. As you can guess, it identified restaurants, hotels, and public buildings that travelers of African descent could patronize. It was demeaning, and the Don Shirley Trio could make three times as much money doing gigs in New York, where they were more accepted and could move more freely. But, like Jackie Robinson before him, Don Shirley was out to make a point and blaze trails. He chose the southern circuit on purpose. Oleg (Dimiter D. Marinov), the bass player, understands. “Genius is not enough,” he explains to Tony. “It takes courage to change people’s hearts.”

We also realize that genius is not enough to bring happiness, any more than money is. Shirley is educated, talented, and rich, but he drinks alone. He knows the white European masters of music, but he doesn’t recognize Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, or Sam Cooke. He is a gourmand, but has never tasted fried chicken. He isn’t welcome in the hotel where his companions are staying, but when some men staying at the Green Book hotel invite him to join them for a game of horseshoes, he doesn’t know what to do. “If I’m not black enough, or white enough, or man enough, then tell me — what am I?” he asks Tony in anguish. He is an isolated individualist — certainly not defined by his race, but confined by Jim Crow nonetheless.

The acting throughout the film is superb. Ali won a Golden Globe for his role as the regal, impeccable Shirley; his comedic timing for noncomic dialog is perfect, and wait till you see him play the piano! In fact, the music in this film is stunning. Mortensen packed on the pounds and embraced his inner slob to play the lovable, slovenly, totally unself-aware Tony Lip. Linda Cardellini as Tony’s wife Dolores is so perfect that Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s real-life son and the author of the book on which the screenplay is based, said that he was in tears whenever Cardellini was on camera, because she is so much like his mother. Cardellini is one of those quietly unsung actors who is marvelous in everything she chooses to do. In addition, many of the people in the family scenes are not actors but members of the Vallelonga extended family, and there is an authentic vibrancy as they interact with one another around the table.

Tony is an equal opportunity bigot; he warns Shirley to “watch out for them Krauts and Cuban bastards.”

Unfortunately, following the film’s initial praise from critics when it opened and its three wins at the Golden Globes (for Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Picture) the reputation of this fine film was maligned. Critics recently charged that it’s “racist” and another “white savior story.” Either these people haven’t seen the film, or they don’t understand the “white savior" genre, or they’re terrified to speak out against the progressivist hegemony.

Well, I’m not afraid to speak out. The person who is saved in this film is not the cultured, wealthy, talented black pianist, who hires the bodyguard, pays the bills, and calls the shots. It’s the gauche, ignorant, uncouth, bigoted white restaurant bouncer who takes the job and the orders. And anyone who suggests that any film with a black star and a white star necessarily creates a hierarchy with the black man at the bottom is being, well, just plain racist.

At the beginning of the movie Tony is comfortable in his bigotry. He’s a product of his environment, and his environment has been racist. He’s an equal opportunity bigot, however; he warns Shirley to “watch out for them Krauts and Cuban bastards.” Tony agrees to be Shirley’s driver and manage his itinerary, but he flatly refuses to launder his employer’s clothes or shine his shoes. He needs the money the job will provide, but he’s a little embarrassed by the relationship; when someone questions him about it he responds, “He ain’t my boss — I work for the record company!” At his home, when two black repairmen finish a heavy job, Dolores gives them each a glass of water. Seeing this, Tony fishes the glasses out of the sink and drops them into the trash. He will not be putting his lips where black lips have been. Does this sound like someone with a “white savior complex” to you? I think it’s no coincidence that during his concerts Shirley often plays a jazzy medley of songs from South Pacific, one of which bears the lyric, “You've got to be taught to be afraid / Of people whose eyes are oddly made, / And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade. / You've got to be carefully taught.” This film shows that you can be untaught as well.

Although Tony does rescue Shirley from a couple of beatings, which he is paid to do, Shirley rescues Tony from jail.

The reversal of stereotypes continues when the well-spoken Dr. Shirley offers to correct Tony’s diction and make him more presentable in fine society, an ironic (and witty) race reversal. He even tries to change Tony’s last name to Valley, “something more pronounceable,” in an ironic nod to the emasculating and insidious practice of renaming slaves for the convenience of the owner when they were purchased. While Tony is the star of the movie, Shirley is the power of the relationship. He even owns a throne.

In every way, Dr. Don Shirley is superior to Tony. He is wealthier, more educated, more refined. He lives in a beautifully appointed apartment above Carnegie Hall and wears immaculately tailored suits, while Tony lives in a small apartment in the Bronx and wears ill-fitting bowling shirts. Although Tony does rescue Shirley from a couple of beatings, which he is paid to do, Shirley rescues Tony from jail. Tony is the protagonist on this journey, the one who changes, the one who is saved from his own bigotry to discover a friendship that would last until the end of his life. Not willing to share a glass with a black man? By the end of the film he is walking around in his undershorts and sleeping in the same room.

No, the real concern about this film — the true progressivist fear that’s whitewashed by accusations of white saviorism — is that it does not fit the current narrative of blacks as victims who need saving. (Ironically, at the behest of our mostly white legislators.) The hypocrisy is so blatant it’s maddening. Don Shirley’s “sin” is that he achieved success through hard work and talent — yes, by his bootstraps — and that he espoused a philosophy of peaceful resistance. "You don’t win with violence,” he tells Tony. “You only win with dignity.” Try touting that philosophy with activists today.

Tony is the protagonist on this journey, the one who changes, the one who is saved from his own bigotry to discover a friendship that would last until the end of his life.

In one particularly poignant scene, Shirley and Tony happen to stop near a field of black laborers to check something in the car. Camera filters intensify the lighting of the scene, mimicking the muted colors of a mid-century painting. No words are spoken, and none are necessary. The laborers stand in the fields picking cotton, dressed in headscarves and calico, while Shirley sits in the backseat of a Cadillac DeVille picking lint from his tailored suit with his soft manicured hands — for one reason: Shirley was given not only a talent for music but also a mother who could recognize it, nurture it and sell it. The key to his success is hinted at in the unsung lyrics of “Happy Talk,” also from the South Pacific medley: “You got to have a dream. / If you don’t have a dream / How you gonna have a dream come true?” Yes, Shirley, as well as the fieldworkers, faced racism and Jim Crow laws. Shirley had to live by the Green Book when he traveled, and he hated it. But he wasn’t victimized by it. He had a dream, and he made it happen.

In sum, Don Shirley’s story does not fit the political narrative of black suppression and victimhood that can only be righted through in-your-face activism and hatred toward whites. We are allowed to admire Black Panther as a strong leader and role model without disturbing the political narrative because he comes from Africa and has not been “tainted” by American sins. But we mustn’t tolerate the example of strong African-American characters without the backdrop of white racism. Thus a central theme of Hidden Figures — a film about the remarkable black women mathematicians who worked in NASA’s space program — deals with the women having to leave the building where they worked to use the colored bathrooms in a distant building, despite the fact that NASA already provided integrated bathrooms at that time. Talk about “demeaning.” Hollywood put them in the colored stalls, not NASA.

Similarly, the story of Don Shirley’s remarkable achievement must be sullied through unfair and untrue criticism of the powerful, witty, uplifting movie based on his life, simply because it doesn’t fit the acceptable stereotype. Indeed, I was soundly criticized for praising this film. But I won’t be cowed. And don’t you be fooled: Green Book is quite possibly the best movie you’ll see this year.


Editor's Note: "Green Book," directed by Peter Farrelly. Participant Media, 2018, 130 minutes.



Share This


No Escape from Human Nature

 | 

Are humans instinctively brutal? Do we attend hockey games, boxing matches, and race car events hoping see blood? Do we rubberneck at car accidents hoping to see death? Have we really made no moral progress since gladiator games were used as public executions?

The producers of Escape Room want us to think so. From The Most Dangerous Game (1932) to The Naked Prey (1965) to The Hunger Games trilogy (2012–2015), movies have explored the concept of humans hunting humans and have tapped into the idea of execution as entertainment. And that’s what happens in this movie.

Inspired by the escape-the-room genre of video games, real-life escape room adventures have become popular over the past decade in cities all over the world. Contestants are locked inside a room decorated to resemble a haunted house, prison cell, space station, or other isolated location and are given a time limit during which to discover clues, solve riddles, and find the escape hatch. It’s a fun, socially interactive, real-life alternative to sitting in front of a computer screen discovering clues, solving riddles, and finding the escape hatch.

They soon realize that one person will die in each room. Who will it be? What would you do to make sure it isn’t you?

The premise of Escape Room is simple. Six strangers are invited to compete for a high-stakes prize by solving a series of puzzles in order to escape from a series of rooms. Danny (Nik Dodani) is a videogame nerd who has played in nearly a hundred escape rooms before. Zooey (Taylor Russell) is a shy math prodigy with a talent for solving puzzles. Jason (Jay Ellis) is an investment banker with expensive tastes. Ben (Logan Miller) is a stock clerk for a grocery store. Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll) is an army veteran, and Mike (Tyler Labine) is a blue-collar worker. What has brought these six together? And how will they interact under pressure?

The six soon realize, of course, that this is no game. If they fail, they die.

With its PG-13 rating, Escape Room is high on suspense and low on blood and guts, making it an entertaining film as the audience members work along with the characters to solve the riddles and unlock the doors.

What makes the film interesting are the gradual reveal of the characters’ backgrounds and their interaction with one another as they do what it takes to survive. They soon realize that one person will die in each room. Who will it be? What would you do to make sure it isn’t you? They’re all strangers, after all. They only just met, and they have no personal connection with one another. Will self-interest lead to treachery? Or will goodness win out?

You couldn’t share. There simply wasn’t enough. So you did what you must.

Despite being driven by self-interest, we still seem to want our heroes to be self-sacrificing — at least in Hollywood. We cheered when Han Solo, that maverick businessman of the cosmos, returned to help the resistance in Star Wars. We took heart when Katniss Everdeen refused to kill her youthful opponents in The Hunger Games. We even approved when Hombre (Paul Newman), the ultimate libertarian hero, reluctantly risked his life to rescue the wife of the thieving, racist Bureau of Indian Affairs agent from the stagecoach robbers.

But in reality, when push comes to shove and our own lives are on the line, what would we do to survive?

I recently listened to The Women in the Castle, by Jessica Shattuck, a fictionalized account of the widows of Jewish resistance leaders and their experiences during and after World War II. It’s a sappy, sentimental novel full of 21st-century morality and clichés. For example, Shattuck refers to “racial profiling” when her characters are asked to show their papers, a term that did not exist in World War II. Moreover, her protagonist is cloyingly egalitarian. She comes from an aristocratic background and thus has special access to food and protection. Yet she refuses to accept those special favors, or at least expresses consternation about accepting them. To hell with accuracy; Shattuck seems compelled to imbue her 20th-century protagonist with 21st-century values, no matter what. Such egalitarianism is a fine principle in times of plenty, but when your children are truly starving or threatened by death, you will accept any special opportunity offered to feed and protect them.

Hollywood conveniently whitewashes the truth about the survival instinct in order to celebrate community, sacrifice, and cooperation.

Actual Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl belies Shattuck’s politically correct fantasy about genteel survival morality in his concentration camp memoir Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl reveals a particularly troubling source of survivor’s guilt — he admits that in order to live through the kind of brutal starvation they experienced in the camps, those who survived had to be ruthlessly selfish at times. There might be one piece of potato in the soup pot, and that one piece of potato would determine who had enough sustenance to survive the march to work the next day, and who would collapse in the snow. You couldn’t share. There simply wasn’t enough. So you did what you must to scavenge that bite of potato, reach the warm spot at the center of the mass of prisoners, avoid the front of the line when the camp guards were looking for someone to shoot. You might feel guilty. You might be furtive. But you did it anyway.

In such films as Escape Room, Hollywood conveniently whitewashes the truth about the survival instinct in order to celebrate community, sacrifice, and cooperation. The hero manages to be self-sacrificing and self interested, to fall on the grenade and make it out alive. And that’s OK. After all, we’re looking for escapism, not realism, in entertaining movies like this one.


Editor's Note: Review of "Escape Room," directed by Adam Robitel. Original Film Production, 2019, 100 minutes.



Share This


Remembering the Great War

 | 

As the world prepared to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ending of World War I on November 11, 1918, director Peter Jackson accepted a daunting commission: to create a documentary that would honor the soldiers who fought in the trenches, using the original footage that was filmed 100 years ago.

This would not be a documentary about generals, military strategy, assassinations of obscure archdukes, or theaters of war. Jackson would not interview modern historians about the significance of the war or provide any scripted narration. Instead, Jackson would bring these long-dead soldiers to life by allowing them to tell their own story.

The result is a magnificent piece of work, both in the story it tells and in the technology Jackson used to tell it. This is a film made entirely in the editing room.

This would not be a documentary about generals, military strategy, assassinations of obscure archdukes, or theaters of war.

To create the storyline, Jackson and his team reviewed over 600 hours of interviews with survivors, conducted during various commemorations of the War to End All Wars. Jackson then began selecting portions of the interviews, taking a snippet here and a snippet there, until he was able to cobble together a narrative line that begins with young 16- and 17-year-old boys sneaking off to lie about their ages in order to join the army; follows them into the trenches, villages, and battlefields; and ends with the survivors returning home, many of them injured, many of them “loony” (an earlier term for PTSD), and many of them (according to one of the narrators) facing employment signs that said “Army veterans need not apply.” Their remembrances, told with voices that are cracked with age, are moving and authentic. No historian’s expertise could tell their story better.

Once the storyline had been established, Jackson reviewed 100 hours of footage from the war, selecting the best scenes to match the narration. Much of the footage was third- or fourth-generation, meaning it was a copy of a copy of a copy, each generation becoming less and less crisp. Much of it was either too dark or too light to be viewed clearly. And all of the movements were jerky and unnatural as the filmmakers had to crank the film through the camera by hand, trying to keep it steady at approximately twelve frames per second, which is only half the number of frames per second that we are accustomed to seeing in today’s movies.

And here is where the magic begins. Jackson used computer technology to add frames to the footage, smoothing out the action and making it feel as normal as any film you would see today. Then he colorized the film, using actual uniforms, tanks, and other artifacts from his own considerable collection of WWI memorabilia to help the artists get the colors just right. Next he enlisted professional lipreaders to figure out what the men were saying in the footage, and hired voice actors from the actual regions of each regiment, so the accents would be authentic. He added sound effects made by recording actual tank movements, mortar explosions, bayonet affixions, and other background noises. Finally, he created a natural musical score largely based on whistling and other natural music of the battlefield. The result brings these antique films to life. We simply forget that cameras couldn’t do this 100 years ago.

Jackson brings these long-dead soldiers to life by allowing them to tell their own story.

I’m not usually a fan of colorization; while it does make a film feel more natural for modern viewers, it neutralizes the skillful play of shadow and contrast designed deliberately and carefully by directors of the ’30s and ’40s. They knew what they were doing, and they did it well. However, in this film the colorization is a masterful addition. It brings out details in the film that in black and white were hidden or completely lost. Most notable is the blood; we simply don’t see blood as anything but dirt in black and white.

We also see how terribly young these soldiers were, marching off to war and grinning for the cameras. Although we never know their names, Jackson edits the footage so that several of the men come into view several times, and we begin to identify with them. We see not only the war, but how they lived, what they ate, how they slept, and even how they played. And in many cases, we are seeing them just before they died. It is a sobering, respectful, and impressive film.

They Shall Not Grow Old is neither pro-war nor anti-war; it simply asks us to consider the cost of war — not in the billions of dollars that are spent, but in the millions of lives that are lost. The title of the film is based on a selection from Laurence Binyon’s Ode of Remembrance called “For the Fallen,” which has been used as a tribute to all who die in war:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England's foam.

Lee Teter’s painting “Vietnam Reflections” pays a similar tribute to the fallen, but from a different perspective, that of the grieving survivor. It depicts a man, clearly a veteran though he wears no uniform, mourning at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, where the names of all the fallen are etched on a long, low wall deliberately situated below ground level. His head is bowed in quiet anguish, his arm outstretched and his hand leaning heavily against the wall, willing it to reach inside and touch his comrades on the other side. Unseen by him, because his eyes are closed, several soldiers seem to be standing inside the wall, their reflections ghostly as they reach out, hand to hand, to console the man who, having survived the war, continues to carry its burdens. His guilt is understood by the clothing Teter chose to give him. He is dressed in a business suit; the soldiers wear army fatigues. A briefcase rests on the ground beside the veteran; the soldiers carry field kits. The businessman’s hair is flowing and tinged with gray; theirs is dark and crew cut. The fallen soldiers shall not grow old, start businesses, or have children.

 Most notable is the blood; we simply don’t see blood as anything but dirt in black and white.

And therein lies the survivor’s grief. “We that are left grow old,” as Binyon says in his poem, but survival is neither a reward nor a relief. It is a burden. Age does weary them, and the years do condemn.

No one knows the true story of war except those who experience it, and even then, it is a private, individual grief that none of them can truly share or understand. Consequently, using the voices of the actual soldiers to tell their story was a brilliant narrative strategy for They Shall Not Grow Old. They speak next to one another, but not in conversation with one another. The viewer remains enveloped in the currency of the story and simply observes their experience without explanation, editorializing, or the distraction of a modern historian’s modern interpretation.

The film is moving and impressive, but you’ll have to find it on Netflix or another platform because its theatrical release was limited to just December 17 and December 27. And that’s a shame, because the moment when Jackson switches from the jerky, original, black and white footage to his colorized and edited version is breathtaking. I’m so glad I got to see it on a full-sized screen. If you do see it, make sure you watch the director’s cut with Peter Jackson’s interview explaining how he did it. It’s like listening to a magician’s reveal.


Editor's Note: Review of "They Shall Not Grow Old," directed by Peter Jackson. WingNut Films, 2018, 99 minutes.



Share This


A Newer, Sleeker Santa

 | 

If you’ve had your fill of Christmas movies involving “Bad Santa,” “Bad Moms,” bad romances, bad vacations, bad neighbors, and bad families, move over. I’m with you. And don’t get me started on the pseudo-romantic claptrap that passes for Christmas music these days. If I have to hear one more diva warbling her new rendition of “Silent Night” as though it was the National Anthem at a basketball game or one more ingénue singing that all she wants for Christmas is a new boyfriend, I’ll, I’ll — well let’s put it this way: I’ll deserve that lump of coal in my stocking.

But just when I despaired of ever again seeing a worthy Christmas movie, along came a superb film in the unlikeliest of places: a made-for-Netflix production starring Kurt Russell as that right jolly old elf — only don’t call him “old,” and don’t call him fat!

The film begins with a video montage of joyful Christmases Past enjoyed by Doug (Oliver Hudson) and Claire (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) and their two children, Teddy (Judah Lewis) and Kate (Darby Camp). But this is not going to be a joyful Christmas. It’s the first one without Doug, a firefighter who lost his life by saving someone else’s. Kate, 10, still possesses an innocent belief in the magic of Christmas, but Teddy, 15, is at that age when it isn’t cool to believe in anything or like anyone in one’s family, and his cynicism is worsened by the recent loss of his father.

If I have to hear one more diva warbling her new rendition of “Silent Night” or one more ingénue singing that all she wants for Christmas is a new boyfriend, I’ll deserve that lump of coal in my stocking.

When Claire has to work at the hospital on Christmas Eve, Teddy is assigned to watch over his sister, and the Adventures in Babysitting begin. Kate, an avid videographer (as all young women seem to be these days) hatches a plan to catch Santa (Kurt Russell) on film, and through a series of unfortunate events they end upnot only stowing away on Santa’s souped-up sleigh but also causing him to crash the sleigh and lose his hat, his toy bag, and his reindeer. Unless they can fix the sleigh, corral the reindeer, recover the presents, and deliver them before sunrise, Teddy and Kate will have ruined Christmas. For everyone.

Kurt Russell is a delightful Santa. He isn’t all-knowing. He isn’t all-powerful. He isn’t fat (as he tells anyone who’ll listen), and he sings a mean bluesy “Santa Claus is Back in Town” while he’s sitting in a jail cell. In fact, he’s kind of like the perfect dad. Wink wink.

While Santa is busy saving souls and restoring the spirit of Christmas at the police precinct, the kids have to save the reindeer, the presents, the elves — and each other.

Vivacious, 10-year-old Kate has the innocent glow and easy wonder of childhood. Nothing is beyond her ability to believe, so she has nothing to fear — not when she’s clinging to a flying reindeer, not when she’s trapped inside a toy bag, and not even when she’s surrounded by a hoard of creepy elves. She’s sweet, spunky, and endearing.

Unless they can fix the sleigh, corral the reindeer, recover the presents, and deliver them before sunrise, Teddy and Kate will have ruined Christmas. For everyone.

Teddy is endearing too, but for different reasons. He has lost not only his belief in Santa but also his belief in God. He is lost and broken, and you just want to reach out and fix him. On the steps of a church where a choir is singing his father’s favorite hymn, “Oh Christmas Tree,” Teddy questions the meaning of sacrifice. “He had a wife and two kids, and he gave it all up to help some random strangers,” he laments bitterly, remembering how his father lost his life running into a burning house. I couldn’t help but think of Brent Taylor, the National Guardsman who left his wife and seven young children behind in Utah to serve a fourth tour of duty in the Middle East and was killed by an Afghan infiltrator last month. Shouldn’t some choices and responsibilities preclude other choices and responsibilities? When you choose to have children, especially that many children, shouldn’t you give up risky behaviors like skydiving, motorcycle riding, and fighting a war in some random nation on the other side of the world?

Of course, everything turns out right in the end. Christmas isn’t ruined, and we have a touching, sentimental moment to remind us of the true meaning of Christmas. Unfortunately, many a harried mother has been heard to utter those infelicitous words sometime during December: “You’ve ruined Christmas!” (I might have uttered them myself a time or two over the course of producing 45 Christmases for my family.) It stings, and children feel it. Moms feel it even more. But Christmas is a time for binding wounds, not picking at scabs. We all have the power to ruin Christmas, or to save it. The Christmas Chronicles prepares us to understand the truth about Santa — that his helpers don’t all live at the North Pole. They live in every house, every family, and in every heart where love is.

If you’re yearning for a Christmas movie that isn’t treacly and childish, isn’t cynical and offensive, isn’t about falling in love, and isn’t about dysfunctional families (all families have troubles, but that doesn’t mean they’re “dysfunctional”), this one is for you. It’s witty, sophisticated, adventurous, uplifting, and fun. Better yet, this first-rate, first-run film is available on Netflix in the privacy of your own home. I hope its title, The Christmas Chronicles, suggests another installment next year. Kurt Russell is a Santa to be reckoned with.

Just don’t call him fat.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Christmas Chronicles," directed by Clay Kaytis. Netflix, 2018, 144 minutes.



Share This


Vietnam Revisited

 | 

I never fought in Vietnam. By the time I was old enough to go, I held a high draft-lottery number and a student deferment, and was never called up. I do remember the war, though. Early on, when Kennedy sent in the advisers, I was in elementary school, and saw the pictures on TV and in Life magazine. When Johnson sent in half a million men, I was in junior high, and we argued about the war in class. When Nixon came to power I was in high school, and we debated it more. When the four protesters were killed at Kent State University, I was finishing my first year at the University of Washington in Seattle. My instructor in German cancelled classes and gave us all A’s so we could go protest. I stood aside, watching the protesters flood onto Interstate 5 and block traffic until the cops pushed them off the exit to what are now the offices of Amazon.

My sentiments on the Vietnam War, like those of most Americans, evolved. In 1975, when South Vietnam collapsed, its government appealing for help and the US Congress and President Ford offering none, I was as coldhearted as anyone. I thought, “To hell with Vietnam.” I had been reading about it, thinking about it, arguing about it since I was a kid. During that time 58,000 Americans, of whom nearly 18,000 were draftees, had been killed there, along with maybe a million Vietnamese, and for what? In economists’ terms, the mountain of corpses was a “sunk cost” — and I was ready to watch the whole damn thing sink into the South China Sea.

I was living in Berkeley, California, when the South fell. I remember standing outside my apartment on May 1, 1975, taking photographs of a parade down Telegraph Avenue welcoming the Communist victory. “All Indochina Must Go Communist,” one banner said. Well, I hadn’t evolved that much. For me the fall of South Vietnam was a day for quiet sadness.

By 1975, 58,000 Americans, of whom nearly 18,000 were draftees, had been killed there, along with maybe a million Vietnamese, and for what?

As a kid in junior high, I had supported the war. Recall the geopolitical situation: Communists had eaten up a third of the world, with big bites in Eastern Europe in 1945–48, China in 1949, North Vietnam in 1954 and Cuba in 1959. They had been stopped in a few places — in Malaya, by the Brits — but once firmly established they had never been pushed back.The Cold War’s rules of engagement were that the Communists could contest our ground — what we called the Free World — but we dared not contest theirs. And the end of that road did not look good.

When I used that argument — and “domino theory” is not a good name for it — no one knew the Communist system was facing extinction. People knew it was a poor system for satisfying private wants, but as a foundation for political power, it did seem to pass the Darwin test: it had survived and spread.

All the old arguments came back as I was reading Max Hastings’ new book,Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945–1975. Hastings, an Englishman, is my favorite military historian; for years I have had his 1987 book, The Korean War, on my shelf, and I breezed through his 752-page Vietnam in a few days. In this book Hastings has undertaken to write the narrative of the war, and not all from the American side, but also in the voices of South and North Vietnam. Hastings reveals that there were arguments and worries on their side as well as ours. Many in the North hated the draft and did not want to trek down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to fight. Over the years, 200,000 Northerners deserted while in the South. The Northern soldiers also underwent far more privations than the Americans or their Southern allies, living on rice and water spinach (sold in Asian markets here as on choy) and often starving. On one occasion, Hastings says, they killed and ate an orangutan.

People knew communism was a poor system for satisfying private wants, but as a foundation for political power, it did seem to pass the Darwin test: it had survived and spread

Hastings analyzes the assumptions and the strategies of both sides. To the low-level Vietcong, the war was mostly about getting rid of Americans who looked and acted like the “long-nose” French, Vietnam’s late imperial overlords. The cadres tried to indoctrinate the VC in Marxism, but identity politics had the stronger pull.

Strength of belief and feeling makes a difference in war, and in Vietnam the advantage went to the other side. For a military historian, Hastings makes a key admission when he says that fighting was less important than “the social and cultural contest between Hanoi and Saigon.”

In that contest, the North’s standard-bearer was “Uncle Ho,” the Gandhi-like figure of Ho Chi Minh, who had kicked out the imperialist French. In the South, a society that included landowners, merchants, and bureaucrats who had worked for the French and prayed in the same church as the French, one of the icons was Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky. One observer said that Ky, an air force pilot with slick black hair and a pencil-thin moustache, looked like a saxophone player in a cheap Manila nightclub. Writes Hastings of Ky, “He was publicly affable, fluent, enthusiastic about all things American but the taste of Coca-Cola — and as remote as a Martian from the Vietnamese people.”

Strength of belief and feeling makes a difference in war, and in Vietnam the advantage went to the other side.

South Vietnam was a society rotten with corruption and ill-gotten wealth. “Again and again,” writes Hastings, “peasants were heard to say that whatever else was wrong with the communists, they were not getting rich.” History shows, though, that life is easier in a society in which some are wrongly rich than in one in which the rich are rounded up and shot, leaving everyone else poor. Hastings writes that when the North Vietnamese army rolled into Saigon, the soldiers were amazed at how much stuff the people had.

The Vietcong were terrorists. They beheaded the village chieftains who opposed them, and sometimes buried them alive. The Americans were told to behave better than that, but with their B-52s, high explosives, and napalm they dispensed death wholesale. American soldiers, Hastings writes, went to war “wearing sunglasses, helmets, and body armor to give them the appearance of robots empowered to kill.” Back at base, “Army enlisted men took it for granted that Vietnamese would clean their boots and police their huts.” And also use the bar girls for sexual entertainment.

Hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese still fought and died for their state, and also worked with the Americans. First-generation Vietnamese in my home state are fiercely loyal to the old Republic of Vietnam, and still fly the yellow flag with the three stripes. Apparently they were not a majority of their countrymen, else the conflict would have come out differently.

With their B-52s, high explosives, and napalm the Americans dispensed death wholesale.

As the Pentagon Papers showed, smart people in the US government saw early on that South Vietnam was ultimately not a viable cause. President Kennedy expressed his doubts, but he also believed deeply that his mission was to stop the Communists. “Nothing that came later was inevitable,” Hastings writes, “but everything derived from the fact that sixteen thousand men were in country because John F. Kennedy had put them there.”

Hastings doesn’t buy the theory propagated in Oliver Stone’s movie JFK that Kennedy was on the verge of backtracking when he was shot.

Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, sent half a million men to Vietnam because he didn’t want to be blamed for losing it, as Truman had been blamed for losing China. Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, saw that the war was lost, but he took four years to pull the troops out — an indecent interval in which thousands of Americans and Vietnamese died — because he didn’t want his name on an American defeat. For each of these US leaders, the concern was his country’s prestige (a Sixties word) and his own political standing. “An extraordinary fact about the decision making in Washington between 1961 and 1975,” Hastings observes, “was that Vietnamese were seldom, if ever, allowed to intrude upon it.”

Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon were focused on the Chinese and the Russians, and assumed they were in charge in Hanoi as much as the Americans were in Saigon. Hastings says it was not so. The Russians and the Chinese were frustrated at the North Vietnamese aggressiveness, and repeatedly advised them to cool it. Within the North Vietnamese leadership, Ho often agreed with his foreign advisors, but Hastings says that policy was set not by Ho but by Communist Party General Secretary Le Duan, “though the world would not know this.”

Nixon saw that the war was lost, but he took four years to pull the troops out — an indecent interval in which thousands of Americans and Vietnamese died — because he didn’t want his name on an American defeat.

By Hastings’ account the Americans were not the only ones who made big mistakes on the battlefield. Militarily, the biggest Communist mistake was the Tet (Lunar New Year) offensive of 1968. Le Duan’s idea was to show the flag in all the Southern cities, spark an uprising among the people, and swamp the Southern government in one big wave. In the event, the South Vietnamese didn’t rise. In Saigon, the Vietcong breached the wall of the US embassy, and in Hue, North Vietnamese regulars occupied the town north of the Perfume River for several weeks and methodically executed all their enemies. But everywhere the Communists were driven back.

The Vietcong lost 50,000 dead in Tet and follow-on attacks, five times the combined US and South Vietnamese military deaths. Largely cleansed of Vietcong, the countryside was quieter in the following year, as the North Vietnamese Army built up forces to fill the void left by the defeated Southern guerrillas. Though Tet was a military defeat for the North, the US press played it as a Communist show of strength, thereby tipping the balance of opinion in America against the war. For the Communists, a military defeat became a political victory.

The journalists had played it the way it looked, and it hadn’t looked like a South Vietnamese victory. American journalists had learned to distrust their government’s statements about the war. They should have begun four years earlier by distrusting the Tonkin Gulf Incident, which was used in 1964 to justify the de facto US declaration of war. Of the two supposed attacks on the destroyer USS Maddox, Hastings writes, one wasn’t real and the other was “a brush at sea that could easily and should rightfully have been dismissed as trivial.”

For the Communists, the military defeat of the Tet Offensive became a political victory.

In the case of Tet, US journalists inadvertently helped the enemy, but generally the press gave Americans a more accurate picture of the war in South Vietnam than the government did. The press did a poor job of reporting the shortcomings of the North, but it wasn’t allowed to go there. In 1966, when I was arguing with my schoolmates for the war, I repeatedly heard them say that communism would be a bad system for us, but it was a better one for the Vietnamese. If Americans had good reporting from North Vietnam, I don’t think my schoolmates would have said things like that. We anti-communists were right about one thing: communism turned out to be just as bad as we said it was.

The question remains as to what, if anything, America should have done to stop the Communists in Vietnam. Hastings quotes CIA officer Rufus Phillips describing what America did: “We decided that we were going to win the war and then give the country back to the Vietnamese. That was the coup de grace to Vietnamese nationalism.” But if it was wrong to do that in Vietnam, it should have been wrong in Korea, and it worked there, at least well enough to preserve the Republic of Korea. It can be no surprise that Kennedy and Johnson would try a military solution again.

What was the difference? Hastings touches on this question only briefly, mentioning the obvious: Korea is a peninsula with a border just 160 miles long, while South Vietnam had a border with Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam more than 1,000 miles long, perforated in many spots by the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the complex of corridors through which the Communists infiltrated the South with fighters and supplies. The warfare on the Korean peninsula was conventional, with front lines; in Vietnam it was a guerrilla contest while the Americans were there, becoming conventional only after they had decided to go. The physical climate was different, too. The Koreas were divided on the 38thparallel, about the latitude of San Francisco; the Vietnams were divided on the 17th parallel, about the latitude of Belize City. All of Vietnam is in the tropics, with attendant cloudbursts, humidity, bacteria, and bugs.

American journalists had learned to distrust their government’s statements about the war. They should have begun four years earlier by distrusting the Tonkin Gulf Incident.

And there were political differences. Ho Chi Minh was a hero of national independence; Kim Il Sung pretended to be one, but had a less inspiring story. Also, in Korea the old imperial masters were not long-nosed Caucasians but Japanese.

A penultimate thought. Hastings quotes without comment Lee Kuan Yew, the patriarch of capitalist Singapore, to the effect that if the Americans had not resisted the Communists in Vietnam, “We would have been gone.” Call this the “domino theory” if you like. It was a view I encountered in the early ’90s, when I worked in Hong Kong for Asiaweek magazine. Our founder and publisher, a Kiwi named Michael O’Neill, maintained that the American effort in Vietnam had stopped the Communists from pushing on to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Meanwhile, China had junked communist economics, and Vietnam, unless it wanted to remain poor, would have to do the same. And that, O’Neill argued, meant that the Americans had really won the Vietnam War, even if they didn’t know it.

Or maybe, I thought, we had lost the war but in the long run it didn’t matter — because the war wasn’t the decisive contest.

Twenty-one years after the war ended, I traveled to Vietnam with my wife and six-year-old son. In Danang I met a group of men who had fought for the South and suffered persecution from the victors. They weren’t bitter at the Americans, nor were the tour guys who drove us to Khe Sanh and were too young to remember. In the North, at Ha Long, I chatted up the proprietor of a tiny restaurant who said that during the war, when he had been a truck driver for a state-owned coalmine, he had lost his house to American bombing. I told him I was very sorry my countrymen destroyed his house.

He shrugged. “I have a better one now.”


Editor's Note: Review of "Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945–1975," by Max Hastings. Harper, 2018, 857 pages.



Share This


Three Smart, Suspenseful Movies

 | 

The leaves are settling, the goblins are gone, and you have a bowlful of leftover candy that you convinced yourself you would need for all the trick-or-treaters. Why not sneak those treats into a movie theater and enjoy an evening of intense suspense? I’ve reviewed three gripping new films that will send shivers down your spine. All three contain characters who face demons — of the psychological kind. All three examine the concept of choice and accountability, and all three offer unusual definitions of freedom.

Drew Goddard and Jason Blum are the new masters of suspense, lifting the genre above the slasher model of the ’80s and ’90s and the bloodfests of Quentin Tarantino to return to the psychological suspense dramas that were made in the ’50s and ’60s. Their films are characterized by sophisticated scripts, top quality cinematography and music, and lavish, almost garish, set dressing. After writing and directing 2012’s remarkable The Cabin in the Woods (see our review), Goddard explained, “The horror genre gets you in touch with our primal instincts as a people more than any other genre I can think of. It gives you this chance to sort of reflect on who we are and look at the sort of uglier side that we don't always look at, and have fun with that very thing. . . . It lends itself well to a sort of freedom.” His latest film, Bad Times at the El Royale, is an ensemble piece that does just that, taking us on a dark and stormy night to a hotel as eerie and secretive as Hitchcock’s Bates Motel.

The suspense is delicious, and the changing perspectives don’t just throw us off balance gratuitously; in some ways they recalibrate us.

The movie begins almost like a stage play; the scene, an oversized hotel room with an unnaturally wide expanse of floorspace in the middle where actors could mingle and emote, fills the screen and is as wide as a stage. A bed sits far stage right and a desk far stage left, with a small couch under the window next to the foot of the bed. A man enters, backlit through the hotel room door. He crosses stage right to the window and looks outside uneasily, then crosses downstage left to deposit his bag and crosses back to the window, where he closes the curtains furtively and finally turns on the light so he can get to work. The motions feel staged and unrealistic. That is their purpose. Nothing is going to be realistic in this movie.

Scene 2 occurs ten years later at the same hotel, circa 1968 (assuming that a particular news item on a black and white TV is meant to be a live broadcast). Several characters are gathering in the once-glamorous lobby of the rundown El Royale Hotel to check in for the night; we assume that at least one of them is related to the action in the opening scene. Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm), who introduces himself as a vacuum cleaner salesman on a junket, displays stereotypically sleazy gaucherie, especially toward Darlene (Cynthia Ervio) a young black woman carrying a bundle of bedrolls. By contrast, Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) treats Darlene with genteel manners that may or may not be sincere, offering to carry her luggage to her room for her. The fourth guest (Dakota Johnson) is cool, glamorous, and haughtily aloof to them all as she selects a room far from the rest of the guests.

The El Royale is loosely based on the old Cal-Neva Hotel in Lake Tahoe, whose claim to fame (besides having once been owned by Frank Sinatra) was that the state line ran directly through the lobby. “Would you prefer the warmth and sunshine of the West, or the hope and opportunity of the East?” Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), the El Royale’s desk clerk, asks expansively as customers arrive. “California rooms are a dollar extra,” he adds matter-of-factly. Well, of course.

Yes, a National Geographic documentary is the scariest movie I have seen in ages.

It’s a significant decision, because choice and chance are important themes in this film, where nothing is as it seems and choosing wisely can be a matter of life and death. Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? Whom should we trust? What deep secrets are kept at the El Royale, and can the truth set them free? The plot backtracks and restarts numerous times as it is retold through the perspective of the various characters, insisting that our perspectives change too.

Occasional allusions to events that took place in the ’60s become important later in the film. The vintage clothing, automobiles, music, and mid-century furnishings also contribute to the rich Hitchcockean atmosphere. The women are stylish, the men are masculine, the young desk clerk is troubled, and Goddard even kills off a key character just a third of the way into the story, à la Hitch’s main character in Psycho. The suspense is delicious, and the changing perspectives don’t just throw us off balance gratuitously; in some ways they recalibrate us. Horror might not be your genre, but this film is just about perfect.

Another film in which being off balance can lead to instant death is Free Solo, a National Geographic documentary about Alex Honnold’s breathtaking attempt, last year, to become the first person to solo climb the 3,000-foot granite face of El Capitan in Yosemite. Yes, a NatGeo doc is the scariest movie I have seen in ages. My heart was pounding and I had to look away from the screen several times as Alex fought to balance on a tiny toehold here, a half-inch protrusion there, making his way up the nearly perpendicular giant — without a rope or parachute. One slip, and he would be dead. In terms of Goddard’s definition of the horror genre, Free Solo reveals the psychological need to “get . . . in touch with . . . primal instincts, . . . [offers a] chance to sort of reflect on who we are . . . and have fun with that very thing. . . . It lends itself well to a sort of freedom.”

What in the world would possess someone to pursue a sport in which one false move can plunge an athlete to his death?

Alex Honnold is, by his own admission, an odd duck. Raised by an emotionally distant father and a mother for whom no accomplishment was ever enough, he notes that he had to teach himself how to hug when he was in college after noticing that hugging was something other people did. He never heard the words “I love you” from his parents. He earns “about as much as a moderately successful dentist,” through sponsorships, books, and speaking engagements, yet he lives in his car, a minivan that he modified to include a small stove, a refrigerator, and a platform bed. He eats his car-cooked meals from the skillet with a spatula.

This background is offered as a kind of psychological answer to the obvious question: What in the world would possess someone to pursue a sport in which one false move can plunge an athlete to his death? Alex is possessed by personal demons that only seem to leave him when he is enjoying the freedom of the climb. As head cinematographer and co-director Jimmy Chin observes, “You have to be perfect in this sport. It’s like being in the Olympics where you either win the gold medal, or you die.” Dozens of extreme climbers have indeed fallen to their deaths, adding to the suspense of Alex’s pursuit.

In order to successfully ascend the mountain without a rope, soloists must practice repeatedly with ropes and a belaying partner until they know every inch, every crook, every cranny of the face. As Alex trains for the climb, he slips off the face and dangles over the canyon floor — a lot. This adds to our suspense as he finally starts the main adventure. Chin wisely decided to widen the angle of the documentary and include the filmmakers as part of the story, and we see how carefully they, too, prepare to document the feat. They must select the best vantage points along the way, roping into the face with their heavy cameras while remaining out of sight and making sure they don’t interfere, physically or psychologically. Jimmy’s greatest fear isn’t not getting the shot; it’s causing a distraction that might lead to his friend’s death.

The cameramen become our vicarious eyes and hearts. One repeatedly sets his camera and then turns his back to the cliff, unable to watch what might be his friend’s death. I found myself looking away too, willing him to get to the top and end the agony of watching him glide impossibly up the sheer expanse of the mountain.

Despite the agony of suspense, the film is breathtakingly beautiful. The camera work is exquisite, capturing the magnificence of the mountain. It’s matched by the grandeur of the music and the precise choreography of the climb. Alex knows exactly what he is doing; he has memorized all 3,000 feet of the granite precipice. It’s the scariest and most awe-inspiring film I have seen in ages. The look of joy on Alex’s face as he turns to the camera after a particularly grueling section says it all. To quote Drew Goddard again, this kind of horror “lends itself to a sort of freedom” that few of us will ever know.

One crewman repeatedly sets his camera and then turns his back to the cliff, unable to watch what might be his friend’s death.

Our third film is horrifying in that it isn’t fantasy — it’s fiction, yes, but it’s based on true-life experiences of gang life, drug culture, and trigger-happy police officers. The Hate U Give, based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Angie Thomas, tells the story of a family determined to escape by staying put. They reside in a rundown, longstanding black neighborhood, but they send their children to a private school where they have a better chance of getting a good education and, let’s face it, living to adulthood without being sent to prison. Passing by the public high school, the main character, Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) tells us in voiceover narration, “That’s where you go to get jumped, high, pregnant, or killed.” “Get educated” isn’t on the list. And that’s one of the horrors presented by this film.

Starr must learn to navigate two worlds as she moves between her mostly white school and her mostly black neighborhood. Her school friends play at being cool by listening to rap music, dancing with a cool R&B vibe, and using black slang. But because she is truly black, Starr studiously avoids the vernacular of her black world. She fits in by not joining in. Meanwhile, at home she hangs out with her childhood friends (those who are still alive) while trying to remain safely aloof from the fights and drama that break out between them. She has a complicated relationship with many of the neighborhood kids; “Kenya’s mama had Seven with my daddy, but she’s no relation to me,” she explains to someone at a party.

When a fight breaks out at the party, Starr’s childhood friend and somehow-relation, Khalil (Algee Smith), grabs her hand and drives her to safety — almost. When he is pulled over by a cop (for the egregious crime of changing lanes without signaling) Starr quickly puts both hands on the dashboard as her daddy (Russell Hornsby) has taught his family to do, and frantically urges Khalil to do the same. But Khalil isn’t about to be submissive; with the swagger that comes from knowing you’ve done no wrong, he challenges the police officer. As the confrontation escalates, Khalil is shot and killed. Even though you know it’s going to happen, the moment is shocking, brutal, horrifying.

The public high school is “where you go to get jumped, high, pregnant, or killed.” “Get educated” isn’t on the list.

What follows is a fair and complex assessment of all the things that have led to this moment. Starr’s uncle Carlos (Common), a black police officer, explains to Starr that cops have to make split-second decisions based on what they see and what they expect. He tells her that he probably would have ordered Khalil out of the car too, in order to keep an eye on him while running his license. Starr listens but then asks, “Would you have told a white business man in a Mercedes to get out of the car?” “Probably not,” he admits.

The message is clear: like Alex Honnold in Free Solo, those who challenge the granite face of the law need to respect the power of the opponent, even when they have a right to be where they are. Keep your hands where they belong and focus on potential risks. The foe doesn’t care who you are, what you’re doing, or how innocent you might be; it has all the power, and foolish grandstanding can result in instant death.

Meanwhile, the police try to smear Khalil by painting him as a common drug dealer. “Good riddance,” is the message, even if he wasn’t doing anything wrong at the moment he was shot. They want Starr to testify against the local drug lord, King (Anthony Mackie), who controls the neighborhood and oversees the violent turf wars (and happens to be her half-brother Seven’s father). While protestors chanting “What do we want? Justice!” at City Hall are being pummeled by tear gas, King is tossing fire bombs at local black businesses that are standing up to his authority. This message is clear too: the problems in the ’hood aren’t black and white, in the racial or the metaphorical sense.

The foe doesn’t care who you are, what you’re doing, or how innocent you might be; it has all the power, and foolish grandstanding can result in instant death.

According to rap artist Tupac Shakur, “Thuglife” is an anagram for “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everything.” One of the common threads in these three films is that children who are traumatized or neglected often grow up to commit traumatic or traumatizing acts. The Hate U Give offers much to think about as we figure out how to solve the problems in our urban neighborhoods, beginning with the public school system that acts as a racial boundary and the drug laws that act as a direct pathway to easy money followed by death or prison. That is true horror, in ways beyond anything we ever see on Halloween.

Bad Times at the El Royale, directed by Drew Goddard. Twentieth Century Fox, 2018, 141 minutes.

Free Solo, directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. National Geographic, 2018, 100 minutes.

The Hate U Give directed by George Tillman Jr. Fox 2000 Pictures, 2018, 133 minutes.




Share This


Beauty’s in the Eye of the State

 | 

For propaganda scholars, Nazi propaganda is especially fascinating. This is because of its intensity, its virulence (i.e., its emotional manipulative power), and its coordinated use of all the media of persuasion. That is, while most regimes use propaganda, and many regimes build formidable propaganda machines — the Soviet Union, England and America in the world wars, and contemporary communist cum fascist China come to mind — few have created the concentrated, coordinated machine that the Nazis did. Only the Soviet Union and Communist China approached this level. All German media — radio, books, newspapers and magazines, movies, painting and sculpture, theater, and so on — were controlled by the regime, and employed to spread its ideology and create support for its power and its policies.

The films I want to briefly review here are two recent documentaries about an interesting Nazi propaganda film. The original propaganda film — at about 30 minutes, really a “short” — introduced the German public to a new youth organization meant to inculcate Nazi values in young women. It was made in 1938 and intended for release in 1939. This original propaganda short was about the Belief (in the sense of “Faith”) and Beauty Society. It is the subject of these two recent documentaries, both conveniently available on one disk, and both with English voiceovers. (The original 1938 film is not on the disk in its entirety, perhaps because no good prints of it remain).

While most regimes use propaganda, and many regimes build formidable propaganda machines, few have created the concentrated, coordinated machine that the Nazis did.

The first (shorter) recent documentary, is entitled The BDM Movement — Belief and Beauty: The Education of 17 to 21 Year Old Girls in the Third Reich. It runs 50 minutes, and appears to have been made in 2006. The second — included in the disk’s “Bonus Materials” — is entitled Zest for Life and Physical Joy. It runs 30 minutes, and is labeled as having been produced in 2008. Both are brought to us by the filmmaking company ZeitReisen Verlag, credited to Marc Meyer zu Hartum, and edited by Ralf Oltersdorf. They were translated into English by Chris Crawford, with an English narration by Elisa Moolecherry.

I want, first, to give a short historical introduction to the general background of this realm of Nazi propaganda. I will then present a brief review of the shorter documentary (Zest for Life and Physical Joy), and explain how it differs from the longer one. I will finish by raising two questions about these documentaries.

Let’s start with the regime’s use of youth groups as a powerful mechanism of propaganda.

Hitler’s propaganda machine was mindful of the crucial role of society’s “mediating structures” — family, schools, churches, sports clubs, unions, and so on — in molding people’s minds. But the regime put a special focus on youth organizations. It realized that by intervening early and heavily, it could make young people true believers, who would be the fodder of the regime itself. This was nothing new in world history; recall the Jesuit propagandist and missionary St. Francis Xavier, who allegedly said: "Give me the child until he is seven and I'll give you the man."

The regime realized that by intervening early and heavily, it could make young people true believers, who would be the fodder of the regime itself.

In particular, the Nazi Party from its founding understood the importance of youth organizations. The Boy Scouts were established in Britain in 1909 and spread rapidly around the world — including Germany. As early as 1922 the nascent National Socialists had an ancillary youth arm, which grew as the party grew. By early 1933, the main regime youth organization, the Hitler Youth, had 100,000 members. And by the end of the year it had two million members.

Besides building their own enormous youth groups, the Party worked to eliminate other such groups. It first banned youth organizations allied with other political parties, such as the Communists. By the end of 1936, the regime banned the International Boy Scouts and all other youth organizations, and made joining the Hitler Youth mandatory (except for Jewish children, who were of course banned). That year it grew to four million members. By 1939, over 90% of all German youth belonged to regime youth groups, and attendance was mandatory.

The Hitler Youth enrolled children from 10 to 18 years and had separate divisions for boys and girls. For boys aged 6 to 10, there was the Little Fellows organization. They mainly just hiked and camped. For boys aged 10 to 12, there was the German Young People (Deutsches Jungvolk). Here the boys moved from just camping to marching in unison and map reading. Finally, boys aged 13 to 18 went into the Hitler Youth (Hitler-Jugend) proper. Here the emphasis was on military preparedness.

By 1939, over 90% of all German youth belonged to regime youth groups, and attendance was mandatory.

Girls at age 10 joined the League of Young Girls (Jungmädelbund), and at age 14 transferred to the League of German Girls (Bund Deutscher Mädel, or BDM). Its focus was on physical fitness and personal hygiene. Specific goals included being able to run 60 meters in 14 seconds, march for two hours, swim 100 meters, and be able to make a bed. From ages 17 to 21, the girls could volunteer to join the BDM Belief and Beauty Society (BDM-Werk ‘Glaube und Schönheit’). As adults, the women could then join the National Socialist Women’s League.

The youth organizations shared several general goals. Their first general goal — indeed, the main one — was of instilling support for the regime. This included developing a cultish adoration for the Fuehrer. This was the Fuehrer-Prinzip, or Leader Principle, under which Hitler was seen not just as the leader but as the nation incarnate and the paragon of all Aryan virtue. Moreover, the Hitler Youth children had explicit lessons in German racial theory. For example, as I have noted elsewhere (“Selling Genocide II: The Later Films,” Reason Papers 39.1 (2017) 97-123)., Hitler Youth had to watch the vicious anti-Semitic screed The Eternal Jew at their meetings.

It was not uncommon for Hitler Youth to turn in their own parents to the Gestapo for exhibiting dissent.

But another general purpose was to create a kind of para-familial mechanism to counterbalance and police the family itself. Just as the Waffen SS was a paramilitary organization that fought alongside the regular Wehrmacht (traditional military) and also monitored and balanced it, so the Hitler Youth organization worked alongside the family to raise the children, while also monitoring it. It was not uncommon for Hitler Youth to turn in their own parents to the Gestapo for exhibiting dissent.

The third general purpose was to push physical fitness, preparing the children physically for being proper Nazi citizens. For the boys, this started out as rigorous physical play and exercise, military drill. But with the outbreak of war in 1939, the amount of military training the older boys underwent increased dramatically. It included grenade-throwing, digging trenches and foxholes, gas defense, handling barbed wire, and gaining proficiency in small arms. By 1943, all boys 17 and older were conscripted into the military. By 1945, even younger boys were drafted. Boys who refused or hid from the draft were executed if caught. Boys were moving directly from the Hitler Youth to the battlefield, and were in essence suicide squadrons. Ill-prepared for actual combat, they were often easy kills. (An excellent film exploring the use of Hitler Youth as cannon-fodder is Die Brucke [The Bridge], a 1959 West German movie based upon a real event, in which a group of conscripted 16-year-old schoolboys dies defending an unimportant bridge.)

For the girls, the focus was on physical health (fitness and hygiene), to prepare them not for combat but for their ideologically ideal role as Aryan wives and mothers. Truth be told, the ideal roles were in reverse order: mothers, preferably married, but in any case mothers . . . mothers of more Aryans, which is to say, more fighters to advance the great Aryan will to power. As Dr. Jutta Ruediger, leader of the League of German Girls (starting in 1937) put it, “The task of our girl’s league is to raise our girls as torch bearers of the nationalist socialist world. We need girls who are at harmony between their bodies, souls and spirits. And we need girls who, through healthy bodies and balanced minds, embody the beauty of divine creation. We want to raise girls who believe in Germany and our leader, and who will pass these beliefs on to their future children.”

By 1945, even younger boys were drafted. Boys who refused or hid from the draft were executed if caught.

It was to propagandize this ideal that the Belief and Beauty Society was created. It was set up in 1938 by the National Youth Leader Baldur von Schirach. The society’s education was built around a school of gymnastics, created by Hinrich Medau — the Medau Gymnastics School. The Medau school — to put it in simplistic terms — more or less melded gymnastic workout with organized dance moves. For those of you old enough to know about two legendary gentlemen, the first an early advocate of gym workouts and the latter an early movie choreographer: imagine Jack LaLanne combined with Busby Berkeley. The Belief and Beauty Society focused on women’s obligations, fashion, and motherhood. It developed feminine sports and dancing, home economics, and education in the arts, music, and of course politics.

Let’s now briefly summarize A Zest for Life and Physical Joy. The introduction explains the history of the Belief and Beauty Society. The narrator notes that the society originally had eleven “work groups,” each designed to appeal to the interests of girls, with the idea that each girl joining the society could pick one that interested her particularly.

The narrator notes that the 1938 film was produced to show young women the various things the society had to offer. She also tells us that the head of the society, Clementine zu Castell, got Leni Riefenstahl’s main cameraman Hans Ertl to make the movie, which was filmed around in and around Munich, in areas familiar to Ertl from his earlier work filming Riefenstahl’s documentary of the 1936 Olympics.

We see the young women making dresses, while the narrator tells us they are learning how to design and make “functional, healthy, and lovely clothing” and “develop good taste.”

We then see footage from the original film. It opens with the symbol of the society, and we listen of the score by Hans-Joachim Sobanski. Then appears a group of girls running down steps dressed in shorts and T-shirts. Carrying large gym balls, they quickly form a line and dance in a circle, where they work out in unison, tossing the balls. We see some of them doing Olympic-style events: such as javelin and discus throwing, sprinting, and so on.

The original film cuts to footage of a young woman preparing food, while a narrator notes that the BDM helps girls acquire such skills through home economics courses. We watch them practice setting tables and weaving. We see them making dresses, while the narrator tells us they are learning how to design and make “functional, healthy, and lovely clothing” and “develop good taste.” We watch as some of the girls model what they made, to the applause of the other BDM members (in their uniforms).

Next up are girls sculpting figures, as the narrator tells us that the society advances the girls’ knowledge of culture and the arts. We move to interior design, where the announcer tells us, “The modern girl should be educated about tidy living early on. She will have to know this prior to getting married.”

We cut to girls in their uniforms marching and singing along a lakeshore. As chickens scatter, the girls march into a farming village. The narrator tells us that girls from the city work closely with the country girls and celebrate the end of the day with a nice swim.

The narrator discusses the main elements of this type of gymnastics: “Charm, grace, and rhythm combine to form a joyful affirmation of life.”

Then there are girls who are into equestrian activities. The announcer tells us that no longer is riding just for the privileged; girls of all backgrounds can now “enjoy this wonderful sport.” We watch the young women engaged in competitive rowing, after which the film turns to the “health service group,” wherein young women are taught how to help those who are sick or injured. The instructors are doctors, we are told. Olympic swimming is another group the girls can join, along with diving and fencing. Also there are synchronized gymnastics for “happy girls of our great time.” We watch as young women twirl hoops, work with Indian clubs, and march in unison wearing white dresses.

There the original film seems to end, but the documentary continues, showing footage of the Medau School of rhythm gymnastics, which we learn was made popular by Hinrich Medau in Germany in the 1920s. The narrator discusses the main elements of this type of gymnastics: “Charm, grace, and rhythm combine to form a joyful affirmation of life.” While we watch girls in very short white frocks with bikini briefs dance in unison, we are told about Medau’s life.

The narrator adds that while putting together this documentary, footage was discovered that was not in the original propaganda film. We see the women “moving organically” — hopping, skipping and prancing in unison, and then using the gym balls. The film notes that performances of the Medau routines were given during the 1936 Olympics. We discover also that National Youth Leader Baldur von Schirach saw an exhibition while visiting England in 1937. When he returned to Germany, he was able to enlist Medau’s support for the BDM society. But then the war expanded to become a world war. The Medau School continued in Berlin despite the bombings, but had to move to Breslau in 1945 when its headquarters were bombed. Shortly thereafter it closed. In 1948, however, it reappeared, and in 1952, moved to its permanent new home in Coburg, where it continues to this day. The film ends with footage of various dance routines.

The women discuss the movement and the girls’ exhibitions with evident pride, and Ruediger recounts with sadness that the original Nazi film was cancelled by Goebbels shortly before release.

The longer recent documentary about the original 1938 film includes most or all of the footage of the shorter one just discussed, with the same score. The longer version discusses more of the whole youth movement. It also includes extended 20th-century interviews with key players. We hear from Dr. Jutta Ruediger and Clementine zu Castell, about how they were recruited to run this movement, and from Hanna Lincke and Hannelou Canzler (Koenigsberg leaders of the BDM). Ruediger describes how Medau worked to stage the girls for Ertl, and the narrator gives us more information about the groups within the society. These women discuss the movement and the girls’ exhibitions with evident pride, and Ruediger recounts with sadness that the original Nazi film was cancelled by Goebbels shortly before release as scheduled in October 1939. But this film too ends abruptly, with a note that the society was disbanded at the end of the war in 1945.

Despite their abrupt and somewhat inconsequential endings, these documentaries about an obscure but interesting propaganda short raise two important issues.

First, in neither of them are any of the architects of the young women’s society asked about the role their work played in what was undoubtedly one of the most evil regimes that ever existed. Why? We are told how wonderful the Medau school of synchronized gymnastics was, and how wonderfully poised and attractive the girls in it became. But what about the wider role their work played in instilling Nazi ideology in the girls, i.e., as enablers and supporters of it?

Second, why was the polished and visually interesting short documentary, filmed by Riefenstahl’s cinematographer and in her style, never released in October 1939 — never in fact released at all?

It’s an interesting puzzle. This was a film which presented “Aryan” young women are poised, fit, slim, and sexy — in a somewhat distantly anatomical way — and the presentation seems reasonably successful. It conveys what seems to have been the regime’s paragon of German womanhood. Yet the regime refused to release it. Warum?

At no point are any of the architects of the young women’s society asked about the role their work played in what was undoubtedly one of the most evil regimes that ever existed. Why?

Every reader is invited to speculate. For what it’s worth, my speculation is this. The movie was made in 1938, for release in 1939. But in 1939, war broke out — actual war, not warlike but costless conquests (of Alsace-Lorraine, Austria, and the 1938 capitulation by Britain and France of Czechoslovakia) that Hitler enjoyed from 1933 to 1938. It apparently surprised Hitler that England and France, who had been so compliant with his prior demands, declared war upon his invasion of Poland.

At this point, Hitler’s nation had about 87 million inhabitants, counting those of its possessions, and was facing Poland, France, Britain, and Britain’s English-speaking colonies, with a total of about 160 million inhabitants. My suspicion is that the regime realized in 1939 it would be dramatically undermanned. It probably drew the reasonable conclusion that German women would have to assume more active roles (as doctors, nurses, construction workers, industrial workers, and so on) than those of subservient mothers. Goebbels canceled the movie.

But you can see it analyzed now, and enjoy (if that is the right word) the insight it offers into an all-encompassing propaganda state. Ultimately, it shows how a police state such as the Nazi regime put great effort into controlling reproduction itself for state goals. In the case of the Nazis, the clear aim was to get girls prepared to reproduce rapidly, so that the “non-Aryans” — especially in the East — could be rapidly replaced by Aryans.


Editor's Note: Review of "Belief & Beauty — The History of the Nazi BDM Movement (Glaube & Schonheit)." 50 mins + 30 Mins, 2006, International Historic Films.



Share This


Casualties of the Drug War

 | 

White Boy Rick is a rough and complex biopic based on the story of Richard Wershe, Jr., the youngest (at 14) undercover drug informant ever to be recruited by the feds to help them go after the kingpins in the drug trade. At times touching, as when Rick (Richie Merritt) scavenges a stuffed animal from a neighbor’s trash to take home for his sister Dawn (Bel Powley), and at times enraging, the film shows the dark underside of the war on drugs in all its ugly glory: corrupt cops, heartless investigators, violent turf wars, strung-out druggies, and the poverty and despair that often lead people into the trade.

The story is set in mid-’80s Detroit, against a backdrop of empty factories, rat-infested playgrounds, and worn-out homes in worn-out neighborhoods. Richard Wershe Senior (Matthew McConaughey) is a hustler with a gun dealer’s license, and the film opens in the carnival-like atmosphere of families enjoying a gun show, popcorn and all. (I remember attending “hard money” investment conferences in the ’70s and early ’80s where guns were legally sold alongside exhibit booths offering survival gold and freeze-dried foods. How times have changed!)

The film shows the dark underside of the war on drugs in all its ugly glory: corrupt cops, heartless investigators, violent turf wars, strung-out druggies, and the poverty and despair that often lead people into the trade.

Wershe Sr. has a dream: VCRs have recently arrived on the scene, and he wants to open a video store. “All we need is a stake!” he tells Rick. That video store is his rabbit farm (Of Mice and Men), the dream that sustains him through all the disappointments of his life: a jobless economy, a daughter strung out on crack, a son who has dropped out of school, and a source of income that’s sketchy at best. He loves his family, but he can’t provide a good life for them. He has a license to sell registered guns at a meager profit, but the real money is in the “upsell” — the illegal homemade silencers he offers along with them. “The gun is the burger — but these are the fries,” he tells Rick, explaining how fast food servers are trained to make you think you want something you don’t really need. “Now go out and sell you some fries.”

Ironically, FBI agents Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Byrd (Rory Cochrane) and Detective Jackson (Brian Tyree Henry) ply Rick with a burger and fries as they enlist his services as an undercover narc, threatening to arrest his father for illegal firearms sales if the boy doesn’t comply. This scene was particularly poignant to me, because several of my students at Sing Sing have told me that McDonald’s is the drug of choice for recruiting young drug runners in the streets. “You got no one at home watching out for you, and then some big kid on the block buys you McDonald’s and wants to be your friend. He gives you a cheeseburger and you hold his gun for him. And you end up in here.” Oh, so subtly, with a burger and fries, the film equates the Feds, the dealers, and Rick’s father. The kid never had a chance.

It makes no sense to save for the future when there isn’t a future in sight.

The scenes that follow show Rick immersing himself in the drug culture, with its fast money, easy women, and useless luxuries. These scenes also reminded me of stories my Sing Sing students have told me. “You spent it all as soon as you got it, because you knew this wasn’t going to last. We all knew we’d end up in here. So enjoy it while you can. I had a Mercedes, a big apartment, big parties, I was livin’ the life. Now I’m here.” Rick says something similar to Dawn: “It was good when we were kids. For a while.”

Hopelessness in impoverished neighborhoods often leads people to seek instant gratification and engage in risky behaviors. It makes no sense to save for the future when there isn’t a future in sight. There aren’t any rabbits, and there isn’t any video store. It’s all a pipe dream, mostly found at the bottom of a crack pipe. So grab a few laughs and some ass while you can. There isn’t going to be any more where you’re going.

The feds are no better than the drug lords, and probably worse, because they claim to be the good guys. Driven by moral relativism, they see no problem with getting kids high, sending them into dangerous situations in order to catch drug dealers, and then leaving them to deal with their addictions — and their incarcerations — when they’re no longer useful. Dawn gets strung out on coke provided by her boyfriend, but Rick gets strung out on money provided by the coke the feds give him for his undercover stake. When the feds drop him and that money source dries up, Rick is already hooked. “We gotta do something!” he says to his father in desperation. “We gotta make some money!”

This is a world Liberty readers seldom see and few legislators, journalists, and do-gooders of any sort understand. In one bitterly ironic scene of the movie, the film Footloose is playing on a television moments before automatic weapons riddle the room with bullets. (Footloose, you may recall, is set in a white middle-class community where the biggest threats to happiness are curfew violations, joyriding, and uncontrolled dancing.) “Get out of Yonkers!” is the advice I fairly scream at the families I know there, where poverty, drug use, crime, and hopelessness form a dragnet on their children. But they can’t let go of the safety net — their Section 8 housing — and they stay.

The feds see no problem with sending kids into dangerous situations in order to catch drug dealers, and then leaving them to deal with their addictions — and their incarcerations — when they’re no longer useful.

Rick Wershe may have been the youngest teen to be recruited as an undercover informant to avoid arrest, but he certainly isn’t the only one. According to an article by Tony Newman of Drug Policy Alliance, it has become all too common to bust people for minor possession and then threaten them with decades in prison unless they provide evidence on someone else -– and for those frightened, untrained informants to end up dead. Rick didn’t end up dead, but he might as well have, when his handlers stood idly by as he was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole — for selling cocaine. It was the longest sentence for a nonviolent crime ever imposed, until Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for running the Silk Road website.

I watched the tears quietly trickle down 17-year-old Rick’s cheeks in the closing scenes of the film as he spoke through prison glass to his equally distraught father, and the tears quietly streamed down my cheeks too. I know too many of these young men — now middle-aged — who have beenincarcerated since they were teens because they were enticed into a drug trade that is only lucrative and deadly because it is illegal. There are no good guys in the war on drugs. There is only bad law. And bad schools. And bad neighborhoods without hope.

When Footloose ends, the local authorities acknowledge that they only made things worse when they banned dancing. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge the same thing about banning drugs.


Editor's Note: Review of "White Boy Rick," directed by Yann Demange. Columbia Pictures, 2018, 111 minutes.



Share This


The Paranoia of the Lambs

 | 

“This is a book about education and wisdom. If we can educate the next generation more wisely, they will be stronger, richer, more virtuous, and even safer.”

This is the goal and the conclusion of The Coddling of the America Mind by Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) and Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist. The authors present a compelling, honest, apolitical, and well-researched explanation of what is happening on campuses today and how this goal can be achieved for the next generation. It’s probably the most important book published in 2018.

No one seems willing to listen to the “enemy” or find common ground in order to restore harmony. What has gone wrong on our college campuses, and in America in general?

We’ve all seen videos of the growing viciousness experienced on some college campuses in the past five years — professors mobbed for making seemingly trivial statements; controversial figures shouted down and physically attacked when they’re invited to speak on campus; trigger warnings, speech codes, and safe spaces featuring cookies, blankets and coloring books cropping up at universities across the land. We’re also seeing an increase in “callout culture,” in which students and social media warriors gain status by identifying small offenses committed by a member of a community and then publicly “calling out” or shaming the perceived offender. This public cruelty has been given the ironic moniker of “virtue signaling.” No one seems willing to listen to the “enemy” or find common ground in order to restore harmony. What has gone wrong on our college campuses, and in America in general? And can it be reversed?

Lukianoff and Haidt say yes. In their book they identify three major “untruths” contributing to the problem: the rising, erroneous belief that humans are fragile and need to be protected from all risk; the belief that feelings are more powerful than reason and should always be trusted; and the belief that all people are either good or evil, leading to a dichotomous “us vs. them” tribalism. Related to these “untruths” is the idea that words are literally dangerous, which in turn justifies physical violence as a form of self-defense. The bulk of their book addresses these three themes as they describe specific examples of violence, present surprising evidence of possible causes, and offer convincing solutions to reverse the trend.

As the president of FIRE, Lukianoff has been at the forefront of campus unrest as both an observer of the violence and a defender of free speech. In a section called “Bad Ideas in Action,” the authors describe several high-profile cases in which professors have been forced to resign for minor slights, or speakers have been shouted down and physically threatened. But they also include examples of police brutality and the neo-Nazi attack in Charlottesville last year. The book is apolitical in that it does not take sides or suggest that one particular party or viewpoint is primarily to blame. In fact, they sympathize with many of the noble concerns of what they call the iGen generation (those born after 1995), who sincerely care about racism, sexism, justice, and environmental issues. And they acknowledge that “right-wing provocateurs” often deliberately fuel the flames with their own vicious protests and threatening language. The book’s purpose is not to cast blame or fan the fires but to discover genuine causes and promote change.

This year Utah became the first state to pass a “free-range parenting” bill, making it less likely that parents who allow their children to play outside will be charged with neglect.

The most useful and important part of the book is the section called “How Did We Get Here?” It notes a significant change on campuses beginning in 2013, when students began reporting high levels of anxiety and demanding trigger warnings to avoid uncomfortable experiences and safe spaces to recover from them. Lukianoff and Haidt connect this rise in anxiety not to the college experience but to the childhood experiences leading up to their entrance to college. These catalysts include anxiety and depression, “paranoid parenting,” a decline in unsupervised free play, increased political polarization, a hyper quest for social justice inspired by news reports and videos of violence or bullying against minorities, and college consumerism that gives students what they want instead of what they need in order to attract more students. In fact, they observe, college administrators did not cause the rise in “safetyism” on campus through some nefarious desire to end free speech; they simply responded to the alarming and genuine fearfulness and fragility expressed by the entering class of iGen students.

However well-intentioned the institutional protections might be, the continuation of coddling is exactly the opposite of what students need. Colleges should be teaching them to cope, not to hide. I’m reminded of a student who used to spend every afternoon in the tutoring center where I worked, seeking help for every assignment. He was a likeable young man with a learning disability, and we were instructed to make sure he graduated, even if it meant feeding him every answer. After earning his bachelors degree, he entered the MBA program. Again his instructors and tutors coddled him. Instead of requiring him, for example, to do legitimate research to learn how businesses operate, they allowed him to make up his case studies and imagine businesses that simply would not exist or survive in the real world. Nor would he himself survive, in a real job.

Frustrated, I told him one day that he needed to research a real business for his case study, and not just make up a company and its product, sales, marketing, etc. I offered to help him find the research and analyze the data, so that he could learn how a real business operates. I was concerned that he was racking up thousands of dollars in student debt with no real skills or understanding and no hope of landing a job. The result? I was reprimanded. I had hurt his feelings, and that was considered more harmful than the reprimanders’ giving him years of false hope and poor education.

Lukianoff and Haidt acknowledge that “right-wing provocateurs” often deliberately fuel the flames with their own vicious protests and threatening language.

It is simply not true that humans are fragile and need to be protected from all risk. Actually, humans are “antifragile,” as Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains in his 2007 bestseller The Black Swan. We need resistance to grow strong. Bones and muscles atrophy when they aren’t used, and so do emotional muscles. Students need to be taught how to cope with difficulties and traumas in order to grow mentally and emotionally strong. Lukianoff uses his own experience with CBT (cognitive behavior therapy) as an example of how confronting one’s fears and anxieties can make one stronger and able to cope. Sadly, many parents and college administrators are taking the opposite approach.

Can the trend on campus be reversed? Lukianoff and Haidt believe it can: “The more serious a problem gets, the more inducements there are for people, companies, and governments to find innovative solutions, whether driven by personal commitment, market forces, or political pressures” (265). Parents are becoming smarter about teaching children to become confident, independent problem-solvers. Many schools are restoring recess and reducing homework to encourage free play, where they learn to socialize, calculate risk, negotiate differences, and adjudicate fairness. This year Utah became the first state to pass a “free-range parenting” bill, making it less likely that parents who allow their children to play outside will be charged with neglect. Many universities, recognizing that “safetyism” leads to fragility, are beginning to introduce coping skills instead of overprotection. The University of Chicago has created a new Statement on Principles of Free Expression that reaffirms its commitment to free and open inquiry, and other colleges are following its example, reducing the rising tendency of professors to watch what they say and not challenge students intellectually for fear of retaliation.

FIRE has produced a modified version of the statement to serve as a template for other schools. The book provides a list of questions that parents and prospective students should ask while selecting a college (261–62). In sum, this is not the end of civility on campus, nor is it the end of civility in the United States.

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure is a reasoned, logical, unbiased, and well-researched assessment of the rise in verbal and physical violence on campuses across America. It offers sound advice that begins in the home and moves beyond the campus to embrace self-governance. I’ve already sent it to several friends. You probably will too.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure," by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. Penguin Press, 2018, 338 pages.



Share This


Hits and Misses

 | 

A Simple Favor isn’t a libertarian film. It doesn’t make any political commentary, it doesn’t cover timely issues, and it has little to say about economics beyond an offhand remark about the relative value of stay-at-home moms and “working moms.” I suppose I could stretch it to consider what Ayn Rand might have said about the concept of doing simple favors, but I won’t.

So why am I reviewing this movie for Liberty? Because it’s surprisingly good, one of the most entertaining films in months, and worth seeing for the quality of the acting, the twists and turns of the plot, and the subtle, unaffected comedic delivery of Anna Kendrick.

These three form a twisted romantic triangle with a twisted plot that takes us on a twisted romp through a dark side of suburbia.

Stephanie (Kendrick) is a stay-at-home mom with a compulsive penchant for volunteerism, a chirpy vlog called “Hi Moms!” where she talks about cooking and crafts, and a dark secret that drives her compulsiveness. When Emily (Blake Lively), a glamorous, high-powered working mom whose son attends the same preschool as Stephanie’s, befriends her, Stephanie becomes as giddy and malleable as a middle-school wallflower who suddenly finds herself walking home with the head cheerleader. Sean (Henry Golding), an award-winning novelist who hasn’t written anything publishable since marrying Emily ten years earlier, is suave, sexy, and hot for his wife. These three form a twisted romantic triangle with a twisted plot that takes us on a twisted romp through a dark side of suburbia.

When Emily goes missing, Stephanie volunteers to help Sean take care of their son, Nicky, and begins playing house in Emily’s mansion. Soon she starts her own investigation into Emily’s disappearance, discovering secrets in Emily’s past. Sean has his share of secrets too, and the result is a satisfying mystery thriller that is not only scary and suspenseful but often laugh-out-loud funny, especially when Stephanie tries to remain cool and nonchalant during an interview with the police about Emily’s disappearance — while wearing one of Emily’s dresses. With its bright colors, upbeat music track, and delightfully awkward leading lady, A Simple Favor is not your typical mystery thriller, but it is a simple delight.

Henry Golding, the handsome British-Malaysian whose previous screen credit was hosting a travel show, is having quite a season on the big screen. He’s also starring this month in the hit romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, based on the book of the same name by Singaporean-American Kevin Kwan. Its greenlight follows the success of ABC’s TV series “Fresh off the Boat” and stars some of the same actors.

Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur inhabited this plot perfectly in 1938, and the formula has been working ever since.

CRA is trying very hard to be socially relevant by marketing itself as the supposedly first mainstream film that focuses entirely on Asian culture with an extensively Asian cast and crew. But it’s really just a light, fluffy romantic comedy that happens to be set in Singapore. Rich Singapore boy Nick Young (Golding) meets poor immigrant girl Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) while studying in the United States. Rich boy’s mother Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh, who was stunning in 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) tries to break up rich boy’s romance when they come to Singapore for Nick’s best friend’s wedding. Poor girl’s family has more integrity than rich boy’s family, leading to rich boy losing poor girl. Care to guess where they end up? Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur inhabited this plot perfectly in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You in 1938, and the formula has been working ever since. CRA is cute and fun, but it isn’t groundbreaking, despite its marketing plan.

In fact, its IMDb page reveals just how muddled the claim to “first” is:

Excluding movies and animation extensively featuring Pacific Islanders and East Indians produced in America such as Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionaire, and Moana, and excluding The Last Samurai (2003), which featured a majority East Asian cast but with a white lead, this is the first Western-produced major studio film with an extensive East Asian cast since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016). Other movies with extensively East Asian casts include Revenge of the Green Dragons (2014), A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas (2011), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), Better Luck Tomorrow (2002), Rumble in the Bronx (1995) and Joy Luck Club (1993).

And that doesn’t even acknowledge the above-mentioned “Fresh Off the Boat,” now in its fourth season. With all those caveats, the idea that they would even attempt to call themselves “the first Western-produced major studio film with an extensive East Asian cast” is pretty laughable.

If an American crew instead of an Asian crew had made CRA, Asian audiences would likely be howling “foul play.” First, its leading actor, whose character is supposed to represent old-world Chinese family and customs, isn’t even fully Asian! Golding’s mother is Malaysian, but his father is British. And yes, those rounder eyes and British accent probably make him more attractive to western audiences. (In fact, some are recommending Golding as the next James Bond.) Moreover, stereotypes are stereotypes. The crazy rich Asian women in the movie care only about shopping for designer clothing and designer plastic surgeries in order to catch a rich husband. Those rich husbands care only about getting richer. And the unmarried rich boys are sex-crazed and pathetic. Not a pretty portrayal, even if the author, director, and cast are all Asian.

The crazy rich Asian women in the movie care only about shopping for designer clothing and designer plastic surgeries in order to catch a rich husband. Those rich husbands care only about getting richer.

The one exception to the designer hive in Singapore is Rachel’s quirky, yellow-haired friend from college, Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina), who rejects the fashion stereotype and is true to her own sense of style and identity. But she is accepted in Singapore society largely because her daddy’s rich and her family is old. And she, too, wears designer clothes, just quirkier ones. To be fair, in A Simple Favor Emily also has a closet full of designer clothes, shoes and bags, but at least she paid for them herself with her high-powered job, and she is anything but a follower. If any message is clear in modern movie making, it’s this: where women are concerned, the devil does indeed wear Prada.

Crazy Rich Asians is a fun movie if you’re in the mood for a predictable romantic comedy set in an exotic locale. The sumptuous wedding scene at Singapore’s Raffles hotel (where Nick is serving as best man, not groom — this isn’t a spoiler) is breathtakingly gorgeous. But if you’re looking for a serious film about serious issues, or even a lighthearted comedy with a little depth, this isn’t it.


Editor's Note: Review of "A Simple Favor," directed by Paul Feig. BRON Studios/Feigco Entertainment, 2018, 117 minutes; and "Crazy Rich Asians," directed by Jon M. Chu. Warner Bros., 2018, 120 minutes.



Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2019 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.