Hidden Messages

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Many years ago I was asked to be the scorekeeper at an international synchronized skating competition. I dressed in official black, sat at the judges’ table with my pencil in hand, and proudly wrote down each team’s scores. When the day ended I asked a judge where I should take my clipboard to have my scores recorded. The judge laughed. “Just throw them away. We only record them manually in case there’s a power failure and we lose the official scores.” So. I had just been an insignificant backup scribe. Yet I had enjoyed my experience sitting at the judges’ table, and if the power had failed, my recordkeeping would have saved the day.

I thought about my backup role at that competition while watching Hidden Figures, a terrific film about the little-known women — most of them “colored” — who provided the backup computations in the early days of the space program. They didn’t design the rockets or map the trajectories, but they double-checked the math for the engineers — all of them men — who did those things. It was a respectable job that required respectable dress and respectable manners. They also needed respectable math skills. But they were the proofreaders, not the creators. Even their title objectified them: they were called “computers,” because that’s what they did.

I know how that feels too. My first real job was proofreading for a university press. I had a natural ear for spelling and for grammar rules, and I was fast and accurate at my job. As an added benefit, I spent my days reading the galleys of fascinating books and articles. I felt a definite pride in my grammar skills, as I’m sure the NASA computers felt pride in their math skills. But what I really wanted was to become a writer, not a proofreader. I wanted to be on the other side of those galleys.

Even their title objectified them: they were called “computers,” because that’s what they did.

Three of the computers at NASA also had higher aspirations than backup math. Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer in the film) wanted to be a supervisor. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. And Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) wanted to be an astrophysicist. Hidden Figures tells the compelling story of how these three women influenced the space program in the early 1960s, while also influencing the civil rights movement regarding women and African-Americans.

You probably didn’t know that any women worked on the space program in the early days, let alone black women. Neither did I. They have been a well-kept secret, these “hidden figures” who did the figuring. The film has predictably outrageous moments as we watch Katherine running to use the “colored restroom” in the building half a mile from the one where she works, or Mary being told that she can’t attend extension classes at the all-white high school, or Dorothy being given the responsibilities of a supervisor without the title or the pay that would go with the official promotion. But what makes this film wonderful is the way these women address these culturally accepted slights with dignity, humor, and indomitable persistence. They are as delightful as they are strong, and they bring something new and fresh to the civil rights story that is usually dominated by the men who were marching, sitting-in, and orating for freedom.

Fans of Big Bang Theory will enjoy seeing Jim Parsons in “Sheldon’s” dream job as a NASA physicist. Kevin Costner is well cast as level-headed, open-minded Al Harrison, the director of the department where Katherine is sent to check the trajectory figures. It was also good to see a grown-up Kirsten Dunst on screen as the supervisor in charge of giving the women from the computing pool their daily assignments. She portrays the kind of woman who thinks she is modern, progressive, and active in advancing the colored women who work under her, until Dorothy responds with a scathing smile, “I’m sure you believe that’s true.”

What makes this film wonderful is the way these women address these culturally accepted slights with dignity, humor, and indomitable persistence.

Hollywood makes few films that a libertarian can cheer, but Hidden Figures is one of them. I suspect the makers of this film didn’t even realize the libertarian ideals hidden within their script about civil rights and racial prejudice. Here are a few gems to watch for:

Lead the Way. Often the argument against change is “This is the way we’ve always done it.” In a film whose backdrop is the race to be first in space, Mary Jackson’s eloquent argument for being allowed to attend the white high school is profound. “Someone has to be first,” she says to the judge who will either maintain the status quo or change the future. “Why not you?”

Recognize Individual Worth. As a child, young Katherine (Lidya Jewett) demonstrates math skills far beyond her years. Her teachers not only recommend a school for children who are gifted in science and mathematics, but they also take up a collection to help her get there. Compare that attitude to the one touted in the new movie Gifted, in which the grandmother (Lindsay Duncan) of a brilliant little girl (McKenna Grace) wants to send her to a special school for gifted children but her uncle and legal guardian (Chris Evans) wants to keep her in the neighborhood school where she will have a “normal” childhood. What kind of world do we live in when we champion mediocrity and vilify those who would nourish genius? Katherine Johnson was blessed to have had her genius recognized and nurtured.

Make Yourself Indispensable. Katherine is sent to Harrison’s department as a simple proofreader, checking the math. She patiently endures the segregationist policies and does her work well. But she goes beyond that, using her skills in analytical geometry to solve trajectory problems the professionals haven’t been able to solve. Eventually her reputation for accuracy becomes so strong that John Glenn (Glen Powell) refuses to launch until Katherine has confirmed the Go-No Go calculations (a story that appears to be founded in fact). Instead of focusing on changing unfair office conditions, she focuses on doing her job well and making herself indispensable.

The law seems to protect the lowest paid workers, but in fact it limits their ability to work extra hard, stand out, and prove themselves worthy of promotion.

Adapt to Changing Technology. When an IBM machine threatens to make the human computers obsolete, Dorothy heads for the library to learn Fortran. She encourages the other women in the computer pool to do the same. She realizes that the one sure way to keep a job is to stay ahead of change so the organization can’t get along without you.

Work Until the Job Is Done. As the pressure to beat the Russians to the moon increases, everyone has to step up. “You’re going to have to work harder and longer than ever before, ” Harrison tells them, “and your paychecks won’t reflect it.” Then he adds, “It starts with me.” They all feel a sense of purpose and accomplishment that transcends the word “job”; they’re part of a mission that will change the world. Compare this to the law enacted on December 1 that mandates workers earning less than $47K be paid time and a half if they work more than 40 hours in a week. It seems to protect the lowest paid workers, but in fact it limits their ability to work extra hard, stand out, and prove themselves worthy of promotion. Significantly, the boss doesn’t give orders and go home — he works long hours right alongside them.

Be Persistent and Patient. Dorothy, Mary, and Katherine never stop lobbying for the promotions and advancements they feel they deserve, but they continue to do the jobs they’ve been hired to do in the meantime. They don’t lead protests or threaten to strike. Instead, they increase their educations, adapt to changing technology, look for places where they can make a difference in the organization, and make themselves critical to the organization’s success. As a result, each of these brilliant women became, in real life, a quiet pioneer — Dorothy Vaughan became the first African-American woman supervisor at NASA, Mary Jackson became the first African-American woman aeronautical engineer, and Katherine G. Johnson was the first African-American woman to become a technical analyst for the space program. Their story is finally and finely told in a film that is entertaining, inspiring, outrage-inducing, and in the end, triumphant.

Often the argument against change is


Editor's Note: Review of " Hidden Figures," directed by Theodore Melfi. Fox 2000, 2016, 127 minutes.



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A Monster Calls, a Lion Roars Back

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Boyhood should be filled with running and playing and studying and dreaming. It should not be filled with nightmares about unspeakable loss. Nevertheless, two excellent films released this month address that theme, each of them helmed by outstanding young actors and presented with exquisite cinematography. Although you would have to be emotionally empty to avoid a tearful sniffle at the boys’ plights, both films manage to avoid maudlin or gratuitous melodrama. Each is surprisingly uplifting, despite its dark themes.

A Monster Calls, set in England but filmed largely by a Spanish crew, follows the story of young Conor (Lewis MacDougall), who attends a boys’ school where he is routinely pummeled by a passionless bully much larger than he. Conor barely notices the punches to his face, however, because life has already served him a punch in the gut — his Mum (Felicity Jones) is dying from cancer. So stoic is he that when a monster appears at his window and breaks through his wall, he barely flinches. (More about the monster in a moment.) This story could only have been told in England, where maintaining a stiff upper lip (while developing an ulcer) is taught to perfection in boarding school.

The only person he unleashes on is his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), with whom he will have to live once the unspoken ending has happened. Meanwhile, Grandma is facing the loss of her daughter with the same British stoicism, and expresses her need for control by expecting Conor to live in her house without touching anything. Conor eyes her with distrust and is vocal about not wanting to go with her. He daydreams about moving to the United States to live with his Dad (Toby Kebbell) instead.

So stoic is he that when a monster appears at his window and breaks through his wall, he barely flinches.

Conor is stoic on the outside, but on the inside he is raging. The monster, voiced by Liam Neeson, is a metaphor for the rage he feels, and also for the monstrous circumstance that is attacking him. The monster is a gigantic tree-like creation with fiery eyes and thunderous voice, yet he seems more like a mythological guide than a terror. He says to Conor, “First I will tell you three stories, and then you will tell me the fourth.” Of Conor’s own story he tells us, “it begins with a boy too old to be a kid, and too young to be a man.”

The film has a strong sense of magical realism. Cinematographer Oscar Faura (The Imitation Game, The Impossible) and set decorator Pilar Revuelta contribute to this sense through skillful lighting, camera angles, prop dressing, and special effects. The score by Fernando Velasquez and Neeson’s powerful yet comforting voice are also important to the tone of the film.

Of course, the monster’s purpose is to help Conor express his rage and prepare for his grief. British stoicism be damned — rules don’t apply when a child loses a parent, nor do they apply when a parent loses a child. Somehow Conor and his grandmother will have to come to grips with both, and find a way to do it together.

Another film steeped in local culture and unbearable loss is Lion, about an even younger boy. Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is perhaps five years old when he inadvertently boards an empty train and travels over 1,000 miles to Calcutta before he can get off. Alone, frightened, unable to speak Bengali or even identify his mother by any name but “Mum,” he ends up on the streets with other abandoned children. Worse than facing the Faganesque threat of becoming petty thieves, these children are exposed to the threat of being sold into sexual slavery.

Rules don’t apply when a child loses a parent, nor do they apply when a parent loses a child.

Saroo manages to escape that fate and eventually is adopted by a couple in Australia. But the thought of his mother and siblings grieving over his disappearance continues to haunt him until, with the blessing of his adoptive mother (Nicole Kidman), he returns to India to find his roots.

It’s a simple story made wonderful by the acting of Sunny Pawar, who beat out 2,000 other young hopefuls for the part and didn’t even speak English when he began filming (which may have contributed to the uncanny portrayal of his character’s sense of confusion and loss in Calcutta). In early scenes he makes tangible the bond he shares with his big brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) and his Mum (Priyanka Bose), as he proudly shows that he can work and contribute to the family table. One gets the sense that the cinematographer simply followed him around the hills of west India and the streets of Calcutta with a camera and caught him doing what he naturally would do. Greig Fraser’s soaring landscapes and cluttered, colorful cities are magnificent as well.

Dev Patel, best known for his breakout role in Slumdog Millionaire, in which he had the same job — portraying the older version of a young main character — steps into Act II of Lion with similar natural skill. He demonstrates the complex emotional confusion experienced by an adoptee old enough to remember his previous life and family, profoundly appreciative of his new parents, yet not completely at home in either location. He doesn’t quite know how to interact with his adoptive brother, who also joined the family as an older child; he plays cricket and surfs, but doesn’t know how to scoop curry with naan. He becomes isolated and withdrawn, confused by a combination of grief and guilt, until he is able to return to India and complete his search.

“Unbelievable” and “incredible” are words we throw around lightly, but this story really does seem to go beyond belief.

The film is about more than an orphaned boy’s search for his hometown; it touches on deep issues of child trafficking, international adoption, cultural identity negation, emotional handicap, and what it means to be a family.

Lion is one of those “stranger than fiction” stories that would never have been greenlighted if it weren’t true. “Unbelievable” and “incredible” are words we throw around lightly, but this story really does seem to go beyond belief. Yet the film is based on A Long Way Home, the autobiography of Saroo Brierley, who also served as co-scriptwriter of the film. From interviews I’ve seen with Brierley and then from watching the film, I would say it’s as true as he can make it. The acting is true too — vulnerable and heartbreaking, light as a bird and strong as a lion.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "A Monster Calls," directed by Juan Antonia Bayona. Focus Films, Apaches Entertainment, 2016, 108 minutes; and "Lion," directed by Garth Davis. See-Saw Films, 2016, 118 minutes.



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Look Twice

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In Robert Hayden’s sonnet “Those Winter Sundays,” a man looks back with painful regret on his childhood relationship with his father at a time when he was too young to “know / of love’s austere and lonely offices.” The father apparently has died, and it’s too late to tell him what the son now knows. The poem begins:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

The speaker reveals his father’s unacknowledged daily sacrifice and then admits his own coldness toward his hard-working but “austere” father. He shamefully admits “speaking indifferently to him, / who had driven out the cold / and polished [his] good shoes as well.” It is simply too painful to linger over the details, and through a poetic technique known as enjambment Hayden demonstrates the speaker’s urge to rush past the painful memory, tumbling past the natural line breaks until he deliberately slams on the brakes with the consonant-heavy “banked fires blaze” and a mid-line period. There he forces himself to open his eyes and admit it: “No one ever thanked him.” Even now, as an adult, he can’t bring himself to use the word “I.” Childlike, he finds excuse in numbers: “no one” did.

The director’s method is an artful avoidance of details. Lonergan sidles up to the tragedy, taking a full hour before he presents it to us.

Skilled filmmakers use similar tools to demonstrate the psychological trauma of a protagonist. In the critically acclaimed (but audience-panned) Manchester by the Sea, director Kenneth Lonergan demonstrates the inability of his protagonist, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), to face a horrific tragedy in his life. The director’s method is an artful avoidance of details. Lonergan sidles up to the tragedy, taking a full hour before he presents it to us and distracting us by other problems along the way: Lee is working as a janitor and living in a one-room basement apartment when the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) takes him back to his hometown of Manchester. In flashbacks we see that Lee has had wonderful experiences in Manchester with his wife Randi (Michelle Williams), his three children, his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and his boisterous friends. Yet he refuses to return to Manchester to become Patrick’s guardian after Joe’s death.

In this way Lonergan treats the real tragedy almost as a side story, with the characters involved in it barely introduced in the film. Even after we see what has caused Lee to be so withdrawn from life, he doesn’t linger to discuss it. It is simply too painful. Just as Hayden rushes past his protagonist’s tragedy through enjambment, Lonergan rushes through Lee’s tragedy by revealing the story in snippets and flashbacks that flame up and then retreat again into the darkest reaches of his memory. Nevertheless, the story within the story is always present, always breaking through.

Critics have praised Manchester by the Sea in general and Affleck’s performance, which is indeed raw and real, in particular. But does it deserve 97% approval rating? Audiences find it slow-moving, drawn out, and unsatisfying. The grumbling of unfulfilled audience members surrounded me as the film ended and the lights went up. “That’s it?” I heard more than one person say.

Even after we see what has caused Lee to be so withdrawn from life, he doesn’t linger to discuss it. It is simply too painful.

I agree with them in part — it is so slow that, the first time I saw it, I actually left after 45 minutes. I decided to give it another try, a couple of weeks later. The second half, after we find out what’s eating at Lee, is emotionally and artistically powerful, with moments that are so unbearably real that we, too, want to rush through them, even though we can’t look away. The film doesn’t give us a happy ending or even “closure,” today’s buzzword for dealing with tragedy in a timely fashion. It’s not a movie for a pleasant Friday night date. But life’s problems aren’t fixed in two hours. Sometimes they can’t be fixed in a lifetime. Closure isn’t available for certain acts that can’t be undone and words that can’t be unsaid. The reality of that level of regret makes Manchester by the Sea intensely satisfying, even though it is agonizingly, stupefyingly slow.


Editor's Note: Review of "Manchester by the Sea," directed by Kenneth Lonergan. Amazon Studios, 2016, 137 minutes.



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Trio

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Three films opened this month that are very different but have certain characteristics in common: lush settings, larger-than-life characters, Technicolor dream sequences, and stories that ask us to consider the price of following dreams. Each of these films showcases the unrelenting demands of pursuing art, and is a work of art itself. A dream is a harsh mistress and a jealous lover. She requires absolute fidelity and will countenance no competition. Relationships often fall by the wayside. In these three films, dreams and relationships battle for the hearts of the protagonists.

The best of the three is La La Land, a modern take on the “I want to be a star” Hollywood musical; it will undoubtedly be nominated for an Oscar this year. The title offers a “la-de-da” to people who have the audacity to dream big as well as a nod to L.A., where dreams are often made — and broken. The film opens during a Category Five traffic jam on an L.A. overpass, complete with a splashy flash mob in which drivers in brightly colored costumes leave their cars, pirouette between the lanes, cartwheel across hoods, leap from highway dividers, and generally exude the joy of a drive to the beach rather than the frustration of traffic. This is Hollywood, where anything can happen. The scene is filmed in a single take, reminiscent of the demanding single-take direction of Fred Astaire as well as the opening scene of the star-studded film The Player (1992).

A dream is a harsh mistress and a jealous lover. She requires absolute fidelity and will countenance no competition.

Definitely not in a beachgoing mood during that traffic jam are aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone), who is late for an audition, and aspiring jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who is late for a gig. Their paths will continue to cross throughout the film as each pursues the La La dreams of La La land. Mia is a gifted actress who can’t get casting directors to pay attention during her auditions. Sebastian is a gifted pianist who is stifled by the inane playlists demanded for the weddings, birthday parties, and restaurant gigs he takes to pay the bills. After several near-misses, when they finally meet it’s a symphony of romance as they break into numerous dances that echo such iconic pieces as Kelly and Charisse breaking into dance along the Seine in An American in Paris; Kelly and Reynolds dancing in the sky in “You Were Meant for Me” in Singin’ in the Rain; and Astaire and Rogers “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” in Top Hat. Emma Stone is no Ginger Rogers, but Ryan Gosling is smooth and graceful enough for both of them, and Mandy Moore wisely choreographed steps that make the scenes magical even for non-trained dancers.

The chemistry between the two is touching and believable. But dreams are jealously demanding. On their first real date, Mia and Sebastian sit side by side in a movie theater, watching Rebel without a Cause. The camera closes in on just their two hands. His thumb leans toward hers. Her thumb leans toward his. They touch. His hand opens. Her hand fills it and their fingers intertwine. The camera moves to their faces, and their heads tentatively lean toward each other as well. Then just as he moves in for a kiss, the film they are watching snags and burns, and the lights go up. The moment ends. That small scene is a metaphor for La La Land, where dreams are filled with hope and anticipation in the privacy of the dark, but too often snag and burn in the cold light of day.

While the film is obviously a well-crafted paean to legendary movie musicals, it is fresh and modern in its presentation. Sebastian’s former bandmate Keith (John Legend) says about Sebastian’s purist view of jazz: “How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you're such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.” Writer and director Damien Chazelle doesn’t hold onto the past for this film but gives it wings to tell his story. Ryan Gosling also makes the film work, not only because he is such a skilled actor, but also because of his dedication to making it feel real. He reportedly spent two hours a day, six days a week, for two years learning how to play these piano pieces well enough to avoid having to cut to a hand double for the intricate musical scenes. His work is stunning throughout the film, from his graceful dancing to his powerful keyboard work to his poignant gestures and facial expressions.

If there is one rule to be derived from this film about achieving dreams and relationships, it is that rules can’t apply to those who pursue greatness.

The final scene of the film is breathtaking and heart wrenching and oh-so-true. I went back to see the film a second time, just to experience that scene once more. La La Land lives up to all the hype the advertising has created. It’s whimsical, gorgeous, and deep. Young Damien Chazelle (only 31 years old!), who also wrote and directed the award-winning Whiplash (2014) about the painful path of a gifted drummer, is a gifted artist himself who seems to know a lot about the price of dreams. He’s one to watch.

Rules Don’t Apply is another film that focuses on the emotional price of pursuing dreams and the different paths to achieving them. Like La La Land, it’s set in Hollywood’s heyday, and music helps to tell its story. It also offers lush sets and costumes. But it is more quirky than whimsical, and it tells a more direct story. Warren Beatty plays the eccentric and mysterious Hollywood mogul and airplane innovator Howard Hughes, but this should not be construed as a Howard Hughes biopic. Hughes is a symbol of the choices and obstacles the main characters face as they try to get their first big breaks.

Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) is an innocent ingénue in Hughes’ stable of innocent ingénues waiting for her first screen test; Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) is employed by Hughes as Marla’s driver, but his real goal is to convince Hughes to invest with him in an undeveloped piece of land in the Hollywood Hills (we recognize from the view that this piece of land would become one of the priciest and most desirable in southern California). Levar (Matthew Broderick) also had dreams of personal achievement, but he has worked for Hughes so long that the dreams have been all but forgotten. Hughes, too, has had to forgo some dreams in order to pursue others that seemed more meaningful.

Adding to Hughes’s own fastidious eccentricity is the fact that Maria and Frank both come from strong religious backgrounds with archaic attitudes about premarital sex, and these attitudes contribute charmingly to the development of the plot. Not only must all of the characters decide which dreams are worth pursuing; they must also decide which values are worth most to them in the long run.

The visual effect is more in keeping with a circus sideshow than a strip club.

Beatty wrote, directed, produced, and stars in Rules Don’t Apply. Although he plays Howard Hughes to eccentric perfection, Hughes seems to be a vehicle for Beatty to explore his own pursuit of stardom and the price he paid to achieve it. If there is one rule to be derived from this film about achieving dreams and relationships, it is that rules can’t apply to those who pursue greatness. Rules are created from past experience and imposed from outside. As Sebastian discovered in La La Land, success comes from looking to the future and creating something new. Rules can be useful guides, but they beg to be broken by true artists. Still, there is a price to be paid for breaking the rules, and each of the characters in this film must decide which rules do apply, and which rules don’t.

The third film in my trilogy of dreamscapes is darker than the other two, more thriller than thrilling. Nocturnal Animals opens with a grotesque montage of extremely naked, extremely obese women dancing pseudo-seductively. The visual effect is more in keeping with a circus sideshow than a strip club. It turns out to be the opening of an art show mounted by glamorous and successful artist Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) whose shtick is painting grossly obese women. As the camera pulls back to reveal the art gallery, several of the women are lying immobile and face down, making it feel as though the women should be surrounded by yellow caution tape, not picture frames.

You’ll be happy to know that the film never returns to the grotesque dancing nudes. The rest of the film is one of the most engaging I have seen this season. It comprises three intertwining stories, all featuring the gifted Jake Gyllenhaal as protagonist.

When Susan returns to her luxurious home, she receives an advance manuscript of a book written by her ex-husband Edward (Gyllenhaal) and dedicated to her. Edward and Susan were married when they were both young and aspiring, she as an artist and he as a writer. She begins reading the manuscript immediately, and its plot becomes the main storyline of our film. In it, Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal) is embarking on a long road trip with his wife (Isla Fischer, who is often mistaken for Amy Adams) and daughter (Ellie Bamber). In the middle of the night and the middle of nowhere, three crazed young men run them off the road, kidnap the women, and leave Tony for dead. The rest of his book is a tense and frightening crime thriller, which dominates the movie. The flow of that story is interrupted frequently by a return to Susan reading the book. Scenes of her life with her current husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) and scenes of her earlier relationship with Edward create the other two interwining storylines, stories that often have an eerie resemblance to scenes that are unfolding in the novel.

Director Tom Ford is a fashion designer who also makes movies, and it shows. The storytelling is remarkable, but the cinematic effect is exquisite. His serene composition of women lying on a couch in matching scenes from different storylines is particularly beautiful and artistic. Nocturnal Animals is a story about love, loss, betrayal, revenge, dreams exposed, dreams achieved, and dreams destroyed. And redheads. There are so many characters in this film with long, luxurious red hair! This is a movie you will think about long after the final credits roll.

You’ll be happy to know that the film never returns to the grotesque dancing nudes.

The three stories in Nocturnal Animals intertwine in unexpected, artistic ways, and so do the three films reviewed here. Two are set in Hollywood. Two feature original jazz pieces whose lyrics highlight the theme. Two pivot unexpectedly on abortion. Two feature redheads. Two focus on the often-dogmatic demands of religion. All demonstrate the inexorable effect of choices.

To paraphrase Robert Frost, as choices are made “way leads on to way,” taking us further and further from alternative paths. Although the protagonists in all of these films freely choose paths less traveled to pursue what they value most, each film ends with a tone of regret for the road not taken. The path to glory is often a lonely one that ends with a sigh for what might have been.


Editor's Note: Review of "La La Land," directed by Damien Chazelle. Black Label Media, 2016, 128 minutes; "Rules Don’t Apply," directed by Warren Beatty. Regency Enterprises, RatPac Entertainment, 2016, 127 minutes; and "Nocturnal Animals," directed by Tom Ford. Focus Features, 2016, 116 minutes.



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It’s Ideas that Count

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Bourgeois Equality is the third book in Prof. Deirdre McCloskey’s trilogy, following Bourgeois Virtues (2006) and Bourgeois Dignity (2010), on the rise of the modern economy. In Dignity, she knocked down rival theories of what made the modern world. Now she argues for her theory — that the modern world was started by ideas, rhetoric, talk.

It’s a better theory than it sounds. In Bourgeois Equality she defends it ably and with flair.

“Equality” has been the Left’s word. Libertarians have no interest in an equal possession of income or wealth, and we don’t believe that everyone’s voice has an equal claim on our attention. We do believe in equal liberty to strive for income and wealth, to talk and write and thereby attempt to win our attention. We forget, sometimes, how powerful that kind of equality can be, and rarely imagine what the world was like before people had it. A third of a millennium ago the Englishmen who dared proclaim it were smeared as “levellers” and put in prison.

That is when the modern world was just beginning.

Deirdre McCloskey is a libertarian and professor of economics, history, English, and communications at the University of Illinois, Chicago. In Equality, her attention is on the development of “a business-respecting civilization,” with its seed in Venice and Florence in the 1500s, its sprouting in Holland in the 1600s, and its flowering in England in the 1700s. Since 1800, the result has been what McCloskey calls “the Great Enrichment.”

Libertarians believe in equal liberty to strive for income and wealth, to talk and write and thereby attempt to win our attention.

Everyone knows the world got richer, but they seldom reflect on the magnitude of it. Consider Afghanistan. People in villages there live on $3 a day, “which before 1800,” McCloskey writes, “was what the average human more or less everywhere expected to make.” In the rich countries, average income per person is about $100 per day. The earth carries vastly more people than in 1800, and life expectancy has doubled.

What started all this? It was not mere saving and investment, “piling brick upon brick” of the medieval economy. It was creating a new economy, over and over again, and destroying the old one.

The mental picture, McCloskey writes, “should not be nuclear fission, the reaching of a threshold — in which, with the creative people bouncing against each other, the reaction becomes self-sustaining. It was more like a forest fire. The kindling for a creative conflagration lay about for millennia, carefully prevented from burning by traditional societies and governing elites with watering cans. Then the historically unique rise of liberty and dignity for ordinary people disabled the watering cans and put the whole forest to the torch.”

Everyone knows the world got richer, but they seldom reflect on the magnitude of it.

The match was the idea that the aristocracy and established church had no right to rule. The alternative was the practical egalitarianism of accomplished commoners — merchants and artisans. These bourgeois had been around for centuries, but always had to bow to their betters. Then they stopped bowing and made a new world.

“No bishops,” McCloskey writes. “And at length no lords and kings. And then no central planning or expert regulation. Laissez faire.”

She calls the new idea “the Bourgeois Deal”: You are free to try something new. If it pays, you get to keep the money and push on.

The change had begun with religion. Printing had put the Bible in the hands of well-off commoners, who could interpret the Good Book in any way they liked — focusing on worldly works rather than an afterlife, for instance. This brought the Reformation, bloody war, and eventually a godly compromise: religious laissez-faire. An early apostle of it, when it was still new and strange, was the English Leveller John Lilburne, who wrote in 1649 that every person should be free “to exercise of Religion according to his Conscience, nothing having caused more distractions, and heart burnings in all ages.”

These bourgeois had been around for centuries, but always had to bow to their betters. Then they stopped bowing and made a new world.

Along with freedom to print Bibles came freedom to print other things. “By 1600 the Dutch had taken over from the Venetians the role of unrestricted publishers of Europe,” McCloskey writes, “publishing the books of heretics like Baruch Spinoza in Latin, John Locke in English, and Pierre Bayle in French, not to mention pornography in whatever language would sell.”

A marketplace of ideas — and other things.

Freedom also came to science, an event that some historians say created the modern world. McCloskey disagrees. “Science didn’t make the modern world,” she writes. “Technology did, in the hands of newly liberated and honored instrument makers and tinkerers.” The economic payoffs from elite science came later. The method of science, in her view, is what mattered first. A scientist was free to advance a claim, and other scientists were free to check it. Innovation, but a market test: the Bourgeois Deal.

“The only alternative to a marketplace of ideas,” McCloskey writes, “is a socialism of ideas.” Or an aristocracy of ideas, which amounts to the same thing.

The break from the aristocracy of ideas began with talk, much of it in the new coffeehouses of the late 1600s. “It is the habits of the lip that shape the habits of the mind and heart,” McCloskey writes. “Rhetoric therefore is fundamental. We can know the rhetoric of an age, the habits of the lip, by reading its literary and other written products.”

In Bourgeois Equality, McCloskey pays much more attention to words than numbers. In her hands, for example, Daniel Defoe’s pathbreaking novel Robinson Crusoe (1719) becomes an example of a commoner who demonstrates a “prudent calculation of costs and benefits” as he scavenges items from his wrecked ship. She also has a whole chapter on the word “honest,” and how it changed from its aristocratic meaning, “honorably high-class,” to its modern meaning, “truthful.”

The economic payoffs from elite science came later. The method of science, in McCloskey's view, is what mattered first.

Others have written that economic development has cultural roots. David Landes, for example, wrote in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1998), “Culture makes all the difference . . . What counts is work, thrift, honesty, patience, tenacity.” Which at any point in time is true enough. McCloskey’s take is to specify that it is the attitude toward these things — “the rhetoric people presently find persuasive” — that comes first.

Can rhetoric really be more important than law and institutions? Yes, she says: “There is nothing weird or scary or unscientific or self-contradictory about claiming that rhetoric matters.”

As a Christian, McCloskey makes a few jabs at fellow libertarians who don’t care about the poor. She does care. She is accepting of the welfare state, as long as it stays within reasonable bounds. Her concern is that political, cultural, and economic life remain open to innovation, and always with that egalitarian regulator: a market test. Innovation should not mean giving power to experts and elites. “Engineers,” she writes, “are full of bad ideas, too.”

So are some economists and historians. Read Bourgeois Equality, and give it the market test.


Editor's Note: Review of "Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World," by Deirdre McCloskey. University of Chicago Press, 2016, 787 pages.



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The Space Aliens Have Finally Come

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Movie reviews took a back seat at Liberty while the election dominated our pages. This was the most divisive election in recent history, with three flawed candidates being nominated by the three major parties. (Yes, I consider the LP a major party at this point, even if the chance of winning is still nonexistent.) The divisiveness only worsened after the surprise election of Donald Trump, with protests that quickly escalated into riots and derisive epithets of “Racist! Homophobe! Sexist!” that escalated into accusations (sometimes false) of personal attacks. College students, whimpering and wailing, were issued blankets, tissues, and even puppies by administrators more anxious to comfort their fears than to teach them how to cope with disappointment.

Sheesh.

As I decided to write my first review for Liberty in over a month, I wondered: which current film would provide the best opportunity to address these issues? Arrival seemed like a sure bet.

Most of us want to be kind, but we also want to know, “Why are they here?”

In this movie, 12 alien spacecraft enter the earth’s atmosphere and hover above locations around the globe, virtually knocking at the door and asking to be let in. But what is their purpose? Do they come in peace, or as galactic imperialists? That’s the question asked in every alien-oriented movie, and it was the key issue that drove Trump’s rise to the presidency. Do we build a wall — a yuge wall — to keep everyone out (at least until a thorough vetting has been performed), or do we open the doors and admit workers from Mexico, refugees from Syria, boat-people from southeast Asia, and anyone else who wants to come in? Most of us want to be kind, but we also want to know, “Why are they here?” Fittingly, that is the tagline of Arrival.

The opening moments of the film reinforced my intent to write a timely political review. I like the fact that the writers chose the neutral term “arrival” rather than the usual “invasion.” People react to the arrival of the alien ships with stunned silence and disbelief, followed by newscasters reporting riots, looting, and school closings — reminding me of what was happening not far from my movie theater in New York City. Our main character even references Fox News Channel while trying to calm her hysterical mother, saying, “Why are you watching that channel? How many times have I told you not to listen to those idiots?” She also admits to strategic lying in order to get her way: “The story isn’t true, but it proves my point, “ she mutters her sly justification.

But, as so often happens when I come to a movie already thinking about how I’m going to write my review, I soon let go of my preconceived plan and let the actual film envelop me. The film is slow for the alien invasion genre, more Close Encounters of the Third Kind than Independence Day. Leaders in the 12 nations where the spacecraft are hovering do bring in their military, but they do so cautiously. They have learned to be wary of Greeks bearing gifts, but they won’t slam the gates or start shooting the arrows until they’ve seen what’s inside this Trojan horse. What is the purpose of these uninvited arrivals?

Tension develops not so much from fear of attack as from an agonizing slowness that affects our perception of time; unnatural gravity that affects our perception of nature; a 60-beat, pulsating percussion that affects our perception of the aliens; and discordant, dissonant music that simply grates on our nerves.

People react to the arrival of the alien ships with stunned silence and disbelief, followed by newscasters reporting riots, looting, and school closings — reminding me of what was happening not far from my movie theater.

Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a respected linguist, and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a first-rate mathematician, are called in to see whether they can communicate with the beings. An academic argument ensues over which is the core of civilization, language or math, but the film does not ask us to endure a cutesy, hormone-driven competition between the two attractive academicians. This is serious business, and they are serious partners in their mission to discover why the aliens have come and whether their intent is peaceful.

Guided by thoughts of her daughter’s birth and childhood, Louise turns to such non-verbal communications as touch, eye contact, body language, and facial expressions as she and Ian work out the “Heptoid” vocabulary. She points out the ambiguity inherent in words, and the consequent importance of understanding context in order to discover intent. “The Sanskrit word for war,” she offers as an example, “is desire for more cows.” Soldiers and bullets, she suggests, are a symptom of war, not the definition of it. I couldn’t help but think of the quote attributed to Frederic Bastiat: “When goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will.” And I again thought of our president-elect and his misguided determination to limit international trade.

For a film about language and communication, there is surprisingly little dialogue. Instead, the actors are asked to communicate their thoughts and emotions to the audience in the way their characters are communicating with the aliens — through body language, movement, and facial expressions. Director Denis Villeneuve couldn’t have asked for a better actress for this task than the brilliantly talented Amy Adams. She approaches the aliens with the same wonder and engagement as she expresses in her interactions with the daughter of her thoughts. We know how she feels about language, and about these aliens, because we know what it’s like to interact with a baby or a child. Language becomes a tool and an emotion. Linguistics become exciting and engaging. And the denouement of the film is wondrous because of all this.

This is a film that surprises you with unexpected stillness, unexpected wonder, unexpected fulfillment. It asks us to embrace life, even when it includes inevitable trauma or sorrow. In the end, I discovered, it is the right film for right now. But not for the reasons I expected. Go see it before you hear any more about it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Arrival," directed by Denis Villeneuve. 21 Laps Entertainment / FilmNation Entertainment, 2016, 115 minutes.



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The Sickening Seven

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The current remake of The Magnificent Seven with Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt in the roles developed in 1960 by Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen seemed promising. But this new film is anything but magnificent, especially as it opened while riots fueled by police shootings raged in cities across this country. The Seven demonstrate some of the same “shut up or I’ll shoot” sensibilities that we’ve been seeing on the news, and that makes it difficult to identify these Seven as heroes.

Several plot points have been updated to correlate with contemporary issues, to the detriment of the film. In the 1960 film, Mexican villagers seek relief from a bandit named Calvera (Eli Wallach) who has been plundering their community for food and supplies; in the modern version, the Mexican villagers have become Euro-American farmers, and the bandito Calvera is now robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), played to the hilt as a melodramatic, two-dimensional, mustache-twirling villain. Instead of demanding food and water (which modern audiences might consider reasonable), he is set on forcing the farmers to sell him their land for a mere $20 a parcel, because gold’s been discovered in them thar hills.

The Seven demonstrate some of the same “shut up or I’ll shoot” sensibilities that we’ve been seeing on the news, and that makes it difficult to identify these Seven as heroes.

I sort of liked this nod toward the evils of eminent domain, but instead of simply securing a government mandate to make the farmers sell him their land, (which is what the robber barons did in order to build their railroads) Bogue shoots a few townsfolk and burns down the church to make his point. I half expected him to tie a young maiden to a railroad track. Another problem is that we never see any evidence of farms anywhere, despite numerous long shots of the area around the town. Moreover, gold is usually found in mountainous areas, not in fertile plains. But oh well. That’s Hollywood.

In the 1960 film the Mexican villagers cross the border into Texas to buy guns and ammunition with which to protect themselves, but a gunslinger, Chris Adams (Yul Brynner) convinces them that it would be cheaper and safer to hire professional protection. I’ve always liked this libertarian solution to their problem. The villagers don’t have much money, but they are willing to give all that they have, every penny, to a good cause, echoing the New Testament story of the widow’s mite. Moved by their determination and personal sacrifice, Chris agrees to gather a group of gunslingers to help them, even though he knows that he and his men are likely to die in the process. (I think there’s something significant in the anti-hero’s name being Chris.)

I needed some heart in this movie — and not the kind that Sam Chisolm and Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) share from the body of a freshly gutted deer.

In the new film, Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) is touched by the same gesture, and as he agrees to help the villagers he says, “It isn’t a lot of money, but I’ve never had anyone offer me everything they have.” But that’s where the similarities between the two films end. Instead of a gunslinger, Chisolm is a warrant officer (one step above a bounty hunter, and a government representative), whom we first meet when he enters a saloon looking for a fugitive. No one else in the saloon knows he’s a warrant officer, so they all put their hands on their guns, worried by what is about to happen. Soon everyone in the saloon has either skedaddled or died except Sam and John Faraday (Chris Pratt), who had been playing poker when the mayhem started. I know we’re supposed to be impressed by Chisolm’s cool, calm, skillful dispatching of everyone who had the drop on him, but I’m outraged instead. The bartender might indeed have had a warrant out for his arrest, but the others were simply reacting to a stranger threatening their friend with a gun. And isn’t the bartender entitled to a trial before his execution? Surely there was a simpler, less deadly way to serve the warrant. Chisholm should at least have identified himself for the benefit of the rest of the crowd.

And then there’s Faraday. Everyone else has left the poker table, so he checks their cards, scoops up all the money, and sidles out of the saloon, where two brothers he has evidently swindled in a previous card game surprise him, take his guns, and shove him toward the entrance of a mine shaft. Soon one of them is dead and the other one is missing an ear, and Faraday’s flippant excuse is, “He shouldn’t have touched my guns.” Really? That’s why he killed the man? I know there was a Code of the West regarding horses, hats, and guns, but it also forbade cheating at cards, right? That makes Faraday at least as guilty of violating the Code as the brothers, so Faraday gets no sympathy, or approval, from me.

Next we meet Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), who make their money by competing in a kind of human cockfight. Here more people end up dead, just for the fun of it. But it’s OK, I guess, because these victims have stupidly entered the ring of their own volition. After that there’s Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), who makes his screen entrance by flinging an axe into someone’s chest. Please! Give me Steve McQueen stealing scenes by fiddling with his hat and Charles Bronson stealing the hearts of three little boys in the town so that our hearts are broken in the end.

Bogue shoots a few townsfolk and burns down the church to make his point. I half expected him to tie a young maiden to a railroad track.

I needed some heart in this movie — and not the kind that Sam Chisolm and Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) share from the body of a freshly gutted deer. One thing I can say: the film has diversity covered, with a black, an Asian, a Native American, a Mexican, a Southerner, two whites, and a woman, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett, as the town resident who hires the so-called good guys to avenge the death of her husband).

Mayhem continues as the Seven enter the town they’ve been hired to liberate. Bang, bang, pow, pow, twang, twang — and everyone who was standing outside is now dead, with some pretty fancy shootin’ there, pardner. But how do the vigilantes know who’s a bad guy? They’ve never been to this town before, and no one is wearing a uniform. This kind of shoot-now, assume-you’re-right attitude just didn’t sit well with me when my heart was grieving for the many people whose lives have been senselessly cut short by nervous, trigger-happy policemen and the rioters who think it gives them the right to loot and kill other innocents in response. The timing of the release of this film could not have been worse.

And if you set aside the timing, it still isn’t a very good film. It’s all about shooting, exploding, and killing, with very little character development. In the 1960 version, director John Sturges took the time to develop relationships among the gunslingers and the families in the village they have chosen to help. As a result, we sense that these men are laying down their lives for their friends. In this film, by contrast, Sam and Emma are driven by revenge, and many others are driven by a wanton enjoyment of murder and casual disregard for life. That cause isn’t noble enough for me. I came home and watched the 1960 version on Amazon Prime, just to wipe away the stench.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Magnificent Seven," directed by Antoine Fuqua. MGM, 2016, 132 minutes.



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Hard Landings

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We tend to assign major significance to minor occurrences, especially where travel and potential accidents are concerned. “Thank goodness,” we think, “I stopped to check the mail, or I might have been involved in that crash I just passed.” We may even hesitate to change seats on a plane, or to change flights when an overbooking voucher is offered, for fear that, in the (very unlikely) event of an accident, we will have made a fatal mistake.

I thought of that tendency while watching an early scene in Sully. Three men (father and sons, as it turns out) rush to catch an alternative flight after their intended flight has been cancelled. They share high fives all around as the gate attendant relents and lets them board the plane, happy that their fishing vacation will not have to be delayed or postponed. Of course, we in the audience know that they just thwarted their guardian angels’ attempt to protect them; they’ve just boarded US Airways 1549, headed for the Hudson River and a whole new kind of fishing expedition. The dramatic foreshadowing continues as one son opts for the lone seat at the back of the plane so that his brother and father can have two seats together. Will this generous offer be his last?

The film opens with scenes of the low-flying plane, but something is wrong.

It’s risky to make a movie about an event so recent and fresh in the public’s memory as the miraculous water landing of a jet plane on the Hudson River in January 2009, after a flock of geese got sucked into the engines. And the entire event took just 208 seconds, plus another 20 minutes or so to rescue the passengers and crew. We all watched the news clips and interviews. What could a director — even one as skilled as Clint Eastwood — do to stretch the event into a full-length feature more interesting than what we’ve already seen on the news?

Despite my skepticism, I was fully engaged throughout this film. Eastwood chose to focus most of it not on the crash — er, I mean, water landing, as Sully (Tom Hanks) is quick to point out — or on Sully’s heroism, but on what he endured during the aftermath.

The film opens with scenes of the low-flying plane, but something is wrong. Instead of a river, we see buildings. This isn’t right. This isn’t the way it happened. Then Sully wakes up, and we realize that our hero, this man who managed to save 155 passengers and crew without a single casualty, is having recurrent nightmares about what happened, and what might have happened. Unable to sleep, he puts on jogging clothes and runs through the streets of New York, but he can’t run away from his fears.

This conflict drives the story and engages the audience’s ire at Big Government and Big Business.

Worse, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is having similar thoughts about what might have been, except that their thoughts aren’t nightmares. The NTSB actually sets out to prove, using computers and cockpit simulators, that the plane had enough thrust, altitude, and time to have returned to LaGuardia or landed at nearby Teeterboro Airport, thus sparing the plane and the trauma endured by the passengers. If they find against the captain, his career, his reputation, and his retirement pension will be gone. This conflict drives the story and engages the audience’s ire at Big Government and Big Business. We are outraged that they would sully Captain Sully’s reputation, and for a while I’m outraged at Eastwood too, for making this the focus of the film.

Eastwood knows best, of course, and the positioning of the NTSB simulators against the tense, calm, and quick-witted actions of Sully and his copilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) in the real cockpit make for a conclusion as exciting as the moment when we turned on our television screens and saw a plane sitting pretty as a duck on the Hudson, with 155 people huddling on her wings, surrounded by ferry boats. Watch for Vincent Lombardi playing himself as the ferry boat captain who was first on the scene, and stay for the credits to see the actual passengers and crew in a cathartic reunion with Sully and his wife (played by Laura Linney in the film).

Another eponymous biopic that opened this week also tells the story of a man whose reputation has been “sullied” by the government — or so we are led to believe. But we aren’t sure about Edward Snowden. Is he a hero who sacrificed essential freedoms in order to blow the whistle on government snooping and intrusion? Or is he a traitor who put patriots and foreign operatives at risk when he revealed sensitive, top-secret documents? Real people have real questions about this case, and those questions are not addressed in the film.

Both Snowden and the 2014 Oscar winning documentary Citizenfour present just one side of the issue: Edward Snowden’s side. I tend to be on that side, but as pointed out in my review of Citizenfour, Snowden controlled the famous interviews he provided to journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Ewan MacAskill (played in this movie by Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, and Tom Wilkinson) at the Hotel Mira in Hong Kong. They never challenged him or did any additional investigation (that we know of) to see whether U.S. operatives were harmed by his revelations. So the story is undeniably one-sided.

Snowden's patriotism feels a little odd, since he names Ayn Rand as one of his early influences, and I don’t think she would have approved of passionate service or statism of any sort.

The movie’s interviews, which provide the running narrative of the film, are almost identical to what we saw in the documentary, prompting me to question the point of making this narrative feature. However, Snowden provides a satisfying backstory we didn’t see in the documentary’s interviews, and that makes this film worth seeing.

Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) seems to have been a patriotic young man with a fervent desire to serve his country. (This felt a little odd to me, since he names Ayn Rand as one of his early influences, and I don’t think she would have approved of passionate service or statism of any sort.) He serves first in the military, then as a computer coder for the CIA, and then as a private contractor providing services to both the NSA and the CIA. A brilliant mathematician and analyst, he was able to crack codes and create complex computer programs designed to thwart hackers and aid government surveillance. But soon he discovers that the NSA and CIA have been spying on virtually everyone’s private phone calls and emails; they even have a program that can remotely activate your computer’s built-in video camera and watch you inside your office or bedroom — whether your computer is turned on or off. (Yes, I have a post-it taped over the camera on my laptop as I write this, and it will remain there. You start to feel sort of paranoid after watching this film.)

As depicted in the film, Ed Snowden is a quiet, soft-spoken young man without the outgoing charisma we normally associate with courage and heroism. He doesn’t have enough personality to engage potential operatives at a cocktail party, although he does come alive when he’s with his girlfriend, amateur photographer, pole dancer, and left-leaning semi-activist Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). Her glowing smile and natural charisma, and her unrestrained love for him, help us to care about him too. Their relationship also serves to convince us that his motives are pure: how could he leave this charming young girl behind, unless he truly believed in the rightness of what he was doing? On the other hand, could her left-leaning politics have influenced his actions more than his own patriotism did? She left the United States to join him in Russia. For love or politics? We don’t know, and nothing in the film suggests that she is anything but innocent.

They even have a program that can remotely activate your computer’s built-in video camera and watch you inside your office or bedroom — whether your computer is turned on or off.

At 134 minutes, Snowden is about 30 minutes too long. The scenes that show what the CIA and NSA were doing, and how, are heavy on technical jargon (although I suspect they worked hard to simplify it), and we spend a lot of time watching the characters watch screens. But the second half of the film, especially the part beginning when Snowden realizes that he has to blow the whistle in order to protect the public, is tense and exciting. The final scene, when Edward Snowden himself appears, is thrilling. I wanted to applaud him in the theater. (We are hoping to bring him to FreedomFest this year through Skype.)

Both these films present interesting character studies of unlikely heroes — men who never craved the limelight or set out to change the world but rose to greatness when presented with crises that only they could address. Sully is the better film, but Snowden is worth seeing as well.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Sully," directed by Clint Eastwood. FilmNation Entertainment, 2016, 96 minutes; and "Snowden," directed by Oliver Stone. Endgame Entertainment, 2016, 134 minutes.



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Better than Advertised

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If you encountered the trailers for War Dogs, you would probably expect to see a typically raunchy Todd Phillips and Jonah Hill road trip, set untypically in the Middle East. But you would be wrong, and that’s a good thing. While there is indeed a wild ride from Jordan to Iraq as Mr. Hill’s character is being chased by Fallujahns wielding AK-47s, War Dogs is a surprisingly satisfying and informative film. It’s based on the true story of an unlikely pair of entrepreneurs who managed to live as fat as drug dealers in Miami by procuring supplies for the military.

David Packouz (Miles Teller) is working as a door-to-door massage therapist when middle-school chum Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) comes back into his life and invites him to help in his new business — providing materiel for the military. Partly as a reaction to the profits Dick Cheney made in the Middle East through his company Haliburton, Congress changed US policy in the ’90s so as to require multiple bids in procuring supplies. Efraim realized that big companies only wanted to bid on big contracts, and that created a niche for him. “Everyone’s fighting over the same pie and ignoring the crumbs,” he explains to David. “I live off the crumbs.”

What isn’t legal is the way Efraim and David create the required resumes and business history out of thin air and Photoshop.

Soon the two are in business together, living off more than crumbs in their newly purchased Miami beachfront condos and poring over contract listings to search for the buttons, belts, and bullets that other companies are likely to ignore. “It costs $17,500 to outfit one American soldier,” David, who narrates the story, tells the audience. You can make just as much money selling helmets and gloves as you can selling tanks and airplanes. Sometimes more, as Efraim and David discover. One deal is for more than $300 million. All of this is legal, and necessary. Competitive bids, after all, should keep the price down, and provide some relief to the taxpayer.

What isn’t legal is the way Efraim and David create the required resumes and business history out of thin air and Photoshop. Or how they work with shady characters around the world to fulfill the orders they’ve promised to supply. Or how they circumvent embargoes and other regulations to make sure their deliveries go through. They’re like FedEx on steroids. And cocaine.

Efraim is wild, unpredictable, greedy, and self-serving — a role tailor-made for Jonah Hill. By contrast, David is a family man with a new baby and a conscience. He wants a better life for his family than what he can provide as a massage therapist, but he doesn’t want to destroy his relationship with his partner Iz (Ana de Armas) in the process. The dynamic between these two character types, one virtually amoral and the other morally connected, drives the conflict of the film and creates a satisfying storyline.

They’re like FedEx on steroids. And cocaine.

As the film came to an end on the night I saw it, and the audience stood up to leave, I was struck by the number of young men who had come in packs. I don’t think they were Iraqi veterans looking to reminisce about their latest tour of duty. They had come for a mindless, raunchy Todd Phillips comedy, à la The Hangover Part IV: Iraqi Nights or something like that — the film the trailer promised to deliver. What they got was something else — something you could also say about the characters in the film. From the conversations I overheard, they didn’t seem disappointed. War Dogs is entertaining throughout, with well-developed characters and a healthy underlying cynicism about war.

Narrator David asks us, “What do you know about war? They’ll tell you it’s about patriotism, democracy. . . . But you wanna know what it’s really about? . . . War is an economy. Anybody who tells you otherwise is either in on it or stupid.” David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli were both — they were in on it, and ultimately they were stupid. Nevertheless, he continues, “War dogs [are] bottom feeders who make money off of war without ever stepping foot on the battlefield. It was supposed to be derogatory, but we kind of liked it.“

Whether they’re bottom feeders or not, I kind of liked this film.


Editor's Note: Review of "War Dogs," directed by Todd Phillips. Green Hat Films, 2016, 114 minutes.



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And Now For Something Completely Different

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What can one say about a book on infinity that hasn’t been said before? An infinite number of things, presumably, but I’ll make this brief.

The book, Approaching Infinity, is by philosopher Michael Huemer. Perhaps you’ve heard of him — but why? If you’re a libertarian, but not a philosopher or “into philosophy,” it’s likely because of his well-received book, The Problem of Political Authority (2013).

If you’re a libertarian and, though not a philosopher, are into philosophy, you may also be aware of Huemer’s excellent online-available essays on the right to own a gun and the right to immigrate. (I imagine readers on both the Left and Right are now gnashing their teeth.)

Huemer, like Robert Nozick before him, is clearly better described as a philosopher who is a libertarian than as a “libertarian philosopher.”

But Huemer is nothing if not prolific. Libertarians who are really into philosophy may even be aware of his criticism of Ayn Rand, his argument that we sometimes have a duty to disregard the law, his argument that attorneys have a moral obligation not to defend unjust causes, his criticism of the US government’s War on Drugs, and his essay on why people are irrational about politics (also a TED talk!).

But — and this is the point I want to stress — even though he’s published much of interest to libertarians, Huemer, like Robert Nozick before him, is clearly a person better described as a philosopher who is a libertarian than as a “libertarian philosopher.” His first book, Skepticism and the Veil of Perception (2001), dealt with epistemology (the field of study that led to his hiring at University of Colorado, Boulder); his second, Ethical Intuitionism (2005), focused on ethics. Now, having covered epistemology, ethics, and politics, Huemer, in Approaching Infinity, turns to the philosophy of mathematics (with an occasional nod to some issues in the philosophy of science). Clearly a well-rounded guy, philosophically speaking.

Also an iconoclast:

  • Although most philosophers since Descartes have opposed direct realism (the view that we are directly aware of real, physical objects), Huemer argues for just that point of view.
  • Although most modern philosophers oppose ethical intuitionism, the view that we can have direct knowledge of objective moral truths, Huemer again argues for exactly that.
  • Although most people readily accept political authority, and most philosophers are not anarchists, Huemer argues both against political authority and for a capitalist version of anarchy.

So it should surprise no one that Huemer, in analyzing some foundational issues in mathematics in order to solve various paradoxes of infinity, is willing to advance bold claims.

Almost everyone is familiar with at least some infinity paradoxes. We’ve all heard about Zeno and why that ball coming at you will never reach you, or why the hare can never catch the tortoise. Any you’re probably aware that strangeness results when even simple arithmetic is applied to infinity. E.g., ∞ = ∞ +1. Subtract ∞ from both sides: 0 = 1.

But I had no idea there were at least 17 different paradoxes associated with infinity. From Hilbert’s hotel to Gabriel’s horn . . . from Thomson’s lamp to Benardete’s paradox . . . from ancient Greek problems to dilemmas developed only in the past century . . . Huemer describes them all and then starts to evolve some background needed to solve the infinity paradoxes. There are discussions of actual and potential infinities, of Georg Cantor’s set theory, of the theory of numbers, of time and space, of both infinity and infinitesimals. Of the metaphysically impossible and the logically impossible. Of the principle of phenomenal conservatism (which Huemer introduced in his epistemology text), and even of the synthetic a priori.

Huemer, in analyzing some foundational issues in mathematics in order to solve various paradoxes of infinity, is willing to advance bold claims.

In building the background to handle the infinity paradoxes, Huemer argues that extensive infinities (including the cardinal numbers) can exist but not as specific magnitudes. Thus, the positive integers are infinite, in the sense that for any such number you can find higher positive integers, but not in the sense that there is a number “infinity” that is higher than all the positive integers. You cannot add and subtract “infinity” as I did in the previous paragraph. And he argues that while extensive magnitudes (time, space, volume) can sensibly approach infinity in this understanding, infinite intensive magnitudes (such as temperature, electrical resistance, attenuation coefficient, etc.) are metaphysically impossible. This distinction allows several paradoxes to be solved, or avoided.

A fascinating section of the text discusses various forms of impossibility. Sometimes philosophers note that X is physically impossible, given the laws of the universe as we now understand them, but nonetheless that it could be possible in a similar but slightly different possible world — say, with a slightly different Coulomb constant. But at other times X is deeply physically impossible. Consider these two alternatives described by Huemer:

Compare this pair of questions:

A. If I were to add a teaspoon of salt to this recipe, how would it taste?

B. If I were to add a teaspoon of salt to this recipe in an alternative possible world in which salt is a compound of plutonium and mercury and we are sea creatures who evolved living on kelp and plankton, how would it taste?

Huemer notes that it’s not merely that we have no idea about how to answer B but that, more importantly, even if we could answer B, answering it gives us no intuitions, is of no help in trying to figure out the answer to A. Though Huemer makes this point in the context of determining what counts as a solution to an infinity paradox, it also has direct application to various thought experiments in other areas of philosophy and to what counts as a helpful or unhelpful thought experiment. (On this see my own work, “Experiment THIS!: Libertarianism and Thought Experiments.”)

Related to the paradoxes of infinity are the problems of infinite regress. You may have heard of the problem of the regress of causes: asked what caused A, you explain that it was caused by B. But what caused B? C caused B. But … here is an infinite regress. Does this imply that we never really understand what caused A?

There are other interesting infinite regresses: of reasons, of truths, of resemblances, etc. Huemer offers helpful insights here as well, elaborating various factors that determine whether such infinite regresses are vicious or benign.

Did I mention that Huemer can be iconoclastic? Consider these passages from Approaching Infinity:

  • There are certain philosophical assumptions that tend to generate strong resistance to my views, and these assumptions are commonly accepted by those interested in issues connected with science and mathematics . . . I have in mind especially the assumptions of modern (twentieth-century) empiricism . . . the doctrine that it is impossible to attain any substantive knowledge of the world except on the basis of observation.”
  • “In the original, core sense of the term ‘number,’ zero is not a number. . . . Why is zero not a number in the original sense? Because a number, in the primary sense, is a property that objects can have, whereas zero is not a property that objects can have.” Huemer extends the concept of number to include zero but explains why such an “extension” does not work for “infinity” as a number.
  • There are reasons to doubt that sets exist. No one seems to be able to explain what they are, they do not correspond to the ordinary notion of a collection, and core intuitions about sets, particularly the naive comprehension axiom, lead to contradictions.”

In his final chapter, Huemer, taking to heart Nozick’s concerns about coercive philosophy, offers readers his own thoughts about problems that remain: which of his answers leave him concerned or unsatisfied, arguments that are incomplete, areas for further exploration.

As in his earlier books on ethics, epistemology, and politics, Huemer’s style is as easy and enjoyable as his logic is rigorous. Intelligent laypeople who are interested in philosophy can follow his thoughts without difficulty. No Hegel here.

Because I have little background in the philosophy of mathematics, I approached Huemer’s latest effort with trepidation, despite having very much enjoyed his three earlier books. But now that I’ve read it, I highly recommend it. The best news: before finishing Approaching Infinity, you’ll have to read halfway through it, and before that one-quarter of the way, and before that one-eighth, and before that. . . . Yet despite this you can read it through to the very end, and be enthralled on every page.


Editor's Note: Review of "Approaching Infinity," by Michael Huemer. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, 275 pages.



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