Astonishing Life, Astonishing Performance

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Stephen Hawking is the most celebrated and renowned physicist of our time, not only because of his astounding theory about time, but also because of his personal struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He has spent his career searching for that “once simple, elegant equation that would prove everything.”

If you, too, are looking for clues to Hawking’s elusive equation, The Theory of Everything isn’t the place to look. Although it does contain a few brief and basic conversations about Hawking’s research along the lines of “quantum theory governs subatomic particles; relativity governs the planets,” the film decidedly is not about physics.

Instead, it is an intensely personal film about how a family copes with the day-to-day emotional and physical trauma caused by a debilitating disease. And yet, it’s not about that either. Stephen Hawking has managed to survive for half a century with a disease that kills most people in less than two years. It is a horrifying disease that gradually destroys the body from the outside in. Known variously as “motor neuron disease,” “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” and more recently “ALS,” it prevents the brain from communicating with the muscles, first in the extremities (hands and feet) and finally in the torso, face, and organs. The brain continues to think, but it can’t direct the muscles to move. It is simply devastating, and most people succumb soon after diagnosis.

But not Stephen Hawking. And I want to know why. Fifty years! I want to know something about the medical treatment and the personal regimen that have made the difference for him. Is it because he has such a strong sense of purpose and satisfaction derived from his research? Is it because he doesn’t believe in the “better place” that makes it easier for believers to “shuffle off this mortal coil”? Or is it because he can afford the reported millions it costs each year for round-the-clock healthcare and personal assistance? The film completely ignores these issues, so if you’re looking for a theory, either of astrophysics or of medical physics, you won’t find it.

Stephen Hawking has managed to survive for half a century with a disease that kills most people in less than two years.

The Theory of Everything is a love story. It includes the giddiness of first love, the devastation of being rejected, the warm settling in of married life, the trauma of dealing with chronic illness, the addition of children, and even the conflicts of infidelity. Stephen’s wry boyish smile belies the crippling devastation of his body and lights his face with charm and desirability. The emotional connection between Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) and Jane (Felicity Jones) is so raw and so tender that it sometimes feels like an intrusion to watch. The stunning musical score by Johann Johannsson contributes to the emotion of the film and will keep you in your seat through the final credits.

In short, The Theory of Everything is more Jane’s story than Stephen’s. According to the tag line of the film, “His mind changed our world. Her love changed his.” This should not be surprising, since the screenplay is based on Jane Hawking’s memoirs, Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen (2007) and Music to Move the Stars: A Life with Stephen (1999). But it also very well may be true that her influence helped him continue his research and live, not as an invalid but as a scholar. Hawking himself has said that the film is “broadly true” and said of Eddie Tremayne’s performance, “At times, I thought he was me.”

Indeed, Eddie Redmayne is the reason this film works so well. He studied with therapists and dance instructors to learn how to isolate his muscles and contort them in just the right way so that he never becomes a caricature of Hawking but remains an embodiment of him. He expresses devastating frustration, unending optimism, witty charm, emotional pain, and tender love, all within the confines of a deteriorating body. Despite the pain, his eyes, his mind, and his smile remain bright. Both Hawking and Redmayne are remarkable.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Theory of Everything," directed by James Marsh. Working Title Films, 2014, 123 minutes.



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Brilliant and Troubling

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Unless you’ve had your head under a rock for the past month, you have heard the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. Known as the deadliest sniper in American history, he served four tours of duty in Iraq, during which time he was credited with killing over 160 people (some say the actual number is twice that), was shot three times, endured multiple surgeries, and was awarded two Silver Stars, five Bronze Stars, and numerous other honors. After retiring from active duty, Kyle spent the rest of his short life working with disabled veterans to help them overcome their physical and psychological injuries.

American Sniper tells the Chris Kyle story. It has been nominated for six Academy Awards and has entered superhero territory at the box office, raking in over $100 million in its first wide-release weekend, more than the total combined earnings of the other nominees for Best Picture and likely enough to break director Clint Eastwood’s personal box office records. And with good reason: American Sniper is tight, intense, and emotionally disturbing, the way a war movie ought to be. It takes us into the fray with the soldiers, while also keeping us at home with the families who fear for their lives. In one memorable scene, Kyle’s wife Taya (Sienna Miller) listens in anguish to the battle exploding around her husband when his squad is caught in a street fight and he drops his phone without disconnecting it. In that same scene, an Iraqi family friendly to the Americans is caught in a terrifying standoff with a man known as “The Butcher.” The juxtaposition of two families on opposite sides of the globe vying for one man’s protection is emotionally overwhelming. I cried.

When Bradley Cooper bought the movie rights to Chris Kyle’s memoir, he intended to serve as producer with Chris Pratt in the title role. Pratt is the right build and look, and could have been a good choice. But Cooper is brilliant. I have often commented in these reviews on the intensity and clarity of Cooper’s eyes. He can communicate the thoughts, emotions, and complexity of a character without moving a muscle or uttering a word. Those eyes serve him superbly well in this role, in which, as a sniper, he often waits motionless, searching the distance, ready to squeeze the trigger. Through his eyes we see at various times cold determination, impassioned anguish, psychological uncertainty, and bitter defeat. Through those eyes we see a man who, like so many soldiers, returns home safe, but not sound.

When Iraqis see this film, will they want to send their best snipers to our rooftops to pick off our children and mothers and grandfathers?

Several cinematic nuances contribute to the brilliance of the film. At one point, the camera focuses in through the lens of Kyle’s rifle’s sights, magnifying his deadly eye. I was reminded of a scene from Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” when Farquhar, a condemned Confederate saboteur, looks up from the river toward the Union soldier who is trying to shoot him: “The man in the water saw the eye of the man on the bridge gazing into his own through the sights of the rifle.” An impossible feat, of course — just as impossible as Kyle’s ability to see a sniper 2,000 yards away. And yet, he does. In another scene, we see an homage to Frank Sinatra in Von Ryan’s Express as a dust storm swirls relentlessly around the soldiers. These subtle allusions magnify the emotion and intensity of the storytelling.

So what about the controversy swirling around this film? Much of it stems from the fact that Chris Kyle’s kills did not occur randomly in the heat of battle, but with deadly calm and careful aim taken from neighborhood rooftops. Somehow it is considered honorable and acceptable to kill hundreds of enemies on the battlefield with bombs and machine guns, but pick them off one by one — and admit that you love doing it — and you become a sadistic, calculating murderer.

Kyle is portrayed as a red-white-and-blue patriot who fights, as he often says, to protect Americans. But the film is far from jingoistic. It presents a balanced picture of the aftermath of war — honorable soldiers with doubts about America’s mission, other soldiers mangled and maimed from injuries, still others suffering from PTSD; children growing up without their fathers, and wives suffering from loneliness, fear, and anxiety. It even presents the fearful experience of the enemy, with scenes of Americans bursting into homes while screaming vulgarities and waving rifles in the faces of terrified women and children — hardly an image of patriotism or moral rectitude in the free world.

Watching these events, even from the perspective of a highly decorated Navy SEAL, I couldn’t help but sympathize with the Iraqis. Who do we think we are, rolling through their towns with tanks and jeeps, smashing up their roads, blowing up their buildings, and bursting into their homes with guns drawn and trigger-fingers itchy? And when Iraqis (and other Middle Easterners) see this film, how will they feel? Will they want to send their best snipers to our rooftops to pick off our children and mothers and grandfathers?

Through Cooper's eyes we see at various times cold determination, impassioned anguish, psychological uncertainty, and bitter defeat.

Traditionally, wars have been fought on battlefields, away from home and civilians. Soldiers die and resources are used up until, finally, one side surrenders, and the conflict ends. By contrast, this is a war fought not only on the home front, but also in it. Middle East soldiers live at home with their families, and they attack in packs. Kyle observed the worst of those “pack attacks” on September 11, 2001, when 19 warriors turned four passenger jets into weapons, killing 3,000 civilians (and some military personnel) as they were starting their work day. This, he says, was his motivation for enduring the grueling training required to become a SEAL and go to war. America had been attacked. But it’s hard to justify a war that goes on and on, where soldiers continue to die and resources continue to be used up, but no one seems ready to surrender.

Historically there have been four excuses for going to war: 1) to expand one’s borders; 2) to plunder resources; 3) to change a culture and belief system perceived as immoral; and 4) to defend oneself from aggressors. Only the final two are remotely justifiable, but in this war, none of these reasons is being observed. We aren’t enriching ourselves; we aren’t changing anything; and we wouldn’t need to defend ourselves if we weren’t there. And there are only two smart ways to deal with a hornet’s nest: either smash it entirely, or leave it alone. Unless we are willing to do the former, we ought to do the latter. The most dangerous approach is to poke at it but leave it intact.

American Sniper is stirring the conversation, and that’s a good thing. It’s also a brilliantly made film, better in many ways than Saving Private Ryan, and deserves the accolades it is receiving. No matter how you feel about war, this is a film worth seeing and discussing.


Editor's Note: Review of "American Sniper," directed by Clint Eastwood. Warner Brothers, 2014, 137 minutes.



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Wrestling with Reality

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I’m well aware of the old adage, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story,” so I approach films that proclaim themselves to be “based on a true story” with a healthy dose of skepticism. In the case of Foxcatcher, nominated this week for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor, a phrase used tongue-in-cheek by last year’s American Hustle is more a propros: “A part of this actually happened.”

Some of what we see in Foxcatcher is true: brothers Mark and David Schultz (played in the film by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) actually did both win gold medals for wrestling in the 1984 Olympics (in different weight divisions). David did find success as a coach and trainer post-Olympics, while Mark struggled financially (wrestlers aren’t the most marketable athletes for selling toothpaste and breakfast cereal, even when they have gold medals; as one character sniffs in the film, “Wrestling is so low”). Wealthy chemical heir John du Pont (played by Steve Carell) did fancy himself a wrestling coach and did build a state-of-the art wrestling facility on his farm called Foxcatcher. Both Schultz brothers did work as coaches and trainers for du Pont’s team, although never at the same time. From what I can discern, eyewitnesses say that the shocking ending of the film is quite accurate in terms of what happened, but not necessarily in terms of why it happened. New motives have been manufactured for this tale.

However, the middle of the film “doesn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story,” and the story is admittedly much more interesting with the two brothers working at Foxcatcher together, where they display a family dynamic — two brothers abandoned as toddlers by their father (also not true) — that resonates almost voyeuristically with viewers, especially as it is juxtaposed against the bizarre and painful filial dynamic between du Pont and his cold and haughty mother (Vanessa Redgrave) as portrayed — that is, fictionalized — in the film.

When Carell's du Pont smiles he reveals teeth and gums, reminiscent of a shark unhinging its jaw for a kill.

This story focuses on loneliness: the loneliness of gold medalist Mark Schultz as he gives talks to middle schoolers for 20 bucks a pop and eats ramen noodles for dinner because they are filling and can be purchased 10 for a dollar; the loneliness of John du Pont, who has everything money can buy — even friends and medals — but relates to his own mother from a distance; and the loneliness of a mother who cannot accept or appreciate her son and his choices. Mark is looking for a father figure, and du Pont is looking for someone to parent. They fall into these roles through a pathetic sense of desperation.

Only David seems to have a grasp on reality. Married to a smart and sassy wife (Sienna Miller) with two adorable children, he doesn’t need the money or the glory du Pont dangles in front of him. But he does need to protect his brother, and that’s what (in the film) lures him to Foxcatcher. The relationship between these two brothers is deep, intimate, and exclusive, and the two actors fall into their roles with a vulnerability seldom seen on screen between men. In an early scene they prepare for a training session in an elegant, graceful warmup dance. They nuzzle each other like animals testing each other’s strength. Neck-to-neck they press into each other’s shoulders, and then roll across to face each other from the other direction, hands on the other’s back or ribcage, becoming increasingly aggressive as they warm for the match.

Into this relationship comes John du Pont, trying to buy a team, a medal, and a sense of importance. Steve Carell, known for his bumbling comedic roles in TV’s The Office and such movies asGet Smart and Date Night, is about as unlikely a casting decision as one could imagine for the crazed, withdrawn du Pont. But director Bennett Miller could see beyond the comedic roles that have marked Carell’s career. “I think all comedians are dark,” Miller said after casting Carell, and indeed Carell plays du Pont with a reserved aggression that never breaks character. He peers down his large (prosthetic) nose with eyes that are distant and unreadable. When he smiles he reveals teeth and gums, reminiscent of a shark unhinging its jaw for a kill. The real Mark Schultz has said of the real du Pont, “Everything about him was weird, from the dyed red Ronald McDonald hair with layers of dandruff in the roots to his dark yellow teeth, caked with food.” Carell captures this benign yet dangerous person perfectly.

How could someone so disgusting, unlikeable, and antisocial secure a corner for himself as a trainer and a sponsor for USA Wrestling? If the film is to be believed (and remember, it’s “based on a true story”), you can buy just about anything in this world with money. Nonprofit organizations purport to put their cause first, but in reality, the buyer is always right — and in the nonprofit world, the buyer is the one donating the money. It’s not a happy system, but until wrestlers and artists and others who enjoy esoteric pursuits can find a way to sell their efforts directly to the consumers, it’s the only one we have.


Editor's Note: Review of "Foxcatcher," directed by Bennett Miller. Annapurna Pictures, 2014, 129 minutes.



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Sad-Eyed Waifs, Sad-Eyed Wife

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The ’60s were a time of turbulent transition not only in attitudes about war, poverty, and race relations, but also in attitudes about art. If Andy Warhol could paint a reproduction of a soup can or Jackson Pollock could dribble paint on a canvas or Mark Rothko could lavish shades of red on the walls of the Four Seasons and all of them could call it art (and charge lavish prices, I might add), what else might be considered the next great breakthrough in art?

Within this changing atmosphere an artist named Keane became famous for paintings of big-eyed waifs in somber settings. Celebrities scrambled to own the works; museums gladly accepted them; even the United Nations has a Keane in its permanent art collection. In a craze that would be repeated in the 1990s by the wildly popular “cottage art” of Thomas Kinkade, Keane’s waifs began showing up everywhere — in high class galleries, celebrities’ homes (Natalie Wood, Joan Crawford, and Red Skelton are some of the actors who owned original portraits of themselves with the trademark big eyes) as well as on greeting cards, posters, and the bedroom walls of middle class America. I remember copying the big-eyed style when I was in grade school and longing to have a framed waif for my room, just as all my friends did.

But who was this artist named Keane? And what was the real reason for the big-eyed success of this relatively one-dimensional art? These two questions are addressed in the new biopic Big Eyes, which has already received several Golden Globe nominations. The film is based on Margaret Keane’s assertion, upheld in court, that she painted the waifs, while her husband Walter claimed the credit for them. This fine film examines mid-century gender roles while providing insights into issues related to plagiarism, marketing, and art appreciation.

If Joan Crawford has one hanging in her living room and respected museums have them in their collections, then they must be good, and I must have one.

Margaret (Amy Adams) is portrayed as a victim of 1950s biases and cultural restrictions. When she leaves her husbands (two marriages end in divorce) she does so furtively, sneaking away instead of confronting them and facing their problems. “I’ve never acted freely,” she complains at one point. “First I was a daughter, then a wife, then a mother,” thusechoing Nora Helmer’s epiphany at the end of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879). When she applies for a job, the potential employer asks, “Does your husband approve of your working?” Later, when she complains to Walter (Christoph Waltz) about how it makes her feel to see him being praised for the work she has created, he explains with a shrug and a smile, “Sadly, people don’t buy lady art.”

This is Walter’s justification for letting the public assume that he, not his wife, is the “Keane” whose name appears at the bottom of the canvas. If the Keanes want to make a living selling Margaret’s paintings, Walter willhave to be the frontman. The value of art, more than that ofany other commodity or product, lies in the eye of the beholder. Its price is determined not by the cost of the materials or the time and labor that go into its production (indeed, Margaret knocks out one painting in 53 minutes) but purely by supply and demand, or perceived scarcity and perceived desirability. If Joan Crawford has one hanging in her living room and respected museums have them in their collections, then they must be good, and I must have one. In fact, Andy Warhol is quoted (perhaps ironically), “It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.”

Were these paintings any good? Not really. They might have seemed haunting and evocative at first glance, but they were kitschy and uninspiring, even eerie, especially as they became mass produced. The real genius behind their popularity and sales was Walter Keane and his marketing strategy. Charming, gregarious, and mendacious, he knew how to stir up interest and create media sensations. In the film he presents celebrity portraits as publicgifts, sends unsolicited paintings to museums, and even convinces the World’s Fair committee to accept a painting of the world’s children (“Tomorrow Forever”) as the official mural of the Fair without even going through a selection committee. Christoph Waltz portrays Walter with gleeful joy and unmitigated enthusiasm. He sees nothing wrong in what he is doing. Art critic John Canaday (Terrence Stamp) is outraged by Keane’s popularity and rabid in his determination to bring down the waifs.

Plagiarism and intellectual property are central issues in this film, but so is the value of marketing. Would Margaret have made any money from her paintings without Walter’s marketing? Can Walter be accused of stealing Margaret’s work if he does it with Margaret’s full knowledge, consent and collaboration? Are they committing fraud against their customers simply because the work was done by Mrs. instead of Mr.? Have the paintings lost their value because they were painted by a woman, or might a new scandal increase their value by giving thema renewed notoriety (just as this film is likely to increase their value again)? Did Jane Eyre become a less significant work when it was discovered that Charlotte Brontë, not Currer Bell, wrote it?

Big Eyes offers a rich but disturbing look at the culture of the 1950s and 1960s — not just the formal culture of art, but the chauvinistic culture of accepted mores and gender roles. The film is a reminder of the many women who have stood silently in the shadows doing a husband’s work, or doing their own work with a masculine pseudonym, in a time when “people didn’t buy lady art” or “lady books” or “lady science.”


Editor's Note: Review of "Big Eyes," directed by Tim Burton. The Weinstein Company, 2014, 104 minutes.



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An Exceptional Economist

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When I first saw the list of “Seven Bad Ideas” by Jeff Madrick, I thought of the biblical refrain, “Woe unto them who call evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20). How can he consider the Invisible Hand, Say’s law, limited government, low inflation, efficient markets, free trade, and economics as an objective science to be “bad ideas”?

Then I read the book, and came to the conclusion that Jeff Madrick is an exceptional economist. By that I mean that Madrick considers all the above ideas to be good except when they are misused by economists and government officials who engage in “dirty economics.” He is one of those economists who constantly says, “I’m all in favor of the free market, but . . .” and then lets out a litany of exceptions to the rule.

The greater the level of economic freedom, the higher the standard of living.

His first chapter sets the tone. He labels the Invisible Hand a “beautiful idea,” and waxes eloquent about Adam Smith’s “brilliant” metaphor of the market. Then he goes on the attack, criticizing laissez-faire advocates such as Milton Friedman (his favorite bête noire) for ignoring the importance of “monopolies, business power, lack of access to information, the likelihood of financial bubbles, economies of scale.” When that happens, he concludes, “The efficient Invisible Hand gets very dirty.”

Madrick protesteth too much. Adam Smith’s “system of natural liberty” consists of three elements: maximum freedom, competition, and a system of justice. If the invisible hand gets dirty, it’s only because one or more of these elements are proscribed. If all three are in place, the result is “universal opulence which extends to the lowest ranks of the people,” as Smith predicted in the early pages of The Wealth of Nations. Indeed, the Economic Freedom Indexes, produced by the Fraser Institute and the Heritage Foundation, confirm Adam Smith. They list five critical factors: size of government, legal structure, sound money, trade, and regulations. They demonstrate that the greater the level of economic freedom, the higher the standard of living.

In chapter 5, Madrick attacks the notion that “There Are No Speculative Bubbles.” Here again he begins with a positive idea, the efficient market theory (EMT), which originated from the work of Eugene Fama at the University of Chicago. Fama, who won the Nobel Prize last year, found that it’s almost impossible to beat the market and difficult to identify asset bubbles. But then Madrick spends most of the chapter highlighting the exceptions, citing Robert Shiller and other critics of EMT. “The development of the EMT is another example of how faith in the rationality of free markets was pushed too far,” Madrick says. Yet the fact remains, when the financial markets are transparent sans government interference and mismanagement, they work pretty well.

In chapter 6, Madrick attacks globalization. He begins by saying, “Opening markets to world trade can and should be beneficial.” Then comes the “but . . .”, as he cites cases of people in Asia, Europe, and Latin America who are damaged by free trade and market liberalization. He also cites Paul Krugman, for the idea that “broad swaths of the population [are] hurt by trade.” But no one says that trade doesn’t hurt some groups in the short run, and requires them to retool and change jobs. A recent study of the NAFTA free-trade agreement between Canada, Mexico, and the United States concluded that on net balance more jobs and more income were created than destroyed.

When financial markets are transparent sans government interference and mismanagement, they work pretty well.

Madrick derides the whole idea of Say’s law and the self-adjusting economy. However, he never cites directly the great French economist J.B. Say. In fact, I have the impression that he may have never read Say’s Treatise on Political Economy, published in English in 1821. Nor does he seem familiar with the work of Steve Kates, the foremost authority on Say’s law. If he had, Madrick would know that Say’s whole focus is the benefits of the supply side of the economy — technology, productive savings and investment, and entrepreneurship — which is the key to long-term growth and higher standards of living. Who could be against that?

Like Krugman, Robert Kuttner, and other Keynesians, Madrick berates “austerity” economics and the obsession with government deficits in Europe and the US. Yet he conveniently ignores examples in which austerity worked, such as Canada in the mid-1990s, when it cut government spending and laid off federal workers but managed to balance the budget in two years and then went on an 11-year supply-side run that proved a success. Today Canada is ranked no. 7 in the Economic Freedom Index, ahead of the US (no. 12).

Seven Bad Ideasshould be renamed The Anti-Friedman Book. It attacks the late Milton Friedman in virtually every chapter, blaming him and his "laissez-faire" policies for everything bad in the world. Madrick says that the establishment economics profession has bought into all things Friedman, and that Friedman has had his way in practically all policies, including those of the Clinton era. According to Madrick, Friedman is "the most influential American economist of the last quarter of the twentieth century.” If so, why hasn’t the US adopted a flat tax, a negative income tax, school choice, decriminalization of drugs, or privatization of Social Security or even the national parks, as Friedman advocated? Why hasn’t the US eliminated the Fed and replaced it with a computer that increases the money supply at a steady rate? If only Madrick were right and Friedman truly ruled!

Madrick conveniently ignores examples in which austerity worked, such as Canada in the mid-1990s, which balanced its budget in two years.

In his final chapter, one of Madrick’s chief complaints about the economics profession is its lack or misuse of empirical evidence to support its assertions. But sometimes he is guilty of the same error. One of the most egregious examples is this extreme statement: “By every measure, the economic improvement in the 1950s and 1960s was superior to the improvement from 1980 onwards when Friedman type-economics began to prevail.” Say again? He may have a point with some statistics, such as per capita GDP growth, or real wages in the United States. But there are plenty of countries in Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa that have adopted Friedman free-market policies and have blossomed. And in the US, there are plenty of contrary data, such as life expectancy, leisure time, and especially new technology (personal computers, smartphones, the internet, etc.). When you include worker benefits, total compensation is still rising for the average employee. According to Michael Cox, an expert on consumption patterns at Southern Methodist University, ownership of cars, color televisions, and household appliances has risen dramatically at all income levels, and even in poor households, since 1980. The standard of living has advanced so far and has risen so rapidly for most Americans since 1980 that there is no comparison. Is there anyone who would prefer to live in the 1950s and 1960s rather than today, as Madrick’s statement implies?

Most of the time, Madrick loses his sense of balance. He devotes 90% of the book to the exceptions, making it a work full of tedious arguments and complaints that would interest only professional economists (what John Stossel calls “getting caught in the weeds”). He even takes on his Keynesian friends, such as Lawrence Summers, and lambastes them for falling into “Friedman’s folly.” Madrick still thinks Friedman is the Devil.


Editor's Note: Review of "Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists Have Damaged America and the World," by Jeff Madrick. Alfred A. Knopf, 2014, 254 pages.



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The Broken and the Unbroken

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Despite our justifiable concerns regarding domestic surveillance (see my review of Citizenfour), electronic surveillance has served an important purpose during war time. Intercept the enemy’s plan of attack, and you can prevent that attack. During World War II, hundreds of Allied “ears” listened in on Axis radio communications, hoping to decode the embedded messages in time to thwart the Nazis’ plans.

However, this became nearly impossible after the Nazis developed a complex message-scrambling machine called Enigma. A group of genius linguists, logicians, and mathematicians was recruited to break the Enigma code, but the machine was so complex that it could generate an estimated 159 x 1018 possible codes. Making the task even more formidable was the fact that the code changed at midnight every day, giving the team approximately 18 hours from the time the first message was intercepted in the morning until they had to start over, searching for a completely new code. It would be easier for the miller’s daughter to spin flax into gold than for these geniuses to uncover the Enigma code. Meanwhile, soldiers and civilians were dying minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. Cracking the code could potentially end the war sooner and save hundreds of thousands of lives. They had to keep trying. Their story is told in an outstanding new film called The Imitation Game.

In The Imitation Game you notice Cumberbatch’s brilliance in his lack of brilliance — his lack of social sparkle.

The unlikely hero of our story is Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), a socially inept, possibly autistic mathematical genius who can break traditional codes in a matter of minutes but can’t interpret ordinary social codes created through facial gestures and tone of voice. “People never say what they really mean,” Turing complains quizzically, “and you’re just supposed to know.” For example, at one point another decoder says, “We’re getting lunch,” and Turing doesn’t respond. What the decoder meant, of course, was “Do you want to come with us?” But Turing can’t crack this simple code on his own.

Turing realizes the folly of trying to break the Nazis’ code in traditional ways; it would take 20 million years to go through all the possibilities, and they have 18 hours a day. So he turns his efforts toward building a machine that can run through all the possibilities automatically, in milliseconds. The other decoders resent Turing’s obsession with the machine, because it takes him away from their traditional decoding. One member of the team, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) believes in him. Clarke is a bit of a misfit herself, as she is the only woman on the team, and math is considered a “manly” pursuit. She teaches Turing how to play the social game that will give him the time and support needed to develop his “imitation game” — the computer.

Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Turing is spot on. Admittedly, he has experience with characters who are emotionally detached — he played, for example, Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), the title character in the TV series Sherlock (2010), and the forlorn boy whose best friend is a horse in War Horse (2011). In The Imitation Game you notice Cumberbatch’s brilliance in his lack of brilliance — his lack of social sparkle. While the other characters lean into each other, eyes aglow, faces expressing sorrow or concern or cheerfulness as they speak, Turing’s face is blank. His eyes focus just in front of the person to whom he is speaking; his face remains placid, his forehead unfurled. He is different, and because he is different he is unliked. We see this especially in flashbacks to his school experience, where all but one of the boys treat him cruelly. He is used to it, but he doesn’t like it. And he struggles to break that social code.

Turing developed his “imitation intelligence” machine into a device that not only ended the war but has changed the way you and I create, communicate, live, and think.

But there is more to Turing’s “imitation game” than the computer he longs to build. He is hiding a secret that, if discovered, could destroy his career and land him in jail — or worse, as it turns out. Winston Churchill heralded him as the greatest hero of World War II — responsible for ending the war two years early and saving hundreds of thousands of lives — yet because of this secret in his personal life he was arrested, convicted, and punished in the cruelest and most shameful way. For as long as he could, Turing lived an imitation life, hiding his true self and pretending to be someone he was not.

Turing’s story is an important one. He was a genius and a hero, yet he was shunned, bullied, and punished simply for being different, first by his schoolmates, then by his decoding team, and finally by the government he helped to save. Through all of this Turing continued to develop his “imitation intelligence” machine into a device that not only ended the war but has changed the way you and I create, communicate, live, and think. As Joan Clarke says, “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do things no one could imagine.” Understanding and assimilating this truth makes this film well worth watching.

Another film set in World War II also focuses on an unlikely hero. In this case his actions did not affect the outcome of the war, but his endurance, strength, and faith became an example to many who heard or read his story. Unbroken is based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand about Louis Zamperini, who spent 45 days in a life raft after his plane crashed at sea and then spent the final two years of the war in a Japanese prison camp. His ability to survive both experiences and buoy the courage of his fellow sufferers is an inspiring story of individual heroism.

Zamperini did not start out as a typical hero. He was a hooligan — often in trouble with the law for petty theft and just as likely to end up in a local prison as a Japanese one. The son of Italian immigrants, he, too, was bullied for being different. The local sheriff encouraged him to turn his swiftness at running from the cops to a more productive pursuit, and he joined the high school track team, eventually competing in the Berlin Olympics. Had the war not started, he would likely have gone to Tokyo as an Olympic competitor rather than a prisoner of war. These early experiences helped Zamperini develop survival instincts and endurance that served him well during his those brutal two years.

The film opens with a thrilling dogfight as Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) and his flight crew ward off incoming flak in order to drop bombs on a Japanese target. After some expositional flashbacks to his childhood, it continues with the harrowing crash into the sea and Zamperini’s heroic leadership as he kept the three survivors motivated to stay alive in the life raft for an astounding 45 days. These scenes are the best in the film, capturing the teamwork, loyalty, and danger that are integral to the story.

Zamperini and his flight mates are rescued from certain death at sea, only to land in worse conditions within a Japanese prison camp. There they are isolated, starved, beaten, and threatened with beheading. Pilot Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) is pitifully emaciated, and his ribs and hipbones stick out as though they could poke right through his tissue-paper skin. (Gleeson lost so much weight for the role that even his contact lenses wouldn’t fit.)

As told by Jolie and the Coens, the story is an individual’s journey, just as track is an individual’s sport. It lacks the drama of universal conflict or import.

Camp Commander Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara) takes a particular dislike to Zamperini, shown by the almost psychotic cunning in his eyes. He is often filmed over the shoulders of an American soldier, staring menacingly into the camera, which gives the audience the eerie sensation of standing within the line of POWs. The actor, composer, and guitarist, known professionally in Japan as Miyavi, has a strangely androgynous look that adds to the unsettling effect of his character. First time director Angelina Jolie has a good eye for composition throughout the film (or perhaps the credit should go to seasoned cinematographer Roger Deakins, who is known for such outstanding films as Shawshank Redemption, No Country for Old Men, Prisoners, A Beautiful Mind, andTrue Grit [2010]).

Unbroken is a good film, but it is not a great film, and it certainly does not live up to the quality of the book on which it is based (but then, few films ever do). The audience suffers the torment of the main character, and we admire his triumphant victory over horrifying circumstances — his ability to take whatever unfair treatment is meted out to him. Jack O’Connell deserves the accolades he has been receiving as most promising new performer. But the film falls strangely flat, especially in comparison to The Imitation Game. The story has no central conflict outside of the beatings and torture, giving it an oddly plodding pace.

Moreover, as told by Jolie and the Coens (who wrote the screenplay), the story is an individual’s journey, just as track is an individual’s sport. It lacks the drama of universal conflict or import, and stops short of telling the lasting impact his experience had on others. While in the lifeboat, Zamperini made a vow to devote his life to God if he survived the experience, and he did — Zamperini joined Billy Graham’s crusade and told his inspirational story for many years as a way of encouraging people to face obstacles with courage and patience.

Unbroken had all the ingredients of an enduring film — outstanding, dedicated cast; seasoned, talented cinematographer; award-winning screenwriters; beautifully written book; and a heroic, uncompromising central character. It’s good. But it’s broken.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "The Imitation Game," directed by Morten Tyldum. Weinstein Company, 2014, 114 minutes; and "Unbroken," directed by Angelina Jolie. Universal Pictures, 2014, 137 minutes.



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To Praise or to Push?

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“No two words are more harmful in the English language than ‘Good job.’” So says Terence Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons) when asked why he humiliates and browbeats his students. Fletcher is the menacing, profanity-spewing, name-calling, face-slapping, chair-hurling, off-balancing dictator of the Shaffer School of Music, who also happens to be the most sought-after band coach in the most sought-after music school in New York — which, as everyone knows, is the same as saying in the world.

Fletcher uses tactics more common to a football coach or a drill sergeant than a musician. Members of his elite studio jazz orchestra cower beneath his scrutiny, stammer uncertain responses to such basic questions as “Were you out of tune?” and avert their eyes in terror as he surveys the group. Yet these are among the most skilled young musicians in the world! And not one would willingly yield his spot in the group. They have struggled and practiced all their lives just to be selected by this tyrant.

If someone does have the talent and the drive, does he need the humiliation? Won’t he drive himself to achieving his best work without the terrorizing?

Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller) is a student drummer who has been tapped for the studio band by His Greatness, Sir Fletcher. But to maintain his spot, he must compete every day, every practice, every song, with the drummer he is trying to replace and with the drummer who is trying to replace him. This constant competition drives him to practice until his hands are bloody, his body is dripping with sweat, and he is as utterly exhausted as a marathon runner. And still he doesn’t measure up. The taunting, jeering epithets rain down on him from the pompous coach, daring him to quit, daring him to fight back, daring him to prove that he is the best.

This kind of pressure is typical in sports and elite military training, but if applied in the music world, it causes the viewer to contemplate the balance between encouragement and abuse. How much is too much? If “good job” and “self-esteem” can lead to complacency and mediocrity, won’t constant humiliation lead to discouragement and giving up? Fletcher would say that anyone who gives up never had the talent and the drive in the first place. But if someone does have the talent and the drive, does he need the humiliation? Won’t he drive himself to achieving his best work without the terrorizing? When is it time to push? When is it time to praise? These are important questions that every parent, teacher, and coach should consider.

Miles Teller certainly pushed himself to greatness for this role. A drummer in high school, he returned to training as he prepared for filming and practiced four hours a day, trained with a professional jazz drummer three days a week, and played until his hands were blistered and bloody (that’s Teller’s blood on the drum and the sticks in the film). His Andrew is timid around his new coach, just as the other band members are, but there is an extra spark in his determination to maintain the drum stool. He will not give up, no matter what. Teller’s scars (he suffered major cuts to his face and body when he was thrown through the window of a car as it crossed three lanes of traffic and then flipped eight times), though never mentioned, become a subtle metaphor for the psychological scars Andrew has suffered at the hands of family members who only value “manly” pursuits such as football and girls.

J.K. Simmons usually plays the gruff but lovable father types — the curmudgeon hiding his heart of gold — so it is terrifying and refreshing to see him in a role that is so completely vile and demonic. Fletcher revels in his power, his control, and his absolute belief in his own rightness. He is the perfect match for Andrew in this contest of wills as they battle for the same goal: to develop Andrew into a musician who will be remembered long after he is dead — the next Buddy Rich or Charlie Parker.

As good as these two actors are, the music is the true star of this film. As Andrew takes a solo and builds it to a climax, his body sweating, his hands bleeding, his face “a look of agony” (to quote Dickinson) so focused that nothing can distract him, the performance becomes a sensual experience, almost erotic, and it practically explodes off the screen.

It’s even more impressive that a director so young could draw so much from his main characters.

Whiplash was written and directed by 30-year-old Damien Chazelle, who filmed it in 19 days of shooting and completed the entire work in just ten weeks. As a film festival director I always caution filmmakers not to rush post-production just to meet a festival deadline, but in this case it worked: Whiplash won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize this year at Sundance. It’s also worth noting that when Chazelle couldn’t get funding to make the whole movie, he made a short version, won the Jury Prize for best short narrative at Sundance (2013) and on the strength of that win was able to secure funding to make the full length feature later that summer. Sounds as though Chazelle has a bit of Andrew Nieman’s dedication and persistence himself.

Whiplash is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. It’s even more impressive that someone so young could draw so much from his main characters, one of whom is a relative newcomer and the other is a seasoned pro who might have felt that he had nothing to learn from someone so inexperienced. Instead, Simmons threw himself into this character and could be practicing acceptance speeches in the next couple of months.

“Good job”? Oh, yeah.


Editor's Note: Review of "Whiplash," directed by Damien Chazelle. Bold Films, 2014, 107 minutes.



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Citizen Snowden

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Thanks to the generosity of a very thoughtful husband, I had the opportunity to attend the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City with my figure skating daughter. Before we could enter any venue or even walk around the grounds outside the venues, we had to pass through metal detectors and bag checks. You probably don’t find that news particularly surprising or appalling; a dozen years later, we take it for granted that our bags will be checked before entering any arena, terminal, school, or public building. But at the time this was brand new. It angered me that strangers were looking through my purse and personal belongings every time I entered the area. The Marines provided aerial and radar surveillance of the event, and we learned later that all email and text communications were intercepted by the FBI and NSA, supposedly for a period of six months surrounding the event. This was the opportunity for the folks at Homeland Security to try out all their new toys and gadgets, and they reveled in it.

Snowden is a complex character whose actions and story required more journalistic rigor than Poitras provides.

The 2002 Olympics became a gateway moment for justifying indiscriminate snooping in the name of national security. I couldn’t help but remember that experience while watching Citizenfour, the documentary based on interviews last year with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Snowden was an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, a company that provides technology and security services to civilian and government agencies, when he became alarmed by the scope of surveillance being conducted by the NSA. He decided to take the story public by stealing top-security documents and sharing them with two journalists of his choosing: documentarian Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald of the London Guardian.

Snowden has been called a patriot, a traitor, a dissident, a thief, a whistleblower, and even an accessory to the murder of those whose covers he blew when he revealed the contents of sensitive security documents. As I watched the film, all I could think of was the courage it took for this 29-year-old man to sacrifice his home, his family, and his relationships to warn you and me that Big Brother is watching and recording everything we say and write.

Poitras was nominated for an Academy Award for her 2006 documentary My Country, My Country. Being selected by Snowden to tell his story was quite a coup. However, while the story is certainly important, I was not impressed with her filmmaking. Basically we watch Snowden talking in a Hong Kong hotel room, and we see clips of Glenn Greenwald being interviewed on the cable news networks after his stories were published in theGuardian. Most of this we have seen before, and Snowden is in complete control of the interviews; Poitras does what he tells her to do and says what he wants her to hear. We never see her onscreen, but she enters the documentary through elaborate typing of their email conversations recreated with white Courier on a black screen.

Poitras doesn’t do any digging for this documentary, and she doesn’t reveal anything beyond what Snowden wants to say to the camera. She doesn’t tell us what was in the documents Snowden stole and made public, and she doesn’t interview anyone about the harm those revelations may have caused. She didn’t seek out individuals whose lives have been affected by indiscriminate surveillance — people, for example, who have been put on “watch lists” or denied travel visas because of an automated misinterpretation of something they’ve written in an email. She didn’t interview Snowden’s colleagues or parents or his longtime girlfriend, although she knew who and where the girlfriend was. Perhaps Poitras was worried about being charged under the Espionage Act herself, or perhaps it was just shoddy journalism; regardless, I found the documentary one-sided, incomplete, and full of the kind of technical jargon that suggests Snowden is either really really smart, or really really knows how to snow his audience. (Occasionally I felt as though I were listening to a Truther explain how Building Seven came down . . .)

Despite the gravity of the topic, Citizenfour is strangely unsatisfying and lacking in suspense. Yet there was plenty of suspense to be had: US authorities were trying desperately to find Snowden and extradite him here, before he could finish his interviews and secure asylum in another country; and undercover agents were scrambling to find safety as the contents of his documents were revealed.

She didn’t seek out individuals whose lives have been affected by indiscriminate surveillance — people, for example, who have been put on “watch lists” or denied travel visas.

According to Snowden, the NSA engages in sweeping, indiscriminate collection of all telephone and email transmissions and then uses automated language analysis programs to search for suspicious conversations or Google searches. The NSA was tapping directly into search engines such as Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, and others and making assumptions based on reports generated by automated analysis. (Think about this the next time you search to find out the schedule of Viola Davis’ new hit TV show, “How to Get Away with Murder.”)

Poitras includes some footage of congressional hearings about NSA snooping. Several other NSA employees turned whistleblower at the same time as Snowden, including William Binney, who sat down with documentarian Tricia Owen, just days before the Snowden story broke, for the short film Before Snowden: Behind the Curtain, which premiered at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival in July. Poitras also filmed a training meeting conducted by Jacob Appelbaum of Occupy Wall Street as background for Citizenfour. Watching Appelbaum explain to Occupiers how to avoid surveillance as they planned their sit-ins and protests, I thought of Voltaire’s famous line, “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” — and to say it without being surveilled.

Citizenfour is important as a piece of history, but it is not a good documentary. Snowden is a complex character whose actions and story required more journalistic rigor than Poitras provides. She had a powerfully significant story dropped into her lap, but she let Snowden call all the shots. Patriot? Traitor? Martyr? Simple thief? We may never know the truth. Joseph Gordon-Leavitt is set to play Snowden in a biopic next year, and that film will of course have a point of view, determined by the bias of the filmmaker. Laura Poitras was the only one who had primary access to the actual source, and she blew it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Citizenfour," directed by Laura Poitras. Praxis Films, 2014, 114 minutes.



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The Worm that Walked

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A nightcrawler is the news media’s version of an ambulance chaser. Armed with a video camera and a police scanner, these freelance pseudo-photojournalists rush to the scene of horrific crimes or accidents with the hope of being the first to film the most sensational stories and send them off to the highest bidding newsroom. On a good night they can make a few hundred bucks. On a great night, they can make a few thousand.

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is down on his luck and looking for a job when he happens on an accident scene where he watches a nightcrawler (Bill Paxton) film a story and then negotiate a deal. Soon he has a camera and a police scanner of his own. He hires Rick, a homeless young man (Riz Ahmed), to ride shotgun, call out directions from the GPS and then stay with the car so Bloom doesn’t have to waste time parking it when he gets to the scene. He develops a knack not only for getting to the scene first, but for framing the shots and even, occasionally, staging the scene for more dramatic effect. The line between news and art soon becomes blurred as Bloom becomes more and more driven to “get the shot.”

With the blank detachment and enigmatic smile of a true sociopath, Bloom is uber polite, uber calm, and uber creepy.

Nina Romina (Rene Russo) is the late night news director for the early morning show on the lowest-rated news show in town. She is desperate for crime exclusives that will bring more viewers to her network. When Bloom brings her some particularly salacious footage and negotiates for a price, she reacts to the breaking story in the way an addict reacts when she’s in need of a hit. She will do anything to get Bloom’s footage on her show. Anything.

While this inside look at the seedy underworld of freelance videography is fascinating, the real draw of this film is Bloom himself. With the blank detachment and enigmatic smile of a true sociopath, Bloom is uber polite, uber calm, and uber creepy. He’s a nightcrawler of a baser sort — the kind that might be lurking under a rock. He has a strong sense of right and wrong, but it’s his own sense of what is right — and you’d better not wrong him. At one point Rick observes, “You don’t understand people.” Bloom responds with his polite smile, “It isn’t that I don’t understand people. I don’t like them.” This detachment prevents Bloom from feeling the squeamishness normal people feel at the sight of blood, gore, and tragedy, and drives him to get better and better shots — the kind of shots normal people feel repelled by and drawn to at the same time.

In last year’s Prisoners, when he played Detective Loki, a policeman helping a father (Hugh Jackman) find two kidnapped girls,Gyllenhaal gave us a hint of the kind of work he is capable of producing. Through subtle means — excessive blinking, unexplained tattoos, sideways glances — he suggested that his character might have a past that made him unbalanced. With Lou Bloom Gyllenhaal has created a character devoid of compassion yet oh-so-polite and driven by his own sense of correctness. Gyllenhaal lost 30 pounds for the role, not just because he thought his character should look gaunt, but because he wanted his character to look hungry. It worked.

This is writer-director Dan Gilroy’s first film, and it’s a winner. His car chases are some of the best I’ve ever seen, especially one thrilling shot that begins on the back license plate, pans around the side of the car, and ends up on the front license plate, all at race-car speeds. Gilroy’s brother Tony is known for his own spectacular car chases in the Bourne films, but Dan brings something so much stronger to the screen than just action and thrill rides. His characters are deep, dark, and dangerous in ways that have nothing to do with weapons or fists. Lou Bloom is a character you will remember for a long time. He might even remind you of someone you know — uber calm, uber polite, and uber creepy.


Editor's Note: Review of "Nightcrawler," directed by Dan Gilroy. Open Road Films, 2014, 117 minutes.



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Okies in Outer Space

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After last year’s Gravity introduced technological advances that led to cinematic magic on the screen, I couldn’t wait to see Interstellar, this year’s much-heralded space flick. Helmed by master action director Christopher Nolan and with a cast led by last year’s Oscar winners Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway and Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain, it had every reason to be, well, stellar. That it has taken me two weeks to write this review might give you a hint as to my reaction.

Interstellar is set in a not-so-dystopian future when the military industrial complex has been disbanded, machines and computers are no longer being manufactured, the space program has been closed for refusing to drop bombs, and textbooks proclaim that the lunar landing was a hoax. Anarchy has not led to chaos, however. No dictator enforces tyrannical rule, nor have marauding gangs taken over à la Mad Max. Neighbors play baseball, farmers plant corn, and life seems idyllic — except for the fact that corn is the only crop that will still grow, and gigantic clouds of dirt rivaling those of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s regularly blow through town. Yet no one on earth seems remotely aware of the impending extinction or even has the gumption to move to another part of the country. At least the Okies packed the rocking chair on top of the truck and moved to California to find better fields and opportunities.

I anticipated a satisfying conflict between authority and autonomy, science and ignorance. But that part of the film is short-lived.

A few souls do remember the old days. Cooper (McConaughey), a farmer who used to be a pilot, wistfully laments to his children, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) and Tom (Timothee Chalamet), “There was a time when we were explorers and pioneers. Now we’re just caretakers.” When Murphy’s teacher calls Coop to task for telling Murphy that the moon landing really did happen, Coop rightly asserts his authority as a father to teach her what he knows to be true. Freedom of thought, if not intellectual honesty, seems reasonably alive and well in the future, according to this film. As I settled in to watch it unfold, I anticipated a satisfying conflict between authority and autonomy, science and ignorance.

But that part of the film is short-lived. Through pseudo-supernatural means, Coop and Murph are led to an underground research lab where former NASA rocket scientists have been working on a project to discover a compatible planet in outer space. They hope to transport the remnant of humankind there. Within hours Cooper is pressed into service as the only pilot capable of flying the rocket, and a couple of days later he is blasting off. Tearfully he hugs his children goodbye, knowing that, because of the effects of traveling beyond the speed of light, he is likely to be much younger than they are when he returns. Murphy is understandably despondent and refuses to say goodbye even as Coop drives away.

Murphy’s refusal to talk to her father is the only dramatic conflict we encounter inthe first half of this nearly three-hour film. No one is hoarding or looting, and everyone seems calm. “The last to starve will be the first to suffocate,” someone shrugs about their future, but no one seems to be in a panic about it. They aren’t even motivated to move to a less dusty area where the climate might still be conducive to agriculture. Without dramatic conflict, the film has about as much tension as a science documentary.

That all changes in the second half of the film, when our space travelers encounter catastrophic forces of nature, mortal combat with crazed enemies, devastating rocket explosions, split-second rescues, and a time-travel sequence that, while implausible, is inventive, suspenseful, and exciting. For the last hour of the film I was right where I wanted to be, on the edge of my seat. But it took way too long to get there.

Ultimately Interstellar is more about an irrational father-daughter dynamic than it is about space travel or saving the world. It suffers from serious plot holes, unresolved character discrepancies, and weak dramatic conflict. The special effects are pretty special, and the second half makes the film worth seeing once. But I wouldn’t want to sit through the first half twice.


Editor's Note: Review of "Interstellar," directed by Christopher Nolan. Paramount Pictures, 2014, 169 minutes at well below the speed of light.



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