New Grit

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The story of True Grit is as simple as a classic western and iconic as a Greek drama — a tale of revenge and redemption, told with wit, grit, and a dash of cathartic poignancy.

Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) has killed Frank Ross in cold blood. Frank's 14-year-old daughter, Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld), is determined to see Chaney hanged for murder. Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is a murderer of a different sort: as a U.S. Marshall, he has a license to go after outlaws and bring them back, dead or alive. More often than not, he brings them back dead.

Mattie is looking for a marshal with "grit" to help her find her father's killer. The trigger-happy Cogburn is her choice. But the title of the film could just as easily describe Mattie herself. Smart enough to outnegotiate a horse trader, well-versed in the law, plucky enough to tame and ride a new mustang, and tenaciously persistent, she is a girl with true grit. Cogburn is at first irritated by this young whippersnapper, but as he sees her determination, irritation gives way to grudging admiration. Eventually he grows to love her with the protective ferocity of a mother bear.

As they travel together, Cogburn slowly reveals his past to her. He has two failed marriages behind him, as well as a son who, he admits, "never liked me very much." With her unflinching courage and impressive education, Mattie becomes both the son and the daughter Cogburn did not raise. Gradually she comes to represent his opportunity for redemption as a father.

Comparisons to the 1969 version of True Grit, starring John Wayne, are inevitable. After all, the Duke won his one and only Oscar for this role. Many critics have complained that Jeff Bridges' Rooster Cogburn is a grizzled old coot, barely visible behind his whiskers and eye patch. Nevertheless, Bridges sells it, supplying what I consider the original film’s missing ingredient: the growing emotional connection between the precocious yet vulnerable young girl and the old man who has buried his personal life in a whiskey bottle. The chemistry simply didn't exist between Kim Darby and John Wayne, who openly complained about his costar's lack of experience and depth.

Darby's Mattie was bent on reforming the irascible, hard-drinking, cynical Cogburn, but Steinberg's Mattie simply accepts him for who he is and takes care of him when he needs it. When she removes Rooster's tobacco and rolling paper from his fumbling hands and deftly produces a tight cigarette, she does it without condemnation or flourish; it's apparent that she has rolled cigarettes for her father many times before. The gesture symbolizes a subtle transfer of Mattie's affection and signals the beginning of Cogburn's redemption. By contrast, in Kim Darby's hands the cigarette is an unspoken accusation of his immorality.

The Coen Brothers are probably the most versatile moviemaking team in the business. They defy any attempt to place them in a genre box, unless that box is just labeled "Good." It has been said that paper is cheaper than film, and the Coens have taken that axiom to heart, beginning with a great script that leads inevitably to a great story and a great film. From the quirky Raising Arizona to the starmaking Fargo to the sleazy The Big Lebowski to the sublime O Brother, Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men, they’ve known how to make movies the old fashioned way: with great stories, great acting, and great cinematography. True Grit may not be their quirkiest or most original, but it is a true winner.


Editor's Note: Review of "True Grit," directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Skydance, 2010, 110 minutes.



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Which Is the Real One?

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This seems to be the season of Black Swans. Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable spent 17 weeks on the bestseller list and is still being discussed as an explanation for what is happening with the economy. Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake returned to New York this fall with its menacing all-male corps de ballet bringing a sizzlingly dark interpretation to this most-beloved of ballets. And now we have the much-anticipated release of the movie Black Swan. The film stars Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis as ballerinas competing for the coveted role of the Swan Queen in a company headquartered at Manhattan's Lincoln Center.

Swan Lake is Tchaikovsky's iconic folktale about Odette, an innocent young girl whom a wizard transforms into a swan. As in many fairy tales, only true love can restore the heroine to her original form. Odette falls in love with Prince Siegfried, but before he can marry her, the wizard substitutes his own daughter, Odile. Odile attends a ball given by Siegfried and tricks him into believing she is Odette, seducing him with her more passionate charm. Traditionally the parts of both women are played by the same ballerina, suggesting to some modern interpreters that the White Swan and the Black Swan are actually warring parts of a single psyche, the Angel and the Whore.

This psychological dilemma figures prominently in the new film. In its version of the story, Nina (Portman) is a member of the corps de ballet who hopes to earn a principal role in the company's upcoming performance of Swan Lake. Lily (Kunis) is a new member of the corps who also hopes to earn the role. Nina is timid and innocent, like the White Swan, while Lily is confident and daring, like the Black Swan. Nina doesn't know what to make of Lily: is she friend or foe?

Black Swan is a traditional backstage movie with a sinister twist. Instead of learning to inhabit the role of the black swan, Nina is horrified to find the swan entering her own exterior world. She must deal with her jealous, overprotective mother (Barbara Hershey) who has given up her own career in the ballet so she can have Nina. The mother is reminiscent of the queen in Snow White, who becomes so jealous of her stepdaughter's beauty that she wants her to be killed. Nina also has to contend with an evil stepsister of sorts, as Lily manages to become Nina's alternate and seems determined to sabotage her chance to star as the Swan Queen.

Actors often talk about the goal of becoming so immersed in a role that they turn "seeming into being," as Emerson wrote in his journals. Nina is technically capable of dancing the choreographies, but she lacks the passion to become the seductive Black Swan convincingly. Her sleazy director (Vincent Cassel) tries to help her by seducing her himself. Lily tries to help her by making her angry. What seems lacking in this film, however, is a Prince Siegfried character, someone for whom Nina could feel honest love and genuine passion.

Instead, the audience must endure several explicit scenes of masturbation and oral sex that is rendered more as an unemotional attack than as lovemaking. Apparently, the purpose of these scenes is to show how Nina gets in touch with her inner passion, but the scenes are gratuitous and unnecessarily graphic. They mar what is otherwise an exciting and fascinating film.

Both Swan Lake and Black Swan are stories of transformation, but the film is deliberately ambiguous about what happens. Is the transformation in this film metaphoric, metaphysical, or merely hallucinogenic? We never really know, and it doesn't really matter. Ultimately the film is about the ecstasy of a perfect performance, demonstrated on several levels both on and off the stage.


Editor's Note: Review of "Black Swan," directed by Darren Aronofsky. Cross Creek Pictures/Fox Searchlight, 2010, 108 minutes.



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Clever, Not Cutesy

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Last week, producers at CBS's perennial bottom feeder, The Early Show, decided to shake things up with a clean sweep. Out went veteran anchor Harry Smith, co-anchor Maggie Rodriguez, and weatherman Dave Price. In came an astounding new idea to boost the ratings: The team of benchwarmers who used to host the Saturday version of The Early Show are now moving up to the majors. Say what?

As the New York Times pointed out in its article about this little revolution, CBS News might as well give it up. Humans are creatures of habit, and never more so than in the morning. Hit the snooze, stretch, scratch, shower, brew, and flip on the TV to hear the banter of familiar voices while getting ready for work. GMA, Today, and Fox & Friends already have a lock on the morning shows, and nothing short of something completely different from the competition — infomercials, game shows, or reruns of Mary Tyler Moore — will bring them back to CBS. Say . . .Mary Tyler Moore. Now there's an interesting idea!

Fittingly, a film about the inner workings of a morning news show hosted by geriatric veterans Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton) and Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford), opened the same week in which the anchors of The Early Show were given the boot. Morning Glory presents the story of Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams), the young executive producer of a morning show for the thinly disguised "IBS" network, calledDaybreak. Daybreak's ratings are so low that it is about to be cancelled. Becky has six weeks to turn the ratings around.

Despite being young, perky, prone to babble, and endearingly klutzy, Becky is totally focused on her job and has an inborn knack for successfully producing a morning news show, with its mix of entertainment and hard news. She directs the weatherman to engage in daredevil stunts and encourages the anchorwoman to let loose as well. Her only holdout is Pomeroy, a curmudgeonly Dan Rather-type who has been demoted to the morning hours against his will. He refuses to banter.

Becky's biggest problem is not the show, however. It's the lack of balance in her life. Like many newspeople, or any young professionals for that matter, she can't let go of her BlackBerry or her TV remote. Her nose is always in the air, sniffing for a story. Even when she gains the romantic interest of Adam Bennett (Patrick Wilson), a hunky producer from another show on the network, the relationship is more physical than social or emotional. In a gender role reversal that seems to be growing in popularity (watch for my reviews of Love and Other Drugs and No Strings Attached later this month), it is the modern woman who wants a "Slam, bam, thank you, man" relationship. It makes me sad just to watch.

Morning Glory is cleverly written without being cutesy, and reflective without being preachy. It offers several honest moments to ponder the importance of balancing work, play, and friendship, and redefines family in an uplifting way. A definite yes for a date night movie.


Editor's Note: Review of "Morning Glory," directed by Roger Michell. Bad Robot, 2010, 107 minutes.



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127 Hours: It’s Not What You Think

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If you've been avoiding 127 Hours because you're squeamish about the subject matter, wait no longer. Yes, it does tell the story of Aron Ralston, a 28-year-old mountaineer who had to amputate his own forearm after being trapped by a huge boulder that fell on his hand in a canyon in southern Utah. But this is not a film about a man who cuts off his arm; it is a film about a man who stops at nothing to figure out a way to release himself from a life-threatening situation.

The film opens as Aron (James Franco) prepares to go bicycling in Utah’s canyon lands. As he tosses supplies into his backpack, his hand reaches for, and just misses, the Swiss Army knife stored at the back of a cupboard. Later in the day, that loss will come back to haunt him.

Riding his mountain bike at full speed toward a canyon, he hits a bump that sends him flying over the rocks, but laughingly picks himself up and gets back on the trail. Pounding techno-music at the beginning of the film mimics the throbbing adrenaline rush he seems to crave as he barrels pell-mell through existence.

But he is not a jackass adrenaline junkie. He simply has a zest for life. He is equally thrilled by the quiet spiritual rush he receives when surveying the canyon from atop a plateau (accompanied by an appropriate switch to a gentler acoustic guitar), and by the playful serendipity of meeting a couple of girls and showing them around. Entering the slot canyon that would nearly become his tomb, he caresses the smooth stone. Clearly, he feels at home. And after plummeting down the canyon wall and discovering that his hand is pinned by a huge boulder, he issues a gigantic expletive — then sets to work.

Too many people waste precious time crying over their problems or waiting for "someone" (read: the government) to fix them. But the key to success is to assume that no one is coming to bail you out.

Resourceful and self reliant to the core, he doesn't just wait for someone to save him. His two greatest assets are hisindomitable will and his problem solving instincts. Quickly he opens his backpack and sets its contents on a rock, assessing his assets. How can they become tools for his release? Soon it becomes obvious that the film is more like Apollo 13 (1995) than like the claustrophobic Buried (2010) or Saw (2004).

One of Ralston’s most urgent needs is support — physical support. The boulder didn't set him neatly on the canyon floor; he is suspended a few agonizing feet above the ground and has to press his feet and body against the canyon wall in order to keep from dangling by his trapped hand. After several futile attempts, he manages to use his climbing ropes to create a hammock that allows him to rest. At night, he wraps his bungee cords around his arms and neck to create a kind of blanket from the cold. In the morning he leans his face and body into the rocks to gather warmth from the sun that briefly enters the narrow canyon and then passes on its way. Even his dexterous toes are used as assets, foreshadowing his "new normal."

Aron's decision to give up his arm is not an example of giving up in general. Instead, it is a powerful example of his resourcefulness as a problem solver. He has calculated how many hours he can exist without water; he has accepted the fact that no one is going to come for him; he realizes that the hand is already dead and useless to him, whether it is attached or detached. He doesn't give up his arm so much as he lets go of the thing that is holding him back from his goal of going home.

Two stars emerge in this dynamic film. The first is James Franco as Aron Ralston. Franco throws himself into this role the way Aron Ralston throws himself into the canyon: with total commitment. His alternating expressions of agony, fear, determination, joy at little victories, and even ironic humor create dramatic action in a tiny, static space. Despite the horrifying story, what one remembers most about the film is Franco's plucky, exuberant smile.

The other star of the show is writer-director Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire"). He's never on camera, of course, but he enters every scene with his creative camera angles and storytelling techniques. For example, he will focus in closely on Franco's gritted teeth or bloodshot eyes, and then pull out to remind us of the desolate yet beautiful scene that is his living tomb. Tilted camera angles, dreamlike flashbacks, overwashed processing (to indicate Aron's videotape of himself), and split-screen projection of multiple realities convincingly portray Aron's mental state as the hours melt into days. The film could have been a tedious, claustrophobic trudge to the finish line, where Aron makes the gruesome decision to amputate his arm. Instead, it is a thrilling, uplifting, agonizing, and even joyous retelling of a man’s heroic determination to live.

In many ways, this film is a powerful metaphor for life in the new millennium. We hurtled our way through the go-go ’90s, pumped up by a soaring stock market and roaring real estate investments, only to get pinned down by boulders that were, as Aron philosophizes, "there all along, just waiting to meet me in that canyon." Too many people waste precious time crying over their problems or waiting for "someone" (read: the government) to fix them. But as Aron Ralston's story clearly demonstrates, the key to success is to assume that no one is coming to bail you out. Instead of worrying about the Swiss Army knife you don't have, assess the tools you do have. Keep a positive spirit. Be resourceful and self-reliant. Be a problem-solver. Remember to thank the people in your life and tell them that you love them. And don't be afraid to let go of the thing that is holding you back, even if it is as precious as an arm.


Editor's Note: Review of "127 Hours," directed by Danny Boyle. Fox Searchlight, 2010, 93 minutes.



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The Other Battle for Britain

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One of the crucial decisions in American culture was to keep broadcasting mostly out of the hands of the government. That was not the decision in the United Kingdom.

Death of a Pirate is about the long struggle to modify that decision. The word “pirate” refers not to brigands but to unlicensed broadcasters; the death is about the killing, on June 21, 1966, of one of them by another. It was not a typical event but a shocking one, and it provided the Labour government in Britain with a convenient excuse to shut down the “pirate” stations. But the stations had made their point about the monopoly of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Johns, a Briton employed at the University of Chicago as a professor of history, does two big things with this book. The first is to tell the story of the BBC and the long fight against its monopoly by free-market economists, business people, music promoters, and ordinary Britons. The second is to use documents unsealed in 2001 to tell the story of the killing of Reginald Calvert by Oliver Smedley.

A British reader of my generation may appreciate this part, because he will remember the story. An American is less likely to care about all the details. The reader of Liberty will be attracted to the story of classical liberal ideas and bold entrepreneurial moves in the struggle for private commercial radio in Britain.

The BBC was created in 1927. It was a new thing, a state-owned corporation. As the national broadcaster, writes Johns, the BBC was imagined by its political creators as “autonomous from both the state and private industry.” It was to serve “the common good in a domain that it dominated, free of the inefficiencies of competition.”

The market-based relay company quickly learned to switch to the Continental stations whenever the BBC offered high culture.

Critics objected. Britain never had a British Newspaper Corporation to publish all newspapers or a British Books Corporation to publish all books. It didn’t have it, and it didn’t want it. So why have a single corporation own all broadcasting?

The answer is: because people were led to believe in it.

The BBC had a more elevated mission than any mere private broadcaster’s. Its mission was “to improve British culture through broadcasting.” It would not simply aim at the mass market but would offer “balanced programming,” a mix of such things as “string quartets, educational talks, sports commentaries and dance music.”

This was not meant as background music while the subscriber was washing dishes, weeding the garden, or fixing the plumbing. Radios were of large size then — the precursors of TV sets — and you had only one. The BCC supposed that you sat in your living room and paid attention. You were also supposed to pay cash for the privilege — a license fee equivalent today to $60 to $100 a year.

Politically, this conception of the BBC won the day. In the marketplace, it did not. Commercial stations, denied a place on British soil, set up shop in France and elsewhere and broadcast British content and British ads back to the people of Britain.

The market also offered “relay.” We would call it cable radio. This was popular in working-class districts. The customer paid a monthly fee, and the relay company provided a line and a set. It was cheaper than buying a radio set on installments, and usually the reception was better. The relay company received broadcast signals and chose which ones to pipe to people’s homes. The company could tell when its customers were switched on, and it quickly learned to switch to the Continental stations whenever the BBC offered high culture. By the mid-1930s, relay had more than 200,000 subscribers.

The BBC had a legal monopoly on British soil, but it did not have anything close to a real monopoly in the air.

In 1935 a parliamentary committee recommended that the relay companies be nationalized. It wasn’t done; the Conservatives were in power. After World War II, however, Labour took over and vowed to create a socialist Britain. The BBC looked to be in an invincible position.

It wasn’t.

A thing had happened at the London School of Economics. The school had been set up by socialists and dominated by critics of laissez-faire. But it had hired a few critics, and in 1930s three of them became a kind of “anti-Keynesian party.” They were Lionel Robbins, Friedrich Hayek, and Arnold Plant.

Johns devotes some attention to Hayek, his battle in the 1930s with Keynes, and his famous book, The Road to Serfdom (1944). Of the three professors, however, the key person for the radio story was Plant. His specialty was the economics of monopoly and information. He was opposed not only to having radio in the hands of a state corporation, but also to the patent and copyright laws that created monopoly power. As Johns says, “Plant quietly became Britain’s most important critic of such monopolies before the rise of the open-source software movement.”

In 1938 Plant set out to find out about Britain’s radio listeners. Researchers knocked on thousands of doors and asked people what they had switched on. He found that many were listening to Radio Luxembourg, Radio Normandy, and the other Continental stations. The BBC had a legal monopoly on British soil, but it did not have anything close to a real monopoly in the air.

Suddenly the so-called pirates were acting like real pirates. Smedley was acquitted of murder, but the British state took the opportunity and shut the “pirates” down.

Plant’s other contribution was the training of Ronald Coase, who half a century later would win a Nobel Prize in economics. Plant set Coase to work on issues of broadcasting. The eventual result was a book, British Broadcasting: A Study in Monopoly (1950), which Johns characterizes as “the ‘Road to Serfdom’ of the modern media.”

Coase argued that there was no economic reason, and no technical reason, for the BBC to be a monopoly. Those were smokescreens. The BBC had been granted monopoly status for a cultural reason: to support the claim by political elites “to determine on behalf of the listener which broadcast material he should hear.” To Plant and Coase, the issue was control of information. Freeing that from the state, Johns says, “reflected imperatives buried deep in the heart of neoclassical economics.”

Coase’s book influenced the debate. In 1951 the Conservatives returned to power and began using his arguments to push for commercial television. By 1954, they had it, at least in a small, one-channel way. But Britain still did not allow commercial radio. In the 1960s, entrepreneurs responded with “pirate radio” — commercial radio stations operating not from foreign jurisdictions but from stateless space: the seas. They used ships and abandoned World War II antiaircraft platforms outside the British state’s three-mile limit.

It took unusual people to do this. The ideologue of the group was Oliver Smedley. He was a classical liberal who in 1955 had been one of the founders of the Institute for Economic Affairs, the UK’s preeminent free-market think tank. He thought of pirate radio as a political attack on the British state — which it was. Another was Kitty Black, a theatrical agent who, Johns writes, was “contemptuous of government intervention in the arts.” Another was Reginald Calvert, a promoter of pop musical acts. There were others.

Death of a Pirate goes into much detail about who did what. Several of the ventures were half-baked, but at their peak the “pirate” stations had a large audience. Some offered 12 hours a day of pop music at a time when the BBC was limited by law to just 28 hours of music a week — a law designed to protect the musicians’ union.

The British government didn’t act, Johns says, partly because the stations were popular and partly because “nobody wanted to take charge.” Labour, which won the election of 1964, was not sympathetic to commercial broadcasting. Labour’s idea was to use state radio to create a “university of the air” to uplift British workers. Prime Minister Harold Wilson even appointed a bureaucrat — Jennie Lee, the wife of Aneurin Bevan, creator of the National Health Service — to accomplish this. Meanwhile, the British public was listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, often on transistor sets and car radios tuned to unlicensed stations.

Then came the killing. Calvert’s company had appropriated an abandoned antiaircraft fort — “sinister-looking boxes perched on steel legs” — eight miles offshore. Calvert had a used radio transmitter of Smedley’s that he had not paid for. Smedley wanted it back. He couldn’t get help from the police — the tower was outside the British state — so he hired a crew to take it. They stormed the platform and knocked Calvert’s radio station off the air. This led to Calvert bursting into Smedley’s house and Smedley's killing him with a shotgun.

Suddenly the so-called pirates were acting like real pirates. This had a political effect similar to the one in America when Timothy McVeigh killed government workers in Oklahoma City: it generated a revulsion against people with an anti-state point of view. Smedley was acquitted of murder (self-defence), but the British state took the opportunity and shut the “pirates” down.

The broadcasters had, however, made their point. Labour responded by creating the BBC’s first pop station. In the next Conservative government, under Edward Heath, the British state licensed commercial radio.

It’s a fascinating case in how to break the hold of a state monopoly.


Editor's Note: Review of "Death of a Pirate: British Radio and the Making of the Information Age," by Adrian Johns. Norton, 2010, 305 pages.



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Sorry, I'll Take the Plane

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If a freight train leaves Brewster at 9:25 traveling east at 70 miles an hour, and another train leaves Stanton at 9:45 traveling west at 50 miles an hour on the same track, how long will it take before a 98-minute movie becomes suspenseful?

Unfortunately for the viewers, about an hour.

Unstoppable, a movie about a driverless runaway train barreling toward another train full of schoolchildren, ought to be fraught with tension. Add to the out-of-control train several freight cars full of toxic, combustible chemicals that could contaminate whole towns along the way, and the adrenaline should start gushing.

Oddly, however, the tension never mounts. This film has its moments, but that's part of the problem: they are only moments. If a train traveling 70 miles an hour in one direction passes a train slipping onto a side rail going the other way, just in the nick of time, how long does the moment last? A few seconds. In this movie, trains always manage to pull onto the side rails just in time, leaving the audience with all the excitement of playing a game of Snakes on a cell phone. And since the filmmakers give us almost no backstory about the people whose lives are in danger, we feel no cathartic worry or relief until the last half hour of the film, when we finally learn a few things about Frank (Denzel Washington), the 28-year veteran driving a rescue train, and Will (Chris Pine), the rookie on his first assignment as a conductor. Ultimately this is a film about a rookie becoming a man, and that's a pretty good theme. But it takes too long to get there.

The filmmakers want us to regard their work as a metaphor for the BP disaster, blaming the crisis on corporate greed, but it doesn't quite work. The film's initial crisis is caused by driver error, not cost-cutting: when a bloated, bumbling engineer (Ethan Suplee) jumps off a slowly moving train to switch the rails, it gathers speed and gets away from him.

The crisis seems to become more corporate-driven when the VP of Operations (Kevin Dunn) rejects the local yardmaster's suggestion to deliberately derail the train before it reaches more populated areas. "We aren't going to destroy an entire trainload of cars," he barks, obviously worried more about the bottom line than about avoiding human injuries.

Adding to the sense of corporate greed and insensitivity, the company's owner (Andy Umberger) is reached on the golf course, where he gives instructions and goes back to his game. Oh, these dirty, greedy capitalists! Selfish to the core! It's clearly a reference to BP President Tony Hayward's decision last summer to attend the annual sailing regatta around the Isle of Wight while millions of gallons of crude were gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.

But isn't it wise and prudent for a company to examine all its options before derailing an expensive asset and possibly releasing toxic elements into the environment, even if that environment is outside the city limits? Doesn't every company have to balance the costs of safety and employee benefits against consumer prices and profits? If costs outweigh profits, the company will simply cease to function. Moreover, one has to wonder why the seasoned VP of Operations would trust the judgment of a young, nubile, strangely glamorous yardmaster Connie (30-year-old Rosario Dawson), whose employee caused the problem in the first place.

The most interesting part of this film deals with the inner workings of train safety systems — the switching of the rails to change a train's course, the dead man's automatic braking system (unavailable in this case because the same bumbling engineer hasn't taken time to connect the air brakes), the use of external locomotives to slow a runaway train, and even frontage roads that allow access to moving trains. All of this makes the film interesting, if not fascinating.

Denzel Washington worked with director Tony Scott last year on a taut, suspenseful runaway train movie, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009), so they should know how to build suspense: Make us care about the characters. That 2009 film is more about the cat-and-mouse interplay between Washington's character and John Travolta's crazed antagonist than it is about the train, and it works. By contrast, this film feels almost like a made-for-TV documentary reenactment, and it doesn't work.

Watch for Unstoppable in your local television listings. It will be there soon. But it isn't worth the price of a theater ticket when so many better fil


Editor's Note: Review of "Unstoppable," directed by Tony Scott. Twentieth Century Fox, 2010, 98 minutes.



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Beyond the Textbooks

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One of the curious things about business ethics texts is that they tend to focus on puzzling moral issues, such as whether monitoring emails on the job is wrong, or when is it morally permissible to blow the whistle on an employer. They usually spend little time on the notion of character and the problem of giving in to temptation.

This is curious to me. Most cases of unethical behavior in business — or in family life, religious life, government, or any other institution built with the crooked timber of humanity — are not cases in which the evil-doer acted wrongly because he couldn’t figure out what was right. Much more often, they are cases in which someone put the morally right aside because the wrong just feels so good.

Does anyone seriously believe that Bernie Ebbers defrauded investors in WorldCom because he didn’t understand that fraud is morally and legally unacceptable? Or that when Ken Lay and the smart guys at Enron defrauded their investors, they were somehow unaware that hiding debt in offshore, off-the-books entities was actually fraud? No, these perps did what they did because it gave them what they wanted (wealth, power and prestige), and they thought they could get away with it.

This phenomenon of succumbing to temptation despite your moral understanding is at the heart of an excellent movie now available on DVD.

Good is based on a 1981 stage play of the same name by C.P. Taylor. It tells the story of John Halder, a modest, mild-mannered literature professor in a German university in the 1930s, when the Nazis were consolidating their power. Halder writes a novel that portrays euthanasia in a romantic, favorable way. The subtheme of euthanasia plays out in a personal way for Halder as he struggles to care for his mother, who suffers from dementia. The novel is seized upon by the Nazis, for whom “compassionate euthanasia” of such people is a step toward finding a “final solution of the Jewish problem.” Propaganda minister Josef Goebbels first flatters and then bribes Halder into letting the Nazis make a film from his book. They enable Halder to move ahead in his career.

As this proceeds, we see how Halder is corrupted step by step. He leaves his wife and children for a beautiful young student. He joins the Party and is even given a token position in the SS (which liked to have a few academics on its roster for the sake of appearances). He is rewarded with the chairmanship of his department.

Halder’s systematic seduction and corruption are pointed out to him by his Jewish friend Maurice Gluckstein, who explains to him what the Nazis are doing to their country and to his own character. But Halder is able to maintain his self-image as a Good Man, even as his corruption evolves. He watches while Gluckstein is harassed and menaced more and more by the Nazi regime.

When Halder finally tries to help Gluckstein leave Germany, Halder’s new wife betrays his friend.  Halder discovers this, and by using his SS rank and his wiles, discovers and manages to get into the concentration camp to which Gluckstein has been condemned, hoping to free his friend. Here he is finally forced to recognize both the moral reality of the regime of which he has been a willingly blind supporter, and the degraded nature of his own character.

The acting in this insightful movie is uniformly good. Especially notable in support are Adrian Schiller as the cynical Josef Goebbels, and Jason Isaacs as the morally clear-eyed Maurice Gluckstein. The exchanges between Halder and Isaacs’ Gluckstein are among the best scenes in the movie. Viggo Mortensen is simply superb as the morally blind John Halder. The handsome Mortensen could have made a career playing nothing but roles such as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, yet he has gone out of his way to take on edgier roles, such as the gangster Nikolai in Eastern Promises and the unnamed father in The Road. Mortensen plays Halder perfectly.

Vicente Amorim’s direction is outstanding as well, getting just the right balance of passion and restraint from the cast. And the cinematography is beautifully done.

This is a thought-provoking film, one well worth renting or purchasing as a holiday gift for your most thoughtful friends.


Editor's Note: Review of "Good," directed by Vicente Amorim. Miromar Entertainment, 2008, 96 minutes.



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Beating the Heat

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Intellectual honesty is a very rare commodity, especially in areas where there is great political pressure to conform to some Received View.

Such is the case with the theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). The majority of climate scientists think that AGW, as represented in theory, is a well-established phenomenon; but a fairly large minority apparently doesn’t. Enter the activists, who react to the theory of AGW in one of two ways. The True Believers take the theory of AGW as proven beyond all doubt and use it to argue for massively costly and disruptive policies, such as cap-and-trade laws and Green energy schemes. The True Deniers deny AGW altogether, dismissing the ever-increasing amounts of burned fossil fuel as having no effect whatsoever on the planet, and viewing the scientists who believe in AGW as deluded fools, or part of some pseudo-scientific cult.

Rare are moderate voices. Perhaps the best known voice of this kind is Bjorn Lomborg, the author of a number of books, including The Skeptical Environmentalist and Smart Solutions to Climate Change, and the subject of a great little documentary, Cool It, playing now in limited release.

Lomborg is a Danish economist and director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, a policy thinktank based in Denmark that specializes in formulating economically sound policies for private and governmental aid programs. He grew up as a devout Green and a member of Greenpeace but was awakened from his dogmatic environmentalist slumbers when he read the work of economist Julian Simon. Simon was an iconoclast who argued that the world’s environment is getting better and that human beings are the planet’s greatest resource. Lomborg set out to refute Simon but after doing the research was forced to admit that he was largely correct. It dawned on Lomborg that much of the environmentalist agenda was counterproductive and driven by inaccurate propaganda.

This fanatical, venomous creature stands in stark contrast with the optimistic, sincere, and decent Lomborg.

Cool It, co-written by Lomborg and directed by well-known documentary film maker Ondi Timoner, surveys Lomborg’s works and thoughts, but focuses on refuting Al Gore’s classic of environmentalist propaganda, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Lomborg believes that AGW is real, but that it doesn’t pose the profound and immediate threat to the ecosystem that Gore and his ilk claim it does. Lomborg also holds that the vast amount of money being spent to combat AGW would be better spent on more immediate human needs, while we develop better solutions.

For this, Lomborg is reviled. For example: in one scene of the movie we see Stephen Schneider, long-time proponent of the theory of AGW, waxing furious as he discusses Lomborg’s perspective. This fanatical, venomous creature stands in stark contrast with the optimistic, sincere, and decent Lomborg — as does the ever-pompous Al Gore. In another scene, we listen to Lomborg recount how he was hauled before the Danish Committee on Scientific Discovery, where his political enemies tried to destroy his career for his outrageous view that the world is not headed for an ecological Armageddon. He survived that Kafkaesque Star Chamber, but it took its toll on the poor fellow.

Besides being an introduction to Lomborg and his work, Cool It is meant to be a counter to Al Gore’s undeservedly famous movie. In one powerful sequence, Lomborg interacts with some British schoolchildren who have obviously been indoctrinated, very thoroughly, with the theory of AGW in its most extreme, apocalyptic version.

These pathetic kids are convinced that they are all but doomed, by Evil Man’s Hideous Works, to melt beneath an unrelenting, merciless sun. It turns your stomach to watch this. In my view, the people who manipulate children to further their policy agenda deserve to melt in an unrelenting, merciless Hell.

Cool It specifically refutes four major contentions of Gore’s movie: that the seas are going to rise over 20 feet and inundate vast portions of land, that AGW has increased the amount of malaria (because of increased mosquito populations), that AGW is threatening the polar bear population, and that AGW is causing increasingly severe hurricanes.

These pathetic kids are convinced that they are all but doomed, by Evil Man’s Hideous Works, to melt beneath an unrelenting, merciless sun.

The essence of Lomborg’s thinking is neatly summarized by one of his lines: “If we only listen to worst-case scenarios, that’s unlikely to make good public priorities.” I would add that it is even less likely to make good public priorities if those worst-case scenarios are based on highly politicized, agenda driven science.

To give a flavor of Lomborg’s views, consider his analysis of the EU’s proposed carbon-cutting eco-regimen, projected to cost the citizens of Europe about $250 billion a year, while producing only slight effects in terms of slowing AGW. Lomborg would rather the EU spend $100 billion on R&D on non-fossil-fuel power (including — gasp! — nuclear power, something that Gore abhors), about a billion dollars on geoengineering solutions to AGW (such as putting more white clouds in the sky to reflect the solar rays), and $48 billion on projects to mitigate flooding (such as building decent levees to protect New Orleans) and reduce the “heat-island” effects of cities, and the remaining money (on the order of a $100 billion) to lessen malnourishment, broaden access to healthcare, and ameliorate under-education among the world’s poor.

The scene in which we see him talking to kids in Africa about what they fear — fears quite different from those that afflict the upper-middle class British kids — brings home his honest desire to see those poor kids helped.

I have two areas of disagreement with Lomborg, whom I esteem highly as a paragon of Enlightenment thinking in our postmodern era. Both are areas in which I fear that he is rather too naïve, sincere as he surely is.

The first area has to do with his idea that if we (as we should) eschew harsh measures to stop AGW, we could effectively spend the money saved to alleviate the underdeveloped world’s problems — lack of food, potable water, and education. In reality, international aid money gets channeled through either third-world governments or various NGOs (supposedly neutral aid organizations); the former are notoriously corrupt and incompetent — which is why their citizens languish in poverty to begin with — and the latter are notoriously inefficient and contaminated by political agendas.

A large faction of the environmentalist community wants to see the world’s population decline dramatically, from 7 billion to perhaps 400,000.

Would it not be better economics just to let taxpayers keep the money saved by killing the more outré environmentalist schemes, money that the taxpayers would spend more productively, and push for free trade agreements with all the underdeveloped countries so that they could, well, you know, develop?

Proceeding to the second area of disagreement: Lomborg doesn’t seem to understand that a large faction of the environmentalist community views Homo sapiens as the plague of the planet, and wants to see the world’s population decline dramatically, from the present 7 billion to perhaps 400,000 in the dreams of some of the environmentalists.” The most zealous crusaders, whose thinking drives the movement, despise the very idea of using natural resources to make people better off materially. They want monstrously costly “solutions” to environmental “catastrophes” (both real and imagined) precisely because those “solutions” will impoverish Evil Humankind.

Put in another way: in the environmentalist eschatology, human flourishing is cardinally sinful per se, and deserves the most lethal punishment. Instead of the old Christian idea, “in Adam’s fall, we sinned all,” these theologians of the environmentalist faith believe that “in Adam’s exaltation, the world suffered degradation.”

But naiveté aside, Bjorn Lomborg is an admirable man, and Cool It is a jewel not to be missed.


Editor's Note: Review of "Cool It," directed by Ondi Timoner. Roadside Attractions, 2010, 89 minutes.



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Freedom to Learn

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Documentaries have often been the unappreciated stepchildren of the movie industry. Usually earnest and hardworking, they nevertheless find little room at the cineplex next to the family of fictional feature films. Waiting for Superman is an exception. It created a sensation at the Sundance Film Festival last year, and an even greater sensation when it was picked up by the talking heads at FoxNews. Now it is being screened in large studio theaters side by side with blockbusters and indie films. And some of the viewings are even sold out.

The film's premise is the failure of what one speaker calls "our implicit promise to students: that the idea of public school could work." It suggests that the biggest problem in public schools is the stranglehold of the teachers' unions and a tenure system that makes it virtually impossible to fire mediocre teachers.

Failing schools create failing neighborhoods, and not the other way around. Without a doubt we have perpetuated several generations of failure.

The film follows the experiences of half a dozen students trying to get a better education than the one offered by their local public school. Most of them are minority kids attending schools in the inner city, in neighborhoods that are in shambles — rough places where education is not a priority for the majority of young people. But the filmmakers also visit Redwood City, California, a well-to-do town near San Francisco. There the percentage of students moving on to college is also dismally low because of "tracking," the practice of labeling people early in their school career as either "college track" or "vocational track."

Once a student starts down a lower track, it is virtually impossible to move up to the college track. This system was designed 50 years ago, when only 20% of students went to college anyway, and the rest got blue-collar jobs in the robust post-WWII economy. Today, by contrast, factory jobs are being mechanized out of existence or sent overseas, and everyone is thought to need a college education. But not everyone is being prepared for it.

The film's title comes from an interview with Geoffrey Canada, president of Harlem's Children's Zone, an organization that provides community support, tutoring, and even charter school education to families in a 100-city-block area of Harlem. He describes the despair he felt when his mother told him that Superman was not a real person. It meant, he said, that "no one was coming with enough power to save us." As a young child, he could see the problems that poverty, crime, and unemployment created in his neighborhood. He needed a superhero. As an adult, he realized that super power comes from superior education.

Over 2,000 schools are failing nationwide, causing many of them to be called "Dropout Factories" instead of high schools. Most are in poor urban neighborhoods, where many young adults end up either dead or in prison. But dropout rates are high throughout the country, not just in the South or in the inner cities. The administrator of one school admits in the film that its freshman class normally numbers 1,200 or so, but by sophomore year the number has dropped to 300–400, an astounding loss of 75%. The filmmakers ask a provocative question: do failing neighborhoods produce failing schools, or do failing schools produce failing neighborhoods?

Union bosses mandate uniform pay, uniform benefits, and a system of tenure that makes it virtually impossible to fire a bad teacher.

The real enemy, according to this film, is not the parents or the neighborhoods but the teachers' unions that control the supply and demand of teachers. Union bosses mandate uniform pay, uniform benefits, and a system of tenure that makes it virtually impossible to fire a bad teacher. In Manhattan, for example, teachers awaiting disciplinary hearings are sent to the infamous "Rubber Room," where they receive full pay for sitting all day, reading the newspaper, playing cards, or taking a nap. Some of them have been sitting there for as many as seven years, waiting for their hearings. Some become so bored that they quit and find a job doing something else, but most stick it out. After all, they get paid whether they work or not, so why work? Manhattan pays these teachers a shocking $100 million a year not to teach.

As Liberty contributor Gary Jason has pointed out in many articles, under union rules, good teachers and bad teachers are paid the same wage. In most states it is illegal to give merit pay for a job well done. So why should anyone try harder? Teachers have been heard saying, "I get paid whether you learn or not" as they play computer solitaire or read newspapers, and their students goof off. Try doing that in any other job or profession, and see how long you would last.

Like the federal government (and governments at every level) schools have also become bloated with administrators and bureaucrats. In Washington DC, school superintendent Michelle Rhee was hired specifically to cut costs and fix the ailing system. She fired several central bureaucrats, eliminated some principals and vice-principals, and even closed a few schools. With those savings she was able to bring back programs that had been cut, including music, art, physical education, libraries, and nursing service on every campus. When she offered teachers the potential of nearly doubling their salaries if they would give up tenure, many seemed interested. But worried by the looming loss of power, the union would not even let her proposal come to a vote. That's how frightened they are of competition.

They are also frightened of losing their control over Congress. Waiting for Superman claims that teachers' unions are the largest contributors to political campaigns, giving around $55 million per year to various politicians. About 90% of that money goes to Democratic candidates. This has successfully kept teachers' unions off the table when politicians discuss education policy. As Rhee comments sadly, "It's all about the adults."

Waiting for Superman suggests that charter schools provide the best hope for improving education. These schools are a kind of hybrid, using public school funding but run independently like private schools. Many charter schools have particular themes, focusing on specific areas of study such as science or performing arts. But many are dedicated simply to teaching students the basics and preparing them for college. Admittedly not all of these schools are effective, but the top charter schools are sending an impressive 90% of their students to college.

Some argue that the success of these charter schools is personality driven — that they rely on the unusual talents of a few charismatic teachers who would be just as successful if they were teaching in public schools. Challengers ask, can their success be replicated?

The answer seems to be yes. To cite an example: the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Schools, highlighted in the documentary, were started by two very successful teachers, Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg. They have now nearly 100 schools nationwide, all producing successful, college-bound students. KIPP schools push their students to close the so-called "achievement gap." They rely on longer school days, shorter summer vacations, Saturday classes, and even inner city boarding schools. Other charter schools take an opposite approach: for a while my daughter attended a charter school designed for serious figure skaters, where classroom work took up very little of the day. The point is, charter schools give parents and children the opportunity to choose what is best for them.

Teachers have been heard saying, "I get paid whether you learn or not" as they play computer solitaire or read newspapers.

Why should this matter to people who have no children, or to those whose children have already graduated from college? The answer seems obvious. Students are our workforce for the future. As Bill Gates states in the film, "We can't sustain a system of continued growth without an educated work force." If people can't get jobs, they'll be living on welfare. This matters to all of us.

Although teachers unions are portrayed as the villains in Waiting for Superman, teachers themselves are portrayed as heroes. They are the Supermen and Superwomen for whom too many students are waiting. The film ends with this paean: "A great teacher is like a great athlete or a great musician. Teaching is a work of art."

Unfortunately, for too many students great teaching is out of reach. Schools need flexibility, accountability, and competition in order to improve. I'm not sure that this documentary provides all the answers or that it sees all the causes of the problems. Certainly a difficult home environment contributes to the failure of many students. But I like the director's notion that failing schools create failing neighborhoods, and not the other way around. Without a doubt we have perpetuated several generations of failure.

Moreover, the film's assessment of the stagnating effect of unions and the tenure system is sound. Motivate teachers with the risk of failure, the incentive of merit pay, and the freedom to innovate, and let's see how quickly the best teachers rise to the top. Other teachers will soon follow, as they see that greater effort will garner greater pay. As this documentary makes abundantly clear, it's time to end the stifling system of tenure and unions in public education. Those who teach well have nothing to fear. Those who can't teach effectively should go find another profession.


Editor's Note: Review of "Waiting for Superman," directed by Davis Guggenheim. Paramount/Vantage, 2010, 102 minutes.



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Doing Time

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“Convict.” Verb: to prove or find a person guilty. Noun: a person serving a prison sentence.

“Conviction”: an unshakable belief in something without need for proof or evidence.

The title of the film Conviction is perfectly ambiguous, focusing on both the guilty verdict of the defendant in a murder case and on the unshakable belief of his sister that he is innocent. The movie is based on the true story of Betty Anne Waters, who spent 18 years earning a GED, a BA, and finally a law degree in order to get her brother released from prison, and who now serves as an attorney for the Innocence Project. Along the way she lost her marriage and fulltime custody of her children; her brother Kenny lost his relationship with his daughter, who was a toddler when he was arrested. As presented in the film, the case involveddirty politics, suborned witnesses, and the rush to remove criminal types from the community, even if they are not actually guilty. And it demonstrated the indefatigable love of a sister and a brother.

The film opens with a walk through the bloody murder scene, reminding the audience that a brutal crime has been committed, and a victim is dead. It's appropriate to remember the victim in any crime story. But convicting the wrong man is also a crime of violence, a crime often overlooked in the rush to convince voters that the district attorney's office is doing its job to keep criminals off the streets.

Police and prosecutors involved in the case do everything they can to stonewall the new investigation and prevent the truth from coming out.

After the murder, Kenny (Sam Rockwell) is immediately brought in for questioning, because he has a record as a barroom brawler and petty thief. Kenny takes the arrest with the wisecracking aplomb of a man who is constantly hauled downtown every time a crime has been committed. Betty Anne (Hilary Swank) arrives at the jail with the same longsuffering resignation of a sister who has done it all before. He is released, and all is forgotten — until two years later, when he is arrested for the murder and eventually convicted, with a sentence of life without parole.

The film uses flashbacks to show the kind of life Kenny and Betty Anne had as children. Their mother has nine children by seven men, and is often absent. As they grow up, they are in and out of foster homes and in and out of trouble, mostly trespassing and vandalism. Kenny in particular is seen as a wisecracking hothead, the kind of guy who has a biting sense of humor and makes everyone laugh, even when they're exasperated. Because of their difficult background, the two siblings are unusually close.

When Kenny is convicted, Betty Anne vows to get him out by earning a law degree. She doesn't even have a high school diploma, and she is often at the bottom of her class. Her husband leaves her, and eventually so do her sons, who choose to move in with their father because their mother is so focused on her brother. In many respects, when Kenny goes to prison, so do Betty Anne, her family, and Kenny's daughter.

During her legal studies, Betty Anne comes across a brand new line of evidence: DNA testing. She contacts Barry Scheck, founder of the Innocence Project, and the search is on to gain access to evidence that has been locked away for 18 years and possibly destroyed. As the movie tells it, far from serving the cause of justice, police officers and prosecutors involved in the case do everything they can to stonewall the new investigation and prevent the truth from coming out. Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) drily explains, "People don't like to admit when they've made a mistake."

One must recognize that this film is a dramatization, not an analytical report; one must allow for dramatic license in its telling of this particular story and its representation of the characters. Betty Anne Waters has said about the film, "The movie is so true to life. Not every scene happened, but every emotion happened." But the family of Katharina Brow, the woman Kenny Waters was accused of killing, have hired Gloria Allred to represent them in a suit for not presenting Brow in a better light.

A person who has been wrongly accused and convicted faces a double dilemma: the agony of knowing he did not commit the crime, and the knowledge that he will probably never earn parole.

The film emphasizes a number of problems that actually exist in the criminal justice system, especially as it is applied to poor people. Too often, police and prosecutors justify a swift arrest and conviction with the "unshakable belief" that "if he isn't guilty of this, he's guilty of something." In the film, Kenny can't afford the $25,000 to hire a private attorney, so he uses a public defender, whose case load is too heavy to give any real attention to his clients. The prosecutor takes one look at Kenny's juvenile record and believes it is in the public's best interest to get him behind bars. This is not untypical of the system. In addition, like many small-time criminals accused of hefty violent crimes, the Kenny whom we see in the film is at the mercy of police officers and prosecuting attorneys who have the power to coerce testimonies from petty thugs and frightened acquaintances willing to lie to protect their own freedom. Juliette Lewis gives an astounding performance as the pathetic, broken-toothed former girlfriend who testifies against Kenny after investigators threaten her with losing custody of her child.

A person who has been wrongly accused and convicted faces a double dilemma: the agony of knowing he did not commit the crime, and the knowledge that he will probably never earn parole. A person who is truly guilty can serve the minimum time, go before the parole board, express contrition and regret for the crime, and get out. A person who is not guilty must either lie and pretend to be sorry for the crime, or maintain his innocence and never get out, because parole boards never grant parole to convicts who do not acknowledge their remorse. Catch-22. If the inmate does decide to lie, that confession can be used against him if he ever earns the chance for a retrial. Consequently, convicts who have been wrongly accused of murder almost never get out.

The emergence of groups such as the Innocence Project, however, is changing the system. Kenny Waters was convicted because he had the same type of blood as the perpetrator, Type O. But O is the most common of blood types. It was easy to convict defendants on the strength of matching blood types, but DNA evidence is much more precise and individualized. Since DNA testing became admissible as evidence, 254 prisoners have been exonerated and released from prison. I personally know three people who spent two decades of their lives or more in prison for crimes they did not commit. If it weren't for the Innocence Project, they would still be behind bars.

But in many ways, they are still imprisoned. They have each lost 20 years of technology, job training, and social experience. Their children have grown up without them. Many such people have earned large financial settlements from the state, but no one can give back the time they lost. People like Betty Anne Waters and Barry Scheck are true heroes who understand the meaning of the word conviction.


Editor's Note: Review of "Conviction," directed by Tony Goldwyn. Fox Searchlight, 2010, 106 minutes.



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