Capitalism 2013

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Capitalism, once lauded as the proud foundation of America's success, has had a bad rap lately. Free-market capitalism has been blamed for everything from the collapse of real estate and the stock market to the widening gap between haves and have-nots and even the onslaught of terrorism. Capitalists are the bad guys in nearly every movie, every classroom, and at least half the political speeches — or so it seems.

But there is nothing free about American markets today. Government intervention has led to a Bizarro world of crony capitalism that mimics free enterprise while tying its hands. John Mackey calls it "the intellectual hijacking of capitalism." Regulations intended to protect the consumer and the employer create unintended imbalances that limit competition and inadvertently encourage unfair practices. Capitalism gets the black eye, while government goes in for the sucker punch. But it's the consumer and the employee who end up on the canvas, knocked out.

Mackey, founder of Whole Foods Markets, and Raj Sisodia have written a book, due to come out on January 12, to counter this false impression of the business person. With the subtitle "Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business," Conscious Capitalism is a handbook of great business practices told through the anecdotes of highly successful and highly conscientious business people. Mackey and Sisodia demonstrate that business owners can be compassionate and successful. In fact, the "conscious capitalist" will be more successful by following the leadership advice outlined in this book.

What is a conscious capitalist? One who is fully aware. Conscious capitalists make deliberate decisions based on the longterm consequences of their actions. They are aware of the impact their actions have on customers, suppliers, shareholders, the community, and the environment. They recognize that when they consider the needs of others and act fairly, others will probably do the same, and everyone will benefit.

Government intervention has led to a Bizarro world of crony capitalism that mimics free enterprise while tying its hands.

Mackey is the ideal person to write a book like this, because he has himself embarked on a philosophical journey that allows him to see the problems from one perspective and the solutions from another, uniting philosophies in what he sees as a "win-win" relationship. He describes the "progressive political philosophy" he espoused in young adulthood, when he saw problems in the world and believed that "both business and capitalism were fundamentally based on greed, selfishness, and exploitation." His personal life is grounded in the kinds of causes usually embraced by anti-capitalists, including his vegan diet, his Eastern meditation techniques, and his deep concern for animals and the planet. He is a gentle man in every way. But he has also become a fierce defender of free market capitalism. Through his experience as an entrepreneur he discovered "that business isn't based on exploitation or coercion at all. Instead . . . business is based on cooperation and voluntary exchange . . . for mutual gain." Bringing the spirit of cooperation and caring to the forefront of business management is the purpose of this book.

Throughout the book, Mackey and Sisodia return to the theme that "business is not a zero-sum game with a winner and a loser. It is a win-win-win game." They demonstrate how the conscious capitalist creates a symbiotic relationship among several stakeholders, including the business owner, the workers (or "team members," as Mackey prefers to call them), the consumers, the shareholders, the suppliers, and the community. Working together for their own betterment, they make each other's lives richer as well.

One of my favorite sections of the book focuses on worker motivation. The authors identify three main principles of motivation: job, career, and calling. A "job" is a transaction: if you put in a certain number of hours, you go home with a certain amount of money. A "career" can be more satisfying: it requires a certain amount of training and skill, and it brings a greater sense of responsibility, as well as respect and money. A "calling," on the other hand, "offers value and satisfaction beyond the paycheck." Work that feels like a calling may be time-consuming and even exhausting, but there is seldom a distinction between being "at home" and being "at work," because it is simply who we are. Many people devote their lives to a calling and earn no money for it at all.

Since, on a normal day, most people spend more waking hours at their place of employment than they do at home, a sense of purpose is essential for satisfaction and happiness. One way to instill the sense of calling, according to this book, is to broaden that sense of purpose for the people who earn a paycheck. A team member at Whole Foods, for example, is not just a grocery clerk; as Mackey sees her,she is part of a team that provides nutritious and delicious food to people who live in the community. She is proud of the charitable work provided by Whole Planet (a charitable organization sponsored by Whole Foods) and enjoys the employee benefits that she herself participated in selecting, including a health plan that should be a model for the nation. She also enjoys the trust that management exhibits toward her; Whole Foods has a policy of encouraging team members to "use their best judgment" when something unusual occurs or a particular rule or practice seems not to fit a particular incident.

Conscious capitalists exhibit this attitude of partnership and respect toward the suppliers of their companies. Negotiations with suppliers can often turn into adversarial relationships whereby one side ends up with a disproportionate amount of the benefit, and the other with a disproportionate amount of resentment. Mackey and Sisodia recommend treating suppliers as one would treat consumers. Treat them fairly, pay them on time, understand their needs, and recognize that they have to make a profit while doing business with you. In so doing, you will create an atmosphere of loyalty and favored status that could be very important when supplies are limited. And it's good karma, too.

Conscious Capitalism is full of anecdotes not only about Whole Foods but also about such successful companies as The Container Store, Southwest Airlines, Walmart, POSCO (formerly Pohang Iron and Steel Company), 3M, UPS, and many others. A lot of them adhere to one or more of the four "categories of great purpose" described in the book. The great purposes include:

  • The Good: services to others that include improving health, education, communication, and quality of life
  • The True: discovery and furthering human knowledge
  • The Beautiful: excellence and the creation of beauty
  • The Heroic: courage to do what is right to change and improve the world

These stories about modern businesses that are providing goods and services that are good, true, beautiful, or heroic in a conscientious manner bring the book to life and give the reader a buoyancy of spirit. Capitalism is good. Entrepreneurship is honorable. Businesses do contribute to the overall good. Managers do not have to demean or mistrust those whom they supervise. In fact, everyone benefits when workers are trained and trusted to "use their best judgment." Conscious Capitalism is a book you will want to share with every business owner, manager, and worker you know.


Editor's Note: Review of "Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business," by John Mackey and Raj Sisodia. Harvard Business Review Press, 2013, 322 pages.



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Killing bin Laden

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It was a great and dreadful day in American history. A man was dead, hunted down and executed in his own home in front of his wife and children without extradition, trial, or sentence. The news was greeted in America by rejoicing. Within hours the terrain from Times Square to Ground Zero was the site of a boisterous springtime New Year’s Eve party, filled with people whooping, cheering, and singing American anthems. My daughter and her husband were among them. Osama bin Laden was dead.

Zero Dark Thirty is an intense, gripping film about the decade-long hunt for bin Laden. It is surprisingly apolitical, presenting the facts of the story in an evenhanded way. The film is told through the perspective of the young CIA agent (Jessica Chastain), identified only as "Maya," who tenaciously investigated a particular lead until she discovered convincing evidence of where bin Laden was living — not in isolated wilderness caves, as we had been led to believe, but in a well-protected compound in the middle of a large city.

That "particular lead" was uncovered through "enhanced interrogation," a sanitized phrase for what amounts to little less than torture. As the film opens, Dan (Jason Clark), an American "intelligence officer," is using severe tactics to elicit the date, time, and location of an expected terrorist attack from a detainee (Reda Kateb). The detainee's face is badly bruised, and he is clearly in distress. Over the next few days he is chained, threatened, thrown around, waterboarded, deprived of sleep, and enclosed in a tiny box. As he resists, Dan tells him, "When you lie, I have to hurt you." Dan appears to enjoy his work.

Watching a man wearing an American uniform inflict torture and humiliation on another human feels shameful. Isn't that what the bad guys do? Isn't that what we go to war to prevent? I understand the argument that "enhanced interrogation" techniques such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and music torture instill fear without causing actual injury; I recognize that breaking bones and cutting off fingers is worse. If there can be such a thing as "humane torture," the American intelligence community seems to have discovered it. Nevertheless, it still feels wrong, and degrading to the Americans who inflict it.

The next scene brings a different perspective. A group of al Qaeda terrorists opens fire on dozens of non-Muslims and Americans in a public mall, gunning them down mercilessly. Suddenly, getting that vital information from the detainee seems worth any cost in human dignity. Director Kathryn Bigelow provides many similar juxtapositions in the film, demonstrating the difficulty of finding the moral high ground, let alone maintaining it.

Watching a man wearing an American uniform inflict torture and humiliation on another human feels shameful. Isn't that what the bad guys do? Isn't that what we go to war to prevent?

Maya is convinced that someone named Abu Ahmed knows where bin Laden is hiding, based on information gleaned from several detainees who have mentioned this name. Others, however, believe that Ahmed is dead and the lead is a dead end. Much of the film focuses on Maya's indefatigable hunt for this mysterious Abu Ahmed, and her determination to continue with the lead even after her superiors have told her to move on.

Although Zero Dark Thirty is set in a war zone and culminates in an intense 25-minute raid on bin Laden’s compound, this is not a traditional war or spy movie. It is not about big burly men carrying big burly weapons, although there are plenty of big burly men in the cast. But in this film the military and the intelligence community play supporting roles. It is really Maya's story, and in a way it is Bigelow's story too — Maya is a woman working in what is traditionally a man's world, and she manages to pull off the coup of the century. (Bigelow was the first woman to earn an Oscar as Best Director, for her film The Hurt Locker [2008], beating out the front runner Avatar, which was directed by her former husband, superstar James Cameron.) Maya is amazingly young, too, to have this much grit and authority. Recruited by the CIA just out of high school, she is in her twenties as she tracks down her lead.

The film ends with success — the Mountie gets her man — but it does not end with triumph. Too many people have been killed, and too much hatred continues to exist, to suggest that the killing of bin Laden was much more than a symbolic gesture. But it is a powerful film, one that will keep you thinking and talking for a long time. It is likely to garner many well-deserved nominations as this awards season heats up.


Editor's Note: Review of "Zero Dark Thirty," directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Annapurna Pictures, 2012, 157 minutes.



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Not Miserable at All

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Victor Hugo's masterpiece Les Miserables has resonated with readers and viewers for over a century and a half. Even Ayn Rand said that Victor Hugo was her favorite author. Set in the decades following the French Revolution, Les Miserables is the tale of "the wretched ones" for whom the Revolution had meant little. They were still living hand to mouth, still tyrannized by authority and by public opinion; in short, still wretched.

Hugo frames his story as the classic conflict between justice and mercy. As a young man, Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving children. He is tried, convicted, and sentenced to ten years of hard labor. His sentence is doubled when he tries to escape. As the story begins, he is finally paroled. But the sentence stays with him; since he must present his papers wherever he goes, he cannot find a job or even lodging.

Inspector Javert represents justice. He believes that a convict can never change, and he keeps a close watch on parolees. When Valjean breaks parole by changing his name in order to get a job, Javert is relentless in his pursuit.

Jean Valjean represents mercy and redemption. He is transformed by a kindness performed on his behalf — perhaps the first kindness he has experienced in his adult life. Because this kindness is shown by a bishop of the church when he deserves only justice, Valjean vows to become like that man of God by emulating his godlike service. Fittingly, the bishop is portrayed in this film by Colm Wilkinson, the Irish tenor with the soaring voice who originated the role of Jean Valjean in London's West End and has played him off and on for 26 years. Onscreen, at least, Jean Valjean has indeed become the man of God.

Valjean embodies the idea that a person can be reformed and redeemed through the power of love. He is one of the noblest characters in literature. Time and again he gives up his own safety, comfort, and freedom for the safety, comfort, and freedom of another. At one point as he prepares to trade his freedom for another’s, he sings, "My soul belongs to God I know; I made that bargain long ago. He gave me hope when hope was gone — he gave me strength to journey on." His sacrifices bring him joy, not sadness. In the climax, Valjean learns that "to love another person is to see the face of God."

Half a dozen film versions and a television miniseries have been made over the years, with varying success. Most of them focus on the wretchedness of the characters, not the joy that comes from being anxiously engaged in a good cause. The adaptation that immortalized the book is the 1985 musical written by Claude-Michel Schönberg (music) and Alain Boublil (original French lyrics), and produced by British theater impresario Cameron Mackintosh. "Les Miz," as it is affectionately known, has been seen by over 60 million people in 42 countries and 21 languages. It has won nearly 100 international awards.

Valjean embodies the idea that a person can be reformed and redeemed through the power of love. He is one of the noblest characters in literature.

Ironically, the stage version did not win the British Tony for 1985; that prize went to a musical comedy revival of Me and My Girl. The critics were not kind to Les Miz on opening night. But the audiences were more than kind. They were spellbound. I know — I was there at the Barbican during one of the preview performances. I had read Hugo's book, of course, but I had never heard the music. Few people had. Hearing it cold like that, especially the multi-layered "One Day More" that closes the first act, was the most profound experience I have ever had in the theater. I saw it at least a dozen times, taking our London visitors whenever they came to town.

Make room on the shelf, Mr. Mackintosh, because your awards will soon be in triple digits with the triumphant film version of the musical.

Mackintosh is executive producer of the film version, and it shows. He and director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech, 2010) wisely decided to make few changes. They avoided the temptation to add unsung dialogue or additional background scenes except as they appear in montage during the songs. Instead, they simply trusted their source material and let the music carry the show. They also took the risk of using the voices as the actors performed them, rather than fixing them up in post-production or dubbing the voices of professional singers, as was done so often in the musicals of the 1950s and 60s (that's Marni Nixon's voice singing as Maria in West Side Story, Eliza inMy Fair Lady, and Anna in The King and I, as well as a slew of others).

The result may not produce as satisfying a movie soundtrack album; the voices in this film are occasionally unbalanced or even off-key. But the film is a richer, more intimate experience than the stage version. Hooper is a genius at eliciting natural emotion from his actors. Fantine (Anne Hathaway), the factory worker unfairly cast into the streets by a spurned, lecherous foreman, displays such excruciating agony that it seems almost voyeuristic to watch her sing "I Dreamed a Dream." Similarly, the montage of expositive actions as Valjean sings "Who Am I?" brings a depth to his character not possible in the stage presentation. The entire film is a glorious experience. By contrast, the soundtrack of the recent 25th anniversary sung-through version is pitch perfect, but it lacks the emotional power and passion of this film.

I wasn't thrilled with the casting decisions; when I heard that Hugh Jackman would be playing Valjean and Russell Crowe would be playing Javert, my initial reaction was "right men, wrong parts." Valjean is a big, burly man, capable of lifting a 500-pound cart or carrying a man through the sewers. Crowe would be perfect as Valjean. On the other hand, Javert is tall, dark and slender, just like Hugh Jackman. It's the worst casting decision since Marlon Brando was given the romantic lead as Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls while Frank Sinatra was given the supporting role as the lovable lummox, Nathan Detroit. I understand the reasoning; Jackman is a tenor with the Broadway credits to pull off a difficult role, while Crowe, let's just say, is not known for his singing. A masculine Marni Nixon would have been needed for sure.

But under Hooper's skilled direction, Crowe's weakness becomes Javert's strength. As an actor, Crowe is a megastar, confident and sure, but when he sings, there is an uncertainty in his voice and face. This uncharacteristic tentativeness inadvertently reveals the inner struggle of the character. Javert is a powerful representative of the law, confident and sure about the sanctity of justice, but in the face of Valjean's great mercy, Javert's certainty falters. Crowe's uncertainty as a singer serendipitously communicates Javert's uncertainty as an officer of the law. Crowe's imperfection is surprisingly perfect.

This is the best movie musical since the 1960s. Great story, noble hero, glorious music, moving lyrics, and a director who knocks it out of the park. The emotion is always right on the edge of rawness without falling into the maudlin. As one of my friends said, "the right guy at the right time for the right film." Don't miss it.


Editor's Note: Review of"Les Miserables," directed by Tom Hooper. Working Title Films, 2012, 157 minutes.



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Killing Them Sophomorically

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Killing Them Softly is a film about the ugly underworld of organized crime but tries to be a whole lot more. Set against the 2008 financial meltdown and presidential election, it suggests metaphorically the connection between government and organized crime, implying that the executive branch is an organization that gets rich off the vices of others, controls public opinion by casting blame on someone known to be innocent, and assassinates anyone who gets in its way. The movie suggests that America is nothing but a floating poker game.

In the film, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) — clearly designed to represent Bush — runs a literal floating poker game. He has figured out a way to set up a robbery of the game, pocket the money, and make his cronies — clearly designed to represent corporate America — believe that someone else has stolen the cash. Later he brags about what he did, but since the game is back in play and the money is flowing again, everyone laughs and Trattman gets a bye — this time.

But this isn't an ordinary poker game. Everyone at the table is making money, and it's controlled by bosses who are represented by a button-up businessman (Richard Jenkins) who is so straight that he cringes when someone lights up a cigarette in his car.

A few months later Squirrel (Vincent Curatola), a dry cleaning magnate and low-level criminal, figures that if he sends in some of his own flunkies to steal the cash this time, everyone will assume that Trattman did it again, and Trattman will get the blame. Squirrel knows that Trattman will get killed for it this time, but he figures that's OK because, after all, Trattman did it before; it's just a delayed punishment.

Trattman does indeed get the blame, even though he tries to prevent the robbery. Hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is called in to "interrogate" Trattman, get the names of everyone involved, and eventually dispatch the punishment. It is a graphic, brutal interrogation, and in the end Jackie is convinced that Trattman is innocent this time. But truth isn't important; consumer confidence is. "It doesn't matter whether he did it," the messenger (Richard Jenkins) explains. "He's responsible for it. We need a fall guy for the public angle."

I love to recognize and contemplate metaphors and allusion in film, but this one simply is not worth the effort. It's a sad, ugly movie about sad, ugly people.

President Bush's words echo this criminal's perspective. "America's financial problem is complex," he explains on TV. “Confidence in our financial system is essential." In fact, throughout the film, TVs and radios are strategically placed to play snippets of Bush discussing the financial meltdown of 2008. We hear the voice of a Bush official saying, "This isn't what we want to do, but it's what we must do to restore confidence in the US economy." And lest we fail to realize that Bush is the culprit, references are made to "the rush into Iraq on election eve" and "There must be consequences."

Killing Them Softly tries to be artistically and philosophically important. Ever since the artistically dense Tree of Life was given an Oscar nomination last year, Hollywood filmmakers have felt the mandate to make metaphorically rich films. I love to recognize and contemplate metaphors and allusion in film, but this one simply is not worth the effort. It's a sad, ugly movie about sad, ugly people. And it is getting great reviews. I guess the mainstream critics will praise anything that blames Bush.

The title is an allusion to the Roberta Flack song Killing Them Softly, in which a young girl is moved to tears by the lyrics of a song that seem to tell her own story, just as this movie purports to tell Bush's story. But in the film, the phrase has its own meaning. Jackie tells the messenger, "I like to kill them from a distance. Up close they cry and beg and piss themselves. It gets emotional and messy."

And he's right. The violence in this film is close up and brutal, and the victims do cry and beg. It's ugly. There is nothing soft about the hitman. Moreover, there is nothing redeeming about any of the characters, and there are virtually no women, except for one quick scene with a prostitute. All the characters care about or talk about is getting physical pleasure from drinking, heavy smoking, drugs, and prostitutes.

As much as it tries to be an artsy message movie, Killing Them Softly is little more than a garden-variety hitman movie, long on blood and short on character. Despite its heavy-handed metaphors, arty special effects, jazzy music, and stellar acting, the story is barely interesting and entirely predictable.

It's also overwhelmingly cynical. When Jackie observes Obama's 2008 acceptance speech on one of the ubiquitous television screens, he hears Obama's optimistic "no more red states or blue states but United States" and his reference to "the enduring power of our ideals. " Jackie responds, "In America you're on your own. America isn't a country; it's a business. Now pay me."

That may be true for misfits like those who populate this movie — people who have no genuine friendships or family relationships, who spend time in and out of prison, who live only to get high on drugs or sex, and who interact only with women who are prostitutes. But I'm not willing to buy the idea that America is nothing but a business, or that being a business is a bad thing. This is just a sad, ugly, brutal movie with an idea that doesn't quite work.


Editor's Note: Review of "Killing Them Softly," directed by Andrew Dominik. Weinstein Brothers, 2012, 97 minutes.



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Tiger's Eye

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Life of Pi is a magical adventure story whose narrator claims it will “make you believe in God.” “Impossible!” you might say. “That’s utterly irrational!” Right? Well — just you wait. The main character’s name is Pi, after all . . .

The film is framed as a story within a story within a story. The external frame involves a Canadian author with writer’s block who has come to India looking for a story. The middle story involves a young Indian boy (Suraj Sharma) with the unlikely name of “Piscine” (“swimming pool”). Piscine endures the taunts of schoolmates who pronounce the name as “pissing” until he proactively redefines himself as “Pi” through a series of remarkable classroom calisthenics. Pi, of course, is the irrational number, and that is significant for a boy who is going to defy rationality by making you believe in God.

Pi’s parents own a zoo, and when they decide to move from India to Canada, they secure passage on a cargo boat and take the animals with them. This introduces the central story, which involves Pi’s adventures when the ship sinks during a storm. Pi ends up sharing a lifeboat with the zoo’s tiger. How Pi manages to do this without becoming the tiger’s dinner is pretty astounding. His resourcefulness, imagination, and determination to survive dominate this part of the film.

Even more astounding than Pi’s relationship with the tiger is the film’s cinematography. With a vast ocean as his canvas, director Ang Lee paints gorgeous pictures on film. Reflection and illusion are important both artistically and metaphorically, and Lee takes full advantage of both. It is often difficult to see where the water ends and the sky begins, as stars, clouds and sunsets are reflected off the sea. Often we discover that we are viewing the story through water — water so clear that we don’t even see it until something moves and creates ripples that distort our view. Significantly, it is the real view that seems distorted, and the illusion that seems real. Pi’s internal reflection about his plight is just as powerful, and the metaphors in this film give it a satisfying gravitas beyond the simple plot.

The film begins with long, languorous shots of beautiful exotic animals in vivid jungle scenes; Lee is in no hurry to get to the crux of the story. He has all the time in the world for storytelling — as, of course, does the shipwrecked Pi. In fact, “singing songs and telling stories” is one of the “guidelines for survival” that Pi finds in the lifeboat’s survival kit. And so he creates his story during more than three months adrift in the ocean. He creates a system for gathering dew that he and the tiger drink during the day. He devises a net for catching fish, and when he isn’t able to catch enough to satisfy the tiger’s hunger, flying fish appear like manna from heaven.

The storm and shipwreck scenes are so astounding that I literally starting feeling seasick as I watched it. (Maybe the 3D version wasn’t such a good choice . . .) As Pi struggles to come to the surface of the water, he is surrounded by sharks that he apparently does not see. That seems to be a metaphor as well. Even the “clear water” and the idea that one can believe in many religions at once seemed like a veiled reference to Hollywood’s favorite religion, Scientology. In short, the film is fairly dripping with metaphor, illusion, and allusion.

Although this is a film that purports to make you believe in God, it is not a religious film. Only the first few minutes are devoted to Pi’s religious awakening. Pi is a Hindu who discovers Christianity at the age of 12 when a priest gives him water for his thirst. (Yes, this is another allusion to water.) He says that he “found God’s love through Christ.” But he also earnestly embraces Islam and says that “the sound and feel of the words of the prayers to Allah gave peace and serenity.” Pi’s father tells him, “Believing in everything is the same as believing in nothing.” But his mother counters with “Science can teach us more about what is out there, but not about what is in here,” touching her chest. Pi concludes that “faith is a house with many rooms” and that “you cannot know the strength of your faith without its being tested.”

If this sounds like a bunch of religious mumbo-jumbo to you, don’t let it keep you from seeing this film. You don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate a Renaissance painting, and you don’t have to be looking for proof of God’s existence to enjoy this film. Life of Pi is a stunning work of art, whether you buy the premise of believing in God or not.

Ultimately, faith is a choice. Evidence is all around us, but we choose whether to see the reality or the distortion. We choose how to write our own stories. If there is any message to this film, that’s it. And it’s a pretty satisfying message.


Editor's Note: Review of "Life of Pi," directed by Ang Lee. Fox 2000 Pictures, 2012, 127 minutes.



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Lincoln: A President Lies, and People Cheer

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Abraham Lincoln is one of the most complex presidents in American history. For over a century he was revered as our most important president, after George Washington. Recently his star has been tarnished by questions about his motives and tactics. Most Americans are surprised to learn that Lincoln was a Republican, because Democrats today love to accuse Republicans of racism. Nevertheless, it was the Republicans in Congress who supported the 13th Amendment, enfranchised the slaves, and squelched states' rights, while Democrats remained firmly on the other side of the aisle. Was Lincoln a forward-thinking civil rights advocate who restored a nation to wholeness, or was he merely a politician playing the race card to win the war and create a whole new constituency of former slaves?

Steven Spielberg's ambitious Lincoln tries to answer some of these questions. It is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005), a book that focuses on Lincoln's conciliatory spirit and determination to work with cabinet members he selected from among those who had opposed him in the 1860 election. This forgiving nature is what I admire most about Lincoln. His beatific "When I make them my friends, am I not destroying my enemies?", said in response to those who wanted to continue punishing the South after the war had ended, is a quotation that guides my life.

Lincoln is so determined to see the 13th Amendment pass before the war ends that he resorts to corruption and deception.

The film, however, focuses less on conciliation than on politics as-would-become-usual. Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) works relentlessly to shepherd (some would say "push") the 13th Amendment through Congress in the waning days of the Civil War. Support for the amendment, which would outlaw slavery, was divided along party lines; Republicans favored it, but did not have enough votes to pass it, and Democrats were against it.

Although many Americans were ready to end the buying and selling of slaves, few were ready for further developments that might proceed from abolition. "What would happen if four million colored men are granted the vote?" one cabinet member asks rhetorically. "What would be next? Votes for women?" But Lincoln knew that his war-weary citizenry would do anything for a truce, even grant equal rights to former slaves, so he convinces them that ratifying the amendment would force the South into surrendering.

Lincoln makes a compelling argument for why the Emancipation Proclamation was only a stopgap wartime measure. Ironically, slaves were freed under a law identifying them as "property seized during war." The Emancipation Proclamation did not actually end slavery; in fact, it had to acknowledge the property status of slaves. Since rebels residing inside the southern states were at war, not the states themselves, after the war ended state laws would still be in force, including laws permitting slavery, or so he complains. A constitutional amendment would be necessary to end slavery for good. Lincoln claims that southern voters would be unlikely to ratify such an amendment, passing it and ratifying it before the war ended was essential.

The movie’s position on this seems strange, given that, as losers in the war, all state officials under the Confederacy would be turned out of office, with no legislative authority. Once the South surrendered, the Union lost no time in selecting new officials who would make and enforce new laws. In fact, Lincoln’s program for reconstruction was to install governments in the Southern states that would ratify the amendment, and this policy was followed by President Johnson.

Nevertheless, Lincoln is so determined to see the amendment pass before the war ends that he resorts to corruption and deception. He enlists a group of unscrupulous patronage peddlers to promise political jobs and appointments to lame-duck Democrats if they will promise to vote for the amendment. They add piles of cash to sweeten the deals, and the votes start piling up too. The group is headed by a bilko artist with the unlikely name of "Bilbo" (James Spader). All of their scenes are accompanied by comical music to make us laugh at their outrageously funny and effective techniques. Aren't they clever as they connive to buy votes?

In addition to buying votes for his amendment, Lincoln also resorts to outright lying. When Jefferson Davis sends emissaries to discuss a negotiated peace while the amendment is coming to a vote, Lincoln knows that some of his "negotiated support" is likely to change, and the amendment is likely to fail. Consequently, he sends a letter denying any knowledge of the peace delegation from Richmond, even though this is clearly a lie. He sends this note with a flourish and a chuckle — and the audience in my theater cheered. I was disheartened that they didn't feel the same shame I felt when I saw a president of the United States deliberately lie to get his way. But I wasn't surprised. It's what we expect today.

In case you haven't noticed this yourself, I will spell it out: the tactics for pushing the 13th Amendment as shown in Spielberg's Lincoln are almost identical to the tactics used by Obama to pass his healthcare bill. Each was sponsoring a highly controversial bill with far-reaching consequences; each had a Congress divided along party lines; each used high pressure arm-twisting, political patronage, and outright lies to accomplish his goals; and each met vociferous opposition after the bill was passed. Why? Because they both chose expediency over integrity. Persuasion and education were needed, not force and deception. When expediency rules, tyranny reigns.

What I have written here makes the film seem much more interesting than it actually is. My thoughts about writing this review kept me engaged; you probably won't have that advantage. Daniel Day-Lewis creates a masterfully crafted Lincoln and deserves all the accolades he is gathering for the title role. But it is not a very engaging movie. Playwright Tony Kushner, who wrote the script, is more comfortable writing for the stage, and it shows. The pacing is ponderously slow, and the script, though elegant, is dialogue-heavy. In short, the film is all talk and no action. That's OK for a 90-minute stage play, but not for a three-hour film on a gigantic screen. I'm also skeptical about his accuracy, based on the biases that appear in other works.

When expediency rules, tyranny reigns.

There is also surprisingly little dramatic conflict for a film that takes place during the height of the costliest war in our history. We see the effects of war in the form of dead and mutilated soldiers, but we never see examples or effects of slavery; in fact, all the black characters in this film are well-dressed and well-spoken, and except for the soldiers, they sit and socialize with the whites. If a viewer didn't already know the history of slavery in America, he would have to wonder, what's the complaint? On either side? Moreover, the "bad guys" are being invaded by a superpower, while the "good guys" are lying and buying votes. So how does that fit our usual expectation of heroes and villains?

I'm also offended by the deliberate racebaiting in this film, and indeed in several films and Broadway shows I have seen in the past couple of years. Why is it OK to add "for a white person" (followed by self-deprecating chuckles and head-nodding from the audience) when describing someone's physical appearance or personal attributes? I thought we gave up saying "for a [colored] person" long ago. Haven't we finally come to a place where we can just stop noticing race and gender? Why do pollsters and educators continue to divide people by ethnicity? It's time to just burn that race card and bury it. Economics and education are at the root of inequity today, not race.

Lincoln tries to be an important film, and in one respect it is — as a cautionary tale for today. But it falls short — even though it's way too long.


Editor's Note: Review of "Lincoln," directed by Steven Spielberg. DreamWorks Pictures, 2012, 149 minutes.



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Not Too Old to Romp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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Addicted to Flight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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Small Earthquake in Obamaland, Not Enough Secrets Revealed

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

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

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

Martian Chronicles

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

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

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

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

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

Of Kenya and Kansas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Accidental baby, accident-prone father

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

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

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

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

Not a Muslim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slack and pot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oxy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Columbia dark years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meeting the enemy

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chicago debutante

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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Atlas Huh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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