Philosophical Thriller

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When Martin (Channing Tatum), the husband of Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), is released from prison after serving five years for insider trading, her troubles should all be over. Her handsome husband has come home, ready to start rebuilding his life with her. Instead, they are just beginning. She just can't seem to shake the depression and sadness. First she drives herself head-on into a brick wall. Then she nearly steps off a platform into the path of a subway train. She feels inexplicably sad and cries all the time. Her psychiatrist Dr. Banks (Jude Law) prescribes traditional antidepressants, but they don't seem to help. Then he prescribes a newly developed antidepressant that picks her right up. She laughs again. Her libido returns. But there are side effects. She sleepwalks. And she kills her husband.

True depression — not an occasional bout of the blues — is a serious problem. It has been described clinically as "the inability to imagine a future," and poetically as "a poisonous fog bank rolling in at 3 pm." Clinical depression is often caused by the brain's inability to release or absorb essential hormones or communicate effectively with itself. In these cases, psychotropic drugs can offer relief. As Dr. Banks tells Emily, "It doesn't make you someone you aren't; it just makes it easier for you to be who you are." As the parent of an epileptic daughter whose grand mal seizures are completely controlled by medication, I am grateful for pharmaceutical companies that have worked diligently to develop better and more effective drugs.

But psychotropic drugs can also have severe side effects, including erratic and even violent behavior. Public massacres in recent months have brought the discussion of these drugs to the forefront, but it is difficult to know whether the drugs themselves cause the violent urges, or whether the violent urges already existed within the troubled mind of these young men who planned the massacres. Michael Jackson's doctor was convicted of administering drugs that his client requested — demanded! — but those drugs ended up killing him. Who is culpable in these cases?

Director Steven Soderbergh examines these issues in his fine film Side Effects, which opened this week. We watch Emily as she struggles with sadness and suicidal desires. Her psychiatrists Dr. Banks and Dr. Seibert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) attend conferences where new drugs are introduced and promoted. Banks attends a lunch meeting where he is offered a lucrative deal for recruiting his patients to participate in experimental trials of a new drug.

The first half of the film seems almost like an anti-pharmaceutical Public Service Announcement sponsored by Scientology. In one scene, several doctors are interviewed on "Good Morning America," allowing the screenwriters to ask — and answer — several probing questions. One of the cops investigating Martin's death threatens Dr. Banks to make him comply with the prosecutor's office, saying, "Either she's a murderer, or she's a victim of her medical treatment. Which do you want it to be?" After all, Dr. Banks had already been told about Emily's sleepwalking. Shouldn't he have taken her off the drug?

Under these circumstances, "Did she do it?" and "Is she guilty?" become two very different questions. Can she be guilty if she was completely unconscious of the act? But a man is dead. If she isn't guilty, who is? Since most people are able to use these drugs without adverse effects, should the doctor be held accountable when a patient does have a bad reaction? Is she not guilty by reason of insanity, or a victim of circumstance and her own biology?

The first half of the film presents the audience with these philosophical questions. But don't be put off by the PSA sensibility. The second half of the film turns into a taut and engaging murder thriller as Dr. Banks tries to salvage his career by answering these questions. In the end, the film is as tense and exciting as it is philosophically engaging. Great performances and a fascinating denouement make this a film well worth seeing.


Editor's Note: Review of "Side Effects," directed by Steven Soderbergh. Endgame Entertainment, 2013, 106 minutes.



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Not Just Your Typical Zombie Film

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"From forth the fatal loins of these two foes, / A pair of star crossed lovers take their life." These words from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet suggest that humans are controlled by destiny and fate, not by choice and accountability. Romeo and Juliet meet by fate; their families are at war by fate; and their story ends tragically by fate.

The foundation story appears in Greek mythology as "Pyramus and Thisbe," and is oddly set not in Greece, but in an unnamed location in the Orient. This suggests that the story has an even earlier foundation. It is also found in the Old Testament in the form of the story of Dinah, the Israelite daughter who goes for a walk in a heathen town and is taken by a local boy who wants to marry her. Shakespeare set his version of the story in Italy as Romeo and Juliet, and was so taken with the myth that he presented it again in A Midsummer Night's Dream through the clownish traveling troubadours. Prokofiev's ballet is another favorite, especially the powerful "Dance of the Knights" (Montagues and Capulets). Choreographer Jerome Robbins saw the exciting possibilities of Irish and Puerto Rican gangs duking it out through dance and convinced Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents to write West Side Story. Other musicians and artists have adapted the story as well.

Often the sole focus of R&J is the love story, with the feuding families fading so far into the background that it is hard to understand why they are fighting, but that isn't always the case. One of the most fascinating interpretations I have seen of R&J was a recent production by the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival set in modern Afghanistan. In this version, Romeo is an American soldier, and Juliet is a local Muslim girl. Audiences truly "got it" in this interpretation when Juliet's mother appeared dressed in a burqa and her father smacked her so hard across the face that she fell down screaming. Still, her love for her soldier endured.

The core story of Romeo and Juliet has resonated throughout the centuries because it represents change and resistance to learned cultural values and prejudices. The star-crossed lovers from warring families epitomize independent thinking, change, tolerance, and acceptance. And it's a great love story to boot.

The latest offering is Warm Bodies, a film that opened this week. The movie focuses more on the differences between the two families, and the allusions are subtler than in most adaptations; in fact, it didn't hit me that R&J was the core story until the balcony scene, and then it all fell into place: the girl named Julie (Teresa Palmer), her dead boyfriend named Perry (Dave Franco), her new boyfriend known as "R" (Nicholas Hoult), her friend Nora (Analeigh Tipton) who wants to be a nurse. Oh — and did I mention that R is a Corpse?

The "idle class" is now made up of poor people, while the wealthy are working their tails off. We are being eaten alive by the entitlements given to the poor.

This unusual adaptation is set in a dystopian future where an incurable disease has turned humans into walking corpses who feed on living humans. Truly serious cases become "boneys," who "will eat anything." Uninfected humans have built a gigantic wall around their city to protect themselves, but they need supplies from the other side. At the center of the film is a love story between Julie, who goes outside the wall with her young friends to forage for medicine, and "R," a cute and quirky young Corpse who narrates the story. He communicates through grunting and doesn't know his own name, but he begins to change because of his growing love for Julie.

The film is fun and clever despite its zombified cast, and the young lovers are fresh and sweet. (Well, she's fresh. He smells like rotten meat — in fact, he protects her from other Corpses by smearing goo on her face to cover her fresh scent. But he does it in a way that is as likely to elicit an "Awww" as an "Ewww" from the audience.)

What sets this film apart is the depth of possibilities provided by the core story — the star-crossed lovers from warring cultural groups who find a common ground of understanding and tolerance. I don't know what director Jonathan Levine and author Isaac Marion intended audiences to think, but that's the beauty of a well-formed myth or metaphor — it can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. I think this version makes an insightful statement about the conflict between working Americans and nonworking Americans.

As the film opens, R is wandering through an abandoned airport. Other Corpses wander there too. "I don't remember my name anymore," he thinks out loud. "Sometimes I look at others and try to imagine what they used to be. We're all dead inside." Like Gregor Samsa, the traveling salesman in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, who wakes up one morning to discover that he has become a bug, R and the others in the airport have succumbed to the rat race. Work has dehumanized them. "It must have been so much better,” he muses, “when we could communicate and feel things."

Corpses don't work or produce anymore. They just eat people. I see this as a metaphor for the welfare state, in which more and more people are being infected by entitlements. A wall of intolerance is being erected today between working people and nonworking people. There is a deadness in the eye of people who scurry from business meeting to business meeting without time for love and relationships, but the tragedy of not working or producing is even more deadening. As the infection spreads and more people become nonproducers, even the producers begin to suffer. The collapsing standard of living is not caused by the wealthy having too much, but by the 47 % producing too little. Ironically, the "idle class" is now made up of poor people, while the wealthy are working their tails off. We are being eaten alive by the entitlements given to the poor.

Another interesting social commentary in this film is the way young people are treated. They are the draftees. While the older folks remain safely behind the wall, the youths are given a pep talk about honor and patriotism by Julie's father (John Malkovich) and then sent out to face the dangers of the Corpses and Boneys. Their mission is to bring back supplies for the grownups inside. Julie and Nora look sexy and buff as they cock their rifles to defend themselves. (And that's a little creepy, given all the crazy shootings that have been experienced in America lately.) When the older folks do go outside, they travel inside tanks and jeeps. They are the cavalry; the kids are the infantry. I guess that's where the word "infantry" comes from. How despicable is war.

What changes R? Partly it's the chemistry of love: his attraction to Julie reboots his heart. But it's more than that. Caught in the world outside the wall and surrounded by Corpses and Boneys who want to eat her, Julie needs protection. She needs food. She needs warmth, shelter, clothing, and entertainment. And R has to provide all these things for her. In the process of producing and providing, he becomes human again. I love that idea, whether Jonathan Levine intended it or not.

What changes the other Corpses? Hope. As they see R change through the power of love (or the power of producing), they gain hope that they might change too. They begin to sleep and to dream again, which is something Corpses aren't able to do. Their dreams cause them to wake up and act for themselves. They begin to come alive.

But they Boneys don't like it. They are like the politicians and welfare bureaucrats who want to keep the poor in their place, receiving their spiritually deadening entitlements but never learning to live or to feel joy. As R laments, "The Boneys are too far gone to change."

The Corpses are not "too far gone," however. They just need to wake up. We are surrounded by welfare Corpses today, and the infection is spreading to epidemic proportions. Some have become Boneys, but others can be cured. They can be changed through the power of pride and production and love. If they will join the Townies to fight against the Boneys, they can dream again. And wake up again. And live again.


Editor's Note: Review of "Warm Bodies," directed by Jonathan Levine. Summit Entertainment, 2013, 97 minutes.



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Not Just Another Gangster Film

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Did we really need another big, bloody, blockbuster of a gangster film?

Well, we may not need another one, but I'm mighty happy to have this one. Gangster Squad is smart, classy, brilliantly acted, creatively conceived, and surprisingly fun. It tells an important story, too, about how gang bosses build their territory and why it is so difficult to get rid of them.

The film is set in postwar Los Angeles and tells the mostly true story of Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) — a high-profile gangster from New York and Chicago who wants to make L.A. his exclusive territory — and the cops who go after him. Cohen trades in drugs, women, and gambling. A former prizefighter, he is brutal in his punishment of anyone who fails him or crosses him. He is determined to become the kingpin of the West Coast, and Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), an honest cop and World War II vet, is just as determined to stop him. But to do that, he will have to fight half the cops in L.A., because most of them are on Cohen's payroll.

I believe in the power of the free market, but I ask you: how can profit incentive alone produce honest cops? It's hard to keep crime down when the price of cops keeps going up. The bad guys will always have more money than the good guys to buy the cops' loyalty. Cohen says cynically, "A cop that's not for sale is like a dog with rabies. There's no medicine for it. You just gotta put 'im down."

Honest cops have to be motivated by more than money. They have to care passionately about the people and the town. O'Mara and his gang have that kind of passion. Fresh out of the war, they have the military mindset of men who believe in their cause and are willing to die for it. They risked their lives to defend America's honor and her way of life, and then they came home to a city facing corruption. One of them muses, "A bright future — that's what we fought for, right? I'm not gonna let Mickey Cohen take that away from us."

Can profit incentive alone produce honest cops? It's hard to keep crime down when the price of cops keeps going up.

That kind of honor-driven determination makes the members of the gangster squad very dangerous to criminals. And to themselves. They take risks no one would accept for a paycheck alone, and they do things no cop oughta do without a warrant, a trial, and a sentence. After one particularly deadly shootout, O'Mara says, "War taught us how to fight, and now that's all we know how to do. We don't know how to live, only how to fight. We might as well be Mickey Cohen."

In many respects Gangster Squad is a classic mission movie in the style of The Magnificent Seven or The Dirty Dozen. As O'Mara assembles his team of honest cops turned rogue assassins, we get to know their personalities and strengths. Ryan Gosling is the Steve McQueen of the group. Even the way he smokes is cool, sexy, and smart. So is the stylized way he shoots. He has the sly smile and enigmatic eyes that tell us his character is as unpredictable as nitroglycerin. Giovanni Ribisi is the family man whose expertise is communications technology — sort of the "Radar" of this group. Robert Patrick is the anachronistic cowboy, a sharpshooter and soothsayer rolled into one.

Director Ruben Fleischer has a great eye for style. He uses his sets, colors, costumes, gorgeous cars, and cinematic magic to suggest a graphic novel brought to life. O'Mara has the strong jaw, steely squint, and classy fedora of a Dick Tracy. Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) with her deeply colored lips, sultry movements, and sideswept hairstyle suggests Veronica Lake — or perhaps Jessica Rabbit. Side characters such as Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) and Lt. Quincannon (Jack McGee), with their distinctive noses and gruff bravado, look like the supporting characters in a Spiderman comic book. The script, written by first-time screenwriters Will Beall and Paul Lieberman, almost falls into parody at times, but the actors carry it off without cracking a smile. The dialogue is witty and sophisticated, while the story is deadly serious. It's a winning combination.

If President Obama wanted a poster movie for his war on automatic weapons, this one is it. The film was supposed to be released in September, but after the shooting in an Aurora movie theater in mid-July, they had to pull it from distribution and rewrite the climactic scene, which originally took place in a crowded movie theater. The scene now happens on a crowded street in Chinatown, but its veiled allusions to Graumann's Chinese Theater and the film Chinatown, which was considered very violent when it was made in 1974, serve as reminders of what the scene originally entailed. I'm not so sure the change of venue makes that much difference — civilians are still being gunned down in droves in a public square — but the move seems to have made director Fleischer and the rest of the cast feel better about the film. I wonder if a similar sense of social consciousness will prompt Quentin Tarantino to remove the climactic theater massacre from Inglorious Basterds, or cause TNT and others to edit out the ending when they show it on TV. Somehow I don't think that will happen . . .

Gangster Squad is a bit bloody for some tastes, but it's easy to know when to look away if you're the squeamish type. Meanwhile, the fine acting, engrossing story, witty script, and artistic cinematography make it worth the effort.


Editor's Note: Review of "Gangster Squad," directed by Ruben Fleischer. Warner Brothers, 2013, 114 minutes.



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An Education in Perspective

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Perspective. We've all seen those optical illusions in which two identical circles seem to be of different sizes when they are juxtaposed against smaller or larger squares. It's all about perspective.

That's one of the points made by the film The Impossible, the true story of a family caught in the devastating tsunami that hit the Asian coast on the day after Christmas, 2004. As the Belon family fly into Thailand on Christmas Eve, they worry about normal things. Henry (Ewan McGregor) is certain that they have forgotten to set the security alarm as they left their house, and he worries that their belongings might be gone when they return home. Maria (Naomi Watts) and young son Thomas (Samuel Joslin) panic as turbulence makes the plane bounce. Sons Lucas (Tom Holland) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) squabble as young brothers are wont to do. Later that day Henry confesses to Maria that his job is threatened by an up-and-coming coworker. "How will we survive if I lose my job?" he wonders.

It's natural to worry about these kinds of things, of course. Under normal circumstances, people would be foolish not to worry about protecting homes and jobs. And children, for that matter. When Maria mentions to a hotel worker, "I'm a doctor, but right now I'm staying home to raise the boys," the worker responds with a smile, "Oh! You've been promoted."

But when the circles of financial insecurity and airline turbulence are pictured beside the gigantic squares of a 9.1 earthquake and its raging tsunami, perspective changes. Suddenly the circle of family is the only one that matters.

The Impossible is emotionally intense, ranging from gutwrenching to heartbreaking to heartwarming as the tale of devastation and survival unfolds. The Belon family is relaxing beside the hotel pool on a sunny day when the debris laden flood suddenly engulfs them, sweeping them in different directions. Underwater scenes of the flooding are dramatic and claustrophobic, conveying well the sense of panic one would feel while drowning. Miraculously, Maria and Lucas emerge from the flood near one another, and they frantically struggle to stay together as they are pushed forward by the rushing water. Maria is badly hurt when her leg and chest are gashed by debris. When the water finally subsides, we see that the back of her leg is torn to the bone and the skin of her thigh is hanging like a slab of meat. She needs help. But so do thousands of others. And they are the lucky ones. They're alive. We see scenes of survivors looking desperately for loved ones at hospitals and makeshift refugee camps, even searching through piles of corpses. Just to know.

Other values change as well. Certain commodities cannot be replaced. Cellphone juice, for instance. In a disaster like this, everyone wants to call home, hoping that other surviving family members will have done the same thing. By leaving messages with family back home, they might be able to locate those others who survived. In this film, several people have cellphones, but no one has a way to recharge the batteries. Consequently, cellphone power becomes irreplaceable — and irreplaceable commodities become priceless. Money becomes virtually useless, because money's only true value is in the commodity or service for which it can be traded. So how can one obtain necessities?

After the tsunami subsides, Henry meets a couple near the hotel who have not been hurt by the flood or separated from their loved ones. They just want to get home. When Henry asks to use the man's phone to call his father-in-law and see if Maria has tried to contact him, the couple refuse. "We only have a little power left, and we need it for ourselves," the man says. And he's right. Under the circumstances, I might react the same way.

Later, however, Henry meets Karl (Sonke Mohring), whose family is also missing. Both of them are desperate, lonely, and afraid. Karl has a phone with a small charge left. He offers Henry his phone. Money is useless, but trades are still made: Karl offers compassion, and Henry pays with gratitude. It seems to be a fair exchange for both. Meanwhile, those who were least hurt by the tsunami needed neither compassion nor gratitude. They could afford to hoard their juice, and no one commandeers their phones.

In the end this is a film about what matters. And what matters is not home security alarms or jobs in office buildings but family. The bond between Maria and young Lucas as he becomes the caretaker of his badly injured mother is tender and heart wrenching. The desperation felt by Henry as he searches for his missing family, and the grief expressed by others whose families are lost forever, is intensely moving. Bring a hanky. In fact, bring several.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Impossible," directed by Juan Antonio Bayona. Apaches Entertainment, 2012, 114 minutes.



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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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