“A Good American”, directed by Friedrich Moser and based on his book, tells the story of (Bill) William Binney, a former technical director at the NSA, and of the metadata analysis tool he helped develop over several decades, which should have prevented 9/11.
The film opens with a woman calling her family from one of the hijacked planes, already knowing that other planes have been crashed. She may be on Flight 93. The film soon shows us the aftermath of the February 1993 truck bombing in the basement parking garage of the old World Trade Center, which had been intended to take out a load bearing abutment.
The film then gives us a retrospective biography of Binney, who enlisted in the Army into an intelligence program in 1965 to avoid drafting into combat. One of my chess playing friends at GWU enlisted for Army intelligence for four years in 1967, so I remember this. Binney spent some time in Turkey spying on the Soviet Union (near a base that had been surrendered) after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Over time, Binney worked on tools that would enable the military to predict enemy events based strictly on metadata that did not require identifying people. It was possible to predict the Tet offensive in 1968, although the tool wasn’t used adequately. It was used better in predicting the Soviet action in Czechoslovakia.
The NSA did not do a particularly good job at first in shifting from analogue to digital intelligence (Edward Snowden would not appear for some time). But other terror events, like in 1998, and then the attack on the Cole in 2000, would have made it apparent just how determined Al Qaeda was to undermine secular American life.
During this time, there was a lot of internal politicking to get funds from Congress, and a revolving door of people who retired from the NSA and became contractors at SAIC. Financial gain compromised good judgment, as the metadata tools could have detected 9/11 if deployed properly. Important components of the system were Trailblazer Project and Thinthread.
Binney retired on Oct. 31, 2001, after 9/11 and a horrible sequence of anthrax attacks. But in 2007, the FBI raided his home, claiming he had compromised classified information as a whistleblower after he left.
William Binney has been active recently in retirement on the post-Trump-election and Russia-gate investigations, meeting with Pompeo, NBCNews story here. The details are likely to evolve quickly.
“Stronger”, directed by David Gordon Green and based on the autobiographical book by Jeff Bauman, with Bret Witter and Josh Haner, who lost both legs to a pressure cooker bomb placed by Tamerlan Tsarnaev (the first of two) at the Boston Marathon Bombings on Monday, April 15, 2013, is the fourth major film that I have seen on this terror attack. Bauman was waiting for his girlfriend Erin Hurley to finish the face. After a stormy and challenging relationship pictured in the film, but leading to a child, he would marry Erin and throw out the fist pitch for the Boston Red Sox season in 2014. Bauman’s description of Tamerlan helped narrow down the suspect list and lead to his eventually being cornered three days later, when Tamerlan died in a shootout with police. The fact that the bomb was placed so close to Bauman raises disturbing questions as to whether he or some other nearby person could have attracted Tamerlan’s sights as an individual target in the crowd. The film doesn’t show the physical carnage of the victims until a flashback near the very end.
I approached this film with a little personal moral trepidation, which I’ll come back to. But I can recall similar comments by other moviegoers before “128 Hours” came out, about the hiker who had to amputate his own arm to free himself.
Bauman is played by the versatile and peripatetic Jake Gyllenhaal. I have no idea how they managed to set up the scenes with the stumps for his thighs, and the eventual prosthetics. (An apt comparison could come from the 1993 film “Boxing Helena”.) The film is shot in full anamorphic wide screen, when a standard aspect might have contributed to making the closeups even more brutal to watch (Hitchcock’s theory). Gyllenhaal’s chest is shaved for scenes like the bathtub tantrums, but that might have happened from all the hospital gear. Gyllenhaal is unusually willing to loan his body to special effects, as I have noted here before. Erin is played by Tatiana Maslaney.
Bauman starts out the film as a working class “prole” working for Cosco. The company is later shown as fully behind supporting his health insurance needs and keeping his job, Wikipedia lists Bauman now as an “author” as if there will be more books. The early scenes show some stereotyped working class bar banter (including some mention of gay people and lesbianism).
The film also shows Bauman’s road to recovery as difficult and sometimes ugly. The film, admirably, avoids overplaying the idea of Bauman as a national hero to be pimped as a symbol of national resilience, the Red Sox notwithstanding. There is a scene near the end in a miniature Fenway Park, before the final home opener climax for “Boston Strong” with the Green Monster covered with an American flag. I guess it was removed for the actual game. I’ll add that I’ve had one serious injury my own life, an acetabular hip fracture from a convenience store fall in Minneapolis in 1998. I was back to work in three weeks. But I had a week in rehab, and I saw a man with a leg prosthesis (the loss was to bone cancer, I think) take his first steps on parallel bars in the gym rehab room, literally overlooking the Mississippi River.
Now I come to the more personal part. I’ve never seen victimhood as particularly honorable, and recovery from a violent or perpetrated by another, perhaps a politically motivated enemy (terrorist), starts with the “victim”. But the film stays with that viewpoint. I’ve been particularly sensitive sometimes about being expected to sell the idea of disability as somehow pretty. I have internally resisted the idea of continuing an intimate relationship with someone who become disfigured by a violent incident or illness – yet I know intellectually that family resilience depends on this openness (in the film, Erin is indeed open to sex and pregnancy, and Jeff’s attitude is transformed by prospective fatherhood). I can remember back in graduate school, before facing my own conscription, saying myself and hearing other students say they would not come back from a war maimed and disfigured, as if thet had a real choice. (The 2008 film “Fighting for Life” about war injuries from Iraq gets into this.) Right now, at age 74, it seems as thought that sort of event is pretty unlikely. I thought about the EKG I had a few days ago in a doctor’s office, when he put the pad on my leg, bald with age to the extent that wearing shorts seems indecent. Body shame has always been potentially important to me. But shame-retention can become a very personal target for terrorists.
I suppose this kind of film will come out of the Pulse attack in Orlando. And I could imagine working on making it. Would I ever do something like a special Olympics? I’ve never wanted to make something like that my own cause.
But there are many examples of people making athletic accomplishments after amputation, such as Andrew Montgomery in Las Vegas as in this CNN story. Another example is Oscar Pistorius in South Africa, an accomplished runner but convicted In a tragic shooting.
David Muchod’s political drama “War Machine”, based on the book by Michael Hastings, looks at the ethics of U.S. military policy and of career military officers. Most of it takes place indoors on base in Afghanistan (filmed in Abu Dhabi), or on international “will raising” trips to Berlin and Paris. Toward the end, it explodes into a brutal, personal battlefield scene in a village, worthy of being in “American Sniper”. Otherwise, it’s pure art.
Brad Pitt plays the lifer officer Gen. Glen McMahon, who has been tasked, around 2009, by “Obama’s War” (as Bob Woodward had called it on an NBC documentary) into pacifying and winning back some villages from the Taliban. Unlike his other movies (like “Babel”), this time he does not look or act like Brad Pitt, the role model. Pretty soon, the movie lunges into long discussions where show that a military career like McMahon’s, starting at West Point, needs to justify its own continuation by making up objectives. My summer in the Pentagon in 1968 after Army Basic at Fort Jackson, I used to hear this said; and the Pentagon brass probably didn’t like to hear this from the more privileged, sheltered and well-educated draftees (the “01E20” crowd). Maybe (besides security clearances for a latent homosexual, in the language of the time) that contributed to my own transfer to Fort Eustis.
McMahon spends a lot of time explaining “insurgency”. In one speech, he explains the math or the “group theory” where if you kill two of ten insurgents you suddenly have twenty. In one scene, a reporter in Germany quizzes him about all of this, whether it is indeed self-serving for his own career, Of course, “insurgency” had been a concept in Vietnam, during the time of my own service. There is also some discussion about how 9/11 probably changed military careers a lot more than it did normal life of Americans (although I could contest that idea). The film presents the idea that American occupation on its own may aggravate religious tensions.
McMahon also courts Hamid Karzai (Ben Kingsley), unconvincingly, about “nation building.” How self-serving. But think about what the same idea meant in Vietnam,
With Iraq, of course, it was Obama’s exist that left the power vacuum that allowed ISIS to overrun it, so it gets complicated.
The film comes to a head with the daylight patrol in the Afghan Village. I know someone (NG) deployed there now (really by Obama, not Trump) and I wondered if this is what he could face. It gets brutal. One soldier gets shot in the eye and is blinded. Another (Pico Alexander or Will Poulter) is saved by his steel pot. Then one more goes it alone.
“I, Olga Hepnarova”, directed by Tomas Weinrab and Petr Kazda, is brutal-to-watch account of a terror incident in Prague on July 10, 1973, which happens to be my 30th birthday.
Olga (Michalina Olszanska) is a 20-something woman who grew up in a “good home” in Communist Czechoslovakia, but was repeatedly bullied for non-conformity (not available to men). She wanders through psychiatric facilities and a dorm-based job before dropping out and plotting her revenge. The black-and-white film has two explicit lesbian scenes early and middle.
She writes a brief paper “manifesto” where she plans revenge. A little more than an hour into the film, she drives a truck onto a sidewalk, as the camera shows the people falling to the side. This anticipates several terror attacks that have happened in the past two years, not all of them Islamist (the one in Times Square was not). She asks for the death penalty and her hanging body, viewed, is shown at the end. She uses the German word Prugelknabs, for victims of bullying.
Her rhetoric hits on an existential point, that when a “random” civilian gets in the crosshairs of a terrorist, that person pays personally as there is no way to undo this. Imagine that idea in conjunction with Pulse in Orlando. Terrorists view all civilians as conscripted combatants, if as a result of karma.
This is an unpleasant film to watch. But some audiences will want to see documentary accounts of wha made someone like James Holmes go mad.
There is some discussion of mental illness and schizophrenia. In some ways, Olga reminds me of a couple of female patients at NIH during my stay there in the fall of 1962. There is an early scene where she tells a therapist that she doesn’t like people or find much value in ordinary interpersonal relations.
The “City of Ghosts” is Raqqa, Syria; this new film by Matthew Heineman is one of the most intense about up-close conflict ever made. It is tough to watch, even with a nearly sold-out audience, which applauded at the end. It reminded me of Kathryn Bigelow and “The Hurt Locker”.
It’s pretty much a truism, that when you throw out one repressive regime with a revolution, the replacement is even more despotic. It happened to Czarist Russia, and it happened to Iran. As the film starts, we see life in this desert city on the Euphrates, from Biblical times, a low-rise city of concrete, stucco and ovals, and Muslim colors – during the Arab Spring, fomented by US social media.
The residents hardly understood what had happened as the Islamic State, ISIL, moved in and took over.
A group of journalists, including a former math teacher, started photo journals. As soon as the pressure was on, they scattered to Turkey and Germany. At least one journalist had his father and brothers targeted and executed. In Germany, police approached that journalist about putting in some kind of witness protection. Eventually, some get refugee status in Germany.
The film covers the professional production values of ISIS recruiting meda, but it doesn’t really show why young Muslim men abroad, especially in Europe, are so easily fooled. It also doesn’t show daily life in Raqqa the way the CNN special “Blindsided” by Fareed Zakaria and Jurgen Todenhofer had.
“Patriots Day” (2016), directed by Peter Berg, is a studio (Lionsgate) dramatic reenactment of the Boston Marathon bombing and terror attack that started April 15, 2015 and concluded four days later. The film would complement the studious documentary “Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing” (reviewed Oct. 18).
Marky Mark Wahlberg plays Boston cop Tommy Saunders, and gives a lot of attention to his bad knee. John Goodman is police commissioner Ed Davis. A wrinkled Kevin Bacon plays FBI agent Richard DesLauriers.
But Themo Melikidze, the Georgian (former Soviet Union) born actor with model-like looks, comes across as absolutely chilling as Tamerlan Tsarnaev, as when he lectures Dun Meng (Jimmy Yang) on why American civilians are bargaining chips against Muslims and also claims that Martin Luther King was a fornicator. (We later learn that the brothers liked porn.) Alex Wolff looks like Dzhokhar, who usually plays the part of baby brother, incredibly dependent on Tamerlan and summing up aggression like a robot.
The film explores the chilling diffidence of Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist) when questioned, as well as the lax attitudes of Jahar’s pot-smoking roommates (story), who wound up with minor prosecutions. The film could have done more with Jahar’s Twitter trail.
The explosions are overwhelming, and take longer to unfold than one expects. Later the shootout in Watertown streets plays out like a military battle. The execution of MIT police officer Sean Collier (Jake Picking) and the kidnapping of Dun are chilling, making me wonder if I would even want to survive something like this.
The film is somewhat considerate on showing the horrific wounds and amputations, but one young couple is shown as pulling through, with a strong marriage.
Tonight, “Newtown” was screened by Fathom events, with a panel discussion from New York by Chris Cuomo afterward. The entire event was called “Newtown: A Conversation”.
The film, directed by Kim A. Snyder and produced by Maria Cuomo Cole, focuses on the families of the children and teachers and staff shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012 by Adam Lanza.
The film spends little time on tracing Lanza’s actions or background, although it shows the inside of the house after his mother’s body was found. It does trace the way parents gradually found out what was happening to their own kids throughout that day, and then traces five families afterward. At the end, one of the dads takes up skydiving in a closing shot for the film.
The film includes some testimony about assault weapons and the tendency of bullets to tumble, something I remember from my own Army service. Some homeowners (as in a case in Oklahoma in March 2017) might be able to defend themselves from a huge home invasion if they own them. Gun control admittedly may put more weapons in the hands of criminals (as in Europe with terrorists) and leave average people more vulnerable to very determined attacks. But gun control will prevent some domestic crime and rampages such as this one. Different policy choices put different people at risk.
At one point, a father says that Lanza was not excessively bullied. There is coverage of the effects on siblings of the victims.
The film uses background music from up to 13 composers, supervised by Fil Eisler.
Cuomo moderated with his usual analytic style. One of the panel members was a black female police chief from Orlando who had responded to the Pulse attack. The panel was overwhelming in its refutation of the NRA’s idea that a “good guy with a gun” can always stop a very determined enemy attacker. Cuomo suggested that what is needed is not so much new policy as closing loopholes and enforcing existing policy. I think that gun control (as usually proposed) typically does reduce most domestic crime (and suicide) but it might make the public more vulnerable to some kinds of terrorist attacks.
On the day of Newtown, I made a bit of a pilgrimage to a high school where I had substitute taught to see a performance (which was not cancelled).
“American Pastoral”, directed by Ewan McGregor (who plays Seymour “Svede” Levov), based on Philip Roth’s 1997 novel, adapted to screen by John Romano
Seymour has taken over the family glove factory in Newark, NJ in the early 1950s and gotten past the family patriarch in marrying a Catholic woman Dawn (Jennifer Connely), and build an estate and farm away from the City in exurban New Jersey. The daughter Merry grows up with a stutter and hypersenstivie personality.
During the escalation of the Vietnam war, played out on television with LBJ, Merry (Dakota Fanning) becomes unhinged and gradually becomes radicalized to the far Left. At the same time, the 1967 Newark riots happen around the factory.
Soon, a rural post office is bombed, a man is killed, and police suspect Merry. She flees to New York, and in coming years is suspected of more bombings (as with the Weathermen). Seymour goes though contortions (dealing with another radical young woman who taunts his masculinity) to find her, where she is homeless and living in the streets to do her penance, but has lost her stutter as long as she wears a mask.
One could say she has become a terrorist, and the film, for me at least, could be compared with “Marathon” a few days ago.
I remember spying on a meeting of the People’s Party of New Jersey on a cold Saturday night in Newark in December 1972. The platform committee was very radical, especially the women, who resented being called “girls”. Part of the plaform was to eliminate capitalism and inherited wealth. Everyone was supposed to be in the same boat.
Yet, I don’t see that the movie explains what drove the girl to radlcalism.
The movie narrative is told through a college reunion with a character Nathan (David Strathairn).
“Do Not Resist” (2016, by Craig Atkinson, “Detropia”) starts with the protests in Ferguson, MO as thunderstorm clouds gather in August 2014.
The film, however, does not stay on “Black Lives Matter”, as it moves quickly to explore the militarization of police, and particularly the way the US military sells its used vehicles and weapons to police departments. A police department for a town in Wisconsin explains its interest.
The film shows military training of a sheriff’s department in South Carolina, and then a rural drug raid.
But then the film returns to Ferguson, to show the riots after the failure to indict the policeman who shot Michael Brown, and then provides a little coverage of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, before finally interviewing a Penn professor on using predictive profiling of people, which could extend to unborn children, based on mathematical algorithms. Race could be a factor. There is a flavor of “Minority Report” and pre-crime in the professor’s discussion. I thought there might be some coverage of the stop-and-frisk and “broken windows” police policy with Rudy Giuliani says were so effective in cleaning up crime in New York City in the 1990s before 9/11.
I think there is a need for a major documentary on the real facts behind Darren Wilson and Michael Brown in Ferguson. I could imagine this director, or maybe Andrew Jenks, making that film. And maybe a sequel on Freddie Gray. The Truth matters. The Darrien Hunt case in Utah could be interesting.
Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Ferguson Protest by LoavesofBread under CCSA 4.0
(Posted: Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016 at 11:45 PM EDT)
Tonight, AFI Docs held a special free sneak preview of the HBO documentary “Marathon: The Patriot’s Day Bombing”, directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg. It will air on HBO in mid November and show in New York, Los Angeles and Boston.
The documentary recreates most of the events of that week in April 2013 as they happened, with high quality video. This includes the two bombings twelve seconds apart, with explicit scenes of the carnage; then video of the shooting at MIT Thursday night, of the call from a convenience store after the carjacking, the shootout in Watertown, and the capture of Jahar. Video shows the Tsarnaev brothers just before the bombing. Jahar is shown in his jail cell later.
But, unlike “The Thread” (see Index), which focuses on how technology helped find the bombers, this film focuses on the hundreds injured, and the seventeen who lost limbs.
Several of these men and women were in the audience, with prosthetic limbs,two with service dogs, one of which sat very near me.
There is a scene where the police ask a novice cameraperson to respect the victims and not photograph them on the street.
The film focuses on the care these civilians get at Walter Reed (formerly Bethesda Naval Medical Center, across Wisconsin Ave. from NIH), from military surgeons. It is normally very difficult for civilians injured by war-like injuries in terror attacks to get military care. This observation would apply to the Pulse attacks. The civilian patients bond with the military casualties, mostly from Iraq and Afghanistan, who have multiple amputations and incredible disfigurement.
The love story of one couple, both who lost limbs, was difficult to watch. I don’t like to use the word “victims” when others influenced by foreign ideology go to war with us as if we were personal enemies. I personally process this as “casualty”, but I did go through the Vietnam era draft, although I didn’t go into combat. But the willingness of people to form and keep intimate and marital relationships when challenged by unforeseeable adversities is important to resilience against potential enemies. This is a personal issue for me, but I’ll take that up soon elsewhere.
At the end, the film covers the death penalty deliberations and sentence handed to Dzhokkar Tsarnaev under federal law (in a state that does not have the death penalty).
The QA was followed by a 7-minute short film “Wicked Strong: A Walter Reed Story”
QA 2: In response to my question about availability of military medicine to civilians after terror attack (I also mentioned Pulse); and on the importance that healthy young adults have health insurance because it can happen to anyone (the young man in Central Park July 3). Health insurance often covers basic prosthetics but not specialized limbs for running or water use (as in a scene in Florida). Prosthetics last about eight years before needing replacement.