Steven Spielberg teaches us about freedom of the press with “The Post”

Steven Spielberg has given us a valuable history less on freedom of the press in his Oscar season masterpiece, “The Post”.

The film is transparent and clear to follow. Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) is taking The Washington Post public on the American Stock Exchange.  In the early summer of 1971, The New York Times publishes the first installment of The Pentagon Papers as leaked by Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), while the Post feels embarrassed at the time by competing only with a story of a Nixon family wedding. The Nixon administration gets a court to enjoin the NYT, as the case heads for the Supreme Court. But a mole tracks down Daniel Ellsberg in a motel and gets 4000 pages more of material and delivers the stuff to the Post. The paper has to weigh the risks of indictment (if they reasonably know that the leak of classified material is the same as for the NYT) and ruining the public offering. The decision winds up in, well, a woman’s hands and that is a good thing.

The film obviously matters now given President Trump’s constant threats to the press, and the whole issue of “opening up libel laws” to function more like Britain’s.

The film opens with a war scene in Vietnam set in 1966, with an infantry patrol in the jungles, and many body bags. Soon we see a reported typing.  Combat journalism is itself a risky occupation.

We also see the technology of the times, pre-internet, when people used pay phones and typewriters, and we see the actual typesetting of the Post edition, almost as we might have in a 50s film.

I spent the summer of 1968 in the Pentagon after finishing Basic Training. I suspect one reason I was transferred is that “they” didn’t want me to “find out” some things.  I suspect that the papers included material about “McNamara’s morons” (book review coming). Bruce Greenwood plays the over-elite Defense Secretary, who knew right off that the NYT piece was bad for him. One issue that comes up in the film is whether the release of the Papers could jeopardize soldiers (often draftees) on the Vietnam patrols.

I had a misadventure seeing it at the Ballston Quarter Regal.  The garage elevators failed, with an electrical problem due to moisture and rapid warmup after a freeze.  I already had a ticket. At my insistence, the security guard let us use the fire stairs to get to the theater.

Tom Hanks and Sarah Paulson play Bradlees.  It’s interesting to see how much work was done in private homes.  The New York Times runner (Luke Slattery) is quite charismatic himself; this was during the days before bicycle messengers (or Internet pdf’s for that matter).

The end of the film gives us a “sneak” of Watergate, after Nixon banned reporters from the White House. Nixon would develop the peace agreement that stopped most American fighting in January 1973.

The film skipped the musical fanfares of the various companies at the beginning, which is unusual for 20th Century Fox and Dreamworks, which haven’t been paired together as far as I recall.

It’s also interesting that Mr. Spielberg stayed with the 1.85:1 aspect ratio format for this film, which in some ways almost seems like a stage play.

Legacy review of “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers”.

Name: “The Post”
Director, writer:  Steven Spielberg
Released:  2017/12/22
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Ballston Quarter, 2018/1/12, daytime, fair crowd (logistical problems in the building held down the crowd)
Length:  103
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  20th Century Fox, DreamWorks, Participant Meida
Link:  official

(Posted: Friday, January 12, 2018 at 7:30 PM)

“Wonder”: a film about lookism, and more about the rest of the family and school rather than the boy himself

Wonder” (like “Stronger”) is another film that addresses lookism and the challenges that someone with a visible deformity will face socially in life. I was reluctant to see it out of what I feared would be sugary moralizing.  Directed by Stephen Chbosky, and based on the 2012 children’s novel by R. J. Palacio, it presents us with a fifth grader August Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) with a genetic facial deformity called mandibulofacial dysotosis, and we’re told that he has had over twenty surgeries as child. The actual physical appearance is toned down;  it is not particularly abnormal, and all you notice is a couple scars.  (I could mention neurofibromatosis, the subject of David Lynch’s 1980bw  film “The Elephant Man” about Joseph Merrick in 19th Century London, which gets around to modeled stagecraft.)

But, much to is credit, the film gradually becomes a story about the rest of the family members and others at his private prep school, rather than just about him.

But the film opens almost as if it were to be animated, with a shot of a spacesuit helmet, as we gradually see a little boy lying on his back in bed with it on, and with a bedspread that continues the space suit image.

His mother Isabel (Julia Roberts) and father Nate (Owen Wilson) have homeschooled him. We’ve been shown a flashback of the birth, with a “teenage” obstetrician (Shaun Murphy?) and the nurses carry him away in horror when the see his face, almost like he was “Rosemary’s Baby”.

But now its time for middle school, and he’s sent to a fancy prep near Lincoln Center.  So, yes, he and the family have to deal with bullying as (in the previous film yesterday) does the school. Why would kids bully him?  Because they want to be affiliated with the “best” and want to come out on top of a survival of the fittest game?  I’m reminded of the WB show “Gossip Girl” with the rogue blogger Serena turns wealthy teens into proto-Apprentice candidates (like Penn Badgley’s character Dan).  But there, these are younger, middle school kids.  There is a nasty incident of a passed note saying “Freddie Kruger”.  I recall when I was substitute teaching at a middle school in 2005 a kid passed an anti-semetic note to another and got into trouble, as did I, for not preventing something I could not possibly see.  I’m also reminded of an incident in my own Ninth Grade (p. 21 in the DADT 1 book) where I spread rumors and even taunted a student who had experienced an epileptic fit in algebra class (I called it “all those convulsions”), something that sounds like throwing up in class  Well, that happened to me in second grade and was particularly traumatic.

That theme comes up in the movie a few times.  The family dog gets it, and has to be put down, but she is old. In the meantime, a number of the older kids try out to play in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”.  Big sister Via is an understudy, and when the lead girl says she fears she will throw up on stage, Via gets to shine.  (That would be a real horror if it happened;  it never happens on Broadway.)   A little bit of the play gets performed in the movie (the play itself has been filmed several times).

At the end, the tone changes, as August gets a science fair award.  I was reminded of Jack Andraka’s award in 2013 at age 16 for an inexpensive pancreatic cancer test he had invented (as detailed in his book “Breakthrough”). Maybe the allusion is intentional.

The film has some interesting brief scenes on Coney Island (near my favorite “Seaside Courts”) and also upstate, in a lake area (Adirondacks?)  According to imdb, except for establishing shots in NYC, most of the film was shot in British Columbia.

Here’s an ABCNews story about another real life case.

Picture: an arts school near Lincoln Center, my photo, Feb. 2013.

Name:  “Wonder”
Director, writer:  Stephen Chobsky, R. J. Palacio (novel)
Released:  2017/12
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Quarter, 2018/1/9, afternoon, fair audience
Length:  103
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Lionsgate, Participant Media, Walden Media
Link:  official

(Posted: Tuesday, January 9, 2018 at 10:30 PM EST)

“Presenting Princess Shaw”: how a mashup artist helps an amateur YouTube singer become a star

Presenting Princess Shaw”, directed by Ido Haar, starts with a text tagline to the effect that user-generated content on the Internet gives potential voices to all so that ordinary people don’t have to bow down to the powerful.

Yet, we are left to wonder, what makes some artists popular and viral and eventually powerful.

The film presents a nurse, Samantha Montgomery, who built her art entertaining residents at assisted living centers in New Orleans where she works.  She writes her own songs and does a reasonable job of recording them and putting them up on her YouTube channel.  The film shows us plenty of everyday life in the Ninth Ward, years after Hurricane Katrina.

In the Negev region of Israel, Ophir Kutiel builds mixages and mashups of the works of many artists, often unbeknownst to them.  This practice, creating what is called derivative works in copyright law, is sometimes legally controversial and unclear, but very much supported by groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The end result is that “Princecess Shaw” very much earns her “right of publicity”.

The film shows a lot of the tech work behind mixing, which I ought to learn in order to edit my own YouTube videos on my own autobiographical material (with Final Cut Pro).  So I guess this documentary gives me a kick in the pants.  Music is recorded and mixed in different ways, including being entered directly onto a tablet rather than through a Midi.

There is an interesting soliloquy (vertical cell phone video) where Samantha talks about being alone after a visit to distant family.  It sounds like personal growth, Rosenfels community stuff.

There’s a video with a telltale title, “Give It Up”.  Lose it.

Finally, Samantha goes to Tel Aviv and meets Ophir to put on a major show. She sings while Ophir does keyboard.

PBS did a brief director interview after the film. The director talked about passive self-promotion on the web and being found.

The POV short film was “Driven” from “Story Corps”, by Wendell Scott, in animation, about an African-American amateur race driver in the segregated South.

Negev scene.

Name:  “Presenting Princess Shaw
Director, writer:  Ido Haar
Released:  2015
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  PBS POV 2017/7/17
Length:  90 (81 on PBS)
Rating:  PG-13
Companies: Magnolia Pictures, Participant Media, PBS POV
Link:  official PBS

Posted: Monday, July 17, 2017, at 11:45 PM EDT

“An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power”: Al Gore’s sequel to “An Inconvenient Truth” about climate change premiers at AFI-Docs

Last night, AFI-Docs premiered Al Gore’s new film, “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power” at the Newseum in Washington DC, with director (Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk) QA.  The film amounts to being “An Inconvenient Truth II”, following Gore’s first film on climate change in 2005.

Gore starts his film in Greenland, with spectacular shots of melting ice, before moving around the world and showing evidence of rapid escalation of climate change.  He stops in Miami, where there is sunny day street flooding at high tides. Warmer and more humid atmosphere promulgates more extreme storms and, ironically, droughts.  He shows Hurricane Sandy in 2012 in New York City (confirming a prediction from his 2005 film that the World Trade Center site from 9/11 could flood), and a typhoon in the southern Philippines in November 2013, which might have interfered with the production of my third book (the POD publisher had a plant nearby). He mentions how high temperatures shorten mosquito breeding cycles and might have contributed to the spread of Zika.

He also brings back his charts from the 2005 film, and adds illustrations showing that the number of very warm days constantly increases (even though we have cold days).  It is inevitable that if carbon dioxide levels rise, the planet will warm, unless something else happens (like a volcanic eruption blotting out the Sun with cloud cover).

Gore provides plenty of evidence that green industries are economically sustainable.  He notes anecdotes like that of Greensburg, KS, wiped out by a 2007 tornado, that rebuilt itself green (story), as in the 2009 Planet Green film, “Greensburg: a Story of Community Rebuilding” with Leonardo DiCaprio.

He also summarizes his personal history, his concession in Bush v. Gore in 2000, and then notes Bush’s actions which reduced satellite information gathering on climate issues by NASA, as well as catering to fossil fuel interests, anticipating Trump today.

His most startling ideas are that the drought in Syria starting around 2010 helped set up the urban refugees that set up the brutality of Assad and ISIS.  Then the film moves to Paris, just before the meetings at the end of 2015, as Gore is present for the Nov. 13 terror attacks, the aftermath of which is shown.

The film covers Al Gore’s “Climate Reality Leadership Corps”, which he calls “Truth in Ten”.  People can join this as a movement, be trained, and participate in a formal process.  My problem is that I like to retain my ability to speak independently, as I said in the QA. There is a hashtag “#Pledgetobeinconvenient”.

Another audience member pointed out the problem of tribalism:  many people won’t listen to rational arguments of they are made by someone from the wrong side – as we saw with the 2016 elections and the vitriolic personal divisions and odd forms of hyper partisanship.

QA

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2  (my question on joining a group vs. working alone on an issue like this)

3  (question about tribalism — “truth to power”)

Fact sheet:

Name: “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power”
Director, writer:  Bonni Cohen, Jon Shenk, Al Gore
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1 (as shown;  imdb says 2.35:1)
When and how viewed:  AFI Docs, Newseum, 2017/6/16, Washington DC, almost sold out;  general release 2017/7/28
Length:  100
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Paramount Independent;  Kino Lorber; Participant Media
Link:  Al Gore, Film

Picture: Far Rockaway, NY, March 2013, my trip after Hurricane Sandy

(Posted: Saturday, June 17, 2017 at 10 AM EDT)

“Denial”: In British court, the historical fact of the Holocaust is put on trial

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Name: Denial
Director, writer:  Mick Jackson, Deborah Lipstadt
Released:  2016
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Angelika Mosaic, 2016/10/9, late afternoon, fair audience
Length 110
Rating PG-13
Companies: Bleecker Street, Participant Media, BBC Films
Link: official 

Denial” (2016), directed by Mick Jackson, and based on the book “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier” (2005) by Emory University professor Deborah Lipstadt (played by Rachel Weisz), does what it purports: show a trial of accepted historical fact in a British court (in 2000).

British libel law puts the burden of proof on the defense, whereas in American courts it’s 51% preponderance of the evidence requirement on the plaintiff.  I can recall a television interview in late 1997 with British author Kitty Kelly (“The Royals”), that in the UK (even after Brexit) truth is not an absolute defense to libel as it is in the U.S.

As the movie opens, Lipstadt is lecturing in Atlanta, when notorious Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall) disrupts her.  She refuses to debate him the way some of us would refuse to debate climate change today.

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Soon she receives a letter in her outdoor mailbox warning her about the litigation.  There’s no spectacular if brief scene involving a hovering process server.  I would wonder right off if she really could be forced to pay damages from outside the U.S.

The movie moves to London, and her legal team (headed by Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) comes up with a particular strategy:  a bench (not a jury) trial, and Lipstadt will not testify (which takes some potential sails out of the movie’s courtroom drama).  Now, Irving’s ideas (no direct photographic evidence from survivors, and “No Holes, No Holocaust”) is rather easily overcome by the direct testimony of myriads of survivors, down to their showing their disfiguring forearm tattoos.  Lipstadt wants to give survivors, as well as herself, a chance to testify.

The movie makes an interesting field trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where it explores the way Zytron was poured down chimneys into the gas chambers, and why the concentrations for “delousing” were so much higher.  The photography, nearly black and white hear, shows the expanse of the ruins of the barracks. The film moves to Krakow for another scene on the commons square.

My own novel manuscript for “Angel’s Brother” starts at Auschwitz, with the sign “Arbeit macht frei”. I go into a different direction, but then there is another scene at a hotel in Krakow (in my book).  I felt like I was watching a preview of my own future movie.  The town square scene in Krakow as interesting to me, as I had walked through it on May 25, 1999.  I stayed in a small hotel just out of sight from the camera in the movie.  I saw the museums (and remember the shoes as shown in the movie), but not the expanse of barracks.    I came into town by night train from Berlin, around 6 AM, before I took a “cab” to Birkenau.

The movie comes up with a curious logical twist toward the end:  does Irving’s obvious “anti-Semitism” and racism make the possibility of truth of his allegations less legally relevant?

The feature (at Angelika Mosaic) was preceded by a pre-show short film “Levitation” with a dancer on black-and-white abstract designs (steps and boxes, arranged as a stage).

Wikipedia attribution link for Krakow picture under CCSA 3.0 by FotoCavallo.

(Posted: Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016 at 10 PM EDT)

“Deepwater Horizon” treats the BP oil rig blowout in 2010 as another “Titanic”

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Name: Deepwater Horizon
Director, writer:  Peter Berg
Released:  2016
Format:  2.35:1 Imax
When and how viewed:  2016/10/1 Regal Manassas VA, small audience
Length 107
Rating PG-13
Companies: Participant Media,
Link: official

Deepwater Horizon”, directed by Peter Berg, plays like a somewhat abbreviated “Titanic” (1997), or even “Poseidon” (2006, remake of 1974). The film creates the first hours of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in April 2010.   The oil rig, about 50 miles out into the Gulf of Mexico, was essentially like a ship.  The first half of the 107-minute film sets up the characters at hazard, with a great deal of attention to the “negative pressure test” explained by John Malkovich – it’s supposed to reassure the crew.  There’s a lot of street talk in the technical explanations and diagrams.  Then hoses leak and mud leaks, and over about twenty minutes of film the crisis escalated until there is a full explosion and fire.

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The central character is rigger Mike Williams, played by a still youthful and “creative” Marky Mark Wahlberg. Remember those articles (predicated on body fascism) in the late 1990s that showed how you were supposed to mimic Mark Mark in building your own fan webpage?  The early scenes show the departure from his wife  and his driving his SUV across an impressive Louisiana swamp-scape (including Lake Pontchartrain). Life on the rig is a bit like being in the merchant marine, it seems  (I wonder if there was ever a ban on gays.)  It’s cozy and acerbic.

His wife has to find out about the emerging catastrophe when his Skype connection breaks.  She has to call the Coast Guard, which reluctantly tells her about the fire.

Later, there is a scene where Williams jumps into the water from the burning rig and forces a female coworker to join – parallel to a somewhat sacrificial scene with Di Caprio near the end of “Titanic”.

The film certainly gives plenty of hints as to how a complicated man-made machine broke down and failed despite all the safeguards.  In that sense, it shares some commons with “Command and Control” (Sept. 23).  And the consequences for others in the region (man and wildlife – oil-slicked birds are shown crashing the rig) are catastrophic.  The film does not present the environmental cleanup, however, and I suspect there could be a sequel from Lionsgate/Summit/Participant that will.

There has been some SLAPP litigation against other journalists that reported on the supposed inadequacies of the cleanup efforts, as ABC News documents.   I recall BP CEO Steve Hayward’s “I want my life back”.

I saw the film in a new Regal auditorium in Manassas VA with full IMAX (as opposed to RPX). The 2.35:1 aspect was preserved throughout (not the case with “Interstellar“, for example).

Wikipedia attribution link for Coast Guard picture of burning site in May 2010.

(Posted: Sunday, October 2, 2016 t 1:30 PM EDT)