Saturday, December 31, 2011

"War Horse" and World War I

I strongly recommend “War Horse,” which is one of the best movies of the year.  Let me warn readers in advance that it is very sentimental and if anyone but Steven Spielberg had directed the film, it would not have worked.  The movie calls attention to World War I, a conflict that most Americans have relatively little knowledge of and that has long been overshadowed in popular culture by World War II.

In June 1914, a Bosnian Serb nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, triggering a series of military alliances that began World War I, the first major European war in a century.  Crowds across the continent cheered the coming of the conflict and both sides expected a short war.  Instead, the battle between the Allied Powers of Britain, France, and Russia and the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire, dragged on for over four years, killing 9 million soldiers and devastating Europe.  When it finally ended on November 11, 1918, it was called the Great War or “the war to end all wars.” 

World War I played an instrumental role in shaping the rest of the 20th century.  By its end, the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires had collapsed.  The harsh peace imposed by the victorious Allied Powers in the Treaty of Versailles weakened the European economy, paving the way for the Great Depression of the 1930s.  In particular, the settlement imposed huge reparations on the defeated Germans and demanded they accept guilt for starting the war, virtually strangling the democratic Weimar Republic at its birth.  Adolf Hitler and the Nazis Party flourished in this climate, builiding political support by claiming that Jews and others had “stabbed the country in the back.”  The war weakened the czarist regime in Russia, resulting in the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and the creation of the Soviet Union.  Finally, after promising the Arab world its independence in exchange for joining the fight against their colonial overlords, the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France carved up the region between each other. They created countries like Iraq and Jordan, which had previously not existed, drawing national borders to suit their own interests.  These artificial boundaries are responsible for many of the problems in today’s Middle East.

Of course, “War Horse” does not focus on such weighty geopolitical issues.  (SPOILERS) It is the story of a young British boy who trains a horse that his family must sell to the British military in order to keep their farm.  In the course of the war, the horse is used by the British, German, and French militaries on the Western front in France.  Joey, as the horse is called, is never used by the U.S. Army, which only arrived in 1918.  Under the leadership of President Woodrow Wilson, the United States tried to avoid entering the conflict, only declaring war in April 1917 following the resumption of German submarine warfare.  Given our small peacetime army at the time, it took almost another year to train units to send across the Atlantic, but our fresh troops eventually helped bring about an earlier end to the war.

The film illustrates how combat during the First World War changed from previous wars.  New industrial technologies facilitated a different kind of battle than seen in the biggest Western conflict of the 19th century, the American Civil War.  While armies still used the cavalry charges of the last century, weaponry like machine guns and tanks led to higher casualties, as the two sides got bogged down in trench warfare for four years in France.  Weapons of mass destruction like poison gas were used for the first time.  Spielberg’s depiction of the fighting in No Man’s Land, the region between the trenches, is every bit as impressive as the now-famous portrayal of D-Day in the opening 30 minutes of his “Saving Private Ryan.” 

Many historians consider World War I the first “total war,” where civilians experienced the full impact of a conflict. (Minor spoilers)  The section of the film where the French Army repeatedly confiscates goods from a local farmer and his granddaughter illustrates this phenomenon.  There is little ideology and politics discussed in the movie, which is largely about soldiers and civilians trying to maintain their humanity during the tragic conflict.

When the war was finally over, the Allies, including the United States, emerged victorious, but at a huge cost that would echo for generations.  Yet most Americans know little about the conflict, even though 53,000 soldiers died in combat.  The U.S. was only involved in the war for 18 months and did not suffer the heavy losses the Europeans did, while our home front was not nearly as affected.  Furthermore, World War II, commencing a mere 20 years later and causing even greater destruction, is much more dominant in the American memory.  Few major films have depicted World War I and none has achieved commercial success comparable to that of movies about the Civil War, World War II, or Vietnam.

“War Horse” will likely be a nominee for best picture and provide yet another best director nomination for Spielberg.  It almost makes me forget how much I disliked “Adventures of Tintin.”  More importantly, when I discuss World War I with my students, I will now be able to cite a film to illustrate some of my points.

"Dark Knight Rises" trailer

As memory of the 9/11 terror attacks recede, more and more films are influenced by the next major event of the last decade, the Great Recession.  “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” (2010) and “Margin Call” (2011) both were quasi-documentary examinations of the global financial crisis.  And just as there were films and television shows dealing with 9/11 in metaphorical fashion, it appears this is beginning to occur with the economy.   

“Batman Begins” (2005) and its sequel, “The Dark Knight” (2008) both featured heavy echoes of the war on terror.  In particular, “The Dark Knight” could be claimed by both sides in the debate over the Bush-era surveillance policies.  From the trailer, it appears the conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012) may comment heavily on income inequality and other issues that have emerged as part of the national debate since 2008.  Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman, tells the billionaire Bruce Wayne, a.k.a. Batman as well as a charter member of the 1 percent: “You think this will last. There's a storm coming Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches. Because when it hits, you'll wonder how you ever lived so large and left so little for the rest of us.”

Occupy Wall Street, anyone?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

I highly recommend, “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” which I believe is the best action film of the year.  When I wrote about the more serious tone of post-9/11 action films in September, I discussed several movie franchises, but not the Mission Impossible series.  I did so in large part because the films have not been particularly memorable.  Indeed, it is safe to assume that although it is his only film franchise, none of the first three movies will be remembered as among the most important of Tom Cruise’s long film career. 
Upon further review, however, Mission Impossible underwent the same transition to greater seriousness that Batman and James Bond did between the 1990s and the post-2001 era.  The first two films, released in 1996 and 2000, respectively, were merely crowd pleasers, without much else involved.  The third film, which was directed by J.J. Abrams (“Lost,” “Star Trek”) and released in 2006, featured a much darker story in which the villain’s scheme involves a pseudo-neoconservative plot to create a pretext for a pre-emptive strike against terrorists.  At one point, it appears Ethan Hunt’s (Cruise) wife is murdered (turns out to be someone else wearing a mask).   Premiering shortly after Cruise’s well-publicized engagement to Katie Holmes and his couch-jumping exploits on Oprah, the film underachieved at the box office.
“Ghost Protocol,” the fourth film in the series, may signal the emergence of a lighter touch in action films, as the memory of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon begins to fade.  Like this past summer’s “X-Men First Class,” it bears a strong resemblance to a pre-Daniel Craig Bond film.  (SPOILERS)  Like many Bond baddies, the film’s megalomaniacal villain manipulates U.S./Russian tensions to his own nefarious ends.  In this case, the antagonist steals Russian nuclear codes in the hopes of precipitating a global nuclear war.  While “Ghost Protocol” features a spectacularly filmed 21st century terrorist attack on the Kremlin, the film is more reminiscent of the over-the-top, Roger Moore-era Bond movies like “The Spy Who Loved Me” (1977) and “Moonraker” (1979).  As I said in the September post, it was too early to tell if the serious strain would last and by the same logic, “Ghost Protocol” is not sufficient proof that campiness is returning.  Indeed, the “Dark Knight Rises” trailer appeared before the film and it looks deadly serious (more on that in the next post).
The film may also herald a comeback for Cruise, who has been the biggest movie star of his generation, but has not had a hit in some time.   Hollywood star power has clearly faded in recent years as Cruise, Harrison Ford, and to a lesser extent, Tom Hanks have appeared in a number of commercial bombs.  Only Will Smith can guarantee a huge gross these days, a fact that will be severely tested by the release of the highly unnecessary “Men in Black III” next year.  Time will tell if Cruise can regain the star status he maintained from the mid-1980s to mid-2000s and if “Ghost Protocol” represents significant cultural change.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Terra Nova

In the years since 9/11, television has presented the dilemmas of the war on terror in a number of different ways.  “24” did so directly, through a series of relatively realistic nuclear, biological, and chemical crises.  “Battlestar Galactica" presented a sci-fi metaphor, as the human race tried to survive and maintain its values after it is nearly destroyed by the Cylons.  “Lost” showed them indirectly and occasionally, as when the Losties decided how to obtain information from captured members of the mysterious “Others” who also lived on their island.
“Terra Nova” is yet another example of post-9/11 culture and it combines elements of all three shows.  In its “Galactica”-like premise, man has made the planet unlivable in the 22nd century through greed and environmental destruction.  Fortunately, humanity discovers a time fracture that allows people to make a one-way pilgrimage back to the pristine era of the dinosaurs.  The formula is basically “Jurassic Park” meets “Lost.”  Indeed, the Terra Nova colony looks suspiciously like “Lost’s” Dharma Initiative while the colony is routinely threatened by a subversive group of colonists called the “Sixers,” who seem suspiciously similar to the “Others.”  Humanity must survive amidst dangerous predators as well as a fifth column that wants to make the time fracture go both ways so they can plunder the past for their own financial gain in the future.
In this environment, the show depicts the challenges of the post-9/11 period.  Like “Galactica,” the colonists struggle with how to govern while under constant threat.  Like “Lost”, a potential subversive is tortured and held in inhuman conditions to get him to talk.  As in virtually every season of “24,” the colony leader, Colonel Taylor (whose name is likely an homage to Charlton Heston’s character in “Planet of the Apes”) must ferret out a mole within the community’s ranks. 
Despite the intriguing premise, the show is extremely formulaic.  Crises are neatly resolved and there is little drama.   While Taylor, played by Stephen Lang (the villain in “Avatar”) is interesting, the show focuses on the Shannon family, who are extremely boring.   Much attention is paid to the adolescent angst of their teenage children, whose portrayal falls well short of “Buffy” or even “Smallville” standards.  It reminds us that great science fiction is not merely about impressive special effects, but characters that people care about.  Frankly, I’m so annoyed by these characters that I’m rooting for the dinosaurs to eat some of them. 
As I’ve said previously, the failure of serialized shows like “V” and “The Event,” along with the success of procedurals like “Person of Interest,” seems to indicate that we are moving past the post-9/11 era in popular culture.  On the other hand, the former programs were also weaker than their predecessors.  Perhaps “Terra Nova” will improve if Fox renews it for a second season, but I’m not terribly optimistic.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Tim Tebow Phenomenon

As a Florida Gators fan, I certainly hoped Tim Tebow, who was one of the greatest college quarterbacks ever, would have a successful NFL career.  But I never would have believed he would attain a rock star status even greater than he had in college football.  In the last week, Tebow, now the starting QB for the Denver Broncos, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and was satirized on “Saturday Night Live.” Furthermore, in the last Republican debate of 2011, Rick Perry declared that he would like to be the “Tim Tebow of the Iowa Caucus,” referring to Tebow’s patented fourth-quarter comebacks as well as the quarterback’s evangelical Christianity, which is very popular with social conservatives in the Hawkeye State.  Though Sports Illustrated and “Saturday Night Live” are central institutions from an earlier era that have faded in relevance, few could have pulled off this pop culture trifecta.  The Tebow phenomenon culminated with Sunday’s Denver Broncos-New England Patriots game, which earned the second-highest ratings for an afternoon game on CBS since the network bought the rights to the AFC package in 1998.  In a manner of weeks, Tebow has gone from the backup quarterback on a losing team to perhaps the biggest sports phenomenon in the country, crossing boundaries into politics and entertainment.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Colonel Potter and the Evolution of M.A.S.H.

When Harry Morgan joined the cast of M.A.S.H.  for the start of its fourth season in 1975, the show still largely followed the slapstick formula of the 1970 film.  Morgan himself had played a minor role in this regard, with a guest appearance as a crazy general in a third season episode.  Such portrayals were typical of the show, which often portrayed the military leadership as inept and out-of-touch.  These representations grew out of the cynical spirit of the anti- Vietnam War protests of the 1960s and early 1970s.  As the program continued throughout the late 70s and early 80s, however, the show took on a more serious tone as the respectable Colonel Potter replaced the hapless Colonel Blake, who had run the 4077th for the first three years of the program.
The film depicted the Korean War of the early 1950s, but M.A.S.H. was clearly intended to serve as an allegory for the Vietnam War, which was still underway in 1970. In fact, the studio asked the filmmakers to add references to Korea to the movie, because director Robert Altman and others had tried to make the backdrop look as much like Vietnam as possible. The television show continued to follow this formula.   It is ironic that the most famous pop culture representation of the Korean War, often called the “Forgotten War,” is thought of as the portrayal of another conflict.
In its early years, M.A.S.H.  was a traditional comedy, as the irreverent Captain Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda) and Captain “Trapper John” MacIntyre (Wayne Rogers) played practical jokes on Major Frank Burns (Larry Linville) and Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Loretta Swit), who represented traditional military values as well as the conventional American patriotism that had come under attack in some circles during the 1960s.  The unit’s commanding officer, Colonel Henry Blake, was a well-meaning but bumbling leader who was manipulated by Pierce and MacIntyre with some assistance from Blake’s right-hand man, Corporal Radar O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff).
With the departure of Blake and Macintyre and the arrival of Potter and B.J. Hunicutt (Mike Farrell), the show began to take on a more dramatic tone.  This change accelerated when the arrogant, competent Major Charles Winchester (David Ogden Stiers) replaced the incompetent Burns.  Furthermore, the Margaret Houlihan character evolved from being the butt of jokes to a Mary Richards-like character mirroring the prominence of the women’s movement during the time.  Even Corporal Klinger (Jamie Farr) stopped trying to get thrown out of the military, put away his dresses and became an effective company clerk.
The evolution of the program came about not only from cast changes, but from the growing role of Alan Alda in the writing and producing of the show.  Alda was increasingly involved in liberal causes, becoming a leading advocate for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).  As some scholars have noted, male roles changed due to the emergence of 1970s feminism, moving away from the machismo of John Wayne to the sensitivity of Alda.  Reflecting this sensibility, Pierce, Alda’s on-screen alter ego, grew from an inveterate womanizer to a character who was frequently seen crying in episodes during the later years of M.A.S.H.  This culminated when Hawkeye has a nervous breakdown during the series finale, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen.”
Fans of M.A.S.H., like fans of Woody Allen, frequently debate: which was better, the early, funny years or the later, dramatic period?  M.A.S.H. was one of my favorite shows as a kid and I use to prefer the dramatic era, but I’m no longer sure.  The antiwar message becomes a little tired and I don’t need a TV show to repeatedly tell me that “war is bad.”  It also saddens me to say the funny period isn’t as funny as I remember it being.  Still, whichever time frame you like most, the shift began when Colonel Potter arrived at the 4077th.  Cue the theme music.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Colonel Potter's Death and the Fracturing of American Culture

The death of Harry Morgan, who played Colonel Sherman Potter on “M.A.S.H.” from 1975 to the show’s conclusion in 1983, reveals the decline of mass culture, which has been one of the major themes of this blog.  At various times yesterday, Morgan’s obituary was the most viewed article on, which is incredible for the death of an actor who played a supporting role in a show that went off the air nearly thirty years ago. Of course, “M.A.S.H.” has lived on in reruns since, but it demonstrates the incredible followings that television programs could achieve before cable and how they provided a unifying culture for much of the nation.
With only three networks, hit shows such as “M.A.S.H.” drew ratings that are inconceivable in the 500+ channel universe of today.  I saw an article a few years ago that showed that “American Idol,” the biggest hit of the last decade, has an audience comparable to that of “Scarecrow and Mrs. King,” a middling show which aired for four years in the 1980s.  Most famously, the last episode of “M.A.S.H.,” “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen,” which aired in 1983, remains the most watched non-sports program of all-time in terms of total viewers, a record that is likely to last for some time, even with the considerable growth in the population. Water usage in some cities increased dramatically during commercials for the final episode, as the nation collectively went to the bathroom (few VCRS and no DVRS in 1983!) Indeed, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen’s” overall record for total viewership lasted until 2010, when it was broken by Super Bowl XLIV between the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts. 
The long reign and domination of ABC, NBC, and CBS meant that large swaths of the country watched the same or similar programs.  There were fewer differences in viewership based on race, age, or ethnicity.  Most Americans watched Lucy Ricardo have her baby, Richard Kimball finally catch the one-armed man, Walter Cronkite narrate the moon landing, as well as discover that J.R. Ewing was shot by his secretary.  Gradually, though, cable networks emerged to cover specific subjects, like CNN for news and ESPN for sports.  This specialization evolved to news networks for liberals (MSNBC) and conservatives (FOX News) and sports networks for football (NFL Network) and golf (Golf Channel).  Today, even the broadcast networks tend to target niche markets, with Fox pursuing the 18-49 age group while CBS focuses on older viewers.  This has led to some of the fracturing of the culture I discussed in my earlier entry on the music industry; people no longer listen to the same artists or watch the same television programs. 
Of course, one would not want to get too nostalgic, as anyone who has tried to watch 10 minutes of “CHiPS” or “Knight Rider” in recent years can attest.  Cable has brought about a flowering of quality programs as HBO, FX, and AMC, have produced innovative fare like “The Wire,” “Nip/Tuck,” and “Mad Men.”  The broadcast networks responded with shows like “The West Wing,” “Lost,” and “30 Rock,” programs that likely would not have lasted long a generation ago.  Colonel Potter’s death is a reminder of what was lost and what we have also gained.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

J. Edgar

I strongly recommend J. Edgar, which is a very interesting look at the life and career of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.  Directed by the ageless Clint Eastwood and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, the film focuses heavily on Hoover’s close relationship with his right-hand man, Clyde Tolson, and suggests that the relationship went beyond friendship to a largely unrequited romance.  While many have speculated on Hoover’s sexuality and while the true nature of the Hoover/Tolson relationship can never truly be known, J. Edgar provides a fairly accurate look at the public aspects of his career.
The film starts with Hoover’s pre-FBI role as young government agent involved in the 1919-20 Palmer Raids, which was an effort to root out domestic communism after the end of World War I.  As the movie shows, it was prompted by a bombing campaign against several public officials that was blamed on American Communists.  The Justice Department, led by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, engaged in extreme and legally questionable attempts to stop what they saw as a conspiracy against the country, deporting many radicals despite the fact they had no criminal record.  The Palmer Raids are often referred to as the First Red Scare and have been largely overshadowed by the Second Red Scare, led by Joe McCarthy in the 1950s
The movie then focuses on Hoover’s attempts to build the FBI into a modern crime-solving agency, with echoes of CSI techniques, which then included finger-printing and early expert testimony.  He used the gangster activity of the 1930s to leverage a greater federal role in crime policy, an issue which had traditionally been left to state and local governments.  Some of these events, like the FBI’s response to the bank robbery campaign of John Dillinger, were previously depicted in the 2009 film Public Enemies. The hysteria over the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby and the eventual trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann for the crime, also led to greater power and prestige for the FBI.
During the film, these events are juxtaposed with an older Hoover’s obsession with Martin Luther King, Jr. during the 1960s.  J. Edgar shows Hoover obtaining Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s acquiescence to the wiretapping of Dr. King by implicitly threatening RFK with material documenting President Kennedy’s affair with a woman from behind the Iron Curtain.  It also shows Hoover dictating a letter to accompany a tape recording of one of King’s affairs; the combination seemed intended to compel King to commit suicide.  In reality, William Sullivan, an Assistant FBI Director, composed the letter.  Still, the basic thrust of this section of the film is accurate, even if all the details are not.
At the end of the film, Hoover meets with a recently-elected Richard Nixon and tells Tolson that the new president wants greater control over the FBI and that Nixon will create his own apparatus if he does not cooperate.  Though I don’t believe there is evidence of such awareness on the part of Hoover, it dovetails with the historical record.  Nixon wanted the FBI to do his bidding with regard to monitoring his political enemies and when Hoover refused, he moved to create his own “Plumbers” who would work to investigate leaks and gather intelligence against his political opponents.  The break-in at the Watergate which, of course, led to Nixon’s downfall, was the most famous act of the Plumbers.
Of course, time limitations forced Eastwood and the writers to neglect aspects of Hoover’s career.  Largely omitted was Hoover’s central role in the Second Red Scare of the 1940s and 50s.  By 1960, because of his infiltration campaigns, a majority of the members of the American Communist Party were actually FBI informants!  As the film shows, Hoover remained obsessed with domestic communists long after they were a significant social and political force.
In addition to his persecution of King, Hoover actively opposed the civil rights movement for a half-century, harassing a series of black leaders and organizations, from Marcus Garvey in the 1920s and continuing with the FBI’s COINTELPRO program to disrupt the Black Panthers and other black nationalist groups during the late 1960s.  Though Hoover was often eager to extend the FBI’s influence, he refused to provide any protection to civil rights workers operating in the Deep South in the 1960s.  Indeed, the FBI did not even open an office in Mississippi until after the “Mississippi Burning” killings of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney in the summer of 1964.  A greater FBI presence might have prevented their murders as well as some of the other acts of white terrorism in the Deep South.  Hoover, though, did eventually use the same tactics he used against the Communist Party to weaken the Klan.
All in all, J. Edgar is an interesting look at a complex and important historical figure and is a relatively accurate film.  For a change of pace, I am now going to see the Muppets!