Movies postsSunday October 05, 2008
Paul Newman: 1925-2008
Now it’s time for Wagner’s close-up. The camera is on him, and all Newman has to do is stand out of range with the script in his hands and read his string of insults. The camera rolls, Newman reads, and suddenly, as actors say, Wagner fills the moment —
—on camera, in close up, Robert Wagner starts to cry. This is, let me tell you, a bonus. And it’s genuinely exciting.
And no one is more excited than Newman. In fact, he’s so excited at what’s happening with Wagner that Newman begins fucking up the lines. All he has to do is stand there and read and he can’t get the goddam words out right.
It didn’t matter, thankfully. They got the shot. Wagner was so deep into what he was doing that the crying continued. After the shot was finished, everyone ran to Wagner and milled around, congratulating him; it was that thrilling.
Wagner said a moment like that had never happened to him before. He added one more thing: It was the first time in his experience that a major star had actually stayed around and stood there off camera, reading the lines with him, acting along, as it were. Usually, when the star is done with his shot, it’s off to the dressing room, and the remaining performer gets to act with the script girl reading the star’s lines. Script girls are very important on the set, they work like hell—but they are also noted for a certain woodenness when it comes to reciting dialog. No question that Newman’s presence helped Wagner fill the moment.
The Big Red Dog is Wanted Dead or Alive
Two days later, for the same article, I watched Thirteen Days, the 2000 account of the Cuban Missile Crisis starring Kevin Costner as Kenny O'Donnell, JFK's special assistant, and Bruce Greenwood in an understated and suggestive turn as our first telegenic president. (I should add that, for all the faults of the film, Timothy Bottoms did a fine job as Bush in DC 9/11.)
So it's early in the crisis and the joint chiefs are recommending bombing Cuba back to the stone age. Even former Secretary of State Dean Acheson is recommending same with a foreknowledge of consquences that is truly frightening: We warn, we strike, they strike back in Berlin, NATO kicks in. “Hopefully,” he says, “cooler heads prevail.” On the third day, General Curtis Le May gets into the act with this rationale:
“The big red dog is diggin' in our backyard and we are justified in shooting him...”
Afterwards, JFK and his advisors, who are looking for the alternative, which, of course, turns out to be the quarantine or blockade of Cuba, joke about the general's language — the reduction to homey metaphor of an act that might end the world — and I realized, for the zillionth time, that for the last eight years we've had General Le Mays running things: “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” etc. We've had no one demanding more evidence and looking for alternatives. We've had no cooler heads. Hell, the General Le Mays of the Bush administration have been the cooler heads.
So, as bad as things are, and they're pretty bad, thank God we didn't have Bush and his team in place in October 1962.
Why 'DC: 9/11' is the New 'Reefer Madness'
Remember that SNL skit from 1986 with Phil Hartman playing Pres. Reagan? Various visitors come into the Oval Office and Reagan bobs his head and offers jellybeans and homey anecdotes, but when they leave he snaps fingers and barks orders at subordinates who just can’t keep up with his overwhelming energy and intellect. It was a great play on our perception of Reagan as a president who was, in fact, losing it.
I thought of this while watching, DC 9/11: Time of Crisis, a Showtime movie from 2003, written and produced by British-born Hollywood conservative Lionel Chetwynd, which first aired, amid controversy, in September 2003.
I know. Life’s short, why waste two hours? Unfortunately I’m writing an article about presidents on film to coincide with the release of Oliver Stone’s W., and DC 9/11 is part of the price you pay.
But I quickly began to see the humor. SNL came to mind when Pres. Bush (Timothy Bottoms), on Air Force One, switches to commander-in-chief mode and starts barking orders at Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (John Cunningham): “Hike military alert status to Delta! That's the military, the C.I.A., foreign, domestic, everything! And if you haven't gone to Defcon 3, you oughtta.” He barks orders at a submissive Dick Cheney (Lawrence Pressman). He tells everyone, over and over, that Osama bin Laden will pay:
- “We’re gonna hunt down and find those folks who committed this.”
- “Whoever did this isn’t going to like me as president.”
- “We’re going to kick the hell out of whoever did this. No slap on the wrist this time.”
I like the “this time.” The movie has an overwhelming and injured sense that, before Pres. Bush, the United States was spit upon daily by the wretched refuse of the world. But Bush makes clear, in a phone conversation with Tony Blair, that things have changed: “I want to bring damage, inflict pain. Enough to let them know there’s a new team here.” He tells Cheney: “It’s a war. Just a different kinda war. Needs a new playbook.” Football metaphors abound. Chest-thumping abounds. Boys who never went to war get to use the words of war.
But it wasn’t until Rumsfeld raises the specter of Saddam Hussein that I saw the true brilliance of DC 9/11. This is a movie that actually glorifies the worst foreign policy decisions we’ve ever made. It’s like finding a 1964 film celebrating the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.
Here’s the dialogue from the Sept. 13 cabinet meeting after Rumsfeld raises the question of Iraq:
Powell: The mission is the destruction of al Qaeda. Hussein isn’t your man.
Rumsfeld: He is if we’re talking about terrorism in the broadest sense. We know he never stopped developing weapons of mass destruction...
Cheney: Al Qaeda lacks weapons. That’s why they used our own aircraft. You put Hussein and bin Laden together...?
Bush: Is that an immediate threat?
Cheney: The enemy is clearly more than UBL [bin Laden] and the Taliban. If we’re including people who support terrorists, that does open the door to Iraq. But unlike bin Laden, we know where to find them.
There are more meetings. Bush becomes more certain, more messianic. Rendition and domestic spying are implied. You’re either with us or with the terrorists. In the Sept. 15 meeting, Powell warns Bush that if we go after someone besides al Qaeda our allies may fall away and leave us isolated. Bush replies:
“At some point, we may be the only ones left standing. And that will have to be OK. That’s why we’re America.”
Powell says bin Laden attacked us, not Saddam, and Wolfowitz replies:
“Only because he was unable. But he’s got the arms. He’s been developing everything from nuclear weapons to smallpox to anthrax. A whole range of weapons of mass destruction. ... All he’s lacked is the means to deliver those weapons to our shores. Well, UBL has shown him he’s got a system of delivery.”
Here’s what’s awful. The reason our foreign policy mistakes were disastrous are there in the script for anyone to see — and they were visible back then. 9/11 did require a new playbook. We were attacked by a loose organization that could hide, rather than a nation-state that couldn’t. Yet our ultimate response was to attack a nation-state because, in Cheney’s words, “We know where to find them.”
Which is the very reason we shouldn’t have attacked them. That was the old playbook. It’s still the old playbook. And we still don’t get it.
DC 9/11 is either so funny it’s sad or so sad it’s funny. It should become a cult classic like Reefer Madness: a propaganda film that, through its over-the-top idiocy, proves its opposite. It’s also a good reminder of what once constituted conservative spin. Remember Bush as action hero? As cowboy? This movie gives us that again and again. “[Saddam] is surely developing WMDs,” Bush says. “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” Bush says. We’re going to “rid the world of evil,” Bush says. “This will decidedly not be another Vietnam,” Bush says.
Maybe it's because it's Friday and I'm tired after the long week, or maybe it's the idiocy of the presidential campaign finally getting to me (I'm looking at you, John McCain), or maybe it's my age (I'm looking at you, Erik Lundegaard), but after the long day and the short bikeride home, I found, in my pile of mail, the latest Entertainment Weekly with Anne Hathaway on the cover. Their head and subhead?:
ANNE HATHAWAY: A PRINCESS NO MORE: Post-scandal, she bounces back with an edgy new role. Is Oscar next?
I looked at it for a second and thought, “This is the kind of thing that just makes me want to stop living.”
Boys are Back in Town
Basically it revolved around the short shelf-life of a Hollywood career, how you’re only as good as your last flick, and for Vinnie Chase, who is the star of the biggest box-office hit of all time (presumably Aquaman), his career is shaky after the Cannes disaster of his Pablo Escobar biopic Medellin. Indeed, the episode begins with an “At the Movies” drubbing of the film by Richard Roeper and Michael Phillips, and the main drama involves luring Vinnie from his Mexican hideaway for a lunch with a producer...who, it turns out, just wants the meeting so the star he really wants for his picture, Emile Hirsch, will lower his price.
What’s ironic about this? The critics who did the drubbing, Roeper and Phillips, have been replaced on “At the Movies,” while Emile Hirsch’s career is not as hot as it once was after the critical and box-office disaster of Speed Racer.
It almost makes you think they did this intentionally.