Counter-Programming: Movies to Watch During the GOP Convention
After Paul Ryan's genial lies at the GOP convention last night I took to heart what he'd said and contributed $500 to the Obama campaign. I suggest you give what you can ($15? $25? $50?) here. We're fighting liars and propagandists and more money that you can stick into an off-shore account, if that's your idea of a good time.
In the meantime, here's some counter-programming, and reminders, to propel you through the next months:
- “All the President's Men” (1976): One of my favorite films, and certainly the best political thriller ever made, but odd seeing it 35 years on. I'd forgotten the difficulty of tracking information pre-Internet: “There's someone out there by the name of Kenneth Dahlberg,” Bernstein tells Woodward from a pay phone in Miami Dade Country, “and we've got to find him before the Times does.” We had less information at our disposal then but also less misinformation. It was an era in which politicians had to issue non-denial denials to cover up misdeeds. Now they just lie. In the end, I felt nostalgic not only for the patient, gritty, 1970s-style in which the film is told, but for the fact that, back then, politicians who lied didn't get away with it. They got caught. It took a while but they got caught. Now they joke about their lies as if it's all part of the show.
- No End in Sight“ (2007): Charles Ferguson's award-winning documentary on the lies and misperceptions and wish-fulfillment fantasies that led to the Iraq War. We get the usual suspects—Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bremmer—but what sticks out is a he said/he said between Col. Paul Hughes, who worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), and who seemed to have a sense of what Iraq was and what we should do there, and Walter B. Slocombe, the Senior Advisor for Security and Defense to the CPA, who arrived for a week in May, got his boots a little dusty, and helped make all the wrong decisions. From the beginning, Hughes seems insistent and exasperated. Slocombe, meanwhile, starts off almost jaunty; then, as he's questioned about, or held accountable for, his actions and policies, his eyes retreat, his voice turns tinny, and he reveals himself a hollow man. One wonders what lies he tells himself to make it through the day.
- ”Taxi to the Dark Side“ (2007): Alex Gibney begins with the incarceration and subsequent death of an innocent Afghani taxi driver while in U.S. military custody as the starting point to examine our entire post-9/11 system of torture and humiliation — specifically at Bagram, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. It’s a good overview of what will surely be one of the blackest marks of the many black marks on the Bush administration.
- ”W.“ (2008): It’s a father-son film. “You disappoint me, Junior,” Herbert Walker tells him early on. He tells him, “You only get one bite at the apple,” but W. keeps biting and missing. He drinks, carouses, goes after girls. He can’t find himself. Even after he finds Laura, and Jesus, and helps his father get elected the 41st president of the United States, he’s disappointed. Greatness escapes him. Hell, mediocrity escapes him. You go in wondering if Stone’s portrait of W. will be different from our own image of W. and it isn’t. What you see is what you get. He’s that thick, that muddled, and yet that certain. It’s a tragedy, certainly, and the tragedy is that in trying to win his father’s love, or outdo what his father did, or make up for his father’s great loss, W. — aided and abetted by a motley crew — put us on a calamitous national and international path ... and he still can’t think of one thing he did wrong. That lack of introspection is his tragedy. The rest is ours.
- Standard Operating Procedure” (2008): Errol Morris trains his eye on Abu Ghraib, on what was done there, on the photos that were taken there, on what they say or don’t say and how they lie or don’t lie. He interviews, almost exclusively, the various “bad apples” who forced Iraqi prisoners to debase themselves. It’s beautifully shot, claustrophobic and so sad about human nature. What people can convince themselves to do — particularly when ordered to do so. How they justify it afterwards. A few small apples were scapegoated for our unethical system, and their main defense is the Nuremberg defense: I was just following orders. They also blame the photographs. They blame the evidence rather than the crime. It’s as if being scapegoated for the crime is keeping them from examining their role in the crime. The tawdriness of the enterprise is overwhelming. Maybe it says something that the talking head who is least culpable — who was not even a guard at Abu Ghraib, but who wound up in the background of some photographs and was prosecuted based on that evidence — blames himself the most. The way of the world.
- “Inside Job” (2010): How the global financial meltdown went down. One of the most telling incidents occurred at the 2005 Jackson Hole Symposium, where Greenspan, Bernanke, Summers, Geithner, et al., listened to IMF economist Raghuram Ragan deliver a paper, not on the nitty-gritty of subprime mortgage loans and CDOs, but on the larger topic of incentives and risk. “Rajan hit the nail on the head,” Prof. Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard says in the doc. “What he particularly said was: 'You guys have claimed you have found a way to make more profits with less risk. I say you've found a way to make more profits with more risk.'” Reaction? Larry Summers accused Ragan of being a Luddite. “He wanted to make sure that we didn’t bring a whole new set of regulations to the financial sector at this point,” Ragan says. It's all about the regulations, or lack thereof. Follow the regulations.
- “Fair Game” (2010): “Fair Game” is a movie about a series of lies perpetrated by the Bush administration, sometimes on itself, and certainly on us, from 2002 to 2005. They were lies with massive consequences, lies that got us into war, lies that led to the deaths of tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, maybe someone you knew. Maybe someone close to you is now dead because of what the Bush administration wanted to believe. They reconfigured the globe because of what they wanted to believe. The one time they told the truth, it was a treasonous act. But they got away with that, too, because they lied their way out of it. My god. Can we be incensed again?
- “A Film Unfinished” (2010): It's the Nazis here, not the GOP, but it's a lesson in the ultimate meaning in propaganda. The Nazis filmed the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, and staged shots of supposedly affluent Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, not to cover up what they were doing but to justify what they were about to do. The Nazis were documenting a race of people so indifferent to the suffering of others that they didn’t deserve to live. They were documenting an excuse for extermination. In that moment, one understands the true meaning of propaganda. It is the powerful blaming the powerless for the crimes of the powerful. The Nazis herded 600,000 Jews into a single zone of Warsaw. They gave them no way to live. They let them starve. They let them die by the hundreds of thousands. Then they staged scenes of Jewish indifference to the suffering of others. “The powerful blaming the powerless for the crimes of the powerful” is still going on. Every day, Daniel.
- “The Tillman Story” (2010): Not only did Pat Tillman, former professional football player and Army Ranger, not die the way they said, he didn’t live the way they said. He joined the Rangers in Sept. 2001 to fight al Qaeda but wound up in Iraq and wasn’t happy. “This war is so fucking illegal,” one of his brothers quotes him saying. He had an open curious mind at odds with the incurious absolutism of the time. There’s hilarious footage of Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity refusing to believe that Tillman read linguist and conservative bete noire Noam Chomsky. (Because it didn’t fit into their notions of a football player? A soldier? A conservative hero? All of the above?) Fellow Ranger Bryan O’Neal, a Mormon, talks about coming across Tillman, a religious skeptic, possibly an atheist, reading “The Book of Mormon.” He wanted to see what was what.
- “Restrepo” (2010): “Restrepo” is the best thing I’ve seen or read about our presence in Afghanistan, and it’s not really about our presence in Afghanistan. It’s about, as the tagline says, one platoon, in one valley, for one year. It goes deep into these soldiers’ lives without telling us much about their actual lives (where they’re from, why they signed up, etc.). It’s an emotional movie precisely because its emotions are restrained. It’s artistic without being artistic. It’s artistic in the Dedalean sense. It doesn’t inspire kinetic emotions but static emotions. The mind is arrested. In this sense maybe Afghanistan itself is artistic. Our mind has been arrested there for almost 12 years.
- ”The Revisionaries“ (2012): Don McLeroy, the Bryan, Tex., dentist and young-Earth creationist who served on the Texas State Board of Education from 1998 to 2010, including a stint as its controversial chair from 2007 to 2009, is a genial, garrulous boob. Bald, moustached, and portly, he has a “gee whiz” quality to him. His face often resolves itself into a self-satisfied smile after he makes what he thinks is a telling point at BOE meetings, but mostly his smile is open and unaffected. He tends to preach his creationist doctrine to those who can’t answer back—dental patients with tubes in their mouths; Sunday School kids at Grace Bible Church—and he’s pretty darn enthusiastic about it. “Were there dinosaurs on the Ark?” he asks the kids, then answers his own question. “Sure there were!” He’s the kind of man who likes to answer his own questions. “The amount of power I have,” McLeroy says at one point, “boggles my mind.” Ours, too.
Other suggestions welcome.
'I gave it to Stans.”
“The truth is these are not very bright guys...and things got out of hand.”