Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

Oscar Takeaways

82nd Annual Academy Awards - "Meet The Oscars" New YorkPerhaps the reason we like to watch – and dish snark – over the Oscar television awards show is that most of the 6,000 odd (I use that term advisedly) members of The Academy are so unlike the rest of us. The big Sunday night show means we can all live for a few moments in a world of glitz and make believe – if three-plus hours of awards given mostly to people we’ll never see again followed by awkward speeches generally devoid of self-awareness can be characterized as “moments.” We are all Walter Mitty during the Oscars.

As Alessandra Stanley wrote in The New York Times this morning, “If the Super Bowl is a secular Christmas that everyone can celebrate, the Oscars are Easter: the dress-up parade and those long acceptance speeches are all part of the ritual. But some traditions, notably the Academy’s insistence on handing out technical awards early, are tiresome. It can start to feel like a high school graduation where diplomas are handed out alphabetically, and your child’s last name begins with Z.”

So, I admit I watched and if not actually enjoyed the annual spectacle I do recognize it for what it is – a snapshot of American culture played out in real (and reel) time on national television and, of course, Twitter. And, while host Ellen DeGeneres got the buzz for her “selfie” with half the audience, I think the best Tweet goes to the numbers geek Nate Silver who commented via Twitter: “Great product placement by

Here are my completely arbitrary takeaways from, if not The Greatest Show on Earth, then the longest show last night.

“12 Years a Slave” won the Best Picture award and deserved it. Hollywood tends to award “serious” movies that probes serious issues, or in the case of “12 Years” an historically correct issue – slavery (and race) – that is still barely below the surface of American life. As a measure of the importance of this film, I’ll predict people will still be seeing it and talking about it 20 years from now. If you haven’t seen it, steel yourself to watch a brutal and moving telling of the darkest story in all of the American story.

Oscar host DeGeneres mostly left me longing for Bob Hope or Johnny Carson. The role of Oscar MC requires the skills, generally speaking, of a late-night talk show host – sharp, topical and (mostly) clean jokes, self deprecation, ad-libbing ability, and a relentless focus on poking fun at the absurdity of the whole show. Next year give me Jimmy Fallon or even Kevin Spacey. Classy guys (or gals) who get the joke and can make one.

Given a show that is all about recognizing people who create and deliver powerful messages, the Oscar acceptance speeches are (generally) appallingly bad. As the Times noted, Matthew McConaughey, who won the Best Actor award for a movie about a guy fighting AIDS, “praised God, his family and himself, but didn’t mention people with AIDS.” The speeches are a litany of thanks to family, colleagues, producers and the fat cats who finance movies. Thank God no one, at least no one I heard, thanked their lawyer or accountant, as has happened in years past. The good Oscar acceptance speech is as rare as the short Oscar acceptance speech.

One of the few good speeches came from the writer John Ridley who produced the screenplay for “12 Years.” Perhaps it should be no surprise that a talented writer can make a good, short, emotionally powerful speech. Best Supporting Actress Lupita Nyong’o of “12 Years a Slave” also give a moving speech. “It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s.” That is a classy line, both true and self aware.

The visually stunning “Gravity” richly deserved all the praise it received and the awards, but while the film was highly entertaining it was not Best Picture worthy. The story was mostly unbelievable and the acting mostly overdone, but the effects were appropriately other-worldly. Perhaps instead of what seemed like endless clips of old movies – including the 9,000th tribute to “The Wizard of Oz” – the Academy could have commissioned a 90 second clip on how the special effects of a film like “Gravity” or “All is Lost” increasingly add magic and transform the movie experience.

I am gratified that foreign-born film makers – the Best Director is from Mexico and the director who made “12 Years” is a Brit – are finally getting some overdue recognition. Cinema is a world-wide thing and great movies are being made everywhere, not just in Hollywood.

Final takeaway: Cate Blanchett was far and away the Best Actress in any movie I saw in 2013. Her role as the emotionally broken down, once-rich glamor girl in “Blue Jasmine” was a performance for the ages. She now stands on nearly equal footing with the great Meryl Streep as the finest actress of our age. Here’s hoping she continues to get roles fine enough to match her very great talent. Her pitch to Hollywood to get beyond those “who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences. They are not,” was also spot on.

If, as has been said, politics is show business for ugly people then the Oscar awards show is prom night at a very exclusive, very expensive high school were all the girls dress with the certainty that they’ll be the queen and all the boys have the cockiness that goes with being sure they are destined to captain the football team. This Academy teaches conspicuous consumption, ego maintenance and the value of cosmetic surgery, both done well and not so much. In this school a pizza delivery – how very pedestrian – is the stuff of high humor and an $85,000 bag of swag is just the most obvious benefit of showing up for  class.

I get it. I really do. When the Academy asks me to produce the big show next year my first decision will be to have Penelope Cruz present all the awards.

See you at the movies.

Jim Crow’s Playmates

One of the best things about the new film about baseball great Jackie Robinson is actor Harrison Ford’s portrayal of baseball executive Branch Rickey, the man who found the guts in 1945 to sign Robinson to a minor league contract with the Montreal Royals and then in the 1947 season, against all odds, brought the first African-American player to the major leagues.

By all accounts Mr. Rickey, as everyone called him, wasn’t much of a ballplayer himself. He only played in the majors for four seasons, had a career batting average of .239 and hit only three home runs. Granted it was the “dead ball” era, but those numbers don’t get you to Cooperstown.

Rickey got to the Hall of Fame on the strength of his success as a baseball manager and executive. He had a hand in three great and enduring innovations – the establishment of the farm system to identify and nurture talent, breaking the color line with the signing of No. 42 and late in his life helping start the Continental League, a proposed third major league that failed to get off the grass, but nevertheless ushered in expansion of baseball to new markets.

The great sportswriter Jim Murray said Rickey “could recognize a great player from the window of a moving train” and the great man’s nickname, “The Mahatma,” was recognition of his pioneering ways and the deep Christian faith that he wore on his sleeve. One contemporary said when Rickey met you for the first time he wanted to know everything about you, then set out to change you.

In the wake of seeing the Robinson movie – it’s a must for any baseball or history buff – I read a splendid piece by another great sportswriter Red Smith. Writing in 1948, the year after Robinson broke the Jim Crow barriers around baseball, Smith was reporting – and not with any surprise – about how little support Rickey had received from the other leaders of the national past time.

“A curious sort of hullabaloo has been aroused by Branch Rickey’s disclosure that when he went into the ring against Jim Crow, he found fifteen major league club owners working in Jim’s corner,” Smith wrote. “It is strange that the news should stir excitement, for surely it couldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone.” Those other owners – Red Smith called them “Jim Crow’s playmates” – were worried about alienating fans, suffering public abuse or hurting their investments. Most likely all three. Questions of morality often get snagged on the sharp edges of commerce. Morality wins, as it did in 1947, when a big man – make that two big men – act with a sense of righteousness and with history on their side.

It’s hard, I think, perhaps even impossible, for anyone born after the awful era of Jim Crow to grasp the degree to which economic, political and cultural forces were aligned to keep black Americans from jobs, health care, public services, the ballot box and the sense of decency that goes with simply being respected. It was a shameful, nasty and profoundly disturbing period of American history. One reason for young people to see the Robinson film, in addition to the well-told heroic story, is to get a taste of the appalling racism that Robinson and so many other Americans of color deal with every hour of every day.

A spectacular new book by Columbia University historian Ira Katznelson expands on the political implications of the Jim Crow era, and yes the implications still echo today, by exploring in detail the Faustian bargain Franklin Roosevelt entered into in order to push his New Deal agenda through a southern dominated Democratic Congress in the 1930′s. The Robinson story fits squarely in the history lesson Katznelson tells so well.

As Kevin Boyle wrote in reviewing Fear Itself in the New York Times, “[FDR's] calculation was simple enough. Thanks to the disfranchisement of blacks and the reign of terror that accompanied it, the South had become solidly Democratic by the beginning of the 20th century, the Deep South exclusively so. One-party rule translated into outsize power on Capitol Hill: when Roosevelt took office, Southerners held almost half the Democrats’ Congressional seats and many of the key committee chairmanships. So whatever Roosevelt wanted to put into law had to have Southern approval. And he wouldn’t get it if he dared to challenge the region’s racial order.”

Franklin Roosevelt, Katznelson argues, made a “rotten compromise” with the southern politicians of his own party who dominated Congress in exchange for being able to govern effectively in a time of depression, war and deep and persistent fear. While FDR didn’t challenge a segregated culture, ironically the New Deal served to both prolong Jim Crow and made its demise inevitable. FDR’s “rotten compromise” fails as a profile in courage, but the Hudson River valley aristocrat who fancied himself a Georgia farmer eventually made so many changes in the way we use and view government that his New Deal made Harry Truman and eventually Lyndon Johnson possible.

In the same way that Branch Rickey, The Mahatma of baseball, saw a wrong and tried to right it, first Truman and later Johnson, fully understanding the political consequences, abandoned the old Democratic Party of Jim Crow and ushered in the civil rights era; an era of unending struggles, that still dominates politics and culture today.

Every time I read or hear about another effort to make voting more difficult for minorities in America or hear a politician suggest that “American exceptionalism” makes it clear we don’t have to worry about race and class in this “post-racial” time in our history, I’ll remember Jackie Robinson’s one-time Brooklyn Dodger teammate from Alabama Dixie Walker. Walker, a fine ballplayer and a career .306 hitter who lead the league in hitting in 1944, also led the push back against Robinson playing with the Dodgers. Walker demanded to be traded and drew up an anti-Robinson petition that he and other Dodger players were determined to present to club president Branch Rickey.

Dixie Walker’s career dried up after 1947. Rickey traded him to the lowly Pirates and he retired in 1948, but would come back to coach in the majors often working  without issue with black ballplayers. In his 2002 book The Era, the great writer Roger Kahn quoted Walker as saying: “I organized that petition in 1947, not because I had anything against Robinson personally or against Negroes generally. I had a wholesale business in Birmingham and people told me I’d lose my business if I played ball with a black man.”

Fear is a great motivator. History has a tendency to reward people who push back against it. Rickey and Robinson are in the Hall of Fame. Truman’s stock at a great president continues to rise. Johnson’s place as the president who sacrificed his party’s once invincible regional base in the south in exchange for civil rights legislation is secure. Dixie Walker told Roger Kahn the anti-Robinson petition was the “stupidest thing he had ever done,” and he regretted it for the rest of his days.

Dixie Walker was by all accounts a devoted family man who, as Harvey Araton wrote in 2010, was “without much formal education, [but] he was curious and informed. Representing N.L. players, he helped devise the major leagues’ first pension plan, suggesting its revenue be generated from All-Star Game proceeds.” None of that has helped erase the stigma of what Dixie Walker did when driven by his own fear during the season of 1947.

Time may heal wounds, but reputations are much harder to repair. The playwright said it:  ”The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” Fear itself stands in the way of so much.

 

Baseball on Film

I hope the new biopic about the great Jackie Robinson is as good as the hype, but even if it’s not I’m looking forward to seeing the film about No. 42 for a variety of reasons. It’s a great story and certainly Robinson deserves to be widely remembered and praised for his role in tearing down the awful barrier that existed prior to the 1947 season that prevented black players from reaching the major leagues. I’m also looking forward to the Harrison Ford portrayal of another hero in the story Branch Rickey. For at least a couple of hours this die-hard Giants fan can root for the Dodgers.

Another reason I hope 42 is worthy of becoming a classic is that there are relatively few really good movies about baseball. I think I’ve seen all of them. From the loopy Major League, best remembered for Bob Uecker stealing the show - “just a little outside” – and Renee Russo looking like, well Renee Russo, to the pretty awful Babe Ruth Story starring a classic actor, William Bendix, miscast as the great Yankee. As one description of that film put it Bendix “resembles Ruth slightly in looks and not at all in baseball ability.” That pretty much sums up the movie.

I remember watching The Stratton Story with my baseball loving dad. Jimmy Stewart played Monty Stratton, a successful real life Chicago White Sox pitcher who loses a leg in a hunting accident and makes a determined comeback in the minors. The movie wasn’t bad, but the trailer with narration from the adorable June Allyson, who plays Stratton’s wife, is a 1949 Hollywood classic. You can watch it here.

The laconic Gary Cooper looks a little better in pinstripes than William Bendix and does a passably good job of playing the great Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees. The moving story of Gehrig’s career and tragic death has to be on any must-see list of baseball films. The real Babe Ruth along with Yankee greats Bob Meusel, a lifetime .311 hitter who probably belongs in the Hall of Fame, and catcher Bill Dickey, who is in the Hall and deserves to be, make appearances in the film looking very much like the aging stars they were when the movie was released in 1942.

But none of those films make my top five. The best of the best baseball stories on film are not about real players, but often about the game, its rituals and the fact that baseball more than any other sport has a mystery and rhythm to it that has been, at least a few times, translated very well on the big screen. Here in descending order are my five best baseball movies:

5) Field of Dreams is a classic for the sentiment and its myriad connections to literature, history and baseball lore. I was lucky to play catch with my dad and debate Shoeless Joe Jackson’s guilt or innocence. What baseball fan hasn’t? And, of course, “If you build it, he will come,” is a line that has passed into movie lore and found its way into everyday usage. To me the line and the film are really references to a fanciful dream that comes true and wonderful dreams are good, even if they sometimes don’t pan out. Who wouldn’t like to see the 1919 Black Sox playing on your own diamond out by the corn field? Enough said.

4) Bull Durham is a classic baseball movie (and, yes, a little raunchy, too) that is also about life, love and second chances. OK, maybe I like it a little because Susan Sarandon stars as the groupie who haunts the Durham Bulls Class A team. Kevin Costner plays aging catcher Crash Davis who once made it to “the show,” but now observes baseball’s curious rules in the low minor leagues. His “I believe in…” speech delivered to Sarandon and the dense, wild but fast pitcher played by Tim Robbins is great. “I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone,” he says, “I believe there ought to be a Constitutional amendment outlawing AstroTurf and the designated hitter rule…” Need to see it again.

3) A League of Their Own makes my top five list for Tom Hanks’ outrageously good performance as the manager of a woman’s professional baseball team in the 1940′s. Also for Genna Davis’ sweet acting job as the team’s talented catcher and for some seriously funny and memorable lines. “There’s no crying in baseball” has entered the ballpark vocabulary and will stay there forever. Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell are both believable as players and are wonderful as teammates. Hanks explaining to one of his players the importance of hitting the cutoff man is a priceless scene.

2) The Natural is, well, a natural. Robert Redford plays “the natural,” outfielder and big stick Roy Hobbs, who mysteriously shows up in the major leagues after, as he says, waiting “16 years to get here.” The screen adaptation is of the fine novel by Bernard Malamud and is very generally based on a real life incident involving Philadelphia Phillies player Eddie Waitkus. As with all these films a woman – or several in this film – play as big a role as the baseball does.

1) For my money the single best baseball-themed movie is the hauntingly beautiful screen adaptation of Mark Harris’ novel Bang the Drum Slowly. A young Robert DeNiro turns in a superb performance as a less-than-bright catcher, Bruce Pearson, who is dying of a terminal illness. Michael Moriarty is his pitcher friend, Henry Wiggins, and the film’s narrator. The fine character actor Vincent Gardenia is very good as the crusty manager. (Isn’t every baseball movie manager crusty?) The film is set around baseball, but it’s really about friendship, respect, teammates and ultimately living and dying. I love the film and particularly Wiggins’ last line – “from now on, I rag on no one” – which he delivers after telling us that none of Pearson’s teammates had bothered to show up for his funeral.

Three of these all-time greats were made in the 1980′s. Bang the Drum was released in 1973 and A League of Their Own in 1992. Here’s hoping the acclaimed Robinson film ushers in a new golden age of the baseball movies. I’m headed to the movies.

 

Traditions

Charles Dickens, with his enduring 1843 tale A Christmas Carolinvented much of what we consider the traditions of Christmas - the gifting of presents, the big dinner and the fostering of good will and glad tidings. We each build upon the Dickens’ Christmas with our own traditions that lead to memory and, I’m convinced, contribute to much of the pleasure that is Christmas. One of our Christmas traditions has become the viewing of a wonderful movie – one of the very best Christmas movies ever – The Bishop’s Wife, a 1947 classic starting David Niven, Cary Grant and the lovely Loretta Young.

The plot, not unlike Frank Capra’s Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life, involves a charming angel named Dudley (played by Grant) who answers a prayer from the Bishop (Niven) who is struggling to raise the money to build his magnificent new cathedral. Dudley charms everyone, including the Bishop’s attractive wife (Young), and eventually helps the Bishop realize that there is more to his Christian leadership than fundraising and catering to the wealthy parishioners who are intent on building a big building.  With the annual viewing of The Bishop’s Wife it’s never difficult to find the real meaning of the season and the film always leads me back, Dickens-like, to Christmas past.

As 2012 gives way to the promise – eternally optimistic here – that our politics will move to the center, that reason and facts will come to prevail on hard cases as diverse as guns and climate and that jobs and education and cancer cures become the headlines of the New Year, I’ve been thinking about traditions that through the years have come to define memories of Christmas. Dickens may have invented the modern Christmas, but my mother perfected it. And, while Cary Grant’s angel reminds us what the season is really all about I am annually drawn back to – the tinsel.

You could say that my mom was a perfectionist. She never had a hair out of place, dressed as well as dad’s paycheck would permit and cultivated a sense of style that would not have been out of place in Hollywood or the Hampton’s. Not bad for a farm girl from western Nebraska. In terms of Christmas, for mom nothing succeeded like excess, particularly when it came to tinsel. Mother loved tinsel – silvery, shiny, straight and in volume. To hang the tinsel properly required, or course, a perfect tree. If the tree dad found wasn’t perfectly shaped, mom would get her sewing scissors out and cut and paste a branch or two until the shape suited her. Then came the tinsel, carefully preserved from year-to-year, stored safely away from one Christmas to the next. Occasionally she would agree to discard a short piece that had survived one tree too many, but not often. I distinctly remember “volunteering” to help mom hang the tinsel one year and being instructed in the fine art of making sure the strands were perfectly straight and in sufficient number. I didn’t have the tinsel gene and eventually backed off and allowed the tinsel queen her dominance. Perhaps that experience scared me for life because I shudder at the very sight of Christmas tree tinsel to this day. Some traditions are best remembered and not practiced.

Mom had certain traditional Christmas foods that would make a once a year appearance right about Christmas Eve. She made a sticky white candy – Divinity – that I never particularly warmed to, but – brace yourselves – her fruitcake was tremendous. I’ve heard all the bad jokes about Christmas fruitcake, but none of those put downs applied to mom’s cake. It was lighter than most fruitcakes, moist and lacking those awful candied fruits that often seem to have been as well preserved from year-to-year as the tree tinsel. Mom used fruit cocktail in her cake and when she learned that I didn’t particularly care for the walnuts that she added to the recipe she made me a walnut-free cake for my personal consumption. Heaven. No appetite for tinsel, but I can still taste that fruitcake.

My dad had few Christmas traditions other than to occasionally experiment with a Tom ‘n Jerry mix or to place the plastic Santa and two reindeer on the steep roof of the little house we lived in in Chadron, Nebraska when I was just old enough to have Christmas really register. Those were the days when Christmas lights were constructed so that one broken bulb would darken an entire string of lights. I can still see him outside struggling in the December darkness and cold to find and replace the offending bulb. He found it then came inside and sipped a Canadian whiskey and a splash of water while watching his elegant wife hang that damn tinsel. Dad knew better than to offer to help. Smart man that he was he admired perfection, cocktail in hand, from a distance.

As I grew older Christmas involved reading from the Gospel of St. Luke, a Christmas Eve buffet supper and memorable gifts. I still remember the bicycle and the double set of Tinker Toys. There may have been socks and gloves and pajamas, too. I gave my mother what I considered a lovely bottle of Evening in Paris cologne one year and, bless her heart, she acted like I had personally acquired the dime store fragrance from Coco Chanel.

Now, all those warm Christmas memories constitute the very best gifts I have ever received. Tinker Toys come and go, the tinsel gets discarded and the cologne fades, but the memories remain and thankfully new ones are created, including the memories I now carry of the carefully constructed scene and precious words at the end of that favorite Christmas movie. As David Niven’s Bishop Henry steps to the pulpit to deliver his Christmas sermon at the end of The Bishop Wife, Cary Grant’s angel – work completed – stands outside the church in the gently falling snow and listens to the words that have now become part of my Christmas memory.

“Tonight I want to tell you the story of an empty stocking,” the Bishop says. “Once upon a midnight clear, there was a child’s cry. A blazing star hung over a stable and wise men came with birthday gifts. We haven’t forgotten that night down the centuries; we celebrate it with stars on Christmas trees, the sound of bells and with gifts. But especially with gifts. You give me a book; I give you a tie. Aunt Martha has always wanted an orange squeezer and Uncle Henry could do with a new pipe. We forget nobody, adult or child. All the stockings are filled… all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. It’s his birthday we are celebrating. Don’t ever let us forget that. Let us ask ourselves what he would wish for most… and then let each put in his share. Loving kindness, warm hearts and the stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.”

Happy Christmas…and thanks for checking in here. All the best in 2013.

 

Lessons from Lincoln

First the obvious: Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln is a modern masterpiece and just maybe the best film about politics ever made.

Daniel Day-Lewis once again establishes himself as film’s finest living actor. Before Day-Lewis’ Lincoln, every film version of the life and accomplishments of our greatest president was a caricature, a cartoon. Now we have a living, breathing, dirty-story telling Lincoln who is both an extraordinary democrat – small “d” – and a tough-as-nails political leader. The Academy should phone it in – this is the best acting you can hope to see this year and an inspiring, even great, movie.

One reason Lincoln will have such impact – it’s already cleaning up at the box office – is because our current politics seem so small, petty and mean spirited, often for the sake of just being mean. We yearn for leaders with guts and eloquence, men and women willing to put country before career. Lincoln spent every day of his presidency dealing with a horrible, bloody civil war that threatened the very existence of a nation barely four score years old; a nation torn apart by slaves and slavery.

As Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural – perhaps the most profound speech every spoken in the English language – “These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.” In such light the petty squabbles over the so called fiscal cliff seem truly petty and stupidly partisan.

The single best moment in Lincoln – it’s a movie of many great moments – is when the president is explaining to his Cabinet why he must push Congress to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that will finally and forever outlaw slavery. Lincoln has already freed slaves in those states in rebellion against the United States – the Emancipation Proclamation - but with a lawyer’s precision he explains why, if he is to follow the law and the Constitution, he can’t leave it at that. He must amend the Constitution to make it clear to the courts, to the American public, the world and the future that slavery is dead, forever. Later in the film the president explains to Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens who is seeking a negotiated end to the killing that the rebellious states have lost – slavery will be no more – and the genius of Lincoln, the political genius, is fully evidence.

An old friend Barrett Rainey wrote recently that Lincoln should be required viewing for every high school student and not once, but twice. Once in the freshman year and again right before graduation. Barrett is right. History for many young people has become dry as dust, but Lincoln puts warm blood in the lessons, a particularly important achievement given the historical amnesia that fogs the perspective of too many Americans.

A CNN poll in 2011, for example, found that a quarter of those surveyed had more sympathy with the Confederate states than with the Union. The number rose to 40% among southerners. You can still gin up a spirited argument with the question; “What was the cause of the war?” Hint: it wasn’t state’s rights, or trade or the tariff. The cause of the great national calamity was slavery and the glaring contradiction between the language in our founding documents regarding slavery and the powerful notion that “all men being created equal.”

The Spielberg movie may for a whole new generation bury the idea that 800,000 Americans died for the cause of “states rights.”

Americans badly need remedial history education. For, as the New York Times reports, thousands of Americans of Texas origin have been petitioning the White House to let Texas succeed from the Union. Sorry, Texas, we settled that question at Appomattox Courthouse in April of 1865 and the movie deals intelligently with the fact that Lincoln refused to concede that any state could secede. The Constitution doesn’t contemplate such a move and the idea of Union can’t tolerate such a notion. Such talk, frankly, in the 21st Century is ridiculous.

The Lincoln movie is so valuable for many reasons, not least that it places the dreadful and defining event of American history in the context of what was really at stake when young American boys marched off to slaughter at Shiloh, Gettysburg, Franklin and Cold Harbor. Lincoln was fighting that awful war to win an idea – that a government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln - ironically the greatest portrayal of the greatest American president comes from a half Brit/half Irishman – shouts down the silly Texans of the 21st Century who dream of going their separate way. It doesn’t work that way. We settled that question a long time ago. We bled the nation – black and white – to establish for once and always that the United States of America is one. We have great debates, we vote, we win some and we lose some, but the United States goes on. Lincoln knew that it would. We should know it, too.

 Go see the movie and take the kids.

 

The Spy from Boise

A Real Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Years ago as a very young, very naive reporter, the boss handed me a piece of wire copy ripped straight off the teletype machine and told me to find a photographer and get an interview with James Jesus Angleton.

I should have said – who? But, of course, I was too inexperienced (too stupid) to ask that question and to pause for a moment to think what I might ask the man who had recently been forced out as the long-time chief of counterintelligence at the CIA. I headed for a local hotel to try and stick a microphone in the face of man who, since World War II, had been the intelligence service’s top expert on the Soviet intelligence service, the KGB.

I found Angleton, as I recall, in a hotel ballroom – I don’t remember what he was doing in Boise – and after my innocent, stumbling approach he conceded to answer a couple of questions, the substance of which is now lost of history or, in the days of 16mm film, the cutting room floor. I think I asked his reaction to the on-going Church Committee investigation of CIA abuses. Again, as I recall, not surprisingly the old CIA hand was dismissive of the efforts of Idaho Democratic Sen. Frank Church to expose assassination plots, domestic spying and such on the part of the Agency.

I’ve long been struck by the irony of an Idaho United States Senator leading the investigation of a CIA that had come to be so influenced by an Idaho-born spy. Would you call that a small world?

My long ago and very brief encounter with James Angleton, I believe it was in 1976, came back to me recently after watching the thoroughly enjoyable new film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the inspired performance of Gary Oldman in the lead role of spy catcher George Smiley.

The movie, based on the great espionage thriller by John la Carre, is, in many ways, a British version of the story James Angleton lived at the CIA; the story of an alleged ”mole” at the very top of the nation’s intelligence service; a counter spy Angleton was determined to find and eliminate. The quest eventually took Angleton down instead.

The Republican politician and one-time ambassador to Italy, Clare Booth Luce, once told Angleton, who began his spy career organizing operations against Italian fascists, ”There’s no doubt you are easily the most interesting and fascinating figure the intelligence world has produced, and a living legend.” Others were not so charitable.

Angleton was born in Boise, Idaho in 1917, as his New York Times obit noted the year of the Russian Revolution, the son of an employee of the National Cash Register Company. After spending summers in Italy, Angleton went to Yale where he developed his life-long love of literature and poetry and was recruited into the OSS, the agency that eventually became the CIA.

Angleton, in later years his posture stooped and his thick mane of hair streaked with gray, was, by all accounts, a Renaissance Man. He grew orchids and attended lectures on Joyce. One colleague said, ”He had a remarkable amount of knowledge about world events, art, literature.”

Former CIA officer David Atlee Phillips, who like Angleton was caught up in the whirlwind that surrounded the Agency in the 1970, wrote in his memoir, that “Angleton was CIA’s answer to the Delphic Oracle: seldom seen but with an awesome reputation nurtured over the years by word of mouth and intermediaries padding out of his office with pronouncements which we seldom professed to understand fully but accepted on faith anyway.”

It was Angleton’s zealous search for the CIA mole – the counter conspiracy theorists speculated that Angleton himself might have been the mole – that eventually lead then-director William Colby to show the counterintelligence chief the door. Angleton’s forced retirement from the CIA came in 1974. Unlike George Smiley, the fictional character in Tinker, Tailor, who was brought out of retirement to search out the mole in Britain’s MI6, Angleton was fired, in part, for too aggressively pursuing the CIA’s mole. In the process, some argue, he not only damaged the individual careers of many intelligence agents, but undermined the Agency’s efforts to run an effective intelligence program against the Soviets.

To detractors Angleton became the worst kind of paranoid operative, secretive and suspicious of everything all the time. To others he was the very personification of the dedicated intelligence agent. One magazine profile suggested that “If John le Carré and Graham Greene had collaborated on a superspy, the result might have been James Jesus Angleton.”

Angleton died of cancer in 1987 at age 69, as much a mystery in death as in life. What secrets he must have taken with him.

Old-time Boiseans will remember Angleton’s brother, Hugh, a diminutive, elegant man who owned a rather spectacular downtown gift store. Hugh Angleton, always impeccably dressed in suit and tie, served as a kind of showroom director at his store – Angleton’s. The store was filled to overflowing with rare and elegant china, jewelry and art objects. I often wondered if his more famous brother helped locate some of the exotic and expensive items that filled the display cases in Hugh’s store, which, sadly, passed out of existence years ago.

Years ago, it’s said, then-CIA Director James Schlesinger went to Capitol Hill to brief Senate Armed Services Chairman John Stennis on a major Agency operation.  “No, no my boy,” responded Senator Stennis.  “Don’t tell me.  Just go ahead and do it, but I don’t want to know.”

So it is with the intelligence agencies. So secret is what they do, as the joke goes, they could tell us, but then would have to kill us. In trying to explain this shadowy world, novels and motion pictures are more satisfying than reality. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, George Smiley – sort of – got the mole. The spy from Boise never did.