Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

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.

 

All the Kings Men

Tapping Into the Rage

In Robert Penn Warren’s classic 1946 Pulitzer Prize winning novel All the Kings Men, one of Gov. Willie Stark’s acolytes offers the burly, tough talking southern populist politician a little advice about how to deal with the voters.

“Just tell ‘em you’re gonna soak the fat boys and forget the rest of the tax stuff…Willie, make ‘em cry, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em mad, even mad at you. Stir them up and they’ll love it and come back for more, but, for heaven’s sakes, don’t try to improve their minds.”

If you haven’t read Warren’s timeless story of political corruption fueled by a politician who will stop at nothing to destroy his opponents and accumulate power, it may just be the perfect preview of the next phase of the Republican presidential nominating process.

The first film version of All the Kings Men won three Academy Awards in 1949 with the brilliant Broderick Crawford starring as the demagogue Willie Stark. (Crawford won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal.) At one point, when it looks like Willie’s political climb has hit the skids, he tells a crowd, “I’m in this race to stay and I’m out for blood.”

As the Lazarus of American politics, Newt Gingrich, rides out with a victory from the nasty, divisive South Carolina primary toward what will prove to be the nasty, divisive Florida primary – just the kind of environment in which Gingrich thrives – it’s worth reflecting on why Gingrich has suddenly become a viable contender for the GOP nomination. It’s really pretty obvious. He’s tapped into the same populist anger that Warren wrapped around his fictional southern politician in the 1940’s. Some things never go out of style.

In a nutshell, the former Speaker of the House has an ability, an ability that former front runner Mitt Romney will never have, to tap into the raw populist anger that comes naturally to a glib political calculator.

Gingrich modestly – or maybe not – said of his thrashing of Romney in South Carolina that he really wasn’t a great debater, but that he, alone presumably, “articulates the deepest held values” of the American people. The South Carolina crowd loved his attacks on the “elites” of New York, Washington and the liberal media. And, of course, it is the brilliance of Gingrich that he can turn aside questions about his own behavior – marriages, Tiffany lines of credit, big consulting contracts with Freddie Mac – by attacking the messenger. Gingrich never wavers in his conviction that his ideas are the biggest, his motives the purest, his attacks lines the fairest.

Barack Obama is the “food stamp president,” but such language implies no racial code in a state like South Carolina Gingrich says. The president, says Newt, has a “Kenyan world view,” whatever that is, but a Kenyan “world view” has to be something dangerous and unlike the rest of us. In the bright light of triumph in South Carolina, Gingrich was trying to channel Ronald Reagan and claim the mantle of the real conservative, but he mentioned the former president only once. He mentioned Saul Alinsky three times, as in the “radicalism of Saul Alinsky is at the heart of Obama.” Those Alinsky references must have sent a lot of folks to Google.

While New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a guy many Republicans wish was in the race, calls Gingrich an “embarrassment” and the party establishment quake at the thought of the pudgy, disgraced former Speaker carrying the GOP banner, Newt sails on. His anger, contempt for his opponents and lust for the political jugular, his ability and willingness to “stir them up,” make the one-time Congressman from Georgia a worthy successor to a long American line of Willie Starks.

Willie Stark’s life and death is often compared to the real life political career of Louisiana Senator and Governor Huey P. Long, but Robert Penn Warren always insisted that Willie was a more universal character; a character that springs from deep within America culture, a character that found life in earlier days in Joe McCarthy, Strom Thurmond and George Wallace.

“They tried to ruin me,” Willie says in the movie, “because they did not like what I have done. Do you like what I have done? Remember, it is not I who have won, but you. Your will is my strength, and your need is my justice, and I shall live in your right and your will. And if any man tries to stop me from fulfilling that right and that will, I’ll break him. I’ll break him with my bare hands, for I have the strength of many.”

On to Florida and a test of the strength of the Gingrich approach to politics and a long week ahead for Mitt Romney.

 

A Moveable Feast

An Antidote to “Freedom Fries…”

One of the sweetest scenes in Woody Allen’s charming new film “Midnight in Paris,” involves the main character, played by Owen Wilson, walking the streets of the great city in the company of the stunning Marion Cotillard.

Wilson’s character, American screenwriter Gil Pender who struggles to write his novel, has been magically transported back in time to 1920’s Paris where he encounters a cast of celebrated writers and artists, including Hemingway, Picasso, Scott Fitzgerald and Matisse. Cotillard’s character, Adriana, has been keeping company with Picasso and is a stand-in for the painter’s many mistresses.

Gil, big surprising, is quite smitten with Adriana and can think of nothing better – OK, maybe one thing better – than walking the romantic streets of Paris at night with her. I identify.

Say what you will about France and the French, if you’ve been to Paris it is difficult not to conclude that it is the world’s most beautiful big city. Allen obviously believes so and his camera lavishes attention on the city that Hemingway called “a moveable feast.”

James Thurber was in Paris at about the time Allen’s movie is set and he captured the essence of the city pretty well when he said “the whole of Paris is a vast university of Art, Literature and Music…it is worth anyone’s while to dally here for years. Paris is a seminar, a post-graduate course in Everything.”

Unlike most American cities, maybe with the exception of San Francisco and a few others, Paris is a city for walking. You can actually walk almost everywhere. From Notre Dame to the Eiffel Tower is a good hike, but you can stop for a coffee or a beer on the way. (And, no the fake Eiffel in Las Vegas does not hold a candle to the real thing.) Along the way, you can walk by the river, through majestic parks and, if you are paying attention, you may just feel history under your feet.

I completely enjoyed Woody Allen’s light little romp back in time – Kathy Bates was superb portraying Gertrude Stein – but the movie is really a 90 minute love letter to Paris; the city of light and love; marvelous food and memory.

OK you say, but I don’t really like the French that much. Remember what James Baldwin said:  “It is perfectly possible to be enamoured of Paris while remaining totally indifferent or even hostile to the French.”

See the movie and fall in love with the great city for the first time or the hundredth.

 

 

A Good Movie

kings speechThe King’s Speech

In a year of generally lackluster output from Hollywood, there comes at the end of the year a truly exceptional film from – England.

With inspired performances from Colin Firth as the second prince and future king, George VI, and Geoffrey Rush as his Australian-born speech therapist, The King’s Speech provides a mostly historically accurate period piece look inside the British monarchy in the days leading up to World War II. The would-be king, called Bertie by his hard and cold family, has been a life-long stutterer. The thought of standing at a microphone and proclaiming is mostly unthinkable. Until, that is, having exhausted other avenues of professional help, he turns to a small-time actor turned speech therapist who helps unlock the mystery of the stutter.

The movie really works on several levels. It is a look at England in the run up to the war. The bit roles for three British prime ministers – Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill – are just right.

The film also, in a tight and believable way, provides insight into the still scandalous affair Bertie’s older brother, the eventual King Edward VIII, had with the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Edward, who abdicated in 1936 for the “woman he loved,” is portrayed, as he was, as a selfish, boorish cad with apparent pro-fascist sympathies. Edward’s shocking decision to give up the throne made the not terribly well prepared Bertie the king.

The movie is also about the breakdown of class and social lines in the 1930’s that allowed a outwardly rather stuffy and shy member of the royal family to engage a long-term friendship with one of his subjects, an outgoing and very worldly man.

Maybe the best scene in the movie is when the King and Queen, played with perfection by the superb British actress Helena Bonham Carter, show up at the speech therapist’s flat. Its funny, insightful, clever and played just right.

Should you think nothing good is coming from the big screen these days, take heart – England rules with The King’s Speech. Here’s the trailer. Go see it.

I Am Love

i_am_love_posterHere’s a Movie for the Summer

Family, food, fabrics, footwear. Set it all in Milan in a fabulous villa – the Medicis would kill (maybe they did) for this place – and stir in an outstanding performance by Academy Award winner Tilda Swinton and you got yourself a summer feast. It’s called I Am Love and it is one of the better movies I’ve seen in a while.

Oh, I forgot to mention the love affairs, corporate intrigue and shocking death.

The Recchi family is wealthy – boy are they wealthy – and mother Emma (the Swinton role) is obviously the stabilizing glue in this group. Still Emma, even though she is the core of the family, seems strangely remote. It could be because she is a Russian-born transplant brought to one of the fashion capitals of the world, Milan, and married into a family with more money than good sense. She says at one point that when she came to Italy she ceased being Russian. Nonetheless, she’s made her peace, it seems, with her bloodless businessman of a husband and presides over the family household staff and fabulous dinners with elegance and grace. Until.

Until, that is, she falls completely, and with shocking speed, under the spell of her son’s close friend, an ambitious chef who dreams of opening his own restaurant. It’s hard to believe that a scene with a young cook showing an older woman how to use a torch to brown food could be, well, erotic, but you need to see it.

Before you can say “three minute egg” Emma has tossed her Ferragamo’s and shed her classy outfits to roll around in the grass with Antonio.

The New York Times review said: “By the end of this often soaringly beautiful melodrama, which closes with a funeral, Emma’s face will have crumpled into a ruin. But it will also be fully alive, having been granted, like Pygmalion’s statue, the breath of life.”

The film is in Italian and Russian and should further establish Tilda Swinton as a major, major talent. The love scenes and party scenes are pretty good and the food wasn’t bad, either.

Political Movies

The Best ManPolitics on the Big Screen

It’s been a while since Hollywood produced a really good political film. With the exception of Primary Colors and Frost/Nixon, I’m hard pressed to name another really good recent film with a political theme. I’ve got to go back to the 60’s to begin my “best of the best” list.

So, lets go to the movies and consider politics on the big screen.

Gore Vidal, to the extent he is remembered at all these days, is recalled as a relic of the 60’s thanks to his feuds with Norman Mailer, his lefty politics, etc. Vidal, a really fine writers, deserves much better, not least for his play – and screenplay – for one of the best political movies ever – The Best Man.

The 1964 movie has a superb cast – Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson and Lee Tracy (who won an Academy Award). Order it up on Netflix and revel in the black and white, 1960’s atmosphere of a vicious campaign for the White House. See if you can match up the characters with the real politicos of the time. JFK, Truman and Stevenson, according to some, were Vidal’s inspiration. It is a very good film and good political theater featuring a cameo from the great ABC newsman Howard K. Smith. If Vidal did nothing else in his long, literary life (and he did) this screen play would stand alone as a worthy piece of work, worthy of a great writing career. One of my all-time favorite movies, and a great play, too.

Other favorite “political” movies:

  • Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the Frank Capra classic from 1939. Capra had the misfortune to make his great political film in the same year with Gone with the Wind, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Stagecoach and The Wizard of Oz, among others. Still the story of naive, freshman Sen. Jefferson Smith endures. True story, members of the Senate hated – absolutely loathed – Capra’s film. Majority Leader Alben Barkley went to the premier in Washington, D.C, left in a huff and condemned the movie the next day as an outrage. Senators didn’t behave like that, Barkley fumed, and Capra had dishonored the U.S. Senate. Then, as now, the Senators didn’t get it. The public loved Capra’s film. The filibuster scene, Jimmy Stewart in a sweat trying to uphold the honor of the world’s great deliberative body, is a classic of American cinema.
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  • Seven Days in May. The John Frankenheimer film, also from 1964, is a classic story of ambition, honor and respect for the American tradition of civilian control of the military. Kirk Douglas is superb as the Marine colonel who helps thwart a military coup. The authors, Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey, reportedly got the idea for their novel after interviewing Air Force Gen. Curtis “bomb them back to the stone age” LeMay. JFK read the book and thought it not all that unthinkable that the kind of military coup depicted in the film could occur in the USA. Great film, cautionary tale
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  • In 1957, Andy Griffith – yes, that Andy Griffith – starred in a terrific movie – A Face in the Crowd. Elia Kazin directed the film as an early cautionary tale about the incredible power of television as a source of personal power and political propaganda. The film has a great cast, including the wonderful Lee Remick in her debut role. As a post-McCarthy piece of Hollywood magic, this is a a great film.
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  • And, number five – so many to chose from – Judgment at Nuremburg, All the President’s Men, Michael Collins, Citizen Kane, but I have to pick All the Kings Men, the original version from 1949 with Broderick Crawford. A not-so-fictionalize account of the career of Huey P. Long, the film was based on the Robert Penn Warren novel of the same name. It won the Best Picture of 1950 and awards for the top actors, too. A great story about political power and the good, and not so good, it can accomplish.

So many films, so little time. If you love politics and the great American story, any of these will be worth a couple of hours. I’m betting you’ll still be thinking and talking about them days after the credits fade. See you at the movies.