Traficant: The Congressman from Crimetown


(2016) Documentary (Steel Valley) Jim Traficant, Ed O’Neill, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, Sherry Linkon, Bertram de Souza, Jim Tressel, Judge Edward Cox, Anthony Traficanti, Tim Ryan, Vic Rubenstein, Rick Porrello, Don Hanni, Gerry Riccuti, Ralph Zerbania, Pat Ungaro, Bill Binning, Don Mumford, Vince Guerieri, Paul Cains, Joe Bell, Mona Alexander. Directed by Eric Murphy

 

Politicians come and go but sometimes one stands out, occasionally for all the wrong reasons. Jim Traficant, representing the great state of Ohio from his native Youngstown, did stand out for all the wrong reasons but also for all the right ones.

Even in high school Traficant was a bit of a maverick. The quarterback for the varsity, he was regularly benched for refusing to run the play the coach sent in. In the late 50s and early 60s that was a big no-no. Fellow alum Ed O’Neill – who went on to a successful career as an actor – recalls the time that Traficant threw a 70 yard touchdown pass and was immediately benched because the Coach wanted a running play. It’s guys like this that Traficant would fight against his entire life.

As the Mahoning County Sheriff, he was jailed for refusing to process eviction notices, throwing families out of their homes. Youngstown, which had a steel-rooted economy at the time, was suffering badly with double digit unemployment and the steel mills closing down like bowling pins. People were hurting and Traficant, the son of a truck driver, could empathize. After returning to the job, he went after the mob which was a big part of Youngstown life.

However it was Traficant who wound up getting scrutinized. Audio surveillance tapes linked Traficant with mob figures and the Sheriff was indicted. Defending himself rather than getting himself a lawyer, Traficant beat the charges using the defense that he was doing an undercover investigation of the mob so that it appeared he was taking bribes from the mob.

Traficant always had higher aspirations and went after and won the U.S House of Representatives spot for his district, which he would win four more times. Something of a gadfly, he had an eccentric haircut, an affinity for bell bottoms and was known to spout some pretty outrageous things from his bully pulpit. His favorite catchphrase was “Beam Me Up – There’s no intelligent life on this planet.”

An erstwhile Democrat, he clashed with party bosses and was often ostracized for voting against party interests. Still he was able to bring much-needed jobs to the Mahoning Valley and was so loved by his constituency that he was voted in with roughly 70% of the vote four times running, unheard of then and now.

However Traficant became a victim of his own hubris and his fall was as spectacular and as sudden as his rise. Documentary filmmaker Eric Murphy does a mighty fine job of chronicling the life of the maverick Congressman from Youngstown, making his film entertaining as well as informative. Although background information about his parents and childhood years is strangely missing, we get plenty of archival footage as we get to hear much of the bombast from the lips of the late Congressman.

Traficant was a populist in the vein of Huey P. Long and had a lifelong love of the spotlight. He would be the first Congressman to be expelled from Congress since the Civil War and campaigned from jail (and nearly won). Murphy tells his story with a fair amount of objectivity although his affection for the subject is clear also. The film feels a little bit like a television newsmagazine story but it also doesn’t shy away from pictures of mob casualties and F-bombs.

Murphy is a legitimate talent with a bright future. This is one of the better documentaries I’ve seen this year and it is absolutely mind-boggling that a distributor hasn’t picked this up. Keep an eye out on the website for upcoming screenings of the film, or you can rent it on Amazon and iTunes with hopefully more streaming services to come. This is one of those hidden gems that you’ve never heard of but when you see it you wonder why you haven’t. If you do see it, be sure and pass it on to your friends; word of mouth is the lifeblood of a film like this and it deserves a goodly amount of praise.

REASONS TO GO: An entertaining documentary that tells the story of a political maverick well. The editing of the film is outstanding.
REASONS TO STAY: I would have liked a little more early years background of Traficant before politics.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity and a few images that might be a little disturbing to some.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Traficant passed away September 27, 2014 as the result of injuries suffered when the tractor he was driving on his farm accidentally rolled over him.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wiener
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Band Aid

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ELIÁN


Elian underwater.

(2017) Documentary (Gravitas Ventures/CNN) Elián Gonzalez, Marisleysis Gonzalez, Donato Dalrymple, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Jorge Mas Santos, Carl Hiaasen, Sam Ciancio, Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, Manny Diaz, Gregory Craig, Ninoska Pérez Castellón, Ricardo Alarcón, Janet Reno, Joe Garcia, Spencer Eig, Alan Diaz, James Goldman, Aaron Podhurst, Carole Florman. Directed by Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell

 

As the 2000 Presidential election campaign was ramping up in November of 1998, two Florida men out fishing in the Straits of Florida outside of Miami noticed an inner tube floating on the water. As they neared it with their boat, they saw there was a child floating in the inner tube. When the child’s hand moved weakly, Sam Ciancio dived into the water, grabbed the boy and handed him to his cousin Donato Dalrymple on the boat. They sped back to Miami, Dalrymple calling his wife urging her to call 911 and have an ambulance meet them at the dock.

The boy was Elián Gonzalez and his mother had drowned in an attempt to get from Havana to Miami. She and her boyfriend had picked up Elián in the middle of the night at the home of her ex-husband Juan Miguel Gonzalez and told Elián they were going to visit his uncles. What she really wanted for her boy was the kind of freedom she felt could not be found in their native Cuba. Her husband was a staunch supporter of Fidel Castro and would not think of leaving Cuba.

The Gonzalez family took Elián in with open arms. His survival was called a Thanksgiving miracle and soon was the subject of network and cable news headlines. Everyone thought that this would be the end of the story with the happy ending of the boy adjusting to a new life in the United States with his 21-year-old cousin Marisleysis who clearly adored him, an affection that was clearly returned.

But it was not the end of the story, not by any means. It turns out that the boy’s father wanted him back, understandably. However, the Gonzalez clan in Miami dug in their heels. The boy’s mother clearly wished him to be raised in the Land of the Free and had died trying to make that happen; her wishes should be respected. Fidel Castro, his economy reeling after the collapse of the Soviet Union, very badly needed a symbol for his impoverished country to rally around and he found one. He began making demands of the United States that the boy be returned to Cuba, and exhorted his people to take to the streets in protest and they did, by the hundreds of thousands.

The US Government, under President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno, came to the decision that the boy belonged with his father, regardless of ideology but Elián had become a cause célèbre among the exiled Cuban community in Miami, who remained vehemently anti-Castro. It soon became clear that the Miami Gonzalez family wouldn’t budge; the boy would stay with them. Castro was equally intransigent; the boy must return to Cuba.

In the middle of the night, armed INS agents broke down the door to the Gonzalez home where Elián was staying. Agents armed with automatic weapons broke into the bedroom of the boy who was being held by Dalrymple who had become a close friend of the family. The terrified child was snatched from the equally terrified Dalrymple and driven away, leading to riots in Miami. The boy was soon safely home with his father while the angry Cubans voted overwhelmingly Republican in the next election that fall, paving the way for the Presidency of George W. Bush.

The documentary which will be airing on CNN shortly after a brief limited theatrical run covers both sides of the Elián issue with fairly even hands. Most of the main players, including Marisleysis, Dalrymple, Juan Miguel and Elián himself, are interviewed. So are the peripheral players, like Jorge Mas Santos of the Cuban American National Foundation, who was extremely anti-Castro in those days but following the events of 1999 changed tactics and would later be instrumental in helping former President Obama begin opening relations with Cuba after the death of Castro.

There are some complexities to the incident that still remain a sore spot with Cuban-Americans today. Many view it as a triumph for master manipulator Castro who played the American government like a harp. As a Cuban-American myself, I have very mixed feelings about the events; I do believe that a 5-year-old boy should have been returned to his father from the outset; biology trumps ideology. I also understand why the Miami Gonzalez family would be reluctant to trust the Castro government who they believed – accurately as it turned out – would use the boy for political purposes. It was a shame that a compromise couldn’t be worked out but I don’t believe one was possible at the time.

Golden covered the Elián affair as a journalist so he’s fairly knowledgeable about what happened. He gives both sides pretty much equal time, although he omits certain facts like Marisleysis had intimated that the family was armed and would defend the boy with deadly force which likely was why the INS had gone in there armed to the teeth. Elián himself gets the final word, however. He is today about the same age his cousin Marisleysis was when this all happened. He is pro-Castro almost to obsessive lengths; he even goes so far as to say that if he had a religion, he would worship Fidel as God which is dogmatic to say the least. One wonders how much of that was indoctrination and how much was hero-worship of a 5-year-old boy who’d lost everything he knew and then was put through the grinder of the American media.

Even though 15 years have passed, the wounds remain fresh in the Cuban community. One gets the sense that the American government mishandled the situation – Reno was haunted by the fallout from Waco where children had died as a result of her decision to take on the Branch Davidians. One gets the sense that it will be many years before the Elián Gonzalez affair can be reviewed dispassionately and without prejudice, but it’s possible that it never will. This is a comprehensive documentary that covers the subject more than adequately but I’m not sure they are as objective as they make themselves out to be. It seemed to me that the Miami Gonzalez family came out looking better than the Cuban side, although that might be my own prejudices coming insidiously to the surface.

REASONS TO GO: A clearly emotional subject even now is covered even-handedly.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the crucial details have been left out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some of it extreme as well as some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Dalrymple was portrayed in the press as a fisherman, he was in reality a housecleaner who had gone fishing that day with his cousin Sam who was indeed a fisherman.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Desert Flower
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Wedding Plan

Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary


John Coltrane in the abstract.

(2017) Music Documentary (Abramorama) Denzel Washington (voice), John Coltrane, Common, Carlos Santana, John Densmore, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins, Cornel West, Wynton Marsalis, Bill Clinton, Ravi Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Heath, Antonia Andrews, Oran Coltrane, Ashley Kahn, Ben Ratliff, Kamasi Washington, Benny Golson, Michelle Coltrane. Directed by John Scheinfeld

 

In the pantheon of jazz greats, alto saxophonist John Coltrane has to stand out among its most enduring and influential figures. While never as popular as, say, Louis Armstrong (although he did have a big hit in a revved up version of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music back in 1961) his music helped jazz evolve and changed, as Carlos Santana notes, the very nucleus of jazz.

This documentary starts in media res with a heroin-addicted and alcoholic Coltrane in 1957 being fired from the Miles Davis Quintet where he had begun to hone his reputation. He faced a crossroads and a vital decision; whether to continue with the heroin and end up like his idol Charlie Parker or to turn his back on the drugs and potentially embrace greatness. He would choose the latter, kicking heroin cold turkey which shows a strength of will that characterized his entire life.

He grew up in North Carolina in a home where both his grandfathers were preachers which gave him a spiritual influence that remained with him all his life. Although he didn’t adhere to a single religion, he studied nearly all of them and incorporated them into his inspirations. He joined the Navy as World War II was ending and his first known recordings were as part of a Navy jazz band and, as Wynton Marsalis put it kindly, didn’t sound like he had much potential.

But he had the good fortune to play with Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and after being fired from that gig, Thelonious Monk – all jazz legends – which helped him find his confidence to grow and embrace change. Davis would accept Coltrane back for a second stint that would include one of Davis’ pivotal albums, Almost Blue which Coltrane recorded simultaneously with his own breakout album, Giant Steps. Shortly after that, Coltrane struck out on his own.

Although his career was short in years (he would die suddenly at the age of 40 of liver cancer), he was prolific releasing some 60 albums in the last decade of his life. Scheinfeld closely follows the arc of his influences, from bebop to free jazz to music that can only be called Coltrane. It is somewhat daunting to wonder what he would have come up with and how further he would have changed music had he lived another 20 or 30 years.

The archival footage and photographs are fascinating and the interviews – particularly with social commentator, activist and academic Cornel West (who at times is almost testifying to Coltrane in a religious fervor) and former President Bill Clinton who is surprisingly insightful into Coltrane’s art. While actor Denzel Washington reads from Coltrane’s writings, we never hear the jazz legend’s actual voice; he was notoriously interview-shy. While we don’t hear Coltrane’s actual voice here, his music does the talking. It’s as much an expression of his inner soul as we are going to find. Of particular note in that regard is “Alabama,” inspired by the speech Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave at the funeral of the victims of the Birmingham church bombing in 1963. The piece is mournful and yet hopeful; it follows the cadence of Dr. King’s speech and uplifts even as it grieves. It is as compelling a composition as has ever been written.

While we don’t hear Coltrane’s voice directly his personality comes to the fore mainly through the interviews with family and friends; his stepdaughter recalls him walking home late at night from a gig so he could spend his cash on shoes that she needed the next morning rather than spending it on cab fare. His childhood friend Jimmy Heath recalls how much he practiced, sometimes just fingering the sax in hotel rooms after angry guests complained about the noise.

In some ways the movie serves as a jumping off point for the music of Coltrane, although those who don’t “get” jazz may not necessarily find it compelling. However, the hope is that the film will introduce new generations to music that is sometimes described in overly enthusiastic terms. I don’t know that Coltrane’s music will change your life but it conceivably could; it has done so for many, many listeners and not all of them jazz aficionados. I don’t know that this is the ultimate tribute for Coltrane – there are an awful lot of talking heads and we don’t get as much context into the music as I might have liked  but this is an excellent place to start.

REASONS TO GO: The music is just incredible. The footage of Coltrane and his band is fascinating. The use of graphics is innovative.
REASONS TO STAY: There are too many talking heads. The film may not appeal to those who aren’t into jazz.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some drug content and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the studio footage of Coltrane recording was discovered in a California garage while production was underway; the filmmakers arranged for the footage to be incorporated into the film and this is the first time it has been seen anywhere, or at least for decades.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns
FINAL RATING:7.5/10
NEXT: Kong: Skull Island

The Gatekeepers


Avraham Shalom is this close to kicking your ass.

Avraham Shalom is this close to kicking your ass.

(2012) Documentary (Sony Classics) Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, Yuval Diskin, Carmi Gillon, Yaakov Peri, Avraham Shalom, Simon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, Golda Meier, Yassir Arafat, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton. Directed by Dror Moreh

It is hard to watch certain films without one’s political beliefs coloring them and one with a subject as touchy as the Israel/Palestine conflict it’s almost unavoidable. Nearly everyone has a point of view; the Israeli government has attempted to be reasonable in the face of ongoing Palestinian terrorism and refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a nation and therefore they are entitled to protect themselves, or the Israeli government has oppressed a nearly defensive Palestinian minority and occupied their sovereign territory repeatedly attempting to crush their wills through intimidation and murder.

The Shin Bet is Israel’s anti-terrorism defense agency. They are more or less our Homeland Security Agency on steroids; they operate both domestically and internationally and have a broad mandate. What they do is essentially cloak and dagger stuff; ferreting out information through interrogation, infiltration and reputedly, through torture. They are the most shadowy of Israel’s three intelligence agencies; the Mossad (their version of the CIA) and the Aman (military intelligence) being the other two.

It is said that the Shin Bet is not just an enactor of policy but a shaper of it as well and there is no doubt that the heads of the Shin Bet have had the ears of the Israeli prime ministers through the years so it is a pretty big deal when six of the last seven of them (not including current director Yoram Cohen) consented to sit down for extensive interviews for this documentary. The six are Avraham Shalom (1981-1986), Yaakov Peri (1988-1994), Carmi Gillon (1995-1996), Ami Ayalon (1996-2000), Avi Dichter (2000-2005) and Yuval Diskin (2006-2011).

That these are tough, unsparing men goes without saying. Most of them have a good deal of military background and like many in the military/intelligence community in Israel, they look that they could beat up a grizzly with one hand and tear a great white shark jaw off with the other. Still, there is at least an intellectual curiosity in each of them and a certain amount of wisdom.

Through their eyes we see Israel’s history basically from the Six Days War in 1967 until recently. Several events in Israel’s history are examined, from the Intifada to the hijacking of Bus 300 to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. It is the latter event that proves to be a watershed event in the conflict between Israel and the PLO. Rabin had just signed the Oslo Accords and was working to establish a lasting peace in Palestine. Then, as Gillon put it, a punk with a gun decided to change the course of history and in doing so derailed the peace process, which may well have been what conservative elements in Israel wanted all along.

The general consensus of the six directors is that this event forestalled the peace process and might have been the worst failure on the part of the Shin Bet (an operative posing as a radical extremist apparently knew the assassin and of his plans but thought that the plans weren’t serious). There is certainly a pretty good case that the attitudes of the Israeli government towards the peace process changed after that event which is very much what the assassin wanted to accomplish. The directors to a man felt that this put Israel and Palestine in a neverending spiral  of blood and tears which remains to this day.

I was surprised by the attitudes of these men. They are all very similar although they regularly criticize one another for how one thing or another is handled. I found them to be somewhat liberal which you would think would not be the case for the director of an intelligence agency dealing with terrorism; you would expect those sorts of men to be more conservative in timbre and perhaps they were when they first began their jobs.

There is a good deal of talking head kind of stuff here and all of it is in Hebrew so the subtitles flow and that can be static. Moreh breaks it up nicely with the nifty special effect of taking still photographs and digitally making them three dimensional, adding filmed recreations (mostly in black-and-white) giving the viewer more of a “you are there” feel. There is also as you might expect plenty of archival footage.

Some of the images can be pretty disturbing; of blown up busses and buildings and people so do be cognizant of that before heading to the theater. My other criticism is that I would have appreciated more insight into Israeli politics and the role these men had in it. Obviously this was initially meant for an Israeli audience and so there might have been familiarity with the events and processes involved but I felt a little lost in places.

It’s fairly chilling at times; these are men who had life and death decisions on their hands and clearly it affected some of them more than others, or at least more than they are willing to admit. This was one of the Best Documentary Feature Oscar nominees this year and although it lost to Searching for the Sugar Man it deserved to be on the final ballot. I found it to be flawed but fascinating myself; it is certainly worth the effort to check it out and get a little bit more understanding of that conflict between those two parties which seems to be endless with no hope in sight of changing that.

REASONS TO GO: Insight into the inner workings of the Israeli intelligence, military and government agencies. Excellent 3D photographic effects.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit of the talking head variety. May rub conservative Israelis the wrong way.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few images of violence and some disturbing sequences although probably nothing worse than you’d see on a television news magazine program.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The head of the Shin Bet is the only publically known member of the organization.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100; you couldn’t ask for much better.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 5 Broken Cameras

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Core

Sicko


Sicko

Everything is golden in France.

(2007) Documentary (Lionsgate) Michael Moore, Tucker Albrizzi, Tony Benn, Reggie Cervantes, Richard M. Nixon, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Billy Crystal, John Graham, Linda Peeno, Aleida Guevara, William Maher, Patrick Pedraja . Directed by Michael Moore

There is no doubt that America’s health care system is a national disgrace. It was true when Michael Moore made this documentary in 2006 and it is even more so today. While politicians bicker and posture, and lobbyists work their magic (in 2007 there were four health care lobbyists for every politician in Washington), people suffer and die.

Rather than point the camera at the 50 million Americans without any health care (a number that has increased since this film was made), Moore instead focuses on the 150 million that do (a number that has decreased since the film was made). He does it in a way reminiscent of an old joke; all Americans who think they are covered by their health care plans step forward – not so fast, you there.

He does this anecdotally, looking at individual cases that are heartbreaking and horrific. Mothers whose daughters were in need of critical attention at an Emergency Room being told their health care plan didn’t cover care at that hospital, and having the daughter die en route to a different hospital. A woman knocked unconscious in an auto accident being carted to the hospital by ambulance only to be charged for her ride because she didn’t pre-approve the ambulance, something she could have done if she were conscious.

Bureaucrats who are paid bonuses to deny coverage, to the point where legitimate claims are being denied because of an undisclosed yeast infection years ago. Volunteers at Ground Zero, breathing in toxic fumes in order to help recover bodies, develop respiratory ailments and are denied coverage because they were volunteers. It’s enough to make your blood boil.

Moore makes a case for socialized medicine and on the surface it’s a pretty compelling one. In France, doctors make house calls and maternity leaves are a full year. In England, doctors in their socialized medical system continue to live among the upper strata of society, putting paid the fear that doctors here would become underpaid and eventually the best and brightest wouldn’t want to be in the medical profession here.

Moore looks at the bureaucracies at HMOs, pharmaceutical companies and health insurance companies, noting the obscene profits they make and debunking the popular excuse that these companies put their profits into research and development, which is patently not true.

Moore pretty much leaves no room for doubt as to where he stands – that’s pretty much true of all his films – and while you have to admire his conviction and loyalty to his opinions, there is no discussion of any other options, as if we’re either stuck with the system we have or go with socialized medicine. There is no middle ground, or even different options. However on a personal note, I happen to agree with Moore in this instance.

In the four years since this documentary was made, a new President has been elected, one who attempted to institute reform to our health care system and has been fought tooth and nail on every front. We wound up with a watered-down version of what he originally wanted, one which Republicans vow will be overturned.

As I said to begin with, the state of health care in the United States is a national disgrace. It doesn’t have to do with the doctors and nurses and technicians who provide extraordinary care to their patients but with the bureaucrats and politicians who undermine the ability of those health care professionals to provide that care to all who need it.

Let me put this in another way. Let’s say the CEO of Goldman Sachs gets a rare form of cancer. At the same time, an unemployed factory worker gets the same exact disease. Both need an expensive and rare treatment. The CEO, with the best health care money can buy, will in all likelihood not be denied by the health insurance he carries and even if he is, he can afford to pay for it himself. The factory worker, unable to afford the treatment, must hope he gets better on his own. My question to you is this; why is the life of the CEO of Goldman Sachs worth more than that of the unemployed factory worker? And why is some functionary at a health insurance company allowed to make that call?

WHY RENT THIS: A scathing look at a problem which continues to plague us to this day.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: As is typical for Moore, he tends to be overly slanted towards his own beliefs; other solutions tend to be ridiculed or not given coverage at all.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the language is a little rough and the concepts might fly over the head of younger people.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Insurance companies banned their employees from speaking to Moore under any circumstance for this documentary.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a music video, a featurette on Norway’s policies which outdo those of France, a look at an attempt to introduce a national health insurance plan pre-Obamacare and a look at community fundraisers to aid those who can’t afford their medical bills.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $36.1M on a $9M production budget; the movie was a modest hit.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Make Believe