Nobody Speak: The Trials of the Free Press


Terry Bollea (Hulk Hogan) runs out of fingers to count how many pro wrestling titles he’s won.

(2017) Documentary (Netflix) Nick Denton, Hulk Hogan, A.J. Daulerio, Charles Harder, David Folkenflik, Peter Thiel, David Birenspan, John Cook, David Carr, Floyd Abrams, Peter Sterne, David Houston, Leslie Savan, Will Alden, Ryan Mac, Matt Drange, Elizabeth Spiers, James Wright, Hike Hengel, John L. Smith, Jennifer Robison. Directed by Brian Knappenberger

 

Long considered one of the pillars of democracy, a free and independent press acted as a check on the powerful; their job to shine the light of truth on those who would keep things hidden in the darkness. In recent years, the press has come under attack particularly by our current President who has gone so far as to call them “the enemy of the people.”

It is easy for someone like myself to take umbrage; after all, I spent almost 15 years in the newspaper business and continue as a writer and a commentator albeit as a movie reviewer. Still, the Free Press tends to be something of a sacred trust to me and people like me. It is sometimes easy to forget that the state of the media has changed radically. Gone are the days of local newspapers being crusaders; most newspapers are owned by corporate interests and are expected to turn a profit which has become increasingly difficult in this age of the Internet. Some of the charges brought against the Media aren’t without merit.

This documentary, which played Sundance last year and has been playing on Netflix since not long after that, examines the assault on the Press from three vantages. The first and most lengthy is coverage of the Gawker Hulk Hogan sex tape suit. Gawker was something of a tabloid website that specialized in lurid news stories that mainstream outlets wouldn’t touch. When a sex tape of wrestler Hulk Hogan getting busy with his friend shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge’s wife, Hogan (whose real name is Terry Bollea) requested that the tape be taken down. When Gawker refused, Hogan sued. Getting a judge who once represented Terry Schiavo’s parents in that heart-wrenching case, the judgment went against the website, to the tune of $140 million (which was later negotiated down to $31 million). The result was that Gawker declared bankruptcy and their media empire (which included other websites like Jezebel and Gizmodo) were sold to Latin media giant Univision and Gawker was quietly shut down.

The film portrays the website and its British founder Nick Denton as crusaders for the free press, but that’s a bit misleading. Media critic the late David Carr of the New York Times once referred to the site as “The Mean Girls of journalism.” The question that is brought up but not really addressed is that where privacy get superseded by the right of the press to report the news. David Houston, Bollea’s lawyer, successfully argued that Hulk Hogan having sex is not news and on that I would agree.

After the judgment is handed down, it is revealed that the lawsuit was funded by billionaire Silicon Valley venture capitalist (and former founder of Pay Pal) Peter Thiel, a Trump supporter, who was once outed by Gawker and wanted to not only see them taken down a peg but to be driven out of existence which he was successful in doing. This is troubling particularly when the next segment, the surprise 2015 purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal by mysterious buyers.

The reporters at the newspaper of record for Sin City are told to do their jobs and not worry about who owns the paper but that is like waving bloody red meat in the face of a starving wolf. Soon the investigative journalists at the newspaper discover that the purchaser is GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, the owner of the Venetian and one of the biggest financial supporters of Republican political candidates next to the Koch Brothers. He essentially wanted to buy the paper to control the news coming out about his casino and business dealings.

These are troubling trends that billionaires dissatisfied with the coverage about them can simply buy the news and then have their own agenda  become part of the media landscape. Knappenberger most certainly brings up some very important and troubling questions; unfortunately he gets a bit preachy towards the end which dilutes his point quite a bit. Still, in these times where the press is being demonized, it behooves us to understand the forces behind the campaign to discredit the media. While no newspaper reporter is ever truly unbiased, there is at least an expectation that the facts will be verifiable and correct. The fact that now we seem to prefer to get our news from echo chambers rather than from sources that at least place value on the truth is something that could end up destroying our country from within.

REASONS TO GO: The story is a worthwhile one. There’s plenty of detail in the information presented. There are some unexpected twists and turns. It’s a chilling look at how the First Amendment has been systematically eroded.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmakers get a little preachy towards the end. There’s a little too much quick-cutting for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a bit of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the movie debuted at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, it did get a brief theatrical run followed by it’s Netflix debut in June of last year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tabloid
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A Wrinkle in Time

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Get Me Roger Stone


Roger Stone is about as conservative as it gets.

(2017) Documentary (Netflix) Roger Stone, Donald J. Trump, Paul Manafort, Tucker Carlson, Jeffrey Toobin, Alex Jones, Jane Mayer, Wayne Barrett, Henry Siegel, Matt Labash, Nydia Stone, Michael Caputo, Charlie Black, Ryan Fournier, Mike Murphy, Steve Malzberg, Kathy Tur, Timothy Stanley, Ann Stone, Danielle Stevens, Adria Stone. Directed by Dylan Bank, Daniel DiMauro and Morgan Pehme

 

When looking at modern American politics, specifically on the Republican side, it’s hard not to wonder how a party that at one time was the bastion of thinkers like William F. Buckley, populists like Dwight Eisenhower and gentlemen like Everett Dirksen has become the party of trash politics, of misinformation and exclusion, of divisiveness and corruption. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce Roger Stone.

Or more to the point allow this Netflix documentary to introduce him. Described by New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin as “the sinister Forrest Gump of American politics,” Stone has been at the center of much of the most important political changes of the last 30 years. At 19 he was the youngest person to be called to testify before a Watergate committee; he was also one of the innovators of PACs and Super PACs that transformed campaign finance. He was a disciple of Roy Cohn, the pit bull of a lawyer who was Joseph McCarthy’s attack dog and one of the most amoral political figures to ever walk the face of the Earth. He co-founded (with Paul Manafort and Charles Black a firm that became known as the “torturer’s lobbyists” for all the third-world dictators they represented.

Perhaps worst of all, he saw political potential in a real estate mogul named Donald J. Trump. Stone groomed him over more than 30 years, pestering him to run for President (but never pushing). He is given credit for getting Trump aboard the Birther train that essentially established him as a political figure. As a campaign advisor, Stone helped shape the vicious tenor of the campaign, often seen wearing a t-shirt of former President Bill Clinton (husband to the Democratic nominee) with the word “Rape” below in a snarky parody of the Obama “Hope” poster. Stone made sure the country thought of the former President as a rapist as prodigious as Bill Cosby, conveniently ignoring the fact that his own candidate had been accused of sexual assaults himself.

Stone is an affable fellow in person, a respectable raconteur that at first glance you might not mind having a drink or two with. However, it wouldn’t take long before you notice that mostly what Stone talks about in an underhanded way is himself. He has a tremendous ego and a need to be the center of attention; it is no surprise to anyone that the Trump campaign couldn’t handle more than one ego like that That’s likely the reason why Stone was removed from the campaign itself, although he continued to offer advice when asked and support Trump on his own.

The film is divided into sections headlined by what Stone calls “Stone’s rules,” a series of aphorisms that he uses to guide his political philosophy. Some of them are meaningless; “Business is business,” for example. What the hell else would it be? There are others like “Hate is a greater motivator than Love” which is cynical in the extreme but frustrating because he’s largely right in that case.

Stone is a master of dirty political tricks and feels no remorse for anything. His guiding principle is that winning is the ONLY thing. Stone would probably tell you that you can’t implement a political philosophy if you lose; only winners get to determine the course this country and indeed the globe takes. As far as Stone is concerned, nothing is out of bounds so long as it doesn’t violate campaign laws. If the truth is stretched and people misdirected, that’s all right. If people are gullible enough to believe the big lie, then they deserve the leadership they get. It is something of a page out of the Hitler playbook.

Yes, if you haven’t noticed by now I’m a leftie that Stone would be somewhat amused by. I don’t think he hates liberals; he just wants to beat them. The fact that he’s so good at doing so tends to frustrate the hell out of the left. It allows Stone to gloat and he does so with a smug expression on his face.

As far as getting to know the real Roger Stone, don’t bet on it. Stone is a master at creating images – anyone who can characterize a real estate billionaire as a man of the people has to be admired to an extent. Although the filmmakers are also liberal (which Stone jokingly warns his friends of) in many ways Stone controls the narrative here. Although the filmmakers turn the documentary into almost a black comedy that is as cynical as can be, it is Stone having the last laugh.

This is tailor made for those conservatives who take great satisfaction in twisting the knife into bleeding hearts. Liberals may have a hard time watching this, particularly towards the end. It’s hard to watch the soul of your country being corrupted by someone who doesn’t care what the effects of this amorality has on the psyche of a nation. I’m sure Roger Stone has no issue with the Vince Lombardi quote “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” but even Lombardi knew that there were some costs that were too high to make winning worth it.

What Stone doesn’t understand – could never understand – that when you corrupt the soul of something, it ceases being what you admired about it in the first place. Making America great again has nothing to do with the rhetoric spewed by Trump, Stone and their ilk – it’s in fulfilling the dreams of the founders and those that followed them, being the place that embraced the American dream rather than trying to cut it off from the masses so that only those who have already achieved it can benefit from it. That is the real tragedy of Roger Stone – in winning he has lost everything he was fighting for, and he doesn’t even know it.

REASONS TO GO: This is in a lot of ways a black comedy; the fact that it’s true is depressing.
REASONS TO STAY: The lack of ethics is very hard to watch at times.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stone’s political ideology was largely shaped by reading Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative at a young age.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: You’ve Been Trumped
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Ashes

13th


Outside the windows conditions remain murky.

Outside the windows conditions remain murky.

(2016) Documentary (Netflix) Angela Davis, Cory Booker, Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist, Ed Koch, Dolores Canales, Khalid Muhammad, Charles B. Rangel, Jelani Cobb, Kyung-Jee Kate Rhee, Nicholas Turner, James Kilgore, Bryan Stevenson, Kevin Gannon, Michael Hough, Ken Thompson, Marc Maurer, Michelle Alexander, Deborah Small, Marie Gottschalk. Directed by Ava DuVernay

 

The 13th Amendment was supposed to have abolished involuntary servitude (i.e. slavery) but it left a very deliberate loophole; convicted criminals could be sentenced to hard labor without remuneration. That has led to the exploitation of African-American males essentially since the Civil War ended.

Ava (Selma) DuVernay’s Netflix documentary is up for an Oscar for Best Documentary feature and it’s easy to see why. This serves as an important historical document on the history of racism right up to present day. Images from the D.W. Griffith master-race-piece Birth of a Nation are cheek by jowl with images of civil rights marchers being beaten and firehosed in the Sixties.

There are a lot of talking heads and oddly DuVernay identifies most but not all of them. Some of them are fairly well known – there’s no mistaking Rep. Charlie Rangel and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and those who watch Real Time with Bill Maher ought to recognize Grover Norquist but some of the speakers here aren’t as well known visually and some information on who is talking and why their opinion should matter would be welcome. I must say it was great seeing Angela Davis, who is currently a professor at UC Santa Cruz. She looks terrific and minus her trademark Afro she looks a lot different but the fire is certainly still there and the intelligence as well. She is one of the most engaging speakers in the film.

The movie shows how the prison system has moved from using convicts for hard labor, helping to rebuild the post Civil War south to the War on Drugs which filled prisons with largely African American males in for minor offenses to help Nixon and his appeal to hard line conservative “Law and Order” voters to today when prisons have been privatized and the despicable ALEC organization which includes several corporate incarceration facility entities among its members has written laws to help increase prison sentences and has led to a prison population that was just under 350,000 in 1970 to the 2.3 million prisoners the United States has behind bars today. As a percentage of our total population, we have more people in prison than almost any nation on Earth by sheer number of the incarcerated I believe we have the greatest number of prisoners of any nation. We’re number one!

The narrative sometimes gets strident and overly dramatic and I can understand the former but a little bit of restraint might have gotten the point across more effectively than the cinematic hysterics DuVernay sometimes indulges in. When you’re preaching to the converted, a little drama doesn’t make a difference but when you’re trying to win hearts and minds it can make things a little more difficult than it needs to be.

Still, even with all that this is a powerful and moving documentary that richly deserves the nomination that it received. I also found it impressive that DuVernay includes the conservative side of things as well which some left-leaning documentarians often fail to do. However, she never loses sight of the fact that she’s giving a voice to a segment of society that hasn’t traditionally had, or at least one that was being heard. If it is occasionally uncomfortable and strident it is forgivable. The point is that we are watching legal, institutionalized slavery going on under our very noses and unless we decide to do something about it as a people it will continue to go on for as long as the powers that be can get away with it.

REASONS TO GO: An important document on the history of racism. An impressive amount of conservative commentary is included. A voice is given to those who generally have to scream in order to be heard.
REASONS TO STAY: The film can be strident and occasionally veers into the overly dramatic. The graphic flashing of the word “criminal” every time the word is mentioned is irksome.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of foul language and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The title comes from the 13th Amendment which prohibits slavery – except in the case of convicted criminals.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/31/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Am Not Your Negro
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Underworld: Blood Wars