John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls


Senator John McCain of Arizona; portrait of a maverick.

(2018) Documentary (HBO) John McCain, Joe Biden, John McCain IV, Henry Kissinger, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, Carol McCain, Hilary Clinton, Grant Woods, David Brooks, Mark Salter, Doug McCain, Frank Gambaa, Joe McCain, Andy McCain, John Fer, Rick Davis, Bill McInturff, Cindy McCain. Directed by George Kunhardt, Peter W. Kunhardt and Teddy Kunhardt

 

Most people who follow American politics are pretty well familiar with the salient points of Arizona Senator John McCain’s life; the son of a four-star admiral (and also the grandson of one), he became a Navy flyer during the Vietnam War. Captured by the Viet Cong, he was held as a prisoner of war for five and a half years, subjected to repeated torture and abuse. Finally weakened to the point where he could no longer take it, he signed a bogus confession – an act that has regretted ever since – and returned home to take on a political career. Running twice unsuccessfully for the Presidency, he won the Republican nomination in 2008 and unwisely selected then-Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, an act that changed the political landscape of the United States and not for the better. Last year, he was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer.

It is difficult to review a documentary about a man without reviewing the man himself. Those who read my reviews regularly should be aware that I am a progressive liberal so politically McCain and I disagree about a lot of things. I have never considered him anything less than an honorable man however; famously, he showed up for a vote that kept the Senate from passing  a bill that would have dismantled the Affordable Care Act and put in an absolute abomination of a replacement plan in its place, breaking ranks with his fellow Republicans and earning the wrath of President Trump who clearly dislikes the Arizona senator.

The movie utilizes a lot of archival footage, particularly from McCain’s Vietnam era, and a lot of interviews with political foes, allies, friends and family. Some of McCain’s closest friends come from the other side of the aisle; Joe Biden, for example and Joe Lieberman whom he toyed with asking to be his running mate in ’08 before settling on Palin. The movie also covers one of his more public blunders, his role in the Keating Five scandal which nearly marked the end of his political career. McCain is honest about his involvement and while he was exonerated of any wrongdoing, he admits freely to making an error in judgement which he was censured for.

Clearly the filmmakers admire McCain which I believe most Americans do; even the left respect his service and his willingness to vote his conscience, something few members of either party are willing to do these days. It’s not strictly speaking hagiographic but it is fawning in places and certainly admiring throughout. Then again, it’s hard not to admire a man like John McCain…oh, wait a minute, there I go reviewing the man rather than the movie. It’s a pretty decent documentary. HBO subscribers, particularly those of a political bent, should check it out.

REASONS TO GO: This doesn’t feel like a puff piece at all.
REASONS TO STAY: It seems to be a story that is still being written.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title refers to the book by Ernest Hemingway which is McCain’s favorite.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mitt
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Depths

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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

Philomena


Judi Dench tries to break Steve Coogan's delusion gently that he would have made a great James Bond.

Judi Dench tries to break Steve Coogan’s delusion gently that he would have made a great James Bond.

(2013) True Life Drama (Weinstein) Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare WInningham, Barbara Jefford, Ruth McCabe, Sean Mahon, Peter Hermann, Anna Maxwell Martin, Michelle Fairley, Wummi Mosaku, Amy McAllister, Charlie Murphy, Cathy Belton, Kate Fleetwood, Charissa Shearer, Nika McGuigan. Directed by Stephen Frears

A mother’s love cannot be broken. Not even separation can diminish it – tear a mother and a child away from each other and she’ll move heaven and earth to find her baby. While any woman can have a baby, not every woman is cut out to be a mother. Some however are not given the choice.

Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) is at a crossroads, trying to re-assess and reinvent his life. Sacked as the communications director for the Labour Government’s Minister of Transport, Local Governments and Regions, he is unsure whether he is going to write a book about Russian history or take up running.

At a party he meets a waitress named Jane (Martin) who overhears a conversation between Martin and editor Sally Mitchell (Fairley) about human interest stories. She figures she has a whopper but Martin politely declines. He doesn’t do human interest stories. However, as he comes to realize that he really has no other prospects and Mitchell is willing to publish, he decides to take it on.

Jane’s mother, Philomena Lee (Dench) as a young woman (Clark) had a baby out of wedlock. In 1950s Ireland, this was a major no-no. Her shamed family sent her to a convent where she had the baby (which was born in the breech position) without painkillers of any kind as penance for her sin. But did her penance end there? No. At three years old her son Anthony along with Mary, the daughter of her friend Kathleen (Murphy) are taken away and given up for adoption by the church to a wealthy American family. Anthony and Mary are driven away, Philomena screaming and sobbing behind them.

Over the course of the rest of her life she kept quiet about the incident. A devout Catholic, she was sure that this was nothing less than she deserved for breaking the laws of God. It wasn’t until nearly 50 years had passed that she confessed to her daughter Jane, who didn’t know before that moment that she had a brother.

Martin and Philomena go to the convent where she had given up her Anthony years before and found it a different place entirely. Sister Claire (Belton) is understanding but can offer no help – apparently the records of adoptions had been destroyed in a fire years before. It appears that Philomena’s quest has ended before it has begun, but while having a beer in the local pub Martin discovers that the records may have been burned intentionally and that most of the babies that had been given up for adoption by the convent had gone to America.

As it turns out, Martin had been a BBC correspondent once upon a time in the United States. With his contacts, there’s a good chance they might be able to find records on that side of the Atlantic. Philomena accompanies Martin across the pond and finds the whole experience delightful; business class, a posh hotel, breakfast buffets – all are new and wonderful to her. However, what they discover in America will turn things on their ear and change the very nature of Philomena’s quest.

Frears is one of the best directors working out there and he’s delivered another gem. Dench is a treasure in the title role. Philomena isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier but what she lacks in book smarts she makes up for in wisdom and compassion. When Philomena describes the plot of a romance novel to Martin while in an airport, it is absolutely delightful, punctuated by “I didn’t see that one coming!” She also praises at least a dozen hotel workers as “one in a million.” Dench gives Philomena a certain amount of gravitas but not so much that the character becomes caricature. Instead, Philomena is chatty and a bit batty but at every moment we’re aware she’s on serious business and that her heart is just aching. Dench has a good shot at an Oscar nomination although Sandra Bullock may have a lock on the statue this February.

Coogan, best known for his comic turns, has been trying to take on some serious roles of late and this one is tailor made for his talents. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s also the co-writer and producer of the film but certainly he also makes Martin a study in contradictions – he has a sense of humor that he uses sometimes inappropriately and his people skills are a bit raw, particularly in that Martin can be condescending in places. However, he is also doggedly determined to see this thing through and is fiercely protective of Philomena by the movie’s end. He and Dench make a formidable pair.

In fact, it is their differences that make this movie so compelling. Martin is an atheist, Philomena a devout believer. Martin is angry, Philomena forgiving. There is a scene near the end of the film when Martin confronts Sister Hildegarde (Jefford), a nun who was in the convent at the time Anthony was given away. Martin’s anger boils over; Sister Hildegarde is unrepentant and essentially says that Philomena and the other girls like her deserved what they got for the premarital sexuality. It is Philomena who turns out to be the most Christ-like, forgiving Sister Hildegarde and the convent for their misdeeds. When Martin turns to her in amazement and says it’s easy to forgive, Philomena snaps that it isn’t easy at all. It’s bloody hard. But she does it because it is what Christ would want her to do. In her mind, she is remaining true to her faith – even if the church itself has not. It’s a powerful moment.

This is one that might get by even film buffs. With all the big Holiday blockbusters and Oscar contenders coming out, this might slip below your radar. Don’t let it. This is an amazing film that hits all the right notes. Even though occasionally it does twist the knife a little bit, it still manages to cover a difficult and painful subject compassionately, perhaps more so than I, a Catholic, would have in the same situation.

REASONS TO GO: Marvelous performances by Coogan and especially Dench. Gripping story.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally manipulative.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some fairly strong language at times, mature thematic material and some sexual situations and dialogue.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Home movies are used as a flashback device throughout the film. While some of these were created specifically for the movie, some are actual home movies of the real Philomena Lee’s son.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/3/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Magdalene Sisters

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: In Darkness