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

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The Brainwashing of My Dad


The assault of the information age.

The assault of the information age.

(2015) Documentary (Gravitas) Matthew Modine (voice), Jen Senko, Claire Conner, David Brock, Craig Unger, Gabriel Sherman, Roger Ailes, Reese Schonfeld, Rick Perlstein, George Lakoff, Noam Chomsky, Thom Hartmann, Jeff Cohen, Thomas Medvetz, Steve Rendell, Edward S. Herman, Carol Wallin. Directed by Jen Senko

The phenomenon of right-wing media isn’t a new one, but in many ways it is at an apex currently. With Fox News being the dominant news channel in the United States, with Rush Limbaugh being one of the most popular radio personalities in the U.S. it’s a wonder that any liberals get elected at all.

Jen Senko noticed that her dad Frank, a World War II veteran and as a young man a Kennedy Democrat, was changing. He was getting more irritable and less tolerant of the opinions of other. He often sent profanity-laced messages to his wife when she’d disagree with his opinions online; he often denigrated the opinions of his own family and grew increasingly more xenophobic. What changed?

Senko, being a documentary filmmaker, thought the question was worth putting on celluloid. She places the blame squarely on Limbaugh, whose radio program her father began to listen to on his long commute from work, and on Fox News, which he often stayed up all night to watch. She feels very strongly that the messages sent out by FNC and right wing conservative talk radio actually changed the way her father thought.

She looks back at the history of mass media in this country and at one critical event; the dismantling of the Fairness Doctrine during the Reagan Administration, for example. The Fairness Doctrine required that holders of broadcast licenses present issues of public importance in a fair and balanced manner, and that an opposing viewpoint was given the opportunity to air. Under the guise that this violated the constitutional right to free speech, doctrine was abolished in 1987.

She also looks at Ailes, a media consultant under the Nixon Administration, and his determination to establish a right-wing presence in the media, which was perceived as being left-leaning. Under his direction, corporations and wealthy private citizens were encouraged to promote right wing agendas and influence institutions like the courts, higher education and media outlets. Ailes would go on to be hired by Rupert Murdoch to run his fledgling Fox News Channel, a position Ailes holds to this day.

Senko interviews a number of philosophers, media experts, linguists and grassroots activists who are out to stop the flow of misinformation and distortion they see flowing out of the right-wing media. Some of the information coming from these sources is eye-opening and thought-provoking. The more affecting moments in the film, however, come from family members who have similar stories to Senko about mainly fathers (and sometimes mothers) whose personalities changed after watching Fox News and listening to conservative talk radio, often parroting the intolerant views of Limbaugh and his ilk. These family members became suspicious and hostile towards anything non-white, non-Christian and of course, non-conservative.

Senko is an intelligent filmmaker who shows the progression of right wing media from its infancy to its current clout, and shows how the entire progression was orchestrated deliberately. Certainly it is impressive how well the architects of the current conservative media completed their mission not only to bring a right-wing voice to the media but to essentially drown out the left-wing voice.

Certainly there is a great deal of intelligence and thought behind this film and some of the conclusions that are reached are downright scary. However, I’m not 100% convinced that the change in the political landscape that we have seen is entirely due to “brainwashing.” While I would tend to agree that what is coming from Fox News, and other right wing commentators is essentially propaganda (and to be fair, left wingers are guilty of that as well), I can’t entirely agree that the process is brainwashing to the degree that the filmmakers claim. Some of the anger, the fear and the xenophobia that the right wing has played upon in its run to political dominance had to have been present all along, and that’s not really addressed. You can’t prey upon people’s fears if they aren’t already afraid.

Certainly this will be dismissed by those already leaning towards the red state of affairs; those who are diehard blue-staters will have their worst fears confirmed. The filmmakers make some very cogent points and I admire the way they break things down but I’m not entirely sure that they did all their homework. After all, there are no dissenting points of view here and isn’t that what the filmmakers are railing against?

REASONS TO GO: Thought-provoking and at times chilling. Will likely energize left-wingers.
REASONS TO STAY: Presents information in essentially a typical documentary style. Conclusions may overreach the facts.
FAMILY VALUES: Some challenging thematic material, and occasional bursts of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The animated sequences were provided by Bill Plympton.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Weapons of Mass Deception
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Hello, My Name is Doris

The Emperor’s New Clothes


Get me to the financial meltdown on time.

Get me to the financial meltdown on time.

(2015) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Russell Brand. Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Wealth inequality is a major social issue in 2016 and looks to be for a long while. The same people responsible for the financial collapse of 2008 that very nearly wrecked the global economy have benefitted from trillions of dollars in financial bailouts generated by the taxpayers of the United States and United Kingdom.

We hear about these issues from progressive bloggers, left-wing news outlets and progressive politicians. Few have made these issues more relatable however than comedian Russell Brand. While his movie appearances and brief marriage to singer Katie Perry have made him fairly well known on American shores, it is in Great Britain where he is much more of a well-known figure, thanks to his comedy specials and television programs.

He is something of a gadfly, a populist comic who has become a social activist. He has always leaned to the left in his comedy but of late he has emphasized his activism a lot more, as shown in this documentary collaboration with filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (The Trip) as he tilts at the windmills that are British bankers.

While Brand focuses on the problems in his native United Kingdom, the issues there are somewhat depressingly similar to what is happening in the United States. Using memes and an occasional in-your-face rhetoric in which statistics are shouted in a strident voice, Brand nevertheless builds up a convincing argument that Fundamentalist Capitalism as advocated by economist Milton Friedman and put into practice by Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and conservatives that have followed in their footsteps, is responsible for the runaway economic woes that have come from the rich not only getting richer and the poor not only getting poorer, but the disparity between the two growing wider than ever.

Statistics come at you like body blows from Rocky Balboa; OXFAM reports that the world’s wealthiest 80 people has the combined wealth of the bottom half of the world population, or that had the minimum wage gone up at the same rate as CEO salaries, then workers would be making a minimum salary of nearly six figures annually.

He utilizes a confrontational technique popularized by documentary filmmaker Michael Moore in seeking out banking executives for interviews (who only give them when ambushed by Brand and his camera crew) to ask uncomfortable questions about the bailout, bonuses given by banking firms since then and their own excessively bloated compensation packages. Often he ends up spending more time with security guards with whom he discusses what he’s planning on asking their bosses, which is ironic since the guards are part of the 99% he’s preaching to.

And it is preaching. Even Brand himself admits that he’s a wealthy man and occasionally jokes about raising taxes on the wealthy to exclude himself, but he advocates 90% taxation on the wealthy, a plan that he seems to dash when he also brings up the tax havens in the Cayman Islands and elsewhere where trillions of dollars are being held benefiting essentially only the very rich.

Brand is an engaging and likable personality and when he is showing compassion to single working mums, he seems to be at his best although there are instances (as when he’s talking with a woman afflicted with cerebral palsy whose benefits were drastically cut) where you feel that he is playing to the camera a bit overly much.

I can’t say this is an indispensable documentary – there is a bit of pandering to the hipster left and some of the stunts are a bit disingenuous but the heart is in the right place. Your reaction to the movie will entirely depend on your political point of view; conservative audiences will no doubt dislike the film while more progressive viewers may well embrace it. Film buffs could admire the graphic presentation and disparage Winterbottom’s static camera work.

Certainly this is one of the more important issues (behind climate change) of our time. Brand makes a good case that this is money that these families didn’t actually earn, and whom for the most part inherited and used their power and influence to buy political votes in order to make the tax structures more accommodating to them and make it easier for them to not only keep their wealth but increase it – at the expense of everyone else.

REASONS TO GO: A succinct explanation of wealth inequality. Brand is an engaging personality.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes you feel shouted at. These sorts of confrontation hijinks have been done before.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of two documentaries about Russell Brand’s crusade against wealth inequality released last year (the other being Russell Brand: The Second Coming by Ondi Timoner).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Roger and Me
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Danish Girl

Big Miracle


Big Miracle

Drew Barrymore is not so sure about her big kissing scene with her latest co-star.

(2012) Family (Universal) Drew Barrymore, John Krasinski, Kristen Bell, Dermot Mulroney, Tim Blake Nelson, Ted Danson, Stephen Root, John Pingayak, Ahmaogak Sweeney, Kathy Baker, Vinessa Shaw, Andrew Daly, John Michael Higgins, Gregory Jbara, James LeGros, Rob Riggle, Sarah Palin. Directed by Ken Kwapis

 

Americans sometimes overly admire self-reliance. There’s nothing we love more than a lone wolf taking care of business on his/her own. Situations arise in life however where help is needed. Generally we as a nation despise asking for assistance although there are instances where reaching out is the only way.

Adam Carlson (Krasinski) is a reporter for an Anchorage television station whose current assignment in the winter of 1988 is to go to small towns on the fringes of the 49th State and file reports about life on the last frontier. He has amassed quite a following in the small town of Port Barrow, Alaska where he is finishing up his most recent assignment, particularly from Nathan (Sweeney), a young Inuit lad who is a bit star-struck and looks to be fleeing tiny Barrow for bigger and better things.

Filing one last story, Adam notices something rather peculiar – water spouts coming from a small hole in the ice five miles from the nearest ocean. Upon further investigation, it is discovered that three California Gray Whales are trapped there, cut off from the ocean where their fellows have begun their Southerly migration. In a short time, the hole will freeze over and the whales will drown, having no means of getting air.

The filing of this story causes quite a ripple effect. Greenpeace activist (and Adam’s ex-girlfriend) Rachel Kramer (Barrymore) charges in, guns blazing, in an effort to rescue the whales and alienate the humans who might not necessarily agree with her points of view. One of those is oilman J.W. McGraw (Danson) who has a towable ice hover barge that is only a few miles away; it can break up the ice and carve a path to the ocean for the whales but Rachel and J.W. have had run-ins before over oil drilling rights in Wilderness Preserves.

The national guard has to be mobilized in order to get the helicopters to tow the barge to Barrow, which requires the co-operation of the Governor (Root) who isn’t giving it, until Kelly Meyers (Shaw), one of Reagan’s press coordinators in the White House recognizes an opportunity to improve her boss’s environmental record and give a boost to the Bush campaign (the first George, not the second) and puts pressure on the Governor to co-operate.

Colonel Scott Boyer (Mulroney) is assigned to lead the helicopter team to move the huge barges but it is a dicey proposition at best. Meanwhile, the media is descending on tiny little Barrow to cover what has become an international sensation, including L.A. reporter Jill Jerard (Bell) who like Adam yearns for the big time.

In the meantime, the situation for the whales – dubbed Fred, Wilma and Bam-Bam – is getting more desperate by the hour and it doesn’t appear as if help is going to arrive in time. There is something closer that may well be the only chance for the whales. The trouble is, that it’s a Soviet icebreaker and to allow them to save the day might not be possible in that political climate.

These are based on actual events (Kwapis skillfully intercuts actual footage from the incident) although the plot has been condensed and made Hollywood-friendly. On paper it seems like it could be one of those treacly family movies that just reeks of cliché – dumbed down to kid levels. There is a kid here but unlike most family movies he doesn’t save the day – instead Nathan is taught the beauty of his heritage and learns to value his ethnic background. Otherwise, this is a movie that the whole family can appreciate.

The cast is well-assembled. Krasinski in particular is one of the most likable leads working in Hollywood today and the more movie work he gets, the more likely it is that the small screen is not going to be able to afford him shortly. Personally I think he’s one or two roles from being a huge star.

Barrymore is likewise a reliable lead, albeit further up the wattage ladder than Krasinski. She usually plays ditzy – and there’s a hint of that in Rachel – but she takes the committed environmentalist with tunnel vision cliché (she won’t wear make-up because so much of it is animal tested for example) and rather than make the character a caricature gives her flesh and blood instead. It’s a nice portrayal and illustrates why she’s one of Hollywood’s finest.

Danson, Nelson (as a state wildlife expert) and Baker are all fine actors who never disappoint; Danson is as close to a villain as the movie gets but he’s just so dang likable you wind up kind of wanting him to do the right thing – and not to be much of a spoiler but he does.

In fact, nearly everybody does the right thing here. It’s one of those movies where there are no real villains other than the elements and the conviction and commitment of the people of Barrow and those whom the story touches becomes the real focal point. That’s where the warmth is in the story, despite the chilly setting (which was filmed in British Columbia rather than Alaska).

The whales are portrayed both animatronically (well done) and by CGI (not so well done) and remain more or less on the periphery. Yes, everyone loves them and wants to save them but the people are the focus of the story. It becomes a family film that actually doesn’t pander to the kids at the expense of the adults, but rather treats kids intelligently and expects them to understand what’s happening without drawing in crayon.

I found myself liking this more than I expected to. Originally sentenced to the doldrums of the first release week in January, Universal moved it up into February, perhaps because the movie turned out better than they expected it to. This is good solid family entertainment that doesn’t disappoint the kids or the adults and hopefully, not the studio accountants either. Movies like this are to be encouraged.

REASONS TO GO: An engaging story. Krasinski is rapidly becoming one of the most compelling leads in Hollywood. Doesn’t talk down to its family audience, at least not much.

REASONS TO STAY: CGI whales aren’t always authentic looking.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stephen Root’s Governor Haskell is a fictional character; the governor of Alaska t the time this actually took place was Steve Cowper who was fairly supportive of the rescue efforts.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100. The reviews are solidly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dolphin Tale

INUIT LOVERS: Offers a rare and intimate look at Inuit culture in modern society, specifically in regard to their view about whales and how they use them for food and as a spiritual touchstone as well.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Journey 2: Mysterious Island