• Sunday Essay #6: Government as Source of Fake News

    • Posted on Jan 07, 2018

    Here's today's (1-7) Courier column, which also serves this week as Sunday Essay, #6.  Spielberg's latest film THE POST is due out this Friday, and it ties into the Vietnam War film, as well as our ongoing need for a free press, able to expose government lies.  


                Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's recent “The Vietnam War” documentary deserves a careful viewing for anyone interested in American culture and history.  Granted, that’s no small feat—it’s over seventeen grueling hours of America’s Vietnam war history.     

                 I’ll be helping discuss the film in a March public forum as well as an April adult ed course, so I’ve been re-watching it and reading the accompanying book.   Also I’m researching other sources, including Robert McNamara’s mea culpa book: “In Retrospect—the Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.”  And pondering the film “The Most Dangerous Man in America,” about Daniel Ellsberg’s role in getting Vietnam war facts to the media.    

                I can hardly wait for “The Post,” Steven Spielberg’s new film, about the sharp conflict between the Washington Post and the Nixon administration over the publication of the classified Pentagon Vietnam study, dubbed “The Pentagon Papers.”

                It’s all been depressing and heartening in equal measure.  

                Consider:  The “Pentagon Papers” study was nothing more than an accurate, detailed history of the Vietnam war from the beginning, commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and researched by 36 analysts.  McNamara asked for an “encyclopedic” history of the war up to 1967, and he got it. 

                It should have been required reading for Americans earlier in the war. Its knowledge might have saved thousands of American and Vietnamese lives. 

                Yet it was classified “Top Secret,” and in 1971 the Nixon administration desperately and unsuccessfully tried to prevent its publication.  Daniel Ellsberg, the New York Times, and the Washington Post were threatened with severe legal penalties if they published it. In fact, the New York Times had already printed some of it before an injunction halted further publication. 

                The “Pentagon Papers” revealed that four presidents repeatedly lied about the war and America’s involvement in it.  They worried that factual truth would have made America and its leaders lose face. Their fear of Russian and Chinese communism kept driving them deeper into what was basically a Vietnamese civil war. We now know that the U.S. created a country--South Vietnam--in order to fight communism. 

                Our Defense Secretary at the time, Robert McNamara, played a major role, and he confesses that he got it wrong, as did Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson.          

                In effect, our leaders fed the public fake news, which newspapers dutifully reported, thereby creating a country full of deceived believers.  Fake stories from the government inevitably led to false beliefs among the American public. 

                Sound familiar? 

                The only American institution that stood up against government lying was the mainstream media—large newspapers printing facts that might have saved us from a worse catastrophe. That’s the heartening part. 

                As Justice Hugo Black wrote for the Supreme Court, “Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people. . .”

                Put another way, the media is only fake when it prints government lies.  




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  • Sunday Essay #5: Three Recent Films Worth Watching

    • Posted on Dec 31, 2017

    Three Recent Films Worth Seeing, in order of worthiness-- Molly’s Game, dir. Aaron Sorkin, The Shape of Water, dir. Guillermo del Toro, and Mudbound, dir. Dee Rees. 

    Molly’s Game takes some getting used to—it’s extra-talky, and the talk contains a good deal of poker jargon that gushes at viewers like water from a firehose.  Clearly, Sorkin is a writer more than a director, and his writer’s stamp and style defines the film.  Remember long soliloquies in West Wing? This film feels and looks like an extended episode of West Wing set in high-end hotels in LA and New York.        

    Here’s a film about amorality—a lack of ethical consciousness on the part of high-rollers with too much money and time on their hands—and who develop an addiction to the adrenalin rushes that a winning poker hand inevitably delivers.

    It’s worth watching because Jessica Chastain, playing the crafty and gritty Molly Bloom, manipulates super-rich gambling addicts into paying her serious money to arrange high-stakes poker games. 

    The subplot about her brutal and cold father (Kevin Costner) helps explain Molly’s anger    and inability to connect emotionally to anyone, though it doesn’t explain her inability to care about ethical issues of constant lying and cheating. 

    If you liked Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, you’ll love her in Molly’s Game. 


    The Shape of Water works as a Beauty and the Beast story, meaning it taps into mankind’s most ancient and wise insights. It serves as an archetypal reminder that appearances deceive the best of us, and rewards await those who dismiss appearances and seek deeper realities.  Movies have told and retold this story since the very beginning, whenever a story reveals monsters who reveal goodness, or whenever beautiful people turn out to be monsters.

    Villainy takes beautiful forms, and beauty and goodness sometimes appear monstrous. So The Shape of Water contains visual reminders of The Creature from the Black Lagoon as well as ethical distortions from scientists reminiscent of King Kong.

    It’s worth watching because the main characters—the beauty and the beast—transform from lost, threatened, miserable beings into fully alive, even ecstatic individuals who meld into one another not just as erotic lovers, but as fearless believers in their own right to live their lives without interference from those who would destroy them.  


    Mudbound is a Netflix original, which means that you can only watch it on your TV with your Netflix membership. It was released in only 17 theaters around the country on Nov. 17—the same day it was released for home viewing on Netflix. This makes it eligible for the Oscars—and it may be the first Netflix film to be so nominated.  A new era dawns?        

    It fact, Mudbound deserves more than a few Oscar nominations.  It’s hard to watch at times—in fact impossible for some viewers who will cringe and weep at what the characters, especially the Ronsel Jackson character—played by Jason Mitchell—must undergo. This is suffering beyond the pale, and it’s set up in the story so as to feel inevitable—and utterly, horribly unjust. 

    Viewers come to love and admire Ronsel, and frustrated by his being trapped in an apartheid culture that will destroy him, given his new-found liberation as an American soldier in Europe returning to small-town racist Alabama. His evolving, powerful friendship with Jamie McAllan, (Garrett Hedlund) a white fellow war veteran, gives both characters an opportunity for moral transformation that drives the narrative.

    Mudbound isn’t just worth watching—it’s an essential film, one of those films that can alter perceptions and attitudes permanently about racial injustice, families, and American apartheid.

    I can’t help but mention actor Jonathan Banks, who played the crusty and memorable Mike Ehrmantrout in both Breaking Bad and its spin-off Better Call Saul. In Mudbound he plays Pappy McAllan, the racist Klan monster who embodies the ugly nihilism of racial hatred—and who gets exactly what he deserves. 


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