E. Haig’s Reviews of Four Fall Films

The major studios and film producers are still holding the big Oscar candidates for release next month, but four films that might get some Oscar notice are already in theaters.  Each merits attention.  Here are capsule reviews:

“The Martian” – With Ridley Scott as its director and Matt Damon as its star, this film has gotten its fair share of very positive, if not glowing, reviews.  The story is shamelessly contrived from the opening scene, which has Damon’s character abandoned by his crewmates on Mars when a sudden storm (never fully explained) for some reason forces the evacuation of the planet.  Damon’s character survives the storm, unbeknownst to everyone on Earth for the first third of the picture.  During that time, as the lone human on this very foreign planet, he figures out how to survive until someone can attempt to rescue him.

The story (from a 2011 novel by Andy Weir; screenplay by Drew Goddard) is fairly predictable (at least it was to us), but it has its heart-pounding moments nonetheless.  And, for an extra five bucks or so, you can see the whole thing in 3-D, although there wasn’t much value added for us in that part of the experience.  Still, the whole thing is a “trip,” if you get our drift, and worth three and a half (out of four) cheers.

“Steve Jobs” – Michael Fassbender does a great job in playing the title role in this Danny Boyle directed biopic about the guy who gave us the Mac and the iPhone and all the other gadgets that are now so ubiquitous in daily life.  The depiction of the man (script by Aaron Sorkin from Walter Isaacson’s biography) is said to be either spot on or grossly inaccurate depending on whose opinion you happen to be hearing.  Close friends and associates of him say it is unduly harsh, presenting him as something of a heartless bully.  Those with less personal connection claim it shows him as he really was.

Regardless of which view is correct, the film is engrossing and entertaining, even if it lags a bit towards the end and borders on mawkish sentiment in its closing scene.  The production values are first-rate, the supporting cast (Jeff Daniels, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogan, and Michael Stuhlbarg) is solid, and the cinematography (with the three acts shot, in succession, in 16 mm, 35 mm, and digital format) is clever.  It’s a film to be admired more than loved, but the craftsmanship is so strong and the story (however accurate it is or isn’t) so compelling that it definitely merits three and a half (with a nudge towards four) cheers.

“Bridge of Spies” – Steven Spielberg’s latest is a quiet epic, which might sound oxymoronic, but is more probably damning with faint praise.  But there is much to admire, and much less to sneer at (as in many of his other major releases – “Lincoln” and “War Horse” come to mind) in this telling of the way that Gary Powers (the downed U-2 pilot at the height of the Cold War) was recovered from the Soviet Union in exchange for a Soviet spy (Rudolf Abel).

Criticism of the film has been focused on the fact that the plot is slow in developing.  (The screenplay is by Joel and Ethan Coen.)  A more accurate concern would be that it isn’t all that interesting unless you have a memory (or awareness) of the actual event and the times that surrounded it.  But that deficit, if such it is, ultimately doesn’t seem all that significant because the film resonates on its own merits.

Tom Hanks stars as the insurance attorney who oddly finds himself in the role of principal negotiator on behalf of the U.S.  Hanks is so good in just about anything he does that his talent can be taken for granted.  It shouldn’t be.  As in 2013’s “Captain Phillips,” he is deserving of an Oscar for his portrayal, and it will be a shame if he isn’t at least nominated.  And Mark Rylance is wonderful as the unassuming Soviet spy who refuses to worry (“would it help?” is one of those lines that makes the character).  This one is tricky and takes hold slowly, but it is a gets a solid three and a half cheers from us.

“Truth” – Remember that flap back in 2004 about whether President Bush really served in the Texas Air National Guard?  You probably don’t, because the story was lost in the hustle of the election campaign, especially after Dan Rather’s “60 Minutes” report questioning whether Bush had used special influence to get into the Guard was trashed by the White House propaganda machine.

Rather’s producer for that report was Mary Mapes, and after she was fired by CBS (for supposedly botching the story), she wrote a book about the incident and its implications for American journalism.  That book has finally been made into a movie and it stars Cate Blanchett as the producer and Robert Redford as Rather.  And the truth is that Mapes and Rather (who resigned as executive producer of the CBS Nightly News because of the CBS internal investigation) had it right after all.  Or at least that’s what the book and the movie claim.

The film is clumsy in setting the stage for the underlying story, but it doesn’t pull its punches when it counts.  While not at the level of brilliance that director Michael Mann achieved in “The Insider” (that one is a truly great film), this one serves as a very good reminder of the power of money (ultimately) to thwart the truth and thereby warrants a solid three cheers.

Bad Enough, But What If … ?

The civilized nations of the world, most especially those who are industrialized, were shocked at the brazen and murderous attacks in Paris last week.  And, to be sure, they were horrible, both in terms of the devastation they created, but even more significantly, because of the extreme vulnerability they exposed within the most ordinary of public gathering places.

The headlines and news coverage of the attacks give rise to the obvious question: Just how unsafe are we?   And the answer may be far more unsafe than we have previously thought conceivable.

Now, to be sure, no one can be other than appalled at the assault on human decency that the terrorist attacks in Paris represent.  But they are more a threat to the natural order of civilized life than they are to the lives of a significant number of individuals.  Even if the actual number of casualties currently being reported should double, less than a thousand people will have been killed or injured.  That many will die in random homicides in the United States this month.

So we don’t so much mourn the number of those affected (recall that even the 9/11 attacks killed less than three thousand) as we do the loss of that sense of safety in our normal lives.

But in this regard, we may well be just a tad solipsistic.  Consider for example, that in many otherwise civilized communities in Mexico, gang warfare between drug cartels puts ordinary citizens at risk of such violence every day.  Similarly, in much of the Middle East, most especially in large parts of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, normal life includes the very real possibility that a loved one will be killed by warring factions or that a town will be destroyed by an invading horde of freedom fighters or Islamists (or, perhaps, by an errant cruise missile).  For decades, Israelis have lived with the reality of random terrorist attacks (car bombs and the like) and Palestinians have suffered the indignities of apartheid as a result.  And in many parts of Africa, tribal wars still put the lives of many in constant peril.  And those are just a few of the world’s less than ideal places to call home.

But for the United States, Canada and most of Europe these very real threats and less than ideal living conditions are, well, foreign.  They aren’t what we’re used to and they aren’t deemed acceptable.

And so we declare “war” on the terrorists, as if that declaration will somehow immobilize the relatively small cadre of ideologues and religious zealots who believe that in each act of terror they create they are carrying out God’s will.  Francois Hollande, France’s president, became the latest national leader to make that statement (“We are at war”) last weekend, and he then ordered an air assault on a town in Syria believed to be an ISIS stronghold.

Hollande’s bombs will undoubtedly kill some masterminds of terrorist attacks, but they won’t defeat the ideology behind them.  The nasty thing about terrorism is that it is the most perverse form of guerrilla warfare.  It requires only a handful of “ground troops,” and, as is apparently the case in the Paris attacks, they may concoct the plan on their own, gaining, at most, tacit approval from “headquarters” before inflicting the mayhem on the populace.

So declaring war (and then acting as if we are in full-fledged battle with a foreign state) might not be the path to “victory,” not if the ideology remains virulent and the “headquarters” can reappear anywhere on a moment’s notice.

ISIS/ISIL/The Islamic State (take your pick) has been a more dramatic (and despicable) form of that ideology, but its warriors are the same kind of misguided young men who caused the Patriot’s Day massacre (two ideologically fanatic brothers) and the 9/11 attacks (20 suicidal “martyrs”).  If it’s a war, it isn’t against the Third Reich or even the Viet Cong.

What the West really has to fear, and why ISIS (let’s go with that one) is a real potential threat, is not what might continue to be its current form of terrorism.  Yes, the loss of any innocent life is tragic, and the loss of the sense of safety in a civilized community is beyond regrettable, but as I’ve noted, in many parts of the world, those things are part of daily existence.  That they may become more prevalent in our back yard is not a pleasant thought, but neither was the idea that we’d have to pass through metal detectors at major sporting events or on entering government buildings.  Yet we seem to have grown accustomed to the necessity of those losses of freedom, such as they are.

The real threat from ISIS, or from any variant of the Islamist movement, is that its disciples will one day procure or manufacture weapons of mass destruction.  For if they do, it is very likely that they will believe most fervently that God has given them that weaponry to further His will, to wit: the mass extermination of the world’s infidels.  In such an instance, the civilized world as we know it will be threatened with the kind of catastrophe that even climatologists with the worst fears of global warming do not deem possible.

The immediate death of millions of human beings was the great fear of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union and the United States poised constantly to destroy each other if either pushed its nationalistic or ideological pursuits too far.  The Cuban missile crisis was as close as we came, and, for those of us who lived through it, it was as close as we’d ever want to come.

But in that standoff, the fate of two nations and two empires that had every reason to want to survive weighed against Armageddon.  The Islamist ideology has no such self-restraint, for martyrdom is part of the creed, even enhancing the joys of paradise that death would bring.  And as for the rest of us, we are the infidels that God/Allah has deemed must be destroyed anyway.

And so, today’s lesson is that we need to keep things in perspective.  Yes, the Paris terrorist attacks were bad enough, but what if . . . ?


Why ISIS Is Even Scarier than You Think

The Russian passenger jet, the one that seems to have exploded in mid-air last week killing all 224 on board, may not have been downed by a bomb, but it is hard to avoid the thought that it could have been.  And if you truly understand what ISIS is all about, you know that things will most likely get worse, a lot worse, before (and even if) they ever get better.  (ISIS is also referred to as ISIL and the Islamic State.  Each title refers to the same group of radical Islamists.)


Since it first became a force in the Middle East, ISIS has been a mystery.  It may be comprised of as few as 100,000 fighters (some reports suggest even a smaller number), yet it has gained control of large geographic areas in Iraq and Syria and has even installed ruling governments in those regions.  The organization is best known for its headline-making atrocities like the videotaped beheadings of captives and its wanton slaughter of Yazidis in northern Iraq.  And now it may be responsible for the downing (either by bomb or ground-to-air missile) of that Russian passenger jet en route to St. Petersburg from Cairo.

As horrific as its actions have been, the organization appears to be attracting a sizeable number of young men (and, to a lesser extent, women) to join its cause.  In many instances these young people are willingly being trained to sacrifice their lives as human bombs in terrorist attacks.  Last summer two such young students in America were arrested before they could embark on a trek to ISIS where they were anxious to join in the fight (perhaps even to go on suicide missions in a terrorist attack).

The Obama administration has been seeking ways to defeat ISIS militarily (without putting U.S. troops on the ground).  It is a difficult strategy, since local forces appear to be fighting a losing battle, while Syria, where much of the fighting takes place, is in the midst of a brutal civil war fought by a variety of anti-government groups, some of which are also opposed to ISIS, while others may be allied with it.

Many Americans, both in government and in the general populace, oppose sending U.S. troops into the fray, but most are also concerned enough about avoiding another 9/11-like attack to be anxious for more to be done to defeat this ultra-terrorist group.  But in a new book, Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz speak of a far longer lasting and intractable threat that ISIS represents: the threat of the militant Islamist movement.

Sam Harris is a well-regarded secular commentator, who has gained fame for his strongly held atheist views.  Maajid Nawaz is a reformed Islamist who formed and now heads Quilliam, a counter-terrorism think-tank dedicated to overcoming the threat the militant Islamist movement represented by the Islamic State.  Their dialogue on the threat posed by ISIS is presented in “Islam and the Future of Tolerance.”  It is an important book, one that should certainly be read by President Obama and his foreign policy advisers, but that should also be read by anyone who is concerned about the future of the Muslim religion and of modern civilization.  In other words, it should really be read by everyone.

The book is being advertised as a triumph of understanding as the avowed atheist and the devout Muslim find common ground through a civilized and respectful dialogue.  But don’t let the hype fool you.  What the book is really about is the threat of Islamist terrorism, and the common ground the two learned men reach is on the nature and reality of that threat.

In a nutshell, here is what their dialogue reveals:

o Islamism is a form of religious fundamentalism that is based on a strict constructionist reading of the Koran. The actions of Islamist groups like ISIS and the Taliban in its most virulent form are taken in the firm belief that they represent the will of God (Allah) as revealed by the prophet Mohammed.

In this regard, Mr. Nawaz makes clear that the Taliban’s slaughter of 145 school children is viewed by Islamists as a blessing for those killed, as the slaughtered are being sent straight to paradise.  Ditto those young suicide bombers and the Muslims they take with them (to paradise) in their terrorist assaults.

o As an ideology, groups like the Islamic State and the Taliban will not be eradicated solely by military means. Ideologies that are based on religious beliefs are much harder to defeat than those based on economic theories (e.g., communism) or nationalistic fervor (Nazi Germany and Hirohito’s Japan).

Islamists believe that only through the complete eradication of infidels (non-believers) will God’s plan be realized.  They view their mission to be a world of one faith: their form of Islam.  They are not interested in co-existence and do not fear death, especially death secured in a holy war, since they are then martyrs who gain special privileges in paradise.

o The vast majority of Muslims are not Islamists, but many Muslims accept the relatively strict readings of the Koran and interpret the teachings of the prophet seriously.

Thus they are less inclined to join in opposition to Islamist terrorist groups like ISIS and may even be sympathetic to the efforts of groups like the Taliban and ISIS to institute Sharia law (the law of the Book, which includes stoning adulterers and chopping off the hands of thieves, among other barbaric punishments).

Harris and Nawaz agree on these points and the threat to modern civilization that Islamism represents.  They also agree that ISIS must be defeated.  Where they may disagree is on the deeper question of how.  Nawaz is committed to defeating the ideology of Islamism and to thereby preserving the religion.  Harris is only moderately comforted by that goal.  He fears, as perhaps we all should, that within the hearts of many devout Muslims the seeds of Islamist thinking may still fester, harboring therein the risk that the terrorism of tomorrow may make the bombing of a Russian jetliner last week look like child’s play.

E. Haig’s Review of a New Play at STC

Benjamin Franklin is one of the most popular and highly regarded of the country’s “founding fathers.”  His life story has been told in any number of biographies (most notably H.W. Brands’ “The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin” (2000) and Walter Isaacson’s “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life” (2003)).  But little is commonly known or understood about his personal life.

Gary Wright’s new play, “Of Kites and Kings,” reveals a darker side of that personal life in relating the difficult relationship Franklin had with his illegitimate son, William.  The play is currently being staged on the Pollock Stage at the Sacramento Theater Company.  It is entertaining and educational and, on both counts, is well worth seeing.

Mr. Wright’s version of the relationship is told through the narration of Polly Stevenson, who owns the London boarding house where Franklin stays on his extended trips to England.  Ms. Stevenson may or may not have had the long-lasting relationship with father and son (Mr. Wright has undoubtedly used some literary license in the creation of her character), but the artifice works very well, especially since she is played in this production by the marvelous Katie Rubin, who all but steals the show in scene after scene.

To be sure, the tale is about the father and the son, but Mr. Wright has chosen to tell it with a heavy dose of comedy, much of it provided by Ms. Stevenson’s character.  Her narration, neatly woven into the real-time scenes in which she interacts with the male characters, includes occasional mind-trips (all from her perspective) and role playing (of other men and women in the story).  At times, she is playing two different roles in the same scene, all with nearly over-the-top élan from Ms. Rubin.

The men in the story, Ben, Will, and Will’s son Temple (also illegitimate) are shown at various stages of their relationships.  The first (and last) scenes show Ben and Will flying a kite in the midst of a thunderstorm, conducting Ben’s famous experiment that led to his discovery of the electrical power of lightning.  The scene is wonderfully staged by director Eric Wheeler, and it recurs throughout the play, each time with more dramatic significance.

Mr. Wheeler also uses an above stage projection of scene titles to great effect.  Those titles often provide a touch of humor in themselves.  In fact, his adroit use of the relatively small space on the Pollock stage is noteworthy, as are the fine performances he gets from the entire cast.  In addition to Ms. Rubin, Ted Barton is excellent as Benjamin, who, even if he isn’t shown to age significantly over the 33 years that the story covers, still projects the father’s overbearing, if loving, concern for his son.

The most demanding role might be of the son, and as Will, Dan Fagan conveys all the pathos of his character, at first serving his father with obeisance, if not reverence, and later defying him as their views of English rule of the colonies diverge.  Mr. Fagan captures the son’s ultimate loss of self-respect in the play’s closing scenes with a poignancy that is heartbreaking, even as his father’s break with his son seems heartless.

Rounding out the cast, Riley Edwards (alternating in performances with Adrian Anderson) was appropriately impertinent as Ben’s grandson.  The effective set design on the small Pollock stage is the work of Eric Broadwater.  Lighting and sound were designed by Les Solomon.  Jessica Minnihan provided the period appropriate costumes.

There is much to laugh at in “Of Kites and Kings,” but in the end the laughter only partially covers the inherent sadness in the tale of a great man who was unable to maintain a loving relationship with his son.

Performances of “Of Kites and Kings” continue on the Pollock Stage at the Sacramento Theatre Company through December 13. Tickets and information are available at the theater box office (1419 H St.), by phone (916-443-6722) and online (www.sactheatre.org).