Violent-Young-Men Movies: Teenage Sociopaths Are Everywhere!
The fresh batch of films coming out of Tribeca2017 seems to have a violent teenage psychopath every time you turn around. What turns our young men into crazy killers? At the same time as a slew of documentaries and true-life tales are depicting the courage and moral fortitude of actual young men around the world, responding to terrorism and war with bravery – going to extraordinary lengths to save lives, we get a bunch of “thriller” films that depict American young men as narcissistic psychopaths who revel in bloody violence. On one hand there is City of Ghosts, Dabka, and When God Sleeps, for starters – peace-seeking films about heroism, and on the other is The Dinner, Super Dark Times, Sweet Virginia, and even The Gray State, all featuring violence-obsessed middle-class Americans. Is there a cultural connection? Helen is Highly contemplating the significance of this, while I write some short reviews of these Tribeca thrillers:
I’ll start with The Dinner, directed by Oren Moverman – an intelligent thriller, starring big-names Richard Gere and Laura Linney, which is a well-made, well-balanced film that is an adaptation of the Herman Koch bestseller (first published in the Netherlands in 2009 but now smoothly re-made into an all-American tale). The film begins as a kind of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf-ish gentil sit-down between two well-dressed and well-mannered couples, and with smart editing and sophisticated structure, it skillfully reveals the violent underpinnings to this story. The film’s layers and complexity make it engrossing. I also will say here that the performances are all stellar, including the other two leads, Steve Coogan and Rebecca Hall. And the cinematography is top-notch, which adds to the startling revelations and juxtaposition of civility and brutality.
This may be the most thoughtful of these violent-young-men movies, with a serious and nuanced nod to the challenges of mental illness. But that mental illness does not belong to the violent young man whose horrific actions are at the center of the tale. Is the teenage son turned into a violent sociopath by his father’s badly-controlled rage, despite being otherwise surrounded by a supportive and nurturing family, and an especially close relationship with his mother?
Is that really how sociopaths are built? And if not, then… what? I guess the teen boy could have inherited some mental illness from his father, but the father’s behavior is closely detailed and scrutinized, while the son shows no early signs of imbalance – until this one spectacular act of terror. I left thinking that was the weak point of an otherwise intelligent movie. Maybe I am underestimating the suddenness with which severe mental illness can manifest. But the movie does not fill in the blanks, so I am left to contemplate just another ordinary, brutal teenage boy.
FYI, it is no spoiler to tell that there is deadly violence in this film, because the true story is about if/why/how the parents will deal with it and/or cover it up. This, unfortunately, is not an original idea. We have seen the likes of it before in films such as The Deep End, where a mother and/or father struggle with the moral issues involved in parenting a murderer. Still, Helen does recommend this film (leaving out the Highly), if you are in the mood for a literate and complex family-drama / crime-thriller.
BUT: Back to my larger topic. That’s one violent-boy-culture movie. Now the next:
Sweet Virginia: This movie is as thoughtless and superficial as The Dinner is layered and complex. As I said in my mini-review, Director Jamie M. Dagg delivers a Cohen-Brothers-wanna-be movie that fails miserably (and I mean miserably literally – wretched to sit through). I don’t care about any of the characters, and Christopher Abbott is no Javier Bardem. Calling the pacing lethargic is kind. And the lighting is bad too (annoyingly dark, since I guess the filmmakers couldn’t manage to portray emotional darkness).
The odd thing is that this movie does take time, during its dull and sluggish storyline, to give us some specific detail about the predator – his father, his mother, his personal troubles and dreams. And it still adds up to a big, empty nothing. (And at some point it is suggested that all that info was false anyway.) No insight. No appeal. Just a young guy with a gun who cares not who he kills or why. The epitome of Violent Boy Culture.
Unfortunately, when I watched this film, I was not able to obtain my always-preferred end-seat, so I was stuck in the middle and therefore trapped; I had to sit this movie all the way through. Otherwise, I would have bailed by the halfway mark. Helen Highly recommends that, if you go, you have a good escape route.
Super Dark Times: There seems to be something inherently menacing about teenage boys – rural-suburban teenage boys in particular. In the opening scenes of this movie, directed by Kevin Phillips, we see our key players demonstrate how over-sexed, aggressive, uneducated, bored, and rude they are. They have a callous curiosity about death. I guess these are the types who kill cats for fun. But these boys don’t do that; they kill people instead – “friends” in fact. It starts out as a single-death accident that they decide for-no-good-reason-other-than-stupidity to cover up. Then things get out of control.
Actually, this film could have been a sensitive coming-of-age tragedy. The young actors are quite good and there are inklings of emotional depth. But the filmmakers went for the thrills and gore instead. There is no apparent rhyme or reason. This serial killer is just… another kid next door who develops a taste for blood. It’s dark times; get ready for the end of the world. I would call this genre a 90’s chiller.
And, now that I think about it, the movie starts with … I think… an enormous, bloody and dying moose sprawled out on a classroom floor at middle school. The way the director shows it, we first see a vague bloody carcass on the school floor (can’t tell what it is and assume it’s a person), with police and students gathered around, in horror. This raises to mind the mass shootings around the country at numerous schools… an association that is brought to the audience’s mind and then discarded and totally ignored for the rest of the film. We never see or hear of that moose ever again. Kevin Phillips, please meet Anton Checkov (re gun in the first act).
And finally: The Gray State, a documentary directed by Erik Nelson and executive produced by Werner Herzog. This is a completely fascinating film and astoundingly true tale that takes you on a wild ride with surprising twists and turns, even if you already read about this story in the news. In 2010 David Crowley, an Iraq veteran, aspiring filmmaker and charismatic up-and-coming voice in fringe politics, began production on his fictional film Gray State. Set in a dystopian near-future where civil liberties are trampled by an unrestrained federal government, the film’s crowd-funded trailer was enthusiastically received by the burgeoning online community of Libertarians, Tea Party activists and members of the nascent alt-right. In January of 2015, Crowley was found dead with his family in their Minnesota home. Their shocking deaths quickly become a cause célèbre for conspiracy theorists who speculate that Crowley was assassinated by a shadowy government concerned about a film and filmmaker that was getting too close to the truth about their aims.
The documentary carries appropriately weighty seriousness, but it also shrewdly includes a touch of macabre humor – a kind of delightful brutality, which illustrates a component of this violent-young-men mentality. The movie is meticulously thorough and fully investigates the why and what and how of the story (which is perhaps a conspiracy wrapped in an enigma). It’s a film within a film, a documentary with a thriller structure, which I love, when it’s done right, which it is here. I won’t get into the quicksand of outlining the plot, but I will mention that it also takes place in American, middle-class, suburbia, with nice homes, in a Minnesota town actually called Apple Valley.
And whatever way you look at it (and the film offers a range of mind-boggling and emotionally charged perspectives) … no matter the tragically true earnestness of the film, it ends with a double-murder-suicide by a young man. It’s a thoughtful film that addresses the Violent Boy Culture head on, at the least, and goes well beyond to explore the glamorization of the military, especially to boys, and the paranoid “they’re coming to get you” belief system that has run rampant in this country. Click here to watch the infamous trailer to the film within the film, which had a seductive appeal to many other violent young men.
The documentary also suggests legitimate mental illness as a possible contributing factor to Crowley’s bloody end (although… not every mentally ill teen necessarily turns into a killer). But if you really want to consider what is wrong with our young men, this is a good movie to see. And it’s easy and almost entertaining to watch.
I have not seen all the films at Tribeca this year, and not even read about all of them, so there are likely even more than these few films that are based on Young Male Predators. (In fact, there is one in particular that I can think of, which definitely fits this “genre” of Violent Young Men in new American films, but I don’t want to give a spoiler by revealing that the male lead is a killer. But let’s just say… yet another thriller with a young male killer, which I will explore more thoroughly when I discuss the religious overtones, in an upcoming article.) But, if feels like I see one of these Violent-Young-Men movies every day, and I’m sure it says something sad and dangerous about our society. I can only add, that by my count, there are even more films this year about young heroism. Unfortunately, it’s the spooky movies that follow you home and haunt you.
Hey, all you angry progressive liberals, this is your film – to engage your rage. Hey, all you angry lovers of noble and decent democracy, this is your film – to reinforce your sense of injustice. Hey all you morally conscious idealists who imagine a level political field and fair play, get ready to get your hate on! And ALSO all you Republicans, and Libertarians, and you stubborn Trump-defenders: this film is full of quotable, self-satisfying defenses sure to infuriate your naïve, liberal friends who love to hate on you. There is something for every political animal in this movie. And animal may be the key word in that sentence. Because Get Me Roger Stone, a documentary directed by Morgan Pehme, Dylan Bank, and Daniel DiMauro, explores the ruthless beast of modern American politics (and its vicious political operatives, especially the notorious Roger Stone). And yet it’s also a bit of a fun romp. The film’s world premier is at the Tribeca 2017 Film Festival, and it debuts May 12 on Netflix.
Calling Roger Stone a scoundrel would be like calling the Dalai Lama a nice guy. But be careful before you start getting outraged, because this guy LOVES to be hated. The film begins with Donald Trump giving his acceptance speak at the Republican National Convention (a scary-dark speech, according to many), where he assured America that only he alone could fix what was broken with the system. (“The American Dream is dead. But I will bring it back.”) And there is a shot of Roger Stone, sitting in the shadowy stage wings, watching, with a self-satisfied smile. Donald Trump has never seemed so naïve. After watching this movie, you actually might feel sorry for him. You think Trump was Putin’s puppet? Roger Stone insists he was the puppet master.
That’s what is “fun” about this film. It’s made by guys who Stone himself mocks as “liberal
filmmakers who can’t be trusted,” even as he cheerfully allows them to follow him around, and he sits down (posed theatrically beside a martini) and “confesses” all his delightfully evil doings. “I was a jockey looking for a horse,” Stone says, “and Trump was a prime piece of horseflesh.” Ouch. No wonder Trump finally fired him. Trump doesn’t like to be upstaged, and Roger Stone could steal the screen from Jack Nicholson and Robert Deniro combined. Someone in the film calls Stone a “bodybuilding dandy,” and that’s the least of it. Roger Stone puts the sin in sinister. (For a comprehensive guide to all of Roger Stone’s egregious acts, click here.)
In the film, we learn of Roger Stone’s associations with the likes of Richard Nixon, Ronald
Reagan, Alex Jones, Paul Manafort and even the almost-iconic Roy Cohen, whose name is “synonymous with demagoguery, fear mongering, and intimidation.” Cohen was once Trump’s lawyer, btw, and he’s the one who introduced Stone to Trump. It was a match made in … heaven. (Stone would lobby for “hell,” just to increase the drama, but he personally is in paradise as the center of this movie.) He himself says, “Better to be infamous than never famous at all.” And someone else explains, “Roger Stone was a pure Roger Stone production.”
In the film, we hear Roger Stone called, “a sleaze ball,” a “malevolent Forrest Gump,” “evil,” soulless,” “reprehensible,” the original “dirty trickster,” “crazy and wrong and racist,” – all from respectable mouths. And every accusation is demonstrated and validated with rock-solid evidence from recent political history, including direct acknowledgements from some of his co-conspirators. And Stone is entirely unapologetic. Roger himself seems to delight in detailing his own, dark and nefarious power-plays. Its almost like he’s using this expose’ to further fuel his own mythology.
Still, there is no getting around what a truly malignant cancer this man’s life has been, and the serious damage he has done to America (even if you voted for Donald Trump). And this movie succinctly covers the timeline from when the Republican Party was known for its Eisenhower-esque straight-laced earnestness to the “new alt-right,” who fights dirty in order to win at all costs, and who believes that “morality is a synonym for weakness” and deserving of contempt. And there is Roger Stone, a part of every step along that vile timeline,” loving you for hating him for personally forging that trail, or so he wants you to believe. It is highly likely, or at least quite possible, that Roger was a mere leech, clinging to and sucking the blood from a much larger beast. (Or, if he’s right — and he has a successful track record, he’s a genius and we’re his lucky sucker-beneficiaries.) I am reminded, for some reason, of Bob Dylan’s famous line:
“Everybody must get Stoned!”
In this film, Bod Dylan gets his wish. But overall, it’s a grim reality, and frightening, if you stop to think about it, and these filmmakers manage to make it watchable by playing on its inherent Hollywood charisma, which was of course crafted by Roger Stone himself. It’s a political documentary operating as a horror film (or is it the other way around?) And you even get to hear Roger enumerate what he has defined as the Four Stages of Fame, as well as his list of Roger’s Rules. And if you are at all holding onto any hope that the worst of Donald Trump were “misstatements” by him or “fake news” by others, it’s definitely worth watching this film that will very logically and convincingly cut away any sense of faith or hope that you have.
Not really worth paying $17 or more to see in the movie theater (as you’ve seen much of it play out recently on the TV news), but definitely watchable on Netflix. Have some booze handy, to help numb the pain, but I promise you that this film tells the story of a train wreck from which you will not look away. There are no suggestions for remedying the problem, only a bleak-to-the-point-of-absurdity view of the sad state of our union. At the least, it will give you lots of topics to talk about at the water cooler.
Tribeca 2017 Glimpse: What to See and Skip: Helen Highly Brief
I am working on some of my typically long, in-depth essays about several of the films that are being screened at Tribeca Film Festival 2017, but I thought I’d post a short and sweet overview / glimpse that might be of use to people in New York who may actually be choosing which films to see. At the least, here’s a brief taste of mini reviews of several of this year’s flicks:
Favorites So Far:
City of Ghosts. “There is a death threat against me on a social media channel… that belongs to ISIS.” — spoken by theactual guy who is in this film even as he is still fearing for his life and mourning the murders of his forced-into-activism comrades. A feature documentary directed by Matthew Heineman. The fearless citizen-journalists of “Raqqua is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS) risk their lives on a daily basis to document and expose the atrocities of the Islamic State in their home city of Raqqa, Syria.
I think this may be the best film of the festival. It features the actual young men in the middle of this story – no re-enactments. This is the real thing. It’s both a powerful story and a tremendously well-made film. It shows you first-hand how “whoever holds the camera is strongest,” and the real war against ISIS is being fought online. This is what a documentary should be – important and captivating and thought-provoking and shocking and inspiring. It will leave you breathless, and less horrified at how low humans can go than you are proud of how great humans can be in the face of adversity. There are many films coming out now from or about the Middle East, but City of Ghosts is a Must-See.
Dabka. A feature narrative, based on a true story, directed by Bryan Buckley. This tells the story of rookie journalist, Jay Bahadur (played beautifully by Evan Peters), who has an inspiring chance-encounter with his journalist idol (played by Al Pacino, in a smart performance that is a refreshing reminder of what an excellent actor he is). There are many reasons to admire this film, but one personal point of appreciation is the emphatic way that Al Pacino yells, “Fuck Harvard!” (just saying) Anyway: This young, crazy-ambitious wanna-be-journalist uproots his life and moves to Somalia looking for the story of a lifetime. Hooking up with a local fixer, he attempts to embed himself with the local Somali pirates, only to find himself quickly over his head. Yet his risk-taking adventure ultimately brought the world an unprecedented first-person account of the pirates of Somalia (that the major news outlets were literally afraid to cover) and influenced international politics with its genuine insight into real life in Somalia.
It’s the kind of film I love – about being a writer, and also about living a daring life. Plus, it reinforces the belief that I have long held – that people should not be judged by their governments, or by the radical extremists that terrorize them into submission (before going on to terrorize others).
The Departure. A feature documentary directed by Lana Wilson. The film offers an intimate portrait of one quietly extraordinary man – a modern-day Buddhist priest renowned for counseling and saving the lives of suicidal people. But this priest, suffering from heart disease and supporting his wife and young son, risks his life carrying the heavy emotional load needed to support those who no longer want to live. Not the least bit maudlin or depressing, this film poetically explores what it means to be human and to be alive. One of my favorite lines from the film: When confronted with a woman who feels her life has no meaning, he says “Does a river have a meaning?”
These You Can Skip:
Dog Years, with Burt Reynolds, playing an aging movie star unable to accept his increasing irrelevance, who is forced to confront… blah blah blah. The only thing interesting about this movie is that Burt Reynolds is “playing” a role and pretending to be someone other than himself. Otherwise, painfully cliched and horrifically adorable. Dear Burt: Two words – Sunset Boulevard. Unless you can deliver a dead guy floating in a swimming pool (rather than a chubby, tattooed hipster chick who needs boyfriend advice more than Gloria Swanson needs her close-up) … give us a break.
Sweet Virgina, a Cohen-Brothers-wanna-be thriller, with just-plain-bad lighting and a lethargic pace, that has not-even-close-to-Tarantino blood-soaked violence that is too boring to even be gruesome. Christopher Abbott is no Javier Bardem. And… do I really need to say more about beautiful blondes (not yet bound in basement, but certainly at risk)? I will say that the one bit I enjoyed is the Lyle-Lovett-ish ugly/sexy rodeo-rider history of the male hero. (A longer review in part of my “Violent-Young-Men Movies” article.)
Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives — That’s Entertainment!
The opening night film at Tribeca Film Festival 2017: Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives, directed by Chris Perkel – in his directorial debut. The new film premiered at Madison Square Garden, followed by a live performance by several of the musical greats featured in the film – Aretha Franklin, Jennifer Hudson, Earth Wind & Fire, Barry Manilow, Carly Simon, and Dionne Warwick. Quite a splashy opening for “downtown” Tribeca. First question is always: Why is this the opening night film and is it justified? I have previously found fault with such choices, because they are often made with profit-making motives taking precedence over artistic merit or relevance of subject, but in this case, I am surprised to report: Yes, this was a good choice, and worthy.
Helen Highly recommends this film despite some red-flag causes for concern. First, the film, named Soundtrack of Our Lives is based on the Clive Davis autobiography titled Soundtrack of My Life. When a documentary biopic is essentially written by the subject, one does not expect much serious investigative journalism, and honestly, we do not receive much (or any) investigative reporting, nor shocking revelations or even new insights. Not even any fresh, gossipy tales. But I will concede that just because there is no groundbreaking news in this film… well, sometimes really good entertainment is more the right answer than “real art.”
“He discovered Earth Wind & Fire – not the band, the elements.” – Bill Maher
I might snidely refer to this as a “fan film,” with nothing but laudatory gushing, and no teeth, but what stops me is the immensely true statement in the press release, calling this movie “ceaselessly entertaining;” this is truly a joy to watch. And what becomes interesting is that the biggest fan in this film is the protagonist himself; he became the all-time greatest music man by being one of the all-time great fans of his musical clients. This is a story of a truly legendary man with “golden ears,” who touched nearly every stage in the history of modern American music, in a story that largely takes place in New York City, which is important in qualifying the film as appropriate for opening the Tribeca festival, which is quintessentially a New York institution. Clive Davis’ Arista Records was the center of New York life at a critical time in the development of the city and its artists. At one point in his career, Clive was being pushed out of Arista – the company he created and built, and in this movie, we hear Carly Simon speak about that, saying:
“Taking Clive Davis out of Arista is like taking Manhattan out of New York.”
Hell, even one of the most tough-minded and beloved New Yorkers, the profound, “punk poet laureate” and truth-speaking goddess of rock, who penned the anthem “People Have the Power,” Patti Smith, is in this movie, expressing admiration and gratitude to Clive Davis. And we get to hear her sing, “Because the Night.” Right there – that’s worth the price of admission.
And here is the bottom line: MUSIC! Lots and lots of lots of fascinating and spectacular and wondrous and truly historical and genuinely joyous musical footage by seemingly all of America’s greatest musicians and singers. And really, who needs to know if Clive Davis had any seedy sexual or even business encounters in his career? Who needs an understory to be dug up? This is more than a tribute film; this is a Legacy Movie. And Man, this man has created a legacy to define the word legacy.
The first shot in the movie is of Janis Joplin singing. That surprised me! I really had no idea that it was Clive Davis who “discovered” Janis Joplin. In fact, last year I wrote rather in-depth commentary about a documentary about Joplin, Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue, which Helen still Highly recommends, and that film talks about how Janis joined Big Brother and the Holding Company, and when she played with them at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, her rendition of “Ball and Chain” made her an instant sensation (and in my words, “blew the collective minds of the audience.”) But that movie did not mention that Clive Davis, the newly-named head of Columbia Records – a lawyer (from NYU) who essentially came out of nowhere, with no musical background, to be handed that title, was in the audience (wearing white pants and a tennis sweater, if anyone doubts his good-boy, straight-guy image), and he signed Janis to a contract the next day – Clive’s first artist.
In this movie, unlike in the Janis doc, we actually get to hear Joplin sing that all-time-great rendition of “Ball and Chain,” as well as “Piece of My Heart.” In this film, Clive describes how “she was hypnotic,” and “I felt my arms tingle,” and most importantly, how he recognized Joplin – and rock ‘n roll – as a musical revolution – far ahead of some important others who wrongly predicted that rock ‘n roll would be a short-lived trend and who were still focusing their attention (and backing) on traditional, middle-of-the-road music.
The movie ends with the death of Whitney Houston, who we all know was “almost like a daughter” to Clive. We get to read a heartbreaking letter he wrote to Whitney, trying to persuade her to get help for her addictions. And we also get to see Clive first introducing Whitney on The Merv Griffin Show, when she was a mere child. The rise and fall of Whitney Houston to some extent serves as the arc of the story of the film, and it adds some needed gravitas. I thought they handled her story with appropriate sensitivity and yet didn’t get too bogged down in it.
But, sentimentality aside, the true story of Clive Davis’ life is the story of five decades of American music – from the 60’s to hip-hop. The list is crazy-long – not just stunning for whose career was touched (and made, or re-made) by Clive Davis, but for who the filmmakers got to appear in this movie and what musical footage they were able to include. The list starts with Janis Joplin and includes Simon and Garfunkel, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, Santana, Blood Sweat & Tears, The Kinks, Barry Manilow, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Brooks & Dunn, Bob Dylan, Chicago, Carly Simon, Whitney Houston (of course), The Thompson Twins, Sean “Puffy” Combs, and even the Grateful Dead. Yup, Clive was determined to be the guy who would finally bring some commercial success to this cult-band. And he did. And there is Bob Weir (!) talking about it.
And then there is Barry Manilow. Who knew Barry Manilow was ever sexy or seemed hot? Well, apparently, he was, in the old days – after Clive found him and persuaded him to sing some songs he didn’t write himself so that he could make some hits. There is a clip of Barry Manilow singing “I Can’t Smile Without You,” and watching it, I myself could not stop smiling.
There is also an amusing clip of Bill Maher, who says of Clive, “He discovered Earth Wind & Fire – not the band, the elements.” Ha! And what is so much fun about this movie is that there is a film clip of almost everyone who was anyone, including some real gems of little-seen musical footage. They pulled together an impressive list of Who’s Who to do interviews for the documentary, but they smartly chose to cut those interviews into short quotes, squeezed in between a relentless songbook of great music. So, while there is actually no “story” per se, the movie is fast-paced and bright and uplifting – all about the tremendous potential and love and enthusiasm that Clive Davis saw and recognized and felt and brought to the world.
At one point, Simon Cowell, a star-maker in his own right, says, “Deep down we all wanted to be Clive Davis – to turn a singer into a superstar.” Clive could miraculously pick the truly special songs and singers, and he could turn them into chart-topping hits and all-time-greats. With his renowned passion and perfectionism, and a modest amount of magic, Clive served as a conduit between us and the talents of artists that even they had not recognized. Tired of Donald Trump depression? Go see this joyful film! It will renew your faith in humanity.
Take Me and Hounds of Love:
by Helen Kaplow, writing as HelenHighly
There are two films I’ve seen so far at TribecaFilm Festival 2017 that have very significant similarities – they both center around a pretty blonde woman getting kidnapped, tied up, stuffed into someone’s basement, and abused. Both are also directorial debuts, btw. One is called Hounds of Love, an Australian drama written and directed by Ben Young. The other is called Take Me, an American film written by Mike Makowsky and directed by Pat Healy (who also plays the leading role). That movie lets the audience figure out if it is a crime thriller or a slapstick farce.
Sorry, but I walked out on Hounds of Love after the first scene (blonde bound in basement), thinking I could just as easily go home and watch an episode of Law & Order SVU (which I loathe). It started with some nubile young women playing tennis at an outdoor tennis court, with a couple parked in a car nearby lasciviously watching, while creepy music played. Couple offers naive girl a ride home on such a hot day, which she hesitantly accepts, and cut to terrified and brutalized blonde bound in basement. That’s where I cut out. Okay, so that’s a totally biased non-review based on only one scene. But… go watch it at your peril. Variety insists that “brave audiences will be rewarded,” although I also see the word “harrowing” in the first paragraph, along with “serial killer.” Apologies again, but I cannot even bear to read the full review.
But I will write a review of the other blonde-bound-in-basement film, Take Me. I will start by saying that I’ve always hated stories (usually comedies) that are based entirely on one simple misunderstanding or single sentence that goes unsaid. All the ensuing anguish and supposed hilarity is based on someone not saying or doing the obvious thing at the obvious time. Usually this takes the form of overstretched “irony” – when the audience knows something that the characters don’t. And then we must wait and watch as they stumble around and figure out what they really should have known from the start.
Well, Take Me manages to do the same annoying thing, but with suspense instead of irony – leaving the audience waiting to find out something that, in the end, we realize was something that never would have happened, even in the “comical” world that the movie is presenting. Helen Highly objects to this type of cheap trick. If you’re going to withhold information in order to create suspense, then it should be something of substance, or at least something that makes sense.
And SPOLIER ALERT: There is no such thing as a spoiler alert when the story is already rotten. But still, I will not tell how the movie ends. I will only tell where it falls apart (which is pretty much at the start).
So, I’m going to say the magic words that would have made this story impossible, and as a result rendered this awkward and distasteful tale completely impotent. We know everything we need to know from the first scene, and if the writer/director would have used the least amount of common sense in allowing that scene (and its related ones) to play out as they reasonably would have, these two words would have spared us all from a frustrating and grossly unpleasant 84 minutes. Are you ready?
Here are the unspoken and unwritten words: Notarized Signature.
The first scene takes place in a bank, where Ray Moody (Pat Healy) is trying to get a business loan for his “wacky” (hideous) business of abduction-for-hire. Yes, he kidnaps people upon their request for therapy and/or amusement – whatever the customer wants. For example, we later see Ray brutally kidnap a fat guy, tie him up and berate him as Ray force feeds the willing abductee twelve giant sloppy cheeseburgers. This is a “therapy” scenario where, in theory, the horror and disgust of the experience will scare the fat guy thin and make him never want to eat a juicy cheeseburger again.
But back to the very first scene – the bank scene. The very reasonable and not-at-all slapstick loan officer conducts a logical interview with Ray Moody, including asking about a lawsuit against him in another state in which there was some terrible misunderstanding between Ray and one of his kidnapped clients. Ray assures her that his business practices are now entirely professional, fully legal, and carefully regulated, and that would never happen again.
Cut to his new client who wants Ray to break protocol and kidnap and then physically hurt her – just for fun, we guess. She wants to be slapped. (Aaaah, I guess that then qualifies this movie as slapstick comedy?) Ray objects, because that could be misconstrued as illegal. He insists, with a false sense of integrity, that he does not do physical harm (only psychological torture). But she entices him by offering him lots of money, which we know he needs because he did not get the bank loan. Thus, Ray reluctantly agrees to kidnap and hold this woman for nine times longer than his normal limit (3 days vs 8 hrs) and to hurt her physically (very dangerous territory). One would assume — having just watched that bank scene — that Ray would prepare with not only due-diligence but extreme-diligence in vetting this client, protecting himself, and keeping everything lawsuit-free.
And yet…. the big point of suspense that drives this entire movie is whether or not this woman (Taylor Schilling) truly wanted to be kidnapped and slapped around or if she and Ray have been tricked, which would make her a true victim and him a true criminal. Is she brilliantly playing her designated part when she begs for mercy and insists that she never invited this incident? Or is she sincere when she pleads with Ray to investigate the supposed client, which she swears is not her? Ray calls her phone number, but it’s been disconnected. Uh-oh. Ray shows her the contract that she signed and faxed to him. She responds by writing out her true signature, which looks nothing like the signature on the contract. Oops! Has Ray been punked? Or is she a mastermind wanna-be victim?
Well… honestly, this film was so unfunny and uninteresting that I couldn’t care less. But still… how could I not think to myself that this whole quandary would never have existed if Ray had only asked for a notarized signature on his contract? Then he’d know for sure who was hiring him. And, after all, his practices had been challenged before, and he had learned his lesson and assured the bank’s loan officer that now he took every precaution — every precaution except the most obvious and simple one, apparently. Sigh.
Ray is hapless but not stupid. (We know he is hapless because he wears a bad wig with no embarrassment. Just one example of how painfully not funny this movie is.) But he clearly is educated and comes from a good family with a lovely suburban house. He puts an awful lot of effort and apparent expertise into executing his kidnappings (and has even done psychological research), as well as advertising them on his own self-designed website, and in his attempted funding of his business, which included an oddly practical and professional presentation at the bank.
Why wouldn’t he put the bare minimum of effort into the “paperwork” of this especially risky and lucrative project? It’s the internet age. He doesn’t do a background check on his kidnapping client? But forget that; why wouldn’t he at least get an assurance of a legitimate signature from his client on the contract that would be the one thing that defines him as a businessman and not a violent criminal? The supposed “comedy” of this movie is that he is actually a businessman who only seems like a criminal. And no, that’s not a spoiler; that’s the premise. So… he should do business like a businessman! Get a friggin authorized signature on your contract for your authorized kidnapping!
Here is my point: Ray would know to get a notarized signature. He definitely would know that. I can only assume that it’s the young and inexperienced writer of this movie, Mike Makowsky, who does not know about such things, and he lets his ignorance be the vehicle for driving this movie. Not good.
I could easily object to the offensive nature of the subject matter of this movie. But I’m not even gonna go there, because first it needs to be a movie, and it’s not. Helen Highly takes offense at the faulty execution of a self-proclaimed thriller that does not understand how suspense should operate.
But, if you doubt me… you go ahead and watch this movie to find out if this blonde chick really wanted to be tortured or if someone else wanted to have her tortured. The press release asks the audience to wonder: Is this a crime thriller or a slapstick comedy? Helen Highly declares it is neither; it is just a waste of time (and a poor excuse for having a beautiful blonde bound in the basement).
When making important contracts with strangers, always have the signature notarized.
Just on general principle, stay away from films that center around some pretty blonde woman being beat up.
And please please you film PR companies: Stop calling every would-be psycho-thriller “Hitchcockian.” Just casting a blonde lead does not make a director Hitchcock. And using cheesy, weak “suspense” also does not make a director Hitchcock. Have a little respect.
It’s a mother and child reunion, as Carrie’s ex would say.
In the film, Bright Lights, directed by Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens, Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds are shown to live next door to each other – in memorabilia-packed homes worthy of preservation by the Smithsonian Institute – and seem to have genuinely and lovingly overcome their many adversities and, most importantly, their adversarial relationship with each other. Both iconic women, with fame spanning from Singin’ in the Rain to Star Wars – six decades on stage and screen, have lived in the spotlight all their lives, including the film Postcards from the Edge, which was based on Carrie Fisher’s best-selling semi-autobiographical book about her rocky relationship with her mother (in which the two are appropriately portrayed by another two showbiz legends, Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine, respectively). And yet in this documentary film, Bright Lights, Carrie and Debbie open up in surprisingly candid and casual ways. It is a rare and wonderful look into the hearts and day-to-day lives of two genuine Greats and also two genuine Train Wrecks who have an unbreakable bond. And now, after their deaths, this film is the best possible tribute to both of them. It is sort of a love letter they wrote to each other.
Plus, it’s hilarious! Don’t even think for a minute about sappy or overly-laudatory. In truth, I was expecting more painfully clever and self-deprecating self-analysis, of the kind that made up Fisher’s 2008 memoir and then live show, Wishful Drinking. But this film is something else altogether. It is touching without being maudlin and it is uplifting without being pretentious. It is outright JOYFUL. It is a sort of montage – out of order, without narration (but with lots of fresh interviews), that bounces through a bounty of colorful, lively, glamorous, quirky, and musical moments, which add up to something oddly inspiring. When is the last time you saw a movie that made you glad to have lived every difficult, distressing moment of your life? This is it.
The film is laden with quotable quips, which just keep on coming. The film opens with old 16-mm family-movie footage, and Debbie Reynolds insisting that Carrie had a happy childhood. “I have the films to prove it,” she says. Carrie suggests that maybe the footage is fake: “I don’t buy it.” Debbie replies, “You never bought anything I said.”
At one point, Debbie muses, “I should have married Burt Reynolds. I wouldn’t have had to change my name, and we could have shared wigs.” Ha!
Later, Debbie – age 83 at the time of filming, tells how she still cannot give up show business; it is her life, even though she can barely make it through each performance. She describes how one show left her lying on the floor. Carrie adds, “but in a good, dignified movie-star way.” Debbie justifies with, “The only way to get through life is to fight.” Carrie explains,
“Age is horrible for all of us, but she falls from a greater height.”
The fact that Carrie Fisher has died before the wide release of the film by HBO (and just one day before her mother) is… a bit of a stunner. Because much of the film is about the increasing fragility of Fisher’s mother, Debbie Reynolds, and how they are both dealing with the impending end of that still-singing life. The final moments of the movie document the two as Reynolds is about to receive the 2014 Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award, and how her weakening health puts her live attendance at the show in jeopardy. Fisher, with breaking heart, goes to great length to make the live appearance happen.
And not only that, she joins her mother on stage and sings. She shows her beautiful voice, which earlier in the film Reynolds had bragged about and revealed how much she loved, after which Fisher confessed that it was her big act of rebellion – to not make a career of singing, as a way of frustrating her mother. But there they are on screen, in their truly golden years, singing together, and it is marvelous.
Helen Highly recommended this documentary when she first saw it at NYFF2016, but now more than ever it’s a must-see. Perhaps HBO will decide to present it sooner than its original March air-date, due to these recent deaths. (Update: HBO has announced that the film will air next week!) But it is a triumphant testimony to the power of love to overcome adversity and pain. These women did it. If they could, perhaps we can too.
I link now to the essay I wrote about Carrie Fisher last year, titled “Carrie Fisher and The Star Wars Review I Couldn’t Write.” I had been assigned to write a movie review of the new Star Wars movie, but I realized I had nothing to say about it. I did, however, have some thoughts about Carrie Fisher’s body and how she had aged. I kept those thoughts between me and my friend who accompanied me to the movie… until I read about the huge twitter war that had erupted over all the tweets about Carrie Fisher’s body, and her reaction to those tweets, followed by a New York Post article that brought the petty but ongoing battle to the main stage and gave it national attention. The episode turned into a feminist cause.
And I will finish with another quote from Bright Lights, in which Carrie references her ongoing battle with her weight. “My question is, if you die when you’re fat, are you a fat ghost, or do they go back to a more flattering time?” Carrie, I think you will be a bright and dazzling ghost, no matter the size. You will always be remembered and always be loved. That much I know. And I hope your ghost will be at peace, lying in the sun. Debbie Reynolds: I can see you already, singing in heaven.
This bomb is not from my childhood. This bomb is in the future, and it’s heading straight toward us all. It’s vast and more deadly than anything that has come before. I’m talking about real-life star wars – an arms race in outer space. You think that’s a joke? Think again: the militarization of space. Consider this quote from General Joseph W. Ashy, the former Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Space Command – a statement he made to Aviation Week and Space Technology in 1996:
“It’s politically sensitive, but it’s going to happen. Some people don’t want to hear this, and it sure isn’t in vogue, but absolutely we’re going to fight in space.” He explains further, “We’re going to fight from space, and we’re going to fight into space. That’s why the U.S. has development programs in directed energy and hit-to-kill mechanisms. We will engage terrestrial targets someday – ships, airplanes, land targets – from space.”
To appreciate the threat, and the secrecy surrounding the threat, we need to go back for a little more history. Wikipedia again:
“’The Outer Space Treaty’ …was opened for signature in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union on 27 January 1967, and entered into force on 10 October 1967. …The Outer Space Treaty represents the basic legal framework of international space law. Among its principles, it bars states …from placing weapons of mass destruction in orbit of Earth, installing them on the Moon or any other celestial body, or otherwise stationing them in outer space. It exclusively limits the use of the Moon and other celestial bodies to peaceful purposes and expressly prohibits their use for testing weapons of any kind, conducting military maneuvers, or establishing military bases, installations, and fortifications. The treaty also states that the exploration of outer space shall be done to benefit all countries and shall be free for exploration and use by all the States,” and that “outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”
Got it? That’s the official international law about outer space. The United States was one of the three key players who initiated it – back in 1967. But now read this, from Third World Traveler:
“On November 1, 2000 the General Assembly of the United Nations voted to reaffirm the Outer Space Treaty – the fundamental international law that establishes that space should be reserved for peaceful uses. Almost 140 nations voted for the resolution entitled ‘Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space.’ It recognizes ‘the common interest of all mankind in the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes,’ and declares ‘that prevention of an arms race in outer space would avert a grave danger for international peace and security.’
“Only two nations declined to support this bill – the United States and Israel. Both abstained. For the United States, the issue goes way beyond missile defense. The U.S. military explicitly says it wants to ‘control’ space to protect its economic interests and establish superiority over the world.
“Several documents reveal the plans. Take ‘Vision for 2020,’ a 1996 report of the U.S. Space Command, which ‘coordinates the use of Army, Navy, and Air Force space forces’ and was set up in 1985 to ‘help institutionalize the use of space.’ The multicolored cover of ‘Vision for 2020’ shows a weapon shooting a laser beam from space and zapping a target below.
“The report opens with the following: ‘U.S. Space Command – dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect U.S. interests and investment.Integrating Space Forces into warfighting capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict. A century ago, Nations built navies to protect and enhance their commercial interests by ruling the seas,’ the report notes. ‘Now it is time to rule space.’
“The medium of space is the fourth medium of warfare-along with land, sea, and air,” it proclaims on page three. “The emerging synergy of space superiority with land, sea, and air superiority will lead to Full Spectrum Dominance.”
The Air Force publishes similar pamphlets. Nuclear power is crucial to this scenario. ‘In the next two decades, new technologies will allow the fielding of space-based weapons of devastating effectiveness to be used to deliver energy and mass as force projection in tactical and strategic conflict,’ says ‘New World Vistas: Air and Space Power for the 21st Century,’ a 1996 U.S. Air Force board report.
“The PR. spin is that the U.S. military push into space is about ‘missile defense’ or defense of U.S. space satellites. But the volumes of material coming out of the military are concerned mainly with offense – with using space to establish military domination over the world below.
“Even the Council on Foreign Relations – usually characterized as centrist, has come on board. In 1998, it published a booklet entitled ‘Space, Commerce, and National Security,’ written by Air Force Colonel Frank Klotz, a military fellow at the Council. ‘The most immediate task of the United States in the years ahead is to sustain and extend its leadership in the increasingly intertwined fields of military and commercial space. This requires a robust and continuous presence in space,’ says the report. …The U.S. government is pouring massive amounts of public money – an estimated $6 billion a year, not counting what is secretly spent – into the military development of space.”
For the record, unlike all the other info I have presented in my Command and Control film commentary series, the above text comes from a website that is not owned and operated by the U.S. government, and I have not fully fact-checked its veracity. Thus, it is perhaps not as shockingly, without-a-doubt true as all the other information I have reported. So… you may be suspicious of it, as you wish (and investigate further as you see fit).
But, in conclusion, I will end this seemingly endless essay, that started with a review of the Command and Control movie, with this stunning and absolutely legitimate quote from Nobel Peace Prize Winner and Secretary-General of the U.N. from 1997-2006, Kofi Annan:
“Above all, we must guard against the misuse of outer space,” Kofi Annan said as he opened the 1999 U.N. conference on space militarization in Vienna.
“We must not allow this century, so plagued with war and suffering, to pass on its legacy, when the technology at our disposal will be even more awesome. We cannot view the expanse of space as another battleground for our Earthly conflicts.”
But, in only the first quarter of the new century, that is exactly what the U.S. military is doing.
I was “a space-age baby.” That’s what my mother wrote in my baby album. I grew up being told the story of when we were in the hospital after she gave birth to me: There was this amazing few minutes when all the infants were left alone, even if they were crying, and all the nurses and mothers (along with millions of other Americans) turned to the TV to watch The First American be Launched into Space. It was a spectacular, patriotic event, and my father helped to make it possible.
This was May 5rd 1961 – 4 days after I was born – birthed under the very same sky in which Alan Shepard made glorious history. I was born into the glamorous realm of NASA’s Cape Canaveral, where my father worked, and where America’s bright future was being engineered. Later that same month in 1961, President Kennedy would announce the ambitious goal of sending an American to the moon. This was the Space Age; America was conquering the cosmos. What a great time to be born.
I grew up saying “My father was a rocket scientist.” Ha! He never talked about the details, and I was only a baby at the time anyway. But as I grew older, I always knew that those days at NASA were my father’s glory days. Being part of that program meant so much to him. He was not a religious man, but … somehow NASA was that miraculous concept that was larger than us all – some mix of Wondrous Possibility and Great Human Achievement and American Patriotism and… The Right Stuff. He was a believer.
FYI, The Right Stuffis a 1983 American, dramatic film about the seven pilots who were selected to be the astronauts for Project Mercury, the first manned spaceflight by the United States. The film goes behind the prepackaged image of unblemished saints we knew through the media to find imperfect human beings who were actually even more heroic when seen in full light. In 2013 the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
1983, the year The Right Stuff was released, was the year I graduated from college. I recall phoning Dad to talk about the film. My father was notoriously difficult to please and stubbornly, perhaps excessively, patriotic. (He disliked the TV show M∗A∗S∗H for being disrespectful to the U.S. military and making light of America’s mission.) So I thought to myself, after seeing The Right Stuff, that my father would finally be happy that a Hollywood movie presented the American space program as so courageous and heroic. What did Dad think of the movie? Well, he was offended by the depiction of the astronauts as anything other than absolute, through-and-through American patriots.
How about Apollo 13, the 1995 film by Ron Howard, starring Tom Hanks (two indisputably all-American figures)? In this movie, which depicts a true event from 1970, the spacecraft malfunctions, putting the lives of the three astronauts on board in jeopardy, and NASA devises a brilliant-under-pressure strategy to return Apollo 13 and its astronauts safely to Earth. My father’s take: “There was that one character at Command Center who was a naysayer and had a bad attitude; that is inaccurate. That man did not exist and no one like that would ever have worked for NASA. Every single person who worked there, down to the janitors, were nothing but proud to be there. And no one had a cynical attitude; these were the best and the brightest. It is un-American to suggest otherwise.”
Well, those were fictionalized accounts of history, and my father was not only a purist but a scientist at heart. He did not appreciate the artistic necessity of creating dramatic conflict, which (he was correct) likely did not accurately depict the precise details of what happened. So, although he seemed somewhat dogmatic, I acknowledge (and am proud) that he himself was truly an unwaveringly honorable man. He did not entertain doubts about his principles; he lived a life of relentless integrity and commitment. So, was it too much for him to expect others to do so? My father was a man who did indeed deserve true respect, and it was understandable that he would perceive others as matching his own image.
Command and Control is a documentary that has been meticulously researched by a proven truth-teller. Coincidentally (it seemed), I learned from the movie that there was another major aeronautic event that occurred the same year of my birth. Almost no one knew about it (no one outside of the government), because the information was kept classified until 2013. At that period in 1961 – The Cold War in full swing, the United States had B-52 bombers in the air 24 hours a day, ready to attack the Soviet Union. On January 24, 1961, a B-52 bomber that was carrying two nuclear bombs developed a fuel leak and broke apart mid-air over Goldsboro, North Carolina, dropping its bombs in the process. The size of each bomb was more than 250 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb.
Five of the six arming mechanisms on one of the bombs activated. In other words, every safety mechanism on the bomb failed, except one simple “arm/safe” switch (a flip-switch, like a light switch). If that switch had been on the equivalent of “on” when the bomb hit the ground, a thermonuclear explosion would have destroyed much of North Carolina and spread lethal radioactive fallout that would have killed most of the citizens of Washington, Philadelphia and New York. Btw, that type of safety switch was later found to be defective in other weapons. In fact, the same switch was found to be in the “arm” position on the second bomb that fell that day, although some other lucky accident prevented that bomb from detonating.
Thus, the nearest America had come to a nuclear catastrophe was not the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, as my parents had told me it was, vividly recounting the experience of our family living so close to the enemy at such a dangerous time. The far closer nuclear catastrophe was an undisclosed incident the year before, when America’s own bomb almost detonated over our own country. Plus, three airmen did die during this incident. Schlosser has been credited with unearthing this “lost” bit of history, which is now being made into its own movie. Kenner includes the incident in his film to further illustrate one of his core messages, which is that we are so much better at creating complex technological systems than we are at controlling them.
I wonder what my father would have said about that story and its implications, if he had known about it. It didn’t occur to me that my father might have known about the B-52 bomber incident when it happened. Why would he? How would he? That was the military – not NASA.
Okay, technically, my father was not actually employed by NASA. He worked for Martin Marietta (now defunct, having merged with Lockheed Corp). They were an aerospace contractor company that worked for NASA and were responsible for building the Titan missile. I mention this because both of those names – Martin Marietta and Titan – had been buried 50-years-deep in my memory and only popped up recently when I heard them mentioned in this movie.
It was the name Martin Marietta that struck me first. Where had I heard that before? “Oh! That was the company my father worked for at Cape Canaveral. That makes sense because, ya know, those aerospace contractors get around.” And then, as I was recalling that detail, I also remembered … “Isn’t Titan the name of the rocket Dad worked on? Well, that’s obviously a coincidence (or maybe I just remember it wrong), because Dad’s Titan was early 60’s in Florida and this film takes place in 1980 in Arkansas.”
(pause) “But wait. I do remember the name Titan. So…why would the Air Force be ‘stealing’ a name from NASA? They are completely separate parts of the U.S. Government; one is military and the other civilian. I mean, this is not like some pop star naming her new song the same as some old song. This is the United States government. You’d think they’d keep careful track of stuff like that.”
Sidebar: On the subject of re-using old names, what is up with this … trend? … where a new movie uses the name of an old movie, and it’s not a remake? There were at least three films in the TFF this year that come immediately to mind. I’m looking at you Detour, Magnus, and Untouchable. Well, that stuff seems to be no biggie in the entertainment world, but … NASA?
So I went home and did a little Googling. And in the process… a series of nuclear bombs exploded in my childhood.
Thus, now I am telling:
Helen’s Highly Upsetting Spin-Off Documentary: Contradict and Conspire
This much history I knew: As written by Wikipedia, “President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 with a distinctly civilian (rather than military) orientation, encouraging peaceful applications in space science.”
But when I started looking, it was not at all difficult to find evidence that contradicted that widely-believed statement and also seemed to implicate my father in misrepresenting his role. I now realize that he, in fact, did not work for NASA; he worked at NASA for the U.S. Air Force.
1st Bomb: NASA was never truly a civilian organization, nor was its purpose peaceful.
2nd Bomb: The space race and the arms race were essentially the same thing, and they both were largely a response to Sputnik.
3rd Bomb: The Titan missile, which my father helped develop while working at Cape Canaveral, was first and foremost created as a delivery system for nuclear warheads (not as a booster for manned space capsules), and it played a key role in the U.S./Soviet arms race well into the 80’s.
4th Bomb: It is Highly likely that Helen was less of a space-age baby and more of a weapons-of-mass-destruction baby.
The first bomb that hit me came from NASA’s own website, in detailing the background of the agency:
“The two sources of the U.S. space program were the military services and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Charted by Congress in 1915, NACA was authorized to ‘supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight.’
“After World War II, NACA began moving into new fields. The Committee authorized work in such new fields as rocket propulsion, nuclear propulsion, hypersonic flight, and exploration of the upper atmosphere. While NACA was conducting research programs in the upper atmosphere, the [military] services were exploring the military uses of space. …The Cold War atmosphere revived interest in ballistic weapons. Specifically, by 1953… scientists and the Air Force… had concluded independently that an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) was technically feasible. In early 1954… [it was] recommended that the United States undertake an ICBM program on a highest-priority basis. By the end of 1955, all three [military] services had ballistic missile programs: The Air Force was developing Atlas and Titan ICBMs.”
Kaboom. It was the date that hit me.
The U.S. Department of the Interior’s website spelled it out: “In October 1955, the Air Force contracted with the Glenn L. Martin Company [later Martin Marietta] to produce a new ICBM called the Titan. It was the first in a series of Titan rockets and was an important step in building the Air Force’s nuclear deterrent strategy.” So, the Titan missile was being developed by the Air Force (not NASA), before NASA even existed.
From Rockets’ Red Glare to Mushroom-Cloud
It is interesting to note why and how rockets, in particular, became military instruments. This is something else I recently learned while sitting at my computer.
Another result of a Google search was an article on the Smithsonian’s Air & Space website titled, “The Rockets That Inspired Francis Scott Key.” This is a bit of a tangential sidebar, but it is worth noting that the word “rocket” has been associated with U.S. warfare for as long as we have been a country, and it is included in our national anthem. The article is short and worth reading, but for our purposes, it clarifies that the rockets to which Francis Scott Key referred were little more than fireworks, not at all like modern missiles.
“Propelled by gunpowder, rockets had a range of barely a few hundred feet and were wildly unpredictable in flight… The kind fired against Fort McHenry on September 13 and 14, 1814… carried an incendiary mixture” intended to start a fire inside the fort. So, no one was going to destroy an entire civilization with those. Those sparkling “rockets” make me think of the romantic “sky rockets in flight” from the 70’s pop song “Afternoon Delight.”
It was during World War II that America advanced to building a fantastically lethal bomb – the atomic bomb. But, due to the weight of an A-bomb, there was little prospect of them being carried by rockets. However, a DOI website explains, “in 1949, when the Soviet Union developed its atomic bomb, America responded with an even more powerful weapon — a thermonuclear device that used a small atomic trigger to initiate a fusion reaction in hydrogen isotopes. Successfully tested in 1952, the H-bomb seemed to guarantee America’s nuclear superiority.” The H-bomb was not only more powerful than the atomic bomb, but also much lighter.
Then, in August 1953, the Soviets exploded their own H-bomb. And, it was revealed that the Soviets were making considerable headway with a missile development program that was based on German expertise obtained after WWII; years ahead of U.S. expectations, the Soviets were creating the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile. ICBMs are missiles with a minimum range of more than 5,500 kilometers (3,400 miles). With an ICBM, the Soviets would not need to fly a plane (such as a B-52 bomber) over U.S. territory in order to drop a bomb on our country. U.S. military experts became extremely worried that the Soviets could soon deliver the H-bomb via an ICBM.
For the first time, the Soviets seemed poised to surpass the United States in military might, and the race was on. To match the newly revealed Soviet missile programs, President Eisenhower made the U.S. ICBM programs a top priority, and to gain intelligence on the Soviet R&D effort, he did the same with the U.S. spy satellite program. Because it now planned to use reconnaissance satellites in the near future, the U.S. had to modify its policy on the peaceful use of space. What started out as “nonmilitary” became “nonaggressive.”
On January 7, 1954, President Eisenhower delivered his first State of the Union address to the Nation. After declaring that “American freedom is threatened so long as the Communist conspiracy exists in its present scope, power and hostility,” the President outlined his plans for defending the Nation against that threat. “We will not be aggressors,” he said, “but we . . . have and will maintain a massive capability to strike back.” In June of that year, Vice Chief of Staff General Thomas D. White ordered the Air Research and Development Command “to proceed with the development of an ICBM at the highest speed possible, limited only by the advancement of technology in the various fields concerned.”
From Rockets’ Red Scare to Sputnik
The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) eloquently details what happened next: “On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched into orbit the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik.
Ham radio operators in the eastern United States turned their dials to lower frequency bands and anxiously listened as the 184-pound Sputnik emitted a mechanical ‘. . . beep . . . beep . . . beep . . .’ while passing overhead. Other radio operators quickly recorded the broadcast and, within hours, Americans in their living rooms heard Sputnik’s transmission via radio and television news flashes. The message seemed to confirm America’s worst fears: The Soviets had technologically surpassed the United States and gained supremacy of outer space. In the United States, one headline proclaimed: ‘U.S. Must Catch Up with Reds or We’re Dead.’
“In truth, the significance of the successful launching was not so much Sputnik, but the huge Soviet rocket that hurled the satellite into space. With Sputnik… the Soviets demonstrated the ability of their SS-6 launcher to propel a missile toward a target thousands of miles away. Four years earlier, the Soviets exploded the H-bomb. Now, the frightening prospect of a Soviet missile delivering a nuclear bomb to an American city in less than an hour revived what some called a ‘Pearl Harbor atmosphere’ throughout the United States.”
My father had repeatedly told me stories about Sputnik. I grew up hearing about the dark shadow it cast over America – the demoralization and trepidation it caused, and the dangerous shift in world power that it represented. Suddenly, it began to make sense to me that for the rest of his life, my father was a militant Commie-Hater (which was unusual for an east-coast Jew). He was endlessly passionate about the threat of the Soviet Union. He was even a semi-supporter of McCarthyism.
(He said he thought McCarthy was misunderstood, and his fears were accurate even if his techniques went too far. Communist propaganda was infiltrating America through movies and TV, my father believed, which is why he taught us, his children, to think analytically and independently – to understand the principles of logic in order to discern the truth.)
But my father never explained that he had a personal connection that fueled his passion – that he had lived and worked in the heart of the fight against a very-tangible Red Threat. He never mentioned that NASA was the center of that fight. Aaah… tectonic plates began shifting underneath me.
The website continues: “Within six months after Sputnik, the Nation’s space research and development budget mushroomed from an average half billion dollars a year to more than $10.5 billion.” That’s twenty times more money, flying at supersonic speed into the arms race.
Next up in this explosive timeline: The U.S. government needed to scramble to offset the Sputnik humiliation and associated media frenzy. The Vanguard rocket was intended to be the first launch vehicle the United States would use to place a satellite into orbit. But it was still a highly experimental system. It wasn’t ready. Nonetheless, the government decided to push the Vanguard into speedy completion and launch. On December 6, 1957, with the whole world watching, the Vanguard exploded on its launch pad.
Curiously, this historical detail my father never mentioned to me. I may have once heard about it in a movie, but the name “Vanguard” didn’t mean anything to me. But now I know: This disaster became a symbol of failure for the U.S. space program.
Remember, at this point, the U.S. space program was a combined but generally uncoordinated effort between the multiple military services and NACA. And the government contractor in the center of it all –the company that had built Vanguard and was building the Titan, was The Martin Company, which later became Martin Marietta, and would employ my father, and would build the Titan II, which was that missile that exploded in Arkansas in 1980. In learning these details, I couldn’t help but notice the remarkable continuity between the pre-NASA and NASA eras.
Back to 1957: The Sputnik launch and the Vanguard fiasco were tremendous blows to U.S. prestige, and the events generated significant fear and outrage among the American public and its political leaders. President Eisenhower, bowing to Congressional and public pressure, recognized the need for a centralized space program and policy.
Thus Came NASA
These are the events that birthed NASA. NASA was created in direct response to the rocket that put the 184-pound Sputnik into orbit, giving it profound military potential. NASA was the result of the failed U.S. military infrastructure that seemed incapable of keeping up the space race, which I now understand was the same thing as the arms race.
The Air University, which is “the Intellectual and Leadership Center of the Air Force,” writes on its website: “To avoid the difficulties experienced with Vanguard, which many blamed on faulty management and lack of unified direction, the government created a new agency to solidify national space policy” – NASA.
Even Wikipedia cannot fail to mention the relationship between Sputnik and NASA: “The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 is the United States federal statute that created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The Act, which followed close on the heels of the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, was drafted by the United States House Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration and on July 29, 1958 was signed by President Eisenhower. Prior to enactment, the responsibility for space exploration was deemed primarily a military venture, in line with the Soviet model that had launched the first orbital satellite.”
NASA and the DOD: Governmental Incest
The original 1958 act charged NASA with conducting the aeronautical and space activities of the United States “so as to contribute materially to one or more of the following objectives:” Most of the listed objectives say what we all have believed is true about NASA – “expansion of human knowledge,” “peaceful and scientific purposes,” yada yada. But then, if you keep reading, you find “The making available to agencies directly concerned with national defenses of discoveries that have military value or significance,” and “The most effective utilization of the scientific and engineering resources of the United States, with close cooperation among all interested agencies of the United States in order to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort, facilities, and equipment.”
So… that says, essentially… NASA does the research and shares it with the military. And there should be no duplication of efforts, which means that whatever militarization of space that “national defenses” want, they simply must ask NASA to do it, so as not to be redundant. Thus, calling NASA a civilian organization is a very limited description of its original charter, which only loosely and ambiguously separated it from the military. And even that slippery, original charter lasted about ten minutes before it was challenged by the Air Force and revised by Congress.
Air University Air Command confirms, “Within its original charter, there was only a vaguely defined relationship with the military. Congress, on the other hand, envisioned a strong military role in space and wished to modify NASA’s relationship with the military. To this end, Congress created the Civilian-Military Liaison Committee, to coordinate NASA and Department of Defense (DOD) activities and keep NASA and the DOD ‘fully and currently informed’ of each other’s space activities.”
NASA’s website explains further: “Neither the Administration bill nor the Space Act settled the matter of one national space program or two. Once it became clear that the agency would be civilian controlled, Department of Defense officials dropped overt opposition to NASA, instead concentrating on making it respond to their needs. The Air Force found NASA something it could live with; top officials saw the agency as merely NACA enlarged and somewhat strengthened but still responsive to Air Force interests and a convenient location for noncompetitive military projects. …At the same time, the Administration bill contained almost nothing about coordinating military and civilian programs and provided no solution for the jurisdictional conflicts that were bound to arise” and essentially “negated the distinction between civilian and military programs.”
Elsewhere, NASA’s website details: “The military space program moved through overlapping phases from 1959 to 1961. First, the most promising ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) projects were turned over to the [military] services; the Air Force was made responsible for ballistic missile development in 1959, for military space development generally in 1961, and for military support of NASA in 1962.”
So, yes, despite President Kennedy’s publicly promoting a vigorous, non-military aerospace program and placing the weight and prestige of his office squarely behind the national goal of a manned lunar landing, he also in that same year “assigned to the Air Force responsibility for research, development, test, and engineering of Department of Defense space development programs.” And those programs were taking place at Cape Canaveral, using the same launch pads and test sites, and to the general public, they had the same look and feel as Peaceful NASA.
In fact, it turns out that the location itself reveals the incestuous relationship between NASA and the Air Force. Cape Canaveral (known as Cape Kennedy from 1963 to 1973 – in honor of President Kennedy’s promise of peaceful space exploration) was not even the true home to NASA that it seemed to be. In his book Florida Warplanes, Harold Skaarup writes, “Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) is an installation of the United States Air Force Space Command’s 45th Space Wing, headquartered at nearby Patrick Airforce Base. Located on Cape Canaveral in the State of Florida, CCAFS is the primary launch head of America’s Eastern Range… The Cape Canaveral AFS Skid Strip provides a 10,000 foot runway close to the launch complexes for military airlift aircraft delivering heavy and outsized payloads to the Cape.
“Several major American space exploration ‘firsts’ were launched from CCFAS, including the first U.S. earth satellite (1958), first U.S. astronaut
(1961), first U.S. astronaut in orbit (1962), first two-man U.S. spacecraft (1964), the first unmanned lunar landing (1966)…” etc etc. “Air Force crews launched missiles for NASA from CCAFS. …Titan missiles were launched from the site… and launch pads along the coast became to be known as Missile Row in the 1960s.”
So… the home of NASA was within an Air Force Base and was largely operated by the Air Force. And just as human incest carries the danger of birthing unhealthy children, this relationship birthed a highly dangerous and enormously unhealthy offspring.
On another page of NASA’s vast website, it reports: “What were the elements comprising the NASA-DOD relationship? In at least four ways their interests impinged on each other: common technologies; NASA’s continuation of NACA’s support of military aeronautics; NASA’s overwhelming dependence in its early years on the launch vehicles and ground support provided by the Air Force; and the persistent attempts by the Air Force to investigate the military applications of space. …As to common technology, there is no discontinuity between civilian and military R&D. …A launch vehicle is only a modified ballistic missile, and it cannot be overstatedthat NASA relied on vehicles successfully developed by the Air Force between 1954 and 1959, notably the Atlas, Thor, and Titan ballistic missiles in their original or modified versions. …Indeed, few areas of NASA’s R&D were without military application. …The transformation of NACA into NASA did not affect its role in supporting research for the military, except to blur the distinction between support and coordination.”
I could go on and on. The evidence that is available is extensive, widely reported, and amazingly consistent. But perhaps the most shocking and succinct statement that defines the relationship between the military and NASA was again on NASA’s own history website: “It is as well, then, to set aside preconceptions. ‘Civilian’ and ‘military’ are not the same as ‘peaceful’ and ‘non-peaceful.’” Kaboom!
The Titan Family: My Titan Family
Okay, so NASA and the Air Force were incestuous siblings pretending not to be married. But what about my father? Before seeing the Titan II depicted in Command and Control, it never occurred to me to check the dates of when my father worked at Cape Canaveral and what exactly was happening there at that time. But, as Wikipedia documented, “the Titan rocket family was established in 1955, when the Air Force (not NASA) awarded the Glenn L. Martin Company a contract to build an intercontinental ballistic missile, “the Nation’s first two-stage ICBM and the first underground silo-based ICBM.”
Just for fun, watch this video of a Titan I LAUNCH FAILURE. It’s spectacular. (In this case, no one was killed.)
It seems my family was its own sort of “Titan rocket family,” and maybe I was a Titan-rocket baby. Wikipedia further explained, “The Martin Company realized that the Titan I could be further improved and presented a proposal to the U.S. Air Force (not NASA) for the Titan II, which would carry a larger warhead over a greater distance with more accuracy and could be fired more quickly. The Martin Company received a contract for the new missile in June 1960” – at the exact time my family was living in Florida and my Dad was working at Cape Canaveral.
It’s interesting that Wikipedia includes details that would have meant nothing to me unless I had seen the movie Command and Control, which
makes painfully clear the repercussions of the “improved” features. “The Titan I, whose liquid oxygen oxidizer must be loaded immediately before launching, had to be raised from its silo and fueled before each launch. The use of storable propellants enabled the Titan II to be launched within 60 seconds, directly from its silo. Their hypergolic nature made them dangerous to handle; a leak could (and did) lead to explosions, and the fuel was highly toxic. However, it allowed for a much simpler and more trouble-free engine system than on cryogenically-fueled boosters.” Yes, that “(and did)” is part of the Wikipedia article, not my own addition, and it does not refer to the accident featured in Command and Control. Another quick Google search just brought up this chilling account of a Titan II accident that occurred in 1965, where “55 civilian men returned from lunch to missile silo 373-4. By 1:10 p.m., 53 were dead.”
That explosion was caused by a different type of “benign neglect” – a term the government uses to differentiate the problem from a design flaw, as if to suggest they are less accountable or the problem is less serious. But we learn in Command and Control the scope of the disaster that can be caused by a fuel leak of storable propellants in a missile that launches from inside an underground silo – the exact feature that made the Titan II “better” than the Titan I.
So, let’s recap: All these years I had believed that my father was a part of America’s noble mission of exploring the universe. This belief was crumbling. However, as part of this personal investigation, I checked with my brother, who reminded me that before working for (at) NASA, my father had worked as an engineer at a radio station. It’s possible he went to Florida to help design an audio system of some sort. But still. Even if so; it sure seems as if that audio system would have been connected to the larger project that was taking place at the time. He himself told us that he worked on the Titan. My father was (almost certainly) helping to build a missile for a nuclear bomb – a delivery system for weapons of mass destruction. This was earth-shaking news to me (no pun intended).
The Gemini: Capsule Manned with Helen’s Hope
But wait. There was something else; maybe there was still hope I was wrong. I remembered the name Gemini. My father also told us he worked on the Gemini, which was definitely a manned space mission. Right? Once again, my next blow came from NASA itself, on their website:
“Gemini was an early NASA human spaceflight program. Gemini helped NASA get ready for the Apollo moon landings. Ten crews flew missions on the two-man Gemini spacecraft.” (Yes!) “The Gemini missions were flown in 1965 and 1966. NASA designed the Gemini capsule for this program. The Gemini capsule flew on a Titan II rocket.” (Oh no.) “The two-stage Titan II was originally a missile. NASA made changes to the missile so it could carry people.” Ack! It was only later that the Titan missile was adapted for use in space exploration. Sheesh! My family was well gone from Florida by 1965.
Hold on. I found some more details about the research and development phase of the Gemini project, which would have taken place prior to the launch date; maybe that is what my father was doing at Cape Canaveral. “When… approved on 7 December 1961″ (already after I was born, but… let’s see) “much of the groundwork had already been laid…The Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) itself was not going to build spacecraft, booster, target, or paraglider. In line with the practice pioneered by the Air Force after World War II, NASA relied on private firms to develop and produce most of its hardware. The first priority, even before getting the project office fully in order, was putting the spacecraft under contract and making arrangements with the Air Force for booster and target vehicles.”
Further defining the contracts: “The choice clearly fell to the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, which had not only developed and was building Mercury but had also been an active partner in drawing up the new design. The company’s president, James S. McDonnell, Jr., signed the contract on 22 December .” Um… that is not the contractor that employed my father.
However: “Although NASA could deal directly with McDonnell for spacecraft development, launch vehicles were another matter.” The report continues: “The program belonged to NASA but… the Air Force, acting as contractor, would see that NASA got its Titan II and launch vehicles.” Okay, that brings in the Titan II and the Air Force.
Reading on: “The ‘NASA-DOD Operational and Management Plan’ of 29 December 1961… assigned launch vehicle development – Titan II – to the Los Angeles-based Space Systems Division (SSD) of the Air Force Systems Command.” Oops. That means the work was done in L.A., not Florida, where we lived.
Continuing: “The ‘Operational and Management Plan’ assigned two other major functions to the Department of Defense, with SSD acting as agent… One required SSD to oversee the modification of launch facilities at Cape Canaveral, Florida, to meet the needs of the new program.” Okay, this is where my father worked. “The other involved SSD in the support of program operations – launching, tracking, recovery – along the same lines already worked out for the Mercury program… On 26 January 1962, the plan was endorsed as a working arrangement between NASA’s Office of Manned Space Flight and the Air Force Systems Command by the heads of the two agencies.”
Well, now we are into 1962, which means my father has already been at Cape Canaveral for several years. Doing what? Not working on the Gemini project, apparently, because it had not yet started.
“NASA Headquarters juggled its fiscal year 1962 research and development funds to come up with $27 million, which it allotted to MSC (Manned Spacecraft Center) for Titan II on 26 December 1961. As soon as notice came that funds were on hand, MSC wired SSD that work on the Titan II could start. SSD told the Martin Company’s Baltimore Division to go ahead on 27 December.”
Okay! Now we’re getting somewhere. Because my family moved to Baltimore at some point during or after 1962. Suddenly, the timeline was coming together. Now at least that explains why (likely) we moved to Baltimore; my Dad did indeed work on modifying the Titan II for use in the Gemini program. So, his depiction that he worked for a NASA space-exploration program was almost certainly accurate.
BUT that does leave the entirety of his time in Florida unaccounted for. Dad! I want to pull you from the grave and shake you, and make you explain! What could I be misunderstanding, or overlooking? I concede: No, I am not applying the thorough rigor and multiple years of research that Eric Schlosser used in his book. (I simply don’t have the time or resources. Although, already I have delayed delivery of this article by over a month, due to my continuous stumbling onto more and more evidence that seems to support my disturbing realization about what my father did while at Cape Canaveral, where I was born.) Sorry, Dad; I could be making a statement that is imperfect. But, based on my best understanding at this time, I am going ahead and saying:
I am not as much a space-age baby as I am a weapons-of-mass-destruction baby.
Color me mind-blown.
Maybe I shouldn’t judge so harshly. Maybe I should view my father as a patriot. The Red Threat was real and he was part of the solution, even if a few (or many) people (Americans) died accidental deaths. All is Fair in War. Except the story doesn’t end there. The saga continues.
The Patriotism Syndrome
When I was in the 6th grade, my father helped me build a model of the solar system, complete with revolving and rotating parts, for my science project. It was a terrific father-daughter bonding experience. And it reinforced my belief that my Dad, who had worked for NASA, knew all about outer-space, which was so cool. I mention this because my relationship with my father was so closely connected to this image of himself that he persistently presented – an idealized, altruistic, cosmos-conscious man who believed in high-minded principles such as “knowledge for the sake of all mankind.” He was nothing like a war monger. He was thoughtful. He was measured.
In fact, the one item I have saved all these years as a memento of my father is his slide rule. (Totally true; I do not have a typical keepsake such as a watch or a gun – which he never owned btw, but I kept his slide rule.) I remember how, after dinner, my brother and I would do our homework at the dining room table while my father worked on his engineering studies. I cherish that picture of him, in his white business shirt with pocket protector, black frame eyeglasses, sitting with us at the table, carefully calculating with his slide rule, which we were not allowed to touch because it was “a precision instrument – not a toy.” He was that kind of guy – respectful of slide rules, dedicated to the reliability of numbers, and a father who helped his daughter with her science projects.
That solar system project would have been 1973, well after Dad’s beloved Titan missile had been adapted for use in the space-exploration program. At that point, my family was living in Maryland, and I now understand that it was NASA and Martin Marietta’s part in the Gemini project that brought us there. However, those days were behind us; my father no longer had any association with NASA, and he was working an entirely unrelated job. (sad snigger) After he left NASA, where I now know he helped build nuclear missiles, my father took a new job working in…. wait for it…. the nuclear power industry. What a coincidence!
Yup, my Dad worked for Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant. He had explained to me that when he worked for NASA, he was the kind of engineer that specialized in meeting government regulations. He was a Quality Engineer who was experienced at maintaining compliance with government contracts. And so, he told me, this made him especially qualified to work in the nuclear energy industry, which also had a lot of government-regulated standards. This made sense.
OR, this also makes sense: He had just finished working on a nuclear missile, so it was an easy transition into nuclear power. Duh. Of course, I never made that connection, until now. And maybe I am wrong and making more assumptions. And it doesn’t really matter how or why he got into nuclear energy. What matters is what he told me versus the truth. And so this section of the story deals with misinformation, which brings us back to the movie, Command and Control, which also looks quite a bit at that subject.
The System Didn’t Work
5th Bomb: The system didn’t work; the “conspiracy theorists” were right; and my father must have known and didn’t tell.
In 1979 I was a senior in high school. A movie called The China Syndromewas released on March 16, 1979. In this fictional drama, Jane Fonda plays a TV reporter who finds what appears to be a cover-up of safety hazards at a nuclear power plant. The plot suggests that corporate greed and cost-cutting had led to potentially deadly faults in the plant’s construction. My father, as by now you might imagine, was not a fan of the film. In fact, he was so outraged by its “un-American” theme and spreading of what he considered to be dangerous lies, that we were forbidden to see the movie. And he went even further; we were forbidden to see any movie involving Jane Fonda, who my father deemed to be a traitor to her country. (Okay, yes, he was influenced by Jane Fonda’s anti-war shenanigans, but this film was beyond the pale.) No one who lived “under his roof” would in any way support that “enemy of the State.”
Twelve days after The China Syndrome hit movie theaters, the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania suffered a partial meltdown – the worst accident in the history of U.S. commercial nuclear power plants. The incident was rated a five on the seven-point International Nuclear Event Scale. No one was hurt, but the Three Mile Island incident helped propel The China Syndrome into a blockbuster.
My father could not have been more irate. He declared again and again: “No one was hurt! The system worked!” He insisted that “the system” was designed to protect Americans from every possible type of accident or attack. Some type of problem occurred at Three Mile Island but the fact that no one was hurt PROVED that the system worked. There had been no real danger. And anyone who suggested otherwise was not only wrong but traitorous.
See, this is the voice I keep hearing over and over in my head – my father so vehemently insisting that nuclear power was absolutely, unequivocally safe, that NASA was absolutely, unequivocally heroic, and that he knew the truth, because he worked on the inside.
And yet, in a 2009 article, Victor Gilinsky, who served two terms on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, wrote that after Three Mile Island, it took five weeks to learn that “the reactor operators had measured fuel temperatures near the melting point.” He further wrote: “We didn’t learn for years – until the reactor vessel was physically opened – that by the time the plant operator called the NRC at about 8:00 a.m., roughly half of the uranium fuel had already melted.”
Several state and federal government agencies mounted investigations into the crisis, the most prominent of which was the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island, created by Jimmy Carter in April 1979. The commission consisted of a panel of twelve people, specifically chosen for their lack of strong pro- or anti-nuclear views. The commission released a completed study on October 31, 1979. The investigation strongly criticized the NRC (among other organizations and corporations) for “lapses in quality assurance and maintenance, inadequate operator training, lack of communication of important safety information, poor management, and complacency.” The heaviest criticism concluded that “fundamental changes were necessary in the organization, procedures, practices and above all – in the attitudes of the NRC and the nuclear industry.” The report stated that the actions taken by the operators were “inappropriate” but that the workers “were operating under procedures that they were required to follow, and our review and study of those indicates that the procedures were inadequate” and that the control room “was greatly inadequate for managing an accident.”
I just don’t understand why Dad would have continued to insist to his own family – to his children whom he had diligently taught to respect the Truth, that nuclear power was … well, none of the things written in that report.
In 1983, the year I become a college graduate, another relevant movie was released.
Silkwoodwas inspired by the true-life story of nuclear-whistleblower Karen Silkwood, who died in a suspicious car accident while investigating alleged wrongdoing at the Kerr-McGee plutonium processing plant where she worked. And it was not flagrantly un-American Jane Fonda who played the lead role, but America’s finest and perhaps most credible actress, Meryl Streep, who won an Academy Award nomination for her role (as did the film’s director, Mike Nichols). Factual accuracy was maintained throughout the script, with some incidents exactly parallel to the real life experiences of Karen Silkwood. One scene in particular involved the activation of a radiation alarm at the plant. Silkwood herself had forty times the legal limit of radiation in her system.
In real life, Silkwood’s death was vindicated in a victorious 1979 lawsuit, Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee. The jury rendered its verdict of $10 million in damages to be paid to the Silkwood estate (her children), the largest amount in damages ever awarded for that kind of case at the time.
My father never wavered. Nuclear power was safe. All other accounts were false. I can only assume that he believed his loyalty was the honorable thing to do.
And so this brings me back to Command and Control, which states about the Titan II incident, “The story received a good deal of attention at the time. It was covered by the nightly news, made headlines in our major newspapers. But the Pentagon was adamant that there was absolutely no way the warhead on the Titan II missile could have detonated. The press didn’t challenge that assertion. The story was soon forgotten. And we now know that the Pentagon’s reassuring words were a lie.”
Did my father not know about the monumental incident involving his Titan missile? I can’t believe he didn’t know the truth. And his not telling would have been consistent with the same type of repudiation and secrecy that were his response to the nuclear power accidents about which he surely knew.
Perhaps my father himself was a victim of “the system” he so heartedly defended. As with the young men who were at the center of the incident depicted in Command and Control, and also with the young men depicted in another war-related documentary at Tribeca, National Bird, and I will even add in another stunning Tribeca documentary, KeepQuiet (which tells the true story of young political firebrand and virulent anti-Semite who became vice president of Hungary’s far-right extremist party when he was only in his mid-twenties, and then discovered that he was actually Jewish), it seems that all countries and political establishments use the romantic ideals of patriotism, the charismatic persona of heroism, and perhaps most importantly, the spiritual sense of unity and belonging to something greater than oneself, to indoctrinate young citizens into service and loyalty that includes a dangerous component of silence and denial.
So: it’s time for me and everyone else to shake off this denial and face the harsh reality. For starters, seek out and see Command and Control.
Command and Control Review: Earth-Shaking Revelations Abound
Command and Control, which premiered at the Tribeca 2016 Film Festival, is a high-stakes documentary thriller, from Robert Kenner, director of the Emmy-award-winning film Food, Inc, which was based on Eric Schlosser’s best-selling book, Fast Food Nation. The docu-drama duo has teamed up again to bring us Command and Control, based on Schlosser’s critically-acclaimed book of the same name. (The book was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for History.) In this film, Schlosser and Kenner explore the deadly “human error” that led to a catastrophic accident at the Titan II missile complex in Damascus, Arkansas in 1980, the stunning details of which have only recently been revealed.
The chilling new documentary details the unlikely chain of events that caused the accident and the feverish efforts to prevent the explosion of a ballistic missile carrying the most powerful nuclear warhead ever built by the United States. Command and Control exposes the terrifying truth about the management of America’s nuclear arsenal, demonstrates what can happen when the weapons built to protect us threaten to destroy us, and probes how mutually assured destruction might actually mean self-annihilation.
One might wonder if, in today’s post-Cold-War era of disarmament and new, advanced-technology drone warfare, this story is still relevant. If it feels like old news, consider: The United States has about 4,700 nuclear weapons in its current arsenal – enough to completely obliterate this country more than 20 times over. And once a nuclear weapon is fully assembled, its safety is never absolute.
Harold Brown was Secretary of Defense when the Damascus accident occurred, and he only recently revealed to Command and Control filmmakers, “Accidents were not unusual in the defense department. There must have been several every day.” As stated in this documentary: “Nuclear weapons are machines, and every machine ever invented eventually goes wrong.”
The filmmaker warns, “Every one of them is an accident waiting to happen, a potential act of mass murder. They are out there waiting, soulless and mechanical, sustained by our denial – and they work.”
More Than a Synopsis:
It’s a spy-movie thriller that pivots on a horror-movie trick.
There is a special category of films at Tribeca 2016 that I called “You Think You Know But You Don’t.”Command and Control is a perfect example of this category. Even when you already know how it ends, and even though you just now read the synopsis, and even if you have some experience with this topic, this film still warrants your participation as audience – to sit for 92 minutes and watch and listen to how this story unfolds as told by these two immensely talented men, Screenwriter/Director Robert Kenner and Screenwriter Eric Schlosser.
You have to hear the tremble in the voice of the guy (not a portrayal – the actual man) who is still alive but was only 21 years old when the socket dropped from his wrench as he did routine maintenance on the Titan II missile and almost blew up our country – his country. On top of that missile sat a warhead three times more powerful than all the bombs dropped in World War II, including both atomic bombs. You have to hear David Powell himself explain how he was just a kid – a proud hillbilly from rural Kentucky, who’s first thought as he reached for the falling socket but couldn’t catch it, was that he “didn’t want to get in trouble” and have to tell his mother.
You have to see his work partner, who was only 18 yearsold at the time, explain how he “had no fear” and was excited “to play with the missile fuel” in the most powerful weapon that had ever existed – “a monster ready to go off,” and that his training included “preparation to destroy an entire civilization – without hesitation,” and he was “willing to do it” (determent only works if you’re actually willing to drop the bomb), but he had never considered that our own warhead might detonate on our own continent.
You have to hear the aching tone in the voice of this man who tells how he “was ready to take on the world” when he joined the PTS team, but on that fateful day, he stood helpless next to his co-worker as they watched that socket fall 70 feet down the length of the missile and bounce off the platform and puncture a hole in the fuel tank skin, and how they didn’t fully report what had happened – what was happening (highly explosive rocket-fuel pouring out of the missile), because they didn’t want their commander “to freak out.” When they finally admitted the truth, more than 30 minutes later, the situation was out of control. (By comparison: Once launched, the missile could reach a target over half a world away in less than 30 minutes.)
You have to endure the excruciating, minute-by-minute details of what happened next and then next and then unfathomably next, until a few hours later the missile completely exploded, destroying its underground silo and blowing the nine-megaton warhead … to literally God-only-knew where. (Note: one megaton = one million tons of TNT.) “We escaped the cold war without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion,” said General George Lee Butler of the U.S. Strategic Air Command.
This film will pound your heart and rattle your brain; it will pound your brain and rattle your heart.
The image that haunts you: The green-grey glow that surrounds the majestic missile – 10 feet in diameter and more than 100 feet tall, like a giant gleaming bullet, loaded into a concrete gun barrel, cocked, ready to go, and pointed at the sky.
The sound of manual typewriter keys, as data is spelled out on the screen – the metallic clickity-clack of what we now recognize as an antiquated and imperfect machine but was a “high-tech” business tool at the time.
The word that, when spoken, will make you never hear it quite the same again: “When you’re working on a weapon of mass destruction, you’re counting on everything to work perfect all the time, and things just don’t work perfect all the time.” – First Lieutenant Allan Childers, who was there that day.
The context given to simple facts that make you appreciate how complicated those facts really are: It would take fewer than 200 nuclear missiles to annihilate the entire Soviet Union. In the mid-60’s we had 32,000. (We have thousands still hidden around the U.S. Do you wonder where they are? And who is doing “routine maintenance” on them now?*)
You have to be present to comprehend all the little revelations that cannot be captured in a synopsis but that slowly expose themselves and stack precariously, one on top of the other. These are the moments that you will take to bed with you and that you will tell your friend the next day. One revelation that strikes in this film (as well as in another important documentary at Tribeca 2016, National Bird, which is about the U.S. drone program) is that America routinely puts its most powerful weapons and its most dangerous decisions in the hands of virtual children who are patently ill-equipped for the responsibility.
Command and Control is a must-watch film because you must experience the juxtaposition of vigilant precision-on-a-minuscule-scale against the gargantuan-danger and gross-miscalculation that created this event. You have to see the way these men actually light a match and burn the little slip of paper on which is written the daily code that opens the 740-ton door into the missile silo – the spy-movie level of secrecy to safeguard against enemy intrusion, and then come to realize that despite all these preventative measures, it is a horror-movie trick that gets them in the end: Don’t lock the door! The Killer is Inside the House! The danger is not our enemy; the danger is us.
These are the things that make Command and Control a captivating movie and are the reason you should watch it. And despite all the “spoilers” I have written, they barely make a dent in the mass of shock and awe contained in this film. This is truly a movie – not just a news story for the history channel. Although, PBS American Experience already owns it, so… that’s good and bad. But it’s mostly good because that means more people will see it, and this is something you definitely should see. Nonetheless, my point is that this film could sustain – visually, intellectually, emotionally, it could sustain the size and expectations that come with a large screen in a movie theater. Despite being an astounding documentary, this film is also a dramatic thriller.
∗One of the interviews included in this movie answers this question about the country’s current nuclear arsenal, ominously: Harold Brown, previous Secretary of Defense reports, “the degree of oversight and attention has, if anything, gotten worse.” Separately, on November 14, 2014, the negligence was acknowledged when Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spoke at a Pentagon news conference: “We just have kind of taken our eye off the ball here,” Hagel said.
Can’t Stop Thinking About It: There’s a saying that just one nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day. In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, environmental and atmospheric scientists Alan Robock and Owen Brian Toon explain why the detonation of even a “limited number” of nuclear weapons could have repercussions for millions of people around the world far away from a nuclear conflict. You can read it by clicking here.
Watching the Command and Control documentary ignited a private memory of my own — something that connected me personally to that tragic story, and after going home and doing a little Googling, a series of nuclear bombs exploded in my childhood. So, I’ve researched and written my own spin-off essay (or, Command and Control Commentary — Part 2) that could almost be its own documentary. Here’s the intro:
I was “a space-age baby.” That’s what my mother wrote in my baby album. I grew up being told the story of when we were in the hospital after she gave birth to me: There was this amazing few minutes when all the infants were left alone, even if they were crying, and all the nurses and mothers (along with millions of other Americans) turned to the TV to watch The First American be Launched into Space. It was a spectacular, patriotic event, and my father helped to make it possible. Click here to read more.
Helen Highly Recommends Sophie Goodhart’s My Blind Brother as One of the Best of Tribeca 2016
Droll My Blind Brother Premiered at SXSW and Cracks Up Tribeca 2016
“I’m a superficial narcissist” “I’m lazy and judgmental.”
This is how the two romantic leads in My Blind Brother introduce themselves to each other, and I fell in love with them both immediately.
Then, when they both reveal that they perversely wish they could be invalids so they’d have an excuse to lay in bed all day and watch TV, I fell in love with screenwriter Sophie Goodhart. Add in a blind guy, jaded and bored with his own infirmity, who is smoking weed unabashedly in public, even with the police nearby, who says, “I could shoot up in front of cops and they wouldn’t do anything,” and I love this movie in full. It manages to be morbidly dark, joyfully funny and unsentimentally touching all at the same time.
The storyline itself is genuinely fresh; unlike so many other films at this festival, I can’t think of another previous movie to compare it to. Robbie (Adam Scott) is a champion blind athlete and local philanthropic hero doted on by the community (and his parents) and seemingly incapable of wrongdoing. His apparently well-earned egotism is fed by his frequent, televised crusades to rise above his “disability” while also raising money for charity, where after each successful feat, he is surrounded by gushing reporters who never seem to notice that he tells the same, lame joke every time: “You look beautiful today,” Robbie the blind guy tells every female member of the press.
Robbie’s hapless, unassuming brother Bill (Nick Kroll) knows the real Robbie to be arrogant, selfish and rude, but he still guide-dog-faithfully runs every marathon by Robbie’s side and never makes a peep when he doesn’t receive any accolades, or when even his own parents continually criticize him. One night, Bill escapes the relentless Robbie-worship by hitting up the local bar, where despite his best efforts to present himself as unworthy and unappealing, he gets lucky with an attractive and like-hearted woman named Rose (Jenny Slate). Bill is guilt-ridden because Robbie’s blindness was the result of a childhood accident in which he was involved. Rose is guilt-ridden because immediately after she told her fiancé she wanted to break up with him, he distractedly crossed the street and was hit and killed by a bus.
After one pitiful, anti-romantic (yet soul-soaring) night together, Rose flees without leaving her phone number. Nonetheless, Bill thinks his karma might finally be coming around and that he’s found his sad-sack love-match. But his fantasy is soon squashed when his brother introduces him to his own new paramour – the very same Rose, who (without knowing he is Bill’s brother) has started dating blind Robbie in an attempt to make herself a better person. Now Bill must decide if he will put himself second again or finally stand up to his blind brother.
Kudos to writer/director Sophie Goodhart for opting against a “when bad things happen to good people” script and instead going with “when good things happen to bad people.” Goodhart’s two, guilty, self-loathing characters are amazingly charming and lovable. Robbie makes a wonderfully heroic antagonist, whose capability and determination we slowly come to dislike more and more as the story unfolds. (The fact that actor Adam Scott looks quite a bit like a smugly smiling Tom Cruise doesn’t hurt.) And Goodhart’s ingenious twist on the conventional love-triangle takes the sentimental weight out of the usual wet blanket that hangs over traditional romantic comedies. This movie is bright and buoyant and makes us laugh at ourselves more than at mere jokes.
Goodhart’s head-on attacks of our socially-correct attitudes toward both the physically handicapped and noble self-sacrifice are deftly executed dark humor that captures what’s funny about resentment, bitterness, and condescension. Her sharp jabs at “those less fortunate” never feel like bullying and never fall into rude buffoonery. Even as the movie escalates into full-blown wackiness, it still maintains its shrewd edge.
Another strength to this film are the secondary characters. Rose’s prissy, eye-rolling, sarcastically unsympathetic roommate (Zoe Kazan) ends up with the stoner blind guy. Ha! It’s just another delightful quirk in this defiant film where apathy and under-achievement are treated as virtues and perfection is the problem to be overcome. Finally: a romantic comedy with mutually flawed lovers, where no sacrifice or self-improvement is necessary for them to win happiness and each other.
Just to be fair, I will say that there are a few small spots where the script veers into impossible interactions – stupid things that could or would never actually be said. These mini-moments wouldn’t stand out so much if all the other moments in the script were not so true and all the other lines were not so witty. I am not usually a great lover of comedies, and the fact that I am calling this film One of the Best of Tribeca 2016 means it is truly something special. Unfortunately, my opinion doesn’t count for much, and this film may not get a broad theatrical release, so keep an eye out at your local art theater and on television.
News Update: Starz is nearing a deal to pick up Sophie Goodhart’s SXSW premiere My Blind Brother, Variety reports. The outlet shares that the acquisition “will likely be the biggest sale out of this year’s South by Southwest” and is estimated to be in the low seven-figure range. The comedy was reportedly the subject of a bidding war among distributors like Netflix, The Orchard, Sony and Gravitas Ventures.