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.
There is a serious political problem with Election 2016 and Helen Highly objects. I’m talking to you, fellow Democrats, Liberals, and Progressives who won’t vote for “Crooked Hillary.”
I will start this political essay by offering theoretical agreements with the claims of so many relentless Hillary Haters (and also you — mere Hillary Resisters).
Hillary accepts money from big-business and Wall St. Yup, she does.
Hillary is greedy. Okay – very likely true.
Hillary has used her political career for personal gain. Sure, I’ll even put that in all caps: HILLARY HAS PROFITED FROM HER POLITICAL CAREER.
Hillary has been caught in a misstatement (okay – call it a deception), covering up an embarrassing error about what she knew and when she knew it with regard to her email-server “scandal.” I’ll go ahead and give you that one – Hillary lied. Again, all caps: HILLARY LIED.
Hillary apologized for her mistake but that is not enough; any ethical misstep or financial misdeed makes her absolutely unfit to be President (and she probably belongs in prison as well). No– that is where I stop agreeing. In fact, that is where I get scary chills down my spine. And here is why:
Thailand, September 19, 2006. Thailand has no oil and no nukes and is poor and relatively peaceful and so the politics of Thailand almost never makes the news in the United States. Even when there is a military coup you won’t hear about it on our major TV network’s national news. But that’s not my point. My point is that NOW is a very good time to take a look back at what has been going on in Thailand for the past ten years, and also what just happened there last week, which again, went virtually unnoticed by America. (Kudos to The Economist for covering the story.) Thailand is a cautionary tale with astounding similarities to America’s current situation. And I personally saw this shit go down, or I wouldn’t have believed it myself. I was there, and now I am going to tell you.
I went to bed one night in a lovely, friendly, democratic country (long-standing ally to the United States) and woke up the next morning to tanks in the streets and men with machine guns positioned outside my hotel. Thaksin Shinawatra, businessman and politician, had been removed from his position as Prime Minister of the country. And with good reason.
Thaksin was undeniably corrupt (like you believe Hillary is). And he was personally benefiting from his political career (again, like Hillary). He was palling around with privileged rich guys (like Hillary). He was making tons of money with shady business deals. So… they threw that greedy, corrupt guy out. They named him a criminal, which was probably true (seemed he didn’t pay his fair share of taxes), but… does it really matter? Most people believed it was true, and masses shouted “Lock him up!” He’s now living in exile in order to avoid a prison sentence that still awaits him. Which court actually delivered this sentence and was it legitimate? Let’s not get bogged down in the details. HE CHEATED. Good riddance.
But here’s the problem: Thaksin was a cheat AND YET it is also undeniably true that this flawed man was a legitimate hero of the working class and poor. This man brought the country into the civilized world. He earned his way into heaven thousands of times over – saved lives and made them better. Thaksin’s government launched programs to reduce poverty, expand infrastructure, promote small and medium-sized enterprises, and provide universal healthcare coverage. He made wide-spread education and financial loans to individuals possible for the first time. With Thaksin as Prime Minister, ordinary people, for the first time, could get a financial loan to pay for college or buy a home or purchase a car to get to work.
Thaksin stamped out the drug dealers who were feeding off of the rural poor and killing thousands of people. (We’re talking about the middle of the “Golden Triangle” – heroin producer for the world.) Thaksin offered poppy farmers real-world alternatives and created markets for their new, legitimate crops. He brought opportunity and hope to his country. He was the first democratically-elected Prime Minister of Thailand to serve a full term and was reelected in 2005 by an overwhelming majority. His personal big-business, btw, was an I.T. and telecommunications corporation, which made him one of the richest people in Thailand and also, incidentally, enabled widespread internet access, which of course enables democracy, which we Americans know is so crucial to freedom.
BUT he was a big-business profiteer (rich and entitled like Hillary). And he cheated on his taxes (probably). And on that one reason alone — his personal greed and presumed corruption, they threw him out. Single-minded, self-righteous protectors-of-the-fantasy-of-flawless-purity gave him no mercy, and gave his mistakes no context and no reasonable perspective – just like so many people in this country are doing to Hillary.
And when the public voted for another person from Thaksin’s political party to replace him, the new “law-abiding” government made that political party illegal altogether (because they deemed it bad for the public). And they shut down democracy. And restricted the internet, and the press, and even group gatherings of five or more people. It was a military coup. But don’t worry; it was a “bloodless coup,” because Thai people are Buddhist and don’t believe in violence. So, as far as we knew or cared, in America, it didn’t really count. The transition was so smooth. In the marketplace it was business as usual — no problem, no problem.
It seemed just like the Law and Order that Donald Trump promised during his convention speech when he accepted the GOP nomination for President. And most Americans chuckled when Donald said that on the morning after he takes office there will be an immediate end to crime and violence. We laughed it off because it seems so ludicrous – not even possible, just another Trump exaggeration.
Except I know it’s not ludicrous and it is possible. I saw it. Not in another century – just ten years ago. I woke up in my comfortable bed to that strange and terrible law-and-order silence that was supervised by the military, for the supposed safety of the citizens. Yup, the Thai people are now safe from their leader failing to pay his taxes. They are protected from the ethical mistakes and greed of that hard-working politician.
But: Goodbye to all those social programs Thaksin had created. Goodbye to all the progress he made for the country, and all the hope, and the health, and the growth and the stability. And the freedom.
They threw the baby out with the bathwater. It’s all gone now.
And now some other rich guys are getting richer, instead of Thaksin. And all those ordinary, non-violent, too-naïve, Thai citizens – especially the rural poor and those with lives at the highest risk… those people are totally screwed now. They’ve been screwed for the past ten years – victims of a sudden turnaround of the country, which was initiated by a quiet, little “act-of-justice” against one public servant, for one wrong thing he did. And, due to the latest “vote” (as if) for a formal constitutional change that will keep the military in power for the foreseeable future, the Thai people are now screwed for the rest of their lives, and their children’s lives.
And no, that situation is not directly parallel to America’s situation. But the key similarity is this misguided campaign to put all our energy into punishment rather than progress, into hating Hillary rather than helping the country. It is this stubborn refusal to look past this functionally irrelevant email thing – this one thing. This blindness to everything but this one error, and this one personal flaw. Hillary Haters, take heed: It is you who are doing wrong here and making a dangerous mistake –
— this refusal to see Hillary’s shortcomings and even her misdeeds with appropriate context and perspective.
And you think you have the leeway to “vote your conscience” — essentially throw away your vote, just “to show her.” You think it’s impossible that a monster like Trump could really end up running the country. Or you absurdly equate Hillary’s misconduct and greed with Trump’s… (I can’t even write the long list, but it ends with Hate.) You claim to believe that fibbing about email or making a self-serving business deal is seriously evil — comparable to Trump’s dangerous combination of Ignorance and Hate. Well, you are wrong. And if you will only stop and think honestly, you know it.
So I am begging you: Please consider Thailand’s cautionary tale and don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
What do I recommend instead? Sorry to sound so simplistic and cliched, but how about we try to get a Democrat in the White House and a majority in the Senate, and then we can use the democratic process (yup, our messy and flawed system) to wrestle with Hillary and hash out the details later, once we are truly clear of and safe from the threat of Trump.
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 Alarmed by the Shocking Revelations in Untouchable, Interviews the Documentary Director and Editor.
Ricocheting from the halls of power to the cardboard homes of a marginalized pariah people, “Untouchable” is an enlightening documentary that defies expectations and challenges assumptions to argue for a new understanding of how we think about and legislate sexual abuse.
Untouchable Film Synopsis: When the most influential lobbyist in Florida discovers that the nanny has sexually abused his daughter, he harnesses his extraordinary political power to pass the toughest sex offender laws in the nation. Untouchable chronicles his crusade, and its impact on the lives of several of the 800,000 people forced to live under the kinds of laws he has championed.
Attorney-turned-filmmaker David Feige delves fearlessly into a confounding and taboo issue, weaving together stories of sexual abuse victims with those of sex offenders as well as the advocates and academics who argue the many sides of the situation. The result is a strange sort of documentary-thriller that reveals a surprisingly twisted public health crisis where the victims and perpetrators are inextricably linked by a legal system gone awry.
HH: A film about sex offenders. Not exactly an appealing outing to the movies. Why did you choose this unlikable topic, how did you get funding, and do you really expect people to go and see it?
Feige: Why this issue? Because I didn’t think anybody else was going to pick it up. I worked 15 years as a public defender, and even as the Trial Chief of the office, I tended to take on the most difficult cases. That’s what I do. Look, there are lots of people who are willing to take on certain issues – innocence, the death penalty, the drug war. All of these things already have a built in constituency and already have a lot of people who are willing to write and talk and make movies about them. In a way, they are the low-hanging fruit of the criminal justice reform discussion. This is not.
This is about as difficult a subject as you can find. It is complicated terrain and few people are willing to venture out into it. For that reason, the film was nearly impossible to fund. Basically, no one would fund it. But I made the film for exactly the reason that nobody would fund it– because I was interested in the most complex and most difficult questions. I was interested in the hardest questions in the criminal justice system, not the easy ones. The film is still in debt but… at least it got made.
Will people see it? Well, when people do see the film they react positively and strongly and they recognize the value of what we’ve done here. It’s an extremely thought-provoking film that makes you see the entire subject in a new way, and I believe that despite the subject matter, it’s really engaging and emotionally satisfying, which makes it absolutely worth seeing.
Feige: Nope. We are still looking. We are talking to distributors, and we are also interested in finding a broadcast partner. It’s my hope that the film will have a wide release and a vibrant life and reach a huge and diverse audience. That’s my hope.
HH: Jay, talk to me about the structure of the film. When watching it, it was almost like a thriller in that you saved the most powerful punches for the end. I mean, I was so profoundly shocked by all the “twists” that come late in the film that I almost wanted to go watch it again because I felt I had been watching it wrong, or with the wrong assumptions. Why did you opt to keep the audience in the dark for so long?
Sterrenberg: It’s interesting that you saw it that way. That was not specifically our strategy. But it’s a very complicated issue, and people tend to come into it with preconceived notions and very strong feelings. So, we thought it was best to meet people where they are. We wanted to leave room for the audience to have a lot of different opinions and perspectives and then bring them along slowly, through the complexity, point by point.
We bring you in through Ron and Laura’s personal story. They have had this nightmare experience where she is repeatedly sexually abused by her nanny, and as her father, he has a desire to punish the offender as harshly as possible and forever. And it’s a sensible and legitimate desire. And any audience can totally relate to that — the horror and outrage. So, we wanted to start there. And then we slowly take the audience on this journey down the rabbit hole of part of the criminal justice system that no one wants to engage with.
Feige: You gotta remember, we’re making a movie, which has to have a narrative and an emotional flow to it and so you can’t just… I could make a movie like Al Gore’sAn Inconvenient Truth and just do a PowerPoint with a bunch of numbers, but that’s not going to be effective with this subject. So, we do present a lot of data, but this film is fundamentally character driven. It’s about delving into the life experience of people. It’s not a science lesson. It’s not a polemic. It’s a very complex and emotional look into the lives of people on several sides of this issue, who have all suffered tremendously.
Sterrenberg: It needed to be a carefully paced process, introducing these people who are considered monsters by society and looking at them as if they are human. It’s not that we are showing these sex offenders as sympathetic as much as human. That’s why we have three characters (real people) who are parents of children who have been abused as well as three characters (also real people) who are sex offenders. And it’s a dramatic evolution, the way these characters themselves transform in their own stories and their own attitudes. And different people watching will have different reactions, but we do take them through a range of perspectives.
HH: You talk about transformations, and one of the most jolting is Patty Wettlerling, who is the mother of a boy who was kidnapped at gunpoint by a masked man, never to be seen again.
HH: But after we go through her heartbreaking story and see how she had dedicated her life to advocating for the memory of her son, we finally learn that she has changed sides in the legal battle; she no longer supports the law that was named for her own son. That felt like a bomb exploding in my brain.
Sterrenberg: Yes, she says that she feels that the law named for her son has been “hijacked” and that now it has become counter-productive. The Wetterling Act was about police notification. It was later that Megan’s Law and other public notification laws were enacted, and those have become extremely controversial.
Feige: I want to be clear that I’m not advocating any particular position on this. It’s important to me that when I’m talking about this I’m talking about either what the science shows or what the experts in the film argue rather than my own point of view. I want to raise the questions, flag the social science, and then I want people to agree or disagree as they see fit. That said, the social science is quite clear.
HH: Yes, but the misunderstanding has been enormous. So, the data the film presents is truly amazing. Astounding, actually.
Feige: Right. And so many people want to discount these numbers by saying they were done by some, you know, some pro-sex-offender social scientist or something, but what’s so amazing about these numbers is that they are almost all done by departments of corrections, and probation departments and such.
Feige: Exactly. 80% was the number that was in the Psychology Today article. And that recidivism rate, and that exact phrase, is still used today to justify, over and over and over, these very, very stringent laws – hundreds of laws across the country, which have enormous impact on people’s lives. And that article had no backup data at all and was not even written by a social scientist. The guy was a “rehabilitation counselor.” But he doesn’t have a PhD, and he’s not a social scientist. And there was no study.
That is why, in every place in the film that we quote a statistic, I felt it was extremely important to make clear where we were getting it, so we actually show the cover page for each report that we quote in the film.
HH: And the actual recidivism rate, according to recent, legitimate studies is not even close to 80%. It’s not even double digits.
Feige: 3.5% is the most reliable number. We took the biggest study – that’s the 1994 DOJ study that followed literally everybody released in 15 states, and that had a number of close to 10,000, so that is really the best three-year recidivism number around, from the study with the biggest sample size. It’s the study done by the United States Department of Justice.
HH: And you’ve explained to me that this 3.5% recidivism rate is the lowest recidivism rate for any crime other than murder. Lower than any other violent crime.
HH: And this is information that wasn’t even included in the movie. The movie is full of dramatic statistics, and still there is more.
Feige: There are a lot of other subjects – related subjects that we cut out of the film, which deserve their own treatment. We didn’t dig into all the data because … as I’ve said, it’s an extremely complicated story.
Sterrenberg: And it was most important to follow the characters and understand their diverse experiences. That’s what makes the numbers make sense.
HH: Okay, so the film does address the issue that we have a completely different category of restrictions and continued punishment for sex offenders after they have been released from prison than we do for any other type of criminal, even other violent offenders, all based on false beliefs.
Feige:Today, a large part of the misunderstanding comes from the way people count. If you count re-incarceration due to “technical violations,” you get a much larger number. Technical violations might be drinking alcohol, associating with another sex offender, not having compliant housing, staying at an unapproved address, or if you’re still getting polygraphs, there is one called “masturbating to an unapproved script,” where if they don’t like what you thought about when you masturbated, you are in violation – you go back to prison. In the movie, we show one man who was eight minutes late arriving home (he was wearing a GPS ankle bracelet), and he was sent back to prison for four years.
HH: I remember that. He was late because he was on a bus that was running late, and he was returning from his low-paying job that was two and half hours away, due to the legal restrictions that prevented him from living anywhere near civilized life. And he actually phoned his parole officer at the time, while on the bus, to explain that he would be a few minutes late. And still he was sent back to prison. For a ten minute delay. It seems unbelievable.
Feige: It was actually only eight minutes, to be exact. And that’s not an isolated incident. His story is fairly typical.
If you’re counting actual sex-crime convictions for previous sex-crime offenders… For every 100 sex-offender prison releases, 70 are sent back and only one of those is for a sex crime.That’s according to California Department of Corrections data.
HH: You turn on TV any night of the week and there is an episode of Law & Order or such, and they are always telling us this misinformation – that the recidivism rate for sex offenders is dangerously high; they will always re-offend. We hear that over and over, so we believe it. It’s mind-blowing to realize that these people are essentially being forced into a lifestyle that is unlivable, where it’s nearly impossible not to have some sort of technical violation.
Sterrenberg: There are multiple areas of misunderstanding. Let’s say you’re a 17 year old teenager dating a 15 or 16 year old teenager. When you turn 18, and your girlfriend or boyfriend is now 16 or 17, suddenly you are a sex offender. And you are treated by the law the same as a violent rapist, and you will live under these same sex-offender restrictions for the rest of your life. These laws are forever. And they paint all offenders with a very broad brush.
In the film, we meet Shawn Baldwin, who is an example of this type of situation, and we see her many years later, now trying to raise her own children but unable to even accompany them to the playground because of her sex offender status.
HH: I think the general public has no idea that this type of confusion is going on. And what I learned in the film is that there is a significant shame factor that prevents people like Shawna from speaking up and arguing for her own justice.
Feige:And these miscalculations and misunderstandings have severe consequences, because they are used to validate these draconian laws. Residency restriction laws in particular – for example, sex offenders cannot live within 2500 feet of a school or park, which often leaves little to no viable real estate where these people can live. This is what pushed a lot of folks under bridges and into makeshift homeless encampments. These laws have a devastating and destabilizing effect on the population because they are so effective in preventing people from forming relationships, getting homes, keeping jobs, etc. They actually decrease the ability of released convicts to be successful. And so that perversely suggests that they are increasing the likelihood of recidivism.
In addition, it appears that Megan’s Law and public notification have essentially no effect on suppression of sexually related violence, and what that in turn means is that we are subjecting three quarters of a million people to some very serious penalties for no real gain.
That begs the question: Then why are we doing it? And it may be that it’s because it feels good. And it also may be that that’s not a sufficient answer to justify what we’re doing.
HH: The details we’ve discussed here are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the insights and revelations in your film. (Truly: I want readers of this interview to understand that there are so many pieces to the story this film tells, more than even an educated person can imagine, and each is more startling than the next.) You have really succeeded at shattering this mass of misinformation and misconception and then intricately examining all the shards.
Your background as a criminal attorney definitely makes its mark on this movie. The film has an indisputable logic to it, and a kind of relentless veracity that threads through the various emotions and personalities that are presented. You are quite the legal mind and also quite an excellent writer.
Feige: I jokingly say that I’m one of the only people in America who made more money as a writer than as a lawyer.
HH: How would you compare your two roles? Do you feel you’ve had more impact as a lawyer or as a writer and filmmaker?
Feige: Being a public defender, I had a profound impact on a relatively small number of lives. Being a writer or filmmaker, I have a much more diffuse and tangential impact but on a far larger number of lives. I think a robust democracy relies on civil discussion and honest debate, and there is real value in promoting that, especially on topics as complex and emotional as this one.
HH: And you have truly made this an honest discussion. It’s not manipulative; it’s not a tear-jerker.
Feige: I didn’t want this to be one of those movies the viewer has to suffer through.
HH: Well, your intention to involve the audience in a legitimate conversation is apparent. And it is indeed compelling. I’m writing about it because I couldn’t get it out of my mind.
Feige: Most people come away saying “It was challenging and interesting and I couldn’t stop talking about it.” Everybody who has written to me says they couldn’t stop talking about it.
Watch the Trailer:
Update:Untouchable Documentary Doesn’t Go Far Enough & Ron Book is A Monster Yet to Be Slayed, According to OnceFallen.com
Logue is also shown, briefly, in the documentary; he is the one who organizes the sex-offender rights rally. But his own story is not shown in full in the film. A visit to the OnceFallen site shows just how passionate and hot a topic this is, and gives an indication of how scary-powerful Ron Book is as a lobbyist and political force. The website has an extremist tone (understandably), but it definitely merits a look. And Logue’s comment also merits a read, so I am posting it here (as I found it on the web — without any fact-checking), along with my own comment back to Logue:
Logue: I was in this film briefly, protesting the Book family. This film didn’t do anything to challenge those monsters. The Books are responsible for forcing hundreds of Miami’s registered citizens into homelessness. It is disgusting to see clips of Ron Book attending fancy dinners, eating steak tartare and getting his shoes shined knowing his policies force hundreds of registered citizens to live by the railroad tracks behind a warehouse.
The film fails to discuss Ron Book’s plea of no contest to a theft charge in the 1980s and a guilty plea for illegal campaign contributions in the 1990s. Ron Book was recently under FBI investigation. Lauren Book is literally BUYING a senate seat, yet she can’t even answer her own questions during a post-screening Q & A. Lauren is inept and nothing but a puppet for daddy Ron and his political cronies.
It is here where Feige fumbled the ball worse than Cam Newton in the Super Bowl. In order to guarantee he wouldn’t get sued by the Books or have them pull their support of the film, Feige had to cater to Ron & Lauren. Thus, instead of any direct challenge to the Book family, Feige’s film dances the issue around them. The Books are never grilled about anything in the film. Feige minimized my rally in the film out of concerns that our message was “too harsh.” He asked me to be nice to Lauren Book because she is “skittish.” I guess it was because Daddy wasn’t there to do the talking for her.
Ultimately, this movie was an utter disappointment. The Books get away again like the bad guys from a Saturday Morning cartoon to return and continue their wicked ways.
HH: I don’t doubt that much of what you say about the Book family is true. But the Books are revealed in this film to be something very different than they originally appear. Feige handles their story, and others, with amazing sensitivity, while carefully and slowly building his case that essentially everything we think we know about this subject is FALSE. When you come into the issue cold, like most of us do, and watch it from beginning to end, the film packs a powerful punch. But it’s smart and dispassionate, which leads to a kind of meticulous fairness that is bizarrely unsettling. In my mind, Feige is like Solomon, but he actually cuts the baby in half.
I’m a little bit high — highly into Film, Art, Theater, TV, Music and all-things Culture.
I am well-educated but don’t think of myself as an academic. I am opinionated but don’t think of myself as a critic. I am sometimes a little bit high but don’t think of myself as a stoner.
Here’s the deal:
I like colors. I like ideas. I like a beautiful sentence as well as a beautiful object. I like to be provoked. I like to be amazed.
I like to be touched without actually touching. I like to be knocked down and bloodied but walk out with my dress unwrinkled.
I like to laugh despite myself. I like to be stirred and shaken. I like to realize something new. I like to feel my heart beat. I like to feel that lump in my throat. I like to smile while I cry.
I like to piece it together in my head. I like the truth to be whispered in my ear. I like to leave wondering. I like to go home and Google it. I like to want to tell my friend.
I like to see something for the first time. I like to see it anew for the first time. I like to wish I could touch it.
I like to be taken on a trip. I like to surrender to the experience. I like to dream about it later. I like my passion to be inflamed.
I like to be uplifted and transported. I like the way art elevates the audience. When it’s good, art is its own high.Even when it’s bringing you low, it’s making you high. (Ya know what I mean?)
Are these “reviews” or what?
Given that choice, I’d say they are what. I like to call them essays. Or commentary. But I need to title them as reviews so that Google can find them. (Reality is reality.) “Thumbs up, thumbs down” is not me. I work in full hands – all 10 fingers, and sometimes even toes.
And I earnestly invite you to respond to what I write. I am happy to hear your criticisms as well as your compliments. I am happy to answer your questions. And mostly, I am delighted to know that someone is reading; you do me a favor if you share your response with me, or with my other readers. You may email me directly, or you may post a comment. I love discussion. I get off on the back-and-forth. So don’t be shy: Let’s get into it together.
Start by clicking one of the menus at the top of this page, to see my posts, and select one.
Yes, this site is new and not yet fully populated. I do not yet have postings in each category. But I have tons of notes I’ve written while exploring my newly adopted home of New York City. I will continue to write commentary on new things while I also backtrack and write about previous things. I am working as fast as I can under my circumstances.
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