Supreme Revenge (2020)

PBS initially screened ‘Supreme Revenge’ on 21 May 2019 to cover the Brett Kavanaugh media debacle, but updated it the following year (as Frontline S39E07) to add in the subsequent Amy Coney Barrett appointment as well.

So this is a pretty comprehensive and robust treatment of the recent Supreme Court saga from Bork in the late eighties to the present day. It’s one huge soap opera, and PBS has all the juicy footage. The focus is on Mitch McConnell, the extreme Washington insider whose ‘life’s work’, this documentary asserts, was to reverse the liberal majority in the Supreme Court that had stood for decades, presented here as his long-awaited ‘revenge’, hence the title, for the unfair treatment Bork had received at the hands of his Senate Confirmation Committee.

The overwhelming highlight here is when the formidable Clarence Thomas goes in to bat and opens up a can of whupass on his accusers, putting them to flight and winning his confirmation to the Supreme Court.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Stanley Kubrick’s homage to David Lynch has Tom Cruise’s preppy New York doctor stumbling upon an illuminati sex party and coming up against a wall of silence when he begins inquiring about it. Kubrick’s final film is as multi-layered and intense a piece of cinema as you could wish for, a typically immaculate and tightly-wound presentation of the terrifying nature of normality.

When Kubrick (the greatest ever movie director) left his final cinematic statement to the world it was met by critics with confusion that turned to indifference. On the surface it’s an obscure, surreal fantasy that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But since Bill Burr publicly accused Hillary Clinton of attending ‘Eyes Wide Shut parties’, the world has taken another look at this enigmatic work. Needless to say Kubrick was way ahead of his time, and with the ongoing Jeffrey Epstein ‘QAnon’ phenomenon, this movie becomes more relevant to the world we live in with every passing minute! Of course Hillary attends Eyes Wide Shut parties, and so do a lot of people.

Kubrick expended his last efforts to focus on that group (with whom he clearly had some experience) whose power derived not simply from their having more money than anyone else, but from them ‘owning’ money itself.

Unlikely as it may seem, despite its x-rated nudity and perverse themes, ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ is also a statement of monogamy. It presents a Garden of Eden in which both sexes resist the temptation that assails them, and argues that couples should ignore those nagging jealousies and tantalising rabbit-holes because what they offer is meaningless and a husband and wife already have something worth infinitely more.

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story (2008)

This doco covers the career of the demonic, terrior-like Lee Atwater, credited with getting George H W Bush (one of the least appealing candidates in US Presidential history) elected in 1988 against the much more favoured, affable and photogenic George Dukakis. To achieve this feat, Atwater dredged never-before-seen depths of dirty tricks, using attack ads, smears, misinformation and downright lies. The campaign went down in history as the nadir of ‘New Right’ venality and an infamous low in political tactics. Bush was not re-elected in 92 and the 88 campaign was part of the reason.

It’s an interesting if skin-crawling tour through the life of a man with virtually no moral compass, obsessed with succeeding at all costs and possessed of a desperate drive for power and recognition, all of which was music to the ears of the Washington swamp. The film throws intriguing light on the latter years of the Reagan administration and the Iran-Contra affair that cast a shadow over it.

This is a tragic cautionary tale of what happens when a man gains the whole world but loses his own soul. When Roger Stone is the voice of reason and restraint in the film of your life, something is seriously wrong!

Me and Bobby Fischer (2010) & Pawn Sacrifice (2014)

Bobby Fischer was one of only two non-Soviet world chess champions between 1948 and 2007 and the only American player ever to hold the title.

Most versions of his story present this simple narrative: obsessive, loner chess prodigy beats the world in the seventies, ‘winning the Cold War’, only to get so caught up in his own vanity and the pressure of global stardom to be unable and/or unwilling to defend the title, losing it by default in 1975 and becoming an infamous eccentric, the archetypical reclusive misfit and ranting conspiracy theorist crackpot.

But ‘Me and Bobby Fischer’ gives a more nuanced picture. It focuses on his rescue from a Japanese prison in 2004 by the Icelandic friends he met during his title-winning chess bout in Reykjavik in 1972, and his subsequent repatriation to Iceland. The issue was that the grumpy old chess champ had criticised the George W Bush Government in the wake of the 2001 World Trade Centre attacks, even shockingly expressing approval of them. By the long reach of American international influence he was thereafter detained on trumped-up charges in Japan, by writ and without due process of law. His solution is to pick up the phone and call his old security guy from the 1972 Iceland trip where he won the world championship (who hasn’t heard from him since). It turns out the Icelanders are a force to be reckoned with, and they get him out. But then they have to deal with the reality of an ageing and bitter Fischer as he steps off the plane onto Icelandic soil.

It makes for great reality TV. In between his anti-semitic rambling there’s some great insights into life, death and genius. It’s interesting to note for example that Fischer refuses to keep his money in Icelandic national bank Landsbanki even though as his Icelandic friends argue ‘the interest is higher’. The old curmudgeon was one step ahead of the curve though because shortly after this film was shot in 2008 the global financial crisis smashed the Icelandic banking system to bits and completely destroyed Landsbanki. Such details suggest there may be more to Fischer in Iceland than the washed-up has-been he is usually portrayed as, and the film ends with the strong suggestion that his 2008 death was suspicious and that it may not even be Fischer they buried!

‘Pawn Sacrifice’ is the underwhelming and prosaic movie version featuring Tobey ‘Player X’ Maguire as Fischer, and covers mainly the early, chess-dominating years.

Mad Men (2007)

This epic work, the Cadillac of quality American television series, surgically dissects US high society so finely that no subject is left untreated, certainly not politics. ‘The President is a product’ opines one executive. And ‘it’s a ball game’ is protagonist Don Draper’s memorable consolation line to a client after his party’s 1960 election loss to the Democrats. That’s about as succinct and accurate a verdict as you can get.

Mad Men is the most comprehensive deconstruction of American culture since ‘The Godfather’. A forensic examination of the Decline and Fall of the American Empire, it is a towering, subtle, nuanced and labyrinthine study of the evolution of sexual mores and white collar social politics from the tail end of the fifties through to the beginning of the seventies.

Jon Hamm plays the USA, in the guise of captain of industry Ad man Donald Draper, whose Gatsby-like mysterious origins, manly silence and suave exterior make him the corporate face of trendy Madison Avenue firm Sterling Cooper, an arrangement that suits the blue-blood New York aristocrats who run the company.

The genius of Mad Men is that on the surface, nothing ever really happens. But if you think this is just a well-made soap opera think again. Everything is in the details. A major question behind the drama is: does sexual morality, matter? Is Don and the others’ behavior a normal and acceptable executive convenience, an afterthought, an obvious necessity for the glamorous veneer of corporate hospitality, or are they all partying while Rome burns?

Kids are knifing each other on the streets and getting bombed on hard drugs while America has somehow become an Imperial aggressor bombing third world countries into submission. And who is controlling the ideas that define and originate the terms of this popular conversation and the frame of reference in which it sits? It’s these guys.

American Chaos (2018)

Great personal travelogue about one irate Democrat’s journey to understand the 2016 election result. Essentially an extended video diary, this features Chicagoan James Stern criss-crossing the country to seek out the fabled ‘Trumpland’ of America, where the voters James cannot believe actually exist, live. It’s a fun road trip. Stern’s scathing contempt and utter confusion about what is happening in the country is entertaining and also instructive. Of course, his mission into red states ends with insights that he didn’t expect.

It’s also just a fabulous document of the atmosphere of the country outside of LA and the East Coast beltway in the run-up to the election. Stern is a winsome and articulate host and it is fun watching him engaging with what for many Americans is simply ‘reality’.

Stern has also collected some really wonderful interviews here that will last the test of time. They are pure Americana, and add up to an enjoyable and laid-back snapshot of the country in 2016. Putting all these highly distinctive, personal, divergent and colorful opinions about the two candidates together also makes up a profound meditation on the temperature of the country on the eve of the momentous election. Viewing this documentary now four years later above all it seems to offer a gentle invitation for all Americans finally to find some common ground and to make their peace with the democratic will of the American people as a whole, and maybe get on with life!

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

This movie is a tour de force and stands with the great courtroom dramas of cinema history. It’s the career masterpiece of renowned screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, and will almost certainly win the Best Picture Oscar at next year’s Academy Awards. While we are currently awash with ‘On The Basis of Sex’-style unabashed liberal propaganda pieces, this is something more. Like that movie it is well made with a large budget and some great performances, but this production is all round bigger and better and it screams quality. The 1968 court case in question was a touchstone of modern American history and gets a luxurious treatment here.

Sascha Baron-Cohen (channeling a young Elliot Gould) dominates as the wise-cracking Abbie Hoffman, one of the 7 on trial for inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, a convention that had denied the rioters their first choice of Presidential nominee Bobby Kennedy by the assassin’s bullet and in a mockery of democracy now replaced him with the establishment candidate Hubert Humphrey. Frank Langella is brilliant as the villain of the piece, reactionary Judge Hoffman (no relation!) The fast pace, epic production design, razor-sharp editing and of course the dialogue – Sorkin’s speciality – are superb, and elevate this effort to instant classic status.

There is some attempt to draw a moral equivalence here between the anti-draft protests of the sixties and the recent ‘Summer of hate’ BLM protests. But it is a specious comparison: protesting the concept of any kind of police and law at all is not the same as protesting being sent around the world to kill or be killed. If anything this movie serves to remind us of the greater character, nobility and purpose of a previous generation’s youth. Although the stated aims of the protesters back then were ostensibly the same: the intentionally vague ‘revolution’, with its irresponsible, naive and/or willful ignorance of history’s witness that such revolutions always result in genocide and the worst kind of tyranny, at least those protesters were attempting to stop an unjust war and prevent American imperialism from oppressing foreign nations. Today’s rioters and looters are not interested in the ongoing oppression of foreign nations, only their own comparatively very comfortable condition that does not in any way require them to go overseas to fight and die, and they have no programme of solution other than destruction and vandalism. The Coronavirus lockdown would be a worthy cause to protest against, but that rarely even gets a mention!

The Swamp (2020)

Government corruption! Whatever happened to that issue? Well, as could be expected, it has been tastefully and discreetly dropped. But it hasn’t gone anywhere. This beautiful documentary asks an extraordinary question: what if we look at ‘the swamp’ of Congressional corruption from a bipartizan, neutral perspective? Wow what an idea! Neutrality is incredibly rare in today’s polarised political climate, but this doc just about manages to achieve it.

The main focus is Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, as pro-Trump a Republican as you could find, but one who also has the amazing idea of working with other Representatives to drain the swamp, even if they are from a different party! Shocker! Much of the film covers his cross-party efforts with Democrat Ro Khanna and how the two of them fare going up against the entrenched interests on the Hill. The film also features other Representatives who similarly recognise that political corruption is not a party issue, it’s an American issue, and it requires everyone to get involved for it to be fixed.

The fun here is getting a peek into the cloistered world of the Capitol (the ‘Death Star’!) and the House of Representatives and seeing how these guys go about their daily activities of fund-raising, voting, pressing the flesh and taking calls from constituents. Fly-on-the-wall gold!

1971 (2014)

This is a great little documentary about a little-known incident in 1971 when a group of student activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, stole files and leaked them to national newspapers. Depending on who you listen to, this may have been a very influential event indeed, even beginning the process of unravelling the corrupt Depression generation’s grip on power in the USA. Whether it was or not, this charming and highly watchable movie is a fascinating window into a very different time. A pretty odd and surprisingly dark time of entrenched culture clash and generational warfare where you were either a hairy baby boomer or not. A time when seemingly normal human beings believed they were in a state of siege from an oppressive and tyrannical police state. And, as demonstrated by the files recovered, those fears had some basis in reality. The leaked files exposed to a shocked nation that the FBI were engaging in illegal activities and surveillance against law-abiding citizens.

It’s a superbly well-made film – a class act, and amongst other things assembles some phenomenal footage from the era of a world that had one foot in the fifties and one in the eighties. A shambolic society beaten down and directionless from the strain of social division, in particular from the Vietnam war. This break-in was not only indicative of its time but also perhaps the beginning of the end for the cynical old guard and the final nail in the coffin for the career of FBI head snooper J. Edgar Hoover.

Hating Breitbart (2012)

Andrew Breitbart was the teddy bear-like new media guru who became integral to Conservative activism after the election of Barack Obama in 2008. He was the unofficial spokesman of the Tea Party movement and crucial to the founding of what became known as the ‘alt right’. After helping found Drudge Report and HuffPost he spun off his own news website Breitbart.com and was possibly the biggest thorn in the side of the Obama administration as a pundit. It was Breitbart who broke the Weiner sexting scandal story that would eventually contribute significantly to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 election loss. That makes it all the more coincidental that he suddenly dropped dead in 2012.

Unfortunately this film is not really worthy of its mercurial subject. While it gets there by the second half, finally jumping into the nitty gritty of Breitbart’s pugnacious activism with the Andre Carson/ John Lewis ’N’-word issue, the first half is way too slow, hanging around its subject reality TV-style in an uncritically fawning attitude that is tedious. There are also not really enough insights into the nuts and bolts of his online methodology, that was somewhat revolutionary at the time, and how he brought it to bear on the causes that fired him up. It’s a bit of a glorified home video in the final analysis, with inadequate depth and variety of perspective.

Nevertheless because of its subject matter, and because it provides a unique window into a zeitgeist, this doco is still really fun and absorbing to watch. Overly familiar to its subject and with not enough of the real substance of Breitbart nor the spice of hearing from his political opponents it may be, yet so far it is the only serious onscreen attempt to profile a man whose career crystallised the change from old media to new media, and who in the process became incredibly influential and shone very brightly for a brief moment in time.