220px-Far_Cry_5_boxshot
I’m not reviewing this game. I’m reviewing the reviews of it.

I haven’t played it. I probably won’t play it. I haven’t played a Far Cry game in years. You can read my thoughts on Far Cry 2 here. My sense is that not much has changed about the series since then.

For those who don’t know: Far Cry 5 is set in Montana, and the plot involves a doomsday cult of survivalist “preppers”. I don’t know much beyond that, but I gather it follows the standard Far Cry formula of a big open world for the player to run around in, getting in gunfights and blowing stuff up.

The marketing for the game has hyped the political aspects of the plot, and generated lots of controversy as a result.

The reviews I’ve read, however, have almost all complained that the game doesn’t have any real political message, saying things like “it plays it too safe” and “doesn’t want to offend people”. I get the sense a lot of people are disappointed in Ubisoft for not dialing the political commentary up to 11.

I admit, once I learned it was going to be just another open-world mayhem thing, with no major political message, I also lost interest in it. But I can’t blame Ubisoft for making that decision. If you think about it, they hardly had a choice.

Far Cry games are about people in extreme environments, fighting to survive against hordes of enemies with a vast array of deadly weapons. There is no clear morality in the world of Far Cry, save the Law of the Jungle. So if you play these games, it means you want to role-play surviving in a savage world of death and destruction.

Survivalists, doomsday preppers, and militia types are doing the same thing. They’re just acting out this fantasy, as opposed to playing a virtual simulation of it. In gaming lingo, they’re Live-Action Role-Playing, or “LARP-ing”.

So Ubisoft couldn’t go full bore political satire against survivalist/militia-types without also attacking their target audience. For those saying that Far Cry 5 should attack people who fetishize wilderness survival and military hardware: Who exactly do you think is buying this $60 simulation of over-the-top violence and destruction?

Is it possible for a game to criticize its audience? Yes, I have seen it done once: Spec Ops: The Line presented itself as a standard-issue military shooter, only to turn everything on its head and morph into a mind-bending satire of the genre that forced the player to question why they play these things at all.

But Spec Ops was not a huge money-maker, and Ubisoft is not going to alienate a huge portion of its audience for the sake of making a clever satire. The majority of audiences do not want to be satirized. They want to be entertained. It would be kind of like writing a detective novel where the detective fails to catch the killer specifically because he spends too much time reading detective novels.

“Form ever follows function” wrote the architect Louis Sullivan, and it’s a good principle for design in any medium. Because if you try to make a game whose function (satire of gun-loving survivalists) is directly opposed to its form (a simulation of gun-loving survivalism), the customers who want the form are going to be upset, and the customers who want the function probably aren’t going to buy it in the first place.

The_Death_of_Stalin
A truly great poster! (via Wikipedia)

What a crazy idea, to make a comedy about the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. But there is something about the absurdity of the overly-bureaucratized communist mass-murder machine that lends itself to dark humor—the petty logistical concerns and office politics familiar to white-collar workers everywhere, combined with the matters of life and death that concern a government, particularly a totalitarian one.

The film definitely plays this weird juxtaposition to the hilt right from the opening scene, in which Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) calls the manager of a concert broadcast live over the radio to demand a recording of it. When the manager learns there is no recording, he frantically tries to reassemble the orchestra to perform it again. The piano player, Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) initially refuses, but ultimately gives in when bribed. After the performance is finished, she places an insulting note to the dictator inside the record sleeve.

Intercut with this are scenes of Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the head of Stalin’s secret police, dispatching his men to seize people from their homes and torture them in secret prisons. Beria holds immense power in the government, and when Stalin dies—on reading the note Maria has written—Beria is the first into his office, hastily removing important documents before other members of the Central Committee, including Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), arrive.

They are reluctant to pronounce him dead, and even the doctors hastily assembled to examine him are hesitant to give their assessment. When they finally do, the Committee proceeds with Georgy Malenkov nominally in charge, but with all of the Committee members, Khrushchev and Beria in particular, jockeying for power.

Stalin’s children, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily (Rupert Friend), arrive for their father’s funeral. Vasily repeatedly launches into drunken rages, attacks guards and makes wild threats. Beria keeps Khrushchev busy dealing with these matters while he moves to consolidate his power by putting the city under the control of the secret police, increases his popularity by pausing arrests, and seizes control of the train system, preventing people from entering the city.

Beria also reveals that he has the note that Maria wrote to Stalin. She is an acquaintance of Khrushchev’s, and Beria uses this to threaten Khrushchev, implying that he will use the note to incriminate both of them should Khrushchev try to cross him.

In frustration, Khrushchev orders that trains to Moscow resume running, causing people to enter the city and be shot by Beria’s secret police. The Committee argues over whether Beria or his lower-level officers should be blamed for this.

Meanwhile, Marshal Georgy Zhukov arrives in Moscow, annoyed to find his army confined to barracks. Khrushchev secretly strikes a deal with Zhukov to help him remove Beria from power during Stalin’s funeral.  Zhukov agrees, on the condition that Khrushchev has the support of the entire Committee, which Krushchev manages to secure by bluffing that he has Malenkov’s backing.

At a Committee meeting after the funeral, Khrushchev signals Zhukov and his men to storm the room and arrest Beria. After much badgering from Khrushchev, Malenkov reluctantly signs off on the summary trial and execution of Beria.

The film ends with Khrushchev watching Maria play at a concert while Leonid Brezhnev (Gerald Lepkowski) looks ominously over his shoulder.

It’s an odd movie, with scenes of slapstick comedy (the Committee members awkwardly transporting Stalin’s body from the floor to his bed) mixed with more subtle satire, as in the sequences depicting Committee meetings, and one unforgettable scene in which Khrushchev and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) are speaking contemptuously of Molotov’s presumed-dead wife Polina, who was arrested as a traitor to the Party, only to change their tone mid-sentence to singing her praises as Beria appears with her in tow, having released her from prison to secure Molotov’s loyalty.

The humor throughout is very, very dark: for example, there is a running gag in the scenes in the secret police prisons where we repeatedly hear prisoners off-screen exclaiming “Long Live Comrade Stalin!” followed by a gunshot.

But in addition to the sometimes over-the-top satire, the plot is that of a very tight and coherent political thriller, as Khrushchev and Beria joust for power. I went in expecting it to paint all the Soviet elites as villains in equal measure—and they certainly all do some nasty things—but in my opinion the film pretty firmly sides with Khrushchev as the hero and Beria as the villain. The former is depicted as vulgar and a bit corrupt, but reasonably well-meaning. (He reminded me, in both looks and manner, of a Don Rickles character.) It’s impossible not to root for him over Beria, who, besides all his other crimes as head of the secret police, is a sexual predator of the most evil sort. It is altogether fitting and satisfying that the most graphically violent death in the film is Beria’s execution.

As you might expect, the film is very controversial, and was banned in Russia and former Soviet States. A member of the Russian Culture Ministry stated: “The film desecrates our historical symbols — the Soviet hymn, orders and medals, and Marshal Zhukov is portrayed as an idiot.”

I can’t speak to the hymn, the orders, or the medals, but I will say that while Zhukov is certainly a caricature (he’s played by Jason Isaacs, whose hammy acting  works much better here than in Harry Potter), for me, he was one of the most sympathetic characters in the film, after Khrushchev and Maria.

I would like to see a historian specializing in Soviet history do a thorough examination of what is and isn’t accurate in this movie. This article mentions some inaccuracies—notably, that Beria’s downfall was more protracted than the hasty arrest and execution depicted in the film. But that’s the sort of change that can be excused for the sake of the drama. I don’t know much about the Soviet Union post-World War II, but on cursory scanning of Wikipedia entries about the people and events depicted, I was surprised (and quite often disturbed) to learn how much of it was accurate.

Of course, the mark of a really good work of historical fiction is that it’s not just about the time period depicted, but that it contains observations about human nature that are relevant to the present-day. This is why, for example, the historical dramas of Shakespeare are still read and performed today.

So does The Death of Stalin contain any interesting lessons beneath the caricatures of historical enemies of Western capitalism and farcical depictions of Soviet state ceremonies? It’s hard to say. Maybe there is something about the dehumanizing effect that power has upon both those who wield it and those upon whom they exercise it. But that has been pretty well picked-over by people like George Orwell. The absurdity of bureaucrats administering lethal force? Joseph Heller covered that. So I’m not sure this picture brings anything new to the table in that regard.

Would I recommend seeing it? I don’t know. If you’re a Soviet history buff, it might be interesting to see what they got right and what they got wrong. If you like your comedy extremely black, then it might be worth a watch. But if you prefer uplifting cinema, or if you don’t like violence, or if you are offended by swearing, or–above all else– if one of your relatives worked for the Soviet Secret Police, then you should probably skip it.

“’You mightn’t think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices.’”Charles Dickens. Our Mutual Friend. 1865

Ernest (angrily): “When you come to think of it, it’s extremely injudicious to admit into a conspiracy every pudding-headed baboon who presents himself!”—W.S Gilbert. The Grand Duke. 1896

220px-Fire_and_Fury_Michael_WolffI love politics. And I love unreliable narrator stories. So reading Fire and Fury was like a dream come true for me—not only are all of the book’s subjects unreliable narrators, presenting contradictory views and advocating mutually exclusive objectives, but the author himself is a sketchy character with questionable ethics and suspect motives. I’ve not witnessed such a kaleidoscope of political and journalistic deception since the movie Jackie.

But while the Kennedy administration was retroactively known as “Camelot”, the present one would be more accurately branded with another three-syllable word beginning with “c”. Forgive me if I shock you, but such vivid language is often employed by the President and his staffers in this book, especially Steve Bannon–certain quotes from whom helped drive sales of the book as well as end Bannon’s career at Breitbart.

For the first part of this review, I’m going to write as though everything the author reports is true, and provide analysis based on that. After that, I’ll discuss some of the weird things that cast doubt on Wolff’s account.

The central thread running through the book, which spans from Election Day in November 2016 to sometime in early Autumn of 2017, is the struggle for power between two factions: The President’s self-described “nationalist” strategist Steve Bannon on one side, and his adviser/daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared (“Jarvanka”, in the Bannon side’s terminology) on the other.

Behind most of the strange day-to-day details, the gossipy infighting, and Machiavellian backstabbing, this is the driving force of the whole drama, even more than the President’s fixation on what the mainstream news outlets are saying about him.

Most of the bizarre occurrences that we remember from the first year of this administration were the results of proxy wars between Bannon and the President’s daughter and son-in-law. For example, the infamous ten-day tenure of Anthony Scaramucci as White House Communications director was a move by Ivanka’s side against Bannon’s. The U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement was a victory by the Bannon side against Ivanka’s.

Bannon is motivated by resentment against the permanent government in Washington, which, in the Bannon version of history, has sold out the interests of the United States to foreign powers, and become a corrupt network of out-of-touch intellectuals and bureaucrats.

The Ivanka side’s motives are a little less clear. Preservation of their family business combined with horror at the President allying with a man so closely tied to the openly racist “alt-right” movement seem to be the main ones. (Cynical observers might say that it’s really their horror at what being associated with the alt-right does to the family brand.)

The mainstream Republicans—represented for most of the book by then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus–are mostly offstage, and only intermittently have contact with the President, who does not like to be bored by the complicated business of hammering out legislation. He prefers to watch television and gossip with other businessmen about his problems.

While Bannon sees the world as a clash of civilizations, his boss sees it as a clash of personalities—in particular, media personalities, like himself. To him, politics is just the New York business scene writ large; and the political press just an expanded version of the New York tabloids, to which various competing interests leak stories—sometimes “fake news”—to get better deals.

Over all of the gossip, be it Bannon constantly insulting Ivanka or the President’s various complaints about the accommodations or the servants or the press or whatever else is bothering him that day, the book paints the President as an easily-distracted man who changes his mind seemingly every hour, and his staff as a group of people feverishly scrambling to achieve their own goals by trying to curry favor with him.

And then, of course, there is Russia. Wolff actually takes a semi-sympathetic view to the administration on this point, arguing that they are too disorganized to carry out a massive conspiracy with a foreign government, and that the press has made this conspiracy up out of a few disjointed bits and pieces of evidence that don’t really add up to much.

Curiously, this is also Bannon’s view of the Russia issue, and he repeatedly stresses the facts that (a) the Mueller investigation is all the fault of Ivanka and Jared for urging the firing of FBI Director Comey and (b) that he, Bannon, has no ties to Russia whatsoever, and doesn’t know any Russians and is totally not involved with anything to do with Russia.

Given that Bannon is constantly likening the entire administration to Shakespearean tragedy, perhaps he’d be familiar with the concept of “protesting too much”. It’s true you rarely hear his name in connection with the Russia ties, suggesting he’s either innocent or better at covering his tracks than the rest of them.

And this is where we have to start some meta-analysis of this book. Bannon, like the Shakespearean protagonist he apparently thinks he is, gives lots of soliloquies about a number of subjects. At least, that’s the impression you get from the book. But much as I enjoy imagining Steve Bannon wandering around the White House giving long philosophical speeches to nobody in particular, it seems pretty clear that he was willing to talk to Wolff all the time, more so than anybody else in the administration. Also, the fact that Wolff’s time in the White House ended shortly after Bannon left bolsters the claim that it was Bannon who was giving him all this access.

Why on Earth would Bannon do that? It doesn’t make much sense on the face of it, and when you factor in that Bannon lost his relationship with the President and his job with Breitbart as a result of the book’s publication, it seems even more peculiar.

One possible theory is that this was yet another in a long series of Steve Bannon schemes that had the precise opposite effect of the one intended. Bannon let Wolff in to glorify him and destroy his internal enemies, and wound up destroying his own career instead.

Another possibility is that Wolff tricked Bannon just as he tricked the President, and that the nickname “Sloppy Steve” is as much a comment on Bannon’s ability to keep his mouth shut as it is his style of dress.

Or maybe Bannon invited him in, thinking he would chronicle the glorious success of their first year in power, and when it didn’t turn out that way he forgot to tell him to take a hike.

The most interesting possibility is that Bannon wanted someone to give an account that would absolve him of any involvement with the Russia scandal. Maybe sacrificing his career was worth it to him to get the word out that he was totally not involved with any Russia stuff.

All of this speculation assumes that what Wolff has written is true, and there’s plenty of reason to doubt that as well. Throughout the book, there are snippets of conversation that, upon reflection, seem hard to imagine Wolff obtained any other way than downright espionage. (Assuming he didn’t just make them up.) How does he know, for example, what the President said on the phone in his bed at night? Does Wolff know which of his business associates he called, and interview them? If so, how does he know they are telling the truth?

There’s a chance that the entire thing is made up (although if it were, presumably Bannon would have denied the bits that got him in trouble). I think a big reason Wolff got a free pass from much of the press on checking his accuracy is that he doesn’t report anything contrary to the impression most people have of each member of the administration. Everyone acts pretty much like you’d expect them to, given everything else we have seen of them. So it seems plausible.

Which could mean either that all of them are exactly like they seem on TV, or that Wolff made up a story using the members of the administration as “stock characters” in a drama of his own invention. But I don’t think that’s what he did—at least not for the major players. Because the book doesn’t really have a story worth inventing, other than perhaps the story of Steve Bannon’s rapid and unlikely rise to a position of power, followed by his equally rapid fall after he was undone by his own arrogance. I guess it is rather Shakespearean after all!

Darkest_Hour_poster
This is a really weird poster. It looks like they are all hovering in the sky like Mary Poppins or something.

I’ll skip my usual plot-point-by-plot-point synopsis for this one–I think most readers are already familiar with World War II. Darkest Hour chronicles Winston Churchill’s (Gary Oldman) first days as Prime Minister in May 1940. Hitler’s armies are advancing through France and closing in on British forces at Dunkirk.

The film depicts Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), Churchill’s predecessor as Prime Minister, and Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) attempting to force Churchill to negotiate with Hitler. Churchill argues with them repeatedly, as the Nazis draw ever closer to Dunkirk, and the news grows more bleak by the day,

Churchill is on the point of giving in to the calls for negotiations when he makes a spontaneous (and apparently completely invented for the sake of the film) visit to the London Underground, where all the passengers he talks to are strongly in favor of fighting to the bitter end–bricklayers, new mothers, and children all are fiercely opposed to the idea of negotiating.

This is a major over-simplification of how public opinion works. I understand the scene was intended to convey that Churchill was in tune with the spirit of the people, but it just seemed ham-handed and unbelievable, which raises the question of why they bothered to invent the scene at all. Why make something up just to have it be the weakest part of the drama?

His faith in the British fighting spirit restored, Churchill makes his famous “We shall fight on the beaches”  speech to Parliament. The evacuation of Dunkirk he ordered is a success, and the film ends with Churchill receiving overwhelming applause for his resolve.

The plot may be a bit thin, and of course, like all historical dramas, is hampered by the fact that we know what’s going to happen, but the performances of the major roles are all quite solid. Oldman does a terrific job, portraying Churchill as a flawed, temperamental man, capable of brilliant oratory as well as moments of confusion and depression. Kristin Scott Thomas is also very good as Churchill’s wife Clementine, although it seemed at times like the writer and/or director didn’t know what to do with her.

The big problems with the film were immersion-breaking things like the scene in the Underground, or another scene where they are playing a film reel to brief the Prime Minister, and the images displayed are fairly obviously what you get if you ask for “stock footage of Nazis”. (Why would Churchill, at a briefing about Dunkirk, need to see footage of Hitler giving a speech?)

Also, the cinematographer applied that grayish blue washed-out color filter that apparently everything set in England is supposed to have these days. This is far from the only movie to do this, so I don’t mean to single it out, but this desaturation business is getting tiresome. Can’t we just have normal colors?

Still, this is one of those movies that hinges on the performances, and those are certainly good enough to make it enjoyable.

donald_trump_signs_orders_to_green-light_the_keystone_xl_and_dakota_access_pipelines_bannon_cropA couple of quotes from Steve Bannon in Michael Wolff’’s upcoming book Fire and Fury have gotten quite a bit of attention recently. The headlines are all about Bannon calling Donald Trump Jr.’ meeting with Russian lawyers ““treasonous”” and labeling Ivanka Trump ““dumb as a brick””. These quotes drew a response from the President himself.

But those aren’’t the significant Bannon quotes from this book. No; the most interesting Bannon-ism is this, from a dinner he attended shortly after the election with Roger Ailes, the disgraced former Fox News CEO:

““China’’s everything. Nothing else matters. We don’’t get China right, we don’’t get anything right. This whole thing is very simple. China is where Nazi Germany was in 1929 to 1930. The Chinese, like the Germans, are the most rational people in the world, until they’’re not. And they’’re gonna flip like Germany in the ’30s. You’’re going to have a hypernationalist state, and once that happens, you can’’t put the genie back in the bottle.””

Hey, you guys! It turns out we had Bannon all wrong. We thought he was a Nazi, but actually he’’s trying to prevent the rise of the new Nazis! He’’s like Severus Snape!

Kidding aside, if this is true, it means Bannon sees China as the most significant threat to the United States, and indeed the world.

Which is weird, because throughout Trump’’s first year in office (for the majority of which Bannon was a key advisor) his administration has been consistently letting China get what it wants.

On the campaign trail, Trump talked a big game about punishing China for currency manipulation. Then he met Chinese President Xi at Mar-A-Lago and they had some delicious cake and all of a sudden that became water under the bridge.

Remember the Trans-Pacific Partnership? The one Trump withdrew the United States from? Well, that withdrawal allowed China to further increase its economic power in Asia.

I’’m not saying the TPP was necessarily a good idea, but by its withdrawal, the US has clearly served the interest of China’’s ruling elite. And what did Bannon have to say about it, when Trump withdrew from it mere days into his Presidency?

“”Great thing for the American worker, what we just did.””

Or how about Trump’’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris climate agreement? By doing so, it allowed China to take the lead in new energy technology, and cleaning up their polluted cities.

In other words, Trump effectively set the stage for the US and China to swap roles, with the US now being the heavily-polluted manufacturing country with older technology and lower regulatory standards, and China being the high-tech, clean, “white-collar” nation.

How did old Bannon feel about that?

“”As Trump prepared to take the podium, chief White House strategist Steve Bannon, the man credited with keeping Trump on a path to Paris withdrawal, stood in the shade with a coterie of senior staff, surveying the scene. For Bannon, the United States’ exit from the deal wasn’’t just a policy victory, it was personal vindication.””

What is up with this? If Bannon thinks he needs to curb China’’s increasing geopolitical power, he has a funny way of doing it. All these major policy decisions that Trump made at Bannon’’s urging have benefited China.

Bannon may think the President’s daughter is dumb as a brick, but at first glance, his approach to fighting rival superpowers rather resembles the work of someone with block-like intelligence.

Is Bannon secretly a double agent for China, pretending to be super anti-China as a cover? Is he just a buffoon who has no idea how Foreign Policy works? Or is he some 13-dimensional-chess-playing mastermind who knows something everybody else doesn’’t, and thinks that whoever has the least influence in Asia will somehow dominate the globe?

There’s an interesting article by Prof. Julia Azari at FiveThirtyEight that argues Trump is more like a 19th-century President. What’s really good about the article is that it’s about more than just Trump–it illustrates how the Presidency has expanded in power in the century:

“Modern presidents have exercised considerable influence over the nation’s policy agenda and the legislation Congress considers and passes. They also communicate with the nation about their policy priorities — we see this, for instance, in the evolution of the State of the Union, which started as a written message to Congress and has become a nationally televised speech. But when the Constitution was written, it wasn’t necessarily designed to give presidents this kind of sway over domestic affairs. The tools for policy influence that presidents now have, such as the Office of Management and Budget, didn’t used to exist.”

And what’s more, this expansion of the Executive’s power came at the expense of Legislative power–which, as I discussed here, is actually in the interest of both branches. (Though perhaps not the nation itself.)

This gradual erosion of the Legislative branch–with its consent!–is a major reason why the government is so dysfunctional.

This Trump Jr. story is interesting for several reasons.  My take:

1. Strange though it may seem, I think this actually makes it seem less likely that the Trump campaign actively colluded with Russia to steal the election.  My impression is that Trump Jr. was lured into the meeting without having much prior knowledge.  This is based on the email exchange, which reads to me like an amateur who doesn’t know what he’s doing.

2. If Russia actually wanted to release anything incriminating they had on Clinton, they wouldn’t do it via the Trump campaign. That would be stupid, since it would automatically make the information seem suspect. Instead, they would distribute it through some friendly-but-seemingly-independent media outlet, and let the Trump campaign pick it up later. Indeed, this is actually what happened with a lot of the Russian-supported anti-Clinton/pro-Trump propaganda that was circulated online during the election. This also makes it seem unlikely they actually gave the Trump campaign any useful information.

3. A few weeks ago I wrote about the fact that the Russians would be unlikely to tell the Trump campaign about their election interference.  Rather, they did the election interference independently, and then arranged the meetings with campaign personnel in order to undermine the people’s faith in the electoral process.

This meeting is totally consistent with that. They lured Trump Jr. into a meeting by claiming they had dirt on Clinton, and then didn’t give him anything, knowing how bad it would make him look when it came to light.

In summary, I don’t think Russian operatives would ever work with the Trump people to interfere with the election, simply because many of the Trump people are too incompetent to be trusted with anything like that. The Russian intelligence operatives could handle it by themselves.

My sense is that the Russian plan had two distinct components: one was to influence the election in favor of Trump. The other was to play on the amateurishness and arrogance of the Trump campaign staff to goad them into doing stupid stuff that could be used to undermine them later.