jojoLet me start by saying I’m pretty tired of World War II films. There have been a lot of good ones, but there have been so many that at a certain point, I became exhausted with the period. It feels sometimes like the movie industry is barely aware of other times in history.

It’s understandable, of course; the period is full of drama, tragedy and fascinating stories. And the Nazis, with their horrific atrocities, cruel ideology, sinister iconography, and reputation for machine-like efficiency, are the perfect villains.

But all the same, I’ve seen so many movies about WWII that it takes a lot to convince me another one will contain something I haven’t seen before.

Jojo Rabbit is a film about a ten-year-old German boy named Johannes Betzler. Johannes is a fanatical believer in the Nazi party, even as the tide of war is turning against them. He is an enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth, and his joy at learning how to fight for the Fatherland is only momentarily dampened when two older boys taunt him for his refusal to kill a rabbit in order to prove his devotion, which earns him the mocking nickname “Jojo Rabbit.”

He is consoled at this moment by his imaginary friend, to whom he often turns for encouragement: his ten-year-old mind’s idealized version of Adolf Hitler.

Imaginary Hitler is played primarily as a goofy, comical slapstick character, egging on Jojo’s fantasies of fighting glorious battles in a jovial, often nonsensical way. He seems like a lovable if rather silly father figure–something which Jojo craves since his own father is away in the war.

Unfortunately, taking his imaginary friend’s advice leads Jojo to an accident with a grenade, from which he needs a lengthy rehabilitation period. During this time, his mother Rosie more or less demands that the Hitler Youth leader now demoted to office work find odd jobs for her son while she is out working.

Jojo is assigned menial tasks such as distributing propaganda posters. One day, on coming home, he hears a noise from the bedroom that belonged to his now-deceased older sister and goes to investigate. He discovers a hidden panel in the wall, where there is a small nook concealing a teenaged Jewish girl named Elsa.

Jojo is terrified, and Elsa commands him not to tell his mother that he knows about her, threatening him with his own Hitler Youth dagger. Jojo retreats to his bedroom, to discuss with imaginary Hitler what to do about this existential threat.

Jojo, of course, believes completely in every anti-Semitic trope Nazi propaganda ever employed. And of course he would–it’s all he’s ever heard in his whole young life. However, since Elsa is older and stronger than he is, and since revealing that his mother is sheltering her would get her into trouble as well, Jojo is left with only one choice: to negotiate.

The result is a series of cautious interviews with Elsa, during which Jojo asks her various questions in an effort to learn the secrets of the people he so fears. Elsa at first is annoyed by his absurd, bigoted questions, and gives facetious answers, but slowly, the two form an almost sibling-like relationship.

Meanwhile, Jojo’s mother tries to manage things as best she can. In one touching scene, she and Jojo argue during dinner–she is gladdened by news of the Allies’ advance, Jojo is outraged at her disloyalty to the Reich. Jojo says he wishes his father were there, and, incensed, Rosie puts on his father’s Wehrmacht jacket, smears soot on her face like a beard, and gives a stern-but-loving impression of her husband.

This scene was fantastic. If you want a taste, you can see the beginning of it here. Prior to this, I’ve only seen Scarlett Johansson in action movies and one dreadful period drama. I was really impressed by her performance in this film, and this scene was the best example.

As the situation deteriorates further for Germany, things become more and more desperate. The film’s comedy mixes with horrific tragedy. The horrors of war, and of the Nazi government in particular, are not sugarcoated despite many of the film’s lighter elements. There is death and destruction and more than one heroic sacrifice. And at the end of the horror, Jojo and Elsa are faced with a very different world than either of them grew up in.

I’ve skipped over quite a lot in this review–there are some extremely interesting supporting characters in this film, such as the Hitler Youth leader Captain Klenzendorf and Jojo’s friend Yorki. Every performance in the film is terrific, but it would take quite a while to describe exactly why.

Normally, I would try to give them all their due, but this is another one of “those” reviews, where I need to go on at length and build up my case, so I’m not going to give you an analysis of every character on top of that. I’m sorry to do this to you twice in one week, but I just had to post this on the 75th anniversary of V-E Day.

Jojo Rabbit is a very polarizing film. Carrie Rubin, whose opinion I value extremely highly, called it her favorite film of the year. On the other hand, CineMuseFilms, one of my favorite film blogs, considered it one of the worst movies of the year.

What’s up with that? (If you’re expecting me to answer this straightforwardly like a normal person; I’m very sorry. You must be new here.)

Let’s start with the most basic question: what kind of film is it? It’s usually listed as a comedy-drama. Sometimes words like “war” or “dark comedy” or “satire” get thrown in as well.

So what’s the comedy part? Well, as I said, imaginary Hitler does a lot of silly, goofy, slapstick stuff. Many of Jojo’s lines are humorous, in the way they depict a naive child trying to seem mature and wise despite having been brainwashed with propaganda all his life. And the supporting characters do some comical things–such as Captain Klenzendorf’s ludicrously flamboyant redesign of the German uniform.

What’s the drama part? Well… it’s World War II. People get killed. Including–I’ll try not to spoil too much–good people. People we like, who don’t deserve it. This ain’t Hogan’s Heroes–the stakes feel real.

This definitely qualifies it as “dark comedy,” in the sense that the humor revolves around very non-humorous subjects. And most dark comedies are also usually satires.

For example, take the 2017 film, The Death of Stalin. It’s a slapstick comedy about the political struggle in the Soviet Union during the power vacuum created by… well, you’re smart; you can probably work out what event they were dealing with.

The point of mixing grim subjects like state-sanctioned murder and blatant propaganda with vulgar comedy in Death of Stalin is to underscore how fundamentally absurd the Soviet government was. The situation was bleak, but also laughable in the sheer illogical madness the lunatics in charge had created in their relentless pursuit of power.

There is something similar going on at times in Jojo Rabbit–maybe most obviously in the scene where the gestapo raids Jojo’s house, in which, despite the deadly seriousness of the situation, there is a bit of comic business where everyone must greet everyone else with a “Heil Hitler!”

But there’s more to the story here. After all, slapstick satires of Nazi Germany and its leadership are not exactly ground-breaking. For example, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator or The Three Stooges’ You Nazty Spy! (both released in 1940) covered that concept pretty well.

The key lies in the opening credits, when we see footage of cheering crowds saluting the real Adolf Hitler, set to a German version of The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” This segues to a scene of young children frolicking at the Hitler Youth camp. It looks almost pleasant; kids having a good time at summer camp–except for the extremely unsettling presence of swastika banners and SS lightning bolts.

I remember seeing a documentary once about Hitler’s rise to power, and the way his speeches and events attracted throngs of cheering supporters. From what I gather, during his ascent he really did have an almost rock star-like following, complete with groupies.

Hitler-as-lovable-imaginary-pal/celebrity… young children playing amid symbols that every modern audience instantly associates with death camps and bodies piled in ditches… what on Earth is this film saying? If it’s out to satirize Nazism, why make it look so benign; like some sort of fan club?

One of the most interesting aspects of crowd psychology is the observation that people in large groups are not as smart as any one of them is individually. The old saying about groupthink “none of us is as stupid as all of us” summarizes it well. Large groups of people are roughly as intelligent as children–naive, easily-swayed, and in search of a leader (parent) to guide them.

Understanding group psychology is critical to understanding Nazism and the other authoritarian movements of the early 20th century. Once you realize that while 1930s Germany may have been composed of many brilliant individual scientists, doctors, artists, designers, soldiers, thinkers, tradespeople, businesspersons etc., their collective psychology was about as easy to manipulate as a ten-year-old boy’s: anyone who seemed confident and strong and promised them grand adventures of glorious conquest while wearing cool, scary-looking uniforms could get plenty of buy-in from the people.

Obviously, that didn’t work on everyone. But it worked on enough people. Tragically.

We all know, now, that the Nazi upper-echelon was composed of people who were evil psychopaths. Armed with this knowledge, it is unsurprising that the policies they implemented were evil and insane. The student of history looks back and wonders, “Why didn’t the German people see what was happening?”

The answer is that the evil psychopaths were handed the levers of power with the consent of enough of the people. This is not because all of these people were as evil or insane as the men they ushered into power, but because they, in the child-like state induced by mob psychology, were all too eager to be deceived by the implausible ethno-nationalist fairy-tale they had been told.

The German philosopher Oswald Spengler said of Hitler, “We need a real hero, not a heroic tenor,” implying that Hitler was merely play-acting at being the kind of leader the country truly needed. Despite this, Spengler voted for him anyway–because he too, despite being a man of learning, was susceptible to ethno-nationalist flights of fancy. So it goes.

Put in patriarchal terms, Hitler was playing at the role of father to a nation that collectively wanted just such a figure. Hitler tried to present himself as following in the tradition of beloved strong leaders from Germany’s past, like Otto von Bismarck and especially Frederick the Great. But he wasn’t. Both Frederick and Bismarck were pragmatic administrators, not single-minded zealots willing to destroy their own nation in a doomed bid for martial glory.

I dislike allegorical interpretations as a rule, but I think it’s reasonable to read Jojo and the imaginary Hitler he creates to stand in for his absent father as a representation of the German national psyche at the time–believing in comforting lies rather than admitting the awful truth, until the appalling costs become too great and too personal to ignore.

My interpretation of the film is that it’s a dramatization of how a collective mental disease progresses. But collective anything is difficult to portray, and so young Jojo is the substitute for “the people”–a malleable mind representing herd psychology.

I said before the film was polarizing, and so you may well ask, did I love it or hate it?

Well, I loved it. I thought it was one of the best World War II films I’ve seen, because it offers an insight into just how such a horrific event could have happened. Usually Nazis in film are portrayed as nothing more than cardboard villains, but in this film, the truly sinister thing about Nazism is made apparent: the awful seductiveness of it. How it could so easily become normalized, especially among young people who knew nothing else.

But if you were expecting a true satirical comedy, I can see you would be disappointed. Even offended, perhaps. Because the objective of the film isn’t to satirize Nazism. It’s more of an examination of how Nazism took root, which is a very dark and uncomfortable subject, and it’s frankly not very much fun to think about, so they sprinkled in some jokes. Otherwise it would just get too damn dispiriting.

And whatever else may be said about Jojo Rabbit, it isn’t dispiriting. It ends on a hopeful, if bittersweet, note. The fever has broken, the film implies, and the children have a chance to build a better future.

WTF posterAh, interminable wars waged by hegemonic powers in the Middle East! They’ve been the cause of unfathomable amounts of human suffering for centuries, but on the other hand, we’ve gotten some really good movies out of them. Lawrence of Arabia, The Beast of War, The English Patient… maybe it is home to the graveyard of empires, but it sure is good for showbiz.

All right, maybe I’m being a bit cynical and snarky here, and that’s something I try to avoid doing, but Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a war comedy-drama, so there’s inevitably a gallows humor quality to it.

The film follows journalist Kim Baker, (Tina Fey) who quits her desk job writing news scripts to cover the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan.  She’s embedded with the Marines, and, after initially being perceived as a bumbling civilian, gradually wins the respect of the unit and its commander, as well as veteran reporter, Tanya Vanderpoel. (Margot Robbie.)

Slowly, Baker gains the trust of important officials in the Afghan government, and, with the help of her guide and translator Fahim, (Christopher Abbott) gains a better understanding of their culture. She also starts a romantic relationship with journalist Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman) after breaking up with her stateside boyfriend. 

Ultimately, Baker is forced to use all her wits, contacts, and knowledge of Afghan politics in order to save not only her career, but her lover’s life. And she is forced to come face-to-face with the horrors of war, as she interviews a young soldier badly-wounded after an IED attack.

WTF1
This poster looks more like the kind of film I expected.

I went into this film with low expectations. I like Tina Fey and Margot Robbie, but wasn’t expecting it to be anything more than “Liz Lemon goes to Afghanistan.” And that’s what it seems like at first.

But over the second half, nuances emerge. The characters show unexpected depth and nuance. As I said, I’ve always liked Fey’s comedy, but I gained new respect for her skill as a dramatic actress. As the CineMuseFilms review put it, “she nailed her part” by not playing it solely for laughs. Billy Bob Thornton is great as the commanding Marine officer, and Christopher Abbott’s performance is absolutely fantastic. His character’s friendship with Baker is one of the highlights of the film—frankly, I found it to be the real emotional core of the story, much more so than the romance thread. 

There’s one dialogue between Fahim and Baker in which he warns her that she’s becoming addicted to the adrenaline rush of mortal danger. It’s a moment of real tension in their friendship, and a dramatic turning point in the film.

I mention it because addiction to the thrill of war was also the theme of the film The Hurt Locker, which is about a bomb disposal squad in Iraq. That film won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2010. Personally, I found Whiskey Tango Foxtrot to be a vastly superior war film compared to The Hurt Locker, and this more economical portrayal of the same basic theme is only one of many reasons why.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has humor, but never at the expense of characterization. It shows both the horror and the heroism that every war entails. It ended up being a far more thought-provoking film than I was expecting. I’m now curious to read the book on which it was based, The Taliban Shuffle by Kim Barker.

51p0X2UPjgLMy dad has told me for years I have to read this book, along with another of Roberts’ novels, Oliver Wiswell. Well, Wiswell isn’t on Kindle, but Rabble in Arms is. So the choice of which to buy seemed obvious, although as it turned out, it might have been better to go with a physical copy–more on that later.

Rabble in Arms is set in the early years of the American Revolution, and is told from the perspective of Peter Merrill, an American patriot and merchant who joins the rebelling colonists.

Peter’s brother Nathaniel also joins, but is constantly distracted by Marie de Sabrevois, a beautiful but devious woman who is obviously (to everyone except Nathaniel) a spy for Britain. Peter himself falls in love with her niece, Ellen.

Repeatedly, Peter is thwarted in his efforts to court Ellen by the actions of de Sabrevois, and likewise his attempts to look after his brother are thwarted by the same. Well, that, and the war gets in the way too, as the Americans–represented by a colorful cast of supporting characters, highlighted by the one-dimensional-but-still-funny Doc Means–continually find themselves struggling against the mighty British Empire, thanks to a blundering, out-of-touch Congress and a number of incompetent, bureaucratic officers.

Patriot officers are depicted as a pretty worthless bunch in Rabble in Arms, with one significant exception: General Benedict Arnold. Indeed, it became pretty clear early on that Peter’s romance with Ellen, and Marie’s seduction of Nathaniel, and all the antics of Doc Means and the other supporting characters, are just filler sub-plots. What Roberts was really out to do with this book was rehabilitate General Arnold’s image. (Peter at one point tells the reader, “It has not been my purpose… to tell the story of Benedict Arnold.” But he’s lying.)

And frankly, it seems like Roberts has some legitimate points. How many people know that Arnold was wounded fighting for the Americans in the invasion of Quebec? For that matter, how many people know the Americans invaded Quebec? The aftermath of this invasion forms the first act of Rabble in Arms, and Arnold’s heroics are the highlight. The fact that the action was a defeat for the revolutionaries is laid at the feet of other officers.

Likewise, in the American retreat, Arnold is portrayed as a master strategist and brave warrior. Presumably, Roberts made his fictional narrator a ship captain so he could have a front row seat for Arnold’s feats of daring at the Battle of Valcour Island.

Roberts seems to be on firm factual ground here. Wikipedia (As my statistics teacher used to sarcastically call it, “the most valid source ever.”) summarizes: “The invasion of Quebec ended as a disaster for the Americans, but Arnold’s actions on the retreat from Quebec and his improvised navy on Lake Champlain were widely credited with delaying a full-scale British counter thrust until 1777.”

After Valcour Island, our heroes are captured by a tribe of Native Americans, who later turn them over to the British, who then turn them back over to the Native Americans again. If anyone is wondering how the Native Americans are portrayed, I guess I’d say, about like you’d expect from a book written in 1933.

All the characters who aren’t actual historical figures are basically stock caricatures. The only two female characters who say anything of substance are the pure, sweet, innocent Ellen and the evil, manipulative temptress Marie. The Madonna/Whore complex is strong with this one!

After more misadventures, one odd interlude with a captured Hessian soldier, and more problems caused by Marie, Peter makes it back in time to witness Arnold win the battles of Saratoga, despite being stripped of official authority by the bumbling General Gates.

Again, Roberts has the facts on his side here: Arnold indeed performed bravely at Saratoga, and was again wounded–shot in the same leg as in Quebec.

The penultimate chapter is a summary of why Peter will always defend Arnold, in spite of his subsequent treason. Indeed, Peter (who is clearly acting as a surrogate for Roberts here) even defends Arnold’s betrayal, arguing that Arnold came to view Congress as a greater threat to the United States than the British Empire.

While I was doing research for this review, I came across something interesting: Benedict Arnold’s open letter “to the Inhabitants of America.” That’s right; back in 1780, shortly after his betrayal, Arnold tried to explain himself to the people he’d just sold out. I recommend reading the whole thing. But here’s the key bit:

I anticipate your question, Was not the war a defensive one, until the French joined in the combination? I answer, that I thought so. You will add, Was it not afterwards necessary, till the separation of the British empire was complete? By no means; in contending for the welfare of my country, I am free to declare my opinion, that this end attained, all strife should have ceased…

…In the firm persuasion, therefore, that the private judgement of an individual citizen of this country is as free from all conventional restraints, since as before the insidious offers of France, I preferred those from Great Britain…

If we take Arnold at his word–which admittedly is a dangerous thing to do with the most infamous traitor in history–he was defecting because he didn’t like Congress making an alliance with France. That’s pretty ironic, considering it was the Arnold-led victory at Saratoga that persuaded the French to enter the war.

Throughout Rabble in Arms, Peter makes repeated reference to the Continental Congress giving undeserved military ranks to French officers, passing over more qualified Americans to do it. He doesn’t explicitly connect the dots between that and Arnold’s betrayal too closely, but the pieces fit.

(For what it’s worth, the most famous Frenchman to fight for the American colonies, the Marquis de Lafayette, went to France to secure military support for the Americans in January 1779. Arnold set the wheels of his betrayal in motion in May 1779. Make of it what you will.)

I’m not saying it’s accurate, but Roberts laid out a plausible case here: Arnold feels Congress is overlooking him. Congress is casting their lot with the French. Arnold doesn’t like Congress, and he doesn’t like the French. So, he thinks America is better off negotiating with the British. Arnold was perhaps the first (but not the last) American patriot who believed he had to fight the government in order to save the country!

Except…

Arnold wasn’t just betraying Congress. He was betraying the men who had fought with and for him, and the families of the men who died for him. He was betraying the trust Washington had shown in him by giving him command of West Point. (While Arnold was generally disliked and unpopular among his comrades, Washington seems to have been one of the few people who actually liked and respected him.)

This is where the “Arnold-had-to-betray-America-in-order-to-save-it” theory breaks down a bit, and other possible reasons for his betrayal start to loom large.

Despite his best efforts, Roberts’ novel comes up short in persuading me that Arnold’s treason was justified. Arnold was no doubt a brave soldier, and quite possibly a brilliant strategist. He may well have been badly treated by men not half as skilled as he was. But I just can’t buy the conclusion that Arnold did it, as the narrator claims, “to fight a greater threat than England.”

So, Rabble in Arms doesn’t fully succeed as pro-Arnold propaganda, but it makes a solid effort. Arnold gets all the best lines, and when he’s not around, I found myself longing for him to get back into the story. The rest of the book is pretty standard historical adventure type stuff, though it’s not without its charms. Roberts could make the occasional keen insight. For instance:

“The vainer a man is, the tighter he clings to his preconceived notions; he’s afraid of someone accusing him of changing his mind, which would show he hadn’t been the all-wise possessor of all knowledge from the moment of his birth.”

All in all, it’s a decent book if you like historical fiction and can stand a tale that takes a–well, let’s just say, a very old-fashioned approach to portraying its non-white and female characters. It’s actually pretty mild by the standards of its time, really. I’ve read other books from the period that just ooze racism and misogyny; this is more patronizing.

And now, a word of caution for those who buy it on Kindle, as I did. Whatever software they used to scan the pages of the physical copy to make the electronic version has some flaws. Quite often, a word was misinterpreted by the scanner, and an incorrect word inserted in its place. It was usually possible to figure out the correct word from the context–“lie,” for example, was throughout rendered as either “he” or “be”–but this got annoying after a while. I could never be sure if some characters’ names were really what they appeared to be. It would have actually made for an interesting meta-literary device had it been done intentionally and in another context–I was always second guessing what I read, like an unreliable narrator story.

I wouldn’t say this ruined the book for me, but it was irritating, and some readers may prefer to spring for the physical version and avoid the hassle of things like figuring out that when a character appears to say “TU he,” what he’s actually saying is “I’ll lie.”

I can’t help myself; I have to write about this. I know there’s probably no point, but I am going to do it anyway just in case. Immediately after this, I’m going to post some Christmas videos to make up for it.

On Wednesday, President Trump announced that the U.S. will withdraw troops from Syria. Immediately, hawks in both parties attacked the decision, arguing that it will allow ISIS to regain strength. Many of Trump’s usual allies argued for keeping the troops there longer, and urged him to reverse the decision so ISIS can be defeated.

Here’s my problem with this: the reason ISIS is a household name is because of U.S. military intervention in Iraq. When we installed the new Iraqi government in ’03-‘04, we threw all of Saddam Hussein’s underlings out of power. This was called “de-Ba’athification”, because they were all in Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party, but it might as well have been called “de-Sunnification” because they were all Sunnis.

As a result, we had a bunch of Sunnis who were exiled, armed, and extremely mad at us and at the heavily Shia government we installed.

Hey, Foreign Policy wonks! Can you guess what happened?

The huge atrocities ISIS committed back in 2014-15 need to be seen as an angry, violent subset of Sunnis getting revenge for being thrown out of power in 2003-04. ISIS sort of existed before we invaded Iraq, but it was infused with a bunch of former soldiers, commanders and politicians after Saddam’s government fell. And most of all, they were given a “stab-in-the-back myth” to justify their revanchism, because they could claim the West was deliberately taking power away from the Sunnis.

So now the military-industrial complex  foreign policy experts say that we need to keep intervening militarily in a foreign nation to prevent atrocities being committed by a group that exists because we intervened militarily in a foreign nation to prevent atrocities.

Look: I’m all about preventing atrocities. I really am. If the most powerful military in the world can’t be used to protect innocent people from evil ones, then what’s it good for? It’s just that I want to hear one of the people currently urging a continued military action explain why this won’t end in a massive disaster like the last one did.

And no, Senator Rubio, I don’t want to hear that “the military advised President Trump not to withdraw.” Of course they did! They’re the military! When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and when all you have is the most powerful fighting force in history, everything looks like it needs to be occupied by it.

I don’t blame the military commanders for opposing withdrawal. But unless they can give a definitive timeline—“e.g. we will achieve victory in Syria in one year or you can fire all us generals”—they can’t be given the final say on this.

A lot of people will say Trump only did this because his policies mysteriously seem to align with Vladimir Putin’s on every issue. But you know what? “Trump-is-a-puppet” is not in itself a valid criticism. If he does the right thing for the wrong reasons, it’s still the right thing. So if you want to keep the troops in Syria, don’t tell me that a withdrawal benefits Putin. This isn’t a zero-sum game where every action that helps Russia is an automatic loss for the USA.

The folks in the upper-echelons of government still don’t seem to get that the reason so many people voted for Trump was that they were furious at the mistakes the government had made over the years—the mismanagement of the Iraq invasion being one of the biggest examples. If they want to win back their credibility as experts—and with it, the awesome and terrible power of commanding the United States military—they need to prove that they have learned from their mistakes. 

One last note: I’ve seen a number of people complain that a U.S. withdrawal from Syria makes Israel less safe. In my opinion, this is a pretty glass half-empty way to look at it. Yes, it’s true that now Israel will have lost a big ally fighting Iran in the region. But I’m not sure that U.S. participation automatically makes things safer for them. Again, look at what happened with Iraq. Is Israel really safer now that there is a massive terrorist group inadvertently created by the U.S. intervention in Iraq running loose?

The U.S. government is a bloated bureaucracy, led by an ever-rotating cast of characters who change every two to four years, and constantly want to drastically shift policy direction, which is a bit like trying to race an 18-wheeler on a Formula One  track. Most of the people involved are well-intentioned, but the result tends to be that U.S. government intervention causes chaos rather than stability. 

If we’re going to stay and fix the mess in Syria, we have to do it the right way: figure out who the enemy is, have Congress formally declare war on them, institute a draft, and use the full power of the military to defeat them. That was how the United States won its greatest victories, achieved superpower status, and made itself synonymous with Liberty across the globe. Unless we’re willing to do as much again, we will cause more problems than we solve.

Possibly the worst movie poster in history.
Poster for “Waterloo”

In the days before CGI, epic war films were massive and costly undertakings. You wanted a shot of 10,000 guys marching across a field in full battle uniform? Well, you had to get them! You couldn’t just have Johnny the Computer Whiz draw them in after the fact.

As in actual warfare, there are innumerable logistical difficulties with re-creating these battles. You’ve got to have men in position, knowing how to use their equipment, and then film them as they maneuver in the field.

All that’s quite hard enough.  But when you are making a film for wide release, you have to have all that plus a story the audience can follow, structured so as to play out in a coherent and satisfying way over the course of two hours.

It’s this last bit that’s really tricky, because while history offers plenty of incredible and compelling stories, they rarely fit into neat three-act schemes that can be concisely portrayed in a couple of hours.

Waterloo starts out well, showing Napoleon’s abdication to Elba in 1814 and subsequent return in 1815.  Especially memorable is the moment when the Emperor walks alone to face his former soldiers, now under orders to kill him, and through sheer bravery and charisma wins them back over to his side. This is one part of the Napoleonic legend that seems made for the movies, and it certainly is a high point of the film.

After that, however, problems arise in this dramatization of the final chapter of Bonaparte’s career.  There are unnecessary voice-overs in which Napoleon (Rod Steiger) thinks in exposition for the benefit of the audience.  Many lines of dialogue uttered by officers on both sides seem like they were lifted from history books and changed to the present tense.

An inordinate amount of time is spent on Wellington’s staff at the Ball hosted by the Duchess of Richmond.   This scene also includes the introduction of a totally fictional and pointless love story that goes nowhere.  The only upside is the chemistry between Wellington (Christopher Plummer) and the Duchess (Virginia McKenna).

Wellington and the Duchess
“Old Boney’s advancing on Quatre-Bras… IF you know what I mean.”

The film dwells on things like this, Napoleon’s illness, and some peculiar episode involving a British soldier stealing a pig, and yet glosses over incidents like the Battles of Quatre-Bras and Ligny with a couple lines of dialogue.

It’s not that the film is inaccurate–indeed, they seem to have gone to some lengths to describe things in historically correct fashion. (Except for the romance and a reminiscence about Major-General Ponsonby’s father) The problem is that the film depicts these events in a strange and sometimes incoherent manner.

The biggest technical flaw is probably the mud.  The battle was famously delayed by wet ground after a rainy night, and indeed the film states this correctly. Where it falls down is the fact that the ground we see on screen is demonstrably dry, as evidenced by the huge clouds of dust kicked up by the columns of cavalry and infantry.

The end result is the comical visual of a frustrated Napoleon sinking in an obviously artificial mud puddle while all around him is a vast expanse of dry land. The fundamental historical fact is correctly depicted, but not in a dramatically effective way.

There are lots of issues like this.  After Marshal Ney’s ill-fated cavalry charge against the famous infantry squares, Napoleon rushes back to the field from his sickbed, crying, “What is he doing?  Everyone knows not to make a cavalry charge without infantry support!”

While completely factually accurate, this seems unlikely to be what Napoleon actually said at the time. It comes across as a line delivered for the benefit of audience members who aren’t familiar with the battle of Waterloo.

And this is the other difficult thing about making historical movies: balancing the history lesson aspect with the need to depict real characters, as opposed to instructional puppets designed to illustrate a historical lecture.

Chances are, if someone is watching the movie Waterloo, they are already a Napoleonic history fan. Sure, there might be the occasional viewer who is an ardent follower of Rod Steiger or Christopher Plummer, but if I were overseeing the production, I would make the executive decision that any viewer who doesn’t already know how the battle went is just going to have to piece it together as best they can–no reason the script should go out of its way to help them out.

Waterloo_1970_06Despite all of that, the movie isn’t horrible.  As an instructional device, it is not bad, and there is something inherently impressive about seeing huge lines of soldiers and horses advancing across a smoky field.  It gives you some vague hint of what it might have felt like to be in the battle.

It’s just that the film lacks a dramatic narrative.  Napoleon and Wellington don’t “come alive”; they just repeat their famous quotes and stoically watch the battle.  Because of this, it feels more like a recording of an elaborate re-enactment rather than a truly epic historical drama.

It’s not a coincidence that Bannon got removed from the NSC and two days later, Trump orders missile strikes that Bannon and his “alt-right”/”America First” crowd oppose.

My question is: did Trump simply become outraged because he saw the pictures coming out of Syria, and decided he didn’t care what Bannon said?  Or is this the result of Trump’s long-term dissatisfaction at the series of apparent failures spearheaded by Bannon?

Or is it that Trump is now listening more to his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner than he is to Bannon? (Possibly as a result of said Bannon-led failures?)

There are a number of different explanations, all of which suggest that Trump is pretty impulsive and won’t hesitate to radically change his mind in short order.

But of course, that goes both ways.  If Bannon can get thrown in the doghouse this easily, he can get pulled back out just as quickly. And that’s the main takeaway for me: Trump acts quickly–some would say decisively, others would say recklessly.  Even his apparent friendly relations with Russia couldn’t quell his desire to take action in Syria. It must have really been important to him, because it meant reversing one of his core campaign positions, and losing a lot of his most zealous supporters.

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Scene from “Knights of the Old Republic II”. These assassin droids are perhaps the consummate “bad guys”.

When I was in college, I took an elective course called “Introduction to Military Intelligence”.  It was one of the best courses I took during my four years in college.  The teacher was a retired Army Major, and a very nice guy. (Our first day, he made the old joke about military intelligence being an oxymoron.)

One of the big things I remember him saying was that “the bad guys always have a tactical advantage”.  I’d never thought about it before, but it’s true, and it’s something counter-terrorism and intelligence officers have to contend with.

Bad guys are people who attack other people.  Good guys are just minding their own business, not looking to hurt anyone.  That’s one of the things that differentiates good from bad.  This means, among other things, that the bad guys know when they are going to attack and how, and so always have the element of surprise on their side. The good guys are forced to be reactive and defensive, which is a tactically bad position to be in.

Now, there are lots of quibbles or counter-arguments you can make about this, as well as arguments over what constitutes a true “attack” (e.g. “weren’t the good guys ‘attacking’ at the invasion of Normandy?”) The larger point, though, still holds–bad guys are usually on the attack, and as such have an advantage.

So, what to do about it?

The solution most good guy nations came up with is to have people on stand-by, watching for and guarding against attacks by bad guys.  This works pretty well, but they are still operating at a disadvantage because they usually don’t have first-strike capability.

It’s also important to note the difference between “tactical” and “strategic”.  Tactical stuff is on a smaller scale, meaning one battle or one individual action.  Strategic is a longer-term, big-picture thing.  So, it’s possible to be at a tactical disadvantage but a strategic advantage, and vice-versa.

One of the things I like to do in my spare time is watch history videos online.  I like the ones that I can cue up and then do something else (e.g. cleaning) while listening to the narration. Audiobooks are also good for this. My first preference would be to just read about the stuff, but often I’m just too busy.

Strangely, some historical incidents–especially battles–have tons of videos made about them, and others have next to nothing.  For instance, there are plenty of documentaries about the Battle of Marathon, but almost none about the Battle of Plataea.

What I was really looking for was something in-depth on the Battle of Tours. (Which is also sometimes called the Battle of Poitiers, which is confusing, because there was another Battle of Poitiers, some 600 years later.  I know this because my friend P.M. Prescott wrote a short historical fiction story about it.)

It goes on like this.  You search on Napoleonic wars, and you can’t turn around without seeing stuff about Waterloo, but Jena, Austerlitz and even Trafalgar you have to dig to find.

Of course, there is an absolute wealth of material on World War II.  It just never ends.  I think it’s better documented even than more recent wars, especially Korea, the “forgotten war”.

[WARNING: This post contains spoilers for all four of the things mentioned in the title.]

About five years ago, I read Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness.  Then, last year, I played Spec Ops: The Line and Far Cry 2, which are based in part on that book.  And then, yesterday, I watched Apocalypse Now, the 1979 movie also based on that book, and which influenced both of those games.

As you may know, it has long been my contention that video games are an art form on a par with books and film.  And of these four works, it is my belief that one of the games–Spec Ops–is the best.  That said, it is also the most recent, and it uses the expectations built by the preceding tales to weave its narrative.

To begin with, I didn’t really like Conrad’s novella that much.  It wasn’t awful, but I didn’t see what was so great about it.  So there’s this guy, Kurtz; and this other guy Marlow, has been sent to find him in the Congo.  But, turns out, he’s gone nuts and is dying.  And the reason this happened to Kurtz is because being in the Congo was brutal, and he couldn’t take it.

It was never clear to me what the point was.  I guess it was that it was no fun being in the ivory business in the Congo, and that colonialism was awful, both for the colonized and the colonizers.  Well, yes–and I suppose that was more of a shocker in the era when “colonialism” was not a dirty word–but I didn’t really see any major moral depth to it.

Apocalypse Now is an adaptation of the story, set in the Vietnam War, in which Marlow is named “Willard” and has been sent by the U.S. military to assassinate Col. Kurtz who has gone mad.  And so he does.

A big problem I had with the movie was that it is really thin.  In the first 10 minutes, we are told that Kurtz is insane and ruling over a bunch of the natives.  And then, two hours later, we meet Kurtz and find out that, sure enough, he really is insane and ruling over a bunch of the natives. There is a strong implication along the way that the Vietnam war generally is also insane, but that wasn’t much of a revelation to me.

(Aside–the theme of “War Is Insane, And Makes Everyone In It Insane” was done much better, in my opinion, in the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai.  It ends with the line “Madness, madness”, which would have fit Apocalypse Now as well.)

Kurtz has no character development. Neither does Willard, really: he starts off as a battle-hardened, PTSD soldier and finishes it as an even more battle-hardened PTSD solider. I guess his crew-mates on his boat are supposed to show the ravages of war taking their toll, but they all had “doomed” written all over them from scene one.

I read on Wikipedia that they considered a different ending, where Willard joins Kurtz and fights off an airstrike on the base.  While seemingly impossible logically, that ending would make more sense thematically.  Personally, I would have liked to see an ending where Kilgore showed up and destroyed Kurtz’s base.  It would at least justify why they spend so much time on his character early in the movie.

(Another aside: Wikipedia also says that “Coppola decided that the ending could be “‘the classic myth of the murderer who gets up the river, kills the king, and then himself becomes the king — it’s the Fisher King, from The Golden Bough'”.  For the record–this is the version of the story I remembered, not the one in the 1991 movie of the same name I wrote about a few months ago. But that’s mythology for you.)

(Last aside: this post has too many asides.  One of them should be removed.)

I already wrote about Far Cry 2 in this post pretty thoroughly, so I won’t dwell on it overmuch.  The short version is that it, like Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now before it, is well done, but empty. Although, I suppose it does sort of do what I criticized Apocalypse for not doing, in that there is some vague hint of character development in the sense that the player’s character is being sent to eliminate the Jackal in the beginning and winds up siding with him at the end.

To recap, in Heart of Darkness, we have this guy Kurtz.  Nobody is quite sure what his deal is, and we gradually find out that he went crazy in the jungle because everything was brutal.  Then, in  Apocalypse Now, we have this guy Kurtz who everybody thinks went crazy in the jungle because everything was so brutal–and indeed, so he did.  And then in Far Cry 2, we have this guy the Jackal, who goes crazy in the jungle because everything is so brutal.

Now, you will immediately see where Spec Ops is really different–here we have this guy Konrad.  And nobody is quite sure what Konrad’s deal is… and he’s in a desert!

Just kidding, that’s not the difference.

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