This book gives a comprehensive and thorough history of the United States government’s plans for surviving a nuclear war. The book spans the Atomic Age, with detailed information from the Truman through Obama administrations, with occasional references to the comparatively primitive security measures under earlier presidents.
There are a number of interesting stories in the book, from the day that President Truman practically shut down Washington as he stepped out to go to the bank to the total chaos and confusion that reigned on 9/11, when the emergency procedures were implemented rather haphazardly.
For all the programs aimed at “continuity of government”, the ultimate conclusion of Presidents, generals, CEOs, and bureaucrats throughout the decades seems to invariably have been that in the event of a nuclear attack, the United States as we know it would cease to exist, and survivors—if any—would live under martial law at best for a considerable length of time.
And yet, the preparation proceeds anyway, as the government tries to figure out a way to survive the unsurvivable. In one memorable section, Graff discusses a secret bunker at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, complete with underground chambers for the House and Senate to convene, all maintained without the knowledge of even the CEO of the resort himself.
Throughout the book, I repeatedly thought of this exchange from the British political sitcom Yes, Minister:
Sir Humphrey: There has to be somewhere to carry on government, even if everything else stops.
Minister Hacker: Why?
Sir Humphrey: Well, government doesn’t stop just because the country’s been destroyed!
That really summarizes the absurdity of the whole enterprise. The book’s subtitle, “The story of the U.S. government’s secret plan to save itself–while the rest of us die” is a bit unnecessarily hysterical and sinister-sounding, (they can’t really be expected to save everyone, can they?) but it does underscore the inescapable problem of attempting to preserve a way of life that can’t exist in the unimaginably horrible new world that would be created after the bombs went off.
Graff did a lot of research for this book, but too often sacrificed readability in the interest of being thorough. There are plenty of paragraphs that bog down in the alphabet soup of government programs, plans and agency acronyms. (This is perhaps inevitable to some degree—the government loves acronyms.) Even more confusingly, information is sometimes poorly organized, and occasionally repeated in different sections. Once or twice this caused me to think I had accidentally gone back to a section I’d already read.
There’s also at least one flat-out error: on page 278 of the Kindle version, Graff asserts that “Reagan was the first president shot in nearly a century.” This is obviously not true, and probably the result of some kind of copy/paste error. That’s one that anybody would know is wrong, but it made me wonder what other, less-apparent-but-equally-serious errors the editors might have missed.
So, should you read it? Alot of the negative reviews say things like “I could have gotten all this from Wikipedia”. Which is true, but also raises the question, “Then why didn’t you?” A journalist like Graff isn’t required to discover new information—compiling and correlating existing information into one convenient book is also useful.
Unfortunately, Raven Rock isn’t as convenient as it could have been. A bit more editing and condensing would have improved the book a great deal. As it is, though, there’s a wealth of information for those willing to slog through and find out what secret projects the government has been spending our taxes on in the hopes of surviving Armageddon.
The number one issue that humanity faces today is technological growth. If you look under the surface of most political issues, what drives them is the way technology has given us abilities we did not previously have, or information we could not previously have accessed.
What makes this especially powerful is that technology evolves much faster than human beings do. Technology can go through many generations in the course of one human’s lifetime.
This is important, because in evolutionary biology, new traits usually emerge over the course of generations. (This is why biologists usually study traits in organisms with short generations. You can observe multiple generations of flies over the course of a year.)
But since technology moves faster than humans can evolve new traits, it means that we are always playing from behind. When I was born, cell phones were huge, unwieldy things used by rich people, sales reps, and techies. Now they’re everywhere, and are more powerful than the top-of-the-line supercomputers of three decades ago.
For the last 200 years, technological progress has been increasing at an incredible rate. And humans have often suffered by being slow to adapt. This is illustrated most dramatically by wars: in World War I, the officers had all been trained in tactics derived from the Napoleonic era. This resulted in huge massacres, as cavalry and infantry charges–which would have worked against men with inaccurate single-shot rifles–were torn to pieces by machine guns. Technology had made a huge leap in the century between the battle of Waterloo and the battle of Artois. And that was as nothing compared to the leap it would make in the next thirty years, with the advent of the Atomic Bomb.
The thing is, while it may seem to us like a long time since the days of cavalry charges and flintlock rifles, in terms of human history, that’s a drop in the bucket. Homo sapiens first emerged roughly 200,000 years ago. On that scale, Waterloo might as well be yesterday, and the Roman Empire was just last week.
For the vast majority of our existence, life was pretty much the same: people worked the land and hunted and raised families. Periodically, they organized into larger tribes to make war or trade. If you took a citizen of Athens from, say, 450 BCE and transported him to Renaissance Italy—nearly 2000 years later–he’d still have a pretty good handle on how things worked once he got past the language barrier. Whereas if you transported somebody from 1890s London to the present day—a mere 128 years!—he’d have no idea what was happening.
When you read history, it’s easy to be struck by how human nature seems unchanged over the centuries. We can recognize things in the texts of the earliest historians and philosophers that seem analogous to modern phenomena. While it may seem like this means human nature is eternal, what it really signifies is that it hasn’t been that long, in biological terms, since what we think of as “ancient times”.
It’s commonplace to observe the technology changes, but human nature remains the same. But observing it is one thing; grasping the full implications is another.
For instance, there is a major “culture war” debate in the U.S. over the issue of transgender rights. Those who favor transgender rights view their opponents as closed-minded bigots. Those opposed see the others as radicals bent on destroying the social order. What both sides ignore is the fact that until very recently, transgender people had no medical treatment available to them. For hundreds of thousands of years, transgender people had no option but to live in the body they were born with. And the rest of the population scarcely even knew they existed; and so built whole societies premised on two rigid gender roles. It wasn’t until very recent breakthroughs in medical technology that any other option became viable.
Once you view it in these terms, you realize it isn’t a liberal plot to destabilize society, but simply a group of people able to access treatment that previously did not exist. Likewise, you also realize the reason so many people are responding with fear and suspicion is that history and tradition provide no guidelines for how to deal with the issue. It simply wasn’t possible in the past.
A number of social conflicts, I suspect, are in fact the result of people being optimized for a very different world than the one we actually live in. Ancient prohibitions against homosexuality, sodomy, and other non-reproductive sexual behavior made some sense in the context of their time—in the past, when mortality rates were high, people needed everyone who was physically capable of reproducing to do so, personal feelings notwithstanding. It was about survival of the group, not any one individual.
Nowadays humanity is threatened more by overpopulation than by extinction—but we’re still adapted to the world of thousands of years ago. That’s just one example. I think people in the developed world still have a slightly-irrational fear of famine; simply because we evolved over millennia where food was, in fact, extremely scarce. (This is why philosophies like the so-called “abundance mentality” seem so counter-intuitive. In the past, it would’ve been suicide to assume there were enough resources for everybody.)
Of course, this is something where we use technology to make up for our own shortcomings. A human being would have no idea how to fly a plane if not for instruments that correctly show the position of the aircraft. And this leads to another obvious point about technological evolution—it is, in many ways, nothing short of miraculous for humans. It allows us to accomplish things our ancestors could never have imagined. Whatever bad side effects it has, no one could ever rationally argue that we’d be better off getting rid of all of it and returning to primitive life.
The saving grace is that technology has been designed by humans and for humans, and so generally is compatible with the needs of humans. The things that conflict with human needs aren’t usually a direct result of this, but rather side-effects the designers never thought of.
But side-effects, almost by definition, are insidious. Any obvious, seriously harmful side-effect gets fixed early on. The ones that don’t usually fall into one or more of the following categories:
Don’t seem harmful at first
Can’t be fixed without destroying the benefit
The designers of automobiles probably never thought the exhaust would cause pollution; even if they had, they probably wouldn’t have realized that cars would be widely used enough for it to matter. Marie and Pierre Curie had no idea the new element they had discovered was dangerous. It seemed like just a useful illuminative substance. And pretty much every communications technology in history, from the printing press on, has the potential to spread pernicious lies and propaganda just as much as news and useful information. But no one can figure out a way to remove the bad information without also getting rid of the good—the only option is censorship, which can pose a danger in its own right.
I’ll say it again for emphasis: technology is evolving faster than humans. As a result, our instincts will often lie to us when it comes to dealing with technology. It’s the same way modern junk food is engineered to please our taste buds while poisoning our bodies—it’s designed to set off all the right sensors that tell us “get more of this”.
The rise of nationalism throughout the world in the last decade has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of social media. It’s not a coincidence. Social media plays to an old instinct that takes human society back to its most basic state: the tribe, and the desire to win approval from that tribe. But in the past, when we were in tribes, we didn’t know what the rival tribes or nation-states were doing—they were in far-off lands and rarely encountered each other. But now, we always know what they are doing—they are just a click away. And because they are a different tribe, our instincts tell us to fear them, as our ancestors feared invaders from distant places.
What can we do about this? We can’t get rid of technology; nor would we want to. And I don’t think it’s a good idea to make it into a political question. Politicians want easy, non-nuanced issues, where they can cast themselves as leaders of a huge, virtuous majority against a tiny, vaguely-defined band of evildoers. That would be a terrible thing to happen on this issue. As we’ve already seen in the social issues I’ve mentioned earlier, politicians tend to cast these things as moral questions rather than technological change ones.
We’re going to have to deal with this one on our own. But how? After all, technology brings huge benefits. How can we keep getting those while minimizing the side effects? We don’t want to completely ignore our instincts—not all of them are outdated, after all—but we can’t always trust them, either.
The best advice I can give is to always be on the lookout for what side-effects technology produces in your own life. Always ask yourself what it’s causing you to do differently, and why. Then you’ll start to look for the same in the wider world. We know human nature doesn’t change that much; so when you see or read about a large number of people behaving in an unusual way, or a new cultural phenomenon, there’s a decent chance that it’s in response to some new technology.
It’s easy to look at the dangers of technology and decide you want to opt out, throw it all away, and return to the simple life. This is probably healthy in small doses but it’s impractical on a large scale or for an entire lifetime. What I’m advising is cultivating an attitude of extreme adaptability, where you are so flexible that you can both use new technology and see the potential problems with it coming before they hit you. Listen to your instincts, but know when you need to disregard them. Remember, your instincts are optimized to give you the best chance at survival in a world of agrarian societies and/or tribes of hunter-gatherers. And they are damn good at it; but their mileage may vary in a world of computers, nanomachines, and space travel.
Most histories of Napoleon’s downfall begin with his disastrous invasion of Russia, and at first glance, this seems appropriate. Napoleon suffered huge losses, failed to gain much of anything, and never won a campaign again after the invasion. It seems like the obvious point where his fortunes turned for the worse.
But the truth is, Napoleon’s downfall started much earlier. And it wasn’t due to any “nearest-run-thing-you-ever-saw” kind of bad luck that happens in battle, either. It was due to the fact that Napoleon didn’t understand economics nearly as well as warfare.
In 1806, the British Empire began a naval blockade against France. In retaliation, Napoleon–who at this point controlled most of continental Europe–enacted an embargo against trade with Britain, forbidding all French-controlled nations from importing British goods.
By all accounts, it didn’t work. Even the Empress Josephine herself purchased smuggled British products.¹ And Britain simply made up the losses in revenue from Europe in other parts of the world.
Finally, it was in an attempt to impose his ban on British goods that Napoleon invaded Russia to begin with! If he hadn’t been trying to enforce the embargo, he would never have had to make such a risky move at all.
At the time, France had a very strong military tradition. Nowadays we tend to stereotype Germany as the most militaristic European nation, but German militarism is heavily rooted in reforms introduced in Prussia following their losses to Napoleon. So in the early 19th century, it was French militarism vs. British capitalism.
Napoleon was a great military strategist and leader, but he seems to have been pretty ignorant when it came to economics and trade. Napoleon fell into the error of regulators everywhere, in that he assumed he could end demand for goods by making them illegal. In fact, all he did was create a lucrative black market for the British and punish his own people simultaneously.
It would have been different if Napoleon had been able to defeat the British Navy. Then he maybe could have enforced the embargo more effectively. But then, if he could defeat the British Navy, the whole problem of Britain would have been solved anyway.
Napoleon was seeing everything in military terms–that was what he was trained to do, after all. British policy was designed more in economic terms, and the military (mainly the Navy) was just a tool used by Britain to secure their material wealth. The results of the differing philosophies speak for themselves: Napoleon got to be in a lot of famous battles, sure; but eventually lost his Empire and died alone on St. Helena. Britain became the dominant superpower in the world for the next century.
Napoleon should have been patient. Yes, the British were constantly financing uprisings against him, but they weren’t working out very well, and they couldn’t keep it up forever.
There are a couple lessons here. First, you can’t ignore the laws of economics, even if you are the greatest military strategist of your time. And second, though it may be more dramatic to depict Napoleon’s downfall with a retreat from a burning Moscow or a failed charge at Waterloo, he sealed his own fate much earlier with a serious error of his own design.
It’s easy to point to one battle or one bit of bad luck as being “Where It All Went Wrong”, but oftentimes, such events are really just the culmination of a less dramatic, more systematic bad decision made much earlier.
So instead of saying “So-and-so met their Waterloo when…”, look instead for when So-and-so made their Continental System.
[I saw this film a couple years ago, but never posted a review. I will do so now, for no particular reason. 🙂 ]
I don’t feel fully qualified to review this film, because it’s in Hebrew, which I don’t speak. So I can’t comment on the actors’ delivery of their lines, or even on the script, since I’m basing it off of English subtitles that may not reflect the full meaning.
Even more significantly, Hebrew etymology itself is an important concept in the film, and I can’t be sure to what extent I grasped the word play that goes on. At one point, the narrator alludes to the fact that the Hebrew word for childlessness is related to the word for darkness, which is related to the word for forgetting. This leads me to suspect the title has more meaning in the original. (The film is based on the autobiographical novel of the same name by Israeli author Amos Oz, from which this passage is adapted.)
All that said, I’m going to do my best to review what I can, and let you know when I think my opinions might be colored by my ignorance of the language.
The film is told from the perspective of the young Amos Oz (Amir Tessler) and chronicles his experience growing up in what was then British Mandatory Palestine, which over the course of the film is partitioned by a U.N. Resolution and then falls into civil war.
This political element is mostly shown through glimpses and murmurs in the background, since Amos is a young child, and what he perceives first and foremost are incidents in his own family. His father Arieh (Gilad Kanana) and mother Fania (Natalie Portman, who also directed the film and wrote the screenplay) are his main influences. Both are well-educated and, in their own ways, teach him about language and storytelling. His father, a scholarly and bookish man, frequently lectures him about Hebrew words and their interrelated meanings.
Fania is a more romantic type than her husband, and early sequences show her fantasies as a girl growing up in Europe. envisioning Israel as the “land of milk and honey”, to be settled by heroic pioneers. In keeping with her imaginative nature, she tells young Amos stories—some fanciful and fairytale-like, others more depressing and realistic, such as the story from her childhood of a Polish army officer who committed suicide as she watched.
Amos also overhears things he shouldn’t—such as Fania’s mother berating her, causing the younger woman to slap her own face in shame, or Fania telling another grim tale of her youth in Europe: a woman who committed suicide by locking herself in a shed and setting it on fire.
The film shows these scenes, as imagined by young Amos, and you can’t help feeling these aren’t healthy for a child to hear. At the same time, even if you didn’t realize that Oz grows up to be a writer, it becomes very clear in watching the film that this is his calling—everything in his upbringing leads him towards it.
Gradually, as the film wears on and political upheaval takes its toll, Fania begins to succumb to depression. It’s a grim decline, as we see her slowly wasting away, but the film does a good job capturing the pain and frustration seeing a loved one with a mental health disorder brings upon a family. (Even more heart-wrenching is the fact that the doctors prescribe sleeping pills and other depressants—at the time, proper treatment for such disorders was not widely available.)
Fania goes away to her sisters’ home in Tel Aviv, and there overdoses on sleeping pills. In the closing moments of the film, we see Amos as a young man, meeting with his father at a kibbutz. Finally, we see an elderly Amos writing the word “mother” in Hebrew.
The overall film is haunting and evocative, with a gorgeous soundtrack by Nicholas Britell that captures the gloomy mood of Jerusalem, which Oz at one point likens to a black widow.
I did have some issues with the cinematography. It has that washed-out gray/green palette that is way, way overused in films these days—especially those set in the past. I would have preferred to see it in the normal range of colors.
However, while this was a drawback, I did think it very successfully communicated one thing about Jerusalem: its age. Throughout the film, but especially in the shots of the winding, narrow streets that Amos and his family traverse through the city, I could practically feel the weight of all the accumulated history of this ancient place. The film conveyed the mystical power of its setting, and gave a sense of why it is so important to so many.
Again, I don’t want to comment too much on the acting, since I was reading subtitles rather than listening to the speech, but it seemed very good indeed. Tessler is the standout—he had to carry the immense burden of seeming wise beyond his years while still behaving like a normal child, rather than The Boy Who Is Destined To Become A Famous Writer. And he manages it splendidly from what I can tell.
Small moments, like the sequence in which Arieh is celebrating that all five copies of his new book have been purchased, and Amos later sees all five, still in their wrapping paper, at the house of an author Arieh knows (either a friend or relative; I couldn’t tell which), are what stick in my mind. The man simply closes the shelf lid over the books and gives Amos a look that says “we will not speak of this”, without uttering a word.
I went to this film expecting it to be a downer—I knew that it ended with Fania falling into depression and ultimately committing suicide—and for a large part of the second half, it did feel excruciatingly bleak. Watching someone sit silently in the dark, overcome with psychological torment, while her family members suffer in impotent grief, while perhaps true to life, is not a pleasant cinematic experience, and that’s how the film trends for some time. I was ready to write it off as an interesting picture that drowns in mental anguish in the second half.
And then something amazing happened.
I want to write about it, because I haven’t seen many others address it—but I also hate to spoil it. So I’ll make a deal with you: if you haven’t seen the movie, but think you might want to, stop reading now and watch it. Pay particular attention to the scenes of Fania’s stories—the drowning woman, the woman in the shed, the Polish officer. Then come back and read the rest of this. If you’ve already seen it, or just don’t care to but read this far and want to know it all, read on.
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.
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.
“Modern presidents have exercised considerable influence over the nation’s policyagenda 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.
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).
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.
Despite 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.
Before you do anything else, read this Andrew Sullivan column. It’s a few months old, but still incredibly relevant in many ways, and it’s worth your time to read the whole thing. Don’t worry; I’ll wait.
All done? Good.
The part I loved most was this:
“In America, as Charles Murray has shown in his extraordinary book, Coming Apart, the young and the smart and the talented — the people who would once have formed the core of these small towns — have long since fled to distant colleges and cities. They don’t come back. They would once have been the police chief or the town librarian or the school principal. They once helped make the town a well-run place with a clear identity, where the same families and networks lived together, died together, belonged together. These connections have attenuated … as economics supplants culture, as efficiency erases the individuality of inefficient places, as Amazon rips the heart out of shopping districts, as the smartphone removes us from physical space, and as many more immigrants and their culture alter the feel of a place in ways that disorient those with memories and loyalties.”
This is a highly significant point. On a superficial level it’s related to what I wrote about here–the fact that so many of America’s problems stem from the high concentration of young, talented, well-educated people in a few cities.
But there’s also a deeper significance to it–the Oswald Spengler quote I referenced here that “the landscape exercises a secret force upon the extinction of the old [culture] and the appearance of the new one,” applies.
Sorry to reference my own posts, but my point here is that Sullivan has very clearly articulated something I’ve subconsciously thought about but have never been able to express. It’s a fundamental change in the culture of the United States, and it’s something that needs to be understood to ensure a prosperous future for the nation.