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.
“I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart, and he was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, “There’s no reason for this.” People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, you think about it, why?”
Like so many things Trump says, this makes no sense. But I think I know what he meant.
I think he is alluding to the Nullification Crisis–a conflict between the Federal Government and South Carolina during Jackson’s presidency. The stated reason for the crisis was that South Carolina claimed they didn’t have to abide by Federal tariff laws. The real motives were a bit deeper, and are an obvious prelude to some of the issues that sparked the Civil War.
Jackson himself wrote: “the tariff was only a pretext, and disunion and southern confederacy the real object.” It was sort of a trial run for the South, which would later use similar states’ rights-style arguments as a reason to preserve slavery, ultimately leading them into conflict with the North.
Trump, of course, knows none of that. But Stephen Bannon, an admirer of Andrew Jackson, probably does know it, and Trump vaguely remembered him saying something about it once. Of course, he couldn’t remember specifics, like that it was about the issue of Federal vs. State power, or that it led to Southern states claiming they had a right to preserve slavery. He just remembered “Andrew Jackson” and “something that led to the Civil War”.
(I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect Bannon is one of those guys who argues that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but was instead about “states’ rights.)
The end result is the totally rambling and nonsensical quote above. But I think on this one, it’s pretty easy to trace Trump’s incoherent babble back to the primordial Bannon-stew that spawned it.
I don’t have much time to read these days. For this reason, I find audiobooks really convenient–I can listen to them while I’m doing something else. It’s a real time-saver.
So it occurred to me that I’m probably not the only person who doesn’t have time to read much. And that led me to realize maybe my readers would find it convenient to have audio versions of some of my really long posts.
While recording some of the poetry readings I’ve posted, I also recorded a reading of one of my recent posts on geopolitical and religious history. (The original post is here.)
And so now you can listen to me pontificating about various subjects while you are doing other things. It’s like having a little Ruined Chapel RSS feed running in your mind, as if a dystopian government had placed a propaganda chip in your brain.
Uh… bad analogy. Never mind. Anyway, try it out if you like.
Kristof’s point is that Ryan is a hypocrite for professing to be a Christian and yet supporting a health care bill that would result in poor people losing health insurance coverage.
The theme is one that Democrats have hammered on for decades: how can the Republicans get such strong support from Christians, and vocally proclaim their own devout Christianity, while simultaneously pushing policies that appear to be in opposition to what Christ taught?
Not being a religious person, I don’t really consider myself qualified to get involved in this argument. What I can do, though, is talk about the historical and philosophical background of this apparent hypocrisy. As my readers know, I like to try to understand things in their historical context.
In this case, we are going to need some 2000 years of historical context to properly understand what’s going on here.
There’s been a lot of talk about the fact that the Democrats lost white working- and middle-class voters in the 2016 Presidential election. Ever since, they have been trying to figure out how they can win them back without sacrificing some other part of their coalition.
Too many election post-mortems have treated the electorate as a static thing, when the reality is that they are very mobile and could easily completely change the map in just a couple years. And they won’t be reapportioning the electoral votes again until after the 2020 election–so there is one more chance to use them as they are currently distributed.
It’s important to remember that the Democrats won the popular vote in 2016. So they should not be thinking in terms of how to get more votes. The pressing problem is how to get the votes they already have into places where they will be most effective.
There is nonetheless a kernel of truth in the Republicans’ oft-repeated claim that liberal Democrats have fallen out of touch with the rest of country by congregating in urban areas on the coasts. They are concentrated in such super-blue areas that they forget about the rest of the country.
Democrats may respond that they don’t want to be in touch with people who would support a man like Donald Trump. Why should they engage with people who support a man so antithetical to their beliefs?
There are two problems with this logic. The first is that not all Trump voters enthusiastically support him. Some of them could probably be persuaded to see things differently.
The second and far more important point is that venturing into the Trump-supporting heartland need not mean surrounding oneself with Trump supporters.
Obviously, the first thing you notice is that L.A. county is almost literally off the chart. But the more significant thing is that Clinton won the heavily-populated counties all across the map. Even in the much-discussed Rust Belt of the Midwest, the region that delivered the victory to Trump, the highly populated areas were going for Clinton, often by big margins.
New York and Los Angeles aren’t the only heavily-Democratic cities in the country; they just happen to be where most of the press and broadcasting industries are located, so they get the attention. But even the red states usually have at least one urban area that voted for Clinton.
So, it’s probably true that Democrats should move out of the coastal enclaves. Not because they need to get in touch with the heartland, but because they need to send reinforcements to the inland liberal enclaves.
Of course, the Democratic party is not an army, and Tom Perez can’t just order thousands of Democrats to march off and take Madison, Columbus and Detroit. There’s no one obvious mechanism you can use to make them do this. Most people don’t consider the number of electoral votes a state has when they are deciding where to settle.
There are ways this move can be encouraged, though. After all, lots of those blue columns on the map represent some city with a Democratic mayor and city government. If they play their cards right, I bet they can come up with policies that make their cities even more inviting to Democrats.
This is one area where the liberal entertainment industry that the Republicans so despise could really prove its worth. If it could make other cities have the same brand power as New York and L.A. it could help to attract other Democrats. (To some extent, this is happening with the city of Austin, Texas.)
One of key lessons of the study of history is that it often is useful to re-think the whole framework used for planning a strategy. It would be helpful if strategists regarded the electoral map as a playing field on which mobile units can move rather than as static territory to be gained or lost.
We take the existence of political parties as a given. Even dictatorships usually have one party, which is strange if you think about it–a bit like having a sports league with only one team. Why do you need a party if it doesn’t have to compete with any other party?
Nevertheless, political parties are everywhere. They are clearly very popular. And yet, when you think about it, there is no obvious need for parties in a functioning democracy.
To run for office, you just need to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot in relevant districts. After that, you need to get your message out somehow–usually through press interviews, ads, campaign rallies and speeches. And you don’t need a party to do any of that.
Once you are in office, you have even less need for a party because, well… you are in office. Now you just need to use the office to accomplish your goals. Periodically, you need to campaign for re-election, but as we just saw, that can be accomplished without a party.
The obvious point is that you need money in order to run for office, and parties are a convenient way of raising money and in general providing the infrastructure for a successful campaign.
But there are other ways of raising money. If you’re a really effective and charismatic speaker–a major asset in politics–that in itself can be a fundraising mechanism. And if you are already wealthy, you may be able to self-finance campaigns for some offices. The super-richwant to controlpolitics anyway; why don’t they just cut out the middleman and do it themselves?
Also, the rise of mass media means that it’s cheaper to get the word out than it used to be. Donald Trump famously got billions of dollars worth of “free advertising” for his campaign by dominating both mainstream press and social media headlines.
So, what are political parties for?
One thing they obviously do is provide a way of associating oneself with certain goals, policies and philosophies. If someone is a Democrat, you can generally guess where they stand on most issues. That can save a candidate a lot of time–you know you’re guaranteed a certain number votes just from your party affiliation. More on that later…
Parties also provide a framework for running campaigns. This is also a time-saving function. Everyone knows the Republicans and Democrats are both going to field some candidate in the race for state governor, for example. So they have some campaign infrastructure already in place–they just need to sort out who the candidate will be.
In this respect, political parties have surreptitiously taken over the political process simply by virtue of providing candidates with credibility.
It works like this: the press knows that either the Republican or the Democrat is going to win, and so they focus their coverage on them. Similarly, donors know the same fact, and so donate primarily to one of the two candidates.
Thus, while it’s not apparent why you need a party apparatus, it is clear that once you have one, it’s hard to get rid of it.
Politicians have tried to challenge various parties over the years, and some have succeeded in radically changing what a given party’s platform is, or even in creating an entirely new party. But to my knowledge, nobody has ever challenged the party infrastructure itself.
Even Trump, much as he tried to play the role of Outsider Underdog taking on the Establishment Machine, didn’t truly challenge that parties from outside. Instead, he played divide and conquer, first taking over the Republicans and turning their infrastructure to serve him in defeating the Democrats.
The core Republican party system remained (and remains) in place; Trump just took charge of it and directed how it should be used.
If you define a party–as I suggested above–as a team of people interested in accomplishing some set of goals, it makes it hard to understand how this type of takeover is possible. There was a sizeable anti-Trump faction in the party, but most of them ended up supporting Trump anyway. You would expect that parties would be more fluid if they were truly about political philosophies.
Parties are much more tribal things–akin to supporting a sports team. Being a member of a given party is more a matter of one’s cultural values and upbringing than it is any specific political agenda. Just as someone will cheer for their team even if the players and coaches are bad, they will support their party even if the candidate is bad.
People wonder why politicians are, in general, so ineffective. There are a couple reasons for this, but I suspect one is that they are tremendously insulated from constituent pressure thanks to the power of the party system. Once you have support of the party machinery, the job gets a lot easier because a certain number of people will support you just because you are from their party.
People always try to fix this problem by mounting primary challenges. Which is great, except that it has only two possible outcomes:
The challenger loses. This is usually what happens; it’s called the incumbent advantage.
The challenger wins, and then enjoys all the same benefits of the party machinery that his or her predecessor did, thus turning them into another cog in the machine.
The only office that doesn’t work like this is President, because the President has more power to shape the party’s agenda.
And this puts us hot on the trail of figuring out what a political party actually is: it is a means of simplifying the complex business of government into a more understandable form. Namely, it turns a complicated system of numerous offices into a very simple hierarchy with one ultimate executive.
This explains what a political party is and, incidentally, explains why they have them even in dictatorships. Political parties are what produce dictators.
That sounds like a pretty wild idea, doesn’t it? It does to me. I was surprised when I realized it as I was thinking about this. However, some other people in history have come to the same conclusion regarding political parties. For example:
“All obstructions to the execution of the Laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities… serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels, and modified by mutual interests…
[…]I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the state, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party, generally.
This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.”