Best of ’23: Everyone Knows Hawks Have Left And Right Wings

I’ve always been fascinated with movies, both as a consumer and a buyer.  Some of my most enjoyable and often coolest summer days were spent going from theatre to theatre at our local multiplexes; if you could time it right and make sure the ushers were distracted, you could see three or four films for the price of one, and have really good air conditioning in the process.

I tended to do that in an era when theatres were the only way to see new releases, popcorn was relatively affordable and where there were often a lot of different genres on display at the same time.  And I drew a lot of inspiration from the reviews and education I got from Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.  You may not remember exactly how impactful they were on how and why my generation became intellectually attached to movies beyond mere fan worship, but author Matt Singer does.  I recently enjoyed his biography of those feuding Chicago critics OPPOSABLE THUMBS, and in particular was reminded exactly how groundbreaking the idea of bringing extended and informed movie reviews and news to television was.  Moreover, they did this on the relative shoestring budgets of a Chicago PBS station and then for first-run syndication, a weekly half-hour no less.  I actually met both of them at several NATPE conventions after they fled the relatively modest Tribune Entertainment that was connected to their flagship TV station WGN as well as Siskel’s eponymous Chicago Tribune for the bigger bucks and opportunities the fledgling distribution team of Disney, Buena Vista Television, was creating.  Many people thought I resembled Ebert, though I can assure those that did by far exceed me in both talent and girth.   Gene arguably loved basketball, particularly the Chicago Bulls, more than movies, and I recall a spirited conversation with him about the relative talent of Bill Cartwright, a New York Knicks castoff who found later career success on Michael Jordan’s ’90s championship teams.  He argued that if he had played his entire career in Chicago it would have been he, and not Russell, who would have been the most fondly remembered Bill to play center as an alumnus of the University of San Francisco.  

So in these musings I particularly enjoy when I’m able to channel my inner Ebert and review movies, though in these times that’s been a struggle.  This past year, more so than ever.  Not only because the size of the crowds have diminished and the cost of a ticket and popcorn (not to mention the debatably healthy mac and cheese and chicken nuggets that I often choose because the quality of said popcorn has deteriorated as well), but because there’s been a lot fewer movies worth the money to see.    Mostly, I go when my roommate’s in a generous mood and there’s something his son wants to see (or his dad feels compelled to drag him to).  They’re rarities, as any embattled exec will admit.  Generationally, particularly since the pandemic, the idea of convincing target demos to physically go to a movie theatre and dropping all that money has often been a Sisyphusian task.  And when some of the more compelling storytelling efforts are being produced in large part by streaming services with short theatrical windows done as much to appease the rules for qualifying for Oscars as well as serve as a barker, at these prices, I’ll take the opportunity to save money and time when offered.  I may be a traditionalist, but I’m not a fool with limitless funds and times like I once was.

So yes, I saw MAESTRO over the holidays, but from the reclining chair in our living room.  And frankly, I’m glad.  My opinion is right up there with the one offered up by Satish Singh of NEWZ, who succinctly summed it up thusly: On the complete, MAESTRO has a few shortcomings but is worth expecting Bradley Cooper’s award-worthy efficiency.   And yes, that’s the first review that comes up when you google them.  Not exactly reminiscent of Siskel nor Ebert.  

When I do go to theatres, I tend to be more in the mood to offer my own detailed thoughts.  This summer, an awful lot of people followed our lead.  This was, of course, the summer of BARBENHEIMER and yes, I saw both on a big screen.  In the case of OPPENHEIMER, it was in IMAX and it also allowed me to offer my thoughts on BARBIE and why, as someone who is about as out of the demo and as far from the mindset of Ken as anyone, I still considered it a worthwhile experience.  For me, it’s gonna take something as original and as eye-opping as these efforts to drag me back into a theatre, and it will likely only be for a title not be available on a streaming service within mere days of its release in the theatres.  These films proved that for the right title and with proper research going to the movies like Siskel and Ebert once encouraged us to do is still worth the effort and, on occasion, even the mac and cheese is a justifiable indulgence.

So when I do get to go in person, I’m inspired enough to share my thoughts, as I did this past August.  Here’s hoping there will be a few more opportunties worthy of investing what little disposable income I may have in the coming year:

Finally saw OPPENHEIMER this weekend (sincere thanks for the birthday present, roomie) and now can finally say I’ve completed the BARBENHEIMER double play.  But given what has transpired in today’s world since the film’s release last month, particularly what went down in Georgia last night, I am seeing this film in an even more relevant and, frankly, fear-inducing light than if I had seen it like so many others did as a part of a double feature.

An esteemed, experienced social media friend of mine, a former TV network president, had his own double play experience recently and posted something to the effect of “I saw two excellent, original movies today.  One was the story of narcissistic behavior from dislikable people who contribute to the stunting of child development and self-confidence.  The other was the study of inspiring figures from history who saved the world.  I was surprised to realize which was which.”

That’s pretty much where I stand.  I am very much in the camp that the performances and storytelling techniques I saw in Christopher Nolan’s work, and, yes, it’s definitely worth the price of an IMAX ticket not only for the explosion but for the landscape and majesty of New Mexico nights, will win lots of Oscars, whenever and if those ceremonies are actually held.  But one scene really stood out in my mind as particularly compelling.

In a scene brilliantly acted by Cillian Murphy as the title character and Gary Oldman as the recently installed Democratic president Harry Truman, and as described as it actually happened by the WASHINGTON POST’s Timothy Bella, the concept of moral conscience and literal fallout is told, with surprising results to those who may not have already known about it:

The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima had pulverized life and changed the world, and J. Robert Oppenheimer celebrated by clasping his hands like a prize fighter, soaking in the roaring applause from the crowd in Los Alamos, N.M. It was a thrilling time for Oppenheimer, who told the crowd in August 1945 in the place where the bombs were designed and built about his only regret: not that thousands of people had been killed, but that “we hadn’t developed the bomb in time to use it against the Germans” earlier in World War II.

But Oppenheimer’s feeling of triumph evaporated in the months after the destruction of Nagasaki, caused by another atomic bomb three days after Hiroshima, which the scientist believed was unnecessary and unjustified. His revulsion was so evident on his face that President Harry S. Truman asked him what was the matter when they met at the White House for the first time in October 1945.

“Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands,” Oppenheimer told Truman, according to “American Prometheus,” the 2005 Oppenheimer biography from authors Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.

While Truman assured Oppenheimer that he should not carry the burden of the bombs — “I told him the blood was on my hands, to let me worry about that” — the president was privately infuriated by what he described to aides as a “crybaby scientist” and the regret he had over the decimation, according to author Ray Monk’s 2012 biography, “Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center.”

Blood on his hands, dammit, he hasn’t half as much blood on his hands as I have,” Truman said afterward. “You just don’t go around bellyaching about it.”

Truman later told Dean Acheson, his secretary of state: “I don’t want to see that son of a bitch in this office ever again.”

The film spends more time chronicling Oppenheimer’s education, both political and scientfic, in a pre-World War II world where both his wife and brother were members of the Communist Party, associations that ultimately resulted in his persecution and the eventual revocation of his security clearances by a committee empowered by the beliefs of notorious Republican senator Joseph McCarthy.  And as Sandeep Sandhu of WE GOT THIS COVERED chronicled, indeed, it was right-wing reactionary behavior that eventually cost Oppenheimer a significant portion of his potential later life earnings:

One of the claims was that Oppenheimer was a member of a secret unit of the Communist Party masquerading as a university discussion group. This claim was initially made by the physicist’s former colleague, the translator and writer Haakon Chevalier, although remains debated.

The FBI also claimed that Oppenheimer’s many associations with communists meant that he was certainly a member of the party. His wife and brother were members, as were many of his university colleagues throughout the ’20s and ’30s. There was lots of real evidence that Oppenheimer had close relationships with various committed socialists and communists, although no smoking gun could ever be found that confirmed he’d ever been a member. 

As a result of this, the FBI did their classic FBI thing and illegally invaded Oppenheimer’s privacy by wiretapping his phone. All of this culminated in Oppenheimer losing his security clearance in December 1953, pending security hearings which were to be held in the Spring of 1954, where the matter of Oppenheimer’s allegiances would be debated, and a decision made about whether or not he should be given his clearance back.

Various others were also questioned about Oppenheimer’s past and beliefs, with many in the scientific community standing up for his reputation, while other government agents gave evidence against him. In the end, his clearance was revoked by a 2-1 vote. As a result, he was forced to cut back his academic commitments, and his great mind was reduced to giving the occasional lecture.

So while Oppenheimer was indeed hurt by Republican reactionairies of the era, he found little support from Democrats.  And his inner conflict was deep; as a Jew, he was petrified by the possibility that Nazis might discover the secrets he and his team was unlocking.  A fear I share at times when I see the kind of vitriol and hatred being stoked by those who were acting in tandem so much in 2020 as to justify the RICO charges brought against 19 of them, ranging from a once and frighteningly possible future leader of the free world to a few lackeys in Coffee County, Georgia, total population 43,092 as of the 2020 census.  Only significant in the sense that that number exceeds 11,780.

But as I heard Fani Wallis read the charges being brought against them, with the level of intensity and the fire in her eyes in sheer defianxe of every angry Truth eminating from the bloated fingers of said once and future free world leader, I couldn’t help but notice–she, in her own way, is as determined and as motivated to catch her perceived prey as was Joseph McCarthy.

I’m old enough where, even decades removed from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I would be directed to the basement of my public school at least once a week, where we’d spend time in an area marked by a symbol I later learned meant “fallout shelter”.  I remember being directed from time to time to squat under our desks; I know I hit my fat little head on them a few times.  Nolan didn’t have to show the actual images of those incinerated by the bombings, as numerous survivors and Japanese filmmakers have castigated him for avoiding.  Anyone who lived through that experience, or can empathize a wee bit, should get the message.

So when I think about how inflammatory and motivated someone like Wallis appears to the likes of Fat Orange Jesus and his minions, and I think about how they willingly stormed the capital on January 6th, I wonder where and who they’ll target next.  Certainly, Atlanta should be on alert.  And, for that matter, any city that they might believe would support this effort.

Quite a number of those I follow on social media are literally cheering openly for this fourth indictment to be THE one to bring down this house of cards, because in their mind Democrats absolutely need to be the saviors.  And when it comes to the two likely candidates, it gets far more personal.  And I’m castiagted for even daring to think this:

We have two men, both over 75, both of whom have stunted adult sons who have demonstrated their utter inability to do anything rational, who have been photographed in lewd compromising positions with hot woemn, who are far too busy with personal motivations to spend much time solving real world problems.

Any wonder why I’m scared?  Would literally prefer any other option with a grain of sanity to those two?

I kind of feel like I suspect J. Robert Oppenheimer did after his personal encounters with federally elected officials.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so concerned.  Maybe I shouldn’t give air to anything other than what so many appear to believe is the ONLY rational way to believe.

Maybe I shouldn’t have loved BARBIE as much as I did.

Because I know that I left that movie feeling a lot less scared than I did after I saw OPPENHEIMER.

All that said, you too need to experience both.

Just like you need to know about both right and left wings.

Yes, hawks have two wings.  But so do doves.

Coo.

Until next time…

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