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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

LINCOLN: Making History

This article was originally published on on Tuesday, November 20, 2012:

Daniel Day-Lewis as President Lincoln in a movie still from "Lincoln"

The period epic Lincoln may be the least Spielbergian movie that director Steven Spielberg has ever made. Not only is it shot in a remarkably straight-forward way for such a visual stylist, but it is also an unhurried, contemplative, and actually quite subtle film for a director whose recent ventures were War Horse and The Adventures of TinTin. Therefore: never say never. Lincoln is proof that Spielberg can be a great storyteller when he has a great script.

He has that here, thanks to perhaps America's most intellectual and politically passionate playwright, Tony Kushner (Angels in America). The dialogue is a thing of beauty -- both literate and folksy, touching on grand ideas as well as the frailty of ordinary humans -- and it often feels like the thoughtful, opinionated discussions by the Founders in HBO's John Adams. Like that award-sweeping miniseries, which was based on a 650-page biography, Lincolnaccomplishes an impressive feat -- it adapts a door-stopper, in this case Doris Kearns Goodwin's 750-page history Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, and winnows out the important and meaningful information. It feels rich and alive but not rambling (the graveyard of lo, so many bio-pics), because it focuses with determined precision on a 4-month period around the end of the Civil War when Lincoln was most actively and most urgently pursuing an amendment to outlaw slavery. At the same time, however, Kushner and Spielberg leaven all the epic stuff about changing America forever with just the right number of small details: Abe's animosity toward wearing leather gloves; how much he spoils his youngest son; the unhappiness of his marriage; and the look in his eye when his aides want decisions and instead he digs in his heels and tells a drawling anecdote.

Though the characterization of the eponymous character, as written by Kushner and performed by Daniel Day-Lewis, is mesmerizing, Lincoln is not just a biography of a president but also a biography of radical change -- a process story about the passage of the 13th Amendment, with some similarities to earlier types of process stories, like Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing, though more monumental. It turns out that the steps on the road to the abolition of slavery were anything but noble: there are nowhere near enough votes to pass the amendment, and the imminent end of the Civil War hangs over Lincoln's head, making him fear that those he has freed will be ordered back into servitude if his Emancipation Proclamation has no peacetime equivalent. A point is reached when the only way to secure the needed support for a firm end to slavery is to bribe, threaten, cheat, and deceive. Or in the words of a Lincoln ally near the close of the film: the 13th Amendment was "passed by corruption aided and abetted by the purest man in America." (Lincoln was never quite a saint, though, as this article shows.)

The sausage-making of politics is not supposed to be palatable to watch, but in this case, the hijinks are quite delightful. Like the Godfather, or Nixon, honest Abe has to take a back seat so his name cannot be linked to anything unsavory. This leaves lots of the most dynamic work up to supporting players -- who are bursting with vim and vigor, and deliciously well-cast: James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson play three low-lifes hired to extort co-operation from members of Congress; Peter McRobbie and Lee Pace are vociferous Democratic congressmen staunchly opposed to abolition; Tommy Lee Jones is the radical, hotheaded abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens; Michael Stuhlbarg is a timid politician pressured into doing the right thing; and David Strathairn is the reserved, pragmatic Secretary of State, William Seward, who finds Lincoln's plans ill-advised and yet helps make them happen. (His characterization has met with the approval of the director of the historic Seward House, though two significant moments from Seward's relationship with Lincoln were left out of the film.)

President Lincoln is in almost every scene, and with Day-Lewis in the role he quietly dominates each one. But there is also an enveloping tapestry of Republicans, Democrats, abolitionists, soldiers and advisors, all of them struggling through a uniquely turbulent time. Neurotic Mrs. Lincoln (Sally Field) is there, adoring yet resenting her husband -- she seems to wish she had married a more ordinary man. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Lincoln's defiant son, ill-suited for following in his dad's intellectual footsteps. Jared Harris is the Union's dignified General, Ulysses Grant; Hal Holbrook (who has himself played Lincoln on TV) is Francis Blair, a southern Republican with contacts on the Confederate side (he will later turn Democrat); and Jackie Earle Haley is a beady-eyed emissary from the South, registering all the humiliation and anger of his people when he realizes slavery -- the region's economic staple -- is history. 

Daniel Day-Lewis as President Lincoln in a movie still from "Lincoln" 

Though there are ignoble actions going on, there's never any doubt in the movie that Lincoln possesses a fundamental morality, that he cares deeply about ending slavery. He is down-to-earth and modest, but we can see the remarkable person underneath: wise, shrewd, humane, and committed. Day-Lewis plays him as an idiosyncratic but consummate leader who listens intently to even the humblest interlocutors, his eyes peering into their souls. He is introduced, in fact, at an army base, meeting with soldiers one-on-one. He is the epitome of gentle courtesy and rapt attention, whether listening to his boisterous pre-pubescent son or to a challenging black soldier who wants to make sure Lincoln understands the issues. Yes, it's a hagiographic depiction, with the crowd-pleasing humor and warmth that fits so comfortably with a holiday season release, but it's also a layered portrait, permitted by the director to flower slowly. Day-Lewis' Lincoln draws people to him simply by thinking, and he manages to radiate energy just sitting and staring at the floor.

And there's a lot of thinking required. The burdens of leadership weigh heavily upon his shoulders. Like Shakespeare's Henry V, he likes to perambulate among the common people because he is faced with an awesome responsibility -- and difficult choices. The long and winding path to abolition hits a pivotal crossroads when ending the Civil War and ending slavery come to be at odds with each other. Lincoln could engage with the South's proffered peace delegation right away, or he could delay so as to have the leverage to pass the amendment. (His public argument having been that the South is fighting to preserve slavery, and that they won't sue for peace unless they see that slavery is no longer an option, he stands to lose the support of those on the fence, those who don't care much whether slavery continues or not.) Lincoln's dilemma becomes even more terrible and personal when his own son enlists -- and Mrs. Lincoln has a meltdown over the prospect of losing a second son in the war.

I had expected Lincoln to glorify militarism more, especially considering Spielberg's recent forayinto the First World War. I think he's consciously trying not to do that: the movie's very first imagery is the silent ugliness of the Civil War, as soldiers from both the North and the South, the Northern regiment being black, wrestle bitterly in a muddy drizzle. But it's not actually a war movie: most of the film seems to take place in wood-paneled drawing rooms and offices, in a dim gloom broken up by cold natural light. The war is referred to frequently but barely glimpsed; it is a merely abstract, background concept. I'm sure Kushner could have conveyed the horrors of the Civil War if that had been the assignment -- besides writing a heart-rending play on Afghanistan, he co-authored the last serious film Spielberg directed, the espionage dramaMunich (an action thriller about a Mossad agent's soul-searching), and he adapted Bertolt Brecht's classic anti-war play Mother Courage in 2006. But that was in fact not the assignment, and at the end of the picture, Lincoln's speech to the troops, about fighting until every last whiplash is avenged, rings in the air.

I realize that not every film that is primarily concerned with social justice takes an unmitigated stance against war. James Cameron's Avatar was vividly against empire, wars of aggression, and brutal subjugation, but it was also solidly in favor of those under attack fighting back. Robert Bolt was arrested protesting nuclear proliferation when he was supposed to be writingLawrence of Arabia -- yet that film ended up celebrating in spectacular scenes the battlefield wins of underdogs.

However, Bolt's screenplay also criticized T.E. Lawrence's power rush and bloodthirstiness. This brings to mind what might have been achieved with a little more ambiguity in Lincoln -- even if only to acknowledge the difference between who Abe became as commander-in-chief during the most lethal conflict American troops have endured, and who he once was as the Congressman from Illinois: the quixotic sponsor of the "Spot Resolutions" in 1847, fiercely challenging expansionist President Polk's efforts to launch the Mexican Wars after the U.S. was allegedly attacked on a "spot' of U.S. soil near the Rio Grande. 

But considering that this is a Spielberg entertainment, if it's not exactly a college-level Ethics seminar we shouldn't actually be surprised. Spielberg does seem much more comfortable with complexity and restraint than he used to be. True, he can't resist beginning and ending the movie on a sentimental note: the movie proper begins after a black soldier marches away from the President, doing him the honor of reciting the closing words of the Gettysburg Address over his shoulder; it ends with a sepia image of Lincoln emerging from a candle flame, addressing a rapt army. But I can live with that. And if you're going to be sentimental about anybody,Lincoln makes a convincing case that the 16th president should be the guy.

Does Lincoln short-change its black characters? Yes, of course -- this is Hollywood. (Though Spielberg has made two previous films on civil rights issues without quite the same oversight:The Color Purple and Amistad.) Apart from a few very minor roles -- soldiers in the Union Army, Thaddeus Stevens' lover, and a male and female servant in the Lincolns' employ -- there are no black roles. The best role for an African-American character is given to David Oyelowo, who has one scene as a proud corporal petitioning Lincoln for the redress of grievances. The second-best is given to Gloria Reuben, who as Mrs. Lincoln's maid Elizabeth gets a moving scene with the president -- the two of them try to envision a post-slavery society, and to be real with each other for the first time.

That's pretty slim pickings, however. There were of course black abolitionists, it wasn't all just achieved by benevolent white men. Though the strategy discussions Kushner has written are fascinating, and the feeling that these characters are poised on the cusp of revolutionary change is intoxicating, a film with such a progressive agenda should have tried harder to show courageous black opinion-makers too. The film is ultimately supposed to be about the equality and freedom of all African-Americans. So it would be nice if they had a chance to get a word or two in edgewise. And after all, the script for Spielberg's Schindler's List did not give all the major speaking roles to Aryans.

And considering the gigantic cast list this movie has, would it have been so hard to use a few of those names to document the role of women in this period? Many women worked very hard, for decades, in the abolition movement, including very famous national figures who also campaigned for universal suffrage. You wouldn't know it from this film, however; the only female characters are domestic servants and Lincoln's emotional wife -- who only yearns from the gallery for the 13th Amendment to pass so her son will return from the war.

However, the film matters on a broader and more immediate level. Spielberg could not have predicted, in 2001 when he first bought the rights to Goodwin's book, the timeliness of the film in terms of both the fight for racial equality in America and the re-election of a president from Illinois. Nor could he have predicted how the level of virulent opposition against Lincoln could echo some of the sentiments, of a similar economic class and geographic region, against a president in 2012: including an online campaign to secede from the Union. He may have begun to get an inkling as the presidential election neared, though, and that may be why he categorically refused to release his movie before November 6th, lest it end up being used as "a political soccer ball."

It seems he was protecting the film, not the election -- although Spielberg is a very large Democratic donor and probably doesn't much like it when the conservative noise machine embraces Lincoln's record at the same time as they eschew his causes. But it is a civil rights movie that comes at a time when the country is again divided over race, and conservatives know it, because they have already started complaining that the movie is on Obama's side, without anything in the film making any such reference. (The griping helps prove that the right-wing blowhards really do recognize in their hearts that their opposition to Obama is racially-based.)

Yet there's more. Lincoln shows how sometimes an amendment to the Constitution is urgently, deeply, inescapably necessary, and it dramatizes part of what goes into getting one passed. (How many movies have actually done that?) A movie about this process is amazingly relevant because a strong and burgeoning movement has blossomed in the U.S. over the last two years, demanding a 28th amendment to get big money out of elections and to preserve the rights of the Constitution for people, not corporations. Several versions of such an amendment have been proposed, not just by grassroots organizations like the Move to Amend coalition, but also by numerous reps on Capitol Hill and in increasing numbers of state and local ballot initiatives and resolutions. The wake-up call was the Citizens United case; it has spawned a flurry of activity around the country to use the amendment process to gain viable campaign finance reform, and even the President has expressed support for an amendment to undo this Court decision.

But in fact, as activists have been pointing out at teach-ins and lectures, the Supreme Court began giving our rights away to corporations over a century and a quarter ago: not just the 1stAmendment right to free speech (which is the best-known of corporate usurpations), but also the rights inherent in the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 14th Amendments.

Ironically, the window through which corporations first crawled was the 14th Amendment, part of the trio of "Reconstruction Amendments' launched by Lincoln to liberate slaves and accord them their democratic rights. Instead, the 14th Amendment was hijacked by railroad companies to swell their own power, and we can see the fruition of that today in the corporate state. So it is very fitting that Spielberg's movie appear at this moment in time. It has the potential to galvanize activists -- far beyond anything Spielberg was even conscious of, I'm sure.

In short, Lincoln is on the side of the angels. When the scene we've long been waiting for finally occurs on Capitol Hill, the congressmen cast their votes on the 13th Amendment in the true spirit of a Frank Capra film: each minor politician gets his moment in the sun, grown men cry, and the forces of hatred are defeated. Of course, there's also the business of the assassination to take care of, but Kushner and Spielberg deal with that in such a way it almost seems to round off Lincoln's accomplishments, as if his task list had read: free the slaves, win the war, and achieve martyrdom.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Iran, Politics and Film: "Argo" or "A Separation"?

Still of Ben Affleck and the Ayatollah from "Argo"

Originally published on OpEdNews on October 13, 2012.

On the spectrum of recent U.S. films about intense life-and-death conflicts between Persians and "our guys', the most propagandistic, militaristic, and reactionary position is occupied by the reprehensible live-action cartoon 300. You could call this the "Kill Them All" position. On the opposite end of that spectrum, the most humanistic, egalitarian, and psychologically insightful position is occupied by the exquisite drama The House of Sand and Fog -- a chamber piece that shows how misunderstandings can spiral tragically out of control. You might call this the "Human Decency" position.

Somewhere in the middle of those two extremes lies the new movie Argo, directed by Ben Affleck for Smokehouse Pictures, the production company owned by George Clooney and Grant Heslov. Argo is about the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, and how the CIA came up with an unlikely rescue plan for six of the Americans hiding outside of the embassy: they would pretend to make a sci-fi movie. The premise has enormous potential, and it's easy to see why it would be attractive to Hollywood. Unfortunately, the finished product is nowhere near the "Human Decency" end of the spectrum. I think its liberal makers would be surprised and actually ashamed if they realized how much more it leans towards 300.

There is no doubt that Argo is a very ambitious film. It wants to be life-and-death serious, funny, and exciting all at once, and to join historical accuracy with breathless pacing, jokey put-downs of Hollywood, and an absurdist scheme at the story's core. As Affleck confided in an interview, it is also ambitious in its delicate tonal balance. It aims to be a taut suspense thriller that also provides some history of the strained relations between the U.S. and Iran, and it tries to re-create the 1970's vibe without being too cheesy or campy. All the while, of course, it is designed to be commercial, with a budget of $44 million -- the L.A. Times alleges that this makes it "one of the season's more daring gambles, the kind of movie most studios stopped making in the last decade." 

At the same time, it seems to want to leave us with the takeaway that even in a nightmarish scenario, bitter differences can be resolved without bombing anyone. (At the premiere, the audience applauded President Carter's voiceover explaining that in the end we got all the hostages out, and we did it peacefully). The movie does show that deciding against a bloodbath can take courage and foresight. And perhaps this is what Affleck, Clooney, and Heslov believe made the movie the right thing to do right now -- even at the risk of stoking the fires of warmongers here at home in 2012, by raising the spectre of Americans imperiled by Iran.
Well, it achieves all those goals in spades, and I applaud its ambitions and its aplomb. But I wish it was considerably more ambitious.

Argo catapults between, as Affleck put it to theL.A. Times, "three different themes and three different worlds: the CIA, Hollywood, and the Iran tensions." Affleck's quote is informative: the third theme or world that he organized the film around was "Iran tensions', not Iran itself. Not even the Iranian revolution. The subject is the threat to Americans. Argo is about the plight of 6 Americans hiding out in Tehran after the embassy is seized, and it cuts away only to strategic debates at CIA headquarters as agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) struggles against bureaucratic inertia, or to comic relief scenes in Hollywood between John Goodman and Alan Arkin. No matter where our wheels touch down, it's Americans who matter. This is a movie that views Iran in the 1970s from the living-room where the 6 are hiding -- and the blinds are closed.

The cover story being used to try to smuggle the 6 hideaways out of Tehran is that they are location-scouting for a movie, so the day before they are to escape, they go out in public to make their aliases more believable. Do we, on the pretend location scout, finally see some of Tehran's cultural landmarks? Do we get a sense of an ancient civilization and a sophisticated culture? Do we have any panoramas of people going about their business in the complexity of a metropolitan city? No, because the Americans' expedition is just as claustrophobic as the scenes in their lair -- Affleck crowds them into a van, squeezes the van in a vice as they are swarmed by furious protesters, and then jostles them around in a packed bazaar that turns hostile. Of course, he's doing this deliberately for the tension it creates in them and in us. But throughout the film, the Iran we see in the news clips and the Iran we see dramatized are all on the same superficial level: incomprehensible, out-of-control hordes with nary an individual or rational thought expressed.

After a brief (albeit important) animated storyboard introduction that contextualizes the events of 1979 with some history, it is the storming of the American embassy which begins both the film proper and our exposure to the Iranian revolution. You wouldn't know from this film that, despite years of persecution during Iran's westernized government, the communist Tudeh Party was also out organizing workers' strikes during the turmoil of the Shah Pahlavi's overthrow. The movie does stress that the U.S. helped overthrow the democratically-elected prime minister Mohammad Mossaddeq in 1953 because he dared to nationalize Iran's oil, and then backed the Shah and his use of the notorious SAVAK secret police to kidnap and torture the Shah's opponents. These are obviously excellent points to make. But Argo glosses over the diversity of opinion in Iran and the intellectual ferment before the theocratic lockdown, making the culture look exactly the way an insular American public has come to believe all Islamic countries look. The film offers only scant insight into how  the Islamists came to win over a country that had previously been quite secular and sophisticated.

Very, very few Iranian characters are individualized in Argo, and most of the time when we see Iranians on-screen, their words are not translated for us. Take Farshad Farahat's character. He is an officer in the Revolutionary Guards, one of the final terrifying obstacles the escaping protagonists must face at the airport. Farahat tries not to play stupid or cartoonish like so many ethnic villains in Hollywood movies, but most of the little he has been given to say is un-translated, so Farahat has to do almost all of the work with his eyes. The movie apparently never intended much more for him: his character's name is merely "Azzizi Checkpoint #3".

Another Persian, Reza (Omid Abtahi), makes an appearance in the marketplace in Tehran. His defining characteristic is whether the Americans can trust him. When he is friendly, his words are translated. When an altercation breaks out, there are no subtitles.

And even the point of the jokey snippet of dialogue that is translated seems to be to mock his idea of a Hollywood movie even more than Argo sends up the fake sci-fi B-movie. This dialogue emphasizes his cultural Other-ness, making him sound as sexist and out-of-touch as a Sacha Baron Cohen creation.

Nowhere, in a caper that exists in part to celebrate movie magic, is it mentioned that Iran has its own cinematic tradition -- though if the Argo creative team had ever seen the award-winning 1992 tribute film Once Upon a Time, Cinema they would have seen clips from old Iranian movies dating all the way back to the silent era. By the time Argo is set, a number of Iranian film festivals had been in existence several years, including the Tehran International Film Festival 'to promote the art of Cinema that expresses humanitarian values and promotes understanding and exchange of ideas between nations'. And there were already several film and television schools in Iran, including a decade-old government-financed School of Television and Cinema which students attended for free. 480 feature films were made in Iran between 1966 and 1973; filmmakers, like other Iranian artists and intellectuals, had plenty to call attention to under the Shah's oppressive regime. In fact, the Iranian New Wave, which launched in 1969, should have been known to Argo 's Foreign Service professionals who had spent their leisure time in Tehran; with filmmakers as respected as Dariush Mehrjui and Abbas Kiarostami already active. By the late seventies, movies were already the key form of mass entertainment in the country. Yet Affleck has the Revolutionary Guards gawking and giggling over the storyboards and poster for the fake Hollywood movie like awe-struck children.

Still of Sheila Vand and Ali Saam in "Argo"

The most important Iranian character in the film is the young and beautiful Sahar (Sheila Vand), the housekeeper to the Canadian ambassador and his wife who secretly harbor the 6 American refugees. But calling her the most important Iranian character is not saying much -- and neither is Sahar. Over a handful of scenes she may have a grand total of 3 lines. In this case they are translated, because they are relevant to the plot. Her character, however, is defined by her attitude toward the Americans. She also may be the only kind of Iranian the movie is interested in individuating because she is separated from her society, ensconced in a Western household.

Sahar also reflects a class differential that accompanies the chasm between nations in Argo. Apart from a smooth-talking, sinister heavy Ali Khalkali (Ali Saam) who presides over a cultural portfolio in the new government, we see only guards, soldiers, merchants, a guide, a domestic worker, and unspecified mobs in the street. By contrast, the American characters are either professionals or have highly skilled jobs: CIA agents, State Dept. officials, members of the Foreign Service, and Hollywood above-the-line talent or artisans. Thus the overall picture of Argo 's Iranian characters as second-class is exemplified even through their occupations. Note that this is very much at odds with the value system Iranian-Americans often express, cherishing educational accomplishments and taking great pride in professional status.

In a somewhat similar vein, Argo does not make it clear that the storming of the embassy was carried out by militant students -- and only a few years after a wave of occupations in the U.S., albeit usually considerably more non-violent, by students and militants. We absorb only an impression of an amorphous, frenzied mob. By contrast, U.S. news media corporations covering the 2011 Green Revolution in Iran made sure we knew about the youth component in that movement -- because they wanted to help American viewers identify with the protesters, and to make them seem rational.

Yet one would think that discussions in Argo among the students suddenly in direct control over so many people's lives would have held some dramatic potential. The Tehran students' views on the internal conditions within the U.S. -- the fact that they released some hostages early who were female or people of color because, they claimed, these people were oppressed by the American system -- would certainly have suggested that Iran contained thinking beings. But we never go behind-the-scenes at this revolution. (Instead, Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio's tempering historical introduction is soon outweighed by the visceral power of mobs storming walls, chador-clad women toting rifles, and banshees screaming into news cameras.) To allow a little insight wouldn't mean Argo would be condoning the revolution or hostage-taking. After all, in A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens empathized with the suffering that led to the French revolution, but he still made its horror manifest. And he did it all in the service of a breathtakingly exciting escape story, not unlike Argo.

"Argo" still of 6 Americans escaping the U.S. Embassy

But there's also the fact that Argo suggests and circles around the idea that the whole crisis was blowback against CIA covert ops. It might have been appropriate for somebody on the American side to feel conflicted about what they had wrought. Affleck portrays a real CIA agent, lead character Tony Mendez, who gets people out of tough places; he is even said to have helped get some of "the Shah's people" out. But he is an uncompromised hero -- his struggle is less about ethical questions than about strategy, and (as the Republicans like to say) "resolve.' Ironically, Affleck had more of an internal dilemma in the last movie he directed, the bank heist caper The Town. And in the one before that, Gone Baby Gone, Ben's brother Casey faced very troubling moral choices. Yet those Boston thrillers were about garden-variety criminals and detectives, and their moral quandaries involved only a couple of people. Why do the decades of Cold War schemes of the CIA, carried out on a mass scale beyond democratic oversight and frequently subverting democracy abroad, occasion so much less gravitas?

Now, these liberal filmmakers might object that an introspective CIA tragedy has already been made (The Good Shepherd, starring Affleck's friend Matt Damon), and so has a bumbling CIA farce (Burn After Reading, featuring Clooney). They could well ask "what do you want from us?", and point out that Argo actually calls the CIA the biggest terrorist organization in the world. Yes, but that designation is made, and only in passing, by America's official enemy, and as Noam Chomsky would explain, that's how the media prevents accusations from hitting home.

Clooney, Heslov, and Affleck might point out that the movie does stipulate why Iranians were angry at the U.S. Yes but, again, as media critics would attest, if you bury a story deep inside the newspaper, readers will assume it is of little importance: the well-intentioned seeds thatArgo plants to explain "why they hated us" in 1979 are stomped on by the boots of the maniacal hordes. (Affleck also shows archival footage of Americans throwing tantrums in the streets and calling for Iranian blood, but they're not directly terrorizing anybody at the time; the Iranians are.)

The problem is that viewers who don't already know their Chomsky or William Blum aren't going to walk out of the film muttering "gee, it's more complicated than I thought." Instead, they'll leave with their fears and prejudices reaffirmed: that Middle Easterners create terror, that Americans must be the world's policemen, and that Iranians cannot be trusted because they hate America.

It could be argued that Argo is not meant to be a leftist political tract or a dour history lecture but a fun spy thriller, which is how it got financed in the first place. I realize that many of my concerns are about elements that actually work resoundingly well in purely cinematic terms -- and maybe Affleck was so focused on pacing, tension, drama, and excitement, all of which are his job, after all, that the other psychological effects he was creating didn't even occur to him. I admit I have no idea if the changes I'd like would have made it a better movie; perhaps my way would have been the boring way. It is certainly extremely entertaining as it is: crisply and intelligently directed, perfectly-cast as Affleck's films always are, witty, moving, absorbing, and nail-bitingly intense. If politics and humanitarian concerns didn't matter, it could be called a terrific movie.

Farshad Farahat, the Iranian-American actor who plays "Azzizi Checkpoint #3", probably appreciates that the makers of Argo were not consciously on the war path like the author of300, Frank Miller was. (Slate critic Dana Stevens wrote that if 300 "had been made in Germany in the mid-1930s, it would be studied today alongside The Eternal Jew as a textbook example of how race-baiting fantasy and nationalist myth can serve as an incitement to total war." Some fans might not want to think 300 has this agenda, but Miller made the conclusion unavoidable when he told NPR: "It seems to me quite obvious that our country and the entire Western World is up against an existential foe that knows exactly what it wants... For some reason, nobody seems to be talking about who we're up against, and the sixth century barbarism that they actually represent.") 

Long before his experience in Argo, Farahat wrote a guest essay for the L.A. Times about 300.It shows a glimpse of what it must be like to come from a culture that is so relentlessly demonized, and I suspect that part of what comes with that experience is appreciating differences in degree in how deeply a cultural artifact dips into the swamp of prejudice.


The triumvirate behind Argo have a track record that shows their concerns for social justice. As an activist, Clooney has worked for years against the genocide in Darfur. He also produced and starred in the searing ensemble drama about the politics of oil in the Middle East, Syriana, and helped get the anti-war actioner Three Kings made. Heslov co-wrote the script for the film Clooney directed about the media and Cold War paranoia, Good Night, and Good Luck, and he directed a Clooney-starrer that gleefully subverted the military-industrial-intelligence complex,The Men Who Stare at GoatsMeanwhile, Affleck and his buddy Damon tried for years to get their old pal Howard Zinn's groundbreaking tome A People's History of the United States made into a miniseries. (A concert performance special of Zinn's work did air on History Channel before he passed away.)  

We are certainly fortunate that the inviting premise of Argo did not end up in the hands of more jingoistic and warmongering directors or producers, like William Friedkin (Rules of Engagement) or Jerry Bruckheimer (Black Hawk Down). As I said, on the continuum of messaging in Hollywood movies on this general subject, Argo falls in the middle.

But despite their credentials and beliefs, Affleck, Clooney and Heslov have certainly not brought Argo anywhere close to The House of Sand and Fog. Trita Parsi, reviewing the latter film for the National Iranian American Council, deemed it "one of Hollywood's first refined and sophisticated portrayals of Iranians and Iranian Americans... a step in the right direction for Hollywood; away from its simplistic, Manichean perspective and towards a polished outlook with a focus on the essence of the individual". Argo almost completely ignores individual Iranians; its portrait of an entire culture is neither refined nor sophisticated; and it does reinforce a simplistic, Manichean perspective.

That may not have been the filmmakers' intentions at all -- and as I've mentioned, they did have a lot on their plate, since Argo is a very ambitious film, with plenty of inherent difficulties just trying to get the normal filmmaking aspects right. But politics and humanitarian concerns do matter. Does the American public really need another movie that tells us to be afraid of Middle Easterners? Does a movie that makes the action sequences flashy and exciting but obscures the hard work of diplomacy (which ultimately got far more hostages out than this "caper' did) benefit our national psyche? Is it healthy for us to hold up images of Cold War CIA agents as selfless do-gooders? And when Iran is constantly lied about by politicians and media pundits, and there's a very real possibility that Israel or the U.S. could attack Iran militarily, is this movie going to help or is it going to harm?

I'm not sure of the world views of Chris Terrio, who is making his feature film writing debut here. But in his script, Affleck's character points out to a roomful of CIA agents that in winter there is snow in Iran -- thus shaming them for their ignorance of basic facts about the country. (Ignorance some of our media still have to this day.) Albert Einstein said that "Those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act." I think this filmmaking team does know. Why should their smart and entertaining film have more of a conscience than others in Hollywood have? Because they are an extremely intelligent, perceptive, and talented bunch, and for those to whom much is given, of them much is required.

A Separation

Anyone who sees Argo should make sure they wash it down with an antidote: an Iranian film which came out on DVD this fall and which counteracts all the negative influences of Argo.To say that Asghar Farhadi's film A Separationis highly acclaimed is an understatement. The movie won the the 2011 Berlin Film Festival Golden Bear International Jury prize; the Oscar, Golden Globe, Independent Spirit, Critics Choice, National Board of Review, National Society of Film Critics (NSFC), Online Film Critics Society, Chicago Film Critics, London Critics Circle (ALFS), and France's Cesar awards for Best Foreign Language Film. Its direction was lauded at the Fajr Film Festival in Iran, the International Film Festival of India, the Asian Film Awards, and the Chlotrudis Society for Independent Film; its screenplay garnered an Oscar nomination and took home trophies from the NSFC, ALFS, L.A. Film Critics, the Durban Film Festival and the Fajr; and its cast received prizes from Fajr, Berlin, and London. And so forth.

Still of Leila Hatami and Peyman Moadi in "A Separation"

Like Affleck's film, A Separation has conflicts between people spiraling out of control. But Argowraps things up in a bow, since the Americans all got home to read bedtime stories to their kids -- we're not to consider that the next eight years turned into a devastating war between Iraq and Iran, covertly fueled by the U.S. (in violation of U.N. Security Resolution 522). There is no closure in A Separation, however; no right solution.

Farhadi's screenplay shows how separations develop between people -- and while Argo justaccepts them, A Separation laments them. The title refers to the first, and central separation, the physical one between Nader and Simin, a husband and wife (beautifully played by Peyman Moadi and Leila Hatami). If the film had focused only on that it still would have had a Kramer vs. Kramer -like pathos, since it is clear that 11-year old Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director's daughter) loves both of her parents, even when she is mad at her mother. But it also deals with the separation between the genders, one that is exacerbated by religious doctrines and traditions: Razieh, a housekeeper/caregiver, is hired to watch over Nader's elderly father, and she frets a great deal that it is improper for her to be alone with a man. The film also deals with the separation between the classes, and how lack of money means lack of options, fueling a family's sense of desperation and mistreatment. And there is the rift of distrust that grows between the two couples, the employers and their employee -- suspicions of elder abuse and theft on one side; accusations of physical assault leading to miscarriage on the other. Finally, there are gulfs between the couples based on religious and cultural differences: Simin and Nader follow the laws but they have no enthusiasm for it. Simin is a more liberated kind of Iranian woman, she is studying to be a teacher, she tries to get her daughter out of Iran, she instigates the separation from Nader, and though she has to wear the head-scarf by law, she is one of many Iranian women who dresses to express personal freedom as much as she can. By contrast, Razieh (in a deeply felt performance by Sareh Bayat) wears the plain, long, black chador, is careful to consult religious strictures at every turn, worries a lot, and is deferential to her husband. The lower-income couple even questions the more affluent couple's belief in God, since they are clearly not as pious.

Though both have a suspense thriller feel, the biggest difference between Affleck's film and Farhadi's is that A Separation does not unfold the way we might expect. The plotting is so expertly carried out that it keeps us guessing all the way through -- the mystery expands with emotional and philosophical revelations that continually surprise and move, and we are amazed at how differently we have come to see the characters. Ultimately, instead of uncovering murderers, A Separation uncovers human nature. Though we think we've discovered domestic abuse by one of the husbands, it turns out there are no villains.

Each family is chiefly concerned with the welfare of their daughter -- it's clearly a patriarchal society, but the film has a great deal of empathy towards women and girls. It elevates the tender or feminine side of men, too: Nader is close with Termeh, they race each other up the stairs and work on her homework together. He is also a sweet caregiver to his glassy-eyed father, who is stricken with Alzheimer's. In fact, it is his loyalty to his father, who cannot be moved from their apartment, that makes him unwilling to leave Iran -- and it is that refusal which causes his wife to file for separation. A Separation is a wise and subtle tragedy full of impossible choices.

One of the themes seems to be how easy it is for people to harm each other, even without malevolent intent. The housekeeper's young daughter is left unsupervised with the old man, and she plays with the dial on his oxygen pump (she's too young to realize what she's doing). Like many Iranian films, A Separationstems from a simple story and ordinary situations, yet leads to intense strum und drang. The takeaway of the film, perhaps, is how unnecessary it all is. Even in the midst of the feud, pre-pubescent Termeh naturally starts playing with Razieh's small child out in the yard. The children would be friends if only the two families weren't pressing charges against each other.

Political Vaudeville (or is it Hallowe'en?)

It is election season, and a recent election event shows how important it really is for films to avoid the trends of political misinformation. Though Arkin and Goodman are a great comedic duo in Argo, they've got nothing on the vaudeville act of Berman and Sherman.

Rep. Howard Berman and Rep. Brad Sherman

Because of redistricting and the new "top-two" primary rule in California's elections, Berman and Sherman, currently both Democratic members of Congress, are now competing in the general election to represent the 30th district, a seat currently held by Rep. Brad Sherman -- up until now, Rep. Howard Berman's seat had been in the 28th district. During a debate at Pierce College in the San Fernando Valley on Oct. 11th, the duo spent most of an increasingly heated hour calling each other liars and other epithets. It all came to an explosive climaxwhen they stood almost nose-to-nose and seemed about to wrestle. Sherman aggressively gripped Berman's shoulder and challenged him "You want to get into this?", causing pandemonium to break out in the packed hall and an intervention from the Sheriff.

And yet, despite their bitter animosity and repeated attempts to show how different they were from each other, they were in total lockstep on one thing: Iran.

Both jumped up to swear how dangerous they consider the Iranian regime to be, to warn that it could give a nuclear bomb to terrorists, and to aver how important it is for the U.S. to stop Iran's "nuclear program". Their only dispute on the issue was over which one of them had a more aggressive record in pursuing sanctions against Iran.

It is very sad to see such Orwellian groupthink being ladled out at an institution of higher learning. Most of the crowd loved both Berman and Sherman talking tough about Iran, and seemed blissfully unaware that there's no evidence that Iran is actually working on a nuclear weapon, according to both U.S. intelligence and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The students were apparently also unaware (though one would think Sherman or Berman would have been briefed) that Iran's right to pursue nuclear energy for peaceful purposes isguaranteed by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Nuclear power, though it may be undesirable from an environmental safety standpoint, is supposed to be the reward for signatories to the NPT vowing to abstain from nuclear weapons. Instead, U.S. policy tends to make a mockery of the NPT, since we side with countries who don't sign and actually obtain nuclear weapons -- if they are Israel or India, say. We even help India with its nuclear energy needs, though it's not supposed to enjoy that privilege.

None of this came up in the Sherman/Berman boxing match, even though Berman made a point of excusing his vote in favor of the Iraq War by asserting that, at the time, he believed Iraq had WMDs. Yes, and perhaps the reason you believed that was because politicians lied about Iraq's WMDs. Are we really going to do it all over again? In the immortal words of George W. Bush: Fool me once, shame on ... shame on you. Fool me -- a fool can't get fooled again. A nice sentiment, but he got even that wrong. The WMD accusations against Iran sound an awful lot like Iraq Redux; apparently plenty of people can get fooled again.


Argo, unfortunately, may ultimately not be very much help in this situation. However, if you want to help prevent military action against Iran, try spreading some wisdom by sharing a copy of A Separation with people you know.

Still of Peyman Moadi and Sareh Bayat in "A Separation"

Sunday, September 16, 2012

SORKIN AND THESE WOMEN: “The Newsroom” Special Report #2

This article was originally published on Political Film on Saturday, September 16, 2012:

Maggie and Lisa
by Jennifer Epps
HBO’s workplace dramedy The Newsroom has an ensemble cast, but its first season, which concluded last month, nonetheless revolved around cable-TV anchorman Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels). While sometimes gruff and insensitive, Will is the center of gravity in the show – much as the President was in Aaron Sorkin’s hit show The West Wing – and though Sorkin is conscious of Will’s character flaws, the anchorman’s leadership – both of his staff and the national dialogue — is generally portrayed as bold, wise, and perceptive. Many have noticed that the elevation of Sorkin’s middle-aged, white male hero has come at the expense of the rest of The Newsroom’s ensemble. In fact, several commentators have put it quite bluntly: “In Sorkinworld,” writes a reviewer, “the men are men and the women are sorry.” A critic for Daily Beast claims: “In Sorkinland, men act (nobly!) and women support (comically!)”  Slate accuses Sorkin of having a “woman problem.”  And Huffington Post media critic Maureen Ryanlabelsthe new HBO show “dismissive of anyone who isn’t a white heterosexual male.”Indeed, there are a fair number of examples on The Newsroom to back up these assertions. The young associate producer of the series’ fictitious primetime show, News Night, is smart, conscientious, and an independent thinker. Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) is often the one who rushes in with a key piece of information on a story; the one who puts forth an innovative idea for the newscast. Yet Maggie also happens to be a young woman who cannot leave her personal problems at the door. As laudable as her input is, she spends a lot of time distracted by romantic entanglements (two of which work in the office with her), and her primary color is neurotic. She also lacks credentials – she began as an administrative assistant, and got promoted as a reward for her loyalty, not her work. There have to be more experienced news hounds among the support staff that mills around the large open-plan office; it’s simply a statistical probability, since there are so many of them. But we don’t hear much from them because it’s the older white men – host Will, and news division head Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) — who get to sound like journalistic pros, while the other News Night staffers generally sound like research assistants.
Though Sorkin consciously views the flirtatious, fast-paced dialogue he likes to write as a descendant of classic screwball comedy, he seems to have forgotten that those Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s featured tough, confident, professional women. In fact, that’s what made them work; ‘neurotic’ doesn’t really go with ‘banter.’ Nor were the men put on pedestals and treated as saviors; the scales were often balanced by giving the women more power and the men less. (Hence those films in which the man was impoverished, the woman an heiress; the man a rustic rube, the woman a worldly urban careerist.) It’s not like these films are locked up in a vault — screwballs are readily available for study. Sorkin might even have gotten a refresher course in 2008, when George Clooney resurrected the cool, successful, feminine-but-at-home-in-a-man’s-world leading lady in his overlooked roaring-twenties film Leatherheads (which he directed and claims to have co-written, though the Writers Guild did not give him credit).  Though Sorkin may be better at capturing screwball comedies’ effervescence and rapid-fire wordplay than anyone else, he’s gone off-track with the core character dynamics behind the verbal jousting.
The most knowledgeable and most serious female on the News Night staff is economist Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn). She is fluent in Japanese, hosts her own afternoon show, is given a regular 5-minute segment on News Night, has two Ph.D.’s, and teaches at Columbia University. She also tends to speak in an amusingly affectless tone like Star Trek’s brainiac Mr. Spock. Still, her expertise is as a scholar; as a journalist she fumbles, and is insecure about her abilities as a broadcaster. But all her diplomas are truly for naught when Sloan has a bizarre attack of paranoia in a horrible moment when co-worker Neal Sampat (Dev Patel) asks if he can post sexist comments about her online to catch internet trolls. She doesn’t mind that the comments are crudely sexual or even slanderous: he wants to post that she slept her way to the top, and she doesn’t even seem to have heard him. What she freaks out over is a sudden fear when he suggests he post that she has a large backside; she demands to know if it’s true. She doesn’t call him a sexist, she doesn’t sound offended. She turns it on herself. Even worse, Neal tries to reassure her by telling her that some men like that in a woman — as if she really does have a big rear. Not only is that rude, crude, sexist, and out of place in the office, but for God’s sake, it’s Olivia Munn. She probably hasn’t seen a piece of chocolate since 1990. Note to Sorkin: if you want to instill confidence in your pre-teen daughter, this eating-disorder-in-the-making kind of dialogue is no way to go about it.
Then there’s the fact that Will seems to get last word on each decision concerning News Night. His executive producer, Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer), makes her recommendations, but she either retreats to wait on tenterhooks and see if her former flame follows her guidance, or she tries to control him and fails — she issues instructions into his earpiece rather weakly, even when he’s really screwing up. Mostly, she just hangs out in the control room, listening silently to Will say whatever he wants to on the air. She is ultimately so admiring of McAvoy, she even considers his altered state of consciousness stabler than her own — she lets him go on-air to announce a huge bombshell, Osama bin Laden’s death — though she can hear that pot brownies have affected his speech patterns.
Mackenzie is unprofessional in a variety of ways; she cries in the workplace, has trouble understanding email technology, obsesses over past mistakes with Will, discloses very personal secrets to a woman she’s just hired, and assigns her minions background research on McAvoy in a romance revenge plot. She is supposed to be a successful former war correspondent, but apart from vague tales of getting shot at, there is nothing about her that seems even remotely informed by that past – given her hystrionics, her confession to having cheated on Will, and her inappropriate, borderline sexual-harassment comments. This well-coiffed, leggy fashion plate seems more like the editor of a lifestyle magazine than a war-zone survivor. And her staff seem unimpressed by her: in a moment of professional crisis, financial reporter Sloan pleads “I need wisdom”; Mackenzie responds “I have wisdom.” Without even pausing to listen, Sloan tells Mackenzie that her ‘wisdom’ sometimes ends in – and then she mimes a nuclear explosion. Mackenzie (her boss) doesn’t take offense, but quietly agrees with her. Sloan then immediately turns to the Father Knows Best standing next to Mackenzie – News Night’s host Will – and his face is already serious and focused.
Gossip writer Nina Howard
Obviously Sorkin is not the only writer to weave love stories into dramatic fiction, nor is there anything wrong with creating romantic tension. But he’s not writing Sex and the City, in which the women’s careers were almost completely irrelevant to their real focus: dating. In fact, in the season finale, he overtly contrasts Maggie’s life with Carrie Bradshaw’s in that other HBO show — an odd reference for him, but he did after all recently date Sex and the City’s Kristin Davis. Throughout his oeuvre, he has elevated educational accomplishment and high professional standards as the ultimate signs of worth — and has really given no props at all to housewives who dedicate themselves to a family, grandmothers who volunteer in their community, etc. So, particularly in light of his own framework and his narrow definition of value, when the women on The Newsroom are so easily flummoxed by romantic feelings, and so concerned with how the men in the office see them, he is ipso facto presenting his female characters as second-class.
There were precedents for these kinds of portraits on his previous TV series, NBC’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Sorkin created an intelligent, discriminating, and risk-taking maverick for Studio 60Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet), and placed her in charge of network programming. Yet this key female character spent the whole season alienating the press with needless hostility, being scolded by big-wigs for foolish mistakes, worrying about the security of her job, and begging her staff to befriend her. After repeated bizarre outbursts, Jordan derides herself as “hormonal” (something I don’t recall any of Sorkin’s male characters ever calling themselves) and she laments her behavior as the “stereotype” of a woman in charge. It was not a stereotype I realized anyone believed in, actually, but I guess it’s one that pops up readily for Sorkin.
The show sexualizes Jordan, defining her by biology much more than by her opinions or her work performance. When network chair Jack Rudolph (Steven Weber) wants to warn her to do a good job, he has to bring in her gender: “You saw how fast I fired Wes Mendell? Screw this up and I’ll fire you faster. I’m not like every other heterosexual man in show business, Jordan. I don’t find you charming.” Several episodes are taken up by a scandal that erupts when her ex writes a sordid memoir of sex clubs they frequented together, and other episodes revolve around her being pregnant and single. When Jordan exhibits an intellectual disdain for reality-TV to Hallie Gallaway (Stephanie Childers), a woman who heads up that division, the ambitious young V.P. sneers at Jordan: “That’s right. There’s another pretty girl at the dance, and this one’s not pregnant.” WTF? Is Sorkin, by any chance, going meta and poking fun at sexist reality-TV cat-fighting, like Tina Fey did (hilariously) in special episodes of 30 Rock? Could he be about to critique the deplorable way women are presented on ‘alternative programming’?  Not on your life. After Hallie’s completely unrealistic and insubordinate outburst, Jordan does not reprimand her in any way; instead Jordan feels bad about her own conduct, seeks out the V.P., and apologizes to her! Even when commiserating with a female friend, Jordan doesn’t sound offended by the objectification. But then how could she be, when a few episodes prior, she had advised a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist (Christine Lahti) to get access for a Vanity Fair piece by dressing sexily and flirting with Matt and Danny?
And the executive suite is hardly the only chamber at the fictitious Studio 60 soundstage where women are treated in an icky way. One of the performers in the SNL-like sketch-comedy show is openly portrayed as the resident slut, and she allows head writer Matt (Matthew Perry) to use her as sexual bait; Jeannie (Ayda Field) obligingly flirts with other staff members, or even reporters, when her boss asks her to pitch in as part of some con scheme he has going. Not to harp on the ways in which Tina Fey’s own SNL-inspired series beat Sorkin on the same network, but 30 Rock had a story where Liz Lemon tried to use sex to manipulate someone for work-related goals – and Liz ended up suspended and forced to attend sexual harassment sensitization sessions. Clearly, Fey and Sorkin have different mind-sets.
Sorkin actually seems resentful of the very concept of sexual harassment law: towards the end of Studio 60’s first and only season, a former employee files a sexual harassment lawsuit. The character never shows up on-screen to give the suit any credence, and instead we get to hear why the defendants – and people who weren’t even around at the time — dismiss and deride it. She was too touchy, she just didn’t get the way a writer’s room works. She made too big of a deal out of the sexual jokes, which are just part of the creative process. (Creativity being, perhaps, a male domain?) When a female lawyer (Kari Matchett) is sent in by the network to investigate the details, her actual investigation goes nowhere; she and Sorkin seem to have little interest in the case itself, and focus instead on – I kid you not – the attorney’s attempts to ask Matt out. In fact, she’s so persistent she comes across as a sexual harasser herself, though Matt doesn’t seem to mind. All of which kind of makes sense if you read the report of a correspondent for The Globe and Mail, a woman who Sorkin demeaningly called “Internet girl” (though the newspaper she writes for is Canada’s second-largest daily), then insisted on high-fiving with the line “I’m sick of girls who don’t know how to high-five…let me manhandle you”, and bid farewell with a “Write something nice” parting shot in “the ‘Smile, honey’ tone of much less successful jerks.”
Let’s not forget the Christian comedienne Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson), one of the star performers on the “Studio 60″ sketch show; a talented mimic, singer, and actress. When she gets a breakthrough role in a major feature, it’s offered to her by a director who wants a relationship with her; not, perhaps, simply on her merits. In another episode, she has to be dissuaded by three male colleagues from posing for a lingerie spread; she has no idea anyone is trying to take advantage of her as a Christian icon. (Meanwhile Sorkin’s series itself takes advantage by interrupting her changing in the dressing room.) In another episode, the show’s producer Danny (Bradley Whitford) feels it is perfectly acceptable for him, as Harriet’s boss, to give her orders on her dating life — she doesn’t seem to disagree. And though Sorkin tries to use Harriet as a foil to Matt’s sanctimonious, hedonistic, Hollywood-liberal views, her arguments rarely hold much weight. Instead, Matt repeatedly insults her religious beliefs and she puts up with it, pining for him.
Some have claimed that Sorkin has been writing this way for a long time; as The reports, “Critics say Sorkin has a habit of creating one-dimensional female characters in male-dominated settings.”  One side note that may be related is that, from A Few Good Men all the way through to The Newsroom, he has frequently given unisex names to women in the most demanding professions: Jo (short for Joanne), Sydney, Dana, C.J., Mandy, Joey, Ainsley, Jordan, Hallie, Mackenzie, Sloan. In Sorkin’s subconscious, he may believe that women who aspire to positions of responsibility need to have something male about them – perhaps he feels that power is a more natural fit for men?
But still, he should get some credit for creating gifted and accomplished women over the years. Especially considering the fact that he does, after all, work in the same industry that gave us Charlie’s Angels and Baywatch. He inventedSydney Ellen Wade, the headstrong environmental lobbyist played by Annette Bening in Sorkin’s 1995 feature The American President. Sydney earns more than the fictitious president (played by Michael Douglas) and is highly respected in her field. She is leery of a romance with the widowed dad while he’s president because she doesn’t want to be on the short end of the power differential, provoking this exchange with her sister:
Sydney Ellen Wade: Why did I have to kiss him?…I gotta nip this in the bud. This has catastrophe written all over it.
Beth Wade: In what language? Sydney, the man is the leader of the free world. He’s brilliant, funny, handsome. He’s an above-average dancer. Isn’t it possible our standards are just a tad high?
Just a few years later, in the 1998-2000 sit-com Sports Night, Sorkin created Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman), the witty, hard-driving, and perfectionistic producer of a late-night sports round-up show. This is a woman to whom authority comes easily and almost unconsciously, as her senior associate producer Natalie implies:
Dana: People in Graphics are my friends.
Natalie: That’s not quite right.
Dana: I am so nice to them!
Natalie: That’s one way of looking at it.
Dana: What’s another way?
Natalie: That often times you express your displeasure with their work in ways that make them want to take their own lives.
Dana readily gives orders to low-ranking staff members…
Dana: Dave, Chris, Will, what are you guys doing tomorrow morning at ten?
Dave: Gotta basketball game at the “Y”.
Will: Yeah, it’s a 3-on-3 with the guys from…
Dana: Dave, Chris, Will, what are you guys doing tomorrow morning at ten?
Chris: Fixing the sound system?
Dana: There ya go.
As well as to her star anchors…
Dana Whitaker: You mind telling me what the hell’s going on?
Dan Rydell: We’re just –
Dana Whitaker: I don’t wanna hear about it. This show’s supposed to be fun. You guys sound like you’re giving stock quotes. Is there a reason I’m not aware of?
Casey McCall: We think we should be able –
Dana Whitaker: Don’t give me your excuses. We’ve got 18 minutes of show left. What I’d like is you guys to start earning your money. Do you have anything you’d like to say?
Casey McCall: Yeah –
Dana Whitaker: Good!
[She leaves the room]
While the two seasons of Sports Night had plenty of romantic banter, and even some moving twists in its love stories, Dana seems comfortable with her own sexuality, and uninterested in boosting the male ego.
Casey: Was there a stripper?
Dana: At the party?
Casey: Yeah.
Dana: Yes, there was.
Casey: Did he have a better body than me?
Dana: Of course he had a better body than you Casey. He was a professional male stripper.
Casey: Let me tell you something. When we’re asked, men know how to answer that question.
Her speech to a suitor about self-realization sure sounds feminist:
“The truth is, I have a job that involves me, and stimulates me, and rewards me, and takes up a lot of my time, and I’m not willing to do my job just a little bit. I want to do ALL of it. It’s part of me, and I’m different without it. And that is who I am, and that is who you need to love.”
And she is capable of delivering a lecture as forcefully and incisively as The Newsroom’s Will McAvoy, even one that is about her love life:
“You’re mad at me? You spend six months making me feel guilty for liking my job. Then propose to me, then two days later, you tell me you slept with the woman who wants my job? I say fine. I say fine! Then six days after that, you tell me you wanna break off the engagement. Here’s the thing. I think only one of us should be angry at a time, and I have a hunch it’s gonna be me.”
Moreover, with Sports Night Sorkin tackled the most extreme form of sexism in an episode when diligent associate producer Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd) is sexually assaulted by an athlete in a locker room interview. Though one insightful blogger found some flaws in the follow-up episodes, surely Sorkin should get some points for broaching the subject and displaying the sensitivity he did – as well as for writing a female character who is so well-versed in sports history and so devoted to sports reporting.
As Sports Night went into its second season, Sorkin began writing The West Wing. Although some have complained about sexism in the Sorkin White House (such as this blog at Feminist Law Professors) the criticisms I have seen so far have seemed rather minor and perfunctory, and rather unfair to a television writer who turned in almost 88 hours-worth of scripts for a pioneering show. (Sorkin created the series and stayed for four seasons.) Sometimes characters on the series were themselves quite sexist: series regular Leo McGarry (John Spencer), for instance, held very old-school views; and the British ambassador Lord John Marbury (Roger Rees), who appeared in four episodes during Sorkin’s tenure, was a lecherous 1960’s-throwback (evidently a big Benny Hill fan). But as one site about the show points out, sexist characters are not the same thing as sexist authorship.
Instead, what I always remember from the show are numerous vivid and capable women walking and talking their way through the halls of The West WingC.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) endures pressures and crises that any White House press secretary would find daunting (pressures which George Stephanopoulos implied could be unbearable in his memoir All Too Human: A Political Education), and she stays grounded, principled, and sharp as a tack through it all. Moreover, Sorkin didn’t pretend that her gender would never be an issue for her – sometimes she is shut out or overlooked, and has to fight back. But C.J. is certainly able to stand up for herself and others:
C.J.: One other thing—
SAM: Are we done?
C.J.: No, Sam, when I say ‘one other thing’ that means we’re not done, that means there’s one other thing…Before, now, in the future, anytime you’re into something and you don’t know what – and you can’t tell me that you thought there was nothing to it, ‘cause you sat down with Josh and you sat down with Toby – anytime you’re into something and you don’t know what, you don’t keep it from me. I’m your first phone call.…
SAM: C.J.–
C.J.: We’re done talking now. You can go.
SAM:…I’ll see you later.
C.J.: Count on it.
C.J.: You’re pissed at me?
Toby: I’m saying, I could’ve used your support in there.
C.J.: You get my support the same way I get yours: when I agree with what you’re saying or when I don’t care about what you’re saying. This time I disagreed.
C.J.: They beat women, Nancy. They hate women. The only reason they keep Qumari women alive is to make more Qumari men.
Nancy McNally: So what do you want me to do about it?
C.J.: How about instead of suggesting that we sell the guns to them, suggesting that we shoot the guns at them? And by the way, not to change the subject, but how are we supposed to have any moral credibility when we talk about gun control and making sure that guns don’t get in the hands of the wrong people? God, Nancy! What the hell are we defining as the ‘right’ people?
C.J.: You know if I was living in Qumar I wouldn’t be allowed to say ‘shove it up your ass Toby.’ But since I’m not, shove it up your ass Toby.
The President’s wife of 30 years, Abbey Bartlet (Stockard Channing), was a specialist at two hospitals, a Harvard professor of thoracic surgery, the mother of three young women, and a very rational and self-possessed woman who took seriously the potential to make a difference as First Lady. She was also an opinionated feminist. Her husband had enormous respect for her, and considered her a formidable opponent in any argument:
President Josiah Bartlet: You know what I did, just then, that was stupid? I minimized the importance of the statue that was dedicated to Nellie Bly, an extraordinary woman to whom we all owe a great deal.
Abbey Bartlet: You don’t know who she is, do you?
President Josiah Bartlet: This isn’t happening to me.
Abbey Bartlet: She pioneered investigative journalism.
President Josiah Bartlet: Then she’s the one I want to beat the crap out of.
Abbey Bartlet: She risked her life by having herself committed to a mental institution for ten days so she could write about it. She changed entirely the way we treat the mentally ill in this country.
President Josiah Bartlet: Yes. Abigail–
Abbey Bartlet: In 1890, she traveled around the world in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds, besting by more than one week, Jules Verne’s 80 days.
President Josiah Bartlet: She sounds like an incredible woman, Abbey…
Abbey Bartlet: When it comes to historical figures being memorialized in this country, women have been largely overlooked. Nellie Bly is just the tip of the iceberg.
Abbey’s Chief-of-Staff Amy Gardner (Mary-Louise Parker) is likewise a fiercely independent feminist. Before working for the First Lady, she held top positions in various feminist political organizations and lobbied within the Democratic Party on behalf of powerful women’s caucuses. During the series, she is sometimes in a relationship with the President’s Deputy Chief-of-Staff Josh (Bradley Whitford); this often leads to a certain amount of personal and professional conflict. Unlike the women on The Newsroom, she handles these conflicts with steely determination.
Josh: So I just came from seeing Amy Gardner.
C.J.: Yeah? How’d it go?
Josh: Well, I showed her who’s boss.
C.J.: Who’d it turn out to be?
Josh: It’s still unclear.
Then there’s pollster Joey Lucas (Marlee Matlin), a confident and forthright political strategist who can also flirt with Josh without losing her cool  – even with a male ASL interpreter accompanying her everywhere. Josh has a romantic/adversarial relationship with her too:
Josh: When I get back, you’re gonna argue with me and we’re gonna argue about the things I wanna argue about and you’re gonna do your best not to annoy me too much.
Joey: It’s almost hard to believe you’re not married.
There was also Nancy McNally (Anna Deaveare Smith), the hard-as-nails National Security Advisor. There was Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter), Associate White House Counsel, a lifetime Republican who clashed frequently on issues with the rest of the staff – but with equanimity and confidence. For the first two seasons, the aging Mrs. Landingham (Kathryn Joosten) was the President’s smart-mouthed, no-nonsense, personal secretary, and as it turned out a guiding influence on him since his youth. In the first season, there was also the hyper-educated, super-confident White House consultant Mandy (Moira Kelly). And throughout the series, Josh’s alert, aware, and wry assistant Donna (Janel Moloney) treated Josh more like a college classmate than a boss.
Josh: I don’t need a doctor.
Donna: Are you a doctor?
Josh: No.
Donna: Then be quiet.
Donna: Josh, this was delivered by messenger.
Josh: What is it?
Donna: It’s… wait, wait. No, damn, my x-ray vision is failing me today.
Josh: I’m thinking about firing you.
Donna: You’ve fired me twice already tonight. I’m impervious.
So what are we to think? Is Sorkin a sexist or is he a feminist? Perhaps the answer is he’s neither, or a little bit of both. And perhaps a writer’s work can’t be examined as if it contained clues to some secret permanent state. It’s possible, after all, that his attitudes can be in flux.
For one thing, in the middle of his rise to prominence he went through a divorce. He later had a significant relationship with actress/singer Kristin Chenoweth, much of which is said to be reflected in the Matt and Harriet push-me-pull-you romance in Studio 60. And he also happens to be very, very successful. In a patriarchal industry like entertainment, if you’re acclaimed as a sparkling intellect and placed in charge of vast high-profile endeavors (as a show-runner of a TV series, for instance), it’s quite likely that you will find yourself surrounded by sycophants. And if it goes on long enough, you may start to think that that’s the way the world looks.
Woody Allen is another prolific and comedic writer whose female characters do not seem nearly as independent and self-sufficient as they once did. In Allen’s early films the nebbishes he played were shy and clumsy around women, while many of the women were poised, articulate, cultured, and seemingly out of reach. Annie Hall, however, ushered in a series of neurotics, harlots, and harridans. This is not meant to cast aspersions on Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow, or Soon-Yi Previn; but when artists have had some degree of painful personal experiences in their own relationships, it’s going to be very tempting to use their public platform to express that – and if at the same time they’ve also been showered with accolades for their artistic work, it’s going to be especially tempting to use that platform to blame the Other, rather than question themselves.
Moreover, both Sorkin and Allen seem to have begun to view beautiful young women as creative muses. In Studio 60, Matt writes better if Harriet hangs out at his office to inspire him; Harriet even feels guilty when she hears he has been having writer’s block without her around. In The Newsroom pilot, the catalyst for Will’s inflammatory, Paddy Chayevsky-like public speech is the sight of Mackenzie at the back of the lecture hall holding up cue cards. He thinks it’s a vision. That’s all dandy, but where are the shows with male muses inspiring female geniuses? Artists may think they’re complimenting a woman by calling her a muse, but won’t she feel more gratified creating her own work?
Incidentally, the opening speech that Will makes in that pilot has had a second life on You Tube, as many have been eager to see facts about America – its abysmal world rankings in literacy and infant mortality, its chart-topping percentage of incarcerated citizens and its astronomical defense budget  – exposed on the national stage. One statistic Will missed, however, was that the U.S. has one of the lowest percentages in the world of federal seats held by women; the Inter-Parliamentary Union puts it in 91st place worldwide. This ought to be of enormous concern to the person who worked so hard to rehabilitate civil service in his White House dramedy. It ought to be a thunderous alarm bell for him.
But as liberal as Sorkin is both in topics discussed and in his donations to the Democratic Party, he seems a little out-of-step with the status of women these days. There are grounds to conclude it hasn’t always been that way, and reasons to believe it’s not incurable. However, now he’s on the defensive, and has denied there’s anything askew about the way he has written for women on The Newsroom.
May I just say, actually he shouldn’t listen to everyone out there who attacks the show’s depiction of women. Not everyone has gotten there from a feminist place. (Much as the Bush Administration’s sudden concern for the women of Afghanistan in Oct. 2001 did not mean they’d joined N.O.W.) Some of the criticism has, bizarrely, claimed that Sorkin’s vendetta against unscrupulous and trivial tabloid journalism is just further evidence of his misogyny. The logic behind this, apparently, is based on a pretty flimsy list: the scheme to smear Will through a tabloid magazine is conceived by a woman, company owner Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda); the shameless gossip reporter who writes hatchet jobs about famous people just for the hell of it is a woman (Hope Davis); and the primary consumers of such fare are women. Okay, first off, the definition of misogyny is not “women do it, therefore it must be terrible” (objections to the wearing of fur, for instance, are not mainly driven by hatred of women); and the feminist flipside is not “women do it, therefore it must be positive” (the ancient practice of Chinese foot-binding comes to mind). Secondly, I can’t believe that anyone writing about broadcast media can defend our trash culture with a straight face, or pretend to be ignorant of the direct relationship between an American public gorging on infotainment and an American public starved for real information – an electorate bursting with the details of Britney and Lindsay’s rehab stints and custody trials but unclear on whether we actually located weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
If Gloria Steinem guested on News Night, she’d almost certainly agree with Will that gossipy ‘takedown’ trivia is “pollution” and “human cock-fighting,” and that it’s “destroying civilization.” She and the rest of the activist-editors who founded the groundbreaking feminist magazine Ms. in 1971 viewed the existing women’s magazines of the time as “contentless.” Ms. writers, much like the 2011 documentary film Miss Representation, the blog affiliated with the film, and the 1991 Naomi Wolf book The Beauty Myth, have profoundly criticized the beauty-fashion-celebrity matrix for its effect on women’s psyches. Lisa Bloom’s 2011 book Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World also cautions women to break their obsessions with what she calls “our shallow, self-absorbed celebutainment culture”; she urges this for women’s own survival, among other reasons. Sorkin’s detractors would, in short, be hard-pressed to find a feminist to stand up for reality TV or checkout-counter rags. In fact, the Miss Representation blog specifically praised the episode of The Newsroom in which Will lambasted the TMZ (Sorkin dubs it “TMI”) industry, agreeing with him that the gossipy ‘takedown’ culture is toxic.
Sadly, Sorkin was not strategic enough to lambaste TMZ et al from a feminist angle, and indeed there are no feminists in sight on The Newsroom yet – unless Leona Lansing can be counted, by virtue of her power. Sorkin has instead laid himself open to charges of chauvinism with things like Will’s opening-episode speech, in which he waxes nostalgic for a time when Americans “acted like men,” when we were able to be and do great things “because we were informed. By great men, men who were revered.” Sorkin may think he’s using the word “men” in a gender-neutral way, but his scripts for The West Wing are dotted with similarly worshipful uses of “man” and “men” and definitions of manhood. And The Newsroom’s opening credit sequence – a black and white montage that pays tribute to selfless and sober males of a bygone era in TV news – just reinforces that gender exclusivity.
What we need is for the former First Lady Abbey Bartlet to show up and harangue Will McAvoy for forgetting accomplished women reporters like Nellie Bly. (Or Ida B. Wells. Or Margaret Fuller. Or Lorena Hickok. Or even Christiane Amanpour or Leslie Stahl.) Let him eat some humble pie. Oh, if only Dana Whitaker would come over on loan from Sports Night and fill in at the control panel, showing Mackenzie that she doesn’t have to pussyfoot around Will. And what is Amy Gardner doing these days? Can’t she stop by and give News Night staffers some insights on how right-wingers are spinning the war on women? The Newsroom is not so far gone that these kinds of injections aren’t possible.
But if Sorkin is going to reverse his recent trend in TV writing, he’s going to need to become conscious of what he’s been doing lately. He can’t assume that because he gave female characters strength at times in the past that he’s in no danger of slipping into sexism. That was part of the lesson of the feminist revolution — Consciousness Raising 101: that good intentions are not enough when sexism is so ingrained in the culture. No-one can sit back and assume that they are immune.
As Will himself says in The Newsroom’s kick-off speech: “the first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one.”