I Found It at the Movies
With apologies to Pauline Kael.
April has been a great month for anti-government movies. I’ll highlight three that I saw this month, WITH MULTIPLE SPOILERS: “The Death of Stalin,” “Chappaquiddick,” and “The Post.”
A must see. People often write LOL and they didn’t really laugh out loud. I LedOL literally. Steve Buscemi plays a way-too-slender Khrushchev who is tasked with organizing Stalin’s funeral. He is a riot. My favorite line from him comes when he is trying to talk Stalin’s self-destructive son, Vasily, out of giving a speech at his father’s funeral. My rough recollection of the dialogue:
Vasily: But I want to speak at my father’s funeral.
Khrushchev: I want to f**k Grace Kelly. What’s your point.
A few scenes that show the incredible fear that people had of being murdered by Stalin:
a. The soldiers guarding his bedroom hear something going on inside and think that maybe he might have collapsed and might need medical attention. But they have been told not ever to disturb Stalin, on penalty of death. So they don’t. Thank goodness.
b. The people broadcasting the symphony are told that Stalin wants a recording of it. One little problem: they didn’t record it. So they persuade some of the audience to stay while they do a do-over. They also have to find a conductor who will conduct the symphony and they need to haul people in off the street to be in the audience. Everyone who is organizing this is scared, quite properly, for his life.
c. The high-level Communists debate about how and whether to get a doctor for Stalin, losing valuable time, because they have good reason to fear that if they cross him, they will be murdered.
Also, the scene in which the top Communists are meeting around a table and voting on various issues, with Molotov, played by Michael Pallin, vacillating and the others responding to that vacillation, is a hoot. I can’t even try to spoil this because it is so funny and yet so real.
I don’t know how true the movie is to reality. Do we really know, for example, that Kennedy did not dive down and try to save Mary Jo Kopechne? But what we do know is that he left her there and didn’t seek help, even though there’s a substantial probability that she lived another hour or more while he took off. And we do know that there were high-level meetings of Kennedy’s strategists to figure out how to play the issue and keep his Senatorial and Presidential hopes alive.
It’s fascinating, in a sickening way, to see one of the architects of the Vietnam war, Bob McNamara, give orders about how about how to deal with the situation in which telling the truth was optional. And the local sheriff, whose instincts seemed to be right at the start, quickly went along with Ted Kennedy’s machinations.
This one gave me goose bumps. It’s mainly about Kay Graham, the Post’s owner and publisher, and Ben Bradlee, the Post’s editor, and that was inspiring. Especially Graham put it all on the line. And, contrary to what I had feared going in, the script writer didn’t try to whitewash Graham’s too-close relationship with one of the villains, Bob McNamara, or Bradlee’s too-close relationship with one of the other villains, President John F. Kennedy.
It was also neat to see Daniel Ellsberg putting it all on the line, knowing that there was a high probability that he could go to prison for life. (Incidentally, one of my favorite professors at UCLA, Jack Hirshleifer, emailed me in 2002 when he saw that I was going to speaking on the Iraq war on a stage at U.C. Berkeley at an event where the main speaker was Ellsberg. He did not admire him, to put it mildly, as I did.)
Sadly, my impression is that the Washington Post doesn’t have nearly the guts it had when Graham and Bradlee put it on the line. During their discussions, it came out that they could be charged under the Espionage Act of 1917.
The movie ends with a sense a year later when Nixon’s guys break and enter into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at Watergate. It would have been even better to have an additional scene, or even a written commentary at the end, in which they point out that the U.S. President most hostile person to the press in modern times, in actions if not in words, was not Richard Nixon but Barack Obama.
Apr 22 2018 at 9:32am
Thanks for the reviews. I really want to see Chappaquiddick. Being from Cape Cod, that story is infamous and everywhere you go (they told it to us in Driver’s Ed on the dangers of drunk driving).
For what little it’s worth, no one in Massachusetts, even the most ardent Kennedy fans, believe Ted did anything to try to save her. Of course, when people “know” and what is reality are two totally different things. Rather, I just share this to show the reputation the Kennedys have in their home state.
Apr 22 2018 at 9:55pm
I hope you’re right about the message of tyranical fear being conveyed in “Death of Stalin.”
I only saw the trailer for it this weekend when we went to see “Isle of Dogs.”
It struck me that “Isle of Dogs” made it clear that Kobayashi — the Hitler-like leader — and his courtiers would make a slick winning/pleasing case while pursuing other, much darker ends (and a “final solution” for the dogs). There was no doubt in Anderson’s film about who were the bad guys.
Yet the trailer for “Death of Stalin” seemed to be playing it for laughs; While Stalin was a monster, all those around him who made this system possible were hapless — even sympathetic — figures.
Whether my reading is correct or mistaken, do see “Isle of Dogs.” I think it belongs with the first three you found.
Apr 23 2018 at 9:53am
The Death Of Stalin:
My favorite is the scene in which they are voting on whether or not to halt the executions. There is one character who give a long rambling monologue in which he waffles back and forth about their obligations to Stalin and the country. All the other characters keep raising and lowering their hands (to vote for or against halting the executions) as the winds seem to shift back and forth, cause they’re all so afraid of being on the wrong side of the issue.
Apr 23 2018 at 10:55am
When I saw the title of the post, I thought one of the reviews would be for “Little PInk House”
In any case, thanks David. I will look for these titles!
Apr 24 2018 at 5:24pm
LedOL is past tense of LOL. (I had to look it up)
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