I Found It at the Movies
By David Henderson
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.