Monday, November 24, 2008

'Triumph of the Will' Served Propaganda Purposes

During World War II and in the years after the war ended, the Nazis' reputation for comprehending the value of effective propaganda became almost legendary.

But their appreciation for the power of propaganda preceded the war by several years.

On Sept. 5, 2009, it will be 75 years since the Nazis gathered for the Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg. It was an important event for rallying the faithful in person — but it also served as the basis for filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl's influential propaganda documentary, "Triumph of the Will."

Because of the role it played in the development of filmmaking techniques — such as the advanced use of telephoto lenses, aerial photography and moving cameras — "Triumph of the Will" earned a spot in film history.

It also played an important role in the rise of the Nazi Party. Hitler and the Nazis had come to power the year before and were still largely unknown to many Germans — and much of the world.

The film opened with a brief commentary written in German. Translated, it said: "20 years after the outbreak of the world war, 16 years after the beginning of our suffering, 19 months after the beginning of the German renaissance, Adolf Hitler flew again to Nuremberg to review the columns of his faithful followers."

From that point, the only written commentaries were merely the surnames of the speakers. That may have been helpful to many viewers, since most of Hitler's subordinates were hardly household names at the time.

Anyway, following the opening commentary, Riefenstahl's camera took the viewer into the clouds, aboard a 1934-era airplane, preparing to descend into Nuremberg.

In the film, Hitler emerged from the clouds, like Thor in his chariot. Once Hitler's airplane was on the ground, Riefenstahl's film crew captured his enthusiastic reception and his ride into the city from every possible angle.

Nuremberg in 1934 had all the zeal and piety of a religious revival.

Indeed, at the closing ceremony, Hitler compared the Nazi Party to a "religious order" while Riefenstahl's camera filmed from below, making Hitler look larger than life, almost godlike.

In the years that followed, Riefenstahl's film attracted full houses to movie theaters across Germany. The mood was altogether different a little more than 10 years later — when Germany had lost the war and the surviving leaders of the Third Reich were brought to Nuremberg to stand trial for "crimes against humanity."

But, in 1934, those days were still in the future.

That four-day gathering in September 1934 was filled with speeches from Hitler, Rudolf Hess, Joseph Goebbels, Julius Streicher and others, special rallies for the Labor Service and for the Hitler Youth, torchlight marches and music. It was all filmed in black and white, but it must have been quite a spectacle in color.

Riefenstahl was provided with everything she asked for and given access to anything and anyone she desired — pretty heady stuff for a 31-year-old actress directing her first documentary.

However, the film was lacking in some ways — by modern standards.

As advanced as it was in some of its techniques, the film used no transitional devices to indicate a shift from one day to the next.

For a film that sought to document a four-day event, that's a significant shortcoming. Unless the viewer was familiar with the itinerary, there was no way to tell if you were watching the Hitler Youth rally on the third day or the rally for the Labor Service on the second day — except through excerpts from speeches.

The only way to tell much chronologically was through natural light — or the absence of it. Day faded into night. And then a new day dawned in the film with little, if any, fanfare.

But the pomp and circumstance of the final day was hard to mistake.

The imagery was the most memorable, the music consisted of themes from Wagner's "Götterdämmerung," and Hitler, who shortly before laid a wreath at a World War I memorial, delivered a stirring concluding speech, in which he told the crowd, "All loyal Germans will become National Socialists. Only the best National Socialists are party comrades."

One of the primary propaganda purposes of the film, from Hitler's point of view, was to absolve himself and his associates from any guilt for the "Night of the Long Knives," a series of political executions carried out by the Nazis a couple of months earlier. Ernst Röhm, co-founder of the Nazi stormtroopers, was among those executed because he was perceived to be a rival to Hitler — something the Nazis wanted to obscure from public view.

"Only a lunatic or deliberate liar could think that I, or anybody, would ever intend to dissolve what we ourselves have built up over many long years," Hitler told his listeners.

Hitler must have sensed that the rally had achieved the party's objectives. In his closing speech, he told the crowd that the party "will be unchangeable in its doctrine, hard as steel in its organization, supple and adaptable in its tactics" — stating his intentions as clearly as he did in his book, "Mein Kampf."

After nearly three-quarters of a century, "Triumph of the Will" continues to cast a long shadow, influencing movies, commercials and modern documentaries.

But the questions it raised about the blurring of the line between artistic interpretation and integrity remain unanswered.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Remembering the Kennedy Assassination

White House photographer Cecil Stoughton took this
picture of Lyndon Johnson taking the oath of office
aboard Air Force One on Nov. 22, 1963. Stoughton
died earlier this month.

In days gone by, it seems, there was more of a fuss made on November 22 — the anniversary of the Kennedy assassination here in Dallas.

In the past, a dedicated group of researchers has gathered at the site of the assassination on this date every year, and I assume they assembled downtown again this year, although I've heard nothing about it. Perhaps there will be something about it on the evening news — although the attention in Texas recently seems to be riveted to the north and tonight's Texas Tech-Oklahoma football game.

There may be some media outlets in some places where they are reflecting on the assassination today. But the only acknowledgement of the 45th anniversary that I’ve found locally is an article in the Dallas Morning News that talks about how the passage of time has claimed many of the witnesses.

Archivist Richard Trask told the Morning News, "It was an event that became a whodunit, and now it’s in the realm of history."

Occasionally, the emergence of new technology (for example, DNA technology or computer graphics) permits us to ask and sometimes answer questions about the mysteries of history.

Very rarely, however, do those questions yield answers that allow us to authoritatively rewrite the story.

Today it seems there are no new questions to ask — and no new answers to consider — in the Kennedy assassination.

If there were, I suppose they would be airing on The History Channel tonight.

But the only assassination-oriented programming on The History Channel this weekend will be aired on Sunday night at 8 p.m. (Central) — and that program, "The Kennedy Assassination: Beyond Conspiracy," is five years old and the moderator, Peter Jennings, died in 2005.

Clearly, there will be nothing new in that program.

I remember watching it when it was aired for the first time — around the 40th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.

I recall that the big promotional point about the program was a computer animation based on the Zapruder film.

But, while the animation was interesting, I had to wonder what value it provided. To me, it seemed open to many interpretations, and Jennings and ABC seemed overly eager to use the one that supported the conclusions of researcher Gerald Posner.

Posner, whose 1993 book "Case Closed" took the position that both Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby acted alone and that the Kennedy assassination was not the result of a conspiracy, was given extensive airtime as an expert in the case.

It also seems to me that the program devoted much of its time to discussions of Oswald’s life and the opinions of his brother — who, like other members of his family, seemed to enjoy the attention even if the price of admission was his brother’s life.

From a documentary standpoint, I would recommend "Four Days in November" as the best way to remember Kennedy today — but you may have to rent it someplace.

That film was shown on Turner Classic Movies a couple of months ago, but I’m not aware of any TV station that is planning to show it today — or in the near future.

However, if you’d like to ponder all the questions about the assassination that still haven’t been answered after all these years, I recommend the Director’s Cut of Oliver Stone’s "JFK," a film that was originally released 17 years ago but has yet to produce definitive answers to nearly all of the questions it raised.

American Movie Classics will be presenting "JFK" tonight — at 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. Central. I don’t know if it is the Director’s Cut, but I do know that AMC edits its presentations and interrupts them with commercials — so my guess is that it’s the original theatrical version with some audio and possibly some video edited.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Few Films Re-create Nuremberg Trial

Some of the defendants at the Nuremberg trial.

On this day in November 1945, testimony began in the first Nuremberg Trial.

The first trial was noteworthy for being the prosecution of the leadership of Nazi Germany. As subsequent trials were held, more and more people expressed doubts about the wisdom or necessity of prosecuting soldiers whose crime appeared to be carrying out orders during wartime.

Few doubted the necessity for the first trial, in which the likes of Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, Julius Streicher, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Alfred Jodl — the upper echelon of the Nazi regime — were held responsible for their acts.

The trials gave the world the definition of "war crimes." It can be found in the "Nuremberg Principles."

And the trials have influenced the evolution of international crime law for nearly 65 years.

Yet, considering how important the role of Nuremberg was in the postwar history of the world, there have been surprisingly few dramatizations of it.

The best, by far, was "Judgment at Nuremberg," a 1961 film that was not a re-creation at all but rather the story of a fictional trial that explored issues that were raised by the real-life later trials.

It's a great film with great performances, but it is fiction. It does not tell the real story of the landmark tribunal.

A couple of TV movies attempted to tell the story of what happened at the first tribunal in 1945-46.

In 2000, TNT aired a film called "Nuremberg," which was actually a pretty good and — based on my own knowledge of what happened in Nuremberg — mostly accurate re-creation, although factual dedication sometimes was sacrificed in favor of more appealing story angles.

The courtroom and other trial-related scenes, however, appeared to be accurate. As Albert Speer observed in the film, when the splendor of Nuremberg during the Nazi rallies was recalled nostalgically (especially in comparison to the dreary, bombed-out city in which the trial was held), "The look in Hitler's eyes wasn't radiance. It was madness."

And, oh, how easily it could all happen again. Later in the film, Speer tried to explain Göring's grip on his co-defendants, even with no authority or real power of any kind, using merely the power of his "ideas and thoughts."

"What ideas? What thoughts?" Speer asked. "They were only platitudes. Nazi Germany was built on empty platitudes."

Anyone can fall under the spell of a psychopath like Hitler. It is not, as was implied in the film, exclusively a German character flaw. It is a trait that is not unique to any group.

The main problem that most film buffs seem to have had with "Nuremberg" was its casting — Alec Baldwin as Justice Robert Jackson, for example.

Baldwin made for a relatively youthful Jackson to play opposite Christopher Plummer as British prosecutor David Maxwell-Fyfe.

Although Maxwell-Fyfe was, in fact, younger than Jackson by several years, Plummer is more than 30 years older than Baldwin and played the role as more of a fatherly figure.

And, while it may be common knowledge among historians with access to better research sources, I am not aware of the intimate relationship between Jackson and his dedicated secretary (played by Jill Hennessy) that was suggested in the film. I suspect that was a liberty that was taken with the facts to capitalize on Hennessy's beauty and give the story a romantic angle.

But, in spite of these relatively trivial matters, the film was largely accurate, and the portrayal of Göring by Brian Cox was particularly noteworthy. Cox displayed an uncanny ability to mimic Göring’s affable yet cunning Jekyll-and-Hyde personality — particularly in his depiction of Göring’s friendship with the American soldier "Tex" and how he may have manipulated it to get access to the cyanide he took to commit suicide rather than face execution by hanging.

Göring was often parodied in cartoons and films of the era, but, other than "Nuremberg," the only supposedly fact-based portrayal of the Reichsmarschall and the trial that I’m aware of came in a British TV production, " Nuremberg: Goering's Last Stand," in 2006.

I’ve never seen it, but I’ve been told it’s been broadcast on The History Channel from time to time. From what I’ve read, it’s a pretty poor historical re-creation.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Chasing the 'Demon in the Sky'

The Mercury Seven
From left: Gordon Cooper, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard,
Virgil Grissom, John Glenn, Deke Slayton, Scott Carpenter

In 1983, there was no shortage of space, flight and technology-oriented options for moviegoers — "Return of the Jedi," "WarGames," "Octopussy," "Blue Thunder," even "Superman III."

Twenty-five years ago, such movies featured plenty of high-tech special effects, but the stories often didn't live up to the technology. "Return of the Jedi," for example, was said to boast state-of-the-art special effects, even if its story wasn't as great as the first two films in the "Star Wars" series.

And then there was "The Right Stuff" — the tale of the awkward early steps of the space program in the United States — when America resolved to chase down the "demon that lived in the sky."

The film is sometimes overlooked when the best films of 1983 are discussed, but it had lots of special effects, and it had the advantage of also having a great story to tell.

"The Right Stuff" is the true story of how the space program began in the United States — and how the test pilots, like Chuck Yeager, laid the foundation for it.

Some of the story is probably still told in the history books, but much of it will be news to modern viewers — who are accustomed to a world of space shuttles and space stations.

Many modern movie viewers have no memory of what it was like when a young president issued a challenge to America to send a man to the moon and bring him back safely before the decade was over.

And modern movie viewers have no memory of the many setbacks the space program endured before making amazing strides in pursuit of that goal.

America rose to meet the challenge of landing on the moon, but it did so largely because of the triumphs — and the tragedies — of the Mercury astronauts — and the sacrifices that were made by the test pilots who came before them.

When I was a child in the 1960s, the names of each of those astronauts were practically household names. They were certainly used for marketing purposes.

Like most boys of my generation, I had a "G.I. Joe" toy. One year, for my birthday, I asked for the latest accessories for the "action figure" — an astronaut's spacesuit and helmet — and a miniature space capsule.

I received those items as gifts that year, and I was delighted to find that the capsule was packaged with a small 45-rpm recording of John Glenn's radio transmissions during his historic flight into space.

I could dress up my G.I. Joe to look like an astronaut, put him in the capsule and pretend to send him on a journey into space while my record player provided the soundtrack for the mission.

I remember that one of my childhood buddies was fascinated by the space program. He had a poster on his wall showing a map of the surface of the moon with photos of each individual astronaut lining the margins on the top and bottom.

Such public adulation was a mixed blessing for the original Mercury astronauts. As Scott Carpenter (played by Charles Frank) says during an argument among the astronauts about intrusions into their private lives, "Now, whether we like it or not, we're public figures. Whether we deserve it or not, people are going to look up to us. We have got a tremendous responsibility here."

Even after a brief flight, an astronaut could expect to be treated like a conquering hero, complete with a visit to the White House to meet the president and a tickertape parade.

The belief that such a prize was waiting for them at the end of the rainbow kept more than one astronaut's wife on the reservation — and makes the story as much about the unknown — and mostly supportive — spouses as it is about the astronauts.

Betty Grissom (played by Veronica Cartwright) often states in the movie that she expects the military to repay her for the sacrifices she's made, only to be bitterly disappointed when her husband's flight is deemed a failure.

Other wives found it impossible to stick it out. Gordon Cooper's wife Trudy (played by Pamela Reed) talks, at one point in the movie, about conversations she had with old friends who complained about the "cutthroat" lives their husbands endured in the business world.

"I wondered how they would have felt," she says, "if each time their husband went in to make a deal, there was a one in four chance he wouldn't come out of that meeting."

The possibility of a sudden and violent death hangs over the test pilots and astronauts throughout the film, from the ominous presence of the cryptic minister to the smoke rising from crash sites (visible from great distances in the California desert) and the easily recognizable "crash truck" that is always summoned to the scene.

A patron in Pancho Barnes' bar observes a wall filled with photographs of test pilots and points out that the picture of "fancy pilot" Chuck Yeager isn't on the wall.

"What do you have to do to get your picture up there, anyway?" she asks.

"You have to die, sweetie," Pancho replies.

A sobering reminder of the risks the test pilots took every time they flew.

There is a wealth of talent on display in "The Right Stuff," including some actors and actresses who had already achieved some noteworthy things by the time the film was made — and others who were on the brink of success.

The cast includes Sam Shepard as Yeager, Scott Glenn as Alan Shepard, Ed Harris as John Glenn, Dennis Quaid as Gordon Cooper, Fred Ward as Gus Grissom, Barbara Hershey as Glennis Yeager and Jeff Goldblum as a recruiter.

Not all of the talent is in front of the camera, either. Philip Kaufman did a remarkable job of adapting and directing the film version of Tom Wolfe's book. Irwin Winkler was nominated for an Oscar for his work as producer.

And there were a few people you might not recognize but who nevertheless had an influence on the film — if not the industry, in some ways.

Like Mary Jo Deschanel, for example. She plays Glenn's stuttering wife, Annie, whose refusal to be interviewed on television infuriates Lyndon Johnson.

Deschanel, who studied acting but apparently gave up her career to focus on raising her children, is the mother of Zooey Deschanel, who has enjoyed a modestly successful acting career on TV and on the big screen.

Zooey was about 3 when her mother acted in "The Right Stuff" — and her father was the film's cinematographer.

And Yeager himself puts in a brief appearance as Fred, who works at Pancho's bar.

Only two of the original Mercury Seven astronauts — Carpenter and Glenn — are still living. The silver anniversary of "The Right Stuff" is a reminder — particularly relevant on Veterans' Day — of a debt that America can never repay — and should always remember.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Bush Gets Comic Treatment in 'W.'

It's hard to say when I became a fan of the films of Oliver Stone.

But it's safe to say that my admiration for his work goes back 30 years, to 1978, when I was in college and Stone was a screenwriter for "Midnight Express."

And I continued to admire his work as director of "Platoon," "Wall Street," "Born on the Fourth of July," "JFK" and "The Doors."

When I went to the theater to see his latest film, the George W. Bush "biopic" called, simply, "W.," perhaps I expected more than the film could deliver — and not just because I have been one of Stone's admirers for many years.

Each of the films I mentioned previously incorporated generous helpings of drama, irony and, all right, symbolism. And, in that Oliver Stone way, they drew conclusions without necessarily connecting all the dots for the viewers.

Sometimes Stone has accomplished that with style and precision. Other times, it's been done in a ham-handed kind of way. "W.," I felt, was an example of the latter.

The fault doesn't lie with the star of the show. Josh Brolin delivers a believable portrayal as George W. Bush, who struggles through his early life, trying to win his father's approval.

Every Oliver Stone movie seems to have an awkward moment that seems to cut a little too close to the bone. The best example I know of is the scene in "The Doors" in which Meg Ryan goes berserk at Thanksgiving.

I never saw an awkward scene in "W." Maybe that's because the really awkward part of the story is the fact that it isn't over yet. "Biopics," as they're called, typically aren't made until the subject is dead — or at least well into retirement. George W. Bush is neither.

That, it seems to me, is the problem with this movie. It attempts to tell a story that is still unfolding.

When Stone made his films about Vietnam, America's involvement in Southeast Asia had been over for a decade or more.

Jim Morrison had been dead for 20 years when Stone made his film about the Doors.

And nearly three decades had passed since Kennedy was assassinated before Stone made his film "JFK."

I often felt, as I watched "W.," that Stone wanted to confirm a conclusion he believes the audience has already reached.

He does not feel compelled to persuade the audience that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. In his mind, we're already there. Perhaps we are, or perhaps he puts too much faith in public opinion polls.

I don't mean to suggest I wasn't entertained by the film. I'm always entertained by Stone's movies, and "W." was no exception.

But it wasn't the same experience as it's been when Stone made a film that he felt represented a minority viewpoint. In those films, Stone's arguments have had more force, whether because his presentation was so eloquent or the evidence that supported his claims was unimpeachable.

Even in the film "Nixon," I felt Stone sought to provide a dramatic counterpoint to the positive view of Nixon that prevailed at the time, a little over a year after his death — even though the judgment of history on his role in the Watergate scandal had been reached long before and was practically (pardon the pun) chiseled in stone.

There's no statute of limitations on speculation, but there usually has to be an acknowledged public end of the story.

And the end of this story has yet to be written.

If anything, I suppose, I expected Stone to skewer the Bush presidency à la his treatment of "Nixon." What I didn't anticipate was the Comedy Central version of Bush's life.

Contributing to that sensation, I believe, was the music that played in the background — familiar tunes by Willie Nelson and Freddy Fender help to illustrate the mood of Bush's youth, "Spirit in the Sky" serves as the backdrop to his religious conversion, "What a Wonderful World" accompanies his efforts at democracy building.

But, in hindsight, it makes sense to treat the story in almost comic fashion compared to the tragedy of Watergate. Nixon's story was Shakespearean. Bush's story is clumsy, almost a modern-day Keystone Kops.

And, I think, that's especially true in Stone's hands, which produce some comic-book caricature portrayals of various people.

That's one of the problems with making a movie about a story that hasn't ended yet — especially in this age of cable and satellite TV, in which the public gains an almost intimate knowledge of how its leaders speak and act.

We expect to see mirror reflections — almost as if we're watching a documentary. Undeniably, there were points when it felt like a documentary, not a dramatization. At times, I almost had to remind myself that I was watching a film directed by Oliver Stone, not Michael Moore.

In some ways, I've come to expect the unexpected from Stone. In "Nixon," for example, Anthony Hopkins really didn't look much like Nixon — nor did he particularly sound like him. But Hopkins truly took on Nixon's persona in the role.

Visually, the depictions of many of the main characters in "W." were so accurate that it was like watching a "Saturday Night Live" parody.

Brolin was almost spooky in his resemblance to George W. Bush as the stories of the young boozing frat boy who has issues with his father and the "born again" reformed alcoholic of his later years — who still has issues with his father — unfolded on the screen, treated as almost parallel lines that intersect. That may, of course, be the story of many young men and the uneasy resolution of their adult lives with the mischief of their college days. But "W." is the one who became president.

Brolin had the voice and the mannerisms of "43" down to almost an art form.

Elizabeth Banks, as Laura Bush, looked the part but didn't sound enough like her real-life counterpart to pull it off, as far as I was concerned.

The same can be said, I think, for James Cromwell, who plays the elder Bush and is credible in appearance but not completely convincing when he speaks in the role of "41." That is also true of Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush. I admire the abilities of both Cromwell and Burstyn, but my memories of the Bushes are yet too vivid for me to accept their renditions of the First Couple.

Scott Glenn, on the other hand, gave a solid performance as Donald Rumsfeld. And, while his speaking time seemed a bit limited, Richard Dreyfuss was surprisingly believable as Dick Cheney.

There is no shortage of talent, but some of it is not used to its most effective extent.

Thandie Newton, for example, plays a surprisingly minor role as Condoleezza Rice, speaking in a Valley Girl style that seems totally inappropriate for someone so accomplished.

Toby Jones' slight build and offbeat face made him a natural choice to play Karl Rove, but I was never convinced that he had the intellect to be the architect of a successful presidential campaign — or advocate of a plan to invade Iraq.

I'll be honest, I'm just not too familiar with the previous work of Jeffrey Wright, but I felt he was short of the mark as Colin Powell.

Bruce McGill, as "Brother George" Tenet, and Michael Gaston, as Tommy Franks, are almost cartoonish — possibly suggesting that Stone believes the nation was goaded into invading Iraq and that the invasion itself was handled in an almost haphazard way.

Perhaps that's the moral Stone wants us to take from this film — that a president should be someone you can trust to make the right decisions, not the person you'd rather have a beer with.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

'All I Know Is What I Read in the Papers ...'

Will Rogers knew considerably more than he read in the papers. His gift was his ability to paraphrase it.

It takes a brilliant mind to make some of the observations he made during his lifetime — a lifetime that began on this date in 1879.

By the time of his death in 1935, Rogers was the highest-paid performer in Hollywood, having made 71 movies. He also wrote more than 4,000 nationally syndicated newspaper columns.

"You know everybody is ignorant," he wrote in the New York Times in 1924, "only on different subjects."

In 1931, after it had been suggested that he should run for president, Rogers wrote, "A comedian can only last till he either takes himself serious or his audience takes him serious."

And, in a thinly veiled reference to President Calvin Coolidge's declaration a few years earlier that he did "not choose to run," Rogers wrote, "I not only 'don't choose to run' but I don't even want to leave a loophole in case I am drafted, so I won't 'choose.' I will say 'won't run' no matter how bad the country will need a comedian by that time."

Even today, more than 70 years after the plane crash in Alaska that took his life, Rogers has words of wisdom to share with the men who are vying today for the presidency.

If Barack Obama loses today's election, it would be appropriate for Democrats to reflect on this 1931 observation by Rogers: "Politics has got so expensive that it takes lots of money to even get beat with."

And if John McCain loses today's election, he and the Republicans should remember the advice Rogers offered to Al Smith after he and the Democrats lost to Herbert Hoover in 1928: "We can make this thing into a Party, instead of a Memory."