Election Day Movies: Presidents

Posted on November 8, 2016 at 7:00 am

After you vote, take a break from red and blue maps to enjoy some of the portrayals of real US Presidents on screen.

Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar for Lincoln.  I’ve already written about some of the many other movie versions of Lincoln’s life.  “Wilson” stars Oscar nominee Alexander Knox in a dignified tribute to the 29th President. Gary Sinese gave a powerful performance in the HBO movie, Truman. Rough Riders has Tom Berenger as Theodore Roosevelt, leading Cuban rebels against Spain.

Perhaps the most fanciful portrayal of a real US President is “The Remarkable Andrew,” with William Holden as an honorable accountant who discovers a discrepancy in the town books and is visited by the ghost of his favorite President, Andrew Jackson (Brian Donlevy), who provides guidance and support.

President Kennedy’s WWII experience was the subject of PT 109, starring Cliff Robertson.  He was also the subject of 13 Days, about the Cuban missile crisis.  Oliver Stone has directed movies about Nixon, played by Anthony Hopkins (who also played a memorably cagy John Quincy Adams in “Amistad”), and George W. Bush, played by Josh Brolin.  President Nixon has been portrayed in a number of other films, from the acclaimed Frost/Nixon to the humorous but touching Elvis and Nixon and the wild satire Dick.  And of course he is the subject of the Oscar-winning Best Picture All the President’s Men, though he is only glimpsed in archival footage.

The Butler is based on the true story of a man who worked in the White House for eight Presidents, and we see everyone from Eisenhower to Reagan portrayed in the film. Of course Reagan himself was an actor before he went into politics. His best films include “King’s Row” (his own favorite), “Hellcats of the Navy” (co-starring with Nancy Reagan), and, yes, “Bedtime for Bonzo.”

There are some great President movies made for television: Gary Sinese gave a superb performance in Truman and Bryan Cranston was outstanding in the role he originated on Broadway, Lyndon Johnson in All the Way.

President and Mrs. Obama were portrayed in a film about their first date this year, Southside With You. (For the real story of what happened that night, see this adorable column by my dad, who was there.)  “Barry,” another movie about Barack Obama’s early years, will be out soon.

According to TIME Magazine, Lincoln has been portrayed most frequently on screen but perhaps the President most memorable on film is Franklin Roosevelt, the only man to be elected four times, with Sunrise At Campobello, Eleanor and Franklin and its sequel, Warm Springs, Hyde Park on Hudson, and, of course, Annie!  (TIME notes that the only US President never to show up as a character in a movie is Warren G. Harding.)

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Posted on September 15, 2016 at 5:51 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Tension and peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 16, 2016

Copyright Endgame Entertainment 2016
Copyright Endgame Entertainment 2016
Who better to take on the story of Edward Snowden than cinema-of-paranoia director Oliver Stone? Well, Laura Poitras, who directed the documentary about Snowden, “Citizenfour,” and who is portrayed in this film by Melissa Leo. As is usually the case, the documentary is the better film. But Stone’s narrative version, “Snowden,” is an absorbing version of the story, presenting vitally important issues in an arresting, provocative manner, with some superb moments. It is flawed, as Stone’s “historical” films tend to be, by unnecessary stacking of the deck that detracts from the credibility of the film. Stone does not trust the government, which is fine, but he doesn’t trust his audience, which is distracting. If you are going to make your hero a seeker of Truth, then Hollywood-izing the story is counter-productive.

The movie takes on three big questions, answers one, partially answers another, and turns the third over to us. The first question is: what happened? How did a 29-year-old computer guy get access to what appears to be the entire scope of US intelligence, copy it, and turn it over to reporters? Second, why did he do it? And third, is he a hero or a traitor?

Snowden was an enormously gifted, deeply patriotic young man who was in training for military special forces when an injury forced his return to civilian life. “There are other ways to serve your country,” the doctor crisply advises him. Naming Ayn Rand as one of his influences does not raise any concerns in his battery of entry tests and interviews, including lie detector tests. And so he goes to work for the CIA, NSA, and private contractors for both agencies, gaining access to the information and intrusions into personal data that are being constantly combed and mined for possible terrorist activity. Think of it as the government having Google that searches not just all public material but everything we think of as private: every email, every phone call, every bank account and credit card transaction, even invading your non-digital, analog world, including your home. According to this film, the government can spy on you Big Brother style via your webcam, even if the indicator light is off. I will wait here while you go get a Band-Aid to cover it up right now.

A combination of consciousness-raising from his left-leaning girlfriend (Shailene Woodley), horrifying discoveries of 4th Amendment violations, disturbing revelations about the military-industrial complex (from Nicolas Cage!), and disappointment in President Obama’s failure to curb these abuses leads Snowden to decide to go public. Briefly touched on are some other possible factors: the abuse of Tom Drake, who tried to raise these questions through official channels, and, possibly, some psychological or cognitive disturbance resulting from the onset of epilepsy and the drug used to treat it, or from the level of work-related stress that may have triggered the seizures. There is one “Beautiful Mind”-style scene where Snowden’s CIA boss (Rhys Ifans) speaks to him via a Skype-ish video conference, with a looming, room-size head along the lines of the Wizard of Oz. It is not clear whether this is Snowden’s subjective viewpoint or intended to be a realistic portrayal, but the conversation is, even within the framework of this film about massive intrusions into private lives of citizens with no suggestion of any inappropriate activity, preposterously paranoic.

All of this would be so much easier to take if Snowden was not heroic and brilliant every single moment. Given 5-8 hours to complete a programming test at the beginning of his tenure at the CIA, he finishes in under 40 minutes (38, he corrects his instructor), and everywhere he goes, he blows everyone away with his mad skills. As he zippily downloads the files he plans to turn over to the press (in real life it took months, not minutes), colleagues knowingly nod their approval, hard to understand given his insistence that he was careful to make it clear that he alone was responsible for the breach. Gordon-Levitt is, as ever, an enormously talented actor, but he is playing something of a cipher, a person with low affect. The endlessly skilled Melissa Leo is playing a tough and savvy journalist but as written she has little to do but gaze adoringly as she points her camera. The standouts in the cast are two of the most versatile and talented young actors working on film today: Ben Schnetzer and Lakeith Lee Stanfield as two of Snowden’s colleagues. In their brief screen time, each of them creates vivid, three-dimensional characters we instantly connect to more than we do to any of the main characters.

No matter where we place the balancing point between national security and individual freedom, we can all agree that the decisions should not be made unilaterally by individuals in their 20’s like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. Snowden says he is hoping to start a conversation. I hope that the conversations about this film will be less about its failings and more about what we should do to make sure the next Snowden does not decide to take this step.

Parents should know that this film has very strong language, sexual references and situations and some nudity, tense and perilous situations, and issues of betrayal.

Family discussion: Is Snowden a hero or a traitor? What would you have done if you discovered the level of government surveillance? Who should decide and how much should be disclosed?

If you like this, try: “Zero Days” and “Citizenfour

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Clip: Treat Williams in “The Congressman”

Posted on June 24, 2016 at 4:25 pm

I live and have worked in Washington DC, and more often than not we find our city badly misrepresented in movies. But this one is different because “The Congressman” was written and directed by someone who knows Washington and politics from the inside,former Long Island Congressman Robert J. Mrazek. It stars Treat Williams, George Hamilton, Elizabeth Marvel and Ryan Merriman. It is available on VOD and is showing in select cinemas.

Here Treat Williams as Congressman Charlie Winship gives a speech about what it means to be American, and to be patriotic, following the aftermath of controversy that occurred when video footage showing that he did not say the pledge of allegiance went viral. He addresses the kind of petty symbolism that our gotcha media focus on and what the principles our country was founded on really mean.

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Posted on May 26, 2016 at 5:17 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some sexual material
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Tense confrontations, family dysfunction
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 27, 2016

Copyright 2016 Motto Pictures
Copyright 2016 Motto Pictures
“The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.” This quote from Marshall McLuhan opens the sharp and illuminating new documentary about former Congressman and failed New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, whose political career was derailed by a sexting scandal that unfortunately resonated all-too-perfectly with a last name that is a sometime-slang term for the part of the body he was sharing online. “I did the thing,” Weiner says in what we see is a characteristic mix of candor and denial. And the only thing harder to understand is how he thought he could do “the thing” without bringing down his political career is the willingness of his anguished wife, Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, to literally stand behind him.

And then there is the question of why they would agree to this very film, recording agonizingly painful moments, both public and private. Weiner agreed to allow access to his former staffer, Josh Kriegman and his co-writer/director Elyse Steinberg for what he clearly hoped would be a film about his comeback and instead documented yet another downfall.

Cue the montage of late-night hosts making jokes about scandal #1, when Weiner accidentally sent out what he meant to be a private tweet photo of his bulging underpants to the whole world, followed by archival footage of him insisting he would not resign from Congress, followed by his resignation.

And then, what he saw as his comeback. “To clean up the mess I had made by running for mayor was the straightest line to do it.” He does not want to “live in this defensive crouch.” And yet, he acknowledges, “I lied to them, I have a funny name, and they don’t do nuance.”

While some people resist the prospect of “a punchline as a mayor,” he was ahead in the polls, with a group of bright, dedicated, young staffers. We see Weiner at his best, reaching out to voters and contributors, marching in a parade, passionate about the issues. And then comes scandal #2, the one where he texted nude photos to a young escort known as “Sidney Leathers,” using the name “Carlos Danger.” The second-saddest image in the film is the stricken face of Weiner’s campaign communications director as she must ask him whether he plans to deny the latest round of allegations, struggling with the deep ickiness of the situation on the personal and professional levels.

This movie does not attempt to explain why Weiner would undertake such behavior when he had to be aware of the professional and reputational risks, or why his wife, who clearly hates any kind of public exposure, stays with him, even though, as she says at one point, it is a nightmare. But the superbly edited film, with extraordinary intimate access based on deep trust, has a lot of insights about celebrity culture, media, and what we expect from politicians. Inevitably, the story of the frog and the scorpion comes up. Why do we make decisions we know will doom us? Is it our nature? And who is the frog and who is the scorpion in American politics, media, and culture? This movie suggests that the American electorate may be both.

Parents should know that this film includes strong language, material concerning sex scandals, some brief graphic images, and crude references.

Family discussion: Would you vote for Anthony Weiner? How much should a candidate’s private life matter in considering his or her suitability for office?

If you like this, try: the political documentaries “A Perfect Candidate” and “The War Room”

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Eye in the Sky

Posted on March 10, 2016 at 5:43 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some violent images and language
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Military violence including terrorism, bombs, explosions, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 11, 2016
Date Released to DVD: June 27, 2016 ASIN: B01CUMHBJS
Copyright Bleeker Street 2016
Copyright Bleeker Street 2016

“Eye in the Sky” is a rare thriller that grips the mind and heart equally. Drones take our military closer than we have ever been before to the people and the activities of the enemy as they remove us further than we have ever been before from the visceral reality of the actions we take based on what we have learned. This film takes us inside the tactical, political, legal, and moral choices faced by the international governments and military in combating terrorism. Director Gavin Hood and screenwriter Guy Hibbert show us the stakes rising and the options shrinking with each passing second, so we in the audience must constantly ask ourselves not just what the characters should do but what we would do.

Colonel Katherine Powell of the British Army (Helen Mirren) is awakened by her phone. Intelligence received via drone indicates that three from the top ten international most wanted list of terrorists may possibly be together at a home in Kenya. The British and the US are especially interested in one couple they have been trying to find for six years. The wife is British and the husband is American. Both countries want them captured and tried at home.

If her team can positively identify the couple and the man they are meeting with, the mission will turn from reconnaissance to capture. But then the drone camera reveals that the danger is far more dire and imminent than they thought. The house is not just a meeting place. They are arming suicide bombers, taping their last statements, and presumably getting ready to send them into densely populated areas for maximum carnage. The people working on this are all over the world, with a military unit in Hawaii that analyzes images from a drone in Kenya, flown by a pilot in Las Vegas, commanded by military personnel in England, under the direction of elected officials who are both away from their countries on business.

The military has the capacity to prevent the suicide bombers from inflicting damage on civilians by blowing them up before they leave. But they are in the middle of a residential area. Is this warfare or an execution? Does it matter that two of the targets are British and US citizens? Does it matter that a little girl is selling bread just outside the house?

The international scope of the mission and the bureaucratic/political decision-making is fascinating. Information inside the house comes from a tiny mini-drone that looks like an insect, flown into the house by an operative nearby who is pretending to be both selling buckets in the open market and playing a video game on a phone. The operative is played by “Captain Phillips” star Barkhad Abdi, a very different and equally impressive performance of great intelligence and thoughtfulness. Information from the outside, including the biometric identification of the suspected terrorists, comes from drones monitored by Americans half a world away. Sitting at screens are Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox as US military who are diligent and dedicated but not really prepared to blow up the people they’ve been spying on, especially that little girl.

There is a literal ticking time bomb in that house. We can see it. What should we do about it? Should we risk that child’s life to keep the suicide bombers from taking more lives? For the military, including Colonel Powell and her boss, Lieutenant General Frank Benson (the late Alan Rickman, making us miss him even more sharply), it is a mathematical calculus; not simple, but clear. They know they must consult the lawyers, who remind them of the criteria, almost a formula, they are required to apply. But the bureaucrats get nervous, and bump it up to the politicians. Calls must be made all over the world as the officials are participating in various diplomatic events; at one point it is even suggested that the question be put to the President of the United States.

But the film shows us that these questions have already been asked and answered. There is a calculus that is reassuringly quantitative and comprehensive but disturbingly clinical. As we see the people all over the world watching the people inside the house, trying to figure out how to apply those algorithms expressed in acronyms and percentages, the film forces us along with the characters to try to apply formulas to a world that will always confound them.

Parents should know that this movie features military violence including drones, guns, explosions, terrorism, suicide bombers, with some grisly and disturbing images, and very strong language. An extended part of the film focuses on potential “collateral damage” to civilians, including a child, from military action.

Family discussion: How would you improve the decision that was ultimately made? How would you improve the process for making it? Who should decide?

If you like this, try: the documentary “Drone”

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