Loving (HBO)

Virginia, 1958 — a young man wants to marry his girlfriend, pregnant with their first child, but a state law banning interracial marriage makes that impossible.  So they travel to DC to get married (legally) then return to their home way out in the country, hoping to fly under the radar.  Nope.  Armed police burst into their bedroom, arrest them, and throw them in jail.  Lacking money for a real attorney, they accept the judge’s outrageous bargain – they can avoid a lengthy prison sentence if they move to DC.

Some years later, the wife, unhappy with DC, writes a letter to to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who refers her to the ACLU.  The ACLU lawyers, somewhat disingenuously, say they can help (when they can promise no such thing).  Virginia rules against them, but fortunately SCOTUS takes their case, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The film features fine, understated performances by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga (why the filmmakers cast Australian and Ethiopian-born actors to play these American characters is a question, I guess, for another day).  The screenplay’s “just the facts” style avoids grandstanding and lets the awful facts (including the fact that the local police won’t let the husband bail his pregnant wife out of jail) speak for themselves, which is dramatic enough.  I wish they had spent more time on the courtroom arguments, but I would, wouldn’t I?

Highly recommended.

Some other thoughts:  SCOTUS could have decided this case on narrow grounds, as a full faith and credit case, and ordered Virginia to recognize a marriage legally contracted in DC.  Wisely, however, they decided to take on the entire issue of laws banning interracial marriage.  Perhaps their decision was made easier by the blatantly racist, pseudo-religious language of the state court’s opinion, which based its judgment, essentially, on the assertion that God created separate races and put them in separate continents for a reason.

The laws against interracial marriage in the US have a more complex history than I had realized.  Although they were common, they were never universal.  Some states (NY, Connecticut, Minnesota) never had such laws, and others (Pennsylvania, Massachusetts) got rid of them early on.  The California Supreme Court invalidated California’s law in 1948 on 14th Amendment grounds, and a bunch of other states (mostly in the West) repealed their laws in the years following that decision.  At the time of the SCOTUS decision in Loving v. Virginia, though, there were still 16 states which banned interracial marriage, all in the South.

The Wikipedia article has some helpful charts at the end:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-miscegenation_laws_in_the_United_States

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Hidden Figures

This movie about the contributions of young black women working at NASA in the early days of the Mercury program was pretty good, as you might expect, considering that most of its success came from word of mouth.  But it might have been even better one.

In the early 1960s, IBM mainframes were new and untested and most math computations were still done by human “computers.”  Even after the IBM went online, many of the flight engineers (not to mention the astronauts) wanted to make sure that a human being verified the numbers. To fill these positions, NASA recruited women math and engineering graduates at historically black colleges in the Jim Crow South.  Although these women were initially assigned to a segregated “colored computer center,”many were quickly sent over to work with teams in the main NASA building, across the parking lot, in Langley Virginia.  The stories of three of these women are the focus of this movie.  All of them had long and successful careers at NASA; one of them, still alive at 98, appeared at the Oscars.

As is typical for this type of movie, some of the least believable incidents actually occurred (with a few modifications made for dramatic effect).  John Glenn really did ask Katharine to recheck his trajectories (although he did it before the flight, not on the launch pad).  And Katherine’s tirade about having to cross the parking lot just to go to the bathroom really did end segregated rest rooms at NASA (although it was a different woman whose speech precipitated the change).

The movie goes off track a bit in deciding to create two composite characters to demonstrate the stone-cold institutional racism of the day.  This is unfair to NASA, most of whose employees were very sympathetic to the issues affecting their co-workers.  But it also understates the real problem — few racists are as obvious and explicit about their racism as the fake characters in this movie. Many racists are charming and gregarious, and much more dangerous for that.

The movie is at its best, and is most effective, when it depicts the significant racial barriers that did exist — from segregated buses and drinking fountains to restrictions on what books could be borrowed from public libraries — in a matter-of-fact way.  It came as more of a surprise than it should have that, 7 years after Brown v. Board,  one of the women had to get a court order to attend an engineering certification class at a local all-white high school.  I also liked the historically accurate depiction of John Glenn’s troubled flight — I well remember, watching the TV coverage as a child, that when Glenn entered the communications “blackout” on re-entry there was some doubt that he would emerge safely on the other side.  The depiction of the segregated but reasonably prosperous northern Virginia suburb where the women lived also seemed authentic.

The three lead actresses — Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae — are all excellent, as are Kevin Costner and Mahershala Ali in supporting roles.  (Ironically, Ali has more screen time in this movie than in Moonlight, the one he won the Oscar for).

Highly recommended.

Historical footnote — the Pentagon, built in the late 1940s, apparently has twice as many bathrooms as is typical for buildings of its size.  That’s because the building, even though it was meant to house part of the federal government, was still subject to the building codes of the Jim Crow South, which required separate bathrooms for white and black employees.  I understand, however, that the bathrooms at the Pentagon were never segregated in practice.

Versailles

This French and Canadian co-production about the early years of Louis XIV at Versailles was shot, somewhat surprisingly, entirely in English with Anglophone actors.

Louis, in his mid-20s, is King without question but not yet politically secure.  He conceives the idea of moving the court from Paris to what had been a royal hunting lodge at Versailles, less for the scenery than for the ability to force all the nobles to live at court, away from what might be independent power centers on their home estates.  In this, he was ultimately successful.  Louis literally invented the modern French state, centralized with a strong chief executive — an approach to organizing government that survived the Revolution and still influences the operation of the  French government today.

Is there sex on this show?  Mais oui — we are talking about Louis XIV.  But it’s much more restrained than the Tudors or the Borgias, which bordered on soft-core porn.  And while there are a few kinky interactions, there are no rapes (looking at you, Outlander).  Louis is presented as a stand-up guy who retained some affection for his mistresses even after he tired of them, and provided for their children, which I believe is historically accurate.  And his wife has surprisingly good relationships with his mistresses, which I think is historically accurate too.

As for the rest, the show engages in the “true rumor” school of historical drama.  If a historical personage dies suddenly amid rumors of poisoning, the show treats it as a poisoning.  The female doctor whose medical knowledge was about 200 years ahead of her time was a bit much — perhaps there’s a time-travel subplot they haven’t told us about?  On the other hand, the use of an “advanced” doctor is a pretty common device in period shows — it spares modern audiences the true horrors of period-appropriate medicine.

The interactions between Louis, his brother Phillippe, and Phillippe’s wife Henrietta of England are some of the most interesting in the show.  There is no evidence that Louis slept with Henrietta, but since Phillipe was quite openly gay, who knows?

Phillipe, by the way, was regarded by his contemporaries as a flamboyant dresser.  In an era where “straight” men wore lace collars and cuffs, high-heel shoes and shoulder-length curls, he must have been really something.  The costumers wisely dialed that back a bit.

The cast of lesser-known actors is pretty good.  The plot meanders a bit, but it’s not too hard to keep track of what’s going on.

Best of all, this show looks fantastic. Many of the exteriors are actually shot at Versaiiles; some of the interiors are shot at other French chateaus, including Vaux-le-Vicomte, which had the same architect.

On the whole, pretty entertaining — if you don’t think too hard.

The Crown / Victoria

These two series were produced independently of each other by completely different companies.  I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that they wound up airing in the US at roughly the same time.  But having seen them roughly back-to-back, it’s inevitable that they will be compared.

Each series concerns the early reign of a young, under-prepared girl as Queen of England.  Each shows us the young Queen developing a working relationship with various Prime Ministers, handling the unpopularity of her foreign-born husband, and dealing with the fact that, despite the trappings of privilege, her life is no longer totally her own.  Each features an alumnus of Dr. Who is a leading role (Matt Smith as Prince Phillip; Jenna Coleman as Victoria).  Each features English actor Alex Jennings as the Queen’s busybody uncle (King Leopold / Edward VIII).  Each has a subplot involving the obscure Royal Marriages Act, which seems to have no other purpose than interfering with royal romances.   Each is shot in beautiful period-appropriate locations, with beautiful period-appropriate costumes. And each features a rather surprising rat in the Buckingham Palace kitchen (I think it’s the same rodent, but I wouldn’t swear to it).

Victoria is a little soapier, with some subplots involving “downstairs” characters.  They don’t really add much to the plot, although one relationship is very sweet (it involves the pastry chef).  In The Crown, the senior members of the royal staff, themselves children of the aristocracy, are treated like servants, and the actual servants are treated as though they don’t exist (which I suspect is closer to the truth).

Victoria also has a more romanticized vision of the monarchy.  The Crown is neutral on the subject, but anti-monarchists will find plenty of ammunition.

The Crown probably has a stronger cast (Clair Foy as Elizabeth, John Lithgow as Churchill), but Rufus Sewell as Lord Melbourne is pretty good too.  The Crown also has better writing, and grittier characters, but perhaps takes itself just a bit too seriously.  Victoria, while lighter fare, is more fun to watch.

The Man Who Knew Infinity

Ramanujan, a self-trained mathematician unable to find an academic position in India, had a poorly played job as a clerk.   Convinced that he was a genius and desperate to be heard, he sends letters with samples of his work to major British universities.  He receives a reply from Professor G. H. Hardy at Cambridge, who invites him to come to the university.  Things do not go smoothly — many of Hardy’s colleagues are not all that enthusiastic at the idea of working with an uneducated (in their view) Indian.  Even those who accepted his mathematical genius regarded him with a kind of bemused condescension, considering him kind of an idiot savant — someone with genuine insights, but no idea how he got there.  And the social differences loomed large.  Ramanujan, although he lived in abject poverty,  was a Brahmin, used to thinking of himself as a superior being by virtue of his birth.  This did not go over well with his English colleagues, who thought of themselves as sole masters of the universe.  And how did a vegetarian manage to survive in an England where even vegetables were often cooked in lard?

Ramanujan, as it turned out, was capable of producing the rigorous proofs Prof. Hardy thought were necessary for his work to be taken seriously.  So the two men eventually developed a working partnership, if not true friendship.  But Ramanujan could never answer Hardy’s persistent question — where do you get these insights?   Perhaps, said Ramanujan, it is because God speaks to me.  Given that much of Ramanujan’s work was in what mathematicians would call infinite series, that’s as good an answer as any.

The movie works, I think, because of the strong performances of the two leads, Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel.  Irons is a fine actor, who has been known to chew the scenery when he is bored with a role.  He is not bored here, and finds the right balance between social awkwardness and political savvy (he is, as it turns out, an adept player of academic politics).  Patel likewise finds the right line in a difficult part, balancing a man aware of his supreme intellectual gifts but one who nevertheless depended on friendship and family support, both of which were sorely lacking in his new world.

Ramanujan returned to India after WWI, and died young, so we don’t know what he might have accomplished with a normal life span.  His work was recognized as brilliant in his own time.  But as is common in number theory, few practical applications for his work were found for many decades.  These days, his work is used in advanced cryptography and to explain the physics of black holes.

Rebellion (Netflix)

This Irish mini-series depicts the failed Easter Rebellion of 1916, when a group of Irish nationalists seized government buildings in Dublin and declared a free republic.  The rebellion went pear-shaped almost immediately, and was put down by the British army in short order.  The rebels did not, initially, garner a lot of public support.  But the ferocious response of the British government, including summary executions without trial of the principal rebels, led to a dramatic change in public opinion.  Before WWI, it was generally assumed that Ireland would remain in the UK under some form of home rule.  After this event, it was independence or nothing, at least in the Catholic-majority areas of the island.

Although the series depicts the principal actors and events of the rebellion, it focuses on a number of smaller actors in various roles, both men and women, who have to decide what side they are on — sometimes in opposition to their own families.  The British don’t generally come off that well (understandable, since this is an Irish show).  But Eamon de Valera, later president of Ireland, doesn’t come off that well either.  The series takes a surprisingly sympathetic view of Irish Protestants living in the South, who realize very quickly there will be no place for them in post-independence Ireland.   Most poignantly of all, the series depicts the plight of the Irish soldier, asked to open fire on his own countrymen to put down the rebellion.

The writing is of varying quality (a subplot involving a relationship between and Irish woman and a married British administrator doesn’t really work that well).   But most of the storylines and characters are very interesting, and illustrate a historical event that generally hasn’t been well served by film-makers in either the US or the UK.

Most of the actors are Irish and not well known here, although fans of Game of Thrones, which uses a lot of Irish actors, will see some familiar faces.

Emperor in August / Emperor

These two movies, one from Japan, one from the US, tell overlapping stories about the end of WWII, so I thought I’d review them together.  Both are available on Netflix, and both are well worth your time if you’re interested in WWII.

Emperor in August

The story begins on August 9, 1945, after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.  The Japanese Cabinet meets to decide whether to surrender to the Americans.  Unbelievably, they deadlock, and Emperor Hirohito casts the deciding vote to end the war.  In order to make the decision more palatable to the public, he decides to record a message telling the Japanese to lay down their arms.

A group of military officers, unsatisfied with this turn of events, tries to engineer a coup.  Well aware of the propaganda effect of the Emperor’s speech, they try to find it before it can be broadcast. That effort, and the coup, fail.

Even though you know the ending, the film is surprisingly gripping.  The failure of the coup was a near thing, ultimately resting on the decision of one senior military officer with no reputation for moderation. The leaders of Japan’s government knew the war was lost, but wanted to avoid the fate of Germany, which had surrendered a few months earlier and had already been carved into bits.  Should they trust the Americans, who said they would preserve the position of the Emperor?  The struggles of Japanese diplomats trying to decide whether the Emperor’s power being “subject to” that of the American military authority meant “subordinate to” or “dependent on” will be familiar to any student of a foreign language.

The movie has some interesting period detail.  The Emperor’s radio broadcast was pre-recorded but, since tape decks hadn’t yet been invented, they actually had to cut a record.  The efforts of the imperial household staff and the employees of the national radio station to safeguard the record until it could be broadcast are unexpectedly poignant.

This film requires close attention, since some of the characters are referred to by both by their names and their titles. And, at 2 1/2 hours, it’s about 20 minutes too long. But it’s a fascinating look at a little-known aspect of the end of the war.

Emperor

This American film, although it was made independently before the Japanese one, kind of picks up where the other film leaves off.  MacArthur arrives in Japan and is told by Truman he has to make a decision about whether to arrest Hirohito.  Maybe the Japanese shouldn’t have trusted us after all.  MacArthur asks a member of his staff, Bonnar Fellers, who has some experience with Japan, to see what he kind find out about Hirohito’s responsibility for starting the war.  Fellers isn’t able to get much resolution on that question, but he does find out about the deadlocked Cabinet meeting and the coup attempt.

Fellers ultimately concludes that, whatever Hirohito’s role beginning the war (neither film takes a position on this), he had a decisive role in ending it. And he could play a vital role in the successful rebuilding of the country.  MacArthur accepted Fellers’ conclusions (although there is some suggestion that he had already made up his mind in that direction).

Matthew Fox is somewhat tedious in the title role, although the rest of the mostly Japanese cast is pretty good.  Tommy Lee Jones gives an unexpectedly restrained performance as MacArthur.

We justly remember our rebuilding of Japan as one of America’s finest hours.  But this film reminds us that the way things worked out, given the amount of hostility in the US towards the Japanese at that point, was no sure thing.

One of the the other generals on MacArthur’s staff tried to discredit Fellers by pointing out that he had a Japanese girlfriend.  (Fellers did have such a female friend, although the nature of their relationship remains unclear.)  In the movie, Fellers supposedly changed targets to protect his friend, which as far as I can tell is a complete invention.    It’s almost as though the writers felt the modern American audience wouldn’t understand how the mere allegation of a relationship with a Japanese woman might have been enough, in 1945, to discredit someone.  That transition in the American perception of Japan, from horrible foe to respected friend, in a few short decades is a miracle of anti-racism — a victory we don’t celebrate enough.

Bridge of Spies

The story of a negotiated exchange of a Russian spy for a captured US fighter pilot doesn’t sound like a promising topic for a movie, but this is an excellent film.  Spielberg at his best is an outstanding storyteller, and he’s found a good one here.

When Rudolf Abel was arrested for espionage in Brooklyn in 1957, the local Bar Association decided to assign him a lawyer (not a given, pre-Gideon) to demonstrate the moral superiority of The American Way.  They pick a local insurance defense lawyer, James Donovan, whose only criminal experience was at the Nuremberg trials.  Of course, this is all a bit disingenuous — the Bar wants the appearance of a defense, not a real one.  But Donovan doesn’t see it that way — he takes the case all the way to the Supreme Court.  And doing so doesn’t make him very popular, with the public or his law firm.

He loses, of course.  But along the way, he convinces the judge to give Abel a long prison sentence instead of the death penalty.  What if, suggests Donovan, they capture one of out guys — wouldn’t we like to have one of theirs “on the shelf” to trade?

Four years later, Francis Gary Powers is shot down in a U-2 spying over Russia, and the Russians do indeed seek a trade.  Donovan is tapped for the job of negotiating the exchange, on an “unofficial” basis.  Donovan decides to negotiate not just for Powers, but also for an American grad student, Frederick Pryor, who had recently been picked up by the East Germans.  The CIA is apopleptic — they don’t care about Pryor– but Donovan, a sort of genius negotiator, understands that his lack of official status actually gives him a lot of bargaining power.

The exchange on the bridge, shot on the actual bridge where the real-life exchange took place, is unexpectedly moving.

James Donovan is a stand-up guy, and nobody does stand-up guy better than Tom Hanks.  But the truly outstanding performance, in my mind, is that of Mark Rylance as Abel.  Most actors are larger-than-life individuals, and are at their best portraying larger-than-life characters.  But to be a successful spy like Abel, you have to be the kind of individual who totally blends into the scenery, whom nobody notices.  How Rylance accomplishes that feat I don’t know, but there are moments when he seems to totally disappear from the screen — even in courtroom scenes where you know he has to be there.  When he is part of a scene, of course, you can’t take your eyes off him.

The Coen Brothers wrote the screenplay — their slice of wry is a good balance to Spielberg’s sometimes schmaltzy tendencies.  And the movie-makers are alert to the ways certain parts of this story resonate with modern concerns, without hitting you over the head with them.

Historical note 1:  The movie begins with the dread “inspired by true events” tagline, which sometimes means they’ve made a total FUBAR out of the facts.  Not here though — after a little research, it appears that the movie sticks pretty close to the facts, and most of the changes (like the circumstances of Pryor’s capture) are peripheral to the main story. But many of the movie’s most surprising facts, like the comically inept FBI search of Abel’s apartment, and the fact the Donovan later negotiated a prisoner exchange following the Bay of Pigs debacle, are absolutely true.

The historical inaccuracies, such as they are, tend to be those are of omission.  Donovan was at Nuremberg in part because of the 3 years he spent at the OSS (the predecessor of the CIA) during WWII — he wasn’t a total newcomer to the spy business.  And the historically accurate hollowed-out nickels that the Russians used to transmit messages, shown at the beginning of the film, actually contributed to Abel’s capture.  One of Abel’s associates, less careful, accidentally used one of these hollow nickels to buy a newspaper, which led to his arrest; he ultimately ratted out Abel.

Historical note 2:  After Donovan wrote a book about the incident, in 1965, there was some thought about making it into a movie, with Gregory Peck (a previous generation’s stand-up guy) in the lead role.  The studios deemed it not commercially viable, however — Cold War tensions still ran too high.

Fun fact:  The rock band U2 was named after the high-altitude spy plane that figures in this movie.  Bono’s daughter, Eve Hewson, has a small part in this movie as Donovan’s daughter.

Testament of Youth

This remarkably affecting film is a dramatization of Vera Brittain’s memoir of World War I.  The story begins in the spring of 1914, when Vera’s biggest worry is whether she will be able to join her brother and his friends at Oxford in the fall. (She is smart enough to get in, but her father worries that too much education will make her unmarriageable.)  A few months later, WWI begins, and everyone’s life dramatically changes.  The young men go off to war. Vera volunteers as an army nurse, and the young woman who wasn’t permitted to see a young man without a chaperone is suddenly washing the horribly wounded bodies of other young men.  Vera eventually volunteers to work in France, near the front line. After the war, she (and everyone else) need to learn to live with their ghosts — the flower of a generation gone.  That’s the origin of the book.

The film does an excellent job of conveying the horror that the war quickly became with admirable restraint.  Instead of showing us stacks of bodies, the astonishing casualty rate is demonstrated by lists of names in the newspaper, which go on and on.  The English countryside and Oxford’s dreaming spires seem like a fantasyland compared to the moonscape the Western Front soon became.  There are some intense scenes (this is WWI, after all), but their impact is all the stronger because there are so few of them.

With Alicia Vikander (the scheming AI in Ex Machina) as Vera, and Kit Harrington (Jon Snow) as the young man she falls in love with.

Highly recommended.  The book, written in 1933 and still in print, is also worth your time.

Fun fact:  Brittain’s daughter, Shirley Williams, served in the British Cabinet in the 1970s, and was one of the founders of the Liberal Democratic party.

Wolf Hall

It’s an old story — Henry and Anne — told from a new perspective, that of Thomas Cromwell, the advisor who finally figured out how to end Henry’s marriage.  This 6-hour miniseries is based on Hilary Mantel’s well-regarded books.  I have some quibbles with some of the portrayals — Thomas More is little more than a caricature — but the character of Cromwell, a blacksmith’s son admired by Henry but detested by almost everyone else, seems exactly right.

Cromwell is played by Mark Rylance, considered the premier Shakespearean actor of his generation.  (He was seen in NY last year as Olivia in the all-male RSC version of 12th Night — the BBC actually delayed production of this series for a year to accommodate Rylance’s schedule).  He is in nearly every scene, and dominates the screen even when he says little.  It’s not every stage actor who can make the transition to the small screen, which is based more on facial expressions than voice.  But Rylance is magnificent.

Up-and-coming English actress Claire Foy presents a delightfully petulant Anne.  And Damien Lewis, last scene hanging from a crane in Showtime’s Homeland, is wonderful as Henry.  It may be the first time that the red-haired Henry is played by an actual redhead.

The rest of the cast is made up of the first-rate stage actors that the British usually call on for productions like this — they have a deep bench.  GOT watchers will see a lot of familiar faces.

Production values are high. Many scenes are shot in English country houses of the period.  I also liked the decision to light the production in a way that approximates the period — natural sunlight or candle-punctuated blackness.

This is a talky production — more realpolitik than heaving boobs.  (If you want those, watch Outlander.)  And if you aren’t intimately familiar with Tudor history (i.e., the name Mark Smeaton means nothing to you), you might have some trouble keeping everybody straight, particularly in the first couple of episodes. But stick with it — this is a production whose virtues build slowly.

Currently showing on PBS and available on PBS streaming.