August 31, 2010
Sex, lies and social networking: A season of new films
Jewish “bad boys,” an alleged cover-up by our government and the outing of an American female spy are among the themes highlighted in this autumn’s releases, which include a number of provocative documentaries as well as some dramatic films based on highly charged, real-life events.
“The Tillman Story” is a documentary already in release, but the Oscar buzz surrounding this work by Amir Bar-Lev renders it worthy of inclusion here.
Following the attack of 9/11, NFL legend Pat Tillman gave up a lucrative football career in 2002 to enlist in the U.S. Army Rangers. His decision was a private one, and he refused to discuss his enlistment publicly. In April 2004, Tillman was killed in Afghanistan. At first, the military described his death as having occurred at the hands of the Taliban while he, in John Wayne fashion, heroically saved the lives of his comrades during an ambush. The story spearheaded a national grieving process, as Tillman became a symbol of patriotism and bravery.
Five weeks later, military leaders revealed that Tillman had actually been killed by American forces in an act of fratricide, or “friendly fire,” but his status as a hero and recipient of the Silver Star remained unchanged.
According to Bar-Lev, the military said, in essence, “Everything we told you that first time about this action is still true, but we just happen to have recently completed an internal investigation that showed that, while he still acted heroically, there was a chaotic fog of war, and he was caught by an errant U.S. bullet.”
The director added, “That’s where the public understanding lies today, and it’s actually very, very far from the truth. In fact, that’s the moment that Dannie Tillman, Pat’s mom, began to suspect that there was some deliberate deception at work, and she began her quest at that friendly first announcement.
“She didn’t end it there. At that moment they very arrogantly handed over these documents. She said, ‘OK, you guys have been doing an investigation. I’d like to see this investigation.’ And basically thinking that they were going to drown her, they handed over all of the documents connected to Pat’s death. Of course, they were all completely redacted, and from her home she painstakingly un-redacted them all.”
Bar-Lev stressed that there was not one shred of evidence indicating that the killing of Tillman was a deliberate act. But there was also no evidence supporting the “fog of war” story. The documents did indicate that the American soldiers were out of control.
“They were saying things like, ‘I wanted to stay in the firefight. I was excited,’ Bar-Lev said. “They admitted seeing waving hands and people who were shouting , ‘We’re friendly. Quit shooting at us.’ ”
But, beyond the circumstances of Tillman’s death, the family and the filmmaker were focused on the cover-up, which seemed to extend to the highest levels of government.
“In those documents, there are e-mails from the White House that have the subject heading ‘The Tillman Game Plan.’ That’s not a mistake. It’s not a blunder. It’s not a misstep. That’s an act of deliberate deception against the American public. The family’s always been very clear, and they say in the film that this isn’t about Pat. This is about whether or not we should allow people to get away with lying to us at the highest levels of government,” Bar-Lev said.
Another example of alleged government misconduct is depicted in “Fair Game,” based on the autobiography of CIA operative Valerie Plame (played by Naomi Watts), whose cover was blown by a White House press leak during the George W. Bush administration.
Plame’s husband, Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), was sent to Africa by the administration to look into a suspected sale of enriched uranium to Iraq. He learned that there was no sale and wrote an article for The New York Times suggesting that the Bush administration “manipulate[d] intelligence” about Iraq’s nuclear weapons to justify invading the country. Not long after that, Plame’s top-secret status was leaked to well-known journalists, and the Bush White House was accused of having instigated the leak as an act of retaliation against her husband.
According to statements in the notes by the production team, the film centers around the upheaval suffered by the family more than it does on the political circumstances involved in the events.
A side note of interest that was revealed in her book, and reported in a previous issue of The Jewish Journal: Plame, who was raised as a Protestant, is one-quarter Jewish, and her paternal great-grandfather was a rabbi from Ukraine.
From a partly Jewish heroine, we move to some Jewish “bad boys,” who are examined in such films as “Howl,” in theaters Oct. 1, about Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg, and “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer,” a documentary exploring the career of this once-promising politician that will be released Nov. 5.
“Howl” was Ginsberg’s signature poem and had a profound effect on an entire generation with its call for individual expression, rebellion and personal liberation in the face of a conformist society. It was replete with references to sex, drugs and gay love (Ginsberg lived an openly gay lifestyle at a time when such activity was a crime). It also gave rise to a precedent-setting obscenity trial.
“We were attracted to the idea of attempting a cinematic interpretation of some of the themes evoked in the poem, ‘Howl,’ ” said Rob Epstein, who co-directed the movie with Jeffrey Friedman, “and to the story of what went into its creation, and how society reacted to the poem at the time it was thrust into the world. Many of its themes are relevant today because Ginsberg’s words were both prescient and evergreen.”
Epstein went on to explain the main threads that run through the film, which begins with the first public reading of the poem by Ginsberg (James Franco) at a small gathering in 1955. “Then we see Allen, two years later, telling his story to a reporter in New York, while at the same time the publisher of the poem, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, is on trial for selling ‘obscene materials.’ These three story threads are interwoven with an animated presentation of the poem. So the poem lives within the film as spoken word and as an animated, hallucinogenic visual imagination; Ginsberg tells his own story; and the trial plays as a drama, with a debate about the nature of art and the First Amendment.”
While Ginsberg’s Jewish identity is not a major factor in the film, Friedman said that “Allen’s poetry is imbued with echoes of a biblical prophetic voice.”
Friedman enumerated some of the other issues with which the film is concerned: “It deals with the role of the artist in society. It also examines what limits, if any, should be placed on free speech. And it explores the human impulse to suppress beliefs that are outside our normal understanding of how things are supposed to be, and the courage to look at things as they really are.”
One might say that, after his fall from grace, former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer displayed the ability to look at circumstances as they really are — at least that’s how it seems from his appearance in the documentary “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer,” which covers the ill-fated career of this once-promising political figure who was expected by many people to become the nation’s first Jewish president. Dubbed “The Sheriff of Wall Street” for his aggressive prosecution of corporate criminals, including the heads of some of our most powerful financial entities, when he was New York’s Attorney General, Spitzer continued his crusading ways after becoming that state’s governor in a landslide election. But he was forced to resign his office and retire from public life when it was revealed that this paragon of virtue regularly used an “escort service” to hook up with prostitutes. The spectacle of Spitzer’s downfall was hailed with relish by his prominent enemies, particularly those on Wall Street.
“I was intrigued by the spectacular and unexpected manner of his fall,” said filmmaker Alex Gibney. “Also, the timing — no sooner did the Sheriff of Wall Street resign than the financial markets melted down.”
Gibney, an Academy Award winner, seemed to enjoy virtually unfettered access to Spitzer, who openly answered probing questions on film and even stated that, whatever his opponents may have done to help engineer his fate, ultimately he was responsible for his own undoing.